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.