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Entries in Reviews (253)

Sunday
Nov232014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Michael C here with what I suppose is part one of my review of Mockingjay.

“I wish she were dead,” says Finnick Odair at the start of the third entry in the Hunger Games series. “I wish they were all dead and we were too,” he adds to include himself, Katniss, and all the tributes that remain in the clutches of the Capitol after the events of Catching Fire

If that seem like a dispiriting way to start an action blockbuster rest assured it perfectly establishes the tone of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, a grim, disjointed film that is short on thrills and long on misery. Francis Lawrence’s sequel progresses from torture to bombs dropped on hospitals to the wreckage of towns strewn with skulls, all of it scrubbed down to a bloodless PG-13. Our big reward for wading through this suffering is to see our beloved Katniss strangled within an inch of her life. 

I expect fans of the series will like it a lot...

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Monday
Nov172014

Review: Rosewater

Michael C. with your weekly new release review...

A key part of Jon Stewart’s appeal is that no matter how maddening the news is he doesn’t lapse into ironic detachment. His isn’t someone throwing up his hands in surrender, but the guy who can’t help but marvel at the variety of ways government finds to sabotage our best intentions and allow stupidity to win out over rationality. So it should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Stewart that Rosewater, his directorial debut, is marked by the same earnest intellectual curiosity.

As director and screenwriter Stewart brings a sly complexity to material that could have been one note or overwrought in other hands. His trademark wit is not absent from the film but it has been restrained and left to simmer under the surface as Maziar Bahari’s months long imprisonment and torture at the hands of Iranian government steadily edges into the realm of absurdity. “Why would a spy have his own TV show?” Bahari protests when his interrogator presents a Daily Show appearance during which he is jokingly referred to as a spy as evidence. It’s a moment of indisputable logic that gets him nowhere, oppressive regimes not being famous for their sense of humor.

Of course, Bahari’s arrest, torture, and solitary confinement for over 100 days was not simply the matter of a joke gone awry. [More...]

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Sunday
Nov092014

Review: Interstellar

Michael C here with your weekend review...

With its plot about humanity taking the next step of evolution into outer space, it was inevitable that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar would be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But despite surface similarities the comparison is a poor one. Nolan has never shown any inclination towards the kind of mind-expanding abstractions that constitute Kubrick’s version of the infinite. It is no coincidence that Interstellar’s plot centers around Jessica Chastain’s quest to complete an equation. Nolan movies demand answers. Even when his films appear to be ambiguous they pull back to reveal an underlying order. The mysteries of The Prestige are shown to be a complex web of interlocking secrets; the infamous spinning totem from Inception’s ending isn’t an enigma so much as the precise punchline to an elaborate riddle. Even the blazing anarchy of the Joker takes the form of moral conundrums with tidy binary choices.

So to complain that Nolan is no Kubrick is both accurate and something of a non-sequitor. Nolan is not going to stop being Nolan and whether that qualifies as a good thing will vary according to viewers’ willingness to ignore the persistent groaning sound of the plot buckling under the weight of ponderous exposition. Interstellar is no different than Nolan’s other films in this regard, but it’s also the same in that its peaks are so amazing they justify wading through all manner of shortcomings to reach them. Interstellar may be overstuffed and clunky and it crosses the line into silliness more than once, but every so often it will lay a fingertip or two on the sublime. How many films can make that claim? 

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Wednesday
Nov052014

The Way Big Hero Looks in the Moonlight

As you read this I am en route to L.A. to join Anne Marie & Margaret at the AFI this week so expect coverage of A Most Violent Year and The Gambler premieres, a sneak peek at Selma, a Sophia Loren tribute, and more. But before that all start, and as I fly over some of you, brief thoughts on...

THREE SCREENINGS

THE WAY HE LOOKS 
Opens November 7th in limited release
Glenn has already smiled upon this Brazilian coming-of-age film in our ongoing Oscar foreign film race coverage but I wanted to offer my own thumbs way up, too. Like all niche audiences, LGBT people are sometimes too forgiving of bad movies so long as they meet their particular niche needs. But you can love The Way He Looks without any of the guilt that sometimes accompanies pleasure because it's very good.

This affecting high school drama is a love triangle of sorts that plays, smartly, more like a friendship triangle... since all three of its leads are still feeling their way toward their own futures, figuring themselves out. That's particularly true of Leonardo, who is blind and painfully aware that that limits his options. He still dreams of moving out of his parents house and really wants to do a foreign exchange program. His two best friends are Gabriel, a new boy in town who immediately puts him at ease, since he's unphased though sometimes a bit confused about the blindness, and Giovana his best girlfriend since childhood who walks him home every day from school and is so protective that she's become entirely codependent. Giovana resents Gabriel's growing place in Leo's life and nobody ever understands quite what anybody else if feeling. They're all immediately bruised by each other but still walking tightly arm in arm which makes for a hugely sympathetic totally relatable tale of first loves, young friendships and heartbreaks. It's endearing and, like Big Hero 6 (discussed next) it admires the good natures of its characters and their capacity for kindness and love. I don't mind sounding Pollyanna about this: I love seeing basically decent loving people dramatized on film.  That seems to be out of fashion in film and television characters so it's a special treat now when you see it, like a unicorn. B+

BIG HERO 6
Opens November 7th
Daring the long long shadow of The Incredibles, one of the best animated films and one of the best superhero films of all time, this initially very charming movie is about a genius robotics nerd named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) whose older supremely good-natured brother Tadashi (voiced by Daniel Henney), also a tech wizard, convinces him to develop his skills at college instead of wasting them on robot fights. Take that Real Steel! Tadashi's best invention is that white inflatable marshmallow like A.I. you've seen in the trailers named Baymax. A fateful series of events, which I won't spoil though I'm betting the trailers I haven't watched already did, changes everything and suddenly Hiro is furiously reconfiguring Baymax with armor and jetpacks and taking him far from his original purpose as an inhome nurse. Hiro teams up with his new college friends (hence the plurality of the title) to fight off a supervillain in a kabuki mask. The second half of the movie is quite a deflation, sadly. You can feel the pandering for all demographics and senses of humor and like so many visual effects movies the climax is just a mess of OVERLONG NOISY ACTION SETPIECE without much character weight, steering this movie towards "fun but predictable/disposable action-comedy".

But, you know, the things it does well are awfully hard to shake. And boy does that initial brotherly bond stick in the heart. The movie is decidedly pro education (nice to see in a movie), the animation is beautiful, and it's nothing short of wonderful to see a blockbuster family movie led, unambiguously, by people of color. They even used Asian actors for the voices. Well done.  B


MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT
Coming to DVD/BluRay in December
I had remembered this getting relatively mild reviews, inspiring neither loving nor loathing, so it was a surprise to discover a quite emphatically bad movie dully staring back at me. I didn't buy one single moment of it from Emma Stone's strangely lackluster star turn, to Colin Firth's mannered fussiness to the various relationships and plot "twists". I amend: I didn't buy one single moment of it that didn't involve Eileen Atkins as "Aunt Vanessa" who is the film's sole bright light, totally charming and authentically aunt-like both emotionally involved and appropriately removed from whatever is ailing her incorrigible celebrity nephew's heart and soul. That's really too bad because the core idea of the movie is "fun" if you will and there's a whole slew of good actors standing around with nothing good to play with. What's more the real life magician its riffing on, an Englishman who was globally famous, not as himself but in yellowface as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo, is also richly fertile ground for a screenplay. It's easy to imagine a pretty great movie emerging from that historical figure and obviously several pretty great movies have emerged in the romantic comedy genre by pitting competing agendas against each other in the form of a man and a woman for whom falling in love is a gigantic inconvenience. But it doesn't remotely work, the romance especially (Firth & Stone have zero chemistry) and the smothering atmosphere is one of laziness... like no one is trying at all (particularly Stone & Allen) or like they're trying too hard (Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater) sensing the inconsequential piffle around them or like they're standing around wishing someone would ask them to try at all (Marcia Gay Harden). D

Monday
Nov032014

Review: Nightcrawler

This article was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad.

It would be disingenuous to claim that Jake Gyllenhaal is unrecognizable in Nightcrawler. It's hard not to commit Gyllenhaal to memory once you've seen him. But it would be true to say that he is less recognizable in Nightcrawler. The effect is not unlike the rubberneck squinting at the new Renée Zellweger, trying to place the differences that unsettle you.

The actor dropped 30 lbs to play his new character and lived on the night shift to prepare and it wasn't for the strenuously faux-noble reason of biographic fidelity. It must be method madness that led him to burrow into this altogether terrific star turn as Lou Bloom, a gaunt sleepless thief turned "journalist". The big difference with this Gyllenhaal is in the eyes. Those big impossibly romantic orbs have lost all their soft blueness. They're suddenly bulging from their skull, like they want to escape it. Or like they're planning to hypnotize you while the mouth delivers its mechanical sales pitch.

And with Lou Bloom, the sales pitch never stops. The night owl approaches each conversation like it's a job interview, checking off catchphrases and talking points from his mental checklist. This is all well and good for the film's first reel when Lou is trying to find a job. But when he chances upon an accident one night and sees nightcrawling freelancers filming it, the search is over; he makes it his mission to join this profession. It's here where his can-do "I'm a hard worker" salesmanship begins to ferment and spook. [More...]

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Saturday
Nov012014

Review: Force Majeure

Amir here to talk Sweden's Oscar submission, now in theaters...

The opening sequence of Ruben Ostlund’s fourth feature, Force Majeure, has an ominous aura to it. On the surface, there is nothing strange about a happy, wealthy Swedish family stopping for a family portrait during their vacation at a posh French ski resort. Yet, as their unseen photographer becomes more assertive with his commands, ordering them to get closer together and forces the corners of their lips upward, something seems amiss. No sign of trouble is yet to be found though, as Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their white-as-snow children spend the first couple of days skiing together. It is during lunch at the high-end restaurant on the balcony of their hotel that everything falls apart at the seams, revealing the tenuous links that keep this family – or is it every family? – together.

Tomas insists that the loud bang and the ensuing avalanche are controlled by resort patrols, but when panic strikes all diners, it is he who abandons ship first, opting for his own survival as he runs away from his family. When this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pivotal moment in the narrative is over and the snow powder settles, Tomas is overcome with shame but returns to the table as though nothing out the ordinary has happened. For Ebba and the children, however, the gravity of the mistake makes it unforgivable. As the vacation progresses and story of that fateful moment is repeated between Tomas, Ebba and their friends, perceptions change, stakes are raised and bonds are severed and mended again. The avalanche has hit the family like, well, an avalanche; but as Nathaniel correctly pointed out in his review, the analogy only feels forced when articulated by the reviewer, not when the director slyly works in into the film. 

Ostlund tells this story with a remarkable panache for minimalist style and minimalist storytelling. The snow-covered background affords him the possibility to concoct some of the most memorable images and sounds of any film this year, but more impressive is how he replicates the same clean, sparse atmosphere in his storytelling. With a keen eye for small interactions between characters, Ostlund manages to say quite a lot while saying very little. Note one particular instance, where an uncomfortable Brady Corbet (unexpectedly brilliant in a tiny role) is asked to adjudicate between Tomas and Ebba. Ostlund has been similarly preoccupied with awkward group encounters in his previous films, and here, holding the camera as a taciturn Corbet nervously fidgets around in his seat to avoid delivering responses, he proves his knack for capturing truthfully these small but crucial interactions.

Force Majeure is about our perceptions of each other, the image we project of ourselves, and our differing perspectives, and above all it’s about how tenuous all of these things are, how friendships and relationship and even familial bonds can be broken with one moment’s worth of complete idiocy. Then again, how stupid is Tomas’s mistake? Can a single momentary slip break everything? Whose perspective do we accept as the truth? Ostlund toys with these questions without offering definite answers, knowing well that there can be none. If anything is definitively claimed, it’s the vulnerability of man and his position in the traditional family structure. For all its pretensions of power and control, no institution is as fragile and easily bruised as masculinity. Kuhnke’s performance as the man crumbling under the weight of his own self-image and perceived infallibility is perfectly pitched to the film’s sense of humor.

Ostlund’s comedy is dry and detail-oriented. In several instances, it is only the framing of a character, or a split-second cut that causes uproarious laughter. It is an absurd sense of humor, too. Consider that the film’s biggest moment of comedy gold is delivered not by an actor, but by a remote controlled toy drone. Only in the hands of an extremely confident director like Ostlund can such storytelling succeed. After a couple of minor festival hits, Force Majeurehas now entered him among the world’s most exciting filmmakers.

Related
Scandinavian Films
Oscar Submission Charts

 

25 of 83 Foreign Submissions Reviewed
AfghanistanArgentinaAustraliaBelgium,
BrazilCanadaCuba, Czech Republic, Finland,
France, GeorgiaGermany, HungaryIceland,
Israel, ItalyLatviaMauritaniaNorway,
PolandPortugalSweden, Switzerland,
Uruguay, and Venezuela

Friday
Oct312014

Review: John Wick

Michael C here 

The screenplay for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is so simplistic it rises above laziness until it reaches a kind of glorious absurdist joke. What “plot” there is (and I’m typing those quote marks as hard as I can) could be adapted into a book for beginning readers without much stretching:

See John Wick’s wife die. John sad.
John’s wife leaves John dog. John slightly less sad.
See Russian mobster kill John’s dog. John mad.
See John kill. Kill, John, kill!

To gripe about the thinness of the script is to miss the point. A movie like John Wick is all about getting to the good stuff. When the story is pared down to such a degree it’s a giftwrapped opportunity for filmmakers to show off their chops by filling all that empty space with creatively staged mayhem and wild, indulgent detours, two things for which I am always on board. On such occasions, I am more than willing to disengage higher brain function for 100 minutes, lean back in my seat and say “Show me what you got!” silly grin on my face, drool collecting on my popcorn...

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