Friday, January 30, 2015

"Into The Woods": A Fun Family Musical

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Supporting Actress - Meryl Streep
Best Costume Design
Best Production Design

Musicals aren’t really my forte.  Most are adapted from stage productions, and seeing as I have little money or inclination to see stage shows with any sort of frequency, musicals are often lost on me.  Film adaptations of musicals are often measured by critics against their staged counterparts, and from what I’ve read about Into The Woods, critical reactions are somewhat mixed about how well the adaptation holds up.  However, that’s not what I’m here to do.  I’m here to tell you whether or not I thought this was a good film, and, perhaps more pressingly at the time of writing, how I think it fares in its respective Oscar races.  So how does Into The Woods fare?  Pretty damn well, even if I wouldn’t call it one of my favorites of the past year.

To those unfamiliar, this story takes place in a fairy tale world and follows the exploits of a baker and his wife, who, in order to lift a curse placed upon them by a witch, must collect four artifacts from various characters that we as the audience all grew up hearing about: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, and Jack of beanstalk fame.  The plotting relies on the interweaving nature of the stories to explain how each of the events in the classic tales come to pass, which makes for a clever idea and is executed pretty seamlessly.  The constant intersection of the various characters does feel a little artificial at times, but given that the source material relied upon the small space of a stage, the apparent lack of vastness to the titular woods is forgivable.

But the story, as with any musical, is secondary to the songs and performances, and I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m no musical expert, but I enjoyed the overlapping harmonies and energy that the songs offered, which even now tempts me to purchase the soundtrack.  Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden all turn out to be fantastic at the sort of fairy tale whimsy that is required in this sort of story, and none are bad singers to boot.  Even the child performances playing Red and Jack are well executed, which is refreshing to see when so often Disney’s child performers are brought up from the dredges of kid sitcoms.  But of course, the elephant in the room is Meryl Streep, and while I think that she does an admirable job with her performance, I don’t think her character is complex enough or given enough screentime to justify her Best Supporting Actress nomination.  She seems to have been nominated more out of acknowledgment of her pedigree than based on this particular performance, as well suited to the part as she may appear to be.

Even without the Academy’s distinction, though, the film as a whole is just a lot of fun to watch.  The sets and costumes are well designed, the performances are a pleasure, and the story takes a subversive twist at the halfway point that surprised me out of what I thought was a comfortable predictability to the plot, only to turn out an even better product as the result.  As a layman to the world of musical theater, I found this to be a film that was quite entertaining, and that’s about all one could expect or want from it.  Check it out.

What do you think are Meryl Streep’s best roles?  Leave your opinions in the comments below.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Big Hero 6": Pretty Good, Would Like To See More

Now In Theaters, Available on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 24, 2015

Oscar Nominations

Best Animated Feature

Big Hero 6 wasn’t a film that made me want to rush out to the theater and demand they take my money.  I didn’t think it was going to be bad or anything, but it looked like it was probably going to be a watered-down kid-targeted version of what I liked about what Marvel Studios puts out.  And, to a certain extent, I was right.  However, just because a film is targeted at kids does not make it in any way inferior; I just recognize that I’m not the target audience.  And while the film is good, I feel that it suffers from a misconception about kids as moviegoers that keeps it from reaching its full potential as a narrative.

For the two people who aren’t aware of what this film is about, the story takes place in San Fransokyo, a near-future mash-up of two obvious cities.  Our protagonist is Hiro, who over the course of the first act loses a close family member and ends up suffering depression because of it.  Enter Baymax, a robotic assistant designed to provide medical treatment.  Baymax begins assisting Hiro in finding a masked thief of some stolen technology that was taken in the incident that killed his lost family member, operating under the conception that doing so will help treat Hiro’s emotional distress.  Eventually, the film goes full-on superhero flick, with Baymax gaining upgrades and Hiro assembling a team of tech-powered friends, called the Big Hero 6, to take down the mysterious thief.

Despite the film’s title, the real heart of this story is in Hiro’s emotional recovery from his loss, and a good half of the film is devoted to just him and Baymax working through the stages of grief, albeit in exciting, action-oriented and comedic ways.  Hiro is a kid genius who has never before encountered a problem he can’t solve, but his depression becomes the ultimate roadblock that he eventually acknowledges he needs help overcoming, which leads to a heartfelt and interesting dynamic with Baymax.  Baymax really steals the show as the comedic center, speaking in blunt, literalist program speak that paints him as more of a sophisticated Siri than something akin to the emotion-driven Wall-E.  This is perhaps the most realistic interpretation of what future AI will appear as in the coming years, and though Baymax clearly isn’t a person as one would normally define the term, there’s something oddly endearing about his absolute courtesy and misunderstandings of colloquialisms.

However, I think the film’s primary weakness comes from how the film gives short-shrift to the remaining four members of the Big Hero 6, who really don’t play a large part in the film until the second half.  They are all interesting variants on nerd, geek, and dork archetypes, and all of them develop unique technical gadgets to reflect those personalities, but the film doesn’t devote enough screentime to allow us to get to know them.  This is because the film is only ninety minutes long, when the amount of story to tell and character depth to explore could have easy filled an entire two hours.  The result is a rushed third act, and while it does resolve all of the film’s running plot threads, it feels like a lot of slower character moments were sacrificed in the name of an artificial limitation born from the conception that children have too short an attention span for anything longer.

That said, if my primary complaint with a film is that I wish there were more, you probably can’t go too wrong.  This is obviously meant to be the first installment in some sort of franchise, whether in films or a television show, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open to see the path it takes.  Most theaters have stopped playing it by now, and most people who wanted to see it probably have, but if you’ve been on the fence, Big Hero 6 is good enough to get you off it.

What’s your favorite film from Disney’s recent animated renaissance?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Whiplash": The Feeling You'll Have By The Credits

Now In Theaters, Available on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 24, 2015

Oscar Nominations

Best Picture
Best Adapted Screenplay - Damien Chazelle
Best Supporting Actor - J.K. Simmons
Best Film Editing - Tom Cross
Best Sound Mixing

Given the Academy’s propensity this year (and, let’s face it, most other years) to lionize standard stories that adhere to the tropes it likes and de-emphasize films that break from the mold by subverting those tropes, I wasn’t expecting Whiplash to be as amazing as it turned out to be.  The plot at surface level appears to yet another student-mentor tale, akin to Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver, and yet director and writer Damien Chazelle has crafted something uniquely brilliant, forcing the audience to contemplate the very nature of art and the means by which artists attain it.

The story is that of first-year music student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), a solitary young man with one goal: to be the best damn drummer ever.  While practicing one day, he is confronted by the school’s infamous Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who, though berating and dismissive, eventually recruits Andrew into his prodigal jazz band class.  Fletcher begins to show a more human and understanding side to Andrew, but only as a means to pull the rug out from underneath him and attack his slightest inadequacies.  Fletcher even goes so far as to throw a chair at Andrew and make him practice for hours on end until he can master the correct tempo.  This in turn pushes Andrew to become better at his craft, but consequently pushes away everyone who is close to him and starts him down a road of self-destruction.

The central question the film poses is whether or not Fletcher’s actions are justified, and it is remarkably agnostic on this point, portraying the events in ways that emphasize both arguments for and against abuse as a means of enabling artistic greatness.  As Fletcher memorably says, there are no two words more harmful than “good job.”  However, is that push towards greatness worth the potential ruination of the artist’s life, or the lives of those who simply aren’t cut out to achieve at that level?  The film provides no answers, but lets the audience take everything in to reach its own conclusion.

And yet, the film is not devoid of passion in either of its perspectives.  When Andrew is suffering, we see him sweat, bleed, and casually destroy the social connections that define most of our existences.  And yet, when he’s playing well, we see a god on the stool, playing just as well as the masters and destroying the boundaries of what we thought within his limits.  I didn’t believe that a film about music could have me cringing on the edge of my seat, by Whiplash has some of the most intense editing and sound mixing in recent memory, turning every drum performance Andrew gives into a waiting game to see if he can maintain his speed and grace.  When he stumbles, we breathe a sigh of disappointment, but are thankful that his intense exertion has momentarily ended.  When he succeeds, the intensity of the performance is so overwhelming as to seemingly defy reality.

“Whiplash” is the name of a jazz piece central to the film’s musical performances, but it is also a great description of the feeling the film will evoke in you.  Whether watching Fletcher’s methodical and sadistic manipulation of Andrew, or watching Andrew alternately crash and soar in his chosen craft, this film is an emotional roller coaster that has few true contemporaries.  The climax in particular will leave you awe-struck, proving Damien Chazelle as one of the greats in contemporary cinematic direction.  I recognize that at the time of writing this film is not playing in many theaters, but if you cannot get to a theater, I wholeheartedly recommend finding this film as soon as it hits digital release or physical disc format.  It truly deserves its place in the Best Picture nominations.

Have a favorite mentor flick?  Share it in the comments below.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"Inherent Vice": Worth It, Even If I Didn't Entirely Understand It

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Adapted Screenplay - Paul Thomas Anderson
Costume Design

It’s very tempting to compare Inherent Vice to one of my all-time favorite films, The Big Lebowski.  Both are comedic films with noir sensibilities about stoner detectives attempting to unravel a plot much bigger than themselves.  However, to judge either film through reference to the other would be an injustice to both films, as Inherent Vice is an entirely different animal than The Dude’s screwball antics.  Inherent Vice may be a comedy, but more than that it is a subtly crafted labyrinth of interconnected plot threads that ultimately add up to an immense conspiracy.  To claim that this is a new Lebowski would be to assume a nihilism in the film that simply isn’t there, and while I don’t necessarily think Inherent Vice is one of the best films you’ll see this year, I do think it is definitely worth seeing at a time when most other Oscar bait is so unappetizing.

Our protagonist is Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective constantly berated by law-enforcement for being a dirty hippie, which he most unabashedly and assuredly is, a joint never far from his lips.  The time is 1970, just as the counter-cultural revolution of the 60’s is coming to a close and the corporate world is making its move to capitalize on said revolution’s cultural pastiches.  The story… Well, I think the trailer for the film does a better job of describing what’s going on than I ever could, and even that is dense and confusing.  I feel the need to disclaim that there may be entire scenes where you will sit in confusion, as the plot is purposely littered with branching and reconnecting threads, forcing you to keep track of a whole slew of emerging conspiracies that only begin to reconcile toward the film’s conclusion. 

Luckily, snappy dialogue and ludicrous delivery give this film the necessary momentum that not every moment need clarity.  In fact, the primary purpose of the film seems to be its audience’s bewilderment, providing a dialogue-induced haze reminiscent of the onslaught of drugs the entire cast is constantly imbibing.  The film even sneaks in some tragic moments, the shining example coming in the form of an extended, one-take monologue from Katherine Waterston as Doc’s ex-girlfriend/employer.  But this is offset by the comedy, which often comes in the form of bizarre phallic imagery, absurdist situations, and wit so sharp that it may not realize it has cut you until three lines later.

However, I do think this film has its faults, notably in that it is overlong in its resolution.  My understanding is that the film’s script adheres quite faithfully to the novel it is based on, and while that may be appreciated by fans of the book, it does not make for an entirely engaging three-act structure.  The film’s primary conflict is resolved approximately 105 minutes in, leaving an additional 45 minutes to wrap up loose ends.  That isn’t to say that interesting events don’t happen during that remainder, but it does make one want to check their watch a bit more often than a film should.  Some reworking of events would have provided a plot resolution in closer chronological proximity to the conclusion of some key character arcs; but as it is, the film isn’t broken, simply slow.

Inherent Vice is a great alternative to all the lackluster films battling it out for Best Picture this year.  It’s smart, funny, and wickedly clever in its commentary on America, capitalism, and drug culture.  And I may just have to see it again to track all the details that I probably missed on my first viewing.  But as of this first viewing, I can definitely say this one is worth the price of admission.

What absurdist stoner comedies to you appreciate?  Share your favorites in the comments below.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Foxcatcher": Where's That Best Picture Nomination?

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Director - Bennett Miller
Best Original Screenplay - E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
Best Lead Actor - Steve Carrell
Best Supporting Actor - Mark Ruffalo
Makeup and Hairstyling

The Academy is taking a lot of flak for some of its nomination choices this year (and rightly so), but one place where they haven’t messed up is in the deserved recognition of Foxcatcher.  As one of the darkest and most lurid pieces of cinema this year, Foxcatcher shows us an astounding amount of range from actors not known for their serious performances, and meanwhile delves into the events leading up to one of the most shocking and bizarre events in U.S. athletic history.  Director Bennett Miller has crafted a slow-burning drama that will captivate you with its understated intensity, and not only does he deserve a spot on the Best Director docket, but this film should have ended up on the Best Picture roster.

For those unfamiliar with the Foxcatcher shooting, this film tells the story of John du Pont, heir apparent to one of the richest families in the U.S. during the 1980’s.  He converted his Foxcatcher ranch into a training ground for world class wrestlers, with his eyes set on taking a team to the Olympics, even though he himself had no experience competing in the sport himself.  The infamous shooting is that of his assistant coach, Dave Schultz, which happened without any apparent cause and has been the subject of inquiry and rationalization ever since.  Du Pont was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and while the film does portray his paranoid tendencies, there are other hinted-at rationales as to what plagued du Pont’s sick mind.

Steve Carrell plays a tragically villainous du Pont, a man struggling to find his place in a world of privilege and cloistered pampering and ultimately becomes destructive because of it.  Though the film is not blatantly symbolic about this point, it is hard to ignore that du Pont lives in a time when capitalist venture is deemed to be stronger than ever and the captains of industry are perpetually patting themselves on the back for their success and affluence.  Du Pont, though, only has the latter, for his fortune was inherited, not earned, and he has no personal success of which to speak.  Combine that with an obsession with wrestling that stems from an impliedly repressed homosexuality, and Carrell becomes the embodiment of the dangers of capitalist excess wrapped in a layer of quiet psychosis.

Channing Tatum makes an incredible performance as Mark Schultz, brother to du Pont’s victim and original focal point of du Pont’s obsession.  Audience perspective initially comes from Mark, as he is lulled into the world of promises and extravagance that du Pont offers, only to be shunned at du Pont’s eccentric whim.  Through his eyes, we see things come to a gradual boil, with only his brother trying to warn him that this situation may not be the path to glory, but instead damnation.  Mark Ruffalo is great as ever playing Dave Schultz, having completely physically transformed himself for the role to the point of near unrecognizability.  He carries the girth and stature of a wrestler with nuance and seeming ease, and his contribution is just as appreciated as Tatum’s or Carrell’s.

Even knowing how Foxcatcher ends from having knowledge of the event that inspired it, the dramatic tension in this film is perhaps the best realized this year.  It is darkly subtle in its build-up, and as far as making you feel a steady unease goes, few films are as effective.  See it for the tension.  See it for the acting.  See it if you love movies.  This is one of the films the Academy was right to honor.

What other films do you think deserve their Academy recognition this year?  What snubs are you most disappointed by?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, January 19, 2015

"American Sniper": Unpopular Opinion Incoming

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Picture

Best Lead Actor - Bradley Cooper
Best Adapted Screenplay - Jason Hall
Best Film Editing - Joel Cox & Gary Roach
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing

Just about everyone was shocked last Thursday when the news came down that American Sniper was not only nominated for six Academy Awards, but among those was a nomination for Best Picture.  This was a film that most people did not even consider a dark horse in that race, and yet, the Academy surprised us all.  And so, diligent in my self-appointed critical task, I went to see what the big deal was… only to discover that there is no big deal.  The fact that this film was nominated for so many awards, let alone Best Picture, is only partially baffling to me, as a more cynical side of me has strong suspicions as to why this has happened.

American Sniper is a biopic about Chris Kyle, a soldier in the Iraq war who eventually became known as the deadliest sniper in United States military history, racking up over 160 kills over four tours.  This is an impressive feat, and the film pretty much rests its laurels on portraying that, and only that.  Kyle’s life is molded into the generic beats of any action-suspense film, complete with lost comrades and an equally skilled sniper who acts as his cartoonishly evil archvillain foil.  And that would be totally fine, so long as Kyle’s character were sufficient to carry the emotional and human side of the story.

I understand that Chris Kyle may not have been an introspective or particularly deep individual, but the film is so dispassionate about the war and Kyle’s relationship to it that there really doesn’t seem to be a point in telling this story as a piece of narrative fiction.  Bradley Cooper does his best to portray Kyle with the material he is given, but there really isn’t much to work with when the majority of the film plods from scene to scene with Kyle doing one of two things: feeling at home with his sniper rifle or struggling with PTSD when he returns stateside.  The film doesn’t even have anything interesting to say about PTSD, other than that Kyle has it.  Kyle’s character has no arc, no transformation that the film takes the time to walk us through that makes his life compelling as a narrative work.

The closest the film gets to achieving this is a third act attempt to demonstrate how he conquers his PTSD demons by spending time with disabled veterans.  However, we only see the beginning of his interactions with his brothers in arms, and before you know it, the film cuts to a period of time later when he is seemingly much better adjusted.  What was perhaps the most humanly compelling aspect of Chris Kyle’s story was given the short end of the stick in favor of dragging out his military accomplishments into a boring, repetitive slog.  This isn’t to say that Chris Kyle’s story isn’t worth telling, but it does not work as a piece of narrative fiction, which needs character development and plotting that this portrayal of his exploits simply lacks; a documentary would likely have sufficed to better enlighten us on Kyle’s life and accomplishments.

So why has this film been so extensively nominated for this year’s Oscars?  I think the answer is two-fold.  First, the Academy has always had a soft spot for biopics, regardless of actual cinematic quality, and American Sniper appears to be no exception.  Second, and probably more important, however, is the fact that this film is about an American veteran of our nation’s most recent conflict.  Ever since 9/11, portrayals of American war heroes have been subject to less scrutiny than other pieces of artistic representation, under the assumption that criticism of the art is criticism of the sacrifice the represented soldiers made.  However, I firmly disagree with the notion that wrapping oneself in the American flag makes one immune from criticism, and American Sniper is a perfect demonstration of why that is.  I do not dislike this film because I disagree with the politics of the Iraq war (which I do) or disrespect the work our soldiers do (which I don’t); I dislike this film because it is so dispassionate in its portrayal of the war and one of its most decorated soldiers that, within a viewing context, it makes it impossible to care about either without letting one's implicit patriotism fill in the gaps.  Don’t let American Sniper get away with being a lackluster product by being lured by its patriotism.  It isn’t worth your time or money.

Any other films make the Oscar roster you think are less than deserving?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Selma": Better Than The Academy Gives Credit For

Now In Theaters

Oscar Nominations

Best Picture

Best Original Song - "Glory" by John Legend and Common

Among the deluge of Oscar-baiting biopics this year, Selma is the one I found most intriguing.  This not only serves as Hollywood’s first biographical representation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but this film also seemed to serve a purpose beyond the performer-aggrandizing shallowness of most biopics.  David Oyelowo may make a great Dr. King, but this film isn’t made with the sole intention to use his talent to win gold statues.  There is a purpose here, to demonstrate the particular trials and tribulations that occurred during the Selma protests, and to paint an accurate picture of Dr. King as an orchestrator of the progress it spawned.

The film does this by choosing its timeframe very carefully and particularly.  This is not a story of Dr. King’s life, as it picks up after he has achieved fame and only just as he is awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  The story then covers the following three months, focusing on those particular events and Dr. King’s place in them.  This is a very refreshing take on the biographical feature, as we aren’t focused on Dr. King’s entire life, which likely couldn’t be done justice in the time and three-act structure limits of a feature film.  What Selma does best, however, is use the story of the protests to paint Dr. King as more than the peace-loving saint that popular culture has reified him as, and show us the political strategist behind the icon.

David Oyelowo may carry the public gravitas of Dr. King, but he really shines in the moments where King isn’t acting as the great orator, and Dr. King’s deft understanding of media manipulation and public sentiment comes to light.  Behind the Christian minister lay a tactician, who understood that non-violent protest was, more than anything else, a tool to gain media coverage so as to inform the rest of the world of the tragedies happening in Selma.  Oyelowo carries these scenes with a sense of solemn and determined conviction, greatly regretting putting his people in harm’s way but recognizing the greater good that their movement serves.

And though Oyelowo’s performance captures Dr. King’s understated brilliance with award-worthy skill, the real credit for this film’s masterpiece lies with director Ava DuVernay, who orchestrates a large cast of actors into a relatable and watchable fictionalization.  She recognizes that a story about human rights needs to focus on the human elements of the struggle, so not only is Dr. King recognized as vital, but the other grassroots organizers are given just as much credit.  Furthermore, the way she chooses to portray the white politicians of the day is remarkably resonant of certain politicians of modern times, who recognize the inherent injustice of their positions and the turning tide of public opinion, but feel the need to keep up a strong appearance for their constituents.  The clear parallels to modern politics and events is not accidental, and though the events of Ferguson could in no way have been influential in the filmmaking process, DuVernay’s film shows quite clearly how easily such injustices can be perpetrated.

Selma was largely snubbed by the Academy this year, receiving only Best Picture and Best Original Song nominations out of seeming token appreciation rather than actual.  However, in light of the competition, there is no reason why David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay should have been excluded from their respective categories, and that is truly unfortunate, because this truly was one of the best pictures of the year, and one of the few nominees that actually deserves the distinction.

What are your thoughts on the overly white and male representation of the nominees at the Oscars this year?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Gone Girl": Only One Oscar Nomination. Seriously!?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Oscar Nominations

Best Lead Actress
- Rosamund Pike

David Fincher is one of those directors who you just know is going to make a good film.  His is the brilliance behind such films as Fight Club, Zodiac, and the American adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, all of which are fantastically tense films with killer plot twists and layers of thematic depth implicit in those twists.  And now he has brought us Gone Girl, a cynical take on the sensationalism of imperfect marriages and the demonization of those who do not wear masks of nuclear familial bliss in our popular culture.  But more rudimentary and essential than that, Gone Girl is a wicked suspense thriller, pulling you in every which way so that you won’t know what happens next.

Nick comes home on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find that his living room has been trashed and his wife Amy has gone missing.  He calls the police and an investigation begins, but Nick is labelled the prime suspect in his wife’s murder as pieces of evidence start to point towards him.  However, perhaps more damning than any physical evidence is that certain facts of Nick’s impropriety, such as an adulterous relationship and apparent physical abuse, begin to fuel a media circus, only enhanced by his awkward attempts to seem emotionally invested in finding a wife whom he no longer loves.  This makes for a good film in and of itself, but what elevates the film to greatness is a mid-point twist that recontextualizes everything you think you know up until that point, and then proceeds to deconstruct that twist to its realistic and horrifying logical conclusion.  To say anything more would ruin the fun that the film’s plot has to offer, so I’ll leave that for you to discover yourselves.

Brilliant screenplay aside, this film features a fantastic cast that is definitely deserving of many more Oscar nominations than it has received, if not some wins.  Ben Affleck is the emotionally distant Nick, and Affleck does a great job of walking the line between making Nick a villainous scumbag when it comes to his marriage, but completely sympathetic as we recognize that he is not capable of murder.  Tyler Perry (of all people!) and Neil Patrick Harris bring their absolute best to the screen, turning relatively minor roles into some of the most twisted and duplicitous in recent memory, adding depth to characters that could otherwise have just served as vessels to move the plot forward.  The real prize, though, must go to Rosemund Pike for her performance as Amy.  Seen in flashbacks narrated by entries in Amy’s diary, Pike carries the role of a troubled wife in an unhappy marriage with a kind of gravitas that is rarely seen, and her prowess only grows as the film goes on, revealing enormous complexities to Amy’s character.

I run the risk of spoiling crucial plot elements if I go any further, so you will have to trust me when I say that Gone Girl is a fantastic film.  For the performances alone, it could be one of the best of 2014, but add in David Fincher’s superb direction, a killer screenplay, and shockingly resonant score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and you have a classic that will be remembered for years to come.  You should definitely see this film.

I'm quite livid that this film did not get more Oscar nominations.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Ida": Possible Foreign Language Oscar?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Ida is definitely not a film for everyone.  It is made with some heavily European artistic direction, relying on minimalist dialogue and visual cues to drive the story along, leaving some scenes as abstractions that are heavily subject to audience interpretation.  If you like a bit more narrative handholding, Ida may be a bit intimidating to decipher.  However, with that in mind, is Ida a good film?  Yeah, I’d say so; it’s easy to see why this film made the Shortlist for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film award this year.  Though its appeal is far from universal, Ida is worth a look for its resonant themes and gorgeous cinematography at the very least.

In 1960s Poland, Anna is a nun-in-training on the cusp of donning the habit and resigning her life to stay in the convent forever.  Before she can do so, she must visit her family, the only surviving member of which is her Aunt Wanda, an alcoholic judge who was heavily involved in the Stalinist regime as a prosecutor responsible for sentencing millions to die.  Wanda reveals to Anna that Anna's real name is Ida Lebenstein, the daughter of two Jews who were murdered during World War II.  The two set off together to find Anna’s parents’ remains and give them a proper burial.  In essence, this is the most depressing buddy road movie imaginable, entirely devoid of levity or relief.

The dark tone is rather the point of it all though, as Anna and Wanda’s clashing personalities not only serve to accentuate their differences, but how much the two see themselves in each other.  Anna grew up in the convent, and despite her judgmental attitude of Wanda’s behavior seems curious of the outside world.  Wanda, on the other hand, drinks heavily in order to assuage her guilt for being responsible for so many deaths, and wishes she had the sort of innocence Anna has retained through her isolation.  Their differences mirror one another, impacting them in ways that lead to a shocking climax for both characters.

The film itself is shot in a nostalgic 4:3 aspect ratio in black and white, giving the film a rustic, classic-era feeling that is appropriate given the time period.  Given the film's themes of duality, the aesthetic heavily accentuates the blacks and whites of the sets and costumes, making the various shades of gray pop out and demand recognition of their symbolic importance.  Furthermore, director Paweł Pawlikowski has a stunning eye for composition, with each of his stationary frames feeling like a Pulitzer-worthy photograph.

I liked Ida, and I think that it is a strong contender for its Foreign Language Oscar this year.  As of this writing, I’m unsure if I will have the opportunity to see any of its contenders, but if Ida were to pull through, I would have no complaints.

Is the Foreign Language Film category something you guys would like to see me pursue further in the run-up to the Oscars?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Magic In The Moonlight": Woody Allen's Egotistical Agenda

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Though Woody Allen is a controversial figure in Hollywood these days, it’s hard to dispute that he is one of the most prolific filmmakers working today.  His old-fashioned sensibilities have led him to make one film a year for forty-four years, many of which are quite good and don’t require the type of immense budgets that franchise-spawning blockbusters require.  Allen even made one of the best films of 2013, Blue Jasmine, a fantastic feminist piece that was made all the more tragic in light of its creator’s own alleged proclivities toward abuse and molestation.  And now, as a follow-up, Allen has made perhaps one of the most egotistic and self-justifying pieces of his career, part response to the accusations against him, part shallow, aimless romance.

In the 1920s, Stanley Crawford, a renowned illusionist played by Colin Firth, receives a visit from an old friend who tells him of a mystic who is in dire need of debunking.  Stanley takes great joy in exposing fraud spiritualists, and so leaves with his friend to expose a young woman who is swindling a family into thinking their dead patriarch can communicate to them through séance.  That young woman is named Sophie, and played by Emma Stone, and as Stanley and Sophie begin to banter back and forth, two things start to happen.  One is that Stanley begins to doubt his pessimistic and rational view of the world in light of Sophie’s apparently wondrous telepathic skills; the other is that a chemistry starts to develop between the two leads in classic romantic style.

It is worth noting that Firth and Stone do a fantastic job with the roles given to them, finding a chemistry that works despite the film’s often predictable and clichéd script.  This is a testament to the talent both performers have, considering how dull this film could have been without them.  The romantic plot is obvious from the moment the two leads lay eyes on each other, and it is clearly only a matter of time before she is exposed as a fraud and he decides he doesn’t care because he has discovered the ability to love.  It all feels very trite, and it is an unwelcome departure from Woody Allen’s generally more cerebral offerings.

And it is also worth noting just how much this film feels like an autobiographical excuse for Allen’s tendency to date and marry women much younger than himself.  Now, I don’t know Woody Allen, and I recognize that age does not need to be a prohibitive factor when founding a relationship, but this film feels very much like Allen making a self-justified stand that relationships between people with large age gaps are not subject to scrutiny.  There’s a certain amount of aloof perfection to Stanley’s character that seems to mirror Allen’s own self-avowed perception, with some of the more obnoxious flaws mildly accentuated for romantic tension’s sake.  And Sophie is little more than a waif, in dire need of the guidance this wiser, older man can offer her.  This feels like a shallow and sexist justification for Allen’s own history of romancing younger women and is played off as a match made in heaven without any character questioning it.  Part of this is due to the film’s chronological setting, but it was also made with modern audiences in mind, making this kind of theme questionable at best.

I did not enjoy Magic In The Moonlight.  It is way below the standards that one generally expects from Woody Allen, and it feels like such a blatant attempt at public image repair that it distracts from the lackluster love story that is ostensibly the main focus.  If you want a recent Woody Allen flick, go watch Blue Jasmine.  Whereas that was a high for the prolific director’s career, this film is a new low.

Have an opinion on Woody Allen, either as a man or director?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"The Imitation Game": Decently Trite and Unremarkable

Now In Theaters
The Imitation Game struck me as an odd award season film.  Not because it does anything different than your usual Oscar bait; once again, this is the tale of an English guy achieving greatness despite/because of disability.  However, what seemed odd to me was that, while the film is receiving many award nominations, particularly in the Best Picture category, not many critics are deigning to place the film among their top picks of the year.  I found this curious, as the two lists generally have some degree of overlap.  Upon seeing the film, though, it’s not hard to understand why this is.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the mathematician in World War II who led the team responsible for cracking Enigma, the German encoding device used to mask Nazi tactics and battle plans.  The title of the film is dually referential, as the Imitation Game is the test famously developed by Turing to determine whether a machine has achieved humanly realistic cognitive skills, but the film is much more interested in Turing’s personal imitation game.  The film heavily implies that Turing falls somewhere in the autism spectrum, as he has trouble with social niceties and deciphering other people’s emotional states.  This is the aforementioned Oscar-baiting disability, but as far as this film is concerned, I don’t think that is as problematic as it could have been.

That isn’t to say that I do not recognize the inherent problem of having yet another able-bodied actor receive acclaim for portraying disability; this is an all too common trend that really needs to be placed under a microscope.  However, I wouldn’t say that Cumberbatch’s portrayal is any more offensive than, say, his portrayal of similar characteristics on the television show Sherlock.  Turing’s struggles are not taken lightly, but his character is more than a one-dimensional representation of autism.  It’s Turing’s brilliance that takes center stage, and while the film implies that he wouldn’t have been able to realize his savant achievements were it not for his anti-social proclivities, it also showcases how those same proclivities made it difficult for him to gain the time and resources to make the first primitive computer.

And yet, the film’s screenplay makes this all feel more than a little trite.  The dialogue is laced with notions that those we don’t imagine anything of do things the rest of us couldn’t imagine, repeated to the point of obviously trying to become a tagline.  The supporting characters shift from distrusting to unwaveringly supporting Turing with almost clockwork efficiency, with only the barest of connecting tissue demonstrating how any of those characters developed.  The only character whose depths are really explored is Turing himself, and while Cumberbatch is on par with his usual paradoxical charisma cum social awkwardness, his performance isn’t something to praise too much.  Again, think Sherlock, but with less malice and more crying.

That’s why this film isn’t great.  It’s not bad by any means, but the film’s problems all come down to its purpose for existing.  Yes, it is quite informative of the uplifting and tragic life of Alan Turing, but underneath that intention, this is a film made for the purpose of bringing home gold statues.  This is the kind of film that award committees will eat up, but critics are starting to become disillusioned with.  We’ve seen this type of film too often, and no able-bodied actor doing his best disability impression is going to make the sea of same-ness any less gray.  The Imitation Game is probably worth a rental when it comes to home video, but as far as award season greats go, this is not one of them.

If you’re looking for the epitome of the type of film I’m talking about, look to The King’s Speech.  Or even this year’s The Theory of Everything.  Leave your thoughts on the genre in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Boyhood": Great, But Not As Great As You've Heard

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

There’s no denying that Boyhood is an impressive feat in filmmaking.  Filmed over twelve years with the same cast of actors, director Richard Linklater and everyone else involved in the production has demonstrated an intense amount of commitment and perseverance.  However, I feel that that acknowledgment does not make this film an automatic contender for being the best of the year, despite all the awards and nominations piling up in its favor.  It is practically a miracle that the film is even coherent, let alone a good film on top of it, but aside from the technical achievement, what does Boyhood do that other coming-of-age stories haven’t already done with more comprehensive character arcs and tighter plotlines?

It’s hard to describe the plot of Boyhood, as this could just as easily be called The Life of Some Kid: The Movie.  Starting at age six, the film follows Mason Evans as he stumbles his way to adulthood, showing his connection to an irresponsible father, his witnessing of his mother’s abuse at the hands of his stepfather, his rebellious early teenage years, and finally his flight from the nest toward college and adulthood.  Each of these scenes feels about as naturalistic and real as possible, partially because the script has a slightly improvisational tone as Linklater accounts for how the world has changed over the years, and partially because the characters feel like real people that we as the audience have come to know and love.  The illusion is particularly strong with Mason, because even when he’s being an ignorant entitled brat, it's easy to understand that from a grander perspective that is just part of the process of growing up.

That’s what this film does best: it creates a perspective on the passage of time and how people change.  It uses musical cues to signal chronological transitions, pulling from the indie rock hits of consecutive years in the 2000s and showing the progression of technology to place us in a nostalgic haze for times gone by.  This is particularly effective in portraying the process of childhood, for as we see the present come racing toward us, we also see Mason coming to join the ranks of adulthood, and our nostalgia for times past gets translated into a nostalgia for our own childhoods.

Unfortunately, this has a side effect of making Mason little more than a cypher, allowing us to project our own remembrances onto his life.  Sure, he has some modicum of personality, loosely defined by his childhood interests and a burgeoning artistic passion for photography in his later teenage years, but the details aren’t as important as our relationship to his chronistic position in life.  The details of his life may not particularly mirror our own, but Linklater makes these situations relatable enough so that we as the audience could easily see ourselves in Mason’s shoes.  But this makes the story itself little more than a shallow interconnection of vaguely related scenes, with the characters themselves acting as little more than archetypes for us to relate to our own friends and family.

Now, that isn’t to say that Boyhood is a bad film; far from it, it is quite entertaining and very good at what it sets out to do.  However, what it does is emotionally manipulate the audience into feeling nostalgic for no other reason than nostalgia’s sake.  Yes, childhood can be a trying and emotional experience, but most of us remember that about our own childhoods without having a realistic fiction telling us in the most blatant ways possible.  If you’re looking for a long-ish indie film to eat up an afternoon, you can do far worse than Boyhood.  Just don’t expect to be seeing the best picture of the year.

What do you think are the most overrated awards season contenders, of this or any year?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"The Interview": Really Worth All The Fuss?

Available for digital rental and purchase

The Interview will perhaps go down as having one of the most bizarre releases in cinematic history, and that reputation will probably overshadow anything actually in the film itself.  I don’t want to get into the politics and international ramifications of the North Korean Sony hack or the right to free speech, as my opinions on such are not really relevant to whether the film is good or not.  However, it is worth acknowledging that current events have propelled this film into the limelight, with viewing the film constituting a certain cult status among those wishing to display their patriotism and uphold Sony’s First Amendment rights.  But it is important to realize that the film itself isn’t advocating any of those things, and is, in fact, just another in a long line of Rogen/Franco bromance comedies that just happens to have Kim Jong-un as its villain.

Dave Skylark (James Franco) is the host of an entertainment news show, backed up by his producer, Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen).  Upon learning that the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), is a huge fan of the show, Skylark and Rapoport contact the dictator for a ratings- and credibility-boosting interview.  After their on-air announcement of the coming show, the CIA contacts Skylark and Rapoport with the intention of sending them to assassinate Kim.  From there, shenanigans ensue, due to Skylark’s buffoonish egomania and gullibility and Rapoport’s self-effacing attempts to keep the mission on-track.

All in all, this is pretty standard stuff, and if you’ve seen anything that Franco and Rogen have collaborated on in the past (Pineapple Express, This Is The End, etc.), then you know what you’re in for here.  This is a bro comedy, with two well-intentioned bumbling guys getting into stoner antics that involve pop-cultural references, physical slapstick, and gross-out humor.  And the film does admirably at that, even if this is neither performer’s A-game.  Randall Park takes a pretty good turn as the infamous dictator, though Kim is portrayed with all the subtlety of a Saturday morning cartoon. 

And really, that’s sorta the point.  There was no geo-political message in mind when Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote and directed this film.  This was just an excuse to get together with some friends and have a good time making a movie, and this was the comedic scenario that they came up with.  Sure, the film does try to treat the plight of the North Korean people with a degree of respect, emphasizing their famine at the hands of a self-proclaimed god.  But this isn’t portrayed with the intention of rallying the U.S. to Korean aid; it acts as an impetus for the resolution of Skylark’s and Kim’s character arcs, the straw that divides the two after scenes of partying and bro-ing it up.  The point wasn’t to tell an intense polemic or even to make a political statement about North Korea that wasn’t already part of the average American consumer’s understanding of the Kim dynasty.  Hell, there probably isn’t much more anti-Kim propoganda here than Team America: World Police, a film that also portrayed a Kim as an over-the-top mustache-twirler only because their reputation makes it so easy to do so.  This is just a bunch of actors poking fun at a world leader, a world leader that already has pop-culture notoriety for his bizarre proclivities and antics.

So is The Interview worth watching?  Yeah, I’d say it is, though if you’re looking for a good Rogen/Franco buddy comedy, this is probably their worst one yet.  But if you’re looking to show solidarity by using your credit card to metaphorically raise your middle finger at Kim Jong-un, I’m sorry to say that this film probably wasn’t as scathing as he thought it was.  It’s just a pretty average comedy, one that was only made noteworthy by the threats to its accessibility.  That legacy will far outlast any jokes that are actually shown on-screen, and maybe that’s the biggest joke of all.

North Korean Sony hack controversy.  Chat away in the comments below.