Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Ten Best Films of 2014

1. Under The Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Original Review

No movie from 2014 was more engrossing, more transfixing, more inherently creepy than Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, which took a basic sci-fi concept (a foreign species, disguised as human, hunts down men for it's own species' nutrience) and produced the most unique moviegoing experience of the year. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her most startlingly daring role, Glazer uses the American movie star as an emotionless cypher combing the streets of suburban Scotland in a hulking white van and seducing men with the greatest of ease. The film's script, written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, doesn't give the film much in the way of explanation or motive for Johansson's character, a nameless being who moves from scene to scene in a stunted daze, waiting for her next victim. Under The Skin's narrative doesn't give the audience a base to start from and only becomes clear as it unfolds, reaching a climax that both chills and shocks in equal measure. In a year where science fiction had many exceptional submissions (Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), it's remarkable that it's a modestly-scaled indie that ends up taking the cake. Skin's mostly hand-held photography (cinematographer: Daniel Landin) and unnerving score (by Mica Levi) also add to the year's best, most brilliant movie theater experience. This is only Glazer's third film and it's his first film in ten years (since his masterful 2004 film Birth). Under The Skin shows both why he should start working more often and why he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, a true master of finding the strange in our everyday lives.

2. We Are The Best!
Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Original Review

Who would've thought that three pre-teen girls would end up being the stars behind the greatest movie made about punk music this decade. Mira Barkhammer and Mira Grosin play Bobo and Klara, respectively, two rebellious youngsters who decide to start a punk band for the sole purpose of pissing a small handful of people off. Without any form of musical training, they recruit the Christian outsider, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), to play the guitar and bring the slightest legitimacy to their rockin' trio. As Hedvig slowly becomes indoctrinated into Bobo and Klara's rambunctious life philosophy, their unnamed band begins to take unquestioned (if slight) form, with an anti-sports anthem that makes up with punk spirit what it lacks in basic chord progression. Lukas Moodysson's latest film goes beyond grrrl power and creates one of the most realistic movies ever made about stirring adolescence. Too often, films about young girls coming of age hang on sexual exploration - boys get to come of age at the movies, girls usually have to cum of age. We Are The Best! avoids all of those pre-designed ideas about girls, and instead focuses on friendship. Not the smoothest friendship by any means, Barkhamer, Grosin and LeMoyne bring an unbridled joy to the film, as we see the girls face sexism from opposing local bands, as well as disruptions from their meddling parents. When another local punk band of similarly-aged boys threatens to tear the girls apart, they respond with a kick-ass performance in what I found to be the most satisfying ending to any movie I saw this year.

3. Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Original Review

All hail Paul Thomas Anderson. His seventh film is a trippy-dippy journey through a fictional part of Southern California during 1970 with a pot-addled protagonist named 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). A private investigator, Doc wanders through 'Gordita Beach' trying to juggle various cases involving his hippy ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), his current girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), his maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), the ex's millionaire boyfriend (Eric Roberts), a former heroin addict (Jena Malone), her dead saxophone player husband who's probably still alive (Owen Wilson), a sex-crazed dentist (Martin Short), an enthusiastic whorehouse desk girl (Hong Chau) and a self-described "renaissance cop" (Josh Brolin) who's always got his eye on Doc. Inherent Vice is an often hilarious, occasionally melancholy stroll through a period in American history where the Peace & Love 1960's spilled into the Me Generation of the 1970's. Anderson's usual penchant for grim genre stowed away, Vice is Anderson's most light-hearted film since 1997's Boogie Nights, and it's certainly his funniest. The ensemble cast is end-to-end fantastic, led by Phoenix who shows another wrinkle to his seemingly endless range. Backed by phenomenal Robert Elswit's cinematography (shot on 35mm) and a top-notch music score from Johnny Greenwood, Anderson adapts the best-selling novel by Thomas Pynchon and elevates it from an entertaining noir to a brilliant, oddball meditation on the loss of American innocence.

Directed by Laura Poitras
Original Review

Laura Poitras' incredible access to Edward Snowden in the days leading up to his leak of NSA practices is one of the biggest scoops of any journalist in American history. The footage she captures of the whistleblower's steel rebellion transform itself into fearful paranoia is the core of the year's best political thriller. Snowden knew that the information he was sharing would bring him ungodly attention, that he may even be arrested. He stands firm in his belief that he did the right thing in informing the American public as to just how tenuous their privacy actually was. But as CITIZENFOUR continues on, we see his firmness start to buckle as the ever-growing monster that he hoped to expose takes its aim at him. Poitras is smart not to canonize Snowden, even while admitting a form of empathy. The information that he gave her uncovered a very sobering reality concerning how our government used the threat of terrorism to grant themselves access into our own private information. The film's message is bleak, made all the more troubling by Snowden's eventual, expected villainization by the national media and his consequential entrapment in Russia where he is being granted a one-year asylum. As polarizing a figure as Snowden is to the American public, CITIZENFOUR displays him as ultimately idealistic, possibly naive and incredibly willful. Enough time has passed so that the public knows that Snowden is not just an enemy of the state, but Poitras' film stipulates - and makes a convincing argument - that it may be too late for Snowden and for us.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Original Review

On the surface, Wes Anderson's eighth film may seem like his most slight - the fictionalized version of Eastern European countries, the whimsy of Alexander Desplat's score, the over-the-top performances - but The Grand Budapest hotel is indeed one of the filmmaker's most thoughtful, melancholy meditations on humanity that he has ever created. The movie takes place in the Republic of Zubrowka, a snowy Eastern European kind of city that houses the famed Grand Budapest Hotel, a resort known for its high swank and customers with deep pockets. The Grand Budapest's most treasured asset is its maniacally committed concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), an effeminate but suave lady's man who loves charming all of the elderly women who come to stay. When one of the hotel's most beloved patrons (played by Tilda Swinton) is mysteriously murdered, Gustave becomes a prime suspect and must run for his life against the dead woman's temperamental son (Adrien Brody) and his homicidal goon (Willem Defoe). With the help of his equally dedicated lobby boy (Tony Revolori), Gustave hopes to clear his name and keep the Grand Budapest afloat. Set against the backdrop of the oncoming World War II, Anderson's charming way of dealing with the historical settings including the eventual Cold War presents a universe unlike any seen in Wes' prior films. Above all, it's the performance from Fiennes that makes Grand Budapest such a wonderful experience. The actor's incredible range is on full display as he melds Anderson's usual blend of absurdist humor and somber emptiness. It's the best performance in a Wes Anderson film since Gene Hackman's incredible work in The Royal Tenenbaums.

6. Gloria
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Original Review

This might be cheating a little bit, since this was technically Chile's Oscar submission from last year, but it never got an official American release until January, which is when I saw it. So considering all that, I'll say it's safe to put it on the list. Though Gloria is good enough to be amongst the best films of any year. Paulina García stars as the titular Gloria, a woman heading toward the end of middle age but still partying like she's in her twenties. Her children, cemented in their own lives and responsibilities cannot take much time for their lonely mother who still quixotically hopes to find love on the dance floor. When she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a sensitive man of similar age, she thinks she may have finally found someone who shares her lust for the golden years, but when Rodolfo's own insecurities and past begin interrupting their newly blooming romance, Gloria has to confront a part of herself she didn't realize still existed. American dramas rarely tackle the issues of the middle-aged as colorfully as you see here, as Garcia gives such a funny, bare performance that is equal parts tender and heartbreaking. Co-written and directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, Gloria is a film made with a wonderful spirit, unafraid to display the naked (literally) truth of the beginning of advanced age.

7. Nightcrawler
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Original Review

The performance that Dan Gilroy gets out of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler is equal parts funny and garish, the most uninhibited that the young actor has ever been. He plays Lou Bloom, a possible sociopath with a talent for turning on a blinding smile when the time calls for it. On a whim, Lou decides to take up a job as a "stringer", a freelance news journalist capturing local news footage in the night when all the union men have gone to bed. If it bleeds, it leads - and Lou takes this cliché to heart, manipulating crime scenes and even allowing horrible crimes to happen so he can get the quality footage. Lou mostly deals with Nina (Rene Russo) a TV news exec under pressure to goose ratings for her flailing news show and she appreciates Lou's extra effort. As Lou's unethical behavior at crime scenes become more and more encouraged, Lou's limits become more and more expanded. Hiring a poor young man named Rick (a brilliant Riz Ahmed) to be his unpaid "intern", Lou is equipped to run a two-man operation, seeking to take the local news world by storm. Nightcrawler's political views are apparent but not indispensable to the film, it wears them proudly but more than happy to stay mostly as a haunting character study. And this is where Gyllenhaal truly shines, embodying the overflowing antisocial behavior, always keeping Lou Bloom at the exact tipping point and never more or less. It's an incredibly measured performance within a film that knows how to use it. This is Dan Gilroy's first feature film, but he's the brother of writer-director Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, a talented family indeed. Nightcrawler showed that he already has the screenwriting chops to make a fully realized film.

8. Wild
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Original Review

Cheryl Strayed's memoir from 2012 was a smash hit for the famed essayist, which allowed her to expose her own troubled past as a form of catharsis. When the rights to the film adaptation were purchased by Reese Witherspoon, it was easy to be cynical about the story's rougher edges being smoothed out for a movie star's vanity - but Witherspoon is completely unfiltered here, unlike any other performance in the actress' career. Strayed's memoir focuses mostly on her own personal quest to hike through the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border through the Western woods and desert, into Canada. The script, written by Nick Hornby, splits time between Cheryl's harrowing, three-month trek through the woods and her tortured past, which includes her crumbling marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Director Jean-Marc Vallée creates such a wondrous visualization of Cheryl's inner torment, a truly cinematic interpretation of depression that is rare in contemporary American films; Vallée attempted this with last year's Dallas Buyers Club, but this film is much more suited to those cinematic tastes, less dependent on linearity. But the film's truest source of power comes from Witherspoon, who gives one of the best performances of her career, displaying Strayed's journey toward the light at the end of the tunnel. What makes Wild special is that Vallée, Hornby and especially Witherspoon understand that the story's power comes not from the light, but the tunnel.

9. Edge of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman
Original Review

This movie started as All You Need is Kill then hit the theaters as Edge of Tomorrow and is now being distributed on DVD and Blu-Ray as Live, Die, Repeat. Whatever this movie may actually be called, it certainly is the best Summer blockbuster that I got around to seeing. Bourne Identity director Doug Liman does what few studio directors would have had the courage to do, and that is craft this sharp sci-fi action film as an engaging comedy, a sort of Groundhog Day meets Halo. Taking Tom Cruise in his best leading role since 2004's Collateral and placing him alongside the consistently wonderful Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow (the title I'm settling on here) finds pockets of sweetness where you wouldn't expect, and has the guts to be a big-budget action film that relies on more than just mindless action sequences to keep its audience entertained. Cruise is a PR man for the military which is trying to fight off a violent alien species and stave off extinction. When he's forced into becoming a soldier, he incidentally ingests the alien's trait which allows him to relive the same day over and over until he can discover the key to killing the species and saving Earth. Every day, Cruise must re-introduce himself to the war hero played with marked skill by Emily Blunt to gain help against this apparently unstoppable group of aliens. Cruise shows off why he was once the most beloved movie star in the country, but the chemistry between him and Blunt goes well beyond the usual Cruise-and-leading-lady routine - Blunt has the skill to match wits with the gargantuan movie star, and she shows why she may be the most under-appreciated asset in the movies today. Edge of Tomorrow is old school in its escapism and it's leading man appeal, and it's that quaintness which stood it apart from the rest of the Summer action films.

10. Calvary
Directed by John Michael McDonaugh
Original Review

John Michael McDonaugh's grim meditation on the rotting fish that is the Catholic church is one of the most chilling films I witnessed this year. The always tremendous Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a good-hearted priest living in a scenic Irish town populated with religious hostility. The film opens with Father James sitting in the confession booth, being threatened by a faceless man who promises to kill him in seven days time. In those seven days, Father James explores the town and speaks with it's sordid collection of misanthropes, including a smarmy butcher with a history of domestic violence (Chris O'Dowd), a cynical doctor (Aidan Gillen), an eccentric millionaire (Dylan Moran), and a brooding mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé). In this time, he also gets a visit from his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly), who's just as shocked as anyone at the constant antipathy that Father James is met with by the entire town. McDonaugh - the brother of award-winning playwright and fellow filmmaker Martin McDonaugh - directs his second film here. His first film, The Guard, was mostly a vehicle for Gleeson, but Calvary is a true artistic statement. It's thoughts on Catholicism and its deep-rooted, symbiotic connection to Ireland stretch far beyond the usual declarations of religious corruption. The film understands how a culture can be undone by its own dogma, and it's the truly good-natured, like Father James, who usually face the biggest brunt from the blowback.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Honorable Mention: Best Films of 2014, 25-11

So my 'Honorable Mention' section for my Top Ten of 2014 was getting a bit too robust, so in succinct fashion I will present The Best Films of 2014, 25-11. **There are a few movies that I would have loved to see that may have majorly effected this list, but considering the nature of late releases, was made pretty much impossible for me to see. Those films are: Selma, Two Days, One Night, Leviathan, A Most Violent Year and Winter Sleep.

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange
25. Love is Strange. Ira Sachs' modestly told tale of contemporary marriage is so wonderfully lived-in, hilarious without being over-the-top. Tough to find better acting than John Lithgow and Alfred Molina here, playing a pair of newlywed life partners who find that life has much more in store for them once they finally achieve their lifelong dream of getting married.

24. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The second part in the latest iteration of 'Planet of the Apes' films may very well be the best. Mixing strong performances with intoxicating filmmaking, Dawn expertly draws the parallels to today's headlines without blinding it's central narrative. Andy Serkis as the lead ape, Caeser, continues to show that no one is even in his stratosphere in terms of motion-capture acting.

23. Obvious Child. Funny lady Jenny Slate's incredible performance fuels this wonderful millenial comedy about an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who finds the need to abort a pregnancy from a one-night stand. Hysterical and honest, this indie from first-timer Gillian Robespierre proves that good, real comedy can come from taboo subjects.

22. Belle. This period piece seemed like a stuffy costume drama on paper, but proved to be a truly effective film about 18th Century racial politics. Born from a Royal Navy Admiral, Belle (stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised in luxury under her great uncle (Tom Wilkinson) despite her mixed race. As she becomes an adult, she begins to learn the rarity of her situation. Belle's story is a sort of inverted 12 Years a Slave - a much less brutal picture, but equally as wide in its vision and message.

21. Mr. Turner. Mike Leigh's love song to Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner is a grand testament to the English filmmaker's unorthodox legacy. Timothy Spall's performance as Turner is filled with growls and grumbles, and greatly helps Leigh's illustration of a melancholy genius who was able to visualize the chaos of humanity in his artwork so brilliantly, yet struggled mightily with the complexities of his own life.

American Sniper (**1/2)

Directed by Clint Eastwood


Chris Kyle's reputation precedes him. His record as a Navy SEAL seems impossible, inhuman. As he's touted on the cover of his memoir and in the trailer for Clint Eastwood's latest film, he's the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Eastwood's American Sniper is a film about the thin line between war hero and sociopath, whether he intended to make that film or not. It's grippingly intense view of the Iraq war gives American audiences the most thrilling film version that we've ever seen of that most complicated insurgence. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker explored the psychology of the type of man it takes to really excel in today's war reality: an American military made of the utmost sophistication is struggling against a ragtag army that believes in what it's fighting for more than we do. Bigelow's film focused almost exclusively on that psychology. American Sniper is too preoccupied with the built-in linearity of being a biopic about Kyle to really create the same picture of the American soldier's mental fragility that The Hurt Locker was able to pull off. But Eastwood's film is equally as suffocating in its suspense and crafts battle scenes that match the skill of some of the war genre's best films, even its politics can be problematic at times.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mr. Turner (***)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh


There isn't a single Mike Leigh film which doesn't feel like a passion project of his, and so it's almost surprising to learn that Mr. Turner is the film that he had hoped to make all his life. The film is about the last twenty-five years in the life of the brilliant, eccentric painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh is such a spirited director, known for the Altman-like looseness to his films, so you wonder how the constraints that come with making a biopic would mesh with his usual freewheeling style. As Turner, Leigh enlisted the help of one of his regular cast of characters, Timothy Spall, a character actor who's unorthodox visage has often left him to play grotesque characters in Hollywood films, but Leigh has always seen him as something more. In Secrets & Lies and All or Nothing, Leigh envisioned Spall as more of an everyman, giving the talented actor some of the best roles of his career. None of those roles match the magnitude of Mr. Turner, though. Like all of Leigh's period pieces, there's an attention to detail that is unrivaled, and a trust placed in the actors that allows the settings to truly come alive. Leigh's process is well-known, and his craftiness has made some of the most beautiful, exciting films of the last quarter-century. Mr. Turner, his true passion project, is a sentimental love letter to a favorite artist, but it's still got all of the director's splendid calling cards.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Inherent Vice (****)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


There are logistical reasons why famed post-modernist writer Thomas Pynchon hasn't had any movies made from his novels until now. His books are all about mood and feeling, wondrous prose surrounding characters that are more like caricature. He's a pure writer, not bending to the stringent rules of narrative, and certainly not writing with a film adaptation in mind. Only Paul Thomas Anderson, our generation's greatest filmmaker, can really speak to have the proper combination of skill and ego - as both a screenwriter and a director - to even attempt it, and how luck for us that he did. Inherent Vice is a drug-fueled mystery without much solution, a stoner noir that both nails every rule of the genre while also defying them. It's romantic view of a fictionalized California at the end of the groovy 1960's is grand, percolating with odd details and visualizations of the arduous death of the Hippie Era. Anderson's incredibly faithful adaptation slims Pynchon's novel to its essentials, but more importantly, it captures the enigmatic feel that Pynchon creates: the thin line between paranoia created from legitimate means and the kind created by smoking too much weed. This is probably the most anticipated meeting of auteur filmmaker and brilliant novelist we've seen since Stanley Kubrick decided to tackle Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and Anderson, always the show-off, proves why he is just the man for the job.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Still Alice (**)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland


Still Alice is Lifetime Channel-level melodrama. It's based on a Lisa Genova novel about an Ivy League linguistics professor who's life is dismantled by early onset Alzheimer's Disease. The story is ripe for tragedy and, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, it unfolds in a moment-by-moment sequence of an it-can-only-gets-worse downward spiral. All cinema is emotional manipulation, but Still Alice is a bit shameless in its pandering toward the weepy crowd. What helps the film rise above it's made-for-TV screenplay is its wonderful collection of performances. Robert Altman used to say that the actors are the most important artistic contribution to any film, and Still Alice shows this point in spades. The film is built around the performance of Julianne Moore, the titular Alice. Moore has always been just as good an actress as Meryl Streep, and twice as brave. She's spent twenty years being one of the most fearless actresses, testing her own mental, emotional and physical limits more than any other mainstream player, while still being one of the best pure performers. Moore's performance here is being talked openly as the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar coming up in February. My first thought when I think about that is that Moore has been much better in other films. My second thought is that few people are as talented to give a performance as good as hers is in Still Alice and it still be pretty low on her resumé.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wild (***1/2)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée


One figures that when Reese Witherspoon negotiated the purchase of the film rights to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in 2011, she may have pondered tackling the role of Amy Dunne, the fascinatingly evasive anti-heroine of Flynn's novel. When the film came out two months ago, this year, you finally get the sense of how difficult it must have been to translate the complexity of that character to the screen - Rosamund Pike's performance of Amy Dunne is not perfect, but you kind of figure that it's the best performance that we could have ever gotten. There's no way that an actress with the starpower of Witherspoon would have been able to attack the character of Amy the way Pike did; if she had, I'm not sure she would have left the film with her career intact. So what is an actress like Witherspoon to do? An Oscar-winner in 2005, her talent doesn't need to be proven, and yet, like many actresses with her specific set of skills, the good roles are so few and far between. Witherspoon was denied the slithering darkness of playing Amy Dunne, but quickly recovered to gather up the role of Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Wild presents Witherspoon with an entirely different kind of darkness, but it still gives the actress the opportunity to play against type, to show that her range extends beyond the 'America's Sweetheart' tag we're so desperate to pin her with.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Imitation Game (**)

Directed by Morten Tyldum


Alan Turing is a fascinating man whose life was ended tragically early by a society that was so intolerant of homosexuality that it couldn't even tolerate one that helped keep it from being destroyed. He was a complex, contradictory man who faced perilous odds and went on to create the foundations of the Information Age, the internet and the computer. That his repressed homosexuality led to him never being properly appreciated for this during his lifetime is very sad indeed. The Imitation Game's greatest flaw is that it thinks that Turing's story is also a World War II story. The movies have been obsessed with World War II since before it even ended. It's dividing lines between the good guys and bad guys are so thick and impossible to look past, it makes it perfect for films with heavy-handed morality to draw a portrait of valiance and violence. Only a glance at a Wikipedia page can show you that the war was only a partial player in Turing's resume of brilliance, it gave him a substantial opportunity to exploit his fascination with creating a machine that can think like a human. The Imitation Game cares too much about global dispute and not enough about the wonderfully idiosyncratic protagonist that history has provided for them. What we end up getting is a film that telegraphs its narrative arc so obviously that it's a miracle that the characters don't see the end coming.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Citizenfour (****)

Directed by Laura Poitras


Citizenfour is less of a nuts and bolts documentary and more of a political thriller. It's edited for optimum suspense and even frames itself with protagonists. Those protagonists are American journalist Glenn Greenwald and controversial NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden is now an notorious expatriate living in Russia hiding away from strict government action for his role in exposing the National Security Agency's blatant exploitation of the general public's privacy. Director Laura Poitras - a filmmaker who states at the beginning of this film that her probing documentaries about post 9/11 America have already placed her on watch by certain government entities - gets unrestricted access to Snowden here, and Citizenfour is a nerve-wrecking documentation of the meticulous preparation that Snowden and Greenwald take in revealing this shocking information to the American people. We are shown a brazen Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room giving out dangerous details to Greenwald about unlawful NSA activity but as the film progresses, we see Snowden grow more sheepish with reality that the pressure he knew would fall on his head is far more reaching than even he was prepared for. The film's damning evidence of the American government's illegal activity takes a back seat to the drama of Snowden and Greenwald, who themselves end up becoming the faces of another institution's controversy.

Rosewater (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Jon Stewart


Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is one of the most beloved pop culture institutions in America, and one of my own personal favorites. So yes, I went into Rosewater very much wanting it to be good, if only because I respect Jon Stewart so much. I state my biases at the start, so you can take what you will with the fact that I found his film Rosewater to be a profound documentation of totalitarian authority and one man's fight to stay hopeful in the face of psychological torture. We've seen this kind of movie before. Midnight Express essentially blueprinted the contemporary prison torture movie, but what Stewart does here - with the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist held erroneously in solitary confinement for five months - is surprising. He does not fill the film with despair and anguish, he does not want you to learn from Bahari's torture. He is more interested in Bahari's spirit, and his ability to stay true to his ideals even as his surroundings become more and more bleak, even as the promise of ever seeing his pregnant wife again become smaller and smaller. Rosewater is not a hard, brutal drama, but a warm tribute to a man who faced a regime's inhuman protocol and kept his humanity in tact.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foxcatcher (**)

Directed by Bennett Miller


Anyone unfamiliar with the John du Pont-Schultz brothers story should take this fair warning: this review contains spoilers.

Bennett Miller is an actor's director, unafraid to let his leading men (and so far, it has always been men) take the spotlight. His movies seem to lack a singular voice, and in the case of his second film, Moneyball, the movie's star (Brad Pitt) probably had more to do with the finished product than he did. His third film is Foxcatcher, a chilly true story about an eccentric rich man and his obsession with competitive wrestling. The movie is closer to the detached iciness of Miller's first film, Capote, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance as the famed author researching his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Both Capote and Foxcatcher deal with a crime, but cannot be called, necessarily, a crime film. They're both too preoccupied with biography to really be all too exciting of a thriller. With Capote, you had Hoffman's uncanny performance, which went beyond the simple mimicry of most Hollywood biopics and became a fascinating portrait of disintegration. In a lot of ways, Foxcatcher is trying to accomplish the same thing, but it doesn't have the kind of electrical performance on the caliber of Hoffman's work. Miller is trying hard here to form allusions to the terrors of capitalism and the contrast between high and low society. But to what end? Foxcatcher speaks loudly, but doesn't seem to correspond anything meaningful to its audience, and for all that Miller is trying here, he still expects the actors to do most of the heavy lifting.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interstellar (***1/2)

Directed by Christopher Nolan


Those who may have a distaste for Chris Nolan's movies may dislike his redundant narratives, his over-reliance on pathos as a motivating tool, his high-class manipulation no doubt helped by a lucrative partnership with music composer Hans Zimmer; but no other Hollywood filmmaker has a grander sense of scale, nor is their anyone else making American movies today that has an imagination as vast as the ego it takes to visualize it. He has the ambitions of Kubrick, even if he is more relenting as a storyteller. He also has the Spielberg-ian urge to play for emotion, even if he doesn't always earn it. But if I sit here and say that Nolan is not quite Kubrick and not quite Spielberg, I'll also admit that he has set himself up as one of the singular voices in commercial filmmaking today. Finally free from the constraints that the Dark Knight trilogy placed upon him, Nolan can now focus on furthering the reach of the stories he wants to tell. None of his movies prior to Interstellar ever came close to what this film aspires to. 2010's Inception was made on a grand scale as well, and that film was a masterclass in mainstream suspense thrillers, perhaps the best one we've seen this decade. Interstellar doesn't have quite the same compressing, suffocating feeling that was so crucial to Inception's success - where Inception is a film that keeps moving inward, Interstellar keeps moving outward. Interstellar makes up the difference with pure spectacle, a cinematic journey into space exploration unlike any we've seen in a good long while.

Big Hero 6 (***)

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams


If we're to believe that Disney Animation Studios is going through a renewed spurt of creative output, a run of films that can compete with their overachieving little brother, Pixar, than what does it mean that Big Hero 6 is, essentially, a glorified action movie? What does it mean that it's best moments are just amalgams of other, better films? Does it matter at all if the movie is incredibly, almost intoxicatingly fun? Probably not. But movies made by Disney are no longer graded on a curve. With the release of last year's Frozen, Disney Animation showed that it could once again make substantial cinema and delivered on the promise of Wreck-It-Ralph the year before. It helps that this period coincides with an uncharacteristic down period for Pixar films in which they've made exactly zero interesting movies since the summer of 2012 in Brave, and haven't had anything great since Up in 2009. It was probably unrealistic to expect Pixar to sustain the greatness they displayed during the Aughts, and it was probably even more unrealistic now that their two best directors, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, seem to be more interested at this point in live action. But back to Big Hero 6. Is it okay that it's mindless entertainment? That it's sweetness is contrived and occasionally overbearing? I say no. But it speaks to the improvement of the studio that these questions now have to be asked.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Theory of Everything (***)

Directed by James Marsh


If you're unaware of some of the details of the marriage of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this review will likely contain a few spoilers.

James Marsh is a commendable documentary filmmaker. His Man On Wire won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2008, mostly because it understood that the film's star, Phillippe Petit, was the sole focus. With The Theory of Everything, Marsh tackles the assembly line Oscar sub-genre of the biopic. His subject is the brilliant, disabled physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Marsh's treatment of Hawking's story is sweet and tender, but told without complication. While telling the story of the man who wrote A Brief History of Time, Marsh blazes through long passages in Stephen and Jane's story so that all we really get is a brief history of a marriage. The Hawking story comes with inherent drama, with Stephen's affliction of ALS at a very young age. We all have the image of Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, his shoulders contorted and his face dragging slightly to the side. The Theory of Everything is also the story of Stephen's slow, arduous journey from an able-bodied physics student to the chair-bound, computer-voiced man we know today. But Marsh does well never to truly victimize Stephen Hawking, and that is the film's best quality; it knows that Stephen Hawking had a hell of a life in more ways than one.

The Book of Life (***)

Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez


Films as close to a cultural heritage as The Book of Life is run the risk of becoming overtly self-serious history lessons, especially when you consider that the main audience draw for this film is children. So I can't help but admit that I prepared for the worst when I saw that the framing device for The Book of Life was a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) giving an impromptu history lesson to a group of wrong-side-of-the-road children about Dia de los Muertos (or The Day of the Dead). But this film is more clever than it seems at first. Produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the film's affection for Mexican culture and history is endearing instead of overwhelming. It incorporates Dia de los Muertos imagery into its animation style and incorporates grotesque imagery without scaring the children away (consult The Boxtrolls from earlier this year to see where something like this can go wrong). As the guide begins to tell the story of The Book of Life to the young children, she begins explaining the tale of two childhood friends, Manolo and Joaquin, who do everything together and are even in love with the same girl, Maria. When Maria's poor behavior convinces her father to send her to live with nuns, Manolo and Joaquin decide to wait patiently for her return, where she'll decide which of the two she really loves.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Force Majeure (***)

Written and Directed by Ruben Ostlund


A movie like Force Majeure puts the audience in a pretty precarious position. Like the American film Compliance from 2012, Majeure presents us with a situation and we watch as a character makes a split decision that effects several people. We'd like to think if we were put in the same situation, we'd do the right thing, but movies like Force Majeure put us face-to-face with the reality that perhaps we are not the heroes we'd like to think of ourselves as. The movie is directed by Ruben Ostlund, and the film has been chosen as Sweden's submission to the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film award. I can understand why. It seems to be a great representation of Swedish filmmaking: modest but striking, harsh but funny. The talons of the country's most important film director, Ingmar Bergman, are all over this particular film. The shots are expertly framed but completely without movement, all of the space is flat, each image creating it's own still frame unto itself. But the core of Force Majeure is the conflict between in its characters. In this case, we have a married couple with two young children trying to enjoy a vacation at a skiing resort in the French Alps. Things are already on the fritz between the two parents, but a single moment tips their sour feelings over the edge.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nightcrawler (****)

Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy


Nightcrawler accomplishes what few films can: to create a heightened reality that is also effected by the reality of day-to-day life. It's a scathing look at local news journalism, but it's mostly an eerie character study of a dangerous sociopath who sees his pathway to success. The film is written and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of John Gilroy, a veteran Hollywood editor, and Tony Gilroy, an accomplished screenwriter and director of the superb Michael Clayton. Both Tony and Dan kicked the can for closed to a decade as for-hire scripters; Tony wrote the original Bourne trilogy, while Dan wrote films like 2006's The Fall and the sentimental Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots movie Real Steel. Tony's first directorial effort was Clayton and now Nightcrawler is Dan's. I mention this to make clear that Dan Gilroy is far from a first-time filmmaker. He's a 55-year-old career movie man who knows how to tell a story, and even better, he knows how to show us that story. So, similar to Michael Clayton, and some of Michael Mann's best films, Nightcrawler is not only entertaining, but a display of expert filmmaking, the culmination of a life's work. A film both polished and gritty, which will ask you to suspend disbelief while presenting shocking scenarios that don't feel to far from the truth.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Listen Up Philip (**)

Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry


It's been speculated that writers hate clichés, and that's true in spirit but is often incorrect in practice. Listen Up Philip documents one young writer's journey, hurtling toward the self-fulfilling prophecy of loneliness and bitterness. The film's lead is played by Jason Schwartzman, further sharpening the edges of his Angry Little Man routine into a monstrous character named Philip Lewis Friedman. The character of Philip could be a stand-in for a few different contemporary authors, but Listen Up Philip has little interest in slandering curmudgeons and more fun with seeing the role of the artist in the wild. Writers tend to be miserable people for a variety of reasons, the very nature of their craft causing them to keep those they should care about most at arm's length. But the character of Philip, at least as played by Schwartzman, isn't unhappy as a result of his literary success - he's unhappy because he's convinced himself that that is how literary successes are supposed to behave. The latest film from Alex Ross Perry is a handheld parade of egos so interested in romanticizing the asshole-ism involved in white, East Coast, male artistry that it's attempts at charm seem distasteful at best and downright uninteresting at worst.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (***)

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñarritú


There are four credited screenwriters for the script of Birdman which makes a whole lot of sense once you've seen the actual movie. It flies (bad pun, sorry) in a lot of different directions, it's incredibly self-conscious about itself and doesn't seem to care a whole lot about being too convoluted to follow. It's director is the infamous Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritú (though he shortens it in the credits to 'Alejandro G. Iñarritú', no doubt relieving those who have trouble with Hispanic pronunciation) who has said that his goal for this film was trying to visualize the neurosis and crisis of ego of the artist - the actor, specifically. Iñarritú is known for his multi-cultural ensembles delving into various forms of miserablism. He's never seen a metaphor he couldn't pound into the ground, especially if it stands for socioeconomic issues. But Babel and 21 Grams are both strong films, built around great performances from a lot of actors, too many to name. Any faults to be found with Iñarritú are usually taste related. Which is why Birdman is so fascinating. It's an incredible departure from his previous work, a piece so meta-textual and satirical, taking place in such a fabricated reality. It's a baffling film in many ways, but certainly worth observing.

Fury (**1/2)

Written and Directed by David Ayer


David Ayer makes Man Movies with a capital M. His films are a bit more cerebral than, say, the Expendables franchise, but in the end both selection of films are reaching toward the same core audience and have the same spiritual conscience. He wrote the screenplay for the first Fast and the Furious movie and Training Day, so we should know what we're getting into with all his films at this point. His best film, End of Watch, was a brilliant, cinema-verite style document of brotherhood between two LAPD officers (played wonderfully by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) facing great danger together in South Central. That film managed to find sympathy for police officers in a social climate that makes that incredibly difficult. Ayer taps into bromance in the most masculine way possible. It's homoeroticism for the homophobes, finding an almost philosophical wonder within male companionship. In Fury, Ayer takes these male relationships and places them into World War II, focussing on a tank crew that rides through Germany in the waning months of the war. The tank is striking, even amongst all the rest of them, with a cannon that sticks out like a giant erection and the word "FURY" written in white paint on the side of it. It is the home of the men that Ayer introduces to us here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Whiplash (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle


Whiplash was this year's Sundance darling, winning hyperbolic praise from nearly all who managed to see it and leaving Park City, Utah with the film festival's two biggest prizes: the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. That was in January, and Sundance hits have a way of fizzling out when it comes time to the actual release. For every Precious and sex, lies and videotape, there are dozens of prize winners from Sundance that you've never heard of. But Whiplash felt different; the praise was so effusive, it felt like a surer thing. As it stands, Whiplash probably isn't what many moviegoers would expect it to be. From first-time feature director, Damien Chazelle, the film is made with a stunning clarity of vision and filled with characters so fully realized. Its tale of a music student trying to make a name for himself in concert jazz is brutal, filled with the blood, sweat and tears (literally) that separates the good from the truly great. Whiplash is a film about aspiring to be immortal, about being so good that no one will ever forget you. It's about that one thing that a legend has that no one else does, and its about the methods that artists use to locate that one thing and bring it to fruition.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

St. Vincent (***)

Written and Directed by Theodore Melfi


We've seen this movie before. A rascal curmudgeon finds humanity in the form of a small child. Paper Moon may be the definitive example. Bad Santa gave that movie a holiday twist. But it's been done, over and over. And yet, it's never been done with Bill Murray, and for St. Vincent, that seems to make all the difference. The film is the feature debut from Theodore Melfi, who also wrote the script. The film has a soft touch, sharp dialogue and knowledge of when to play for laughs and when to ask the audience to take it seriously. For a screenplay that can be a bit of a minefield with tone, Melfi shows an impressive alacrity to handle it. But more than anything, the film has Bill Murray, one of the more consistently wonderful screen presences that we have in the movies today. Murray's transition from legendary funnyman to accomplished film actor began with Rushmore in 1998 and was cemented with his Oscar-nominated performance in 2003's Lost in Translation. The man doesn't have range, but he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He is, at the age of 64, a movie star, but what makes that possible is his uncanny ability to pick the exact roles that work for him.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Men, Women & Children (*1/2)

Directed by Jason Reitman


I remember being in college when Jason Reitman's film Up in the Air was about to be released in the Fall of 2009, and Reitman made a stop at my campus to talk with all of us dopey film students. I don't remember too much about that talk he gave us, it was mostly empty stories and non-answers. But I always remembered when he spoke about what inspired him to make Up in the Air. He went on a monologue about modern technology, and pulled out his cell phone as a personal Exhibit A of what's wrong with society. All of these things that we have - cell phones, Facebook, chat rooms, role-playing games - that are meant to bring us together, are actually pulling us apart, he felt. The reason I remembered this particular speech was because when I finally got around to seeing Up in the Air, that didn't seem to be the movie's thesis at all. Perhaps Reitman wasn't deliberate enough in his wanted mesaage. That's the only explanation I can think of for Men, Women & Children being his latest film. If people didn't understand how awful social technology was in 2009, they definitely are getting the hint now, as Reitman presents a film that's so self-righteous, the message is blinding.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Gone Girl (***)

Directed by David Fincher


Nobody does the major Hollywood thriller better than David Fincher. Perhaps Christopher Nolan comes close, but Fincher is less sentimental, his films are more sleek and unforgiving. There's a distaste for humanity in a lot of Fincher's best work, and he's able to translate that feeling to an audience without us realizing that it might be us - those watching - who Fincher really has the distaste for. His latest film is the adaptation of the best-selling novel Gone Girl. The book was a whirlwind success by Gillian Flynn, who has adapted the screenplay herself. The plot is labyrinthine, circling in on itself, purposefully suffocating. It creates all sorts of tension, wielding characters with all sorts of ulterior motives, specializing in highlighting the grey area of these people within the black and white world of mystery and suspense. The film enjoys the imbalance in which it keeps its audience, with Fincher and Flynn always one step ahead - well, at least if you're one of the few people, like me, who hasn't actually read the book. It's a pure Fincher vehicle, but Flynn puts her own stamp on this as well.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Boxtrolls (**1/2)

Directed by Graham Annable &Anthony Stacchi


The work from Laika Studios - the only major animation studio focusing exclusively on stop-motion animation - is unique in a very charming way. They have not given in to the cheaper, less labor-intensive, more popular trend of CGI animation. This makes their films stand out. The images being recorded are real as opposed to the wonder of digital recreation that comes from Pixar and the other major animated film studios. Whether one is better than the other is up to each individual person's discretion. After the wonderful Coraline and 2012's Paranorman (which I did not see), their latest film is The Boxtrolls. Like their previous films, The Boxtrolls shares the love of the grotesque and the absurd, an obvious Tim Burton-inspired string of images that can be beautiful and horrifying at the same time. The film itself possesses an allegorical screenplay (written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava) based on a Alan Snow children's book called Here Be Monsters!, that does its best to stay low-brow for the children and metaphorical for the adults. What we get is a film equal to some of Tim Burton's more uneven work, a movie with a central conflict between its story, its audience and its choice of images.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Art and Craft (***1/2)

Directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman & Mark Becker


The new documentary Art and Craft delves deeper into the subjectivity of art appreciation than any other film I've seen in a good long while. What makes art, in all its forms, so fascinating to the human race are the relationships that we develop with a painting, or a rock n' roll song, or a movie. We connect to these pieces, the bonds forming are often stronger than most marriages; how we feel about art usually says a lot about how we feel about ourselves. Art and Craft, in simpler terms, is also a story of two men who love art, and showcase that love in completely different ways. Through these men, Art and Craft showcases the tenuous connections that we make to inanimate objects, our obsessions with things created by strangers. It also is a bitingly funny glimpse of a true eccentric, a uniquely fascinating man who brings new meaning to the term "art appreciation". The documentary has a terrific "stranger than fiction" feel to it, brought to life by the people in front of the camera. Frantically told and balanced in a disciplined way, Art and Craft is amongst the best documentaries of the year.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You (*1/2)

Directed by Shawn Levy


They say authors shouldn't adapt their own novels. The connection to the story is too strong, and the author will feel too loyal towards things that work very well in one medium, and not very much in another. In the case of Jonathan Tropper's script of This is How I Leave You - based on his own novel of the same name - one would hope that it isn't exactly representative. I haven't read the novel, but I would hope that it has more nuance and charm than the film it eventually became or else I'd have a much lower opinion of the book-reading public that would make something like that a best-seller. It's the story of the Altmans, a family comprising of four adult children suffering through various but equal levels of distress, as well as a spotlight-hogging, pseudo-psychological mother with an addiction for breast augmentation, and a dead patriarch. It's rich soil for drama, but director Shawn Levy (known for the Night at the Museum films and last year's The Internship) chooses instead to brush the films with several strokes of broad comedy and takes a talented cast of actors and directs them all as if they're each starring in a completely different movie. It's the first R-rated film that Levy's ever directed, but it doesn't seem like he yet knows the difference between a film for adults and a flaccid movie with the word 'fuck' in it. It's an adult movie that the whole family can enjoy!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Skeleton Twins (***)

Directed by Craig Johnson


There's a measure of unhappiness that's displayed in The Skeleton Twins that's hard to pull off in most movies. The kind of depression that comes with everyday life, that's easy to dismiss when watching from the outside. Midway through the film, a character played by Bill Hader recites to his sister - played by Kristen Wiig - of his long-held belief that all of the social classes of high school become inverted in adulthood. The bullying jocks will end up never leaving home, settling for mediocrity in a podunk town, while the freaks and geeks of the same school will end up becoming the true success stories. It's a myth that we all like to tell ourselves to make up for our adolescent fear of not being popular, or not fitting in. In a monologue of heartbreaking frankness, Hader explains that not only is this theory not full-proof, but quite often the opposite is true: the ones with the least ambition are able to find the easiest path to happiness. Craig Johnson's latest film is an excellent dissection about realizing that there's a difference between being unique and being special, that ideals can only take you so far and that everybody in some form or other is living with a bit of disappointment with how their life has turned out. After all this, if I also told you that this movie is also a successful comedy, you probably wouldn't believe me.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The One I Love (**)

Directed by Charlie McDowell


Outside of their breakout hit from 2005, The Puffy Chair, the Duplass brothers' films have always felt like high concepts searching for a meaning. The plots and scripts are tight and the performances are inspired, but the substance behind it all is fleeting and unremarkable. For The One I Love, the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, are only listed as producers. The director is first-timer Charlie McDowell who, with one film, shows that he already has a profoundly more astute cinematic eye and attention to visual detail that the Mumblecore legends never really had. The script, written by Justin Lader, defies reality in ways that the Duplasses have never dared to do - a stab at Charlie Kaufman that's just unique enough to not feel completely derivative. And yet, the film still feels like the air has been let out. For all its zaniness, what is The One I Love actually getting at? The film's main conceit has been held so tightly under wraps, and all reviews have followed the filmmaker's wishes of keeping the main twist a secret. It's an interesting marketing ploy that inspires curiosity but also requires cooperation from others, and surprisingly The One I Love has gotten that cooperation. But with all this budding interest, can the film hold itself up under the scrutiny?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Love is Strange (***1/2)

Directed by Ira Sachs


Love is Strange is such an understated piece of filmmaking that some may not realize just how powerful it is. The story's protagonists are two upper-middle-aged gay men who've just gotten married, but it is not trying to be progressive or break the mold on serious social issues. It's a very measured document of love, marriage, family and getting older, that has glimmers of social tensions in the background because, well, those kinds of things are always playing back-up to the main spectacle that is the drama of our current lives. It's two stars are Alfred Molina and John Lithgow - both veteran performers known well for their training, their work on the stage and their reliable supporting work in films. Neither have ever had any real chance to carry a movie as its star, and even now with this film, they share that burden together. In a way, that lends heavily toward Love is Strange's balanced, generous ensemble which they lead without an ounce of competition or showmanship. It's a wonderful experience, crafted by director Ira Sachs into one of the most genuine movie experiences of the year.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Life After Beth (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Jeff Baena


Life After Beth is another in a string of projects headed by Aubrey Plaza in an effort to streamline the comedienne's transition from television's hit show Parks and Recreation to film stardom. Plaza is beautiful and legitimately funny, and appears to have more talent in a more variety of ways then most actresses working in major films. But she's yet to show she can really carry a film. To be fair, I don't mean to argue that she can't do it, she just hasn't been able to do it yet, and it should be said that none of the material she's been given has really been anything that really gives her much of a fair shot. Films like Safety Not Guaranteed and The To-Do List are lightweight fare, sure, but both films kind of left her on an island, to find character beyond what's on the page. About Alex gave Plaza the most adult, actor-ly role she's ever had, but it felt too much like she was playing against her own comedic persona - she was trying to branch away from the act that people like to see her perform. Life After Beth is the best lead role she's ever received - it allows her to explore her own deadpan, zombiefied delivery while playing an actual zombie. It's a brilliant piece of casting. And yet, none of the other decisions made by the first-time director Jeff Baena seem as inspired as that one.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

About Alex (**)

Written and Directed by Jesse Zwick


I'm not sure who was asking for a Big Chill for millennials, but we just got it. It's an interesting thing to watch a film like About Alex which is so sentimental and obsessed with nostalgia that it's both nostalgic about the 80's - it's film and music culture - while also being nostalgic about it's present young adult generation, an aimless group of people who are starting families later in life and complaining about student loans earlier than ever. We're bitter about the misdeeds of our parents' generation, we're angry that college is impossibly expensive and we're fucking furious that we bounced right into the worst job market since The Great Depression. Or at least, that's what filmmaker Jesse Zwick seems to want us to think. About Alex collects a serviceable cast filled with actors that are known mostly for television and gives them a plot that's probably more suitable for a television pilot, giving us only snippets of character while following through on a very film student-y script that never really disappoints but surely never really excites. It's ideas are noble enough and it has a cast that at least seems excited to plow through them, but the film really only touches the surface of the darker issues that it really wants to tackle.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

By the time I was born, Robin Williams was already one of the most famous comedians alive. My coming into consciousness coincided with him becoming a bonafide movie star. I don't know anything about a world that doesn't involve Robin Williams. I guess I'll have to learn. His shift into family films could not have happened at a more convenient time for me. Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire were two of the first films that I truly fell in love with. He was the first actor that I ever truly recognized. I knew that he was the star of Aladdin even though I only heard his voice. By this point in his career, he'd already proven himself as a legitimate actor beforehand. Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King gave him one of his four Oscar nominations, and it's probably the only performance of his that really allowed his manic comedic style to fuse together with his more subdued cinematic persona. His career was never consistent. He never went five years without making at least one film that was total crap, but he probably also never went that same time frame without giving at least one truly inspired film performance, or a rousing stand-up special. He was a tiresome cultural figure, but the effort was always part of his act. He was 100% hilarious, and even if a decade of sub-par movies led to us taking him for granted, his appearances on The Tonight Show or his bits during the Academy Awards reminded us that he was one of the funniest people in America. He won his only, much-deserved Oscar for Good Will Hunting, with a performance so beautifully timed and wise. His scenes as a sad-sack therapist across from Matt Damon's tortured Will Hunting are the highlight of the film, filled with wondrous monologues that only work because Williams gives that character such a sincere, lived-in dynamic. It's a funny performance, but not in the usual way that Williams is funny. The news of his suicide is shocking, but it was never easy to ignore the dark undertones of his stand-up bits and his frequent references to addiction. The worst part about this kind of death is that we may never see his movies without a filter of sadness, trying to find the cries for help. I hope that doesn't happen with him, because he was all about giving people joy and that's how he became one of the most beloved celebrity figures of my generation. His presence was recurring, never constant but always around. I'll miss his warm, some may say flammable, nature and the way it lit his movies, a lot of which would have been nothing without him. I'll miss the way he could interact in a scene with other, more heralded actors (consider the work he does with Pacino in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia) allowing others' talent to prevail while never succumbing himself. I will miss Robin Williams. I know I'm not alone in that, but it's important to be said. He gave away a lot of laughs to people who were more than happy to take it. Selfishly, I'd love to have some more, but luckily he gave us a treasury of films and specials for us to choose from if we ever decide to revisit him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Calvary (***1/2)

Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh


The Vatican sits in Rome, but no culture is more tightly linked or more implicated by the Catholic Church than the Irish. A large part of their existence is dictated by the strict ideals of this incredibly archaic institution. It doesn't help that they're surrounded by the islands of the United Kingdom and their largely Protestant populations alienating them. The ripples of Catholicism often find their way through the music and films and literature of the Irish, if even tangentially. It has a pretty prevalent presence in the work of the McDonagh brothers. Martin is an award-winning playwright, and a filmmaker who has directed at least one modern classic, In Bruges. His brother, John Michael, is a filmmaker as well, whose second film, Calvary is the most direct reference to the religious practice that either of them has ever made. It's protagonist is played by Brendan Gleeson, who was the star of In Bruges and John Michael's first film, The Guard, and provides a steady, actorly dynamic to this particularly bleak film. The film is not atheist porn, spouting Christopher Hitchins rhetoric about the evils of having faith, but instead a much more measured documentation of the rotting fish that the Catholic church is quickly becoming.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (***)

Directed by James Gunn


If we're considering Guardians of the Galaxy to be amongst the very best of the twenty-first century superheroes movies era - and it seems like we are - I think that most of it's success, and that which sets it apart from all the other films in this glutted genre, is it's commitment to being, first and foremost, a comedy. The Marvel Avengers series and its several component films blew past Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy in popularity because they refused to take themselves seriously (and because they had Robert Downey Jr.). Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't take itself seriously because it's, in fact, not a serious film. George Lucas caught a lot of grief for the amount of hacky humor, but few understand is that Star Wars transformed commercial filmmaking and science fiction cinema because people connected to the humor. If they hadn't, science fiction brands would have exploded in popularity a decade earlier with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm not sure any commercial franchise film has ever been closer to Star Wars than Guardians of the Galaxy and yet it feels incredibly unique, an Avengers with more edge, less kid-friendly. It's a superhero movie filled with particularly unheroic personalities.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (**)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Here's an interesting statistic: there hasn't been a single year in my life in which Woody Allen hasn't released a new film. His institution is well known, but for me personally, the arrival of each new film is very comforting. The fact that his tastes and styles and themes have more or less cemented themselves into a stasis actually helps his relevance as a filmmaker; while the rest of the world evolves and cinema itself breaks more ground, Woody's films stay essentially the same. Watching the same Windsor font of the type face as the opening credits appear, the main actors always presented alphabetically - there's no such thing as "billing" with him - you're put inside a time capsule. You could have easily seen Magic in the Moonlight in 1987 or 1999, because Woody doesn't budge for the swaying tides of culture. This is why every Woody Allen film, for me at least, is worth watching. Because you're reminded of every delightful detail and all the fond memories. Even when the film you're watching isn't very memorable. And while you can call Magic in the Moonlight many things, I'm not sure memorable would crack the list.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Land Ho! (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens


The two main characters in Land Ho! are purposefully crafted with such contrasting personalities, a boon toward the odd couple dynamic that's played throughout the film. Paul Eenhoorn is an Australian actor whose silky accent compliments his homely face and thinning hair - he feels like a true thespian. His co-star is Earl Lynn Nelson, a larger than life personality with a boxy build and a Kentucky drawl. Both men are deep into their sixties (Possibly older? Both actors have shrewdly managed to keep their age off of the all-encompassing information machine that is the internet) and they are the stars of this Sundance hit from directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens. Sure, Eenhoorn and Nelson seem like complete opposites, and Land Ho!'s script does it's best to highlight the gulf in personality between the two, but that contrast is never used for the expected set-ups that come with these types of films. Instead, Land Ho! accomplishes the much harder task of convincing us that these two men really could be very good friends and bring out the best in one another. Despite two septuagenarian protagonists, Land Ho! is not a droll meditation on mortality, but vibrant embrace of life and a stunning display of real friendship.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Boyhood (***)

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater


In Richard Linklater's beloved Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke plays a novelist named Jesse. In Before Sunset and Before Midnight, Jesse is given a particular scene to describe his ideas for future novels and all of his interests seem to deal with time: a man watches his daughter dance and it transports him back into his past, another man is living in a state of constant deja vu, etc. We can see now that this is not only an obsession held by this character alone. Ethan Hawke's time-obsessed novelist is not dissimilar from Linklater himself, and the projects that he has accomplished. Plot is not Linklater's main interest, he'd rather see the way characters change with time. He doesn't believe that characters only exist within their own manufactured story, he has legitimate interest in what they keep doing once the story ends, to see them as they develop all new issues to deal with, to see how they change as people. The Before films were not just sequels, they were continuations, with a documentary-like examination of the humanity of character. Boyhood might be the most extreme execution of this interest. Shot over the course of twelve years, time is presented to us: the evolution of a boy, a family and an entire nation over the course of just over a decade. What started as an experiment turned into a film unlike any other, and I can't think of anyone better than Linklater to be at the helm of it.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (***1/2)

Directed by Matt Reeves


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not like most of the sequels coming out this summer (or the last five summers, really). The only characters that have stuck around from the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes are all CGI'd apes. They've switched directors too, from newcomer Rupert Wyatt to Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. Dawn feels like a whole new story, more of a continuation of a character than a continuation of plot. Rise was a pleasant surprise three years ago, the beginning of the smarter Hollywood that has come to define this decade: using creative ideas and good screenwriting to boost known cinematic brands out of mediocrity and into actual cinema. Dawn is an excellent example of that ideal. Reeves directs with moments of flash but with a constant sense of slick urgency. Watching this latest film, I was struck by the thought that there isn't another franchise in Hollywood right now that is more committed to good filmmaking and acting than the Planet of the Apes reboot. No doubt, the film is very serious about itself and the story it's telling, but it also backs that up with solid screenwriting. It's a marvel to see a commercial film made with this much to say.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Life Itself (***1/2)

Directed by Steve James


When Roger Ebert died in April of last year, I wrote a long piece about it on this blog in which I hoped to put across that there is not a single writer that I have read more and not a single one that has had more influence on my own film criticism. I went to film school. I read Andre Bazin, Gilles Delleuze, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, and all the rest of the film crit heavy-hitters that are force-fed into the minds of students hoping to be the next Kubrick or Truffaut. We never read Ebert in any of our classes, nor would I try to make the case that his reviews should be studied, but if you really do consider yourself somebody who loves the art of cinema, then his reviews (all of them, the entire catalogue from 1967-2013, are available at his website) should be appointment reading. His knowledge when it came to movies was just as vast as Bazin and Sontag, and yet no one was as good as he was at truly articulating why a certain film just resonated with an audience more than others. He had the ability to explain to you why you loved the movie you just saw, but he did it while sounding more like a friend, as opposed to a professor. Ebert's writing style may seem too populist for the hardcore academics, but Ebert would claim that you never had to be a genius to be a enjoy a good movie.