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?