Tuesday, December 30, 2014

[Review] The Imitation Game

"Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

The Imitation Game joins The Theory of Everything in 2014's set of prestige biopics about incredibly brilliant minds. While the film about Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde's marriage held two excellent performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones & was profoundly moving, The Imitation Game and its story about mathematician Alan Turing brings on the great performances AND some intense espionage drama.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is socially awkward and humorless, but his humorlessness actually makes him funny. He's also extremely confident in his genius mathematical abilities. During World War II, he's recruited by the British army in order to help a top secret group crack the Nazi communication code, which in turn could save millions of lives. He distances himself from the brainy group and takes it upon himself to invent an entirely new machine, which his higher-ups are reluctant to fund. Turing is also hiding a deep secret: he's gay. And if anyone finds out, he's finished.

The script here is super sharp, and there's a lot at stake, so every twist and turn keeps your interest. Just when you think the film could potentially drift off into tedium (a lot of it involves tinkering with wires and discussing technological theories that would even escape your Honors Calculus students), it gets a big crank of suspense. The performances are solid all around, and Keira Knightly gives a terrific turn as the only woman in the group. But of course, Cumberbatch drives this thing, demonstrating the intently detailed and emotionally-ranging performance that Oscars are made of.

Turing's story is a heroic testament of dedication, and unfortunately, also one of tragedy.


Monday, December 29, 2014

[Review] Unbroken

Here's the bullet point version of Louis Zamperini: He went from Olympic track star--to the military during WWII, where he experienced crash which left him stranded on a raft at sea for nearly two months. Then he got captured by the Japanese army only to get sent to a prison camp where he was abused and tortured daily until the war ended. Those are quite the bullet points, right?

Joel and Ethan Coen helped adapt Zamperini's biography, and director and producer Angelina Jolie brings the amazing story to the big screen. Jack O'Connell (a British actor, because of course he is), coming off an impressive performance in Starred Up, stars as Zamperini and does a swell job. Unbroken is part sports movie, part war story, part stranded/survival/endurance tale, as well as an embodying account of the human spirit and American triumph. So, you'd think this film has all the makings of a tense sweat-fest, a potential tearjerker, and an Oscar shoe-in--which makes it all the more surprising that it ends up coming up a bit flat.

Don't get me wrong, Unbroken is a decently serviceable film that has its stirring moments, along with a soaring musical score, but it's hard not to expect more out of it. The beginning feels like a film running through the motions, almost like a Forrest Gump-esque highlight reel but without the charm. And once the danger and crisis sets in, it lacks that hard-hitting grit that keeps your attention. The pacing is on the slower side, and the dialogue is underwhelming and mostly unmemorable. It's an example of when the riveting 2-minute trailer packs more power than the entire feature-length film.

There's obviously no denying the astonishment and inspiration that comes from Zamperini's real-life story, but maybe that's it--it's such a feat that the movie just isn't able to fully do it justice. However, there's still enough here to recommend.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

[Review] Into The Woods

Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Merly Streep, Johnny Depp, and more star in this twisted Disney musical, Into The Woods.

The plots revolve around several iconic characters pulled from Brothers Grimm fairy tales. The likes include Cinderella (Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) The story is framed from a husband (James) and wife (Blunt) who have hopes to have a child. Each character has their own wish, as well as coinciding tasks in order to fulfill them. All the stories eventually intertwine... Into The Woods. And everybody's cursed and spelled.

Dark and generally cheerless, this musical is full of unhappy endings. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Even when knowing the general gist of each tale, the film sets up an intriguing atmosphere with its deliriously creepy sets. Each path bridges into danger and terror, which renders the story as closer to traditional horror than modern fairy. The song interludes of the stage and theatrical variety sound exactly how you'd expect them to sound.

The film does begin to drag during its later acts as the narrative muddles and falters. It loses some of its initial intrigue, and you get the impression that Into The Woods would have benefited from some slicing. The songs can become trying and repetitive after a while, to the point where you might be wishing they'd just move on. Still, this isn't a bad one to catch in theaters if you're looking to fill a dark magic void.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

[Review] Big Eyes

Wait a second... Considering all of the films released on Christmas Day, you're telling me that Tim Burton directed one that *isn't* Into The Woods?!

Burton takes a break from Johnny Depp and the oddball whimsy horror and sets sight on Big Eyes, a film based on true events involving a dysfunctional marriage between an artist named Margaret Keane and her husband Walter Keane. It's a little closer in tone to Burton's Big Fish work.

Opening up in a neighborhood with a pastel color palette similar to the one in Edward Scissorhands, we meet Margaret (Amy Adams) and her daughter (Delaney Raye). Margaret specializes in paintings of young children with, yes, big eyes. And they're quite beautiful. During a park exhibit, Walter (Christoph Waltz), a wannabe be painter, approaches and the two eventually fall in love. But there's something sneaky about Walter. One night, he "accidentally" takes credit for Margaret's work, and the lies begin to spiral. He takes control of her career and passes all of her work off as his, "because people don't buy lady art." Margaret gets caught in an awful and heartbreaking situation of fraud that she didn't ask for.

Once the setup and conflict is established, the story just kind of stays in place for a while without any new major jumps or revelations, which renders the film as just okay instead of great. It only becomes a matter of time until Walter is exposed. He completely unravels and the film takes a turn that's incredibly reminiscent of The Shining (but without the ghosts), and subsequently drags to its conclusion.

Waltz plays the conniving part well, but the film rests with Adams. Waltz' character is a little more quirky and goes off of his rocker a few times, while Adams' character dwells in internal anguish and snaps out of it in a glowing manner. Waltz and Adams prove to be two of the most consistent performers in the film world. If it weren't for the solid acting and social commentary, Big Eyes would feel as though the movie's trailer would be all you really need to see.


Friday, December 26, 2014

[Review] The Interview

You know the story. The Interview wasn't going to come out, and now it's out. This edgy comedy starring Seth Rogan and James Franco is a hit and miss mission.

Dave Skylark (James Franco) is a popular talk show host in which he conducts intimate, one-on-one interviews with famous people. Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogan) is the producer. There's a hilarious opening sequence that involves an interview with a rap star cameo, and unfortunately, it actually ends up being the highlight of the entire film. So, this thing peaks pretty early. Anyway, they're eventually granted an interview with Kim Jong-un, which is a huge deal for their ratings, but wait... then they're approached by the CIA and asked to secretly assassinate the guy!

Much of the humor revolves around Dave and Aaron's buffoonery and their general incompetence in carrying out such a task. The film does have its moments, and Dave's frequent references to The Lord of the Rings are appreciated, but there's a lot of times when the humor just doesn't land. The attempts at satire don't really bite, and the script contains some limp lines that even Franco and Rogan don't sound too enthused about rattling off. It's a decent spoof at best.

The Interview is certainly better than a lot of Hollywood comedies that came out this year, and it's bound to bring some enjoyment, but it can't help but feel a bit anticlimactic, even with all of the controversy aside. I'm glad we were able to see it, though.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

[Review] Wild

Jean-Marc Vallée, director of last year's great Dallas Buyers Club, a movie driven by two powerhouse performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, follows that up with Wild. There's another strong performance here from Reese Witherspoon in a tremendously rugged role. Wild possesses the spirit of 2007's Into The Wild, and it's a lot more interesting than this year's other soul-searching trek into the wilderness, Tracks.

It opens with Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,600 mile + distance from California to Canada. We don't know too much about Cheryl at first, but her backstory is revealed in a series of separate flashbacks that involve her relationships with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), her mother (Laura Dern), and her best friend (Gaby Hoffmann). I won't go into too much detail about it all, because it's better to see it unfold.

We get plenty of great views of the gorgeous and treacherous terrain as Cheryl sets out with her gigantic pack of literal and figurative baggage. There's the expected dangers like rattlesnakes, hunger and thirst, but the biggest threats are the multiple men she encounters along the way. Whether it's other hikers, hunters, or rest stop hosts, Cheryl is forced to grapple with trust.

Reese Witherspoon is surely on her way to an Oscar nomination. She embodies the complex character with great depth, bringing a lot of versatility as she plays her in different periods of her life. It always feels like she's actually in the midst of the hike. And in a slight subversion from a lot of alone in nature/survival/soul-searching tales, Wild isn't the typical redemption/wipe the slate clean story, and it isn't a tragedy either. It's about coming to terms with life the way you've lived it and where it's taken you, and being okay with it as you move forward.

Unfortunately, the narrative *ahem* trails off with a couple of sequences, and the ending is a tad abrupt as it thrives on minute, internal epiphanies that are less cinematic and more book-like. The messages are poetic and agreeable, but as a full film experience, it risks being forgettable. Still, Wild is a commendable effort.


Friday, December 19, 2014

[Review] Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall, who most people might know as the ratty dude from the Harry Potter series, gives a stellar performance in this 1800s-harkening biopic about the life of British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Unfortunately, it's one of those films that just never gets going. And just when it feels like it should be ending soon, you check your watch and realize there's still over 90 minutes left.

Turner is grumbling, boorish, snortly and permanently scowling--he always looks like he has to take a massive crap. He obviously spends most of his time painting or sleeping, and he doesn't care about his children or grandchildren. He isn't quite Scrooge-like though, because he indulges in humor and has some friends. What follows is a monotonously structured sprawl of his life.

Between the picturesque scenery, lush colors, lighting and old-timey cinematography, it's fitting that it looks as if there's a painting within every frame of the film. Spall is great, and the period costumes and sets are on-point. However, the visual beauty and Spall's brilliant performance just aren't enough.

Mr. Turner is too slow-moving, often feeling like a stagnant stage play. It's low on major conflict and drama for the most part. Instead, it's more of a long, dry portrait. The outlines and broad strokes of the narrative aren't enough to keep this moving. To put it frankly, it's an utter bore. The film might have you exhibiting your own snorts--from snoring.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

[Review] The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies

"Follow me one last time."

The journey comes to a rousing end in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies. If you're already on board, you know the deal--the fiery dragon Smaug is the loose, Thorin and Co. have reclaimed their treasure-filled homeland, the people of Lake-town are on the move, the Elves have beef with the Dwarves, the Orcs are forming a powerfully frightening army, and the little burglar Bilbo Baggins is in the middle of it all.

Things get complicated in this because the narrative has planted pieces to empathize with for each side of the ensemble (except for the Orcs, of course), which makes the impending war even more tragic. The story has always been driven by Thorin & Co. (and Bilbo), but Bard the Bowman holds down a significant portion this time as he protects his family, leads the Lake-town people, and attempts to reckon with the now demented Thorin. And ever since The Desolation of Smaug, Legolas' presence, along with the brand new character Tauriel, have made for some nice cinematic additions. And despite what detractors might say, the business between Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman and their plight against Sauron's emerging wrath isn't just unnecessary padding. It more-so serves as foreshadowing to the catastrophic events in Lord of the Rings, which creates tighter links between the two trilogies while providing some more weight.

The Battle of The Five Armies is shorter, faster paced, and more action oriented than the previous Hobbit installments. The war breaks out with brilliantly orchestrated chaos. Peter Jackson's flair for fantasy setpieces is unrivaled, and the overall scope and epicness of the compositions should not be taken for granted. The intimate, emotional beats culminate as well. A lot of this is obviously owed to Tolkien, but in a world of dwarves, elves, and wizards, Jackson impressively knows how to bring out the human elements of friendship, love, and the internal dynamics within each and every one of the forefront characters. With all of that, there's definitely a handful tear-jerking farewells.

Yes, the film is the back end of a full story, but it's a very entertaining back end. Yes, at times it's a little cartoony, yet it greatly captures the essence of Tolkien's novel. And yes, this trilogy was doomed to never match the phenomenal excellence of The Lord of the Rings and its potential "greatest films of all time" discussion, but that doesn't mean that The Hobbit wasn't another story worth telling.

I'm ecstatic that we could go there and back again.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

[Review] Top Five

It's the black Birdman. The black Before Sunrise. Chris Rock is the man in this--writing, directing, and starring in Top Five, a significantly timely passion project. A bunch of funny faces show up along the way, including: Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, and J.B. Smoove. It's also filled with surprises--a list of people are credited as "HIMSELF" or "HERSELF". The title refers to the often debated topic of the top five best rappers of all time. It's a running motif throughout the film, but it isn't really what it's about.

Comedian Andre Allen has hit a wall. His career is fading, he's battling alcoholism, he's about to get married to a reality show diva, and worst of all: he might have to join Dancing With The Stars. Allen is just unable to recapture the magic of his box office hit, "Hammy The Bear". But the thing is, he doesn't want to be funny anymore. Eventually, he agrees to do an in-depth interview with the New York Times, conducted by hip journalist, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). The two peruse the city as Allen shares stories, visits old stomping grounds, and gives biting observations about race & celebrity. Both of the characters are nicely developed as their acquaintanceship begins to break the interview walls.

The film is serio-comic and semi-meta. And it's tightly scripted, even though some improv was bound to sneak in. Given the nature and tone, it seems that Chris Rock has drawn some great influence from his former co-star and director, Julie Delpy (2 Days in New York). There's a grounded-ness to the narrative, but it'll still definitely make you laugh (and cringe) profusely. A couple of scenes involve some major raunch that I can't even type. The biggest highlights come from guest spots, but Chris Rock anchors the film with his charisma, great dialogue, and amusing facial expressions. He also displays some affecting moments of vulnerability.

There's soul-searching, along with themes about breaking one-dimensional molds, dealing with fame, keeping integrity, and embracing change. Everything is done without ever being self-indulgent. And in turn, Top Five isn't just one of the best comedies of the year, but it's also one of the best films of the year in general. It's a nuanced triumph on many parts, and it's the perfect platform for Chris Rock to wield his sometimes misunderstood brilliance.

What's your Top Five?


Thursday, December 11, 2014

[Review] The Good Lie

Inspired by true events, The Good Lie tells the story of four friends that escape the war-torn country of Sudan and set out to make a life in the United States during the 1980s.

When Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanual Jal), Abital (Kuoth Wiel) land, the group is unfortunately separated from Abital, who is Mamere's sister. However, we get the feeling that there will be a reunion later on.

The opening of the film spends a big deal of time on the group's backstory, and this works in its favor. Not only does it give the characters proper introductions, but we also see their treacherous situation and the horrible experiences they witnessed--from when they were just young children fleeing from bombs and gunshots in their village and seeing their parents die - to their arduous journey by themselves to a refugee camp. Over 30 minutes go by before the fish-out-of-water antics in America ensue. That's when Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) enters the picture. At first, she's seemingly detached and all business, but we all know how this aspect of the story is going to go.

Despite what the previews might lead you to believe, the story is fully anchored by Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital. And there are some great performances from each of them to match. Director Philippe Falardeau (responsible for Monsier Lazhar, one of 2011's best films) made sure to select Sudanese actors who've had some of the same experiences in real life. Reese Witherspoon's character actually isn't in the film all that much, and her star power is almost an afterthought (even though she's still solid in this role). Margaret Nagle (whose latest writing credits are a pair of Boardwalk Empire episodes) turns in a serviceable script with some light humor.

The Good Lie is very predictable for the most part, it's a little on the glossier side, and some things are overly simplified, but it's still pretty impossible not to be moved.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

[Review] The Homesman

Tommy Lee Jones directs and acts in The Homesman, an at times subversive Western tale set in 1850s Nebraska. Along with Jones, the film has a significant cast: Hilary Swank, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Todd from Breaking Bad. It's an uneven excursion that provokes indifference, while its merits show signs that there's an excellent film in there somewhere.

Right away, you'll notice the gorgeous frontier shots, and the pretty string-driven score. But it swiftly
delves into starkness with some horrific scenes that display the frailty of human life in the West. Let's just say it's a little different from Seth MacFarlane's slapstick One Million Ways to Die in the West.

Mary (Swank) is a lone woman living in a tiny pioneer village. During a town meeting, a preacher (Lithgow) presents the task of transporting three sick women back across the country so they can be with their families. Much to everyone's surprise, Mary assertively volunteers to take them. Shortly after she sets out in a trade wagon, she happens upon George (Jones), and he pledges his service when Mary saves his life.

"Your journey will be long, difficult, and dangerous," the preacher says as his last words to Mary. And he's right. But along with the riveting moments of this journey is a lot of dullness and head-scratching. There's a solid, if bizarre first two thirds and then it falters to its end after a certain turning point. Swank and Jones give top-notch performances (would you expect anything else?), and there's an interesting dynamic between the two, but I hate to say it--the film falls of the wagon.

At one point, a young girl (Steinfeld) tells George, "You're a strange man." And he responds with, "I expect I am." That pretty much sums it up.


Monday, December 1, 2014

[Review] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I

The unjust madness of The Hunger Games continues in Mockingjay, the first installment of an obligatory two-part finale. And a revolution is brewing.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens during an uprising. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore (who is having a strong year between Maps To The Stars and Still Alice), and Jeffrey Wright (coming of his great performance in Boardwalk Empire) deliver the details about the destructed country. Katniss' home has been wiped away, but the good news is that a couple of the house pets survived. Amidst the unrest, disorder, and impending civil war, Katniss decides to lead the 9 districts in order to overthrow the capitol and free the hostages, which include Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

While its predecessors were undeniably hostile and bleak, Mockingjay is a considerably darker outing to many extents, even though there might be changes for the better at work. The weapons are bigger, the body count is higher, the land is decrepit, and the actual color palette drabber. Also, it's almost uncanny how a lot of the undertones serve as incredibly timely mirrors of real-world events. 

I haven't read the books, so I can't comment on comparisons, but from a cinematic standpoint, there is a lot of preparation going on here. Nearly 50 minutes go by before there's a leap into action. None of the early stuff is painstaking to watch or anything, but it can't help but feel like filler, especially when the build isn't quite as momentous as you'd want it to be. There's a time when you start to wonder if this will just be one gigantic setup for the next film, but things do pick up and the story brings about some riveting sequences, only to lapse into anti-climactic territory.

The obvious problem with Mockingjay is that it doesn't seem like a whole--because it isn't a whole. The film is an intense sufferer from the ill-fate of being split into two. Diehards might be okay with this, and the franchise is going to make a lot of money, but I personally have no desire to sit through this again. I'm guessing the second half will be more eventful and cathartic, but it also could have lingering effects from being split into two. We'll have to wait another year and two hours to find out.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

[Review] Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo give three seriously gripping performances in Bennett Miller's bleak and brutish, true crime story Foxcatcher.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) is the younger brother of Dave Schultz (Ruffalo), and they're both Olympic gold metal wrestlers. There seems to be a bit of a rivalry between them, but this aspect is only skimmed. In a seemingly random manner, Mark receives an invitation to meet John DuPont (Carell), an incredibly wealthy man from a long lineage of power. Oh yeah, and he's crazy. He eventually becomes Mark's mentor & coach, with ambitions to make him "do great things."

The slow-burning tale unfolds with a harsh quietness, along with underlying, boiling tensions. Whether or not you know the conclusion, you get a sense of doom as the end approaches. All three actors find themselves in atypical roles, and they fully disappear into them. Channing Tatum is solid throughout, brooding and misguided. Let's just say it's a much different role from the hilarious Jenko in 22 Jump Street. Mark Ruffalo escapes his frequent 'deadbeat goofball' persona and is a well put-together family man. Steve Carell buries his comic roots and turns in the first real dark and shocking performance of his career, and he does it convincingly well.

But even considering the strong performances, the problem with Foxcatcher is that the film is so cold, distant, and monotonous that it leaves an underwhelming taste in your mouth. It would've been more interesting if the acting had been utilized in different ways in order to create some more memorable scenes, rather than all of the silent scowling.

There's some touches on themes of misplaced patriotism and when the American Dream is taken to the wrong extremes. There's power struggles and advantage-taking, but these ideas are never fully explored, and neither is DuPont's deranged mind. But maybe that's part of the point--it's just a strange and horrific story with mysteries that can't be interpreted. It just leaves you numb.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

[Review] The Theory of Everything

Based on Jane Hawking's memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, this biopic details Jane's marriage with renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

Jane (Felicity Jones) and Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) meet at an Cambridge campus party as the stars align. A relationship quickly develops, while Hawking impresses his professors with his theories and demonstrates his obsession with time and space. One day, he takes a nasty fall and hits his head directly on the concrete in a scene that's as uncomfortable to listen to as it is to see. He's then diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and his motor skills begin to deteriorate. Jane stays by his side, and what follows is a moving testament of will and perseverance on both parts, even in the face of scientific probability.

Science obviously plays a part in the film and attaches to some of the themes, but the script isn't bogged down with brainy exposition and lectures (for the most part). At the central base, is more of a concentration on Jane and Stephen's tumultuous relationship. The poignant story is lifted by the powerful musical score and picturesque cinematography. And there's also some gentle humor to round things out.

The performances here are spectacular with two true leads, and they're certain to join the Oscar race. Eddie Redmayne is nuanced and transformative in a turn that pretty much reaches perfection, if you can call it that. Most of it is through subtle gestures, ticks and facial movements. There comes a moment where it actually seems like Stephen Hawking is in his own biopic. Felicity Jones illuminates from the beginning, and is equally impressive in different ways as she wields the emotional heft.

The Theory of Everything is a biopic of prestige. There's a succinct flow and the film doesn't suffer from the common pitfalls that make a lot of other biopics forgettable. This isn't a one dimensional experience, and it isn't strictly a vehicle for performances--it's driven by everything.


Monday, November 24, 2014

[Review] Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights, Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball), is a story about a singer's turbulent bout with stardom. The film is savvy and observant enough to elevate it above Lifetime cheese.

Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a Ciara-like R&B star, topping the Billboard charts, covering every magazine, and dating a popular rapper (played by actual rapper Machine Gun Kelly in what might be the worst performance of the year). Luckily, he doesn't have enough screen time to ruin things. Big Sean also makes an appearance, if you were wondering.

Anyway, it becomes clear that Noni is projecting an image she doesn't want to project and is caught in a lifestyle that she doesn't want part of. From her controlling mother manager (Minnie Driver), to her label execs--everyone around her manipulates and fabricates her public existence. After a concert, she attempts to jump out of her hotel window, and Kaz (Nate Parker), a security guard, witnesses the situation and prevents her from going. A complicated relationship begins between the two as they both face new conundrums.

Beyond the Lights delves into the darker and more shameful side of the entertainment industry in a very contemporary fashion, demonstrating the multitude of pressures one might face in the business, especially a woman. Mbatha-Raw, in a very different yet thematically similar role to this year's Belle, gives a fantastic performance. And Parker isn't too shabby either. Unfortunately, the film does get repetitive (and slow) along the way and loses its drama as it runs through the usual romance tropes, bottoming out before it reaches the end.


Friday, November 21, 2014

[Review] Dumb and Dumber To

1994's charmingly ridiculous Dumb and Dumber made the most of its schtick, producing buttloads of quotables and irresistible gags that can still be heard being referenced today. But the 20-years-later sequel, Dumb and Dumber To doesn't fare too well at all. This doesn't mean that this sequel was doomed from the beginning, but the overall execution comes up lame and fails to recapture the best of the first one or expand on any of it.

After Lloyd (Jim Carrey) emerges from his fake coma, he and Harry (Jeff Daniels) reignite their friendship. Early on, Harry reveals that he needs a new kidney, and of course, Lloyd doesn't take the hint. However, Harry finds out that he has a grown daughter somewhere out there, so the two set out on another cross-country road trip to find her.  

Dumb and Dumber To has all lowbrow antics you'd come to expect, but it's all done to dreadfully unsuccessful degrees. The script is super weak, and the jokes land with thuds... Or more like little puffs. Just like the predecessor, the story thrives on Harold and Lloyd's ignorance, but the first one approached this aspect in a more playful and consistent manner. The humor sprouted with organic spunk, and no matter how absurd things got, it was easy to hand yourself over to it.

This time around, there's a lot of reaching, and the humor is significantly more crude and loathsome. Some of it is flat out creepy (in the scuzzy sort of way). The film isn't even on par with contemporary "dumb" comedies like Dinner For Schmucks and Due Date. And even though fart jokes are generally an easy way out, they're usually effective. However, Dumb and Dumber To somehow manages to render its scenes of flatulence as unfunny, which might just be the biggest crime of all.

This sequel is a barely redeemable retread--a last resort curiosity rental if Blockbuster still existed. Carrey and Daniels are still dedicated to their roles, but this film can't help but feel like a complete waste of time. You probably won't be quoting any of this one, and you'll most likely want to flush your ticket stub down the toilet (actually, don't do that). When it comes to Dumb and Dumber, all you really need is wun.


Monday, November 17, 2014

[Review] The Guest

After delivering the great You're Next, a fresh angle on traditional slasher/home invasion horror, Director Adam Wingard brings on The Guest, another clever and enthralling genre hybrid piece.

Laura (Sheila Kelley) is a mother mourning the loss of her son, Caleb, who was killed in Afghanistan. Within the first two minutes of the film, there's a knock on the door. The guy is David (Dan Stevens), a recently discharged comrade of Caleb's who promised to deliver a message. Laura invites him to stay as a guest, but there's definitely something wayward and mysterious about him. He gets acquainted with the other family members and begins helping them with various "problems." Given the film's thrive on unpredictability, I'm just going to leave it at that. But I will say: Shit gets insane.

The Guest opens with some '70s and '80s horror odes--The Exorcist font, the jack-o-lanterns, and the John Carpenter-esque camerawork and music cues. But this isn't a straight on horror film, per se. Instead, it's more like a violent suspense thriller operating within horror aesthetics. It's as if Drive got into a car crash with Halloween. Even considering all of its mixings, the film is expertly cohesive in tone, rendering a generally dark and serious situation that turns out to be a whole lot of fun to watch.

Dan Stevens is extremely charismatic as this tough, ruthless, and deceptively polite character. The actor has all of the makings of a multidimensional star. The script is tight and nicely paced, building to an explosive climax with a wild twist. There's a lot packed into 90 minutes, but it never feels overcrowded, and none of it overstays its welcome. Although, the family might disagree.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

[Review] Interstellar

After closing out his Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan returns with Interstellar, a visually astonishing and narratively challenged space epic. But like with any space mission and film of this sort, it's difficult to pull off such an ambitious task without a few clunks.

In an introduction and setup that somehow feels prolonged and rushed at the same time, we learn that Planet Earth is on its last leg, and humans are on the verge of extinction. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former astronaut that lives on a dust storm ravaged farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow), daughter Murph (MacKenzie Foy, who is great), and son (Timothy Chamalet). One night, Cooper and Murph seek out some coordinates that turn out to be a hidden NASA base, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Kane).

In a motherload of exposition (some needed, and some not), Professor Brand has devised a plan for a group of astronauts to go through a wormhole in order to enter another galaxy and explore a sustainable planet, thus saving the human species. But this quest is full of dilemmas and Plan As and Bs that might not work. It also contains the time conundrum and theory of relativity. Cooper is asked to leave his family behind and helm the spaceship, and there's the possibility that he may never come back, or if he does, it could be decades later. He obliges, and is joined by Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), a couple of other crew members, and a highly intelligent robot of comic relief.

Once we have lift off, we're immersed into an incredibly visceral experience and visual marvel, especially when witnessed in 70mm IMAX platform. Cooper goes from driving through a cornfield, to flying through outer space, to spinning through an extraordinary wormhole. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an obvious influence here. The surreal shots of spacecraft floating through the galaxy astound, and views of Earth and other planets take your breath away. A highlight of the film is a towering tidal wave that actually causes you to tilt your head up as it expands the enormous screen. There is a great sense of realism within the sets. As demonstrated in the film's many promotional featurettes, the crafts are very physical. Of course, there is still a lot of computer work here (duh), but it doesn't look like it. And the sound design is as good as it gets, to the point where it takes on textural qualities.

A lot of Nolan's past work has involved savvy but cold (and sometimes flat) characters populating complex worlds. But in Interstellar, there are significantly grounded and hearty characters populating the more straightforward narrative. Yes, even with all the astrophysics, other dimensions, and time-warping, the actual narrative is somewhat linear and partially circular (or is it a sphere?), compared to the puzzling boxes in Inception. The story is still bloated in nature, and there isn't time to develop all of the characters, but they at least feel more soulful. The powers of love and family are brought into the equation, which gives the film its emotional pull. It seems like every other scene includes someone blubbering like a mess. Seriously, there are enough tears in this thing to fill an extraterrestrial ocean, and it's all ramped up by Hans Zimmer's grandiloquent musical score.

I'm not saying that there aren't clashes with confusion, though. This is still a very complicated concept. There are a few head-scratching scenes that are probably too spoilerish to mention, and there are moments where you'll be trying to sort out and justify some of the directions and time zones. The ideas twists, and payoffs are present, but they don't entirely resonate.

Interstellar, for me, falls into that category of films that I greatly admire but don't *love*. For such an extravaganza, it leaves more questions than satisfaction. I guess that's fitting for a topic that's often unclear and speculative. Still, I wonder how much of this story was actually left up in the air, shoved into a black hole, or just over my head. It's a beautiful and dangerous thing to get lost in, though.


Monday, November 10, 2014

[Review] Big Hero 6

Here comes Disney's animated follow-up to the lingering Frozen hype. And it looks like they have a new franchise on their hands. Big Hero 6 works as an entertaining kid-friendly adventure, as well as a surperhero team origin story. I mean, it is inspired by a Marvel property of the same name.

Deep in the city of "San Fransokyo", Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a 13-year-old genius living with his big brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) under the care of their spunky aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). Hiro spends his time hustling in the underground world of battle bot wars, but his brother pushes him toward putting his brain to better use at a local hi-tech university (or "The Nerd School" as they call it), where he's been developing a squishy and huggable A.I. project called Baymax.

Hiro is accepted to the university after presenting his nifty and groundbreaking invention of "microbots" (a shape-shifting unit of smart parts that correspond with brain waves). Everything is going great until a fire tragically disrupts the campus, and Hiro discovers that a masked villain has stolen his idea and is using it for destructive means. This is where Baymax emerges, as Hiro upgrades him with Iron Man-like armor and karate skills (but he's still a softy at-heart), and they team with a group of Hiro's classmates in order to take down the mysterious villain.

Amidst its fairly conventional story, one commendable aspect is that the villain is more of a complicated figure, rather than the purely one-dimensionally evil entity in the equation. The team of heroes are on a mission that is less "WE NEED TO DESTROY HIM!" and more "Let's reconcile with him." I'm also leaving a significant spoiler out, even though the event happens near the beginning, but I'll just say that Baymax possesses meaning for Hiro that is bigger than any piece of technology. A lot of the heart in the film comes from this thread and it's sure to make some people well up a bit.

But there's plenty of humor and goofy characters to balance things out. It's funny just to see Baymax waddle around as his material squeaks, and there's a running joke of how seriously the bot takes the gesture of a "fist bump". The interaction between Hiro and Baymax is fun, especially a scene where Baymax's battery runs low and his speech mimics a drunk person (that one might go over some kids' heads). It's all extremely reminiscent of The Iron Giant and 2011's under-the-radar Robert & Frank. It even shares very similar story beats. (Seriously though, go check out Robot & Frank, as it explores some of these same ideas in a way that is just as moving.)

Big Hero 6 isn't as fresh and inventive as it wants to be, but despite its derivative elements, it's still a wonderfully smooth animated feature. And with inevitable sequels on the way, these characters are going to upload a lot of joy for years to come.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

[Review] Listen Up Philip

Indie film has often subverted the notion that you need a likable lead character. But the majority of the time, even the most flawed leads still have some significant redeeming qualities and they usually take a path of transformation. In Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip, the character gets even worse as the film progresses, and you more-so feel bad for all the people around him. Jason Schwartzman is at the neurotic center of this intriguing and well-scripted dramedy of a darker shade.

Philip Friedman (Schwartzman) is an insufferable but talented young author living in New York. In the film's very first scene, we get a good (or bad) impression of him. He harshly laments someone for being late, reveals how selfish and entitled he is, brags about himself, and reigns down condescension. And that's just within 30 seconds. He comes home in bad moods to his current girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), whom he frequently cheats on. Eventually, he's invited by one of his idols, an older author (played by Jonathan Pryce) for a mentorship. The story revolves around this thread, Philip's relationships, and his own internal anxieties.

Even though we can't stand the guy, he keeps our attention, particularly because Jason Schwartzman plays the character so well, and it's interesting to observe how the other more tolerable characters awkwardly interact with Philip. Sometimes you squirm with uncomfortable enjoyment watching the situations from scene-to-scene, simply because you're glad you're not in the other characters' shoes.

All narrative items considered, along with the aesthetics of the 1970s lens, grainy film, retro title font, apathetic horns and sparse piano keys, it's impossible not to recall Woody Allen's early work. The omniscient narrator (smooth-talking Eric Bogosian) enhances the story by its literary qualities and deeper insights. The film does drag a bit in the midsection and begins to wear over the course of the 110-minute runtime. The problem isn't the runtime itself, but it's the "blah" that fills the blank space. It drifts into some mundane scenes and loses the strength of its early beginnings.

But overall, Listen Up Philip raises a thought-provoking conundrum about the relationship between egotism, asshole-ism, and artistic success. It breathes some truth into the idea that you might not want to meet your favorite author. 


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

[Review] Ouija

Ouija is the epitome of the disposable lower-tier horror flick, except even when you burn them, these things just keep coming back.

Debbie (Shelley Hennig) experiments with a Oujia board that she and her best friend, Laine (Olivia Cooke) have some sort of history with. Debbie abruptly commits suicide and Laine decides to find out once and for all what's up with this thin piece of wood with letters and numbers on it. She gathers a group of friends to play with the Ouija board in order to communicate with her dead friend.

Things get weird, but here it's humdrum in the horror world. The film is packed with typical bangs and false alarms, and the jump scares don't even do their job. The overbearing music is so constantly cued that it ends up rendering no effect at all. The acting is Lifetime-y and the characters are so flat that you almost forget which one is which. It's like a bunch of Sims characters just sitting in a room and repeating bad dialogue--awfully expository dialogue, at that. There's one point where some dude walks through a nearly pitch black room and says "All the lights are out." No shit, Sherlock.

The uninspired story and stock visuals all move slowly without any major build, but things sure do get ridiculous and laughable fast. All the flaws and cornball levels are so high that it's difficult to buy into any of it, and you can't even just relinquish all of your doubts and immerse yourself.

Ouija is a modern horror film running through the motions. And it's more like Ouija Bored.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

[Review] The Babadook

This awesomely titled Australian horror film, The Babadook, has finally made its way to a bigger release in the United States, and it might just be a new classic.

Directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook revolves around a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a world-weary and distressed hospital worker, coping with the loss of her husband and father of her 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel exhibits behavioral problems in school and eventually gets kicked out, but "He just needs some understanding," Amelia stresses. One night before bed, she reads Samuel a scary pop-up children's book called "Mister Babadook" that turns out to be more graphic than they were both expecting. Samuel is frightened of The Babadook, a cloaked boogeyman-like phantom, and it becomes a paranoid obsession of his. Sam's disturbed-ness escalates and strange occurrences take place around their house, and Amelia isn't sure whether it's Samuel's doings, her medication, a stalker, or... The Babadook.

Without going full arthouse, The Babadook is one of the more visually arresting horror films in recent memory, from its falling Suspiria-like opening sequence, to its paperback display showcases. The dusted visuals, interesting slideshow-esque shots, and shadowy blueish and grey hues create a distinct mood. There are some cool, diegetic odes to early (and I mean EARLY) horror films where the Babadook is actually transplanted into the images. The sound design is top-notch; every creek, step, and door handle twist is amplified in the mostly music-less backgrounds. And the insanely creepy croak of The Babadook's voice is unforgettable. Noah Wiseman is perfectly cast, and Essie Davis' performance is so committed that--in a perfect world--she'd be getting Oscar recognition.

Aside from the solid technical craft, it's the primal story at the center that really captures you. The characters are well-developed and the narrative is chilling in tone. It taps into those childlike fears (being afraid of the dark, checking under beds, and opening closet doors...), as well as parental worries. It skillfully mixes horror with poignancy and grief in a way that's reminiscent of other 21st century supernatural tales in the same realm, like The Orphanage and Mama. It's all a steady, slow-burning build of dread and the prolonged climactic sequence hits hard. This sequence also contains one of the greatest and most emotional yelling lines on film.

The film doesn't use jump scares for jolts. While those types of scares do have their place and were used to effective degrees in recents like Sinister and The Conjuring, The Babadook presents the different brand of horror in which there's more of a concentration on what lurks beneath the darkness. This choice in tactic definitely doesn't make the fright any less thrilling. There are some excellently constructed scenes that make just staring at a night time ceiling horrifying. There's significant meaning behind every action and shadow movement.

The Babadook is allegorical, representing a deeper terror that is more grounded in reality than we'd like it to be. It's a nightmare that might not ever leave, and you can only do your best to keep it at bay.


Monday, November 3, 2014

[Review] Nightcrawler

"If it bleeds, it leads."

Jake Gyllenhaal goes full-on sociopath in Nightcrawler, a neo-noir thriller and sleek satire on journalism ethics. There aren't really as many surprises as anticipated here, and the story is generally straightforward. But it's still riveting--all driven by Gyllenhaal's relentlessly focused performance.

Lou (Gyllenhaal) is a starving, bug-eyed loner in LA. His only source of income is selling stolen scrap metal and bicycles. One night, he happens upon a crime scene and witnesses a freelance cameraman (Bill Paxton) capturing the aftermath. It appears Lou has discovered his new career path. Eventually, he invests in a police scanner and a camcorder and begins videotaping various crimes and accidents around the city. After selling some grisly footage to a local news station director (played greatly by Rene Russo), he becomes addicted to the job and gets really frickin' good at it. Pretty soon it comes to the point where he's literally and figuratively crossing the 'DO NOT CROSS' lines.

Nightcrawler explores the strange and thought-provoking idea of making a living off of other people's violent and deadly mishaps. But Lou takes it to the next level, as he desperately begins hoping for blood. He hovers around the fresh dead bodies like a hyena, clamoring for the perfect shot. The film also presents a depiction of how the news media craves a drastic story. The narrative exaggerates this concept to comical measures, but at the same time, it isn't all that far off--especially when you think about how people watch the TV show "Cops" and that there are entire cable networks dedicated to real-life murder investigations. None of this is revelatory, but it doesn't really have to be.

Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is something else. He's detached and unsympathetic. Strung-out and skeleton-like. He delivers such a chilling and creepy deadpan vibe through his speech and mannerisms that you'll be recalling Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Instead of bringing humanity to the character, he makes the character as least humane as possible. Gyllenhaal is on quite the roll.

Fittingly, almost the entirety of Nightcrawler takes place at night. Lou's bright red Dodge Charger stands out in the darkness as he cruises through bright red stoplights and gets bright red blood on his shirt sleeves. There are things in this film that probably shouldn't be zoomed in on, and there are lights flashed where they probably shouldn't be. Or should they?


Friday, October 31, 2014

[Review] The Book of Life

Director Jorge R. Gutierrez and producer Guillermo Del Toro present The Book of Life, a Dia de los Muertos (Day of The Dead) celebration themed animated feature. It's a visual treat with a sort of basic story, but it still manages to impress.

'The Book of Life' is essentially a book of stories, involving various realms and rulers, including the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. This story revolves around Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna), a hopeless romantic, as he competes with a braggadocious bonehead named Joaquin (Channing Tatum), in order to win the heart of Maria (Zoe Saldana), a local strong-willed dream girl.

Things take a significantly more interesting turn at the midpoint when Manolo is forced to journey into the Land of the Remembered, as well as the Land of the Forgotten. The story finally gains some leverage and the visuals ramp up with glowing lights and kinetic energy, almost like the Nightmare Before Christmas with a Mexican culture aesthetic and an infinitely more vibrant color palette. It also introduces a new godlike entity (played by Ice Cube) who injects some lively comedy into the otherwise flat (but not off-putting) humor.

Along with its eye-popping settings, and the awesomely ornate and elaborately decorated character designs, the film flaunts a wondrous horn-driven score, giving the experience an exuberant grandness. There are a number of musical interludes of Manolo plucking away on his acoustic guitar, doing renditions of popular songs from Radiohead's "Creep" to Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love". The story delves into themes about dealing with death and the loss of loved ones, as well as bucking family expectations and being yourself. It even somewhat subverts some of the patriarchal trappings the premise initially suggests. And there's a nice and meaningful climax about heroism and selflessness.

The Book of Life ranks a bit below some of the stronger animated films of 2014 like How To Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie, but it still has enough spice and festivities to render it great in its own realm.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

[Review] V/H/S: Viral

The V/H/S anthology series has taken found footage horror to some intriguing levels. The first installment was a hit-and-miss outing that showed some potential. The second one polished things up with more developed stories and peaked at the well-crafted "Safe Haven" chapter, an awesomely creepy and chaotic long-short about a crew of documentarians that investigate a disturbing cult. Unfortunately, V/H/S: Viral is only about 1/3 successful, and as a whole it doesn't improve at all on the predecessors.

This time, the wrap-around story involves a police chase, and it's frankly annoying filler. The jerky, handheld camera and static proves to be getting old. "Dante the Great", the first main story, is about a magician that goes crazy with some witchcraft while making a deal with a malevolent spirit of some sort, and his magic becomes real. This probably sounds cooler than it actually is, as the chapter comes up lame on all parts. You figure it's more of a warm-up. Things get better, but not much.

Next up is "Parallel Monsters", a story about a guy who uses a futuristic machine to transport himself into an alternate dimension. It starts out like a rudimentary Twilight Zone episode, but quickly launches into some scuzzy devil-worshiping and monstrous sex antics. It's semi-amusing, but the payoff isn't that great, and it comes off as a lower-tier version of "Safe Haven".

"Bonestorm" is the final segment. It revolves around a group of skateboarders with helmet cams. It wastes some time stalling, but it definitely amounts to the best chapter when a group of skeleton-like Day of the Dead beings invade the skate park and things get very gruesome. The beings look genuinely scary, and the story is the most entertaining. If you happen to single one segment out, make it "Bonestorm".

V/H/S: Viral is largely a disappointment and it renders itself inessential. Also, I know it's different for everyone, but I came down with a major case of vertigo/dizziness/nausea after viewing this film--not because of the gore, but because of the damned shaky camerawork. I'm officially declaring death to the queasy cam, especially when the content isn't even worth the struggle.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

[Review] Horns

Horns is a clumsy fantasy fable and a tonal crapshoot, starring Daniel Radcliffe as the film's horny main character.

Ignatius (Radcliffe) is a raging alcoholic, and he's the main suspect in the twisted murder case of his girlfriend Merrin (played by Juno Temple). But as far as we know, he's innocent. Either way, his life is shambles, and the entire town is after him like a witch hunt. Or more like a devil hunt. The supernatural aspect emerges when Ignatius literally begins growing horns on the top of his cranium. And suddenly, everyone he comes in contact with confesses their sins and secrets to him.

The film starts to take on a black comedy tone, but it also opens the doors for some off-putting absurdity. It's an awkward mixture of camp, gore, melodrama, tragedy, and sleaze. Sometimes hybrids can be fresh, but in this case it comes off as a jumbled mess. It's as if the filmmakers ran completely wild with this and no one questioned whether any of it was a good idea or not.

Despite its awkward fragments and unwanted detours, the story still holds interest, as we really want to know the truth. It's best when it's going full-dark in the latter half. There's a great soundtrack here, consisting of David Bowie, Pixies, and The Flaming Lips. It looks cool visually and captures an Eden-like fantasy world within reality settings. Radcliffe, doing his best American accent, is focused and intense, countering the narrative hodgepodge. Between Horns and this year's surprisingly charming rom-com What If, he seems to be doing a pretty decent job at getting us to stop referring to him as Harry Potter.

Horns is enthralling at its best, and loathsome at its worst. I just wish there was less bullcrap. 


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

[Review] St. Vincent

Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, star in this formulaic but likable dramedy. St. Vincent has some mixed results, but overall, there's enough good to make you glad you stayed.

Vincent (Murray) is a low-life curmudgeon. He's rude to everyone, he drinks 24/7, he's gambled all his money away, and he's impregnated a "lady of the night" named Daka (Naomi Watts). Maggie (McCarthy) is a struggling single mother in the midst of a divorce and a custody battle. She and her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Lieberher), move nextdoor to Vincent and they definitely start off on the wrong foot. Oliver is also entering a new school, and he immediately is bullied on the first day. After getting his his wallet and keys (and clothes) stolen, he's forced to knock on Vincent's door. Vincent grudgingly lets him chill out for a while in his unkempt house. And Maggie, having to work tons of overtime at her nurse job, eventually hires Vincent as a babysitter. Vincent takes the kid under his wing, and well, you probably know how this Scrooge story goes. In an amusing and encapsulating shot, Oliver looks at the sky while he's lying on the ground after getting beat down by some bullies, and Vincent's head eclipses the sun, radiating a saintly aura as he helps Oliver off the pavement.

There are two subplots and characters that I wish were done away with completely. Not only do they disrupt the tone, but they also take valuable time away from the three main stars. Naka is annoying, and actually spoils the one really good subplot, which involves Vincent's ritual of going to visit his wife who is suffering from Alzheimer's at an assisted living home. And at one point, a bookie, (played by Terrence Howard) goes after Vincent with a gun. We already get the impression that Vincent owes people money, and this moment isn't developed enough to justify being there. The time could've been much better spent on Oliver and Vincent's relationship, which would've made the film's ending more powerful. The extra space also would've given McCarthy more screentime. Granted, her frequent absence is part of the narrative point, but after seeing McCarthy play the same character for her past few films, it's extremely nice to see her in a more grounded and dramatic role like this, because she does it wonderfully.

Even in the face of the film's flaws and unevenness, Murray's presence always makes this watchable, exercising his comic timing, while slipping into serious mode with a flip switch. He just makes it looks so easy (and it probably is for him). St. Vincent doesn't really present anything that we haven't seen multiple times (there's even a somber montage while a song by The National plays, which I'm actually always okay with). And the climactic scene is one of those blatant checklist sentimental recipes, but the thing is, it'll still leave a lump in your throat.


Monday, October 27, 2014

[Review] Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a strange film that might scare a lot of people away. Ironically, it arrives in theaters just as the internet explodes with the leak of the new Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. Birdman is actually an anti-superhero movie... movie of sorts, but it's also so much more than that. It isn't the most accessible piece of work to hit the big screen, but it possesses an undeniable brilliance, and there are almost too many layers and genre-bendings to digest in one sitting.

Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor (the cameras make sure to shoot him the most unflattering of ways). He was once the star of a big superhero franchise (Birdman), and he's attempting to revive his career by directing and starring in a Broadway play. It's an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Carver's influence plays a significant role in the film itself. Not only does it open with one of his quotes, but there's also a lot of whiskey consumed, and the essence of his writing style fits into one of the thematic pockets--cryptic, yet expounding in meaning when you fill in the blanks. Zach Galifianakas plays the producer. Edward Norton enters the supporting cast as someone who is "only truthful when he's acting." Emma stone is Thomson's rebellious daughter, who just got out of rehab.

The film opens with an impressively long continuous take, but wait... it keeps going on and on, and then you realize it's actually the illusion of a long take that lasts for the entire movie. It's an interesting choice for a movie of hallucinations and delusions, surrealism and magical realism. Early on, the story feels a bit tedious, as if you're just watching play rehearsals, but eventually things start to resonate and an innate cleverness breaks through. You can never quite tell if the play is any good (actually, it probably isn't), but it's all the behind-the-scenes drama that makes for compelling viewing.

Birdman is a show-business satire, a commentary on the state of entertainment, and an exploitation of artistic creativity, as well as criticism. It's a comedy that's blacker than black. There are moments that will make you laugh while you question if you should be laughing. It's metaphysical and philosophical. It's both primitive and ingenious. It's bizarre and whimsical, yet hideously honest. At times it's ambiguous, and other times it's clear as the sky. There's an interlude where the narrative busts out into some big budget effects and superhero movie action, as if Alejandro González Iñárritu is saying, "I could do this if I wanted to, but I don't." But it's less pretentious and more playful.

A handful of the performances are surefire Oscar contenders. Keaton is incredible as the lead, demonstrating a sporadic mixture of great stage acting (and sometimes possibility intentional bad stage acting), as well as screen acting. It's a crazy, layered range of emotions as a complex character in crisis. It's encore-worthy. (He even looks like a bird when he squawks out.) Edward Norton is the best he's been in a while and he's almost too perfect for his role. Emma Stone is impressive and could very well land her first Oscar nomination. Let's just say that this role and performance is a far cry from The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

There were points in the film where I thought I wasn't going to like it, but by the end, Birdman won me over.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

[Review] White Bird in a Blizzard

Eva Green and Shaliene Woodley are mother and daughter in White Bird in A Blizzard, a weird and enigmatic mystery melodrama, set in the late '80s and early '90s of American suburbia.

Amidst its opening '80s indie-pop music and bright Autumn colors, the film initially feels like a teen coming-of-age tale when Kat Connors (Woodley), an experimental teenager searching for an identity steps off the school bus. But everything quickly delves into psychological arthouse territory, when Kat's gloomy mother, Eve (Green), randomly vanishes from the household one day. Kat's dazed and confused father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), isn't much help in the matter. All the characters project a cold dissonance in their mannerisms, and there are a number of surreal dream sequences involving Kat trudging through the snow in search for her missing mother.

The first act of the film gives off the impression that this could be a slog. The script is based on a book of the same name, and Kat's frequent voiceover in the storytelling creates an unwanted feeling of a novelistic approach with visuals. But that aspect eventually sheds, and a few revelations and unconventional affairs along the way hold enough intrigue to make us want to stick around until the end to find out where the heck Eve went. It's the type of odd film that grows on you as it progresses, and you don't have to wait too long for the payoff, because its runtime doesn't even reach 90 minutes.

White Bird in A Blizzard has its flaws and head-scratchers. Sometimes it's a little too offbeat and tonally awkward for its own good. It never quite resonates as much as you want it to, but it's still a unique film and a lingering experience that shouldn't be given up on.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

[Review] Jimi: All Is by My Side

In a year of too many music biopics, here comes one for Jimi Hendrix, starring André Benjamin (better known as André 3000, the enigmatic artist from rap group OutKast). Even though André gives a great performance, the overall product is a little underwhelming. And once again, it leaves you with the feeling that you'd probably be better off watching a documentary on the musician instead.

The timeline of the film spans the year before Hendrix broke into stardom, from the stints of him playing smokey nightclubs in front of 20 people, to packed theaters. His quirks and ideologies are on full display, and so is his unique and dazzling guitar-playing. We see his meetings with label heads and his endeavors with women. The narrative also delves into the drug and alcohol abuse and the unfortunate violence it led to. A good thing that All Is by My Side has going for it is that it's a lot rawer than the sensationalized gloss of, say, this year's James Brown biopic, Get On Up.

But one inherent problem with many music biopics is that they have a difficult time rounding up much conflict or stakes, and this film is the same way. Sure, there are some brief spats and moments of heaviness, but for the most part, the film is a path of vignettes. It just moves along from one incident to the next and never really gains any momentum, so it lacks decent payoff. The film has a really good look to it though, capturing a dense '60s vibe. There is some interesting editing and intersplicing of moon visuals and psychedelic filters, especially toward the beginning.

André intently portrays the electrifying rock star and legendary guitarist with swagger, style, and nuance. It's clear that André spent a lot of time and dedication in order to get all of the performance details down. He's the reason to keep your eyes glued to the screen.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

[Review] John Wick

"He isn't a fucking nobody. He's John Wick."

We all know that Hollywood has no shortage of action thrillers of the assassin variety. I won't run down the list, but an apt point of comparison is the very recent The Equalizer. But John Wick stands alone. It has its own distinct identity. The premise delivers as much as you'd want it to, and more. The film also lets you breathe, but at the same time, there isn't a moment wasted. And most importantly... It's personal.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just lost his wife. After the funeral process, he receives an adorable beagle puppy as one last gift from her. One day while he's gassing up his Mustang, he has a confrontation with some Russian hoods. Iosef, the loud one of the group, is played by Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy from "Game of Thrones"), and he's a little shit. Iosef gets angry when John Wick refuses to sell him the car, and we get the impression that he'll strike later. An early thing to notice about John Wick is its picturesque cinematography. An overhead shot of a rainy funeral creates a cluster of pure black. John Wick speeding around in his Mustang on a rain-glistened blacktop while the dawning sun and early morning fog casts a yellowish hue.

John Wick's tranquil, white-on-white mansion is interrupted when Iosef and his crew break in, beat him up, steal his car, and kill his dog. It's a sad scene that's difficult to watch, and in turn, we immediately want these dudes to get decapitated. Iosef's father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), the mob boss, catches wind of what his son has done and whom he has done it to. Viggo is pissed, and he informs everyone about John Wick's Chuck Norris-like backstory. "He isn't the Boogeyman. He's the guy you send to kill the boogeyman..." he says. Meanwhile, John Wick is out for revenge, and he hasn't even bothered to change his blood-stained t-shirt yet.

The film has a serious set-up, but eventually its bombast musical score and soundtrack blast in, and a certain tone of hilarity, along with some great lines of dialogue make this a downright fun time. John Wick annihilates everyone that comes in his way, and the brilliantly staged action scenes pack more power than the usual stuff. They're personal. It also successfully subverts a major genre rule. The story's enemies don't necessarily hold the power here. They're genuinely scared of John Wick and they're not afraid to admit it. Even the police refrain from asking questions when they show up at John Wick's house one night and see a couple of dead bodies in the foyer. That isn't to say that John Wick doesn't face a share of danger, but we never really doubt his skills.

There are some solid supporting roles. Willem Dafoe plays a crafty sniper. John Leguizamo is only in the film for a couple of minutes, but he makes good use of them. Adrianne Palicki enters the scene as a badass hired assassin. A duo of alumni from "The Wire" (Lance Reddick and Clarke Peters) have some comic relief spots. Michael Nyqvist is a standout as the mob leader, playing it straight-faced while also conveying a major sense of humor. Keanu Reeves is monotone and mostly expressionless, but it works for this character. John Wick's physical actions do all the speaking.

There are probably moments in the film when you'll be thinking, how did he get up from that? But come on... He's John Wick.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

[Review] Lilting

Lilting, the sluggish debut feature of writer/director Hong Khao, explores grief in the face of language barriers and differences in ideals--to a painfully underwhelming extent. It gives off the impression that it would work better on paper, literally, as a 10-12 page short story.

Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) lives in an assisted-living home, and she's a mother mourning the loss of her son, Kai. Richard (Ben Winshaw) is Kai's tearful former boyfriend. He attempts to reach out to Junn in order to ensure her well-being, as well as bond through the coping of their loss, but Junn despises him and refuses any insight that he has to offer. The film revolves around the two coming to terms with each other, and it also examines their exclusive relationships with Kai through a series of bland flashbacks.

The intimate plot holds just a few characters and mostly takes place within a couple of rooms. Pei-Pei Cheng greatly plays her complex role as the story's lead anchor, especially through telling facial expressions. Everyone else here is a complete and utter bore.

Lilting is a character study with some noble intentions and inherently interesting conflicts, but its monochromatic mood and stifling pace makes this a major drag (even considering that its run-time is only 80 minutes), to the point where you start thinking that the title should be called Wilting.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

[Review] Housebound

Housebound is the impressive debut from New Zealand director, Gerard Johnstone. It blends straightforward horror with comedic horror, and it does a lot of things very well in both aspects.

Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) is a smart, but troubled 20-something that is ordered to go on 8 months of house arrest, due to problems with substance abuse and theft. The twist is that she has to complete the sentence under the roof of her estranged mother's home. Oh yeah, and the house has a dark history and is apparently haunted. Kylie is a skeptic, but she witnesses some creepy happenings early on during her stay. With some help from a neighbor, they set up a bunch of paranormal research equipment in order to get to the bottom of it.

The interior is steeped in shadows and the eerie music rings in at every turn. The film employs the usual ghost story conventions and utilizes effective scare tactics. It really likes to use the on-off-on-off lighting strategy as entities lurk into the frame. Even though the film provokes scares and jumps, there's also a dry and deadpan cleverness to it. It doesn't take itself overly serious either. There's a demonic teddy bear and a mysterious wildling running around the house that seems to be just as afraid as everyone else.

Events escalate to the point of being crazily over-the-top, but it isn't a turn-off in this case. Some supernatural and home intruder horror films that take themselves seriously can end up being eye-rolling or unintentionally hilarious at points, but Housebound dwells in a setting and tone that makes room for both deliberate seriousness and deliberate humor, and it strikes the perfect balance. When a battery-operated toy suddenly breaks the tension of a quiet scene by yelping, "Well hello there, you can record a message by pressing the green button on my fanny pack!" it's hilarious.

The duration probably could've been shaved down about 15-20 minutes, but it isn't anything painful. And while this film isn't quite as entertaining and inventive as other recent horror comedies of the type (like Cabin in the Woods or You're Next), it's still worth a watch.

In a year where quality horror films have mostly been lacking so far, Housebound is a great VOD choice to cue up in a dark room from the comfort (or discomfort) of your own home.


Monday, October 20, 2014

[Review] Fury

"Fury" seems like quite the undistinguished and forgettable title for a big, Oscar season World War II film starring Brad Pitt, but when you see that word painted across the main gun of the tank in which this close-knit group of soldiers spend the majority of their time in while fighting to the brink of death, it begins to make more sense.

It's the year 1945 in Nazi-occupied Germany. The film opens in an obliterated battlefield, where an entire American platoon has been wiped out except for Sgt. Don Collier (Pitt), a tank commander, along with the three remaining members of his crew. It goes without saying that we're not in for a feel-good movie.

Don is hard-nosed and ruthless. His face is worn and his eyes have seen better days. There's an underlying sense of despair within him when he's not in front of his men. Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) is the mustached, spiritual and religious member of the crew. Grady (Jon Bernthal) is more of the archetypal unhinged tough guy, and anyone who has seen "The Walking Dead" knows that Bernthal is incredibly good at that. Trini's (Michael Pena) character is a little flat and appears to be there for the sake of diversity. When the group returns to their base, a new young, baby-faced scared mouse kid enters the picture. Norman (Logan Lerman) is just a typist and he isn't trained for battle. The film never fully justifies why he, out of all people, is suddenly forced to take part in steering a tank, but his character is a significant piece within dynamics of the group and it adds an emotional pull. From here on out, it's them doing what their trained to do: kill Germans.

Within the stark settings and drab colors, Fury depicts the horrors of war as hell on earth, physically and mentally. Hills of dead bodies are pushed around like they're garbage, people get burned alive, chunks of blown off faces stick to the tank's control panel, soldiers are put in the position to kill children. "Wait 'til you see what men can do," Grady says. The brutal graphics are shown with immense, disheartening detail.

There's no doubt about the intensity and dread the film propels. Sometimes it's so severe that it might put knots in your stomach. The camerawork, often functioning from the close viewpoints of the characters, immerses you into the action as bullets fly and bombs explode. In an odd break from the action, the narrative's pile-driving momentum is halted in the midsection during a prolonged scene when Don and Norman enter the home of two German women and make them cook breakfast. It's a scene that unfolds in a Tarantino-like manner. It feels a bit awkwardly placed, but at the same time, it introduces a different sort of tension and conflict.

Philosophical dialogue is delivered throughout the script, and the acting from everyone involved is stellar. Even Shia LaBeouf, who is a tad unpredictable and a bit difficult to take serious in films nowadays, turns in an impressive performance. And of course, Brad Pitt accelerates as the lead. It has kind of come to the point where we simply expect Pitt to be great, no matter what role he's in, and he definitely doesn't let down here.

Even though it has a tough duty in living up to WWII films of the past, Fury still really sticks with you, and the final frame is one hell of a shot.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

[Review] Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold is just one of those bland, lower tier fantasy fare outings that you'd expect to see in January if it weren't for a Halloween push. The good news is that it's never quite cringe-worthy, so that puts it ahead of I, Frankenstein and The Legend of Hercules, but it's also completely forgettable.

Vlad (Luke Evans) is the ruler of Transylvania, and he's a family man at war with the Turkish army, lead by Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper). He's put in a predicament that involves either giving up 1,000 young soldiers (including his own son) or going into an un-winable battle. In order to cheat death, win the war, and save his people, Vlad makes a deal with a ghastly vampire (played by Charles Dance) in which Vlad will become an invincible, blood-thirsting vampire as well for three days. The catch is that he'll return to regular form only if he doesn't actually drink any blood during the spell.

Let's be real, this is kind of a dumb premise, but it does carry some decent conflict. However, the execution is so stale that it ends up being a seemingly lazy character co-opt and a revisionist origin story that is questionable at best. Everything is so shallow and uninspired. The dark and clustery battle sequences just run through the motions, and there's a couple of prolonged death scenes that the filmmakers apparently thought we'd care about. A lot of it is flat-out boring. The performances are dull, but the cast also doesn't have much to work with. It's the type of film where you'll see actors from other current and more regarded fantasy installments showing up (The Hobbit and Game of Thrones), and you might drift off and wish you were watching one of those instead.

You practically forget about Dracula Untold before the film is even over. It never really sparks any investment. There's nothing to sink your teeth into.