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The Drop

The Drop

(2014)
7 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

For a film in such a saturated genre as The Drop, that of crime noir, it distinguishes itself in an uncanny way, making it one of the most unique films of the year. Methodical, dark, immersive, and ultimately penetrating, The Drop is an experience that will bewilder some, enthrall others, and ultimately stand as another testament to the great Dennis Lehane, whose other tales have inspired countless other marvelous film adaptations (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone).

The story follows one Bob Saginowski, a loner of a man, whose quiet demeanor dials down what would otherwise be an intimidating physical presence. He works at a bar run by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), which serves as a front for money laundering. He soon finds himself in the middle of a robbery, and the center of attention of some of the neighborhood's more nefarious characters. The screenplay, adapted by Dennis Lehane from his own story, gives us rich characters, a seedy world awash in moral ambiguity and forgotten sins, interweaving it all through a narrative that keeps you guessing, and ends up in a place you never saw coming.

What I appreciated most about The Drop was the characters. Like many of Lehane's stories, the characters are all torn within themselves, flawed, nuanced, and resoundingly real. Tom Hardy's character of Bob Saginowski was one of the most memorable of the year for me, embodying a man of contrasts, whose simple veneer masks a exceedingly more complicated figure. This was of course made possible by the brilliant performance of Tom Hardy, who deserves an Oscar for his role. The entire cast had laudable efforts, with a befitting capstone to the amazing career of the late James Gandolfini.

Director Michael Roskam's direction gives the story a methodical slow burn, yet never sacrifices the suspension and tension. His film is confined to a very specific locale, executed by fantastic world building, capturing perfectly the socioeconomic realities of many Brooklyn neighborhoods. He weaves the story perfectly, and ultimately ends on a devastating note.

One of the year's best.

5/5 Stars

The Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal

(2014)
15 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Briskly paced, consistently funny, and just clever enough, The Art of the Steal is a film that tries very hard to emulate the best heist pictures. It doesn't fully succeed, but it does surpass what other similar films have tried to do, mainly by relying on its talented cast.

With Art of the Steal, we find an over-the-hill motorcycle daredevil and semi-retired art thief, Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell), thrust back in to the game for the heavily clichéd "last job", teaming up with his estranged brother. Like the best comedic heist films, namely Oceans, we find a unique cast of characters, all with their niches, and all with their quirky flaws.

Where the film succeeds is with its tone. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and it doesn't simply go through the motions either. It earnestly tries to be something different. The on-screen chemistry and banter among its cast is pretty excellent, with a solid script backing them up. The direction is energetic, and keeps the film at a very kinetic pace, in keeping with the overall feel of the film. The heist schemes themselves aren't always especially realistic, but are far more grounded than can be found in other heist films, with a solid attention to detail. Where the film got a bit misguided, however, was in the last act, trying to do too much, and getting caught up in its own supposed cleverness. Still, it boasts a great cast, consistent humor, and a plot that keeps you engaged.

Solid all around. 3.5/5 Stars

Electrick Children

Electrick Children

(2013)
15 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Strange, fanciful, yet engaging and well performed, Electrick Children is a unique movie, and an uncommon directorial debut for Rebecca Thomas. The story centers on Rachel, a 15 year old girl from a fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah who, after listening to a forbidden cassette tape with rock music, becomes inexplicably pregnant. Thinking it is the result of immaculate conception, Rachel endeavors on a quest to find the musician behind the music, befriending an odd cast of characters on her way.

The premise almost makes the film sound like a comedy. It's not. I went in suspecting a strong condescension toward religion coming, and yet-- the film largely resists that temptation. In fact, it starts quite strong, giving us interesting characters, a believable world (to start), and a set up that offers a lot of intrigue. Through the film, we keep waiting for the actual source of the conception to be revealed, yet the film takes its protagonist's view very seriously. If you can accept that, and just go with the film, what follows is a journey of discovery, and something quite unique.

The most impressive part of the film for me was Julia Garner's role as Rachel, an imaginative, wide-eyed young girl, who's not afraid to challenge her boundaries. Her interactions with the surrounding cast was well done, and her journey, however fanciful, felt genuine. Towards the end, however, the more whimsical elements did seem to get away from Electrick Children, resulting in a bit of an uneven tone. Still, the direction delivered an engaging narrative and a world with surrealist overtones, but real drama.

3.5/5 Stars

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight

(2014)
15 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Woody Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, is a film of charm, some good lines, some likeable performances, and a lighthearted feel. Yet, it feels slight, and ultimately pales in comparison to his recent brilliant entries, Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, while still largely surpassing the likes of To Rome with Love. In short, it's passable Allen, yet not impressive Allen.

With magic in the moonlight, we find Stanley Crawford, a stylized stage magician with a passion for debunking spiritualists, and a self-absorbed outlook on life, compelled by his friend to try and find out the tricks of a beautiful medium, Sophie, who is in the midst of securing a marriage proposal from a smitten young bachelor. In typical Allen style, there's plenty of wit to be found, banter a plenty, and telegraphed themes of certainty in an uncertain world and the need for mystique. The performances are all passable, especially from Firth, yet not inspired. That, to be sure, is the film's greatest drawback--a rather lackluster sensibility. It seems too satisfied with itself. The best example of this would be the last act in which Allen inexplicable seems to switch tone and end on a note that feels false with the film's inherent cynicism. Even the central dynamic between Stone and Firth felt a bit forced.

Overall, it's an enjoyable film, yet a forgettable film.

3/5 Stars

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

(2014)
15 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Intense, unflinchingly dark, and executed solidly, Blue Ruin is a unique indie film, and a worthy addition to the revenge drama. The film follows a disheveled transient, Dwight, whose life suddenly takes on a purpose in the wake of his parents killer being paroled. He thus sets out to revenge his parents and, at the same time, protect the family he has left.

The set-up, simple enough, is given more nuance in Blue Ruin because of the way director Jeremy Sauliner lets the story unfold. Little time is spent rehashing back-story or giving details, rather Saulnier simply films in the moment, giving the film a realist sensibility. His pacing is also very methodical, and a bit of a slow burn. This works well, considering the personas of those on screen. Macon Blair's Dwight is the most impressive aspect of the film for me, a man in over his head, profoundly scared, yet desperately dangerous and hauntingly detached. The acting from all of the unknown cast is very strong, making Blue Ruin the rare indie film that doesn't telegraph its independent roots.

My one criticism of Blue Ruin was that it lets some details slip by almost too fast. Some more development on Dwight's family, and those that killed them, would have been appreciated. More characterization for Dwight in particular would have been in order, being a fascinating character.

Well worth checking out.

3.5/5 Stars

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