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Rating History

A Most Violent Year
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

J. C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year" has some of the best cinematography (and acting) we've witnessed in 2014. We can credit Bradford Young (who was also the cinematographer on "Selma") and Oscar Isaac for that. Isaac has become a favorite actor of mine. He plays Abel Morales, a wealthy businessman (he's in the oil industry) who wants to become wealthier and more powerful - he's trying to live out the American Dream. There's a catch, though: he wants to achieve all of this in a moral and honest way. His wife, Anna (a strong - and underused - Jessica Chastain), is a bit duplicitous. At times she's supportive, and other times she's quick to mock Abel (she shoots a deer after Abel hit it with his car and hesitated to put it out of its misery with a tire-iron). Some of the film's greatest moments come when they're talking, which usually leads to intense arguing (mostly on Anna's part). Note how Abel (tries to) remain calm every time. We see the anger bubbling up inside him, but if he lets it out then he knows he's turning into someone he doesn't want to be: a criminal.
The film takes place in a muddied-looking New York City in 1981 - one of the most violent years in New York's history at the time (which is where the film's title comes from, obviously). In fact, the violence starts right away as we witness one of Abel's trucks being hijacked at a toll stop. More of his trucks get hijacked, and if that weren't enough, the DA's office ("Selma's" David Oyelowo - in another great performance) is after him as well for tax evasion and other serious legal jargon. He's also in the middle of closing a deal for an oil terminal that will give him direct access to the East River, and greater control over his competitors. He uses his life's savings to place a deposit, and hopes his bank will loan him the rest. When the DA's office closes in, the bank pulls out - leaving Abel to get creative in trying to find ways to secure his contract, and not lose his deposit. Discover the rest for yourselves.
Most of the characters (including Anna) think the best way to fight violence is with violence. Abel is wise enough to know that fighting back would only intensify the violence. Instead, he fights the violence with his words. With the exception of one chase scene - which surely drew inspiration from William Friedkin's "The French Connection."
It's clear Chandor has tapped into his love and respect of the Great Directors of the 70s - from Francis Ford Coppola (many of the scenes borrow lighting from "The Godfather") to Sydney Lumet (especially the theme of resisting the urge to fight back with violence as witnessed in "Dog Day Afternoon" and even "12 Angry Men") to Friedkin (as witnessed in the film's big chase scene mentioned earlier).
I've read many people describing "A Most Violent Year" as a "mob movie" or a "wanna be mob movie." I disagree with the mob label. This is the story of a man who is surrounded by the mob, but he doesn't allow himself to go down that path. In fact, one of the film's greatest moments comes at the end when Abel tells another character that he's always taken the "most right path" in life. Think about those words: most right. That doesn't say he takes THE right path, but the MOST right path he believes he can take. That's the true power Abel displays - and the best way he fights all the violence.

Wild (2014)
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

(The following are incomplete thoughts for "Wild.")

In his 2007 review for Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," Roger Ebert writes: "Two of the more truthful statements in recent culture are that we need a little help from our friends, and that sometimes we must depend on the kindness of strangers. If you don't know these two things and accept them, you will end up eventually in a bus of one kind or another." I bring this up because in "Wild," Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides to trek into the Pacific Crest Trail in order to find (or rediscover) herself. Similarly, Emile Hirsch played Alexander Supertramp in "Into the Wild," and he too set out into the wilderness to find himself (or maybe, more precisely, to lose himself). As different as these characters are, they both sought - and accepted - help from the strangers they came upon on their treks. Without accepting that help, neither one would have made it to their final destination. (Though Alexander's destination wasn't as pleasant as Cheryl's.)
When we first meet Cheryl, we see how cruel the Pacific Crest Trail has been to her (or maybe it was life that's been so cruel to her). She hikes to the top of a ridge, sits down, takes a moment to admire the view and then removes her hiking boots. We cringe when we see how bloody her socks are (Curt Schilling's socks were nothing in comparison). We cringe even more when she takes her sock off and find her big toe's toenail is hanging on by a thread. She yanks it off. We squirm. This moment represents just another fork in her road - but it's the first fork in the road we witness with her. She wants to quit. We don't know why (yet). And yet we wouldn't fault her for giving up this early on. From here, the film breaks the traditional linear storyline (as so many films have done recently), and we see how her trek began. Her mother (played by Laura Dern) was the one positive thing in her life, the one stable thing - and when her mother passed away, her life quickly spiraled out of control. She turned to drugs, sex, and God knows what else. It's hard to think the adorable Reese Witherspoon could pull off such a role and yet, for the most part, she does.
Even at her worst, Cheryl had a loving husband and friends who were there to help her through life's obstacles - but she refused that help. Instead, she decided to hike 1100 miles and walk back to the woman her mother thought she was (or could have been). It's not particularly clear as to the "why" she felt this was the one thing that could save her, but it's not that important. It's the journey that's most important. And while the journey we're taken on is indeed enjoyable, it's still a safe journey. (To think that Cheryl walked 1100 miles and the most dangerous animals she encountered were a lone rattlesnake and a perverted hiker seems a bit of a stretch.)
It's also quite clear how important this role - and movie - is to Reese Witherspoon, and that may be the film's greatest strength. Indeed, the chaotic montage is another of the film's strength. Life isn't linear, nor are memories. So the disjointed storyline is needed here. Some of the best scenes are when Cheryl is talking to her self (which usually includes many expletives) or sings to herself. Throughout her life, Cheryl has been the main obstacle that's stood in her way. And yet she'll become the one thing that saves herself as well.
Many have said how Laura Dern's Oscar nomination is a bit of a shock considering her screen time. But even when Dern is not on screen, her character's presence is felt throughout the film.

The Judge
The Judge (2014)
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Your honor, at this time I'd like to call the court's attention to the 1981 film, "On Golden Pond," directed by Mark Rydell. In it, you'll find a melodrama surrounding a dysfunctional family. To be more specific, we witness a shattered relationship between a father and his daughter - the daughter, played by Jane Fonda, feels she has never been good enough in the eyes of her father, played by Henry Fonda. This same dynamic is witnessed in David Dobkin's latest film, "The Judge." At its core, we witness a father, played by Robert Duvall, who has driven a wedge between himself and his second son, played by Robert Downey, Jr. In the son's eyes, he was never good enough for his father. The son had removed himself from his family's roots, and vowed never to return to his Indiana hometown. The fathers, in both these films, are crusty old coots with a gooey, soft inside concealed by an acid tongue.
Your honor, I'd also like to submit, as evidence, "The Lincoln Lawyer," which stars Matthew McConaughey as a hot-shot defense attorney who is damn good at what he does - and knows it. Just like Robert Downey Jr.'s character in "The Judge."
The film's cinematography, labeled "Exhibit C," makes constant use of windows and window panes - to make sure the audience realizes these characters are feeling trapped and boxed-in. In some scenes, the light coming in through the window is guilty of washing the characters out, and we're often times left with a silhouette of a character or we see a halo of light surrounding the character. This is, in fact, something we witness throughout Sydney Lumet's great "The Verdict." To be sure, the opening scene of "The Verdict" shows Paul Newman standing in front of a window while playing pinball - even though it's bright outside, we see only the shadow of Paul Newman. Lumet's camera work is far superior to Dobkins' camera work.
In conclusion, your honor, "The Judge" is guilty of being formulaic and overtly melodramatic with severely under-developed characters. It tries to combine a courtroom drama with a family struggling with its own drama. "The Judge" wants the family drama to be at its epicenter, but the courtroom scenes, sadly, have more weight. Mr. Duvall's performance, although written with cliched-ladened dialogue, is the main reason to view the film. Having secured an Oscar nomination, it's reason enough to watch. However, had Mr. Duvall's name not been called the morning the nominations were announced, I'm comfortable in saying "The Judge" could have been dismissed all together.

American Sniper
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

If you watched the first trailer for "American Sniper," then you've seen the opening sequence of the film. While watching the film unfold, I couldn't help but think that the trailer felt more suspenseful and stronger because it lacked soundtrack music; the silence in the trailer was more menacing than the standard ominous music we're given in the film. The good news is director Clint Eastwood reprises this scene halfway through the movie (once we really get to know our hero, Chris Kyle), and the scene becomes stronger with the background knowledge we've acquired.
Eastwood glosses over the life of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) - and it's a good thing. He had a strict, but stern southern father (who scolds him when he drops his gun after shooting his first dear); he defends his brother when bullies pick on him; and many other cliches are witnessed.(Including a speech given by his father about not growing into a sheep or a wolf - instead, it's proper to grow into a sheepdog, which is viewed as being a warrior of some sort.)
After witnessing the 1998 US embassy bombings on television, Chris Kyle decides to enlist in the US Navy to become a SEAL. He quickly adopts the "protect thy country at all costs" motto - and it's certainly something he'll find very hard to break when he returns home. Even after he meets his future wife, Taya (played exceptionally well by Sierra Miller), he tells her how important it is for him to protect his country. The scary thing is he actually believes what he's saying.
The "evil doers" in "American Sniper" are reduced to faceless threats. Does Eastwood assume we know who the bad guys are here? The less we're brought into their world, the better. I suppose. Yet, in one scene Eastwood does bring us into the home of Iraq's Big Bad Sniper, Mustafa, and we see he has a wife and newborn baby (just like Chris Kyle). What, exactly, do we gain by witnessing this? Are we to feel sympathy towards Mustafa? Better to keep him in the shadows (with a black hat - so we know he's the bad guy). And certainly better to keep the film in Kyle's perspective at all times.
The strongest parts of the film come when Kyle completes his four tours of duty. (Each tour represents a new act, or chapter, in the film.) When he's permanently home, he stumbles in his life and tries to find his new place. The purpose he had when he was overseas is taken away from him. These scenes are precise representations of PTSD - and, at times, they're harder to watch than the scenes of war.
Bradley Cooper embodies Chris Kyle both physically and emotionally. If you needed proof that Cooper has the ability to be one of the great actors, then pay attention to the scene when he's waiting to pick up his car with his son. He's approached by a marine whose life he saved some time earlier. Kyle has no recollection of this marine, and Cooper plays Kyle as feeling awkward and boxed-in - he doesn't know how to respond, but he knows he wants to escape. Does he feel this way because he's thinking of all the lives he wasn't able to save? Or does he not want to be reminded of the war at all?
Unfortunately, there are a few scenes throughout that hurt the film rather than help it. Take note when Eastwood shows Chris Kyle's biggest sniper kill. The scene is prefaced by the line "aim small, miss small" (a cliche in its own right), and Eastwood halts the face-paced action and reduces the scene to slow-motion (in John Woo-like fashion) while following the path of the bullet to Kyle's target (which is over a mile away). I imagine some theaters erupted into applause during this scene. But do we need the slow-motion sequence? Does it increase the tension? The audience is smart enough to know this is the biggest shot Chris Kyle has taken - it's a shame it's been reduced to a Hollywood cliche.
In reflecting upon the film, I've thought about what makes a good war movie. Is "American Sniper" a pro-war movie or an anti-war movie? I'm not sure. And I'll not go down that path. What makes "American Sniper" a good movie (not necessarily a god war movie, but a good movie) is its focus on the effects of war on veterans like Chris Kyle. This is his story, but I imagine it's an all-too familiar story for many veterans.

The Theory of Everything
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

"The Theory of Everything," directed by James Marsh ("Man on Wire," "Shadow Dancer"), makes constant use of Stephen Hawking's theory which suggests one equation can explain everything in the universe. Hawking, of course, is still searching for that equation. In the meantime, Marsh uses the same equation most biopics utilize in other films, and the result is frustration. The performances, however, are nothing short of brilliant. Eddie Redmayne contorts his body until his eyes are the only part of his body he's left to act with (pay particular attention to the scene when Hawking and Jane break up). What I love most about his performance is the stages we witness: from Hawking's college days (where he stumbles a bit) to his adult life (where he's almost completely immobilized). Eddie Redmayne ventures into Daniel Day-Lewis territory here. Felicity Jones plays Jane, Hawking's first wife (the film is based on her book, "Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen"), as incredibly strong and determined. Yet it's interesting to think that her life had been placed on hold while she cared for Hawking and her family. This is based on her story, and it feels like we're cheated a bit on being brought into her mind. (We're left filling in some gaps ourselves regarding her actions.)
The film's earlier scenes are engaging and lit very brightly, and they seem to emit an (almost) angelic glow. It's easy to start falling in love with this film. One of the high points comes when Hawking and Jane are at a dance and witness the men's white shirts glow in the moonlight because of the laundry detergent Tide. This scene is followed by witnessing Hawking and Jane dancing on a bridge while being engulfed by hanging lights - fireworks then explode as they kiss. (Maybe it's because Jane is the proton and Hawking is the electron? I don't know, I was never really good at physics... or love for that matter.)
The love between Hawking and Jane is tested when they enlist the help of a local church choir director named Jonathan (Charlie Cox) to help care for Hawking, and being a surrogate father to their three children. They dine together, go to the beach together, raise the children together. These scenes feel like they were plucked right out of Francois Truffaut's "Jules et Jim." (Which is certainly not bad inspiration.) But feelings develop between Jonathan and Jane, and Jonathan soon exits. Hawking and Jane then hire a nurse named Elaine (Maxine Peake), and the love is once again put to the test.
Cliches are certainly in abundance throughout "The Theory of Everything." One scene shows Hawking having a eureka moment when he pours milk in his coffee and watches as the milk swirls around the coffee. Another scene uses peas and potatoes to demonstrate Quantum Theory (represented by the pea) and Einstein's theory of General Relativity (represented by the potato). In yet another scene, Hawking tries putting a sweater over his head by himself and, while his head is stuck in the sweater, he observes the nearby fire through the sweater's stitches and comes up with his theory that black holes aren't black at all, they emit radiation. Who's to say none of this really happened in real life? Each of these scenes are certainly important in moving the film forward, but I can't help thinking that they're treated as throwaway variables - they're simply advancing the audience from point a to point b. I feel that any of these scenes (or variables) could have been replaced with a different scene (or variable), and we still would have gotten to the same conclusion. Still, "The Theory of Everything" is wonderful to look at, and it's certainly an interesting journey.