Jeffrey Meyers's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

Backtrack
Backtrack(2016)
½

Instantly forgettable, clichéd from beginning to end, and uninspired both in execution and writing-Backtrack is the sort of film that starts predictable and ends predictable. It adds nothing new to the genre, but borrows heavily from it and-aside from a serviceable performance by Adrian Body-it offers little more than ho-hum storytelling, laughable special effects, and lackluster suspense.

1.5/5 Stars

Mississippi Grind

Atmospheric, dialogue rich, and authentically heartfelt-Mississippi Grind proves to be a hidden gem in the road film and gambling genre, offering interesting character insights, terrific performances and a nuanced approach to storytelling that doesn't spoonfeed the audience, rather unfolds as the characters are so apt to do themselves. It's low-key ending may be off-putting to some, but in the end its themes become accentuated in a way true of its main characters, played beautifully by Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn-in what undoubtedly will prove to be his best performance yet.

99 Homes
99 Homes(2015)

Intelligent, powerfully executed, maturely conceived and unbelievably poignant-99 Homes is an uncommon film. Set against the 2008 housing market downturn, 99 Homes follows a young father in his attempts to hold on to his economically struggling family having lost his home in foreclosure. His foreclosure was one microcosm of an entire housing meltdown of the time-with an integral playing a ruthless real estate magnet-Rich Carver. He sons began working with Carver and must confront both the economic realities of the period, what it takes to survive- and the no holds barred mindset that just might lift him out of it-but at what cost? It's a film that builds slowly, but to immense effect-and proves to be incredibly intelligent, a family drama meets Wall Street meets the Big Short.

Trumbo
Trumbo(2015)

At times a heartfelt biopic and at other times a breezy and light telling of events, Trumbo is a mixed film. Taking place during Hollywood's reviled "black list" period, during which McCarthyism was king. Numerous Hollywood writers, actor, and directors become embroiled when their supposed affiliations to Communism-either real or imagined-became known.

By all accounts Dalton Trumbo had a flamboyant and eccentric personality, and Bryan Cranston did an excellent job showing great range in his performance. The rest of the cast proves capable and the film is filled with some humorous moments as well as truly human ones. It's never as impacting or dramatic as it wants to be, however, and I was troubled with the film's overall treatment of the subject. Instead of a nuanced portray, the film is a heavily slanted apologist film which offers no context, and instead only superficially acknowledges the very real communist infiltration of Hollywood. McCarthy attacks aside, the extreme leftist ideologues and infiltration were far from imagined, and just as troubling as fascist sympathies the film imagines.

A mixed bag.

Jane Got a Gun
½

A modern western with a strong female lead, yet old-fashioned sensibilities and story, Jane Got A Gun is hardly an atypical Western. That is not to say that it is not effective, it certainly is, and there's a slow-build and methodical unraveling of the story that produces a very atmospheric and brooding tone. The ending was a bit too neatly done, yet the film has messy relationship dynamics and a sort of pragmatism that many Westerns are missing. Portman's character proves to be particularly compelling, and her characterization is certainly the strongest of the film. In the end, it really doesn't break new ground, yet tells a familiar story in an unfamiliar way.

3.5/5 Stars

Secret in Their Eyes
½

Intrigue and melodrama abound with the Secret in Their Eyes, a film that is told earnestly through flashbacks and present day-all centering on the inexplicable abduction and murder of a Terrorism Task Force Agent's daughter. It's a film that relies heavily on dialogue, which was good, and high stakes drama when suspects are determined then let go for political reasons. The film is thus a vehicle for many things-politics and the war on terror, revenge, and grief. It has a terrific ensemble cast that all interact well with each-other. It's a film that is good, yet never quite as good as it thinks it is. It gets too clever with its plot mechanisms-often losing the sight of the logistics of the crime to where the audience becomes confounded by the motives, even if we're still interested in the "who done it" aspect of the film. The acting can also be over-the-top, and there are many parts where the film seems to be trying too hard. That said, it is very atmospheric, and represents a sort of old school noir that is hard not to get hooked by.

3.5/5 Stars

When Harry Met Sally
½

Dated in some respects, yet excelling in others-When Harry Met Sally is still a resonating romantic comedy. It's a Woody Allen piece meets Linklater's "Before Sunrise" trilogy. The dialogue rich, the characterizations nuanced, and the interactions between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan authentic and resonating. While it doesn't completely avoid all of the rom-com clichés, it does side step a lot of them, and certainly set the stage for some of the smarter romantic comedies that we remember.

3.5/5 Stars

The Babadook
The Babadook(2014)
½

A sort of mashup between old school haunting and the modern horror genre, The Babadook is a memorable ghost film with great execution and laudable performances and direction. Think Rosemary's Baby meets Amityville Horror, a film that follows a hardworking widow whose young son claims to be plagued by a monster-only to be passed off as a hallucination. This hallucination, through a slow build and mature style of filmmaking soon becomes a very real apparition with terrifying implications. It's scary, inventive, well-acted, and solidly delivered. It doesn't redefine the genre, but seems to rediscover the better aspects of it.

3.5/5 Stars

The 33
The 33(2015)
½

A perfect example of a film that is impacting and deserving because of the subject matter and not so much the film, The 33 offers a telling of a compelling true story in a rather lackluster fashion. Based on the 2010 collapse of a Chilean mine and the rescue efforts that followed, the film follows not only those lost in the mine but the families that moved the seemingly unmovable political machine to spearhead the rescue efforts. It features a good performance from Antonio Banderas, but underwhelming performances from the rest. The film seems far too comfortable with itself, wearing its emotions on its sleeves and opting for a "by-the-numbers" approach to filmmaking which relies on clichés, forced emotion, and melodrama. We care for what is happening only because we know that it did, not because of any emotional resonance obtained from the film. Overall, it doesn't amount for anything much past a TV movie.

2.5/5 Stars

Truth
Truth(2015)

Good execution with energetic storytelling but colored with a sort of self-important and self-aggrandizing air, Truth is a lot like the story the film seeks to explore-compelling but flawed. An examination of the "Rathergate" controversy, Truth follows the 60 minutes team in their coverage of then President Bush's national guard record. Though seemingly well sourced and provocative the team spotlighted a number of memos which later became embroiled in questions of authenticity and questionable origins.

In a year of strong journalism-themed films, such as the fantastic Spotlight, Truth has its work cut out for it. The acting is strong, to be sure, and features a terrific performance by Cate Blanchett. Some of the performances, however, were notably self-satisfied-especially that of Robert Redford's Dan Rather. His Rather is a blameless and altruistic fellow with no other motivations than the truth-a very suspect notion. This speaks to my larger problem with the film, it has such a strong bias for the 60 Minute team, that there isn't much sense of humility or nuance. No self-blame, no introspection---just outward blame and self-aggrandizement. In this way the film didn't seem so much like a pursuit of the "Truth" than it was more of an apology piece for those involved.
This is not to say that the story did not have merit. Had the film made this point and yet acknowledged its faults, that would have been one thing. Yet the film seems incapable of conceding that, and instead becomes bogged down in a host of liberal clichés and indignation.

3/5 Stars

The Walk
The Walk(2015)

Funny, enthralling, quirky and nearly impossible not to like, The Walk is one of the most uniquely conceived and executed films of 2015. Based on a true story, the film follows the enigmatic, eccentric and extremely determined Philippe Petit, a Frenchman whose seemingly only objective in life is to be the best, most artistically true, wire walker in the world. His sights soon turn to a task so monumental as to be beyond belief, that of crossing between the World Trade Center Towers-the tallest in the world at that time.

To say this is an eccentric film is an understatement. Its unique narration, quirky sense of humor and self-awareness was off-putting at first-yet later it felt completely true to its subject. It's weird, but so was its subject. It's quirky, yet how else can you tell the tale of such a doggedly determined man like Petit, whose dream has him straddle the line between life and death? The film does a great job of being an engaging biopic, yet also a thrilling drama. To read the description or to see the trailer can hardly describe the actual experience of watching the film, which envelopes you. Soon the passions and the worldview of Petit becomes our own, we cheer for his ambitions even if we don't understand it. It's a film that never loses our attention or our interest.

Great

4/5 Stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2
½

Dark, exciting, and important, the fourth and final Hunger Games is a film that ends with dignity-a notable accomplishment for any franchise of its scope and size. The civil war is full fledged in Part 2, and we finally see the fall of Snow and yet not all is well. What will the wily and unpredictable Katniss Everdeen do?

For a young adult book series and a PG-13 film series, the franchise has always done a good job of staying dark and true to its dystopian roots and yet not cross that line in to hopelessness. Part 2 is the closest it comes to straddling the line, and it does it to largely good effect. The action is impacting, the acting good and the themes more mature. Questions are raised and turns are taken that other, more safe and lazy franchise would not take. We learn, for example, that war is never as black and white as it seems and wolves in sheep's clothing abounds.

The film does have some weak points. Josh Hutcherson has always been a poor choice for Peeta, and is an extremely underwhelming actor. Yet, the film seems to get the most out of him as is possible. The pacing is uneven, the film has numerous points in which it feels to end, yet doesn't. The more interesting aspect of the last act is rushed, and the tumultuous post-production (with Philip Seymour Hoffman passing) is felt.

Overall, however, it's a satisfying end.

3.5/5 Stars

Self/less
Self/less(2015)

Surprisingly engaging, creative, and an overall fun ride--Self/less is a film that surprises. In it we find a dying real estate mogul (who oddly lives in what appears to be Trump's penthouse) desperately looking to keep himself going. An offer comes his way, allowing him to seemingly start a new life with a new body. But, alas, nothing is as it seems.

I went in to the film expecting some sort of B movie, but the film is rather surprising in that it offers some interesting twists, has some really good action, and good acting. Though not a fan, I must admit that Ryan Reynolds was even a good fit for his role. The character switch that occurs is actually rather seamless, and the film feels cohesive and immensely intriguing. There's some cliches and retreads, to be sure, but ultimately it feels like a satisfying and fun ride.

A competent science fiction piece.

Pawn Sacrifice

Pawn Sacrifice

Captivating, confounding, and utterly enthralling, Pawn Sacrifice is a gem of a film that deserves much more attention and praise than it is receiving. Set during the Cold War, Pawn Sacrifice follows what is perhaps the infamous Bobby Fischer's most memorable chapter, that of his showdown with then world champ and Soviet representative--Boris Spassky.

The film does a great job of building the tension and setting the stage for what was a very precarious geopolitical time. A time when tensions were so high with the Russians that even a chess match would take on significance. The performances were strong, this being the best role I've ever seen Tobey Maguire in. The dialogue is rich, the characterizations nuanced, and the scenes well executed. In the end we are left both admiring and vexed at the enigma of Bobby Fischer, and that's undoubtedly how it should be.

4/5 Stars

Concussion
Concussion(2015)

Earnestly told, indignant, and passionate--Concussion takes on America's biggest sport to a largely effective degree. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of a pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, an incredibly pious and straight-laced immigrant who, through his work, uncovers what would soon be termed CTE. In short, his resiliency and tenacity led him to the shocking reality that repetitive concussions can have profound long-term damage translating to death. Obviously not well received, the film follows his struggles for attention and the attacks he inevitably received.

It's hard to say this is a fair film. I don't know quite enough to say definitively, but certainly the film is biased, and has a dramatic flair that you would expect. I do believe it's very real, but perhaps the film's assertions that "football kills" are a bit over-the-top at times. Still, as a movie--it's an effective one, with a brilliant performance by will Smith. The entire cast is strong, and the film has a way of unfolding that makes it a very enthralling story, even though the actual events took much longer to unfold. In short, the director did an excellent job of condensing a subject in to a confined story, and an effective one.

4/5 Stars

Cartel Land
Cartel Land(2015)
½

Reality has Never Been so Riveting

A visceral, kinetic, breath-taking, and highly effective documentary, Cartel Land is a film that stands above the rest in its story-telling and authenticity. The embedded filmmaker follows two organic resistance groups to the incredibly violent drug cartels, a group of disgruntled and frustrated militia members on the US side, an an armed civilian uprising on the Mexican side. What results is a film that absolutely mesmerizes the viewer with heart-pounding action, first-person testimony, and undeniable carnage. You can read about Cartel violence or be transported to it with this documentary, a film that is apolitical and only seeks to inform.

Excellent

4.5/5 Stars

The Giver
The Giver(2014)
½

The Giver

A great concept with poor execution and inconsistent acting, The Giver is a frustrating film. It's a film that's both hard to watch and yet hard not to like, at least on some levels. Based on the novel of the same name, the film finds a futuristic society which can either be seen as a utopia, for the less imagined, or rightly a dystopia-where emotions are surprised, conformity rules, and memories lost. One person, the Receiver, is allowed to remember. He is tasked to train his successor, who proves to be vastly changed by what he learns.

While I appreciate the themes of the film, and thought some of the world building was adequate-the overall feel of The Giver is stilted and a bit cheesy. I blame this on lackluster direction, there's no real suspense or sense of stakes, and bad acting. There are two main heavy-hitters in The Giver, Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. Bridges is solid, and Streep is okay. Outside of that, the acting is shallow, devoid of emotion, and uninspired. This is especially true of Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, whose performance is more akin to that of a Disney movie than a major Hollywood production.

The film also fails to deliver on what would otherwise be really interesting developments. It just doesn't feel like it got what it could out of good material. By the end it succumbs to profoundly silly plot devices. The sequence involving Jonas and a child and their exploits crossing mountains, snow, and desert, is laughable and indicative of the film's larger failings.

Lackluster.

2.5/5 Stars

Forsaken
Forsaken(2016)
½

Old, Tried and True

Brooding, intense, and dreary, Forsaken is an old fashioned Western told in an old fashioned way. A former Civil War soldier returns home after a series of ill-defined violent exploits only to be met with a deceased mother and a disappointed father. Eager for redemption, though not sure how to find it, he soon finds himself in the midst of another bloody conflict. Sound familiar? Yes, but the execution proves too good to write off.

Though there are some clichéd motifs, to be sure, the film still feels authentic and offers some of the best acting in a genre that unfortunately has become awash in straight-to-dvd mediocrity. The characterizations are liking in some parts, yet their emotional integrity and presence is nearly visceral in this film-with an all-star ensemble cast featuring real-life father and son combo Kiefer and Donald Sutherland, Brian Cox, and Michael Wincott.

Besides the acting, the film itself is restrained, with a slow build. Thought it has a short run-time, it never feels rushed, the action beats feel earned, and the ending resonates with the nearly poetic vibe of the film. Narratively it may seem slight, yet the parts work too well to be ignored in Forsaken.

3.5/5 Stars

Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak(2015)

Peek Into the Dark

More memorable than scary, and more mysterious than horrifying, Crimson Peak is a very interesting entry in to a packed genre. Directed by the innovative and eccentric Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak proves to be one of his most compelling films, striking a balance between multiple film classifications, and intriguing the audience with its audacity and elegance from the first shot to the last.

The film tells the story of a young woman caught in the midst of an ill-fated romance with a broke aristocrat, fresh off his appeals to her rich father's money for a mining device. She receives eerie and baffling warnings from beyond, yet can't seem to shake her feelings of affection. The result is a film that weaves themes of love, horror, death, money, class, and fate.
First and foremost, however, del Toro keeps the film anchored to its characters. This is what makes it so effective. We care for each of them, we are intrigued by all of them, and become nearly enchanted with their inter-dynamics. He also had world building so impressive that it nearly astounds. The set design, the costumes, the scenery, everything is impeccable. It's the best looking period piece I've seen in quite some time. Simply put, the film is visually astounding.

The trajectory of the film takes some interesting directions and the overall narrative feels rich, not so much by the script, but by the strong acting and del Toro's excellent direction.

4/5 Stars

Spotlight
Spotlight(2015)
½

A light in the Dark

A true story told from the point of view of a gumshoe group of investigative reporters, Spotlight is a film that needed to be made, deserves to be seen, and was composed with a grace and maturity toward its subject that is hard to come by. An exploration of the child molestation scandal that rocked Boston and later the entire world, Spotlight covers an uncomfortable subject.

Good journalistic films in the vein of All the Presidents Men (though overrated) are hard to come by, and one wonders how much this has to do with Hollywood or how much it has to do with the state of journalism in America. For ounce, what the Spotlight team uncovered, though far too late, was an example of what journalism should be. Unrelenting, focused, and guided by the public interest. The film captures this and evokes the enormity, depravity, and emotion of the time. It accomplishes this through mature direction, a phenomenal ensemble cast, and intelligent dialogue. It's not always easy to watch, yet something that gains in appreciation as we confront what we don't want to.

4.5/5 Stars

Patterns Of Evidence: Exodus

Fair. Balanced. Compelling.

Insightful, even handed, restrained, and yet utterly compelling, Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus is an intelligent documentary and mature treatment of a very sensitive subject. It's a film that values exploration and questioning, rather than hand wringing and partisanship. It's a film of value, a film of questions, and one that can serve to better inform.

As the documentary relates, the establishment view is that the Exodus didn't happen as described in the Bible, or is entirely fictional. This criticism seems to revolve around the established timeline for the Exodus. The documentary challenges this assumption, and does so convincingly. Experts of every stripe are shown, yet the film gives a notable voice to those who point to startling evidence of exactly what the Bible describes, just earlier than accepted.

Director Tim Mahoney navigates the ensuing web well, keeping the viewer anchored with excellent visuals and a concise yet intelligent description off the correlation of events, and how they may fit from an archaeological standpoint.
It's not perfect, some of the dramatization is unnecessary and the narration uneven, yet the questions poignant, and the execution striking.

4/5 Stars

In the Heart of the Sea

An old tale told with force and spectacular imagery, In the Heart of the Sea is an epic tale told in an epic way. Ron Howard's newest film peers in to the true inspiration for Moby Dick, following the tragedy and mystique of the ill-fated Essex, whose secrets have never fully been told. It's an adventure, it's a character drama, and it's yet another success for Howard's illustrious career.

Told in flashback form, In the Heart of Sea has a lot of old-fashioned sensibilities to it. This serves the story well, and it feels just as impacting as it would have been in the 1850s. Its boasts a wonderful cast with good chemistry, and Christ Hemsworth seems like a natural choice for the swash-buckling Owen Chase. The film also employs a lot of spectacular visuals with amazing imagery, with some truly breathtaking whale moments. It's a grand film of a big design, and it works. The action beats hit, there's emotional resonance, and we care for the characters. By the end, one doesn't leave feeling like an old story was rehashed, rather an old story was properly told.

This is not to say the film is without problems. I felt the CGI was a bit heavy at times, and some of the characterizations suffer. This is especially true of Hemsworth's Ownen Chase character, who had some unbearable clichéd exposition. Still, the character dynamics at least grew within the film, as far as how the men relate to each other- and the overall execution was top rate.

4/5 Stars

The Visit
The Visit(2015)

Strange, disturbing, yet also slight and uneven, The Visit is a mixed bag of a film that also manages to be director M. Night Shyamalan's best film since 2002's Signs. That, of course, isn't saying much-yet it isn't nearly as easily dismissed as his other recent entries. With the Visit we find Shyamalan taking on the faux documentary/found footage genre, following a brother and sister who visit their estranged grandparents during a weeklong trip. It doesn't offer a lot of scares, yet there's plenty of weirdness to be had, making for an interesting ride-to say the least.

Watching this one wonders what exactly Shyamalan was trying to achieve. Doubtless he was trying to get some sort of realism and authenticity to the film, and thus he thought the first-person footage was a good vehicle for that. Unfortunately for Shyamalan that train left the station long ago and thus is felt like an unnecessary and an unrealistic flourish.

As a suspense piece, however, it works-mostly. There's no real scares to be had, or very little, yet we are entreated to a mystery that does unravel itself pretty well. I also thought the acting was strong, especially from the brother and sister team. The film manages to keep your interest, with some humor as well as direction by Shyamalan that keeps things moving at a quick clip, and provides enough mystery and mythos to keep one intrigued.

The writing is a bit clunky, and there are certainly some unnecessary scenes-especially towards the end. M. Night struggles with third acts and, though not terrible, the Visit certainly left some things to be desired on that front. Yet all in all, not bad.

Okay.

3/5 Stars

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs(2015)
½

More of an experience than a biographical film, Steve Jobs is a brilliant piece of work which has an emotional resonance seldom duplicated on film. It manages to weave the tale of Steve Jobs and those he left in his considerable wake in a way that is truly unique. Though just a few settings during his new product debuts, we are able to gain an understanding of the enigmatic man, the geniuses that surrounded him, and the flaws that defined him, along with his ingenuity. It's masterfully composed with intelligent, poignant, and authentic language, and delivered with outstanding performances all around. The result is a moving, memorable, and profound film. A must see.

4.5/5 Stars

Room
Room(2015)
½

Viscerally real and disturbing, Room is a unique film that grants an unforgettable viewing experience. It's a film that leaves an impression and shrouds itself with both unspeakable darkness and unforsaken love. The premise, sparsely elaborated on at first, finds a mother and her young child confined to space not even qualified to be called a large room, yet a space that through imagination takes on a profoundly vivid expanse.

Room is really one of those films that the less you know about it going in the better. For this reason, any review should focus less on the mechanisms of the plot and more on what the film achives. Its achievements are thus many, doing a fantastic job transporting us to a world that we don't understand, and only get glimpses of its true nature. Much of the perspectives, including narration, are done from the point of view of the young boy-Jack. The director Lenny Abrahamson does a phenomenal job of capturing his thoughts, feelings, and worldview-a rather daunting feat for such a young child.
This unique perspective is also extremely well balanced by the reality of the situation, resulting in a film that both transports and informs the viewer. It is bolstered by excellent performances all around, especially by the young child actor, Jacob Tremblay, and Brie Larson-a rising start of near limitless potential.

The writing is intelligent, the themes well handled, and the emotions authentic.
The film can be thought of as a bit uneven, in that the first half is so extremely well done, that anything following it is necessarily hard to replicate. Still, it represents one of the finest films of 2015.

4.5/5 Stars

Creed
Creed(2015)

Exciting, effective, and resoundingly fun, Creed is a sequel that does right by its predecessors, and sets the stage for what could be an unprecedented prolific series. In it, we find Adonis Johnson, a troubled young man long estranged from his infamous father, Apollo Creed. He finds himself unsurprisingly drawn to the life of a boxer, and thus seeks the guidance of the one man he thinks can bring him to greatness, Rocky Balboa.

Though familiar in many ways to the first Rocky, Creed takes a chance in that it no longer casts the focus on Rocky, and rather find him in a supporting role. In this way, it's almost a remake of Rocky, only featuring the son of his once great rival. At this point in the series, Rocky is but a shell of his former self, but still going, still gruff, but always likable. His role as a mentor to the upcoming Adonis feels like a natural progression for the series, and is at least somewhat original. All this to say--the screenplay is actually pretty good. The dialogue is authentic to the characters and their background, and the film respects what came before it, referencing the past-but not dwelling on it.

What makes Creed so distinctive is not the boxing scenes, they're good. It's not the budding romance, it's handled well, and it's not even the characterizations-though they are largely effective. It's the performances by two dynamic performances in Michael Jordaon (Adonis) and, without question, Sylvester Stallone. This is arguably Stallone's best on-screen performance, and an Academy Award was undoubtedly deserved.

It may not be the deepest film in the world, but it hits on the all the right emotional beats and has a strong sense of itself. This is a sequel that deserved to be told.

Excellent

4/5 Stars

Everest
Everest(2015)

Bleak, chilling, and well-told, Everest is a movie that tells a story filled with heroism, tragedy and wonderment, much like its namesake. The film tells the story of the ill-fated 1996 quest to summit the mountain, the one in which writer John Krakuer embedded to bring forth a first-person account of such a daring and, some would say, arrogant adventure.

What I appreciated most about Everest was that it was more than a by-the-numbers "based on a true story" tragedy. Instead, it took good care transporting the audience to what it was like on the Mountain. Much like the world the climbers were escaping, the Mountain was full of rivalries and big egos, all vying for position for the vaunted summit. The film relates these dynamics well and with respect. The climb, relentlessly foreboding and arduous, is captured like I haven't seen before. We see the drive, the futility, and the ambition that propels the climbers forward in which doom awaits. The characterizations are effective and the film is anything if not impacting.

There is a criticism to be had that Everest is a bit too stuffed, overcrowded with characters and therefore hard to track with. I think part of this speaks to the film's authenticity and the wish to give everyone their due, but there is certainly some validity to it. We don't completely identify with everyone because there are so many things going on, the film has to juggle with timelines, events, and personal tragedies, all within a limited time. What we do get, however, feels real-with very strong performances and themes that can resonate with anyone.

4/5 Stars

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

Thrilling, brilliantly executed, and exceptionally entertaining, Rogue Nation is, arguably, the greatest of the Mission Impossible franchise. Once more, it puts the most recent Bond movie to shame, as well as 90+% of other spy genre action pieces. It's big, it's loud, and it's a helluva lot of fun. In Rogue nation we find the Mission Impossible Force disavowed, their antics finally catching up to them, and the agents reassigned. Reassigned, that is, expect for the wily agent Hunt (Tom Cruise) who finds himself at it alone to track down the aptly named Syndicate, a group of shadowy behind-the-scenes players looking to create mayhem. Sound familiar? Yeah, its' not unique for the genre of spy movies-it's nearly identical to the plot line of Spectre-yet the execution sets it apart.

Rogue Nation is a film with a huge scope, which makes its success even more impressive. The set-designs, the filming locations, the action sequences, all are top notch and beautifully cinematically captured. The action scenes are innovative, adrenaline filled, and yet also impacting. There's a sense of stakes at play that I haven't seen before in previous Mission Impossible films, such as a quite memorable diving scene featuring Agent Hunt holding his breath for what seems like an eternity. All of it adds up to a lot of spectacle, yes, but also grandeur befitting of the franchise.

The cast is stronger than its ever been, and Tom Cruise is perhaps the most impressive, looking and acting like the action star he was even twenty years ago. What I was most impressed with, however, was the villain. Sean Harris simply dominates his role, and gives a very compelling antagonist to Cruise.
The entire cast has chemistry, and there is not a weak link to be had.

While the plot can be seen as derivative, and a little too cute, the delivery of the film more than makes up for it. It manages to feel smarter than what it is, more unique than it is, and perhaps more distinctive than it is-all because of how damn fun it is.

Great.

4/5 Stars

Ant-Man
Ant-Man(2015)

Marvel goes small with Ant-Man, a film that is charming, light, and otherwise entertaining. Decades after the ability to shrink a person to an-insect like size, a nefarious corporation looks to weaponize the ability and sell it to some less than stellar parties. To confront the plot, the brainchild of the technology must turn to an unlikely source, a convicted felon, to help him steal back what is rightfully his.
Compared to the other Marvel movies, Ant-Man certainly doesn't have the heft. The stakes, necessarily, aren't as big-which in some ways is a refreshing departure, and in other ways makes the film a bit more underwhelming because it doesn't have the same seriousness, the same dark tone of some of the more enjoyable Marvel movies. It tries to make up for this with humor, fact pacing, and amazing CGI. It succeeds to some degree, the film is energetic, and it looks amazing. I must say, however, that Ant-Man is never quite as funny as it tries to be. Some of the humor seemed lazily written and poorly executed, and was more flat than not. This wasn't always the case, and the film is bolstered by some likable performacnes, especially from Paul Rudd, yet the word "slight" kept coming to mind while watching the film.
Overall-enjoyable but forgettable.
3/5 Stars

Ted 2
Ted 2(2015)

Funny, yet redundant, sophomoric yet spontaneous-Ted 2 is, as most sequels are, a mixed bag. Like its predecessor it's an entirely inconsequential film-how could it be when the protagonist is an inexplicably animate Teddy Bear. And, like its predecessor, the plot is pretty silly-essentially boiled down to Ted suing for legal personhood. There are times where the film seems reduanet in its jokes, where it doubles down on skits which are otherwise unfunny, and seems devoid of real purpose. There are other times, however, where the film is nothing short of hysterial, where the humor is imaginiative, the execution good, and the characters enjoyable. At the end of the day-is it more funny than yet? Yes, but not by a whole lot.
3/5 Stars

Child 44
Child 44(2015)

Ambitious, but utterly effective and insightful, Child 44 is a slow-burn thriller that serves as an equally effective historical piece. Set in post-world War II Soviet Russia and based on the novel of the same name, Child 44 follows the exploits of a mid-level Soviet secret police agent, Leo Demidov, who finds himself mired in two controversies-one involving the suspected treason by his wife, and the other regarding a string of child murders the State refuses to acknowledge for, as Stalin would say, "There are no murders in paradise".

Of all the things Child 44 does right, I found the greatest to be the accurate and devastating picture it painted of Stalin-era Soviet Russia. It was a brutal time, a time of poverty, paranoia, secrecy, and self-delusion. Stalin was a monster, and his regime monstrous. For what are likely a number of reasons, Hollywood has shied away from depicting its injustices. Child 44, however, captured all of this, and did so with skillful nuance and through the eyes of one of the regime's brighter men-who must contend with his own better judgement every day. This historical backdrop amplified the other plots at hand, and makes for enthralling viewing.

The direction is methodical and does a strong job with pacing what is otherwise a very large plot, a plot that encompasses a litany of subplots and inter-character dynamics. What perhaps anchor this the most are the performances, with a masterful cast. For his part, Tom Hardy stole the show, inhibiting every scene with an undeniable presence. This, combined with sharp cinematography, make for a film that is compelling from start to finish.

Is the film perfect? No, it can rightfully be described as "overstuffed" and a bit bloated with its running time. There are moments, to be sure, when one thinks-I bet this worked better as a novel. There were a couple of points where the film could've ended, but didn't-and that is to its detriment. With that granted, I still felt it did quite a strong job staying coherent and indeed, poignant, despite a hefty script.

Excellent.

4/5 Stars

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Profoundly silly but incredibly energetic, Kingsman is a film that is frustratingly hard to like, yet also one hard to take your eyes off. Director Matthew Vaughn takes on the spy genre with this film, one that is more of a parody than anything serious, think Kick Ass meets James Bond.

What there is to like here can be true of most any Vaughn movie. The stylistic action, though over-the-top in parts, has a certain inertia that it's hard to ignore. Its audacious nature, combined with the humorous plot points makes for a film that is light-hearted enough to enjoy on a very surface nature. The acting also keeps the film anchored from what would otherwise seem like a jumbled mess, with very fine performances all around, and an especially strong showing for Collin Firth.

It's not without problems. The film has a hard time striking a balance between a humorous sort of parody and something that takes itself a bit more seriously. The script has a plot that is barely intelligible, and is used as an attack vehicle for left-wing politics, with strong Anti-American and Anti-Christian overtones. Obviously offensive to some, including myself, the film seems to think it's too clever for us to notice such propaganda. All could perhaps be forgiven if it maintained a funny tone, but the laughs are too few and the eye rolls are many.

A mixed bag.

3/5 Stars

Straight Outta Compton
½

A biopic of a large scope, Straight Outta Compton is told with skill, passion, and energy. It's a film that both explores its subjects and also adds depth to ones' understanding of the "gangsta rap" genre and specifically the rise of N.W.A and, by extension, the careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and many others. For those we know little of the background, it will serve as a sort of history lesson, for those that are well versed, it will still undoubtedly satisfy with a film that seemingly does justice to its subject.

That it's an expansive film is undeniable. At nearly two and a half hours, the film seeks to compress a lot of time, and sometimes the transitions get a bit rough. All in all though, however, the film did a great job staying anchored in its characters and composed a movie that both educates the viewer but also unfolds skillfully- with genuine character development, and is a story that would be otherwise impactful even without the true life origins. It's bolstered by a very talented cast, which bring a lot of confidence and energy to their roles. Not only that, but the performances feel very authentic to the people they are portraying, perhaps one of the biggest measures of a good biopic.

The film is not without its problems, however. With so much compressed together, even with its bloated run time, it can be hard to keep track of the growing feuds, shifting of record labels, and all the infighting that seemingly plagued the group. The film's opening scene was astonishingly well done, transporting us to the harsh realities of Compton without preaching it to us-and yet the film never fully replicated any like moments. It was also, to be sure, a very one-sided story, essentially an apologist piece for a genre of music that stretches the boundaries of art. Its treatment of police was especially troubling. The animosity was very much real, yet the film takes that as license to paint with a broad and unfair brush.

Solid.

3.5/5 Stars

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
½

Light on substance and heavy on style, Man from UNCLE is a film that tries earnestly hard from getting the audience to realize that, at the end of the day, there's no there there. Based on a classic TV series, the film finds two charismatic and oddly effective agents teaming up to track down a Nazi sympathizer in sight of a nuclear weapon. Least likely of all? The two agents in question are from the CIA and KGB in the midst of the Cold War. Sound unusual? Think Starsky and Hutch meets James Bond. That, or James Bond meets an SNL skit.

Directed by the talented yet inconsistent Guy Ritchie, the film features many of his hallmarks. Stylistic action, off beat humor, light speed plot development, and alternatively brutal and comic action. Man from UNCLE, however, has a much lighter tone than Ritchie's best films, which goes a long way in explaining how underwhelming the film can be. His style works best at the backdrop of brutality and dark humor. With UNCLE, Ritchie has to juggle a film that, with all of its over-the-top action beats and outlandish plot, needs a lot of charm and humor to work.

While it's scarcely boring, the film's humor never quite hits the right mark. This is undoubtedly due to some rather bland writing, some directorial mishandling, and a rather underwhelming cast. The two leads, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, never seem to have the chemistry the film needed, and simply don't have the presence needed to carry what they're asked to. Simply put, there's no Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig to put some shine over the whole thing.

Is it a bad film? No. It has some interesting beats, and the film's energy keeps the audience intrigued. But it's also forgettable, failing to make the impression of other Ritchie films.

2.5/5 Stars

San Andreas
San Andreas(2015)
½

Less of an action disaster movie and more of a parody of one, San Andreas fails to interest, excite, or entertain. It's a film that is so poorly executed that anything more than a cursory critique of it would be superfluous. The best one can say is that the film proves, beyond a doubt, that the biggest budget, the best CGI, the loudest devastation, and unprecedented carnage doesn't equal a competent movie when there is no heart, no craft, no originality, and, worst of all, no characterization of any note.

Pseudoscience is a given in Hollywood, but San Andreas takes it to a next level. A massive tectonic shift is occurring in the San Andreas fault, resulting in unprecedented earthquakes, that have somehow become detectible at the very moment a new technology is developed. This is the plot. That, and the resulting devastation throughout California. Sure, the film does have characters, technically, but they are so shallow, so clichéd, so poorly delivered that we care nothing for them. The film telegraphs its intentions light-years ahead of when it actually occurs in the movie, and, as a result, we care nothing for it. With no emotional investment in the cast, all of the destruction feels unbelievably unmoving.

This is not to say I expected anything outside of B disaster flick. That's fine, and I like them. Some of them actually rank among my favorite films (Armageddon, Independence Day), yet San Andreas fails to do what even a competent genre piece would-inject humor, wit, and likable characters. We get none of that, the humor only lies in the absurdity of the film, whose self-seriousness stifles any mercy for being self-are (it's not).

Awful.

1.5/5 Stars

Bridge of Spies
½

Embodying the definition of captivating, Bridge of Spies proves to be smart, enthralling, and a genuinely moving tale, as told by the prolific Steven Speilberg. The film follows a high-profile insurance attorney who becomes assigned to the unpopular and potentially career-damaging case of defending a suspected spy. This, in turn, leads to a wider geopolitical entanglement with potentially disastrous implications.

Bridge of Spies proves to be a most interesting film, one that takes unexpected directions and ends with remarkable poignancy. From watching the trailers and knowing Spielberg's history and tell-tale filmmaking, I was sure I knew what I was getting in to, yet Bridge of Spies proved to be both imminently enjoyable and unique. We think we are in for an idealistic battle, with the headstrong attorney James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) standing up to the powers that be, yet instead we get a tale of wider depth. It's a story with nuance, filled with themes of forgiveness, humanity, tragedy, and intrigue. More importantly, it works on every one of those levels-a thrill ride through and through.

Where Bridge of Spies is the strongest is with the smart screenplay. The dialogue is excellent, the characters interesting and the storyline well conceived. This is combined with Spielberg's expert direction, with beautifully rendered scenes that accentuate the acting and dialogue, and doesn't lose the subtlety rendered by the script. The writers also weave in a number of subplots that are seamlessly woven to create a very fascinating story that has all the stakes of a geopolitical thriller, yet on a more intimate scale.

The acting, of course, is masterful. Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances in years, and Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel proves to steal the show. His matter of fact confidence and coolness absolutely defines the film, and fits perfectly with the tone. It's neither an indictment of him nor exoneration, rather an objective look at the larger stakes at play.

Fantastic.

4.5/5 Stars

The Martian
The Martian(2015)

Science fiction master filmmaker Ridley Scott returns to form with The Martian, an entertaining, intelligent, timely, and gorgeous film. Set in the not too distant future, the film follows an ill-fated mission to Mars that leaves one astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), stranded. Through ingenuity, cunning pragmatism, and sheer will Watney is able to survive while an Earth-based NASA scrambles to conceive of a rescue mission.

In many ways, The Martian captures what Ridley's previous sci-fi films did so well, capture a sense of vastness that makes space both immaculately beautiful and also daunting, while at the same time keeping the story anchored to the characters. These lead to his greatest success in both Alien and Blade Runner and while The Martian is not in those leagues, it still remains quite competent. To be sure, the caliber of the cast helped with this, as Matt Damon really did do a masterful job, keeping the humanity and charm of his character while also becoming increasingly vulnerable. The rest of the cast ranges from quite capable (Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain) to a bit underwhelming (Kristin Wiig, Kate Mara). Yet Ridley keeps the focus on the human dynamics at play, and never sacrifices story for spectacle.
Ridley also shows a certain restraint for most of the film. His methodical buildups are signature, and the Martian is true to form. The characters are given time to grow, and we greatly enjoy seeing the humor and brilliant Watney is able to conjure up in the face of such a barren situation. We grow with him, and become extremely invested in his fate.

To be sure, the film is not without some flaws. There was more than a few PC strains running through it. The multi cultural cast was pronounced and seemed more a ploy for wider marketing success than an organic outgrowth to the story, specifically the awkward subplot involving the Chinese. Moreover, the last act becomes increasingly unrealistic and nearly botches all of the dramatic license that Ridley had bought for it by his prior restraint. We still stay with the film, but credibility becomes greatly strained.

Overall, a strong film.

4/5 Stars

Sicario
Sicario(2015)

Exceedingly bleak, brooding, violent and yet unapologetic, Sicario is a mature film conceived and executed by mature filmmakers. When tensions rise on the US-Mexico border, a task force is assembled, enlisting a passionate yet naïve FBI agent (Emily Blunt) to aid in its efforts. The goals and actions of the task force represent a departure the young agent is not yet willing to make, yet feels inexplicably logical in an illogical world.

With Sicario, talented director Denis Villeneuve takes on the drug war in really an unprecedented way. Its' political overtones, realism, and cynicism is reminiscent of the great Traffic, yet without the overwrought indignation. It's a slow burn, with a methodical build up and a matter-a-fact way of examining the brutality and carnage that cartels engage in, without glossing over government complicity. Vilenueve pulls no punches, and succeeds in making a film that is both enthralling and cerebral. It has a point of view, yet the viewer has to make their own interpretations. Shades of gray abound, a laudable departure from a genre that otherwise can succumb to less nuanced stories.

The film's ensemble cast is second to none, featuring marvelous performances from all involved, including Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro. Toro, for his part, showed a depth I haven't before seen from him. The chemistry between the cast is palpable and the direction brings the best out of the actors, whose complex characterizations all bring a much needed wrinkle to a the story.

Toward the end, one would wish for more exploration of the film's major revelation, feeling a bit unsatisfying in the last act. Yet it still manages to bring something to the table that past genre pieces have not, a very real sense of hopelessness that, if never confronted, will never be defeated.

4/5 Stars

The Hateful Eight

Managing to be lethargic, confined, over-the-top, humorous, and relentlessly violent all at once, Hateful Eight represents Quentin Tarantino's eight directorial effort. It's a film with some merit and high notes, but also one less polished, less entertaining, and less memorable than his other entries.
Set in the decade following the Civil War, the film finds a group of rough, rugged, and cynically tough bounty hunters, purported sheriffs, and otherwise shady cowboys, whose fates all seemingly are tied up in one Daisy Doumergue, a "nasty bitch" as apparently agreed upon by all. As with any Tarantino movie there's intrigue, suspicion, paranoia, violence, and lots of offensive moments, elements which all melt together as a sort of revisionist history of the West, one with the stylistic flair Quentin is ever so famous for.

Is it a good film? Perhaps. There are certainly many elements of it, a very strong ensemble cast with excellent performances by all, notably Samuel Jackson and Kurt Russell. The film's moments of violence are both well choreographed and earned, as well as spontaneous. There's dialogue that, while perhaps not true to the time, are certainly befitting of the wild frontier and its characters. Though it boarders it at first, you can hardly call it dull.
What, then, makes it difficult to whole heartedly endorse Hateful Eight? The first two thirds of the film drag. Granted, characterizations are being developed, but the culmination of it all simply takes too long to be had. Second, for such a grand landscape, it's a confined film that feels more like an adapted stage play than an actual film. This sense of confinement doesn't achieve the sort of desolate isolation that say, The Thing, manages to do, rather it seems to give the film less room to breathe.

Thirdly, Tarantino is an undeniably divisive figure, and it's starting to show more in his films. That there's racial tensions post Civil-War era America is undeniable, yet Tarantino exploits this for cheap racial demagoguery. It's as if the existence of racism is a platform for unbridled violence and hatred, all the meanwhile exacerbating what is supposedly being fought. This is ever so in play in Hateful Eight, which features many conversations that exist only to denigrate whites, notably southern whites, and seek to ridicule, demonize, and therefore simplify a much more complicated and layered time than Tarantino wants to admit. Simply put, he's become a demagogue filmmaker and it's wearing thin.

A slow burn, but with some pay-off.


3/5 Stars

Room 237
Room 237(2013)

Enigmatic. Brilliant. Genius. Groundbreaking. These are all words that describe Stanley Kubrick, the filmmaker whose work is analyzed in Room 237, a documentary that features many different voices whose take on Kubrick's vaunted The Shinning defies mainstream analysis, to say the least. These are not words that describe this documentary, however, as it proves to be at first alluring, but later frustrating and inaccessible.

That Kubrick's work spawns so many theories is a testament to the greatness of the man and his work. To be sure, there are some fascinating aspects to his career, and the symbolism of many of his films seems to be undeniable. Some of the theories regarding what Stanley was trying to convey are quite compelling, and I was hoping for a thoughtful exploration of these theories.

What Room 237 does, however, is really present more of a mash up of theories. We never see the interviewee's faces; we are simply given their narration against film rolls of Kubrick's different films. There are too many voices and too little delineation between them. Trains of thought wonder and never seem to be honed in. There's interesting things said, but little exploration of it. Points are never contrasted, and instead the viewer is left to try and sort this all out themselves.

Dull analysis is mixed in with rather fascinating analysis, such as Kubrick's alleged collaboration in regards to the moon landing. Instead of capitalizing on this and providing opposing viewpoints, and perhaps challenging some of the points presented, the film simply goes on to the next talking-head, with no real sense of direction. This leads to a frustrating and inaccessible experience, we want to learn, but instead become bored and disinterested.

Simply put, it's a documentary without a rudder.

2/5 Stars

The Big Short
½

A scathing indictment, a penetrating character study, a political satire, and alternatively a funny yet serious drama, The Big Short is 2015?s most unique film. Based on the book by the same name, the film follows a group of cynical, shrewd, and opportunistic fund managers and Wall Street brokers as they uncover what will soon become the worldwide economic collapse of 07/08. It?s a film that both explores, explains, and revels in the absurdity that lead to the mortgage collapse- condensing a incredibly complicated financial instruments in to a human drama that sifts through all the bravo sierra to the heart of the matter?fraud and greed.

Director Adam McKay takes a pretty stark career turn with Big Short, a film with a profoundly serious subject, yet one that McKay manages to find humor in. It?s entertaining, thought-provoking, and yet relentlessly brutal in its pursuit of the truth. The film?s cast is nothing short of exceptional, featuring an ensemble including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling. All bring a unique style to the film and inhibit their roles, with an especially impressive showing from both Bale and Carell, enough to garner some award buzz to be sure.

The film?s pace is solid, and McKay does a great job interweaving the different subplots to create one over-arching storyline that is secondary to what we all know is about to happen. The film?s moral outrage is palpable, yet justified, a bit preachy, but not singular in its blame. What keeps it anchored is a very intelligent script filled with rich dialogue, smart humor, and attention to detail which refuses to oversimplify what occurred.

For some, the film?s eccentricities can be a bit much. It breaks the fourth wall often, which is unsettling at first, and often employs devices such as on-screen definitions, supplied with randomly assorted celebrity break-ins to explain some financial instrument. This contributes to the film?s uniqueness, yet also can result in a disjointed feel from the overall narrative. All in all, McKay?s indulgences as a director pay off more than they don?t, yet there is some inconsistency. The tone is a bit hard to decipher, a comedy in one sense and a drama in the other, yet McKay navigates this by finding dark, cynical, and authentic humor. Simply put, it fits, the cast seems to be thinking??if I didn?t laugh, I?d cry? and we get that.

A must see.

4.5/5 Stars

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
½

Energetic, unabashedly nostalgic, enthralling, and brilliantly executed, The Force Awakens takes the dormant Star Wars franchise and propels it forward for a new generation. It's a film with flaws, yet one which overcomes those flaws by shear force and excitement. Somewhere between the glory of the original Lucas trilogy and the stupendously disappointing prequels, lands Episode VII, and where it ultimately ends up will depend in great deal as to what happens in the next installments.

The greatest failing of the prequel trilogy was the inability of Lucas to recapture the bold, edgy, and incredibly endearing feel and atmosphere of his original trilogy. With this rebooting, director JJ Abrams does not repeat that same mistake, and instead focuses on what made Star Wars the franchise that redefines box office records and spurs decade's long allegiances. He injects irreverent humor, respects what came before, and, above all, keeps the film focused on the characters. The cast, a very talented bunch, yields a strong balance between the old heavyweights and some remarkable new finds, namely that of Daisy Ridley, whose character is undoubtedly slated for cinematic greatness. Reprising his role as Han Solo, Harrison Ford nearly single-handedly validates Force Awakens as a worthy successor, and serves as an undeniable bridge between the old and the new.

Like any Abrams film, the action here is energetic, fun, loud, and yet not pristine. There's a very human element to everything from X-Wing fights to light saber battles, harkening back to the endearing "scruffy" nature of Lucas's originals, always with an eye towards the characters and their interpersonal battles rather than the mere fight itself. He keeps a fast pace, perhaps a little too quick out of the gates, and yet doesn't sacrifice the dramatic heft he is able to sustain. It is, undoubtedly, one of his best directorial outings.

One cannot deny, however the noted flaws of Force Awakens. For all his later faults and disappointments, Lucas had a grip and respect for the mythology that is simply not really present here. The prequels, as lackluster as they were, explored the force in a way that is never really touched upon here. In episodes 4-6, Luke only gradually learns the ways of the force and then must try and fail to hone those skills. There is no such reservations in Force Awakens, characters seemingly channel it at will with little effort or practice-Rey has as much apparent mastery of it that Luke gained over the course of at least two films.

I was also rather unimpressed with Supreme Leader Snoke, who seemed like a character borrowed from the Lord of the Rings rather than a true Star Wars villain. Along the same lines, the political structure of Awakens is exceedingly murky. What is this new Order about, how did it grow out of the ashes of the Empire, and how did the Republic rise again, only to fall? What is the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance? All of these are questions that will hopefully be explored at some point.

Perhaps the most common criticism of Force Awakens will be, and for good reason, the derivative nature of it. The film essentially borrows from all of the major plot points of IV, V, and VI and mashes them up in to one film. The similarities between A New Hope and Awakens are undeniable, which is okay in some respects-there's clearly an attempt for Rey to have a similar hero's journey, but also unimaginative and hokey when it relies one nearly identical plot devices ("Death Star").

All in all, Awakens is not a perfect film, yet it's a worthy one. It's a film that lives up to the emotional hype that is Star Wars and provides for the most entertaining ride of the year.

4.5/5 Stars

It Follows
It Follows(2015)

An original concept with strong execution, It Follows represents the rare horror film that departs from formula and injects something new to the genre. In the film a teenager inexplicably finds herself followed by an entity that won't let her go and can't easily be shaken.

Director David Robert Mitchell delivers a film that excels at methodical storytelling. There are no cheap scares, no contrived sequences, and no overtly predictable moments. It's a film that, assuming you get in to the premise, is chilling and also engaging. A film that respects the audience's attention span, and one that has an appreciation for earned scares, and earned horror.

The acting is good, though not great, a seemingly rather low budget affair. The methodical pace does get a bit slow and things are never as fleshed out as they should be. Yet that's also part of the fun, this is a horror film that doesn't immediately bog you down with exposition and 'rules' rather revels in the inexplicable nature of it all.

4/5 Stars

Mad Max: Fury Road
½

Loud, proud, and yet relentlessly incoherent, Mad Max: Fury Road is a disaster of a film masquerading as bold. A reboot, at least of sorts, of the franchise previously headlined by Mel Gibson, director George Miller brings the outlandish post-apocalyptic world back to the screen. We find Max (Tom Hardy) captured at the hands of a crazed war lord, only to find himself mixed up in the escape of the vaunted female Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the Warlord's many prized wives.

Those that are prone to like Mad Max will point to the action scenes as proof of the film's inventive and unabashedly brutal nature. To a large extent this is true, the film does look good, and the action sequences feature uniquely conceived devices, feel impactful, and are extremely well choreographed and otherwise executed. Mad Max, to be sure, can be fun to watch. This is all fine until the point in which one dares to ask, 'what am I watching'?

Simply put, Mad Max is an absolute narrative mess. Very little is explained, only the thinnest most idiotic delivered exposition is ever given, and then the sole purpose is to set up a 10 or 15 minute fight or chase scene, meanwhile leaving any characterization, plot, or coherent narrative structure in the dust. Big vehicles blowing up are good, eyes being gouged out-that's great, but in order to constitute a movie there needs to be some semblance of a storyline, some reason for us to be invested in the characters.

The script deficiencies don't stop at a lack of storytelling, the dialogue is extremely sparse and quite literally dumbed-down. It feels as if it's penned by a behavior disorder fifth grader trying to be naughty during language arts. Utter nonsense comes out of characters with inexplicable motivations, histories, or personas.

One might think the film's cast, featuring Charlize Theoron and Tom Hardy would be a saving grace. Talented actors as they are, they are adrift in a film that wallows in absurdity and disorganization. Neither actor is developed, and one must ask, why Max had the honor of the film's title? The character of Max in this film is relegated to that of a side character, and a rather uninteresting one at that. The reasons for this are curious and perhaps politically motivated but, regardless, it was a dumb one. Hardy is an incredible talent and to have him so underutilized is perhaps one of the greatest cinematic crimes of 2015.

Outrageously terrible.

1.5/5 Stars

Spectre
Spectre(2015)

Grandiose, action packed, and staged on a nearly unprecedented scale, Spectre is a Bond film that proves to be a spectacle in every sense of the word. A cryptic message from the departed M sends Bond on the trail of a secretive organization whose orchestrations were around him all along. It's a film that seeks to tie the other entries together, to call upon the previous storylines to coalesce in one omnipresent villain.

For any discerning viewer, Casino Royale and Skyfall rank among the greatest bond films ever made. The rebooted series with Daniel Craig has proved to be more intelligent, impacting, darker, brooding, and intensive than other installments, through the gritty performance of Craig, whose Bond is suave, yet flawed, slick, yet imperfect. There were still hints, of course, of over-the-top plot devices and action scenes, yet it never succumbed to the one-note corny storylines of Bond films past. With Spectre, however, there seems to be a disappointing departure from this formula.

Is the film well composed? It is- Sam Mendes keeps a methodical yet brisk pace, and has some stunning cinematography, never afraid of the long continuous take. He injects gravitas in to action scenes which, by their sheer absurdity, wouldn't have it otherwise. Daniel Craig remains strong, yet his supporting cast is never as complementary of him as it should be, a product undoubtedly of the criminal underutilization of Christoph Waltz.

Where I was disappointed with Spectre most was with its script. It's devoid of any of the characterization that made Skyfall so brilliant, and instead features gimmicky plot devices, and sloppy writing that makes obscenely simplistic logical leaps. Entire global conspiracies are uncovered within mere seconds of typing on a computer; clues are somehow derived out of osmosis. In short, what the film pretends is deeply hidden is only a retread of the same plot devices used in less compelling Bond films-a cheesy villain with some obscure plan for world domination that is inexplicable in motivations and logistics. This bleeds in to the action, with scenes gaining increasing absurdity and with little sense of stakes or characters.

Overall, it's an entertaining film, yes, but also the weakest of the Craig era.

Slow West
Slow West(2015)
½

An exercise in subtle, quiet, and poetic filmmaking, Slow West is a familiar western story done in an unfamiliar way. The film follows a teen boy, recently emigrating from Scotland, in search for a woman he loves. That woman, Rose, becomes that center of attention for numerous bounty hunters as her and her father become wanted over a supposed murder.

First time director John Maclean gives an impressively mature feel to the film, which features a number of impressive performances, headlined by Michael Fassbender. He is able to find a unique tone of the film and stick with it, one that is matter-of-fact, oddly cold, and peculiarly disinterested with the triumph or failure of the characters. It's a movie that deals with themes of love and death, but in a nearly nihilistic way, with a sort of forlorn sensibility that permeates the story. There's fairly sparse dialogue, but some humor. It's a slow build, but also accented with moments of peak action.

It's never dull, but Slow West is also never really enveloping. It borders on too detached; we don't feel tied to any one character. It's almost as if we're watching a documentary, we appreciate the realism, but fail to identify with the heart of the story.

3.5/5 Stars

Beasts of No Nation

Devastating brutal, and unflinching, Beasts of No Nation is an honest look at the horrors of a civil war conflict in Africa. It's a film of violence and repulsiveness, such as can only be witnessed in such carnage. Following a young boy who becomes conscripted in to rebel faction of a resistance group, Beasts of No Nation transports us in to a tragedy that is all too real, yet little talked about.

The film's uniqueness has largely been focused on its release venue through Netflix, which is proving to be ingenious, yet one must also acknowledge the achievement by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director. He brings to life what could be any number of war-torn regions, and focuses his craft on conveying the sheer emotion and the stupendous brutality of the situation. That is to say, it's not the fact of who's fighting or why that's important, all of that is mostly irrelevant; it's the toll that the war has that's important. That is follows a child-soldier makes it all the more impactful, and Cary brings a very talented cast together. This cast, of course, is headlined by Idris Elba, who deserves a nomination for his performance.

It's a film that is hard to watch, yet necessary. Bleak, yet honest. If there's a criticism, it's that the underlining humanity is perhaps lost a bit, it can be very difficult to enjoy without an emotional undercurrent for the viewer to follow. Yet it seeks to challenge the viewer and does so unapologetically, with strong
performances, a smart script, and all-too realistic execution.

4/5 Stars

Black Mass
Black Mass(2015)

Dark, brooding, relentlessly violent and yet oddly compelling, Black Mass is a film that doesn't disappoint, yet also doesn't surprise. Set in 1970s Boston, Black Mass tells the story of notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, whose exploits resulted in the murder of likely dozens of victims and an immeasurable amount of carnage, all with the tacit acquiescence (at the least) of the FBI. It's a film of extreme brutality and remarkable coldness.

With Black Mass, talented director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart) takes on a story that could go in a number of different directions. Would the focus be on the amazing eluding of capture, the fall from greatness, or the rise of his criminal empire? What Cooper chose to do was follow the rise of Jimmy ("whitey") via those around him that were destroyed in his wake, notably FBI agent John Connolly. Like any biopic, the film rests on the strength of its cast. In the case of Black Mass, that cast is an extremely talented ensemble with outstanding performances from all involved, headlined by Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger. His performance was enveloping and quite something to watch. Detached, vile, unpredictable, and ruthless Whitey was a force unto his own. Depp personifies all of this, and does it without going over-the-top and still preserving some nuance.

Along with the talented acting, the script was also surprisingly strong. The Bulger story is a complicated one. The narrative put out by the FBI was sharply contradicted by Bulger, who maintains he was never an informer, but rather got informed too. The film seems to find a middle route, suggesting an alliance, which was mutually beneficial, but certainly weighed in Bulger's favor. It handles the major events without sacrificing a coherent narrative, and stays anchored to the characters rather than a complete re-telling of events.

Cooper's direction takes a while to get used to, but ultimately cements the film as something that stays with you. It's calculating and unattached, yet mature and atmospheric. If there's a criticism to be had, however, it's that the film is too far severed from its characters. The great mob films of all time, namely those from Scorsese, have recognized the need to have a personal revealing of the narrative. Had the film gone first-person I feel it would have been more enveloping and endearing to the audience. As it is, there is really no one to identify with, undercutting the film's sense of stakes as we care for no one, despite how interested we may be in the ride.

Solid all around, yet not a game-changer.

4/5 Stars

Monsters
Monsters(2010)

For a low-budget attempt at a monster blockbuster, Monster's isn't half bad. Set six years after the discovery of possible alien life, the film explores the ramification of transplanted alien life on Earth. Upon the crash of a probe upon re-entry, half of Mexico becomes quarantined, in a joint effort by the US and Mexican militaries to contain the monsters. It's an interesting premise, executed with mixed results.

Upon watching Monsters, one is struck by the mature and highly competent direction of Gareth Edwards. The film has deficiencies as far as casting talent and writing, yet Edwards is able to effectively mask those with crisp direction, combined with surprisingly effective visuals. It's a great looking film, and never feels cheaply staged.

The film's cast is adequate, but there is some stilted acting. The story focuses too much on a supposed budding chemistry between its two stars, which feels false and a bit clichéd. The political themes are anything but subtle, but also easy to ignore due to their superficial stupidity.

What it succeeds at is keeping the audience intrigued, and delivering enough on its premise to distinguish itself from the monster drama, most notably, what would it be like to live with such creatures as an accepted fact? In other words, what would containment vs. all out war look like?

3/5 Stars

The Judge
The Judge(2014)
½

Flawed in its writing but skilled in execution and style, The Judge is a film that we want to love but only end up liking. It's a film of emotion, regrets, family dynamics, and also a film of clichés and melodrama. Following the death of his mother, big city lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns home only to find his family marred in a scandal involving his terminally-ill cantankerous father.

There are many elements of The Judge that we have seen countless times, which speaks to film's biggest flaw; it's essentially a synthesis of a plethora of platitudes and clichés, glossed over by some great acting and competent direction. The cast is strong, Robert Downey Jr. is exceptionally impressive, and the chemistry between him and Duvall elevates the otherwise familiar material. Throughout the first two-thirds of the film, no real risks or taken. We feel we know what direction it will go, and are only half-amused at some of the attempts at humor and forced drama. Yet, with Downey's wit and the sharp direction of David Dobkin, the film is always watchable. It is in the last act that is becomes something more, chances are taken and dramatically it becomes a much more interesting film.

Worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars

The Woman in Black 2 Angel of Death
½

A sequel made for no apparent reason nor with any zeal, Woman in Black 2 is a film the feels helplessly pointless, devoid of scares, story, and any hint of originality.
To say Woman in Black 2 is an incoherent film is perhaps an understatement, it's hard to understand what exactly is going on in the film at any point in time, not that we would care anyway. The narrative is a jumbled mess, the motivations of the woman in black are murky, the dynamics of the haunting unclear and what exactly is wanted of the characters is ambiguous.

Essentially, the film's narrative structure amounts transporting us to the same location of the first film, filling it with children, and having scattered moments of nonsensical 'scares' and erratic movement followed by dull half-exposition with mediocre acting. It's neither scary nor interesting by any stretch of the imagination.

Director Tom Harper does show some skill with his cinematography, the film certainly is atmospheric. But, as the saying goes, there's no there, there.

1.5/5 Stars

The Gift
The Gift(2015)

Intelligent, daring, methodical, and maturely rendered, The Gift is an uncommon film. It's a film that takes chances, thrills you with its audacity and quiets you with its turns. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, it's a gem of a film that deserves to be seen and appreciated.

With The Gift, we find a young married couple who relocate in the hopes of starting a new life. When a strange man professing to be an acquaintance from high school shows up (Joel Edgerton), we find a web of intrigue, fear, scandal, and mystery. It's a film that is beautifully acted, with impressive performances by Jason Bateman, Joel Edgerton, and Rebecca Hall.
Director/actor Edgerton methodically builds up the suspense, handles the twists, and guides the narrative to be an especially impactful experience. He doesn't aim for cheap thrills or forced drama, but is rather more concerned with the human dynamics at play. The authenticity that he achieves is what makes the film so successful; the realism is felt at every turn.

The film's methodical build-up does perhaps drag on a bit, it's definitely a slow burn. But for the mature audience who appreciates well conceived drama, it's a success from start to finish-with a chilling ending sure to please.

4/5 Stars

Inherent Vice

Lengthy, convoluted, relentlessly incoherent and yet professionally composed, Inherent Vice is a frustrating film; it refuses to be bad, and yet refuses to let you in its story.

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, it has all of his hallmark traits, stylized dialogue, long takes, methodical story building, and an almost surrealist tone.

When at his best, his films are mature, enveloping, and leave you felling intelligently tested (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master). Other times, however, his work becomes almost self-involved, inaccessible, and adrift in its own pretensions (Magnolia). Inherent Vice is, unfortunately, largely an example of the latter.

The film has an amazing cast, all of whom bring their best to the table. The mood is pitch perfect for noir, and the dialogue rich with complexity. The script, however, is a meandering mess of an incoherent story. Red herrings populate the screen, leaving no coherent or decipherable plot line to be followed. The characters are fun to watch, certainly, and the scenarios are often humorous, to be sure. There is plenty of intrigue, and the actors are all highly competent, yet Anderson overplays this. If the audience doesn't feel let in, it becomes nearly impossible to empathize, to anticipate, and to enjoy. At first we admire the eccentric nature of the film, but this soon wears thin, with the 2.5 hour run time being keenly felt. Are patience is tested, and eventually, wasted, on a film which seemingly lacks respect for what storytelling should always be.

A frustrating, however professional, mess of a film.

2/5 Stars

The Expendables 3

Expendables 3 hits on all the familiar notes with an over-the-top approach befitting of the franchise. It's loud, frantically kinetic, and mostly enjoyable, yet also derivative and a bit ho-hum considering what came before it. The cameos are non-stop, and the additions of Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson are more impressive on paper than in reality, feeling underutilized in a rather incoherent script, even for Expendables standards. To be sure, it doesn't pretend to be more than it is, a dumb B action movie, and there is plenty of that, yet nothing more.

Southpaw
Southpaw(2015)

Intensely emotional, visceral, compelling, and unnerving, Southpaw is a Rocky for a new generation. It's a boxing movie, a character study, and a drama. When the reckless but talented boxer Billy Hope finds everything around him falling apart, fueled by the loss of his wife, he is left to reinvent himself, finding a strength that had previously been masked.

Talented director Antoine Fuqua channels his knack for melodrama with Southpaw, which turns out to be one of the bleakest movies of the year. The loss of his wife, the taking of his kids, his loss of regard for his own life, all of this on the surface might seem like forced drama, and it easily could have been had it not been for Fuqua's mature direction and a pretty sharp script. Instead, these events carry an authenticity to them and, even more, and audacity to them. Hope, played brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a very nuanced character, strongly resilient and yet frail with vulnerability. He transcends any hint of melodrama by completely enveloping his role, and commanding every scene he is in.

The film does perhaps falter towards the end, failing to really accentuate on its larger themes, yet we have to judge the film largely but its emotional resonance. It's huge with Southpaw. We feel every tragedy, cheer for his success, and otherwise empathize with him every step of the way. So, while the end journey isn't particularly unique, the path there is.

A success.

4/5 Stars

Draft Day
Draft Day(2014)
½

Dramatic, exciting, and yet undeniably commercialized, Draft Day is a sort of poor man's Moneyball. As the name would suggest, it revolves around the exploits of GM Sonny Weaver as his team prepares for the much-hyped Draft Day.

What I expected going in to Draft Day was something completely pandering to the NFL, a sort of 2 hour promo for the league and it's growing commercial power and branding. What I actually got was some of that, but also a rather interesting character drama, lead by the great Kevin Costner. His Weaver is a man of insecurity, uncertainty, and yet one of confidence and boldness. It's a perfect combination, and perhaps a rather accurate combination of modern-day NFL execs. Costner is, by far, the most capable actor on screen, and the most interesting. When the film stays with him, it succeeds, and fortunately director Ivan Reitman recognized that.

There are clichés to be had, and many of the side characters didn't work for me, especially Jennifer Garner (whom I quite like), but it manages to remain relevant by surprising the viewer. There's a real heart to be had in the story, and a lesson to be learned. It doesn't redefine the sports movie genre, but it keeps us entertained.

3.5/5 Stars

Insidious: Chapter 3

Scary as it is lively, Insidious Chapter 3 is the rare sequel (technically prequel) that does the nearly impossible, add a new chapter with a largely new cast, and still feel warranted. Set prior to the Lambert family haunting, Insidious 3 tells the story of a young girl who becomes tormented by a dangerous supernatural entity, getting the reluctant psychic Elise Rainier to come to her aid.

Like the previous installments, Insidious continues its stylized take on the horror genre, combing motifs and imagery from other countries to unveil its own unique sense of terror. This is accomplished by strong direction by Leigh Whannell which keeps the film moving at a pace which leads to a slow build, but effective thrills. The cast is well conceived, with an especially impressive performance by Stefanie Scott. It's a film that manages to keep it's scares fresh and unexpected, and isn't' afraid to push its own boundaries. It does all this with a mature polish all too uncommon for the genre.

Solid all around.

4/5 Stars

Terminator Genisys
½

Alternatively frustrating and enthralling, yet ultimately satisfying, Terminator Genisys manages to repeat the same beats of the prior installments, essentially repeating formula, complicate the mythology more, and yet still come out as a pretty good movie. How it does this is perhaps as inexplicable as is its mess of a timeline.

What Terminator 3 and certainly Terminator Salvation lost is what Terminator Genisys found. Genuine thrills with characters we are, to varying degrees, invested with. It's what Judgement Day did so brilliantly, and Genesis manages to get a slice of that. The director, Alan Taylor, strikes a nice balance between exploring the growing mythology, and keeping us on our toes with some impressive action sequences. The performances are good, endearingly so with Arnold, and the plot takes a unique twist. It essentially negates all previous films which, at first is frustrating, but then becomes fun because the film is just that, enjoyable. There's some plot holes, absolutely, but Genesis respects what the original set out to do, and takes its own plot twists seriously. In other words, what at first seems like an excuse to have another film becomes a rather interesting exercise-what would it look like if everything was turned on its head?

Yes, there are clichés a plenty, and the last act is hopelessly predictable, but the spirit of the Terminator franchise feels enlivened by Genysis, making it, ultimately, a success.

3.5/5 Stars

Ex Machina
Ex Machina(2015)

Mature, thought provoking, and surprising, Ex Machina is yet another laudable film from writer/director Alex Garland. As the result of a lottery of sorts a young programmer is selected to engage in an experiment, testing the artificial intelligence of a cutting edge AI creation from an eccentric wealthy tech giant.

What I appreciated most about Ex Machina was the inherent intellectual dilemma at its heart. What defines intelligence? What's the nature of thought, and how do we know something is truly thinking? When do rights come in to play? It explores these questions in subtle ways, through a story full of intrigue, character study, and ultimately thrills. The cast is strong as a whole, though I contend that Domhall Gleeson was a bit uneven in his delivery, and the special effects fantastic. It's a film that puts plot first, and treats its audience with intelligence. There's no spoon-feeding or pandering, just an original story with first-class filmmaking.

In the end, it's more of an intellectual workout than a sensory overload, and that's all too rare in Hollywood.

4/5 Stars

Stonehearst Asylum
½

Clever, well-acted, and entertainingly executed, Stonehearst Asylum is a nice under-the-radar psychological thriller piece. In it, we find a recent medical school grad taking up a position at a mental institution, turn of the century, only to find things are not as they seem. There are twists, turns, and horror, albeit with some raised eyebrows.

That Stonehearst is even remotely compelling is due mostly to its cast, a talented ensemble team. None more exciting to watch, however, than Ben Kingsley, whose embodiment of his character steals the attention in every scene. To be sure, the twists do start to get ahead of the film, and the third act almost falls apart. Yet, the originality in the beginning, and the slow unveil make it standout, along with the strong performances.

Interesting.

3.5/5 Stars

Jurassic World

Exciting, well-acted, bursting with stunning CGI, and relentlessly engaging, Jurassic World proves itself to be the strongest of the franchise since its original. Unlike most sequels or reboots, Jurassic World actually manages to weave an interesting twist to the franchise, by introducing the concept of genetically modifying its creatures, creating not mere dinosaurs, but an actual monster.

Admittedly, Jurassic World does start a bit clunky and cliché. The over-concerned parents, the precocious know-it-all child, and the girl-crazed teen. But instead of wallowing in its clichés, and throwing action set pieces at us, we get a film that takes its drama much more seriously. Director Collin Trevorrow lets us relate to the characters organically, with a cast that works seamlessly together. The performances from all involved are terrific, with Chris Pratt being the most surprising.

By far, the greatest aspect of the film is the special effects. They are magnificently executed, a visual spectacle and grandeur worthy of the story-line. The action pieces are weaved with the characters and the story in a way that lets the story unfold coherently (basically the opposite of a Michael Bay film).

An excellent summer block-buster

4/5 Stars

Spy
Spy(2015)
½

Unoriginal, flatly executed, and overblown, Spy is the sort of comedy that thinks it's hilarious and assumes you do as well, without earning it. The very set-up of a heavy-set and mild mannered Melissa McCarthy being put in a James-bond esque role sounds perhaps mildly amusing, and it is, but its novelty wears off quickly. The gags are heavily exaggerated and much too drawn out, the plot absurdly nonsensical, and the humor much too one-note. The movie thinks constant fat/ugly jokes about McCarthy is simply hysterical, and thinks it's even more hysterical when she turns the tables by having an "f bomb" tirade. It's not. The film feels like an SNL skit stretched way too far.

Disappointing.

1.5/5 Stars

Selma
Selma(2015)

Selma

Inspiring, heartfelt, and resonate without being condescending or pandering, Selma is the rare example of Hollywood taking the civil rights genre seriously. Essentially a chronicle of the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, the famed march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Selma is a film that looks at the civil rights struggle from a mature perspective. We are not treated to villains or saints, but instead people in a real-life struggle. We see MLK not as a pure man, but a flawed man with astute political calculations. We finally get a depiction of LBJ which is at least somewhat unflattering, a man whose treatment in history is much to whitewash.

An overall even-handed and emotionally compelling film.

4/5 Stars

Chef
Chef(2014)

Writer, director, and actor Jon Favreau cements his place as an underrated Hollywood gem with Chef, a film that surprises with its ingenuity. Focused on a chef who suffers humiliation at the hands of a critic and then finds his true calling and happiness in the form of a broken-down food truck, Chef is a Hollywood film that stands out from the rest. We get characters with nuance and heart, we get positivity, we get humor, and we get an outstanding study of family dynamics. It is perhaps the greatest example of a modern day father-son relationship as has yet to be put on screen. It's funny, engaging, heart-felt, and intelligent and a must see.

A huge win for Favreau.

4/5 Stars

Begin Again
Begin Again(2014)
½

Fresh, heartfelt, entertaining, and immensely memorable, Begin Again is a drama that packs a punch and lifts the heart. When a broken hearted amateur musician meets a washed-up musical producer, the pair create a tandem that turns their weakness in to strength, and brings a renewed sense of vigor and purpose to their lives. It's a funny film, it's an authentic film, and it's a near brilliant piece of work.

Written and directed by John Carney, Begin Again is one of the more organic and resonating romantic dramas I've seen. Yes, music is a big part of what the film is, yet that takes a back seat to the bigger over-arching narrative at play, and hence its themes of love, life, and redemption in the face of cynicism and despair. It's about achieving, not settling. The performances are pitch perfect, one of the most underrated entries of Keira Knightley's career, and the script gives us mature ideas with a lively, organic, and transfixing direction.

4.5/5 Stars

Sound of My Voice
½

Sound of My Voice represents a low-budget indie film that both defies expectations but also fails to elevate them. In it, we find a young couple attempt to infiltrate a bizarre cult that follows a young woman claiming to be from the future. As events unfold, the intrigue widens, and the mystery seems to envelope all involved. It's a character study, a thriller, and a drama. A unique blend of indie of more mainstream suspense dramas, it's a film that deserves to be seen.

Despite being an unknown cast, one has to venerate the performances from all involved, especially by its most accomplished actor, the fantastic Brit Marling. She inhibits her role to an extraordinary degree, and brings just the right amount of ambiguity. That ambiguity serves the film well, as it's never predictable, yet does leave us a bit unfulfilled as the ending seems overly artsy and wavering.

3.5/5 Stars

The Purge: Anarchy

Familiar and uninspired, Purge: Anarchy suffers because there was a film before it, as no originality can be gleaned. The film telegraphs where it's going to go immediately, the characters are hopelessly clichéd or one-note, and the action not particularly effective. Does the film do what it sets out to do? Well there's violence and contrived interpersonal dynamics, but nothing is added to the mythology. Instead, the reasoning behind the purge and the opposition to it feel like race-baiting stereotypes or imagined villains. There's no real sense of stakes with this Purge.

A misfire.

2/5 Stars

Cold in July
Cold in July(2014)
½

A B horror film through and through, Cold in July never aims for an Academy award, yet provides enough guessing, enough twists, and enough intrigue to be a truly good thriller. In a rare example of a film that takes a completely different direction than you would think, we find small time family man Richard Dane unknowingly involved in a potentially deadly conspiracy, encompassing some of the most unlikely, and unseemly, characters you want to meet.

It's a methodical film, it takes a while to build, and yet it never loses us. The tension is felt throughout, and its major plot points, though surprising, never feel cheap or inorganic to what came before it. We are entreated to good performances by class A character actors, such as the venerable Sam Shepard. Director Jim Mickle guides the smartly penned film to be an effective, well-executed ride.

A fine genre piece.

3.5/5 Stars

The Theory of Everything
½

Theory of Everything

Overwrought, dull to an intolerable amount, and relentlessly boring, Theory of Everything is perhaps the most overrated film of 2014. A biopic of Stephen Hawking, centering on the on-set of his rare disease and the love of his first wife, the film wants us to feel connected to its story, and adoring of its subject. The result is a film that seemingly loses nuance or objectivity with its subject, and instead gives us a central story, that of the romance, that never feels real. The performances, though good, fail to gain any real chemistry.

Above all, the biggest fault of Theory of Everything is in the direction. James Marsh, as talented and as mature as he is, fails to engage the viewer. The pace is slower than innovation at the DMV and what we see fails to translate well to cinema, it's a story that feels forcibly put on to screen, and a drain on our time.

A disappointment.

2.5/5 Stars

As Above, So Below
½

As above, so below

Surprisingly engaging, and intriguing from the onset, As Above, So Below is a film that seemingly invigorates the found footage drama, at least to start. We find ourselves with a unique storyline, one which mixes mythology with real-life historical setting, and thrusts the viewer in without hand-holding. The direction is fast and energetic, the performances amazingly effective. The scares are genuine, and the tension is uncanny.

Where the film starts to veer, however, is about half way through when it seemingly loses all notions of constraint. Director Dowdle succumbs to gimmicks, as any sense of realism is lost and instead we are treated to a CGI spectacle of increasing absurdity. The film's script remains interesting, and we enjoy where it ends, yet had the film kept things more close to the chest, it could have been something much more.

3.5/5 Stars

Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs

Novel in some respects, but simplistic in others, Love and Other Drugs works as a romantic comedy, though it sometimes get lost in what it seemingly aspires to do--namely act as a satire on the pharmaceutical industry. It's generally funny, at least amusing, and the chemistry and comedic dynamic between Gyllenhaal and Hathaway keep the film engaging.

Where the film fails is in the character of Josh Randall, played by Josh Gad, whose antics are so over-the-top and so over-played so as to mute his character of any real substance. He's obnoxious for the sake of obnoxious, which is in contrast to the rest of the film which has more mature overtones. The satire of the pharmaceutical industry is also shallow, not taking the serious repercussions of these drugs seriously. Yes, it's a comedy, but when it wants to explore matters of life and death, a more nuanced take on the industry would seem appropriate.

3/5 Stars

Foxcatcher
Foxcatcher(2014)

Cold, slowly built, tragic and memorable, Foxcatcher is a true crime drama unlike any other. Based on the relationship between wealthy philanthropist John du Pont and two Olympic Gold medal winners, and du Pont's obsession with validating his fascination with wrestling, Foxcatcher is a story told uncommonly well.

What one has to appreciate most about the film is the script. It's intelligently penned, creating very complex and nuanced characters, placing them in relatable situations and delivering authentic relationship dynamics. The characterizations are thus the hallmark of the film, and its triumph. It features brilliant performances from all involved, but most notably from Steve Carell who easily gives the best performance of his career, as the disturbed, yet poised and detached du Pont.

The film has a methodical feel which at times is a bit too slow. Yet, the build off pays off. Foxcatcher is not concerned with cheap thrills or easy storylines, yet in the intrigue, ambiguity, and the profoundly enigmatic nature of du Pont. It's a fascinating watch, populated with great characters and an unbelievable ending.

4/5 Stars

John Wick
John Wick(2014)

Fast paced, relentlessly violent, engaging, and undeniably cool, John Wick is one of the best action films of recent years. The story sounds all too familiar. We find an ex-hitman drawn back in to the life after the spoiled-brat son of a mob boss kills his dog, and steals his car in the wake of his beloved wife's loss. It's helplessly clichéd, yet executed so well that we forget.

Given the familiar plot and rather absurd nature of the story-line, one might wonder why it works. The explanation is twofold. For one, it is composed marvelously well. The action scenes are gritty, hyper-real, fluid and sudden. The film moves at a quick, but not rushed pace. The tone is atmospheric, and the cinematography beautifully saturated amid a splendid soundtrack. On a narrative level, the film knows what it wants to be-- a badass action film, and wastes no time getting there. Secondly, other genre pieces like this fall to mediocrity both in direction and in action, this is not the case with John Wick. Here, we find Keanu Reeves at his best, owning every scene, selling what little dialogue he needs to, and conveying a frantic, yet cool energy that defines him.

Great.

4/5 Stars

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The final installment of the prequel series, director Peter Jackson nearly outdoes himself with ambition, grandeur, and scale with The Battle of the Five Armies, yet succeeds in delivering a satisfying and immensely enjoyable finale.

In Battle of the Five Armies, we find Smaug defeated but a new force of evil unleashed. Alliances become entangled, political intrigue is afoot and a nefarious force is prevailing the land. In other words, it's the Lord of the Rings. The film starts on a bit of a surprising note, almost unceremoniously tying up the cliffhanger of the second installment, yet immediately launches in to the penultimate showdown. There's a lot of plot lines to be had, a lot of action to be displayed, and Jackson proves once again his incredible skill with large scale films. The CGI is great, the world building ever effective, the staging grand, and the characters always central. It's perhaps not very distinctive from the other installments, yet feels organic to them.

Certainly, there are times when it feels as if Five Armies is trying to balance too much. Indeed, the third act starts to feel like it's getting away from Jackson, as if focus has been lost and instead action set pieces become the driving force, not the central narrative. He manages to hone it in, however, and we feel satisfied. Taken on its merits, and the difficult position it finds itself in being awkwardly placed in the series, we have to admire what the result is.

A success.

4/5 Stars

Birdman
Birdman(2014)

Equally inventive, humorous, well-acted, as well as intelligent, but also slightly pretentious and a bit gimmicky, Birdman is an interesting film. It's a film that serves to pulverize or ingratiate with its quirkiness or originality, depending on how one interprets it. It's a black comedy, a character study, and perhaps a tragedy. Above all, it's memorable.

The film follows a washed-up former blockbuster star as he endeavors to prove his dramatic talent by putting on a Broadway play. Along the way he must contend not only with the nightmare logistics, but also his alter-ego, who continually questions his decisions and worth.

The script was sharp and offered a lot of higher brow humor mixed in with some witty dialogue. It was stylized in parts, though not overly so for most of its run. The narrative was kept largely focused, and we are totally transformed in to the film's world. We get a unique view of not only the theater system, but also an insightful commentary on us, the viewing public, and our narcissistic, attention obsessed society.

The performances have been rightly lauded, with Michael Keaton being nothing short of brilliant. The entire cast is in fact exceptional, with Edward Norton bringing a lot of self-parody and charm to his role. The direction keeps the film running briskly; it's always engaging, and never dry. If there's criticism to be had, one would have to say that the third act gets overly indulgent. His other persona becomes more of a distraction than an actual service to the narrative and the realism is sacrificed. The ending note is also unduly ambiguous and pretentious.


Overall, well worth a watch.

4/5 Stars

Unbroken
Unbroken(2014)
½

Admirable in all respects but remarkable in none, Unbroken is a film that touches your heart for its story, but fails to make an impression with its execution. Set in World War II, Unbroken follows the heroic war exploits of Louis Zamperini. It's thus based on a true story, following his Olympic headlining to his unfathomable fortitude during his brutal captivity at the hands of the Japanese.

Director Angelina Jolie has all the ingredients for an effective film. The source material lends itself to film, it has a talented cast, and the themes of forgiveness and redemption resonate with nearly all of us. Yet she also has to contend with a genre that is fast becoming saturated with good entries, and thus has the task of trying to make Unbroken standout.

The film is long, but never outstays its welcome. The acting is good, not great, and the direction is competent. The world building is excellent, and the film does a good job of not simplifying or pandering, especially hard to do with a clear cut foe. It's enjoyable, heartfelt, and we identify with the protagonist.

The film fails, however, to really enliven and transcend its material. In the end we are entreated to the post-war happenings of Louis Zamperini and we are told that he makes good on his promise to God, and found the power of forgiveness. This is great, but the film doesn't really build up to this. The dynamic between him and the prison commandant never really resonates, because the film didn't explore it. The characterization of both men is shallow, and by the numbers. When we find out what happens to these men, we think to ourselves how much more interesting that would have been had the film explored that relationship further.

Good, but Bridge on the River Kwai it's not.

3.5/5 Stars

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Capturing the inherent tragedy and intrigue of the controversial autobiography, A Dangerous Mind is an adaptation worthy of watching. Directed by George Clooney, the film has a distinctive feel, almost surreal in parts, capturing the apparent erratic and strangely brilliant nature of its subject, TV producer and purported CIA assassin Chuck Barris. Starring Sam Rockwell, his performance envelopes the screen and the Barris persona. Liberties are taken, to be sure, but the heart of what the book was trying to get across was captured. Once more, the Clooney film added to the story what was otherwise missing--relatable relationship dynamics and even greater drama. Especially effective was the cut-ins with real-life interviews.

4/5 Stars

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
½

Far more enjoyable than its predecessor, Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the rare sequel that excels in nearly every category. Not only does it boast more interesting, nuanced (for these sorts of movies) villains, but features actual development of the characters. We feel like what came before it matters, and therefore the stakes at play are much more effective because of it. Visually appealing, exciting, and finely acted, it's an all-around solid venture.

With the second installment, the OsCorp mythology is built upon, and a new antagonist arises, played surprisingly well by Jamie Foxx. The universe thus feels well-realized, and logical within its own framework. Director Marc Webb makes this almost 2.5 hour film move quickly, and never lets our attention down. He feels the screen with highly effective CGI and, more importantly, characters that we care about. This, by far, is what makes this film work so well. Andrew Garfield brings charm, humor, and just the right amount of dramatic heft, with the strong willed and relentless Emma Stone having pitch perfect chemistry with him. The script even dares to take narrative chances, and leaves us genuinely surprised at the end.

Good all around

3.5/5 Stars

Wild
Wild(2014)
½

Reflective, subtle, moving, and yet not quite as resonate as it should be, Wild is a film that offers a lot to admire, yet has succumb to acclaim that might make its actual delivery underwhelm. Set on a massive hike after self-destructive behavior and divorce, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is left to brave the elements, loneliness, and harshness of nature alone.

Based on an autobiography, the film does a good job of not bogging us down with exposition, yet effectively uses flashbacks to convey the struggles of its flawed, yet strong, protagonist. I really appreciated this, as the film stayed grounded in the journey at hand. It boasts a very strong performance by Witherspoon and mature direction by Jean-Marc Vallee. The themes comes across poignantly, if not perhaps a bit too heavy-handed in the end. The cinematography is beautiful, and we really empathize with Witherspoon's character.

Wild does feel a bit drawn out at times. I wondered at multiple points if the material simply didn't translate as well to film as the filmmakers thought, it never feels as insightful as it seems to think it is. The journey never really feels complete, undoubtedly due to the condensed nature film offers to narratives like this, combined with the lack of real conflict/adventure.

Worth checking out, but far from transcendent.

3.5/5 Stars

The Gambler
The Gambler(2014)

Tense, powerfully acted, and resonating in the end, The Gambler is a character study that compels your attention. Self-destructive English professor Jim Bennett finds his compulsions getting the better of him, and in turn those around him, as he races to cover his mounting debts. Entrenched in an ugly world of decadence, violence and seedy characters, will he remain afloat?

The film is intense, but not overly so. We understand that the point is not really the bets and the wins or loses, but the man himself. Director Rupert Wyatt never loses sight of this focus, letting us explore its main character, in one of the better performances of Mark Wahlberg's career. The direction is thus effective, moving at a brisk pace, and appropriate in its tone.

Where the film really comes through is with its script and performances, both of which interact synergistically to create some enthralling scenes. We get rich dialogue, terrific monologues, and characters played by actors who enliven them. The best example of which is John Goodman, whose brilliance as a character actor cannot be overstated.

Very strong.

4/5 Stars

Transformers: Age of Extinction
½

In what can only be described as a parody of the series, Transformers: Age of Extinction offers a searing indictment against needless sequels. Loud, utterly pointless, breath-taking in its stupidity, and flatly acted, it's a film that should otherwise not exist. But it does, and director Michael Bay tries earnestly to out due his special affects antics, resulting in a film of visual spectacle but nothing else.

The film's plot achieves two aims. For one, it creates a new villain for which grandiose asinine action sequences can be had, and it sets up the franchise for yet more films, literally starting at square one. In this case, we find the allegiances of the US Government turning against the autobots, ostensibly striking a deal with alien bounty hunters to destroy them. None of it makes any particular sense, and the stakes are the most contrived as possible. In the end, you are left to not only wonder what the point of that was, but are amazed with how uninspired the series is. It literally refuses to propel the narrative. Formula, it seems, involves recycling the same storyline, but interchanging its main actors.

The dialogue is atrocious, literally full of one-liners, obviously stalling or giving dumb-down exposition to set up the next action sequence. The actors are equally as flat, with Mark Whalberg having zero dramatic presences, and the other actors clearly phoning it in, not that we would really notice otherwise with so little character development (actually...none).

What good can be said of it? Visually, Michael Bay keeps things interesting. His adrenaline fast pace almost distracts us from the bad story, and keeps your eyes on the screen. Which, apparently, is all that is needed for this franchise.

1.5/5 Stars

Avengers: Age of Ultron
½

The second Avengers film is a visual spectacle, earnestly directed and slickly executed. It's the very definition of a blockbuster, never overstaying its welcome and never ceasing to entertain. It does everything it's supposed to do, yet never exceeds our expectation. Some may say this a symptom of setting a high bar early on, yet the more likely answer is an ever-stuffed mythology combined with a rather lackluster foe.

Seeking to eradicate Hydra and their unfortunately obvious headquarters, the Avengers team unwittingly discovers something that would seemingly represent a game changer, an omniscient product of nefarious artificial intelligence, Ultron. He's a lofty force to deal with, and his aim seems to be nothing more than the annihilation of the world.

Supremely talented Joss Whedon wields another delicate balance with his ensemble cast in Avengers. Many of the characters have their own films or series of films, and giving each their due can be difficult. Whedon does this well, and weaves it with humor, finesse, and top-notch CGI. The special effects of all the marvel movies has never ceased to impress, and I found it especially true of the second Avengers installment. The film moves briskly, and Whedon even deals with the growing mythology in a way that won't frustrate casual fans to a large extent. The performances are strong and the chemistry is great. It's a fun film.

The problem for me was twofold. For one, the mythology feels to be more set-up for subsequent spin-off films rather than propelling the Marvel universe forward. Things are introduced and hinted at as if to say--wait to purchase another ticket to find out more. The other problem was that Ultron simply did not work for me. For something so indifferent to humanity, it was extremely personalized. James Spader is a talented man, but his voice-over was distractingly charismatic, there wasn't even a hint of artificial intelligence there. No chilling disconnectedness, no coldness. It was an odd casting choice. To be sure, there is a decreasing point of return for the "world is going to end" plot line. It's becoming worn out, and the franchise needs to get more creative and expansive, though that does seem to be the direction it's heading in for Avengers 3. For Avengers 2, however, the sense of stakes just weren't there.

3.5/5 Stars

The Imitation Game

Moving, insightful, brilliantly acted, and well conceived, The Imitation Game is a biopic done right. Set mostly during the midst of World War II, Imitation Game serves to tell the tale of a man whose contributions to the war were profound, yet never properly understood, and lost against the fanfare of his later legal proceedings.

Like a lot of biopics, Imitation Game is fast and loose with historical accuracy. Turing's contributions can't be denied, but he was hardly alone in the efforts to break the Enigma code. However, this dramatic license serves the story and gives us a compelling narrative through which we can better appreciate the history. The direction fills the screen with humor, authentic dramatic moments, and genuine insights in to ourselves. At which point does someone's power make them a hero, or make them a tragedy? War is exceptional at clouding this very thing.

The script is smart and poignant, and the performances impeccable, notably from Benedict Cumberbatch. The film might simplify events, but it doesn't spoon-feed its audience, nor shy away from the nuance to be felt in the code breaker's actions, as knowing everything and acting on everything are two different things.

Compelling, powerful, and memorable.

4/5 Stars

Exodus: Gods and Kings

A familiar story told in an unconventional way, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a film of vast visual appeal and technical achievement, yet also a reminder of why story-telling must never take the back-seat. Based on the biblical story of Moses and the exodus of the Hebrews, directory Ridley Scott seeks to invigorate the classic story with his interpretation, leading to mixed results.

The best way to sum up Exodus is to say that the film should be better than it is. The cast is strong, as is most anything with Christian Bale, the CGI cutting edge, and the overall visual aesthetics bordering on breathtaking. After all, Ridley Scott is a master of enthralling epics, and has proven himself mightily in period pieces of the past. To be sure, it's very watchable, and the world building is impressive. But the film leaves you wanting.

The prime reason the film fails to really enliven and transcend its source material, is that it lacks anything really interesting to say. The scenes feel a bit rushed, the characterizations shallow, and the inner conflict of Moses rather haphazard. It departs from the Bible on several occasions, but doesn't seem to justify its departure in any interesting way. What the film is saying about God, freedom, family, and its protagonist is all a bit muddled. We never get a sense that the events are as impacting on its characters as they should be. For something that has been done before, you would think that Scott would have had more to offer.

3/5 Stars

A Most Violent Year

A fan of mature filmmaking, and fast becoming a trailblazer of it, director J.C. Chandor continues to impress with A Most Violent Year. Unlike what the title would suggest, A Most Violent Year is a slow burn of a film, concerned with the psychology of its subject rather than violence as a vehicle. The film focuses on the efforts of a businessman to hold on to what he has amidst aligning forces threatening to ruin all that he has worked for.

The film distinguishes itself through its smart script and excellent performances. The film serves as a meditation on not only crime, but what it takes to both achieve and sustain the American dream. Its' protagonist, Abel Morales, tries to keep himself above water in a system and a climate that thrives on tearing down those on top. Unlike most similarly themed films, Morales is able to resist these temptations to a large degree, and that is what makes him so fascinating. This theme, that of self-control and the strength it requires, is found throughout.

Methodically paced, the film is a slow burn. The film is dialogue-driven, and rests on its lead, with Oscar Isaac giving an Oscar worthy performance. While the film does lack in the back-story of Morales and his family, it manages to offer a uniquely conceived story to a saturated genre.

4/5 Stars

Before I Go to Sleep

Well-acted, competently composed, but derivative, Before I Go to Sleep does enough to keep you interested for its short run, but not enough to make you remember it much before you decide to go to sleep yourself. When a woman undergoes a horrific accident, suffers a brain disorder causing her short-term memory to be wiped out each day. Left bewildered, she is left to put the pieces together to create one horrible puzzle.

The film certainly has shades of other similarly themed thrillers, such as memento, so it can't be given too much credit for its premise. However, the film does turn in three laudable performances from its better than average cast, headlined by Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. Their dynamic on screen represents the most exciting aspect of the film, with Kidman selling her role with great skill. The direction is competent, and keeps the film moving at a good solid pace.

The script tries to give us twists and turns, yet they are never as impactful as the film hopes they are. This is due to poor set-up and decreasing realism. It's not lackluster but it's also not distinctive. The film simply does not distinguish itself, we see the major arcs complete before they do, and are ultimately left unimpressed by the ending. All in all, it's an okay film, but not ambitious to stand out.

3/5 Stars

Calvary
Calvary(2014)
½

Exceedingly bleak, weighty, and inaccessible, Calvary is a film that feels like it should pack more of a punch than it does. Set in Ireland, the film follows Father James, a good man in a decidedly amoral word, who finds himself staring down the threat of murder through no fault of his own.

Calvary's greatest strength is undoubtedly the performance of Brendan Gleeson, which is rightly described as brilliant. He completely inhibits his role, and greatly humanizes the priesthood in a way that I have not seen before. He anchors the cast around him, who seem to resent his fortitude and strength in their own plights. The writing supplies us with witty dry humor, and the script takes on some tough subjects.

What then, is the problem with Calvary? It feels bleak for the sake of bleak. Redemption, no pun intended, is really nowhere to be found. All of the problems of those in the community, their entire personalities, seem to be mere vehicles for his antagonism. In this sense, the film feels contrived. Its ultimate message is also hard to discern, lacking the execution to really tackle those issues it pretends to have a commentary on. It's simply dreary, with no real greater purpose. We don't empathize with the characters, nor the events they find themselves in, so we ultimately don't feel involved.


Depressing to a fault, inaccessible.

2.5/5 Stars

The Homesman
The Homesman(2014)
½

Bleak, dark, gritty and unwavering, The Homesman takes the Western genre an inputs a dramatic tragedy. It's a film that's well acted, has mature ideas and an authentic feel, yet features a narrative that borders on inaccessible in parts and disjointed in others.

In Homesman we find three frontier women driven to insanity from the harsh conditions they face, prompting a need to transport them to care in Iowa from the Nebraska territory. The task falls to the fiercely independent Mary Bee Cuddy, a woman who finds herself a bit too brash for the rest of the townspeople. She soon encounters the somewhat cantankerous George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), who accompanies her on the journey.

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones, the film does a fantastic job of capturing the brutal nature of frontier life at the time, and the interesting societal and gender dynamics at play. He populates his film with fine performances, especially among the insane women, who give haunting portrayals. His chemistry with Hilary Swank is palpable, and the beginning promising.

The frustrating part of the film, however, was its lack of complete narrative coherence. Its exact message is a bit murky, and the main protagonist role shifts from Swank to Jones about 2/3 in to the film. The characterization of Swank felt unfinished, and the motivations of Jones are never really answered.

Solid overall, but with scripting problems.

3.5/5 Stars

The Two Faces of January

The Two Faces of January represents an interesting exercise in a romantic thriller, one with promising characters and talented leads, yet with an ultimate ho-hum execution which makes it a rather unremarkable entry to the genre. When a low-level con artist meets a wealthy American couple touring Europe, he soon finds himself hopelessly in love with the young the wife, and trouble follows.

The film, adapted from a novel, does a good job of setting a tone. The characters find themselves in increasingly precarious situations and emotions, creating a web of intrigue and complex characterizations. In this sense, the film had a very mature feeling that I appreciated. Its pace was fluid yet methodical, and the overall direction was tight and focused.

What the film lacked for me, however, was a heart. Not in the sense that it was too bleak, but in the sense that one can scarcely determine what the film is trying to say, what it wants to get across. It's almost bleak for the sake of bleak. The chemistry between the leads also leaves a lot to be desired, despite a talented cast, symptomatic of the failure of the script to really make us relate to the characters. We never fully get a grip on what lengths Viggo Mortensen's character is able to go, and the romantic overtones between Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac never ring true. The result is a film which feels competent, but not passionate or original.

Solid in many ways, not particularly memorable.

3/5 Stars

Samuel Bleak
Samuel Bleak(2013)

An independent, low budget film, Samuel Bleak is the story of a disheveled man, whose tragic past reveals a sordid tale of abuse and neglect, set against a charming, if not creepy, small southern town. It's surprisingly well acted, and has a number of flourishes to it that make the potential all the more real. The problem, however, is that Samuel Bleak becomes too bogged down in itself, and unpolished product with too many side trails.

What I appreciated most about Samuel Bleak was the acting. For such a low-budget film, the actors assembled all do a serviceable job, with David Zayas having the strongest performance. For his part, Dustin Schuetter had an uneven part, with his lack of real acting experience and depth becoming increasingly evident as the story focused more on him.

The film's direction was strongest in its tone and pace. Schuetter did a fair job of giving the film a very methodical pace and atmospheric feel, with the scenes all feeling weighted. The world created feels very meditative, and surprisingly well realized.

The problem, however, was Samuel Bleak was unfocused. The initial premise is intriguing, and the third act offered a genuinely surprising twist, but the film felt compelled to introduce too many subplots. None of these subplots ever panned out, and felt clunky. Schuetter also resorted to a number of plot contrivances, such as an absurdly forced romance, that undermined the film and made it feel unpolished. Had a couple of screenplay re-writes taken place, Samuel Bleak might have been a stronger product.

It's these clichés and contrivances that make the story and production sometimes feel amateurish. The film still manages to keep some dramatic heft alive with its good performance and earnest story-telling, but the limitations of its young director are felt throughout.

An interesting, yet not entirely successful, indie film.

3/5 Stars

Focus
Focus(2015)
½

Energetic, funny, relentlessly cool and yet too cute for its own good, Focus is a con movie that takes you for a ride and never slows down enough to take in all the scenery. When experienced con man, Nicky, takes a novice bombshell beauty on his wings, we are left only with twists, turns, and confusion.

What Focus does well is in the world it creates. It's characters are vibrant, its settings feel real, and the cons are done so slickly, so as to almost take away from the occasionally laughable plausibility. Simply put, it's a damn cool movie. The direction is sharp, quick and engaging. The performances are pitch perfect, with the dynamic between Smith and co-star Margot Robbie, being the highlight of the film. We never cease to be entertained and the cons themselves, though often unrealistic, have thought in them.

My problem with Focus is that fell in love with its own cleverness. The cons got increasingly far fetched, and the twists stopped to serve the narrative, and instead felt lazy and gimmicky. At times it reminded me of many of the same pitfall of Now You See Me, though with far better execution. Luckily the film's strengths ultimately outweigh the script's deficiencies.

Fun all around.

3.5/5 Stars

Kids for Cash
½

Nothing can get the blood boiling more than the notorious Kids for Cash scandal, in which a Juvenille Court Judge allegedly sent countless kids to lock-up for very minor offenses in exchange for a financial kickback. This documentary seeks to give a broader view to the scandal, and presents a well argued critique about the juvenile justice system.

What is most unique about Kids for Cash are the interviews they secured from the judges in question, namely Mark Ciavarella. Civararella argues passionately that, while he improperly took money, that is was not a quid pro quo. In light of evidence, this seems dubious, but the documentary is more than even-handed. What I liked most was the interviews with the parents and kids that were affected, set against those that argue for senseless policies such as "zero tolerance". The result is a compelling piece, well structured and maturely executed.

Where the film could have been stronger, however, is in the examination of private prisons themselves. They inherently lead to corruption and represent a system in which there is a built in incentive for incarceration.

3.5/5 Stars

American Sniper

Visceral, impacting, and relentlessly intense, American Sniper is a film that, save for the war it was set in, would always be universally lauded. It's yet another triumph for Clint Eastwood, whose style of direction makes him perhaps the greatest populist director of our time.

Outside controversy aside, one has to look at American Sniper on its cinematic terms first. It's a film that takes its time to unfold, with a methodical buildup, followed by periods of outstandingly filmed action. Eastwood has just the right pace, a pitch perfect tone, and a uniquely conceived vision. The performances are all strong, with a brilliant showing from Bradley Cooper. His change in appearance is jaw-dropping, as is the way he absolutely embodies the character of Chris Kyle.

The dramatic relationships feel well realized, the dynamics seem authentic. The film's problems are undoubtedly related to its artistic license. Its view of the Iraq War isn't exactly nuanced. While it doesn't go out of its way to be jingoistic, there are certainly hints of that, at least conveyed through its protagonist of Chris Kyle. The enemy does seem to be one-note, and the film fails to explore just how sincere the motivations for the conflict were, or what good ultimately came from the intervention. The film's version of Kyle is also somewhat dubious, especially in light of the court case his estate lost with Jesse Ventura, a story found in his autobiography and one that would certainly raise questions about overall credibility.

Ultimately, a powerful film if nothing else.

4/5 Stars

The Interview
½

Sparsely funny, The Interview is a film in which the adage of "much ado about nothing" seems to fit perfectly. The controversy surrounding it undoubtedly gave it more attention than it would otherwise garner on its own merits, perhaps enough to give the pure cynics reason to suspect a publicity stunt was afoot. Ultimately, it's not a terrible film, it does enough to get by, but nothing memorable is to be had. The humor is mostly one-note, mostly immature sex jokes and potty humor, and the lampooning of the horrendous North Korea leaves much to be deserved. What makes it watchable is the chemistry between Rogan and Franco, but that's not enough to make up for a bad script.

2.5/5 Stars

About Time
About Time(2013)
½

About Time

A rare example of a romantic comedy done in a fresh, memorable, and heartfelt way, About Time is an immensely enjoyable film. It takes an outlandish premise, that of time travel, and puts it in a narrative context that makes one hardly question it, and actually adds something to the story. Far from being a gimmick, it makes for a genuinely interesting exploration of the meaning of love, free will, death, and the choices we make. The chemistry between Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams is outstanding, as the two enliven every scene. It's a captivating film, it's an emotional film, and it's a funny film.

4.5/5 Stars

Nightcrawler
Nightcrawler(2014)
½

Intensity is the word of the day for Nightcrawler, a thriller that nearly redefines the genre with its thrills. It's a film that is visually captivating, beautifully shot, and entertaining from start to finish.

The film follows a Lou Bloom, a strange, emotionally detached man, who stumbles upon a job one night that forever changes his trajectory, that of selling film of horrendous accidents and crimes to the local news, with the more shocking commanding the greatest price.

The brilliant and Oscar worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal anchors every scene. His chilling detachment from what he sees serves as a powerful statement about not only the state of our media, but also our obsession with watching the suffering of others. The film takes you on a ride that seems surreal it is so seamless, and yet feels so real. We are astounded with what is taking place, but feel that somehow, this is a very close commentary on our inner selves. Ingenious, fantastically executed, and riveting from start to finish.

An amazing film.

4.5/5 Stars

Frequencies
Frequencies(2014)

Metaphysical, futuristic, and resoundingly thought-provoking, Frequencies is the rare example of an intellectual film-making exercise that also works as a romantic drama. It's a film that doesn't spoon-feed the audience, but rather presents itself on its own terms, and lets itself unfold organically as such. It's a film of dramatic weight and insight, but also a film whose ideas sometimes get way from itself, leaving the viewer occasionally perplexed.

The film unfolds in a world where the frequencies that we emit determine our personality, life-path, and our romances. This is ingrained from an early age, in which frequencies are measured and used to dictate the lives of those at its mercy. In Frequencies, we find a young college student, Zak, falling hopelessly in love with Marie, whose higher frequencies otherwise precludes such a romance. What results is a journey in which Zak experiments with countless metaphysical techniques to change his frequency, seemingly succeeding and causing a ripple effect.

Certainly the most impressive thing about Frequencies is the script. It's fresh, innovative, and undeniably intelligent. Its ideas are presented with confidence and great skill. The direction and overall world building of the film accentuates this. The acting is resoundingly strong, featuring a strong ensemble cast.

The film's dramatic elements, however, take a back seat to the sometimes confounding narrative, which I felt got ahead of itself at times. There's a fine line between smart and inaccessible, and Frequencies flirts with that to a large degree. The last act especially gets a bit muddled by the constant change in point of view, feeling a bit too clever for its own sake.

Overall, it's a strong, uniquely conceived film that deserves to be seen.

4/5 Stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
½

Dark, enveloping and increasingly smart, Mockingjay Part I proves the resilient nature of the series, underscoring what makes it work, and promising a formidable finale to come. It's a film of new direction, with Katniss now living with the aftermath of the Hunger Games end, being taken under the reluctant wing of the rebellion and its gruff, yet formidable leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore). What follows is a different sort of role for Katniss, whose fortitude and passion for the cause clash against her will to free her friend Peeta, being used helplessly as a tool for the nefarious President Snow.

Like the previous installments, Mockingjay is anchored by its strong performances from the entire cast. Again headlined by Jennifer Lawrence, we see her in a more torn role than the previous installments, more vulnerable, shakable, and questioning. She embodies this all, while still maintaining the stoic tenacity that makes her so endearing, and makes the series so likable. This is matched well by the supporting cast, especially Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The direction by Francis Lawrence shows skill, weaving a story that is much-less action packed than the previous installments, yet to good effect. He builds tension through concentration on the characters and the narrative itself, not through sensory overload. The visuals are strong, and the overall world building is on par with the previous films.

My one major criticism of Mockingjay can be true of all the Hunger Games. The characterization of President Snow is too one-note. He is simply nefarious, with no real subtlety. Yes, there are allusions to more complexity, yet it is never shown. We see flawed protagonists, yet the franchise fails to paint the same complexity with its main antagonist. This simplicity is shown in the regime's overall machinations, such as the absurd way it policies its populace, touting guns to march unwilling citizens to forced labor. One would think more sophisticated methods of control would be employed and thus shown. At times this results in a manipulative feel, telegraphing its intentions to hate Snow and all he represents, rather than conveying this organically.

All in all, a solid installment.

3.5/5 Stars

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger serves as both a fascinating crime story and a powerful indictment against the criminal justice system. It's a documentary that gives a detailed account of the Bulger trial, the sensationalism of the man, and the unnerving relationship he had with senior federal and local officials.
Director Joe Berlinger weaves an intricate tale in Whitey, starting out examining the unimaginable destruction left in the wake of Whitey's actions, namely the countless victims still waiting for closure. To his credit, Berlinger doesn't stop there. Instead, he examines the central question at issue in the trial, and really the primary point of contention, was he an FBI informant or not? Whitey's defense team presents compelling evidence that it wasn't Whitey that was the informant, but rather key FBI officials, who fed Whitey information and tip offs in exchange for cash. Unbeknownst to Whitey, they also used his name to sign off on wiretaps and search warrants, building a case against the local Italian mob, under the guise of his supposed corroboration.
Berlinger does an excellent job weaving the tale together with interviews of lawyers, investigators, victims, and courtroom audio. We are exposed to the different perspectives, while never sacrificing the heat of the story, those whose lives are inextricably linked in the web of corruption. The film certainly leans a certain direction, yet doesn't come across as manipulative, but rather objective and penetrating. In the end, it's an engrossing story that will astound you with its implications.
4/5 Stars

Horrible Bosses 2

Few laughs, nearly identical story beats, thin material, and overall lackluster execution kills Horrible Bosses 2, a textbook example of a comedic sequel that didn't need to be made. In Horrible Bosses 2, we find the same group together again, this time trying to promote an infomercial sequel product, only to be the victim of a heartless billionaire. All that's left is a harebrained scheme to save their company.

Like the majority of comedy sequels, this film fell in to the same pitfalls. Mainly, it tried to replicate the first film without offering anything new. Only this time, nothing was fresh. The script felt not only familiar but uninspired, from the lame product they market, to the by-the-numbers villain, to the usual cameos. It was simply too self-assured and smug to actually attempt to do something innovative. Director Sean Anders seemed to feel as if the mere comedic presence of the cast would somehow enliven the screen, but failed to provide his actors with substance. The performances are all fine, save a lazy turn by Christophe Waltz, but there's no there, there with Horrible Bosses.

Is it funny? Sporadically funny, with some genuinely good bits sprinkled in. Yet too much of the film is devoid with any of the audacious humor of the first, feeling tired and extremely one-not in this film.

Forgettable.

2/5 Stars

JFK: A President Betrayed

An excellent documentary that examines aspects too often overlooked in JFK's white house, his daring foreign policy. The film shows that not only was Kennedy able to learn from his mistakes, but was looking to transform our relationship to the rest of the world, only to enrage the military industrial complex. That he sought to disengage from Vietnam is undeniable. Now, this film presents evidence of not only his eagerness for a dialogue with the Soviet Union, but also Castro's Cuba.

God's Pocket
God's Pocket(2014)

What aspires to be an insightful dark comedy drama actually turns in to a 90 minute misery ride in God's Pocket, a film's whose depressing nature is never earned nor fully appreciated, left adrift by a narrative that never strikes the balance between drama and comedy. Set in a blue-collar neighborhood, named God's Pocket, we follow a Mickey Scarpato, who spends his time between low-level high-jacking and gambling. An unfortunate 'accident' of his step son soon finds things spiraling out of control for Mickey.

Mad Men star John Slattery's directorial debut is one that seeks to be authentic, and to strike the delicate balance between creating a bleak atmospheric tone and an offbeat humor that keeps the audiences appreciation. What happens instead is that the film never establishes itself apart from the bleakness. We are continually told how dreary and dark the neighborhood is, and we see the complacency, the dullness of its inhabitants, yet we never grow with the characters. It's never particularly funny, and the film doesn't seem to offer any real insights. What we do get feels clichéd and familiar, with no real distinction.

For its part, the cast has a solid showing. Being one of the last roles of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he is doubtless perfect for his role, as a gruff, yet sensible man in a tough world. The supporting cast is strong as well, yet their efforts do not make up for a script that doesn't inject any humanity, uniqueness, or humor in its subject.

2/5 Stars

Rob the Mob
Rob the Mob(2014)

Funny, energetic, endearing, and an effective crime caper, Rob the Mob is an immensely enjoyable film. Based on a true story, the film follows a likeable, yet painfully inept couple, Tommy and Rosie, whose antics turn them in to a sort of modern day Bonnie and Clyde. The pair soon makes a name for themselves targeting mob "social clubs", unwittingly uncovering a crucial piece of evidence in the FBI's fight against the mob.

Director Raymond DeFelitta brings us a unique mix of comedy, romance, intrigue and true life story with Rob the Mob. The most successful aspect of the film was the dynamic between Michael Pitt (Tommy) and Nin Arianda (Rosie). Both had excellent chemistry, and had the right amount of manic energy to keep up with the film's brisk pace, and their frenzied, ill-fated personas. At the same time, we're giving more intellectually driven characters such as Andy Garcia's Al (a mob boss), and a surprisingly effective role for Ray Romano as a journalist telling their story. All of this is set against the celebrity fest that was the Gotti trial, which is integrated well.

We are able to get a sense of all the characters, their motivations, their personalities, without the need to telegraph things to us. This is done with creative means and through the interactions of the cast themselves, with a script that is able to strike a good balance. Ultimately the focus remains on the central love story, which anchors the film, and gives it charm among a much uglier world not keen on letting them alone.

4/5 Stars

Interstellar
Interstellar(2014)
½

Confounding, relentlessly ambitious, visually and emotionally thrilling, Interstellar is a film that envelopes you and won't let go. One could call it a modern day 2001: A Space Odyssey, with shades of Contact. It's a film that flirts with perfection, sometimes struggling to keep all its pseudoscientific theories in line with its emotional beats. It's a film that needs to be seen to be understood, and perhaps a multitude of times.

Set in a not too future Earth, a renegade NASA group embarks to explore potentially habitable planets, turning to a former astronaut turned farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to help lead the mission. Here we have a talented cast, with McConaughey anchoring the film, with another immensely powerful performance. I felt as if the rest of the cast didn't quite live up to his intensity, save for Anne Hathaway, who was a good compliment. The cast, however, all had the right balance of humanity, uncertainty, intelligence, bravado, and reflection that made them believable. All acted as if they felt that stakes of the film's premise, with the weight of their burden permeating throughout the film, certainly one of the most successful aspects of Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan is of course one of the greatest directors of today, perhaps the greatest, who can weave narrative together with cinematic awe like no other. Interstellar is no different. The cinematography, the framing, the CGI, the color saturation, the look of space, the feel of space, everything is done in a supremely effective way. He does this while telling a story that is very complex, with many plot lines and a multitude of questions. I felt he navigated this well, not spoon feeding the audience, yet giving us just enough to appreciate what is happening.

The film's relationship dynamics are felt most keenly between McConaughey and his daughter Murph, with the other relationships feeling a bit muted comparatively. Still, this is the most important relationship, and the emotional impact it has can scarcely be exaggerated, on account mostly because of McConaughey's performance.

The film's message is one of perseverance, one of perspective, and one of sacrifice. I loved the willingness to be bold, the refusal to indulge in cliches, and the audacity to give us flawed people faced with situations that are over their heads, and demand perhaps more than they can give. The film relies heavily on various scientific theories (not necessarily accurately), and sometimes glosses over their major concepts, making it possible for us to be lost. To be sure, there are some plot holes to be found, yet I found interstellar to be one of the smartest science fiction films I've seen. It sets ups its questions in a way that make us both reflective and intrigued, it's awash in mystery, with plenty of ambiguity, and a mystique that can't be shaken. It's a film that can't be taken lightly, and demands a great deal of processing. This is the sort of mature filmmaking we need more of today, and Mr. Nolan has delivered it to a brilliant extent with Interstellar.

A must see.

4.5/5 Stars

In a World...

Funny, witty, and rewarding for cinephiles, In A World is a indie movie that packs a hilarious punch. Written, directed, and staring newcomer Lake Bell, In A World looks at the world of voice acting, and the highly competitive world of movie trailer voiceovers. Hoping to break in to the world of her legendary father Sam, Carol (Lake Bell) finds herself struggling to establish herself, with no help from her self-absorbed father. Soon, her big break comes, but how will those around her react?

The film's unique mix of film references, quirky sensibilities, and dry wit never fails.
The performances are exceedingly endearing, with the chemistry between the entire cast being pitch perfect. Director Bell keeps the film moving at a good pace, featuring some heartfelt drama, yet never sacrificing its' lighthearted nature. She strikes a balance that too often eludes comedies today, giving us a story that both entertains, and resonates with us. The family dynamics feel very well realized, and the overall message of the film is delivered to great effect.

A not to be overlooked indie gem.

4/5 Stars

Fury
Fury(2014)
½

Visceral, relentlessly tense, and unflinchingly dark, Fury is an uncommonly executed war film, and a fine addition to the ever-growing World War II genre. Set in the late stages of World War II, with the Allies making their final push in to the heart of Nazi Germany, Fury follows the adventures of a five-man Sherman tank crew, whose war has only just begun.

End of Watch director David Ayer is nothing but a brilliant tactician when it comes to film-making. He knows how to transport the viewer to the events on screen, evoke the horrors that are senseless in nature, and impart a lasting feeling with his audience. He is audacious, and not afraid to show it. Here his skill is put to masterful use, with perfect sound design, cinematic flow, and cinematography. The action feels real and organic to the screen. This is accentuated greatly by his cast, which proves to be an enormously powerful ensemble. Brad Pitt is reliably great, but it is Shia LaBeouf and Jon Bernthal that turn in career best performances.

The criticism of Fury undoubtedly relies on the narrative. Some feel it lacks narrative context and has a clichéd feel in its trajectory. This certainly has merit, we can see where
Fury is going to go, and it doesn't add anything really new in terms of plot. However, I submit that it does offer quite a bit new in terms of emotion. The impact of Fury is simply greater than many war films, and director David Ayer refuses to sanitize this for us. For him, the complexities of war are shown with the brutality, and depravity (of both sides).

An impressive achievement.

4.5/5 Stars

Sabotage
Sabotage(2014)

Visceral, relentlessly violent, gritty, and abrasive, Sabotage proves to be the very definition of a mixed bag by talented director David Ayer. In it, we find an elite DEA task force hot off an internal scandal involving a missing $10 million, only to be mysteriously killed in stunning fashion. Led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the group struggles to make sense of the killings and keep the force together.

Training Day and End of Watch director David Ayer brings his skill for building semi-realist narratives with an audacious sense of brutality to bear with Sabotage. The film becomes oddly absorbing and even a bit compelling for much of its run. This can be explained by Ayer's skill at narrative momentum and pace, along with a sort of tension that builds. He introduces storylines and always keeps them in the background, yet still progresses ahead, creating a film that we're never exactly sure what's going on, but we feel like we want to know. This is helped by some surprising performances, including one of the better roles for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who actually has what one could consider an actual performance here. The on screen chemistry between the cast is pretty good, and all seem to inhibit their roles well. In short, for much of the film's run, it's fast paced, brutal, and engaging.

Somewhere along the line, probably just over half way through, the film's effectiveness starts to wane. What was originally audacious brutality boarders on senseless depravity. The plot mechanisms start to fall apart, and the narrative focus seems lost. The result is a third act that almost completely undermines what came before it, with an absurd twist, numerous plot holes, and countless storylines left out to dry. It's as if Ayer's cleverness got the better of him.

Overall there's enough here to like, but not by much.

3/5 Stars

Gone Girl
Gone Girl(2014)
½

David Fincher's newest film is certainly his most unique, and without question his most audacious. It's a sort of Fatal Attraction with a post modern twist, and a very stylized feel. Based on the Gillian Flynn novel, the film follows the marriage between one Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), who inexplicably ends up missing. It's not long before attention is cast on Nick, leading to a bizarre, intricate, and spellbinding series of events. It's a film of immense mystery, intrigue, and debauchery.

Throughout the film one gets the sense that the material is perhaps getting better treatment than it deserves, with Fincher elevating it with A+ filmmaking. This is because some of the film's motifs and commentaries, notably that of our media-obsessed culture, are blatantly obviously, yet done with such a skillful hand, and with such marvelous execution, that one is almost prone not to notice such things. Like any Fincher film, the dialogue is rich in texture, fast, penetrating, and yet very stylized. This stylization sometimes gets in the way of the film's realism, but grows once the full enormity of the world builidng sets in. Overall, the direction is masterful. The film is absorbing, the cinematography accentuates the brooding, dark feel of the film, and the film's long running time doesn't feel too long, with Fincher maintaining a constant tension. His eye for framing a scene can scarcely be matched.

The acting of Gone Girl is deservedly being lauded, with a powerhouse performance from Ben Affleck, and a chilling performance from Rosamund Pike, who deserves an Oscar nomination. The chemistry between the leads is palpable, and all feature the same tone and feel of the film, accentuating the successful world building.

From a narrative standpoint, one never really knows where Gone Girl is going. It's very layered, and thus feels as if it can go in one of a number of different ways, but ultimately ends at a point that is, quite simply, ballsy, and also terrifying. It prays on many of our primitive fears, that of the conniving, manipulative, ruthlessly nefarious partner, whose facade is never seen through by anyone else. The emotions that the film conjures are visceral and real and, though exaggerated, resonate with us all at some level.

Ultimately, it's one of the most memorable films of the year, with great technical merit, grand performances, and a genuine mystery.

4.5/5 Stars

The Equalizer

In a return pairing of director Antoine Fuqua and actor Denzel Washington, The Equalizer gives us a film of extreme violence, an unrelentingly intense tone, non-stop action, extraordinarily evil antagonists, and a protagonist of unfathomable physical and mental prowess. It's a film that takes the concept of a bad ass Denzel Washington to a new, almost Liam Nesson esque level with its absurdity. It's entertaining, yet emotionally manipulative, clichéd, and rather simplistic.

It almost goes without saying at this point, but Denzel Washington gives a powerhouse performance. He takes his otherwise thinly sketched character, and gives him nuance with his mannerisms, and intimidates in a visual sense like perhaps no other actor. He anchors every scene he's in, and delivers dialogue in a way that makes one hang on every word. Director Antoine Fuqua does a good job playing to these strengths, keeping the focus on Denzel and giving us a tone that accentuates the on-screen violence, appropriately atmospheric. The cinematography is top-notch, framing the scenes to heighten the tension and direct dramatic focus.

Where The Equalizer fails is on a narrative level. The clichés are never ending and unabashedly telegraphed. We see the emotional beats coming before the happen, know exactly where the film is going, and thus have no real sense of stakes. The characters have no depth, save Washington's character (due solely to his performance), and are sometimes almost comically one-note, such as the affably insecure security guard. The entire arc of the story never feels real, the meeting between Washington and Chloe Moretz (in a poor performance) is forced, and the ensuing violence completely contrived.
Furthermore, the film has no sense of realism. Washington's character kills inexplicably with absolute perfection, making him more a superhero than a man. He somehow creates intricate plans on a dime, and anticipates moves absurdly ahead of time. He appears at will and with no real effort. This is all fine as long as there is some sort of underlying vulnerability to keep us enthralled and invested in his arc, yet we know all along the outcome.

In the end, it's a film that's fun, but suffers from a noticeable lack of substance.

3/5 Stars

The Grey Zone
½

Bleak, sorrowful, and visceral in its depictions, The Grey Zone is a holocaust film that seeks to transport you to the minute-by-minute tragedies of the Nazi concentration camp. The film follows a group of prisons in an Auschwitz camp who, by their efforts to help with the body disposal, are given special privileges, leaving them feeling guilty. An opportunity for defiance finds the group, as they plot to destroy the dreaded incinerators.

The film is unique from the standpoint that it is told in an almost clinical way, with fast dialogue, quick action, and no real time for pondering. It's almost reminiscent of a Steven Soderbergh film with its heightened sense of realism. This helps to distinguish itself from what some might consider 'misery porn', and forces the viewer to confront the realities of what is unfolding much in the way that the victims themselves had to, where the luxuries of after the fact pondering don't exist. This is bolstered by good overall performances, and crisp direction which keeps the film immersive. The problem, however, is that the film's clinical nature gave way to a sort of emotional disconnect. There is no one to really identify with, and the moments of horror are so fast as to have an almost blunted feel. Thus, the film never fully achieves the resonance that it wants, lacking a real emotional core.

An overall strong, and uniquely conceived film

3.5/5 Stars

Only Lovers Left Alive
½

Mesmerizing, often dreary, yet relentlessly engaging, Only Lovers Left Alive is the most unique addition to the vampire genre I have seen, perhaps because that almost seems tangential to the larger narrative itself. Here is the story of two lovers, vampires at least centuries years old, who, together, face their growing disillusionment with the world, finding solace seemingly only in each other's company. It's a story of depression, weariness, and isolation, yet also one of hidden beauty, love, and timelessness.

The film has a narrative, but one that features little plot development or action, rather setting its sights on achieving a character study, and delivering on atmosphere. It succeeds on both accounts, focusing on the mundane aspects of vampire life, asking questions that are rarely posed in other genre pieces. We get a sense of their boredom, their peculiar observations on human society, and their uniquely evolved morality. This is achieved to near perfection due to a fantastic script, with strong dialogue, well developed characters, and a fantastic underlying sense of realism. The direction by Jim Jarmusch gives us a very methodical, slow burn sort of feel, but one that never wears out its welcome, enthralling the viewer at every turn.

And of course, the ultimate praise for Only Lovers Left Alive goes to Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton for brilliant performances. Both completely inhibit their characters, delivering portrayals that both capture our imagination, and frighten us with the way they organically control every scene.

Unique. Captivating. A Must Watch.


4.5/5 Stars

The Drop
The Drop(2014)

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
½

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
½

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

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)
½

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

The November Man
½

The November Man starts as a film with the ceiling of typical B spy thriller and yet flirts with being something more, ending somewhere in between. It's a film that finds Pierce Brosnan's return as a spy, this time an ex-CIA agent (Peter Devereaux), lured out of retirement for the ever-ubiquitous "last mission" to protect an important witness. It's a film of action, double-cross, murky alliances, and an ever widening plot.

As a pure spy thriller, November Man is an interesting mix. It has many of the worn clichés of the genre, while mixing in a plot that is considerably more layered than your typical B action film, with more complicated characterizations. The film's major action beats come as no surprise, where it ultimately ends up doesn't come as much of a surprise, and many of the action beats are routine. None of them are flat, to be sure, just familiar. Yet, there's flashes of something much more. The character of Peter Deveraux, for example, is shown with a surprising nuanced nature, as well as that of his protégée Luke Bracey, who is given a number of interesting moments of his own. Yet the film never quite explores this to satisfaction. The script thus is a bit of a mixed bag, ultimately giving us a tantalizing plot, yet never fully satisfying it. The twist does genuinely surprise, and how it is unwoven is handled fairly well, and the film resists the temptation to spell everything out for us. Yet one can't help but feel this sophistication should have been seen in the other elements of the film.

The cast was another mixed bag. I quite enjoyed Brosnan, and Olga Kurylenko was also fantastic. The two had excellent chemistry and really anchored the film. Yet, the casting of Luke Bracey was largely a dud, and the usually reliable Bill Smitrovich was unusually flat here, perhaps not in tone with the rest of the film.

Overall, a mixed effort, yet with considerably more positive than negatives.

3.5/5 Stars

The Cider House Rules

Orphans, a world war, lost souls, tragedy, and yet an underlying current of hope and love, Cider House Rules is a drama that has it all. Revisiting it 15 years after its release date, I couldn't help but be impressed by the shear ambition on screen and the resulting emotions. Set during World War II, Cider House Rules tells the story of a young man, Homer Wells, who spent his entire life in an Orphanage, seemingly groomed as the successor for the caretaker, only to embark on a journey of his own.

Uniquely, the best thing about Cider House Rules is the score. It is simply brilliant, resonating deeply, and being enchanting, sad, and reminiscent. This really sets the stage for the film, which has a bit of a vintage feel to it. There are many story lines introduced, with Homer anchoring the entire story. The films focus seems to be not so much on individual stories, rather the tapestry they form, and how these relationships form to create such a fantastical, yet brutal world. The performances are very strong all around, each adding their own layer to the narrative. I would count this is perhaps Tobey Maguire's best performance, with excellent chemistry between him and Charlize Theron. Director Lasse Hallstrom fills the screen with beautiful visuals, and a strong pace. It doesn't feel manipulative, rather it feels inquisitive in its approach, and non-judgmental in its observations.

Overall, one could say that Cider House Rules does flirt with melodrama. However, I found it to be largely authentic in its execution, and often moving. I would have liked more time to be spent with the characterizations, though the film has many big personalities to explore.

Very Strong

4/5 Stars

Boyhood
Boyhood(2014)

A masterpiece in every sense of the word, Boyhood is a film that transcends genre, surpasses what we think cinema is capable of, and leaves us astounded with its authenticity. It is the best film of 2014 thus far, and a sure classic. With this achievement, Richard Linklater cements his position as one of our great American filmmakers, a man ingenious in his approach.

The very nature of the film is nothing short of remarkable. It was shot in a total of 45 days, yet filmed over the course of 12 years, with the same central cast. There's no real plot, other than a rumination on life and the paths we find ourselves on. We have three main actors, Patricia Arquette, Ehtan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, and Lorelei Linklater (daughter of director Richard Linklater). The bulk of the focus is on Ellar Coltrane, hence the journey of his boyhood. The performances from all are brilliant, with the film giving us all flawed, nuanced, and yet identifiable characters. There's no clichéd people, or forced storylines, everything that happens in Boyhood feels organic. This is accentuated by the very real growth we see on film, with the characters aging before our eyes. We not only empathize with them, but we feel as if we are, in a sense, part of the family. Every emotional beat is thus earned and deeply resonating.

The transitions of the film are breathtaking in how seamless they are, despite the massive time interruptions. Linklater is the master of making things feel organic and unscripted, and this is achieved to brilliance with Boyhood. It feels less like a film and more like a journey through time. It has the greatest realism of any film I've ever seen, and borders on a documentary with its feel.

The film has themes of life, family, milestones, regret, and identity. It's simple in its approach, with no strained plot, yet profound in its observations and outcomes. It will stay with you for a long, long time.

Perfection.

5/5 Stars

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Werner Herzog's, Happy People is yet another example of what makes him a good filmmaker. It's observant, beautifully shot, and restrained in its narration, letting the images and people speak for themselves. The film follows a group of trappers in the incredibly brutal and remote Siberian Taiga. So isolated, this area can only be reached by boat or helicopter, and only during certain times. Herzog captures this vastness beautifully, giving us expansive shots of the barren landscape, in its boldness and its breathtaking nature. Here we get intimate insights in to the men and women who brave this land, who, in their simplicity and assuredness, offer a lot of profound insight.

Visually, the film is stunning, as Herzog's work tends to be. Here Herzog is able to put to film something that seems surreal, it is so foreign to us. It is always engaging, and features just the right mix of narration, images, and dialoged from the trappers. Herzog lets what they say unfold organically, and the shots he is able to captures are nothing short of astonishing.

An excellent documentary.

4/5 Stars

Saving Mr. Banks

Charming, beautifully told, and rendered with both a zeal for life and a mature sense of nostalgia, Saving Mr. Banks is a film that strikes a balance between sentimental and authentically dramatic, and does so quite, quite well. Inspired by the back-story of the making for "Mary Poppins", the film examines the woman behind the characters, her unique temperament, and a past that forever inspires her present. In a several decades long journey to secure the rights for a screen version of the story, Walt Disney must convince her of his company's merits and benevolence.
That the film is pro-Disney goes without saying. One can't pretend it's an unbiased view of history. However, taken on its own merits, I was quite impressed by the film's complexity yet endearing simplicity, much like the story the film seeks to make. The telling of Ms. Travers upbringing, for instance, is handled in a very elegant, unique manner. Its flashbacks are vividly real, heartfelt, tragic, and completely germane to the story. Narrative structures like this can be clunky, yet with Saving Mr. Banks, director John Hancock does opts for a more subtle approach to his characterization of Travers, letting us connect the dots, and never feeling the need to be overly explicit with us. The narrative is smartly written, capturing an immensely strong-willed and interesting character in Ms. Travers, and an equally big personality in Disney. The direction weaves the story seamlessly, and never loses sight of the ultimate focus, that of Travers ultimate revelation and journey of forgiveness.
The most rewarding thing about the film are the performances. Some of the minor characters, though admirable, are a bit one note, yet the major players are done brilliantly. I found this to be especially true of Collin Farrell, in one of the more memorable flashback roles I've seen. Emma Thompson is fantastic, and is matched well with Tom Hanks, both of whom have the appropriate amount of chemistry for their roles. All of this is set in a film with strong world-building, and a narrative worthy of its talent.

Great all around.

4/5 Stars

No God, No Master

No God, No Master is the sort of film that clearly has a lot to say, a lot of history to convey, yet struggles to do so effectively in a self-contained film. It's a period piece of historical merit, certainly, but also one plagued by a sort of routine by-the-numbers filmmaking that makes it less compelling than it should have been.

Set in the summer of 1919, the film looks at the events following a series of packaged bombs sent to prominent politicians, industry men, and bankers. The ensuing terror unleashes the overzealous attorney general, Alexander Palmer, who subsequently orders the arrest and deportation of thousands of immigrants, termed the Palmer raids. The film clearly sees a parallel to our current situation today, with civil liberties coming under assault in the wake of hysteria arising out of terror. Like the film's protagonist, Agent William Flynn, the film argues for a more restrained, cool-headed approach. Agreed, but I was
hoping it would be conveyed in a dramatically compelling way. Too often with No God, No Master, we feel as if we are being both preached to and lectured at, with dialogue making a point to constantly underline the historical significance. It is a fine line, to be sure, yet I felt the film was too conservative in its approach, despite some generally good performances, especially by David Stratharian.

Overall, the direction was competent, the performances serviceable, and the story interesting. Yet the execution was lackluster, making it a so-so film.

3/5 Stars

Nixon
Nixon(1995)
½

"They look at you and they see what they want to be. They look at me and they see what they are."

Fascinating, absorbing, penetrating, tragic, and brilliantly rendered, Oliver Stone's Nixon is a mesmerizing film. The film is a non-linear retelling of Nixon's life, centering on his final year in office. Through flashbacks we see how his tumultuous life, full of successes and failures, shaped his character, and defined his political career. It's an interpretation of history, certainly, but one that feels all too real.

The success of Nixon hinges largely on the central performance by Anthony Hopkins. His portrayal is nothing sort of masterful, embodying a man with a tortured soul. His Nixon is isolated, conflicted, insecure, paranoid, and yet ambitious and capable of enormous resilience. Through this performance, we fully realize the inner turmoil, feel the heartbreak of his upbringing, and begin to understand an incredibly complicated man. His constant ruminations on death, his obsession of living in JFK's shadow, all of this is true to the time. Intimately familiar with the inner workings of the intelligence establishment and the military industrial complex, we understand his paranoia, with its overt overtones to the Kennedy assassination and a sort of secret government behind the scenes.

As history, Stone's Nixon seems to largely hold up. Like his brilliant JFK, there are composite scenes and characters, yet the researched nature of the film is clear. Nixon was flawed, of course, but also audacious in his maneuvers. The result is a tenure that yielded countless blunders, yet also a number of notable achievements. The allusions to the "bay of pigs" thing is most certainly a callback to the JFK assassination, with Nixon obviously knowing much more about the events of that tragic day. As Roger Stone's work, Nixon's Secret details, this was the basis of his later pardon. The treatment of Watergate, however, does seem to have some flaws. While it shows Nixon as aware yet in-over-his head, with an inclination toward abuse of power, Stone fails to see the larger reality that Watergate was undoubtedly a sort of set-up of Nixon, a deliberately botched scheme to bring him down. Ultimately, though, it was the cover-up that brought Nixon down, not the act.

The direction by Stone keeps the film, at 3.5 hours, always engaging and energetically paced. His choices for casting are brilliant, and the script is intelligently written and nuanced. The flashbacks and constant changes of camera angles, a hallmark of Stone films, does occasionally get overdone, yet this is done for a purpose, as if to convey Nixon's frantic inner-self, never at ease with his situation, himself, or those around him.

Overall, it's a thrilling look at one of the most prominent and interesting political personalities of the 20th century.


4.5/5 Stars

The Immigrant
½

Melodramatic to a fault, yet performed with skill, and beautifully rendered, The Immigrant looks at Prohibition-era New York City, with Ellis Island as the country's Mecca for immigrants. Here we find two sisters recently arrived from Poland, looking for their piece of the American dream. When one of them is detained for health reasons, the other (Ewa), is left to her own devices, only to be seduced in to the employee of a mischievous man and, hence, a brothel.

As a period drama, The Immigrant accomplishes strong world-building. The scenery is impressive, the mood feels right, and the characters that inhabit the scene blend in to the times. We see the self-righteous, hypocritical morality of the times, as well as the harsh realities many immigrants face. Yet the film never fully explores this. Instead, it focuses on the dynamic between Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), and specifically on Ewa's self-hatred. This is never quite as compelling as the film thinks it is, seeming to meander too much on the helplessness of Ewa, and giving us a character in Bruno that is interesting, yet frustratingly inaccessible in his motives. The performances are certainly strong, yet the film would seemingly be better served by expanding its vision to the wider realities of the immigrants.

To achieve its dramatic notes, the film employs a great deal of melodrama, especially towards the end. My problem was that it didn't always feel organic to the story and felt sloppily executed in the final act. Still, the film has great merit in presenting a story with undertones of forgiveness, and a unique look at a very real part of our history. I only wish more focus was on this, with the film's biggest fault being a somewhat thin narrative.

3.5/5 Stars

A Most Wanted Man
½

Smartly crafted, intelligently written, methodically paced, and realistically rendered, A Most Wanted man is a fantastic spy thriller, and an uncommon example of poignant, sharp, and thought-provoking commentary. It's a film of nuance, a film of subtlety, and a powerful last role for Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The film itself is based on the novel by John le Carre, who has penned a voluminous number of thoughtful spy thrillers, such as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Like Tinker Tailor, A Most Wanted Man is a skillful adaptation. Its dialogue is rich yet not ostentatious, but rather insightful, penetrating, and befitting of its world. We are given plot, which requires attention to detail, yet a plot that doesn't purposefully seek to obfuscate (as many spy thrillers succumb to), and is more concerned with its over-arching themes. Its' main theme deals with essentially not losing sight of the forest through the trees, as so many bureaucratic systems get bogged in to, settling for the 'easy' win or photo-op, yet ignoring the underlining issues. In this case, there's a number of agencies with different goals, despite seemingly having the same objective. As one of the characters in the film asks, "what is the long-term goal here", to which Hoffman responds that it's to create a "safer world", we see that this, in reality, is exceedingly subjective. In the case of the intelligence community, the film seems to strongly suggest that the goal is rather on the illusion of safety and spectacle than of actually changing outcomes.

The direction by Anton Corbijn creates an absorbing film, with a deliberate pace, yet an appropriate amount of tension. He populates this world of confusion and paranoia with interesting characters, refusing to give us easy protagonists or villains. This is the nuance of the film, giving us relatable characters that all have their own failings and motivations. Thus the film is more concerned with a wider character study of how these players interact than it is with giving us clichéd plot developments or stereotyped personas.

The performances all around are excellent, with Hoffman yet again showing his brilliance. His character, a German intelligence chief, is essentially an ordinary man, yet Hoffman is able to make even the most routine of people captivating, as he captures the utter subtleties, the body language, the expressions, the mannerisms of his character, completely inhibiting the role. His accent is very impressive, and we never for a moment question his authenticity in any way. His portrayal here serves as an excellent example of the range and texture he gave all of his performances.

An overall must see.

4.5/5 Stars

The Railway Man

Heartfelt from the start, poignant, compelling, and yet strangely subtle, Railway Man is a film of inspiration and one of melancholy, ending on a profound note, if not always achieving that during its run. Based on the autobiography, Railway Man tells the story of a British officer who was brutally treated as a prisoner of war, returned to his country as a man still deeply troubled, continuing the war in his own mind. Enter the lovely Patti Lomax (Nicole Kidman) who pushes Eric to confront his demeans, culminating in a painful confrontation of his past.

The story is told through flashbacks, used interchangeably. These are frequent, and long lasting, which create two worlds that feel very real and well realized, yet can sometimes feel like separate entities, each with their own self-contained stories. Though this is a noted criticism for many, I found that ultimately the structure worked, and was impressed by the strong performances by the cast in both timelines. All performances are understated, as is the film, yet still powerful, headlined by a terrific performance from Colin Firth.

The pace of the film can be slow at parts, yet dead-on in others. One problem that is created is that the momentum is not always carried over to the other storyline (past and present), with some shifts happening rather sporadically. One such shift was the discovery of Firth's post-traumatic stress, which felt oddly at bay at the beginning of the film. Yet, the film's restrained approach to the story showed a much appreciated respect to letting events unfold organically. The characters feel real, their traumas are real, and the film's message is always carried through.

Ultimately, it's the performances that really carry Railway Man to an effective, and moving film. It's a penetrating character study, an exploration of human nature, and an ultimate triumph for forgiveness.

4/5 Stars

Non-Stop
Non-Stop(2014)
½

Liam Nesson. A terrorist. A plane. And a crazy third act--that, in its essence, is Non-Stop. The film has Liam Nesson as an alcoholic, divorced, and otherwise wayward Air marshal assigned to a transatlantic flight from New York to London. During the flight he receives a number of threatening text messages, demanding a specified amount of money or someone will die every twenty minutes. Enter Neeson to sort it all out--except, there's a twist. He's being set-up as the hijacker.

Of all the things that can be said of Non-Stop, one has to admit that it is, first and foremost, a very entertaining film. The direction by Jaume Collet-Serra has just the right balance of kinetic energy with methodical build-up, and a keen sense of misdirection and paranoia. It never ceases to hold your attention, and, though we may roll our eyes at some of the plot developments, the film is so earnestly told, and executed so well that we largely forgive the many lapses in logic. The action is tight and impacting, the dramatic elements feel more earned than one would expect in a film like this (though certainly riddled with clichés), and the performances, especially from Neeson are compelling. He embodies the anti-hero better than perhaps anyone in Hollywood, and delivers a gruff, flawed, and yet confidently in command man who, despite his outward appearances, manages to rise to the occasion.

So where does the film falter? The script has a number of holes in it (shocking for the genre). To be sure, Non-Stop should be given credit for at least trying to establish some sort of credibility, yet the last act becomes increasingly absurd. The twists at the end rob the film of some of the mystique it had build, giving us a number of interesting red herrings, yet ultimately succumbing to an uninspired resolution.

Still, despite some narrative flaws, it's a largely well done action film that will never lose your attention.

3.5/5 Stars

3 Days To Kill

3 Days to Kill is an action film, a dark comedy, and a heartfelt family drama. At least, it wants to be. It's a blend of a film that never quite knows what it wants to be, delivering mixed results on screen.

The film sees Kevin Costner as an effective, if gruff and over-the-hill, CIA spy. Like countless other movie spies, this one has a complicated family life, having an estranged wife and daughter. A rare brain tumor leaves him with 3 months left to live, propelling Costner to "get his affairs in order" and re-establish some sort of relationship. Complications ensue when he finds himself suddenly thrust back in the spy game, needing to track down a ruthless terrorist.

Yes, it's derivate, and filled with clichés. The film takes its family undercurrent very seriously, and I actually felt this worked well for the film, mostly because of the performances. Costner was good, and his chemistry with Hailee Steinfeld makes a familiar family dynamic interesting. His other relationships, with his wife, with Amber Heard, and with the other characters in the film, don't work quite as well, however. The entire narrative involving the arms dealing terrorist is never developed to any satisfaction, and we never care about any of the villains or feel like there's really any stakes at play. The whole subplot involving the experimental drug is also helplessly contrived.

Yet, the film is fun. The action is highly competent, even bordering on impressive, and the central performances are strong enough to mask many of the faults. It's flawed, certainly, but manages to do enough right to make it a passable watch.

3/5 Stars

Bad Words
Bad Words(2014)

A big departure for nice guy Jason Bateman, his directorial debut is a dark comedy of audacious proportions, often offensive, uncomfortable, and cruel in its delivery. It's a black comedy that wants to shock, and wear that's on its sleeve. The result is a film of debauchery, some interesting moments, and strong central performances, yet a film that never fully hits on the resonance that it tries for.

While the film was occasionally funny, the film's laughs didn't deliver consistently enough to cover up its narrative limitations. The story is never fully developed, we don't understand all of the motivations of the characters, the arcs feel false, and its best moments are never fully earned. Successful black comedies, like the brilliant Bad Santa, provide us with interesting characters, hilarious situations that are earned within the story, and shock that serves a purpose. With Bad Words, what we ultimately get is a few laughs, some good performances, and an entertaining film overall, yet an average comedy. The film feels as if it's trying too hard to shock us, with not enough attention being paid to the message it's trying to send, or the characters it wants us to appreciate.

A marginal recommendation for fans of the genre.

3/5 Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy

Familiar in its plot, yet unfamiliar in its execution, Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, fast, comedic, gruff, and relentlessly charming. It's a true summer action film that represents the classic thrills that made science fiction great, reminiscent of early George Lucas. It's a film of arresting visuals, enjoyable performances, and an earnestly told, heartfelt story.

Set, of course, in the Marvel universe, Guardians of the Galaxy follows Chris Pratt as the 'infamous' (not) Star-Lord in a very Han Solo-esque role, who becomes pursued by a litany of villainous characters after stealing an orb of inexplicable power. Joining him on his quest include an oddball cast of a humanoid tree, a talking raccoon, an ever serious grief stricken father with no sense of sarcasm or irony, and Gamora, a turned agent of Ronan. This cast is enlivened by strong performances from all around, with a sure making of a star in Chris Pratt, and uncanny voice-overs form Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. The actors all have chemistry, and really chew their scenery by completely inhibiting their roles. There's a seriousness to the film which propels its action, and a dramatic undercurrent that achieves it, yet it's never bogged down by over-exposition, and never takes itself too seriously. The humor is consistent, the set pieces inventive, the CGI impressive, and the story is refreshingly told. The film treats its flashbacks in a unique way, and give us just the right amount of exposition to have appreciation for the scenery and characters, yet doesn't feel the need to spoon-feed the audience.

The film does have some weaknesses in that, like all superhero films, the plot is rather conventional, with yet another universe-threatening device. Yet, the film takes a unique approach at arriving at its conclusions. The characters, though all likeable, do have varying degrees of development, with the villainous characters being the least elaborated on, sometimes frustratingly so. Yet, such is the transient nature of many Marvel villains, while always keeping just the right number of background characters to keep things connected and interesting.

An undeniably fun ride. 4/5 Stars

Ender's Game
Ender's Game(2013)

An exercise in uneven film-making and poor adaptation, Ender's Game is a frustrating science fiction film that never lives up to its potential, and often doesn't even hint at it. Set in the future, the film presents a world in which the human race had nearly been wiped out by a hostile alien invasion some years earlier, with the leftover society preparing for another possible attack. Looking for a new generation of leaders, and the military seeks to hone the skills of the brightest youth available.

With Ender's Game, we are given Asa Butterfield as Ender, the protagonist. We are told he's the brightest they have, and shows the greatest potential. Yet, like much of the beats of the film, this never feels earned. The academy he is sent to is supposedly composed of near genius prodigies, yet Ender is the only one that shows any marked intelligence. What made him different? Why was he able to be so successful? The film never really shows us, but simply tells us. This is a carried trait throughout the film, never successfully building up to its dramatic moments. Ender's character arc is never fully realized, nor is any of the characters. We never care about any character, because we don't know them. The characterizations are thus shallow, and are executed with awkward dialogue, being delivered by largely unimpressive performances.

The technical elements of Ender's Game are impressive. The sets are well designed, the shots are nicely composed, and the CGI is beautiful. Visually, there's certainly some imagination, yet all of this is placed in a film devoid of compelling characters, a narrative that never finds itself, and a script with no humor or vibrancy, nor texture.

2/5 Stars

Lucy
Lucy(2014)

Highly energetic, kinetically paced, lofty in its ambitions, and daring in its execution, Lucy is a relentlessly fun film. It's a film that has very interesting ideas, expresses itself with great confidence, and yet easily glides past any logical fallacies with its fast pace and constant action. In the end, you are left impressed, if not occasionally bewildered, but never taken out of the film's universe. This is director Luc Besson's greatest achievement, creating a convincing, compelling, and self-contained world, that lets the audience buy in to its own worldview.

Lucy is yet another film by Luc Besson that features a strong female lead, and is yet another strong success. We find Scarlett Johansson unwittingly caught in a drug mule scheme, only to find herself ingesting large amounts of a new synthetic compound which unleashes an exponentially growing portion of her brain. The film breaks up the events by the percentage of her brain that she is able to access, with her abilities getting more and more profound and supernatural. The fallacies of this are obvious, the notion that we only use 10% of our brain is not true, and the film's notion as time as the only constant actually seems to counteract a lot of current quantum thought which has time as more illusory. Yet, this aside, the film does a number of interesting things by exploring the ultimate possibilities of the mind, opting not solely just for the power that can be achieved, but also exploring the change in perspective, the sensory overload, the connection to the whole. All of this is conveyed to excellent effect, with a strong, often detached (purposefully) performance by Scarlett Johansson. In addition, the film's logic at least stays consistent with itself, and is set up well in the film, with a number of unique "flashback" sequences, and of course the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman character there to shed light on some of the finer mysteries.

The action is staged very well, though there certainly are some overly familiar elements (the obligatory car chase), yet Besson adds a new wrinkle to alll of this by how he has Lucy's abilities interact with her environment, which change throughout the film, keeping the action fresh and engaging. There are no forced storylines, and the film isn't afraid to be bold in its approach, or its ending. It's a self-assured piece of filmmaking, one with all of the necessary elements for a truly thought-provoking, always entertaining, science fiction thriller. It also poses a number of existential questions, questions that explore our very existence, our transitory physical nature, and yet our ultimate connectedness to the whole.

Highly recommended.

4/5 Stars

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce, the five-part HBO dramatization of the acclaimed novel, is a unique miniseries unlike any I've seen. Set in the depression era, it follows the rise and 'fall' of Mildred Pierce, an ambitious, independent woman, who finds herself starting a thriving business. All the while, she tries desperately to get the approval of those around her, namely her narcissistic, privileged, and highly manipulative daughter. It's a series that examines love, class divisions, social norms of the 30s, and our propensity for self delusion.

The execution of Mildred Pierce is an interesting one. The series took a while to become enthralling for me, as I was unsure of where the piece was going, caught off guard by some of the antiquated dialogue, and confused on what the film was trying to say. The beauty of this series, however, is that through the unfolding five parts, we see an organic transformation of the story and the characters. It feels ever so real, and, by the end, becomes completely absorbing.

As a character study, I found the series to be largely fascinating. The dynamic between Mildred and her daughter, Veda, is unlike any I've seen depicted. Veda's self-absorption is so over-the-top, it does occasionally border on unbelievable. Yet here we have characterization so uncomfortable, we can't help but confront it. Veda misconstrues everything around her, constantly looks for slights that don't exist, always trying to create a victim mentality despite having a privileged life and a devoted mother. The pains Mildred goes through for such approval is staggering, and heartbreaking. In the end, Veda's abhorrent behavior seemingly poisons those around her, leaving Mildred awash in betrayal and abandonment.

Overall, it's a series that deserves to be watched, and one that will undoubtedly leave an impression.

4/5 Stars

Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre(2011)
½

Having not actually read the source material or seen the countless other adaptation of Jane Eyre, one can only judge it based on what it accomplished, and against the genre that it's a part of. As a 19th Century period piece, Jane Eyre is a successful film. It's very well executed at most every level, with excellent production values, world building, compelling performances, and a mostly engaging narrative.

I say mostly engaging, as the film does get a bit dull towards the end, with a notable descent in to melancholy. In additoin, there are parts of the film that feel too compact, as is the pitfalls of many films from novels. Yet the heart of the story is a fascinating one, with the film remaining anchored with the character of Jane Eyre, played rather brilliantly by Mia Wasikowska. Her Jane Eyre is one brimming with emotion, complexity, and drive, yet one ever so elegantly restrained with a sort of melancholy venire. Wasikowska conveys this to an amazingly raw extent, giving the film most of its narrative power. Fassbender's Rochester is also a fascinating character, though one could have wanted more from his characterization (his back-story was very unclear). Still, his chemistry with Mia is palpable.

The direction is mostly strong, having a solid pace up until the end, when the film seems to slow and meander a bit. We get a sense that with all of the characters on screen, there is a lot to be had, yet the constraints of the medium mean that only certain storylines could be fleshed out. Eyre's later inheritance and uncle is one plot line that was frustratingly glossed over, which is disappointing considering the interesting direction Eyre's character development was taking. Still, with what the film chooses to focus on, it does well.

An overall effective piece.

3.5/5 Stars

The Invisible Woman

Starring and directed by the talented Ralph Fiennes, The Invisible Woman sheds light on a chapter of the life of Charles Dickens unfamiliar with many, that of his affair with the young Nelly Ternan. Fiennes treats his subject with great respect and seriousness, making Invisible Woman a very weighty film. It's methodically paced yet very well executed. The story evolves slowly, yet organically, and treats the characters with such respect, it's a hard film not to admire.

As with any period piece, its world building is a huge part of its success. With Invisible Woman, Fiennes creates a very believable Victorian-era world, one with bubbling progressive ideas yet still stifled by its more conservative, austere, ways. His Charles Dickens is an intellectual, gentle, and passionate man, yet one with just enough detachment to those around him so as to fuel his creative eccentricity. Enter the charismatic Felicity Jones, someone whose earnestness no doubt earns Dickens's affections. This relationship is conveyed with great authenticity, with fine performances by both, especially Jones, who conveys a great deal of emotional nuance. The dynamic between the two anchors the film, and serves as a gateway to an interesting character study of Dickens, who tragically dejects himself from his wife and family, yet does so out of honesty. He's a man who strives to be good, though not always sure how to do it.

The film can be slow for those not involved with the narrative, but I found the film to be largely enthralling, with convincing portrayals, authentically rendered characters, and a message that resonates.

4/5 Stars

Snowpiercer
Snowpiercer(2014)

Snowpiercer is the perfect example of a film whose supposed cleverness and originality gets away from itself, backing itself in to a corner of inaccessible whimsy and oddity, without establishing a solid foundation for its narrative. Set in the future, the film envisions a world covered by snow and ice, with the lone survivors boarding the Snowpiercer, a self-sustaining train that travels around the globe. The train, divided in a class system, finds itself in an uprising when a tail passenger, Curtis, leads a group of mistreated and forgotten passengers to take the train.

The film's premise is undeniably absurd in many respects, with the film seeming to uphold this absurdness with its surrealistic, self-aware approach. In this sense, the film has a number of comedic overtones, as if it's not taking itself seriously. This can be fine, and work well as a satirical piece, yet the film insists on melodrama, making it seem disjointed and tonally confused. The quirkiness thus never works, never being funny and never working on a dramatic level. The absurdness only undermines what the film is trying to achieve, and the narrative notes are never successfully hit. The performances are equally as disjointed, with the cast feeling as if they were acting in different movies, with no real cohesion. The characterizations are shallow, the action scenes boring, and the dialogue inorganic.

A disappointing misfire.

2/5 Stars

Temple Grandin

Inspirational, insightful, uniquely realized, and undoubtedly fascinating, Temple Grandin is yet another strong biopic from HBO. Based on the life of Temple Grandin, an amazing woman with autism who has added both hope and understanding to the condition. It's through her work that we understand the autistic mind as a complex one, capable of remarkable brilliance, thinking visually and able to replicate and recall images to an unbelievable degree.

The film goes through Temple's life and major experiences, but does so without a "by the numbers approach". It accomplishes this through an amazing performance from Claire Danes, who completely inhibits Temple Grandin. The narrative allows us to better understand her mind by giving us flashes of the sort of visuals she experiences, while always keeping narrative focus. The film doesn't pander to her or those with autism, but rather transcends condescending notions by showing the underling ability that often goes unnoticed and cultivated.

Overall, it's an effective, resonate, and strongly executed biopic.

4/5 Stars

Great Expectations
½

Not being familiar with its source story, or the other numerous film adaptations, I went in to Great Expectations with no real notion of how the story would unfold. What I got was a period piece, to be sure, but one that was obviously based heavily on a literary source. It was a film of impressive scope and performed well, but a film that felt helplessly full, too many plot lines to follow, and too little time to adequately explore it.

The basic premise of the story finds a young orphan suddenly finding himself with a mysterious benefactor, seemingly destined to become a gentleman, for inexplicable reasons. The novel, penned by Charles Dickens and published in the 1860s, is certainly a product of its time, with its unique social criticisms and rather quaint plot devices, along with an indulgence toward melodrama. Originally published as a serial, it would seem the narrative is more fitted toward a miniseries. As a stand-alone film, it simply feels cramped. The characterizations, though well acted, never really have any lift because they are never given the time to unfold organically. The narrative developments are never enthralling, and often confusing, being more concerned with hitting on the story's major plot points rather than creating its own self-contained story. This is not to say the film is without merit, there's plenty to admire but, in the end, it never establishes itself as an appealing film in its own right.

2.5/5 Stars

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is a rare example of a sequel that is able to live up to its predecessor, while also serving as a promising platform for future films to come. It not only builds texture and depth to the series, but it manages to be an exceedingly enjoyable summer film in its own right, with excellently executed action scenes, an emotionally compelling narrative, and undoubtedly visceral in its appeal.

In this sequel, we see Caesar at the head of a large band of advanced apes, one with idealistic inclinations and a cool head. It is with this premise that the film takes a rather interesting direction. Instead of focusing on the ape v. human hostilities exclusively, the film instead seeks to examine the enemy within, and hence serves as an effective, if obvious, allegory for human nature and, at its base sense, the struggle between evolution and the appeal to fear. The apes take on a different, antagonistic approach, after a carefully staged coup by the monstrous Koba. This all makes for some interesting dynamics, with the ape characters receiving the bulk of the characterization work. This does, however, somewhat hinder the human characters, who take a backseat to the series. This is not particularly a criticism, save to say they were far less compelling. Led by Jason Clark and supported by performances from Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, the humans simply were simply outshined by the more interesting ape cast. This is largely a symptom of shallow characterizations for them, along with very familiar territory. Particularly underserved was Gary Oldman, an enormously talented actor whose part was far too sparse. Still, the focus on the apes remained a smart choice, setting the stage for a series that continues to impress.

Overall, the film steadily gains momentum, enthralls its audience, and gives us a refreshing take on an iconic series.


4/5 Stars

West of Memphis

In what is essentially a conclusive condemnation of the tragic West Memphis Three case, West of Memphis does a brilliant job of exposing the injustice of the Arkansas authorities, the ineptness of the judicial system up until the end, and yet the hopefully undertone of perseverance that ultimately, in some way, carried the day. Though it treads on similar ground as the laudable Paradise Lost series, West of Memphis is a superb overview of the case, and a captivating account of the latest developments. Populated with celebrities and talking heads, the film never feels self-congratulatory or aggrandizing, yet presents the information in a cool headed, yet passionate manner. What results is something truly compelling, emotionally jarring, and lasting in its impact.

Director Amy Berg quickly proceeds through the trial quickly, and spends the majority of the film on the later appeals and newly surfaced DNA evidence.

What we get is a truly expansive and fair view of the case, with the tragedy of the three wrongly convicted men always serving as the undertone. The interviews here are incredible, reaching most of the key players involved, giving us their stories in a coherent narrative that weaves together the developments so as to paint a picture so apparently obvious, we are only befuddled by the necessity of it. It's a penetrating look at the ignoring/manufacturing of evidence, and the astoundingly shallow case against the men. Here we see not only new DNA evidence, and new witnesses come forward, we see people who, by the grace of God, finally felt compelled to come forward and recant their testimony, erroneous testimony fueled by delusion and police pressure. The film does not stop there, however, it follows through past the Alford Plea, and gives us a sobering reality--victory can come in forms that we aren't accustomed to, and sometimes validation can only come from within.

A must see. 5/5 Stars

Short Term 12
½

Heartfelt, compelling, authentic, and visceral in its emotions, Short Term 12 is an amazingly impacting film. The story follows Grace, a young 20 something woman who works as a supervisor at a home for at-risk teens, along with her boyfriend. It is through Grace that we see the tragedy of the youth's lives, the anger, depression, confusion, and yet the hope that still abounds. It's a film of sadness, but also of love.

Too many films along similar lines have resorted to clichés or forced storylines to tell their story. This is not true of Short Term 12, which has an emotional intensity that is rare, and does this without melodrama. The characters in this film are treated with respect, not idealized or pitied, rather they are shown as what they are, we see the different coping mechanisms employed, while also understanding the underlining issues at hand. The family dynamics, and the dynamics amongst the youth feel real and organic to the story. The script is both finely written and poignant, delivering us a snap shot in a world that is hard to really face, but one that rings true.

The film is populated with fantastic performance, headlined by Brie Larson, in a role that should certainly serve as a launching point for her career. The direction, the pacing, the script, all are pitch perfect in a film that unfolds within itself without the use of gimmicks or plot devices. It's a methodical burn without being slow, subtle without holding back.

A must see.


4.5/5 Stars

Devil's Knot
Devil's Knot(2014)

Devil's Knot is a dramatization of the infamous West Memphis 3 case, in which three children were brutally assaulted and killed in a small Arkansas town.
Through documentaries such as the brilliant Paradise Lost, many doubts have been raised regarding the guilt of the convicted teens, since released as the result of a rare Alford Plea. That their convictions were extremely dubious is obvious, and the outrage over the 'investigation' of the case certainly seems just. The task for the film, however, was to take this heartbreaking and infuriating story, and translate that in to something dramatically compelling. What results is a bit of a mixed bag, something more akin to an abbreviated retelling, and not necessarily a self contained film.

The story itself is inherently compelling, and enthralling with its mystery and bizarre outcomes. This automatically gives Devil's Knot an advantage. To its disadvantage, however, the material had already been covered in numerous award-winning documentaries. For the film, I was hoping for a more dramatic piece, whereas with Devil's Knot we are introduced to the players, some of the emotions, and the mystery, yet nothing really new is offered. Despite some good actors and decent performances, it occasionally has the feel of a TV movie, in that the scenes are compressed and fast acting, that characterizations take a back seat to a "by the numbers" approach to filmmaking. An example of a film that treads on familiar territory yet enlivens it would be Zodiac, a film that's true to the spirit of the case while also making a compelling argument for its existent as a film.

Overall, the story itself is one that needs to be told. It's done competently in Devil's Knot, to be sure, making it worth a watch, though a piece that should take a back seat to what came before it.

3/5 Stars

Blood Ties
Blood Ties(2014)
½

Family violence, brother against brother, crime, redemption, futility, and escape--Blood Ties is a film that treads familiar ground, yet with another sensibility to it. A remake of a French film, and directed by the French Guillaume Canet, Family Ties evokes 70s America and cinema, while also channeling foreign influences of narrative, with an encompassing, wide-angle story. It's a sort of Heat meets We Own the Night, meets the numerous other cop/brother movies, yet with its own unique perspective.

To say that Blood Ties has some clichés is an understatement. It hits on a number of familiar beats, the evasive father, the troubled brother, the disillusioned "right-path" son, and ubiquitous temptation. Yet Blood Ties never revels in these, and doesn't rely on them to tell the story. The brothers, for example, are not simply mirror images of each other with different paths, but are juxtaposed to create a rather interesting view of masculinity. We see the tough, confident, and yet seemingly callous Chris (Clive Owen), with the sensitive, affable, and yet strong willed Frank (Billy Crudup). It's here that the film gets interesting, as it never forces a grand change of personality for either character, yet explores their dynamics in a very real, authentic way. Frank, for example, can never be described as weak or cowardly, his reluctance toward violence comes from strength, from determination, and from perseverance. So, too, does Chris's hard exterior, which is simply an outgrowth of his upbringing, but one that, channeled the right way, can show a deep amount of love and compassion.

Clive Owen's performance is certainly the most standout, but there's also some good supporting work, especially from the female cast. Here, too, the film departs from form. Instead of showing vulnerability and neediness, the women characters in Blood Ties are, though certainly flawed, strong willed and motivated of their own volition. In this way, the film gives strong characterizations to its entire cast, which helps in its rather expansive view. This view sets out to take on the entire family, showing the stark dichotomy of the family on the surface, yet the resounding similarities beneath the surface. This ambition, however, does get the film in to trouble. There's almost too much to tackle. The film tries to utilize childhood flashbacks, which are clunky, and never quite earns all of the notes that it tries to hit. The father issues, for example, are never explored, nor why Chris would take the path he did. There's an animosity beneath the surface that is never fully unearthed. This ambition also results in a number of tonal shifts, with the film trying to balance too much. The most stark problem I had with the film was the last act, in which the film gave in to melodrama than the more mature sensibilities it showed previously.

An overall often impressive, yet flawed piece.

3.5/5 Stars

Enemy
Enemy(2014)
½

Enigmatic, confounding, eerie, and relentlessly haunting, Enemy is a truly unique film. The premise finds a young college professor, Adam, seemingly disinterested and dispassionate about many things around him, suddenly confronted with having an actual doppelganger (Anthony). With this startling reality in hand, Anthony sets out to discover the truth, only to be enveloped in an ever-widening mystery.

What makes Enemy effective is not so much what it's saying, but rather how it says it. The film is rendered with very saturated colors, a muted world, hinting perhaps at an over-arching prism from above. It's populated with strong, intense, and ever-emotional performances, with Jake Gyllenhaal playing both the title roles in an exceptional manner. His Adam is a man of profound humanity, well meaning but also narrowly absorbed, with Gyllenhaal conveying an immense amount of emotion in every scene. The pacing, the world building, and even the script, all of it culminates in a very enveloping, though certainly mystifying experience.

To be sure, Enemy has a rather oblique sensibility to it. The spider motif, the much-talked about ending, and the inexplicable events on screen--all can make for a frustrating narrative. The film is composed so cohesively, however, that one is never completely disengaged. It does get too nebulous with its themes, which seems to straddle, if not cross, the line between thought-provoking and simply weird for the sake of weird--underscored by its ending.

Overall, it's too far a unique a film to pass up.

3.5/5 Stars

Joe
Joe(2014)

A uniquely compelling experience, Joe is a film that takes chances, emboldens its characters, and places the emphasis on its lyrical sensibility and gritty realism. It's a film that validates the much-maligned Nicolas Cage, and introduces us to a string of other talented actors.

Set in a sort of backward town, the story revolves around an ex-con, Joe (Nicolas Cage), who suddenly finds himself in a deep friendship with a disadvantaged youth, Tye Sheridan. As a supervisor on an illegal tree-killing operation (clearing the way for the lumber industry), Joe meets the precocious, eager boy after successfully pleading for a job with Joe. As the film unfolds, we see more of Tye's tragic home life, as well as the inner demons of Joe. This sets the stage for a great character study, as well as a very successfully executed atmospheric piece. The film's strong writing and resistance toward clichés or easy answers speak to the maturity level of its production, headlined by the talented director David Gordon Green (Shotgun Stories). The film doesn't pander to the audience nor flinch away from the desperation prevalent in these characters lives, rather it does its speaking through its characterizations.

By far, the most unique aspect of Joe are the performances. Director Green made the bold decision to cast both professional, up and coming, and non-professional actors. What this creates is a tapestry of realism, we are enveloped with the naturalistic performances, the vivid explosions of emotion, the raw torment of the characters, and the general heft of the film. What was most impressive was the portrayal by Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless substance abuser who gives the strongest performance of the film.

If Joe has flaws, it because the film's so wildly unpredictable at times, that it gives the impression of being unfocused. The tone can be a bit jarring, and we're never really sure where it's going. In the end, however, this ends up being more of an assist than a detriment to the film.

4/5 Stars

Say Anything...

One of the more infamous romantic comedies for its time, and a launching point for John Cusack, Say Anything is, in many respects, a quintessential Generation X and yet a film that only sporadically departs from a traditional framework, relying more on its style than any sort of profound theme.

In the film, we see Diane Court, a lauded high-school valedictorian with an extremely involved father, on the verge of departing to England for college, meeting the affable, aimless, and yet relentlessly charming Lloyd Dobler, graduating with her as well. This sets a familiar premise, with an unlikely pair that soon finds itself with an inexplicable connection. A fall-out soon occurs, followed by an earnest reconciliation. The arc of the story is cliché, with no real unpredictable moments. If Say Anything does anything unique, it's in the execution, with a fantastic performance from John Cusack, and also in its characterization of the relationship between Father and daughter, a refreshingly positive take.

That the film has garnered recognition is certainly most attributed to the performance by Cusack, and the (cliché), yet effective romantic beats in the film ,making for some truly memorable scenes. There's some issues to be had, however, Ione Skye's performance was never particularly compelling, and her character never all that believable, too neat and one-dimensional. The beginning is also a bit clunky, with the film starting to find its stride about mid-way through. Overall, it's a film of charm and a breezy sort of air about itself, but one that too often reinforces the romantic clichés of the time, with its lasting messages failing to totally resonate on an organic level.

3/5 Stars

2016: Obama's America

2016: Obama's America is, like its director and star Dinesh D'Souza, is a documentary of some interest and intelligence, yet one prone to simplicity and a lack of penetrating depth. Listening to D'Souza's media rounds, one cannot help but be impressed. He is intelligent, well-spoken, and controlled in his delivery. This lead me to check out his 2016 documentary, which has many aspects of merit, but never fully lives up to its promise.

D'Souza's thesis is that Obama's unique upbringing and family history has greatly shaped his world view. Specifically, D'Souza examines his father's socialist and anti-colonialist views, his college associates, and those individuals he has some sort of relationship with that, D'Souza contends, shaped Obama's worldview. This worldview analyses everything from an anti-colonialist view, one that de-emphasizes America's view, and looks to equalize the rest of the world at the sake of our nation's interest, and with a socialist economic bent.

While there's certainly a story to be had here, I'm not convinced D'Souza found it. One should look at all of his policies in context, which is more of the same, and an even greater bent toward militarism, centralism, and blending corporate and government power. If anything, the evolution seems to be that of an intelligence product/operation, with the "anti-colonial" and leftist rhetoric being more of a cover. D'Souza seems to pick and choose his facts, pointing to, as an example, returning a bust of Churchill as a rebuff to the UK, and backing Argentina in the Faulken islands, while ignoring the reversal on numerous military promises, such as Gitmo, and a foreign policy which is very much still interventionist. This speaks to another fault of D'Souza, he correctly exalts America's exceptionalism and our roots in liberty, yet equates that with a seemingly pro-interventionist bent, something very much opposed by our founding fathers.

On a technical level, 2016 is a mixed bag. The cinematography is good, yet the pacing is flawed. Too much time is spent on speculation with just D'Souza, too many filmed phone conversations. The narration is not especially compelling. What is effective, however, are the interviews with the little known family members, done in an un-opposing way, which lends to D'Souza's cool demeanor. What emerges is a certainly different aspect to the Obama story than many realize, yet one that perhaps doesn't fit all the pieces together. It's never boring, and manages to be informative and thought-provoking enough to warrant a watch.

3/5 Stars

A Single Shot
½

Inexplicable money, an accidental shooting, ruthless nefarious ne'er do wells looking to regain their ill-gotten gains and a love story to boot, A Single Shot is a sort of backwoods noir piece. Centered on a hunter, John Moon, fresh off a separation from his wife, the film explores the unfolding series of events following an accidental shooting, caused by him.

As any good noir film, A Single Shot has an appropriately atmospheric tone, combined with methodic pacing, eerie characters, and an impending sense of dread. Overall, director David Rosenthal's direction was able to capture the right mood, and rendered generally effective world-building of a hillbilly town. This is the best part of the film, which combines this effective world building with excellent cinematography.

The problems come down to the script. It's never quite as clever as it thinks it is, seeming to out-think itself in the last act. How Sam Rockwell's character is blackmailed never seems quite believable, something more apt for a horror film, and the machinations of those that oppose him are too thinly sketched. So, too, are the characters. The cast itself is quite capable, headlined by a strong showing form Sam Rockwell, yet we never fully understand the dynamics between them. Opportunities are had for some rich character studies and fully distinctive takes on the narrative, Cohen brothers style, yet these are never really developed in A Single Shot, which relies too much on the style of menace than the actual narrative building of it. This leaves otherwise promising performances, William H. Macy's to be left rather adrift.

Overall, it's certainly an enjoyable film with a lot of impressive elements, yet never fully meets its potential with its delivery.

3.5/5 Stars

The Fault In Our Stars

Highly effective, melodramatic, often manipulative, and lasting, The Fault in our Stars is an undeniably powerful teenage tearjerker for all ages. Focused on the budding love of two cancer ridden teens, meeting in a support group, the film is both a study of their relationship and a call of celebration for life, as well as an exploration of the journey of death.

To say that The Fault in Our Stars defies formula wouldn't be accurate, it hits on all of the expected emotional beats, predictable in its climax, and familiar in its resolution. But it's also true to say that while it does follow formula, it also enlivens it with great dialogue, charming characters, and a scripting adaptation that excels at both enveloping us in the story, and is yet not afraid to drastically shift to sudden tragedy, embodying the road many terminally-diagnosed patients face. What was particularly impressive were the rich family dynamics at play, we see a family that struggles with the inevitable, yet tries not to wallow in its own tragedy.

In order for such a film to really succeed, the most important element is, of course, the chemistry and relationship of the two leads. This is what works most effectively within the film's framework, featuring a really terrific performance from Shailene Woodley, matched well with Ansel Elgort. The two bring a lot of vibrancy to their roles, and greatly enrich the material. The low-points feel heartbreaking, the highpoints are enthralling. The relationship, at times, does feel a bit fantastical, and the film certainly does require some leaps of logic. The author subplot, the convenient appearance of certain characters at just the right time, the 'conveniently' timed tragedies, it never loses its movie feel. Yet, in the end, the story itself is so earnestly told and impressive in its execution, the one can't help but be compelled.

4/5 Stars

Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow
½

Enormously entertaining, riveting to the last minute, unique, and smartly conceived, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best science fiction films of recent years. It's a film that is relentlessly fun, thought provoking, and executed to near perfection on every level.

It is undoubtedly the premise of the film that really distinguishes it, and serves as the narrative hook. In what can perhaps be described as a sort of Groundhog Day meets Saving Private Ryan, we find Earth in the midst of an inexplicable alien invasion. An unwilling Major William Cage finds himself at the forefront of the invasion, only to have a sudden ability to re-set the day's events, triggered every time he dies. This serves as a welcomed departure from the typical formula one might expect, and also is the prime opportunity for Cruise's cocky nature, smugness, and know-it-all fervor to take hold. He turns out to be perfectly cast, and chews every scene he's in. He anticipates what's going to happen with an impatience but also with a humorous approach that really sells every. Another tandem with Emily Blunt also continues to prove successful, with the two both having a notable chemistry.

The exact mechanics of the time-resetting is never fully explained to satisfaction, and the notions of parallel realities seem to be out the window, yet the film is careful not to use it as a gimmicky plot device. Genuine thought goes in to this, with the characters having a continual trial and error process. It's not a matter of automatically figuring out the course to take, much of the film is that of experimentation, and we get to witness that. Within this framework, we witness the transformation of Tom Cruise's character, from a callow man of questionable fortitude, do a determined, selfless man of tremendous bravery, something that unfolds organically within the film.

Technically, the film is exceptionally well edited. The continual time shifts are done abruptly, but seamlessly. We also follow what's going on, and never lose appreciation for the effect itself. The aliens are rendered imaginatively and rather unsettling. That the film never fully explains the nature of these creatures is frustrating at first, yet also true to its world. We know what the characters know, which isn't much, giving everything a more mysterious feel. The action scenes are impactful and kinetic, and the overall world building feels seamless. It really is the most well realized science fiction film of quite some time.

A must see.

4.5/5 Stars

Out of Africa

A renowned romantic epic of the 80s, Out of Africa is a long, though undoubtedly grand, spectacle. The film centers on Isak Dinesen, known as Karen Blixen-Flecke, a Danish woman who marries, largely for convenience, her friend Baron Bor Blixen-Flecke, soon embarking to her farm in Africa. It is here that she encounters a different sort of way of life, and meets the inevitable swashbuckler, Denys Finch Hatton, an easy man to be enchanted with but a difficult man to love.

The film has a lot going for it, notably its absolutely beautiful cinematography, capturing the captivating and epic African wilderness. Its cast is an admirable one, with Meryl Streep giving her characteristic powerhouse performance, supported by the talented Robert Redford and even Klaus Maria Brandauer. We can't help but be taken with their dynamics, and with the films backdrop, we are swept up in the sheer gravitas of what's going on. This keeps the film engaging and enjoyable for its almost three hour run.

There's two notable criticisms, however, that stand out for the Oscar winning epic. One, the narration by Meryl Streep is overdone, and the accent much too thick, something that doesn't match her cadence in the actual film. This is both annoying and distracting. Second, the relationship between Streep and Redford is never quite as believable as it should be. The chemistry between the two seemed inconsistent, with Redford's characterization being the weakest of the film. We never quite "buy" him, we're introduced to him in one of the opening scenes, and the film never feels much of a need to really elaborate on his back-story or motivations outside of that.

Overall, however, the film is simply too well executed from both a technical level, and from a narrative standpoint not be compelled by.


4/5 Stars

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

After revisiting all the films, it seems undeniable that Last Crusade is the best of the franchise, slightly surpassing Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a more mature effort all around in a sense, with fully refined characters, consistent humor, and just the right balance between story and action. It has a stronger narrative than either Raiders and, certianly, Temple, while not sacraficing any of the trailblazing, swushbuckling, action/adventure sense of the first two. Despite having Nazi villians again, it doesn't feel stale, it feels fresher. The way the clues are laid out, the way the story unfolds, hooks the audience in more than the previous two. The other noticable aspect that distinguishes Last Crusade is the dynamic between both Ford and Connery, who have a fantastic chemistry, and represent what feels that an authentic relationshiop. That, and the more complicated character of Alison Doody, give the film both a lighter tone than Temple, yet a more nuanced air than Raiders.
The action, the characters, the writing, the direction, everything is exactly pitch perfect. A brilliant effort and a masterpiece almost-capstone.

5/5 Stars

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The second installment of the series offers a darker tone, compelling scenes, and an increasing adult sensibility amidst a plot which is bit more silly. What this film really succeeded at was underscoring and refining the personality of Indiana, who is seemingly even more witty and cunning, though still flawed and occasionally rough around the edges. The scenes that are centered on him, such as the opening, are often astounding. Temple of Doom never loses its dramatic heft, and remains engaging throughout. It is a weaker film than its predecessor in a few ways, however, with action sequences that go on too long. Whereas it's just as kinetic and fast past as Raiders, Raiders was more successful at breaking up the massive set pieces and that way felt bigger. Temple, being confined to essentially one location, does not have that sense of vastness. Still, the sequences could have been split up more. Kate Capshaw's character of Willie Scott is also not quite as compelling as Karen Allen's character of Marion Ravenwood, being even more shrill. Overall, these are bit minor criticisms of a film that certainly surpasses the majority of action films today, and has been a bit unfairly maligned in the series.

4/5 Stars

Raiders of the Lost Ark
½

Revisiting the Indiana Jones trilogy on blu ray reveals a truly masterful set of films, with the Lost Ark standing the test of time as a brilliant action and adventure film. It's a film of enormous energy, backed far-flung landscapes and full of treachery. It captivates with its sense of adventure, and entertains both with its grand scope, but also with its humor, done in a sly manner pitch perfect for Harrison Ford. It's also unquestionably done in a less politically correct time, with surprising violence and gratuity for a PG rating, something later repeated in subsequent films. There's a certain sense of daring about it, things happen unexpectedly, and quickly. This, to be sure, is perhaps the one area of valid criticism against the film, its whirlwind pace can make it difficult to take in everything that is happening. Still, its emphasis on its world building, its characters, and its brilliant execution ultimately carry the day.

4.5/5 Stars

Twa Flight 800
½

Kristina Borjesson's documentary is a resoundingly compelling indictment of the government's official findings for TWA 800, conclusively showing that an internal explosion occurring in the center fuselage was not and could not have been the cause of the crash. Instead, through painstaking research and witness testimony, we see that it was, in fact, three external objects that hit the plane.

What makes this documentary so powerful is the sheer number of witnesses, family members, and even lead investigators during the four-year long inquiry that are interviewed, each exposing the fraud, incompetence, and willing disregard for proper protocol during the investigation. Spearheaded by Tom Stalcup, a scientist who spent years studying the crash, the documentary shows numerous experts that recount evidence being altered, erroneous animations shown to the public, and what they really saw. Witnesses relate how their testimony was alerted, and even the blatant intimidation they received. All of this is weaved together in a cohesive manner, with a strong emotional undercurrent. In the end, it's a film that avoids speculation, sticks to the facts, and argues its case so well, there can hardly be any doubt.

A must see.

4.5/5 Stars

Two Lovers
Two Lovers(2008)

In the saturated genre that is romantic dramas, Two Lovers manages to distinguish itself in a truly unique way. It's a film that has familiar elements, certainly, but an uncommon execution with both a mature sensibility and nuanced look at relationships. The result is a layered film, a powerful character study, and an intelligent exploration of the nature of loss, love, and our underlying motivations.

The film centers on Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a broken, depressed man, who finds himself both courting a semi-arranged relationship by his parents, while also pursuing the equally lost but enchanting Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is thus thrust from a state of depression to one of uncertainly, but also a certain exhilaration. As the film progresses, we see the hidden vulnerabilities underlying all of the characters, making for some very fascinating dynamics. The performances are accordingly powerful, and result in a very nuanced film.

The script paints us characters that we can all relate to, if not completely identify with. It's not a drama concerned with formula or easy answers, but rather asks the question of what motivates love and, perhaps more importantly, what motivates people? Through Joaquin Phoenix we see the wild swings of love, yet also witness its resiliency in the end, or perhaps just the pragmatics that underlines so many of our choices. Through Paltrow, we see a woman who is her own worst enemy, and with Vinessa Shaw's character, we see the longing for any sort of connection. All of these dynamics interact beautifully to create a richly conveyed story.

If there's a criticism of Two Lovers, it's wanting more of an exploration of Phoenix's character, specifically his last relationship. We find out through various exchanges some of what took place, but this is never fully explored, and is certainly germane to his current state. Still, what's vital is hot so much how he arrived at this current emotional state but rather what that emotional state is, which the film achieves.

Overall a very strong romantic drama.

4/5 Stars

August: Osage County

While it borders, and eventually exceeds, in melodrama, August: Osage County is a film hard not to be impressed with. It's dark, cynical, funny in its own way, yet penetrating in its look at one dysfunctional family. It's a film that takes itself very seriously, yet backs it up with talent and a sort of fierceness about itself that keeps one ever engaged.

The film revolves around the profoundly dysfunctional Weston family, a Oklahoma based intellectual family, but one riddled with secrets, prejudices, insecurities, and discord. When the male patriarch disappears, it leaves the restless, drug addicted, and deeply flawed Violet Weston, played by Meryl Streep, at the helm, let to deal with her estranged daughters. This all gives a very interesting look at family dynamics and intergenerational strife, and the ripple effects it has. Too often, family dramas never feel real, they're too sanitized, too clean, too polished. One cannot say that of the Weston's who seem all too relatable for many of us. It also serves as a powerful character study about addiction, and the role of substance abuse in troubled families. This is all anchored by an enormously talented ensemble cast, full of some of the most prolific actors of our time, with all of them turning out excellent performances.

If there is to be a criticism of Osage County, it's certainly that its melodrama gets away from itself in the later act of the film. Things start to fall apart too easily, the dysfunction starts to feel contrived, and the actors are left to wallow in their own pity. The contrivance is not felt early on, however, making the last act the weakest. The film's huge ensemble cast was undoubtedly a bit too big, feeding a number of storylines that could otherwise be self contained. Still, the dialogue is rich, the characters well realized, and the commentary often poignant, making up for the later shortcomings.

4/5 Stars

The Family
The Family(2013)

The family is the sort of film so wrapped up in its own perceived cleverness, that it never stops to realize its own short-comings. It's familiar, largely unfunny, and predictable. Centered on an American Mafia family forced to relocate to Europe after entering the witness protection program, the film tries desperately to be an off-beat comedy, yet only achieves very sporadic instances of humor. It simply never feels believable, even to itself.

The script is the most glaring problem for the family. It immediately sets out to surprise us with these often unlikable characters, but does it through situational gags, not any sort of characterization. They never feel like real characters, even among themselves. How their family dynamics came to be is never explained, the leading up to their relocation is never really explored, and the motivations of those after them is never fully fleshed out. It is, to be sure, a comedy, with dramatic nuance certainly taking a backseat. But even a comedy requires some sort of authenticity among its characters, some sort of real underpinning, to be really effective. With The Family, it telegraphs where it's gong with no originality, and relies on often cheap gags/gimmicks to propel itself forward, leaving the viewer wholly unimpressed.

This is not to say that the film doesn't do anything right. There are moments of humor, and DeNiro was characteristically reliable. Yet the difference between this film and other mafia comedies that work, Analyze This, is that we're never able to identify with the characters, nor their predicaments.

A misfire.

2/5 Stars

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Fresh in its approach, and inventive in its execution, X-Men: Days of Future Past is certainly one of the stronger films of the franchise. It's a film that manages to stay sharp and consistently engaging, delivering on expected action beats, but with an emphasis on its story, rather than its spectacle. In the end, we feel like something had been added to the franchise, rather than a repetitive venture, as has been the case with previous installments.

The plot-line with Days of Future Past is the strongest element of the film, with original cast members joining with the revamped younger selves of First Class in a way that feels organic to the rest of the franchise. Specifically, the cast here is intent on changing the outcome of a specific event, with yet another interesting parallel to history, the peace accords leading to the end of the Vietnam War. Historical figures are used to great affect, walking a fine line between real-world dynamics and the X-Men Universe itself. It does this with strong performances with its ensemble cast, a bit of an overwhelming large cast at times, and strong action scenes. The action has weight to it, and is delivered with a particularly impressive visual sense. The key, of course, is that while the film is very brisk, it never loses sight of its story, which is earnestly told.

Script-wise, the film most assuredly has some plot and logic holes. How Wolverine can interact with pivotal figures of his early life and not change the course of his own trajectory, for example, remains inexplicable. Even without his prior incarnation having no memory of it, the affects on those he interested with stay in place, thus causing in obvious ripple, and in more ways than to just change the peace accords. To be sure, such films require leaps in logic, with Days of Future Past being no exception.

An overall very strong entry to the franchise.

4/5 Stars

Godzilla
Godzilla(2014)
½

It's style of substance in Godzilla, a movie that underscores that all the visual dazzle in Hollywood can't make up for a flawed script, bad acting, and thin characters. Director Gareth Edwards Godzilla gives us all the familiar beats of a monster/disaster film, with some of them delivered quite well, yet with no narrative power. His Godzilla is akin to an impressively rendered video game, yet one with world building that never feels organic nor compelling.

One can certainly not deny what's done well with Godzilla, this incarnation has (obviously stated but noteworthy), the best special effects and shear visuals than anything the franchise has witnessed before. In fact, in many ways it's one of the better looking disaster films in a while. The way the monsters and Godzilla itself were conceptualized is really quite impressive, with the destruction and pure enormity of the creature captured beautifully. The film's action is usually well paced and, though not original, executed well.

Where Godzilla falls apart, is in its script. The dialogue is stilted and horribly unoriginal, leaving otherwise talented actors to appear little more than daytime TV personalities, left only to say abundantly obvious things in bland ways, with body language more akin to sticker shock than actual horror. The plot has a number of holes within its own logic. Had the film spent more time developing the origin aspect, and given us a more fleshed out back-story, it would have been much stronger. Instead, we are largely left baffled by the creatures and their doings.

The film's sense of story is also greatly flawed, yet another example of filler exposition strung together with action scenes. There's no real humor, chemistry, or believable dynamics between the characters. Everything is cliché, and lazily done. What we see feels rushed, no one on screen is given any sort of meaningful development. The film's choice to Aaron Taylor-Johnson headline proves to be an almost fatal miscast, he simply has no presence about him, nor the acting talent to be in such a position, at least at this time. To be sure, the film's script did him no favors, yet a more charismatic actor could have perhaps elevated the material.

The universe of the film never feels real, the weight of what happening never quite sinks in within its characters. Scenes of destruction and perhaps millions of lives lost are juxtaposed with characters going about their lives with only the vaguest look of apprehension, seemingly more concerned about other sources of stress than the enormous lizard creature bringing about utter havoc. This happens again and again in the film-- as if the characters themselves don't take anything seriously. This underscores the film's over-arching flaw, a lack of development and cohesion within itself.

A misfire.

2.5/5 Stars

Boss of Bosses

As a lover of mob films, I was disappointed with Boss of Bosses, a lackluster biopic of Paul Castellano. It succumbs to conventional storytelling, with no real sense of energy or genuine character dynamics, simply scenes of exposition interspersed with back-story. Chazz Palminteri did what he could, but ultimately the script didn't give him much to go off of. In the end, the viewer knows more about the life of Castellano, but receives no real insight into the man. The story line involving John Gotti was also horribly and dully handled, while it should have been the main narrative drive.

2/4 Stars

Under the Skin
½

Exceedingly bizarre, nebulous, and often inaccessible, Under the Skin is the strangest science fiction film in years. It's a film that keeps your attention, sparks interest, and bewilders you. It's also a film that feels overindulgent and too abstract for its own good, crossing the dreaded "weird for the sake of weird" line.

Under the Skin features only a thin thumbnail of a plot, that of an alien taking the form of a human women, with the ostensible purpose to seduce and take over/absorb/do something to--men. The cast consists of a number of no-name actors, save for the headlining Scarlett Johansson, who obviously gives the film more mainstream attention than it would otherwise get.

What the film does right is evoking feeling and creating atmosphere. The soundtrack is eerie, and hauntingly resonates with the images on screen. The cinematography is captivating, capturing a world that feels almost surreal while at the same time being very much identifiable. The images we see on screen, the film tactics that are employed (some new technology was apparently used), are all first-rate. This is met with another admirable, and often heartbreaking performance, by Scarlett Johansson. The film's tone is dark, brooding, and relentlessly intense.

The problem, however, is that the narrative of the film is too frustrating in its inaccessibility. I certainly admire not holding the audience's hand, and points should be given for originality, yet with Under the Skin there's no real sense of what's real and what is illusory, what's symbolic and what's literal. It's not that it's up to interpretation so much is that it's more of a speculation fest. Creativity means more than simply confounding your audience, it needs to astound them, yes, but in order to successfully do that with a film, there needs to be more of a narrative hook. Had the film given some level of back-story, some idea of the machinations at play, it would have been all the stronger. As it is, it doesn't seem completely unfair to describe much of what we see a self-important and obtuse.

An interesting misfire.

2.5/5 Stars

Transcendence

Decidedly imperfect, yet refreshingly bold, imaginative, and ultimately thought-provoking, Transcendence is a film that will engage some and be lost on others. Set on the heels of the transhumanism movement, Transcendence follows a scientist whose fated tragedy ultimately leads to his greatest achievement, with themes of free-will, consciousness, and the nature of life itself.

It's the films ideas that I admired the most. Admittedly, its themes are lofty, and are not always fully paid off. There are some clunky moments in the script, and certain things are never quite fleshed out. Yet the film is largely non-traditional in its approach, and was willing to look at things through a lens of subtlety, something largely lost on most Hollywood films of today. In the end, we are left to wonder as opposed to feel relief, the actions of Dr. Will Caster are never venerated but also never fully condemned. The film has a message, certainly, but it seems to be one of getting us to question, as opposed to getting us to "know". Though not quite in the same league, this has overtones of such smart science fiction films as Contact and even, to some extent, the Matrix series.

The performances were strong all around, with an especially interesting dynamic between Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall. Hall, for her part, had the most nuanced character of the film, and felt the most developed. Some of the supporting roles were, to be sure, a bit on the shallow side, yet the film's narrative focus of Depp and Hall felt right on.

The script is full of lofty ideas, as mentioned, and yet is able to keep a grounded narrative. It does this without losing sight of its true goal-that of a meditation on its central theme. In this way I found it enthralling, not for the plot mechanisms, but for the study the film offered, both as a character study, but also a larger commentary. There's layers to be had in Transcendence, though the base level plot and supporting characters don't necessarily accentuate it. That part is derivative and mostly predictable, but the film's ultimate stance is not.

Overall, a definite must see for any serious science fiction fan.

4/5 Stars

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
½

Captain America: The Winter Soldier represents some of the best of the marvel franchise, and an example of a sequel that largely surpasses the scope, effectiveness, and grandeur of the first. It's a film that is surprisingly smart (for its genre), insightful, and an uncanny example of art imitating life in a subtle way.

What has always been an amazing attribute of the Avengers series of films, is the ability for each film to be uniquely conveyed, yet still a part of the cannon, and feeling as if it properly fits in to the larger universe. Winter Solider is a prime example of that, giving us a narrative that is very much cohesive to the larger film, with a tone that captures what came before it (unlike the out-of-place second Thor). On its own merits, it's also a distinctly superb example of a sequel. We see Captain America, played to great effect by Chris Evans, half a century after his WWII prime, out of water in an increasingly complex world. This represents a very unique narrative vehicle for the film, as we see his progression to a more suspicious, perhaps jaded patriot, whose growing disillusionment juxtaposed against his unyielding sense of service. The film takes advantage of this by adding in a very interesting, even daring, dynamic involving an infiltrated SHIELD agency, a conspiracy which soon unravels in the film. The parallels to our modern big brother society are obvious, yet perhaps many aren't aware of the very real parallels to operation Paperclip and the CIA's use of NAZI scientists. All of this makes for an engaging, thoughtful, and original story, a rarity for any sequel.

In addition to its scripting strengths, the film is further enlivened by great performances, and its continual infusion of charismatic characters. Robert Redford provided a different sort of villain for the franchise, a refreshing departure, while both Evans and Johansson has some notable chemistry. Samuel L. Jackson's unrivaled intensity represented his best work thus far in the franchise. The action scenes are very well executed, aided by some fantastic visuals. The focus of the film, however, always rests with the characters themselves and their development, which anchors the film, providing an ongoing sense of being grounded and even a sense realism.

A must see.

4.5/5 Stars

300: Rise of an Empire

Gory, relentlessly violent, and consistently enjoyable, 300: Rise of an Empire is a sequel that never surpasses, but sometimes hints, at the greatness of its predecessor. It's a film that hits on all the similar beats of the first, but lacks the firsts boldness and originality, a failing of nearly all sequels. Still, it's a film that manages to stay fresh enough to never overstay its welcome, and perhaps sets the stage for another interesting third installment.

The visuals of Rise of an Empire are characteristically strong, stylistic, and yet gritty. The stylized violence, however, is a bit toned down from the first, opting for a more realist approach. Still, the world building is very successful, fully transporting us to a historical, yet vividly hyper-real universe. This serves as an effective backdrop for a narrative which has a more of an ensemble nature, featuring strong performances from all involved, but a particularly captivating Eva Green.

Like 300, there's not a lot of complexity to be found here-there's a war, and we know who's good and who's bad, with the only question being that of allegiance and fortitude. Unlike the first, however, it has a few more moving parts, and faces the loss of King Leonidas, the obvious narrative drive of the first. It combats this by giving us more perspectives, placing the majority of the focus on Eva Green's character. The loss of Gerard Butler is certainly felt, but Rise of an Empire generally does a good job making up for it. The problem, however, is that the script seems to almost stall its progression, grasping for climaxes as opposed to building up to one effective note. This is especially felt in the last act.

Overall, the film doesn't reach the heights of the first, a nearly impossible task, yet offers enough to make it a strong action piece, and an admirable addition.

4/5 Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's new entry, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is his most accessible, thought provoking, and humors film in years. Set in a grand European hotel, caught between wars, and eventually finding itself in the midst of a bizarre murder scandal, the film is anything but routine. Whimsical, self-referential, and deadpan, it's Andersons' best characteristic flair without his tendency into self-indulgence.

Having such a unique comedic sensibility, Anderson's films have also struggled to find the balance between quirky and being inaccessible. Here, the quirkiness is kept grounded by a narrative. As outlandish as it is at times, the narrative here is always accessible, and serves as a good vehicle for the film's more stylistic tendencies. Even when the humor does not work, one has the heart of the story to follow and appreciate, a weakness in other Anderson films.

The setting for the film is the most enjoyable aspect of the story, allowing for amazing cinematography, a large scope, and highly effective world building. Anderson's vision of 1900s Europe feels both imaginative and historically inspired, playing on the most interesting dynamics of that time (class mobility, global unease, aristocracy), and using it to frame his vision. It's a world we can connect with, but also a world that we recognize as escapist. It's a hard balance to strike, but with Grand Budapest, Anderson managed to do it.

The humor is consistent, smart, and often subtle. In many ways it's a very old school comedy, but with some modern influences, making it a highly effective, albeit unusual comedy. This is in large part undoubtedly due to the strong performances in the film, with Ralph Fiennes having an excellent comedic turn, and with a plethora of cameos from such greats as Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. Everyone on screen has chemistry, and on the same comedic page of the film, making the film feel like a cohesive tapestry of film-making.

An overall highly successful, offbeat, and memorable comedy.

4/5 Stars

Noah
Noah(2014)
½

Darren Aronofsky's Noah takes the biblical tale and engulfs it with an entirely unique mythos and themes, creating a film that is neither fully faithful nor a flippant treatment of the story, but rather expands upon it with such vision and force, one cannot help but be taken in by it. Like Aronofsky's other work, Noah is visually stunning, beautifully filmed, and effective on a visceral level.

Aronofsky stays faithful to the story in that there is a coming flood, with Noah and his family being the last pure blood line of Seth chosen to survive, being given the great task to build an arc to withstand the devastation. From there, Aronofsky brings in other elements that don't appear in the bible- such as the Cain King and his hoards trying to overtake the arc, and takes great artistic license with other characters only briefly mentioned in scripture. The best example of this is the character of lla, who he makes barren. He does this, however, with care and with purpose, befitting of his film's larger themes. It is what he does with the more quasi-biblical elements that I found most interesting, such as the Watchers, inspired from the ambiguously referred to Nephilim in Genesis, and expanded upon in non-canonized gospels. His vision of fallen angels, helping (in their eyes) humanity represents the sort of ingenuity Aronofsky is known for, being brilliantly realized as rock creatures.

The license that is taken is all for his greater themes, that of the need to balance mercy and justice. There is also a strong environmentalist tone. For some, this may be unsettling. The idea that the arc was not a way to save humanity, but rather a possible vehicle to destroy humanity is borderline heretical, but is delicately averted at the end. This excuses the films liberties, being a generally respectful rendering.

The film itself is executed relentlessly well. The world-building is awe-inspiring, we see the vastness, the bleakness, and yet the beautify in creation. The performances are excellent all around, especially by Russell Crowe, whose Noah is a righteous, albeit dogmatic, man of great resolution, yet also a flawed one. The female characters are given respect and are used to good effect for the wider narrative. The film never ceases to be engaging, and ultimately pays off on its wider themes, with an especially resonate ending.

A must see.

4.5/5 Stars

Oldboy
Oldboy(2013)
½

Having net yet experienced the original, I went in to Spike Lee's Oldboy with an open mind, judging the film on its own merits. The result is a film that never feels quite right, despite some good efforts. It's a film that tries, yet yields to uneven execution.

The films' premise is conceptually over-the-top and outlandish in its reasoning, following a man who finds himself confined in a hotel-room like setting for 20 years, only to be unexpectedly released, left to aimlessly search for his captors.

To the film's credit, it features some strong actors, being headlined by Josh Brolin in an admirable performance, with character actors such as Samuel Jackson providing some more texture to the film. All of them work individually, yet the tones the actors bring on screen never quite mesh. Brolin is dark and brooding, Elizabeth Olsen is appropriately melodramatic, and yet Samuel Jackson and Sharlto Copley feel more farcical and self deprecating. This is undoubtedly a symptom of the film's larger problem, its tone. Lee gives us a film that never feels like it knows what it wants to be, giving us highly stylized fight sequences in one scene, followed by much more grounded and ostensibly straight material in the next. It's satirical in some instances, and very self-serious in others. There is never a successful balance struck with this, and thus the result is a film that feels confused and poorly conceived.

This is not to say that Oldboy does not having any effectual scenes or successful elements. The stylized moments are gritty and well done, Brolin's performance is strong, the violence is disturbing, and there's a host of interesting elements on screen. The problem is the lack of cohesion, with the entire film not only feeling disjointed, but also rushed. The finale is not nearly as shocking as it should be, and the film's disturbing nature never quite resonates, simply because we don't know how to take in the film.

2.5/5 Stars

Hours
Hours(2013)
½

Though sometimes melodramatic and not entirely unfamiliar, Hours succeeds at being an affecting drama, recounting one man's experience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Set in 2005, the film follows a soon-to-be-widowed man, left to care for his infant daughter, being stabilized only via a ventilator, in the midst of one of the greatest natural catastrophes to hit the country.

As the story itself is rather confined, centering entirely on Nolan Hayes (played by Paul Walker), and his efforts to rescue his daughter, its' success as a narrative and as a film overall is very much hinged on Walker's performance. This, to be sure, is the biggest surprise of the film, finding a much more dramatically nuanced Walker than in his previous exploits, with an affecting presence, relentless tenacity, and calmness under pressure which is perfect for the role.

The film itself does a good job of using the hurricane as a backdrop, incorporating the very real realities of what went on (ex. sniper fire, abandoned hospitals, looting), without losing sight of the film's central focus. There is, of course, a number of moments which feel a bit too over-dramatized, and we get a sense quickly of where the story will end up.

Yet the film's earnestness is never called in to question, resulting in a film that never ceases to be engaging.

3.5/5 Stars

Closed Circuit

Intermittently compelling and also predictable, Closed Circuit is the sort of thriller that you want to really like, often do, and yet can't help but be underwhelmed by. The film pits two ex-lovers with each other on a defense team for an accused mastermind bomber, though technically barred from communicating with one-another, on account of National Security interests. It's an interesting premise, yet one that never seems to reach its full potential.

What Closed Circuit did well was create the sort of hyper-aware state of tension we are in the West, especially true of the incredibly surveilled city of London. The backdrop of this makes Closed Circuit feel timely, with a fair amount of paranoia. Director John Crowley did a good job using this paranoia to fuel the tension on screen, heightening the stakes appropriately. I also appreciated the legal framework for which the film is set in, exploring the Orwellian system that has both "secret evidence" and "fairness". The performances are also strong, with the underrated Eric Bana having a fair amount of chemistry with Rebecca Hall.

Where Closed Circuit fails, or at least underachieves, is in its climax and resolution. We see the beats before they occur, with the ending having a curiously ambiguous tone.

The film seemed to lack a daring sensibility to it, almost appearing critical of its subject, yet never fully thrusting itself in to it. Instead, it opted for an easier avenue, with predictable outcomes and bland commentary.


3/5 Stars

Cold Comes The Night

A single mother in seemingly dire straits, a mysterious stranger, a seedy hotel, and a lot of money. This is essentially the premise of Cold Comes The Night, an interesting, if not entirely successful, neo noir film. The film follows a desperate hotel owner, the resourceful Alice Eve, who finds herself in a ever-escalating series of precarious events. It's a film that has a number of successful elements, yet never fully delivers on its full potential.

What's great about Cold Comes The Night has a lot to do with Alice Eve, who has a fantastic performance as a single mom. She feels believable, and is set in a very "lived-in" gritty, barren, and coldly realistic world. The family dynamics between her and her daughter are particularly strong. This part of the story offers an interesting premise, with Eve playing a strong and refreshingly pragmatic and cunning female lead.

For his part, Bryan Cranston also has a fine performance, save for his accent, which never works for him. The problem with his character, and indeed all of the secondary characters, is that they are too thinly written. Besides Eve, no one on screen feels like they have time to breath, particularly true of Logan Marshall-Green's character, who feels adrift and out of place in the entire film. This is a symptom largely of unfocused and underdeveloped screenwriting. The film gets too caught up with its own cleverness, which becomes a bit cliché and all too familiar, that it forgets the real hinge of noir pieces, interesting characters that we care about.

To be sure, Tze Chun does a generally good job creating an atmospheric tone, a noir-friendly word, and seems to appreciate the coldness with which such pieces should be directed. For this, the film is always watchable. Yet the narrative flaws and overly compact narrative, which unravels in the third act, keep it from being particularly memorable.

3/5 Stars

Concussion
Concussion(2013)
½

Surprisingly poignant, executed well, and maturely conveyed, Concussion is a surprising film. The film follows the exploits of a married lesbian woman who gets in to prostitution, for complicated reasons. Such a plot line sounds like a good example for a simple exploit film or one-note gimmick, but in Concussion, it is taken to a serious conclusion.

The most surprising aspect of the film is, without question, the performance by Robin Weigert. She inhibits her character with a grounded presence. She's charming, honest, curious, and hopelessly restless. The film's success hinges entirely on this performance, and fortunately, it works. She brings a complexity to the role that underscores the journey of her character, and represents a character that we can't help but like. Her arc feels organic to the story, and is written well. We see the events as felt of Weigert's character, with the film refusing to give easy resolutions or obvious emotional beats.

The film's failures lie in the other characters of the film. Weigert's role aside, the other characters are not developed. We never truly understand their relationship with Robin, and the dynamics between them are never fully explored, and never seem to resonate on as deep of a level as one would like. Simply put, we lose emotional context for much of what happens, making the ending feel disjointed and oddly ineffective.

An overall solid film, especially for Weigert's performance, but with supporting cast flaws.

3.5/5 Stars

Upstream Color

Strange, profoundly abstract, and inaccessible on a narrative level, Upstream Color is a hard film to describe, and a chore to analyze. The film revolves around an unlikely couple, who both share a bizarre affliction from an obscure organism. It's a film that is not concerned with coherence, with traditional narrative, or with resolution. Like Tree of Life, it's a film that requires a complete surrender in order to be appreciated. In that sense, what success Upstream Color achieves is because of your pure immersion in its nebulous and chillingly veiled world.

Trying to follow Upstream Color in a narrative sense is a fairly impossible task, especially on its first viewing. This inaccessibility was frustrating, at first, but waned after the film's daring, bold, and spellbinding atmosphere took center stage. When taken on its own terms, the film is an entertaining experience. The score is magnificent, accentuating the narrative, and taking the place of the sparse dialogue. Director Shane Carruth is masterful in his editing, seamless in his cuts, and brilliant in his pace. We are shown a series of captivating scenes and images, with little to no sense of context or place, only to be left mesmerized. The film gets away with doing this both because of the skill of its composition, but also in that its clues start to paint a larger mosaic towards the end, pointing to a picture which starts to emerge.

The characters in Upstream Color feel real, and are very well portrayed. We see the enormous struggles they've gone through, the confusion they face every day, and yet the resilience they show. The "sampler" character in particular is very enigmatic, embodying the film as a whole. Carruth does a good job keeping the attention focused on these characters, such that we resonate with their journey, even though we don't understand what is exactly taking place.

My obvious reservation about Upstream Color is that the film is too inaccessible. It's difficult to distinguish illusion from reality, even at the ending of the film. Without a more refined ending, the film's interpretations are simply too large. Had a little more been explained, the film could still have kept its mystique, while allowing for greater audience appreciation.

4/5 Stars

All Is Lost
All Is Lost(2013)
½

J.C. Chandor's All is Lost is a uniquely conceived, quiet, and yet largely effective survival story. What we are entreated to is a story of which we know little of the background, essentially only that by a sort of freak accident, the protagonist, played by Robert Redford, finds himself lost at sea, left to battle the elements alone. It's a film of next to no dialogue, but seriously and maturely delivered.

With All Is Lost, we see a story that feels all too real, and daring in its reluctance to adhere to Hollywood norms. This is the most laudable aspect of the film. It does not condescend to the audience, refusing to give us an endearing back-story, and refusing to have any main-land flashbacks. What we see is exactly what is going on. The performance by Robert Redford, essentially the only cast member, is a powerful one. He inhibits his scenes with authority, presence, and tragedy. We admire his will, and despair at his misfortune.

My reservations with All Is Lost, however, is that I felt it was a little too quiet. While I appreciated the maturity to stick to the very basic story, some of the film's elements seemed lost amidst this idea. The opening narration, for example, detailing the letter, is never given any proper context. The balance between restraint and helping to give context to Redford is never fully achieved, had the film spent even a little time on this, it would have been stronger. We never fully got a sense of Redford's emotions beyond his base emotions, and this made the film less resonate in the end, especially with its apparently intentionally ambiguous ending.

3.5/5 Stars

The Monuments Men

Monuments Men is the type of film you are anxious to love. Its cast is impeccable, its premise teaming with potential, and its setting exciting. What we hope for is something enthralling, intense, and insightful regarding one of the more forgotten aspects of the War. Instead, we get a film that seems almost flippant with its material, cavalier in its execution, and lazy in its storytelling. It's sometimes fun, occasionally engaging, and sparsely thrilling, yet never consistent. Put simply, it's a letdown.
The biggest indictment of Monuments Men is the underutilization of the cast. Featuring such greats as George Clooney, John Goodman, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray, the film has an immense amount of acting talent. Clooney's direction and script, however, scarcely give any character any room to breathe. The characterizations are shallow, everyone seems one-note. The way we are introduced to them feels gimmicky, the character arcs (what there is) feel forced. There's chemistry, to be sure, and the cast makes the film serviceable, yet the talent is never fully used. No one has an opportunity to show any dramatic depth, a huge fault of the script.
The script specifically feels lazy. The way the scenes are set up are largely devoid of ingenuity. Things happen too quickly and too conveniently. This is best seen in the opening scene with George Clooney addressing FDR, an absurdly easy and hammy exposition. The story has no real sense of maturity or restraint, but continually feels the need to feed us tired plot devices. Nothing feels really organic to the story, but rather necessary notes for a predictable narrative. The direction is also quite poor as well, going from scene to scene in a rushed way, failing to build any real tension. The film's tone is also sporadic, ranging from lighthearted to melodramatic, and only occasionally achieving either.
For all its faults, Monuments Men does deliver some entertaining moments, with a few impacting scenes. The film is thus watchable, and mostly enjoyable, although superficially so. The problem lies in its lack of any serious delivery, failing to live up to its full potential.
3/5 Stars

Labor Day
Labor Day(2014)
½

Often compelling, but intermittently over-the-top and ill-scripted, Labor Day is the sort of film that easy to engage with, but often frustrating in its final impact. Centering on a 13 year old boy, who witnesses his single mother (Kate Winslet) becoming increasingly dejected and reclusive following her estrangement from the boy's father. Enter an escaped convict, Josh Brolin, and the pair eventually start a romance.

The film's initial premise is an interesting one, and one that holds a lot of potential with such talents as Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet. The two have a large amount of chemistry, with their dynamic forming the most successful thing about the film. The character exploration of Winslet in particular is quite effective, giving us someone who feels all too real, with a very identifiable set of emotions. Her relationship with Brolin is largely well done, save for some stilted moments at the start of the film, and makes for compelling viewing.

The biggest struggle for Labor Day are the narrative points involving the boy, and the third act. Gattlin Griffith struggled a great deal with his role as Henry Wheeler, stiff in his approach and stilted in his execution. To be sure, the script doesn't do him any favors, having him act in increasingly strange ways. The entire plot and trajectory of Labor Day take a large step back with its third act, which unfolds as a series of bizarre comedy of errors. The sheer idiocy of some of the actions not only feel melodramatic, but simply make no logical sense. The film pays this off by an absurd ending, leaving us with a sense of bewilderment as to what happened.

Still, despite its many flaws, one cannot help but feel entertained by the film's central dynamic, and heartfelt story. The performances of Brolin and Winslet do a lot to mask the notable flaws of the film.

3.5/5 Stars

The Book Thief

A saturated genre indeed is the Nazi Germany genre, encompassing many heart wrenching tales, with the holocaust as some sort of backdrop. The Book Thief certainly follows in these footsteps, yet manages to distinguish itself with a uniquely told story, and a narrative that, while occasionally derivative, does some interesting things. Based on the book, the film follows a girl sent to live with a foster family, a family which soon finds themselves hiding a Jewish man.

The film opens with a narration opining on death and the nature of humanity, and the film follows as a strong commentary on that. It is told with great earnest, featuring a perfectly arranged cast. The accolades in this case go largely to Geoffrey Rush, who has an old fashioned and folksy charisma and kindness that makes the film. The performance by Sophie Nelisse as Liesel is also strong, portraying a curiously precious young girl, with a distinct sense of emotional awareness. Thus, the dynamics between the characters in The Book Thief are very effectively executed, and endear us to the story and the resonate ending.

The film itself does feature a great deal of sentimentalism and, to some degree, some melodrama. At the same time, it's distinguished by a third act that goes in an unexpected direction, and a story that shows restraint. We don't see the entire horrors of Nazi Germany, but are given hints of its true nature. What we see is what Liesel experiences, and this is indicative of many German families at the time. This makes the film all the more effective, as a self contained story, not simply a fictionalized account set against an historical backdrop.

The film does come close to overstaying its welcome in the end, and the very last scene seems a bit too tidy, yet on a whole, it's a well told and an impactful film.

4/5 Stars

Mitt
Mitt(2014)
½

Greg Whiteley's Mitt is a documentary looking to capture the behind the scenes persona of Mitt Romney, presidential candidate in 08' and presidential nominee in 12'. Focusing almost entirely on his interactions with his family, and the emotional drain of the campaigns, the film is successful in capturing a humanizing portrait of Romney. We see a man that is not disconnected and arrogant, as portrayed, but a man of a family-oriented bent and a real passion. He is seen as kind, self-aware, and a man of tenacity. This is what Mitt does the best, managing to give us a side of Mitt that was ever hidden from us, and does so in an authentic way.

What the film lacks is any real insight in to the campaign strategy itself. To be sure, this was not the drive of the film, yet the film suffers from not really digging in to the dynamics of the campaign. The strategy fills stiff, the supporting staff outdated, everything too standardized. The message, too dispassionate. We see Mitt complain about how he was characterized, yet never see any real defense of the many criticisms, such as his flip-flopping. The entire campaign seemed run as if protecting a lead, hopelessly disconnected with the reality of the political climate, and not willing to be bold enough. The Mitt behind the camera seems to have charisma, yet that was never translated. Instead, what was portrayed was calculated, cold, and overly polished. One can't help but see the irony in this, a man's truest attributes end up making his greatest liabilities.

A worthy documentary if not for a more nuanced look at Romney.

3.5/5 Stars

Ben-Hur
Ben-Hur(1959)
½

The definition of a classic epic film, Ben-Hur is a film that well over 50 years later still packs a punch. The winner of 11 Oscars, Ben-Hur stands the test of time as extremely well-executed, strongly acted, and enthralling in both its scope and action sequences. The film follows a wealthy Jewish prince, at the time of Jesus, who finds himself at odds with the Roman Empire.

Ben-Hur embodies the classical three-act story structure, and does so in an admirable way. Too many modern films rush the acts, and fail to fully elaborate on their story. At over 3.5 hours, this is certainly not a problem with Ben-Hur. The story feels organic to itself, we are left to see events unfold in a natural way. Thus the film has a powerful progression, and is complete in its acts. It doesn't feel as if its building to one point, so much as its building to its theme, a sure sign of a maturely rendered film.

The vast scope of Ben-Hur is awe-inspiring. Its world building is grand, realistic, and meticulous in its detail. In fact, it surpasses many modern sword and sandal epics of today. This is combined with strong cinematography, and laudable performances. Charlton Heston feels perfect for the role, possessing the physical presence necessary to command a scene. He is matched well by a supporting cast including Stephen Boyd, who excel with their dialogue. No one seems unmatched, its host of interesting characters populate the screen, giving texture to the film's ambitious narrative. The sense of flow is also impeccable for most of the film, keeping a kinetic energy about itself. Such a combination is reminiscent of other brilliant Epics of its era, notably Lawrence of Arabia.

It's the film's action sequences that, by far, separate Ben-Hur from other epics, and place it among the best of its era and, perhaps, among the best grand epics ever. The battles feel not only large, but are filmed with long, continuous shots, with wide angle lenses. We see the vast array of action unfold not in numerous close-up shots, like films of today, but in one wide context, which makes the scenes all the more powerful. The chariot scene is a masterpiece of cinema, breathtaking, and yet never insisting upon itself. This is true of the naval battle preceding it as well, rivaling any similar scene of today.

In the end, Ben-Hur simply feels large. The biblical backdrop of the film is used to good effect, and represents an interesting parallel story. The grand action sequences, the character arcs, all of it make for an experience that feels complete, albeit long. The film isn't flawless, however, with some bland female performances, and a third act which overstays its welcome, especially in the last few scenes. Still, it's a spectacle, to be sure, and well befitting of its status.

4.5/5 Stars

Dallas Buyers Club
½

Disturbing, moving, powerfully rendered, and generally captivating, Dallas Buyers Club conveys the AIDs crisis in an undeniably real way. The film itself centers around the rough, gruff, and mostly unpleasant real-life cowboy Ron Woodroof, who unexpectedly finds himself thrust in the middle of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. In his frantic quest to extend his life, he ends up smuggling in experimental drugs, only to start a "buyers club", as a way to circumvent FDA regulations.

What I appreciated the most from Dallas Buyers Club was the character of Ron Woodroof. He starts as an unlikable man, whose self-centered aims are never shied away from. As his disease progresses and his friends turn their back on him, his humanity grows. Yet the film refuses to make a saint out of him, or change his persona in a complete fashion. He grows, to be sure, yet the underlying flaws never change. As such, it's a gritty character study, finding the value of even the most depraved among us, and how the ugliest of situations can ultimately work out for good. Matthew McConaughey's performance is absolutely brilliant, in a role that sees him lose a dramatic amount of weight, resulting in a very unhealthy image. We feel his sickliness in every scene, see his anguish, and yet are captivated by his sheer tenacity. It's one of the top performances of the year, and very much disserving of his best actor nomination.

Aside from McConaughey, the film also features the other powerhouse performance of Jared Leto, and one of the better roles for Jennifer Garner. Both Garner and Leto are portrayed with depth, and have a complexity to them that is unfamiliar of many supporting roles. Leto's role as a transsexual is particularly effective, inhibiting the role to such a degree that Leto is scarcely recognizable.

The film's depiction of the crisis also felt very real, in that we see the staggering amount of suffering of the AIDs crisis, only to be greeted with stonewalling from the government. The FDA is shown as a barrier, blocking access to potentially life-saving medications. The film is thus a powerful proponent of free choice, and represents an aspect of the story that is often lost in the conversation.

Above all, Dallas Buyers Club is a powerful drama. It's filled with excellent nuanced characters, and a message that resonates deeply. One of the best of the year.

4.5/5 Stars

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
½

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, represents an attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan series yet again, this time with an original story, using the Tom Clancy created CIA analyst. It's a film that lacks the intelligence of earlier franchise films, yet acts as a surprisingly effective pure action thriller. It's a solid, if non-inventive effort.

With Shadow Recruit, we see Chris Pine as the new Jack Ryan. While a definite departure from the previous Jack Ryan actors, notably Harrison Ford, Pine's Ryan is one more befitting of the new direction of the franchise. He has an action presence, a lot of charisma, and is a generally effective actor. He has the looks, sleekness, charm, and yet maturity that is exactly what Shadow Recruit needed. The supporting characters were also enjoyable, with the always reliable Kevin Costner, and director Kenneth Branagh as the villain character. My only reservations about the performances was Keira Knightley, who was absurdly made to do an American accent, and would have been much more comfortable if left alone.

The film itself has a lot of very interesting elements. The exposition is well handled, setting the geopolitical stage perfectly. The way we are introduced to Ryan, the origin story for his entry in to the CIA, these are the strongest elements of the film. The actions scenes are excellent, especially the Hotel scenes, and make for some riveting viewing. With Chris Pine, we are given a character who is over-his-head and yet manages to rise to the occasion, a welcome departure over the dominant and superhuman action hero.

The film does start to lose itself towards the end, with an over-abundance of clichés. Clichés in action films are to be expected, yet the puzzling thing about Shadow Recruit is that it manages to avoid them for much of the film, and then reverts to lazy script writing. The resolution feels to forced and sudden, the 'clues' that are pieced together are simply lucky guesses, and the suppositions are never really supported, ex "he said his son died, what if he didn't?". The geopolitical angle also becomes awkward, wanting to blend the Cold War era tensions of Clancy's novels with the more modern terrorist angle, in a way that is never fleshed out, nor makes any sense. There's some technical jargon thrown in, but little logic to tie it together in any meaningful way.


A solid overall action film, but little else.


3.5/5 Stars

Fruitvale Station
½

Powerful, poignant, brilliantly captured, and undeniably authentic, Fruitvale Station is an amazing film. A directorial debut by Ryan Coogler, the film is a moving, humanizing, and small-scale film that illustrates a terribly tragic event. It's a film of nuance, a film of exploration, and a devastating look at the events of the fateful shooting of Oscar Grant.

The film is based on a true story, that of a young, black, ex-con who is wrongfully killed by a BART police officer. Before the film unfolds to this event, it depicts the entirety of Oscar's day, looking at his flaws, aspirations, and loving nature. We see his struggles with selling drugs, his previous run ins with the law, and yet we also see a loving father who wants to do right, but seems hopelessly adrift in a difficult situation. Thus the film does not deify or elevate Oscar, instead it paints a picture of a real man. The performance by Michael B. Jordan is accordingly electrifying, and is a major reason why the film is so successful. He completely inhibits his character, and embodies what it means to be well-meaning, but also deeply troubled and confused. Ultimately we can relate to Oscar, recognize his flaws, but also revel in his distinct humanity.

The events of the tragic shooting are handled very well. We see the circumstances that led to Oscar being pulled off the train, and understand the sincere, albeit intimating, body language that him and his friends displayed that ultimately caused the seemingly ill-trained officers, who wrongfully detained them to begin with, to panic. In the end, the film doesn't look to villainize or victimize any group, but rather seeks to look at the context as a whole. It is executed in such a powerful way that we resonate with its message, and are left deeply moved by its ending.

A must see drama, and brilliant directorial debut for Ryan Coogler.

4.5/5 Stars

Her
Her(2013)

Unconventional in its approach, interesting in its execution, and resonate in the end, Her is a film of great intelligence. Set in the future, Her depicts a society that has continued to evolve in its reliance on technology, with artificial forms of stimulation becoming almost inseparable from interpersonal relationships. It is in this context, that we are entreated to the story of Theordore Twombly, a broken, depressed, and exceedingly lonely man, dealing with the aftermath of his failed marriage. He finds solace in an operating system, voiced beautifully by Scarlett Johansson.

The film's science fiction premise is utilized to an excellent effect in Her, though it serves as an afterthought to its larger dramatic themes. Despite it taking place in a futuristic world, the depiction of the advanced technology feels ever seamless and relatable. We understand the growing complexity of communication and relationships in such a world, and Her uses this to its advantage. It never feels gimmicky, and instead seems organic to our current progression. It's a thoroughly successful and imaginative world building.

Science fiction elements aside, the film is ultimately a character study, and a commentary on relationships second. The film's premise, which precludes any screen time from its other major character, makes this a challenge, and one that the film met nicely. What Joaquin Phoenix was able to do with his considerable on-screen time, predominately solo, was amazing. Through his expressions, inflections, and words, his deep emotions are conveyed, and in a compelling way. His chemistry with Scarlett Johansson is perfect, always feeling like a real, if not flawed, relationship. The surrounding performances were fantastic as well, namely by Amy Adams, who continues to impress with her undeniable charm and authentic nature.

The script was undoubtedly intelligent, with the film coming across in a mature way. It has profound things to say about not only relationships, but identify, love, and existence, saying things that don't fit the conventional framework. Having said that, the film does get a little too bogged down in its own musings, causing the film to slow in a number of spots. This is especially pronounced with Her, in which many scenes feature just Phoenix. This, combined with the melancholy tone, make the film feel often dreary, if not insightful. To be sure, this is accentuated by not having a physical presence from Johansson, as we are missing the emotional complexity and nuance that can only be delivered visually. Thus, when the film seems long-winded in its commentary, it is felt to a significant degree.

An overall worthwhile, thought provoking piece.

4/5 Stars

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis represents one of the more unique efforts of the Coen brothers, whose filmography is as illustrious as they come. It's wry, depressingly toned, and yet especially keen in its examination. It's a film devoid of really any traditional narrative, following, for a time, the life of Llewyn Davis, a penniless folk singer looking for his next break. Through his efforts, we encounter a host of interesting characters, with the characteristic Coen brothers flair, a flair which enlivens the scenes and bestows upon us countless unique personalities.

The Coen brothers signature characteristics are all over the film, with its methodical pace, uniquely executed tone, and richly developed characters. The narrative format actually turns out to be quite effective, not giving us a traditional story, but rather a snapshot, a snapshot which turns out to be very revealing of its protagonist. As such, the film was very well directed and conceived. As a character study, we truly empathize with Llewyn Davis. He is an everyman, with plenty of flaws, yet a charming resilience that we must admire. The film's success at getting us to resonate with him, is a testament to its effectiveness as such a character study.

Inside Llewyn Davis is also a mature effort, a film that doesn't opt for clichés or easy resolutions. Indeed, the third act may put many views off because of the lack of such a resolution. The point of doing this, however, is quite clear. The Coen brothers wished to depict not a story of overcoming the odds, but rather a story of dealing with the odds without obvious triumph, a story which is too often whitewashed in Hollywood.

Is it dreary? Yes, the film is very much an expression of melancholy. This makes for a viewing experience that can be a bit draining, and speaks to the film's flaw, it does seem to over-stay its welcome a bit, failing to provide us with enough relief to keep us completely engaged throughout.

An overall unique, and largely successful Coen brothers film.

4/5 Stars

Lone Survivor

Modern war film techniques meet with more classical sensibilities in Lone Survivor, a film that is intense, riveting, and unquestionably jingoistic. Based on a true story, as we are reminded so often, the film tells the story of four Navy Seals on a mission aimed at one high-level Taliban member, a mission that goes drastically wrong after discovery by local villagers. The squad find themselves in a spot not unlike Black Hawk Down, fighting ever heroically for their lives.

For everything that can be said of Lone Survivor, it's very effectively made. The action was devastatingly realistic. Director Peter Berg heightens the tension and stakes at the drop of a hat in the film, and does a masterful job in guiding us with the action. In fact, it is some of the best war film action in quite some time, conveying what is going on, but also not losing the wider context that the battles take place in. The entire film feels gritty, and Berg does a tremendous job with its heroes, who all turn in excellent performances. Ben Foster in particular has an amazing transformation.

Lone Survivor also does a great job in capturing the actual stakes that are involved. The bullet wounds, the blood, the gore, everything feels organic to what is unfolding. Every scene has impact, and we can truly relate to the characters. Many war films feel the screen with explosions and gun shots, with sudden shots of blood, but with no real cohesion. Berg resists this, and instead makes a cohesive narrative.

The biggest flaw of the film is certainly the film's lack of any real moral ambivalence or nuance. This makes it feel more like a classic war film, in that the protagonists are clear, and the antagonists ever so stark. It's not like a Zero Dark Thirty, and certainly not like a Platoon. It's fervent in its sense of patriotism, and too overt with its themes of courage and sacrifice. The film seems to go out of its way to point out the obvious, and is a bit manipulative, especially towards the end. While I did feel like it did bordered on an ad for the military at times, I was more concerned with the lack of development of the Taliban operatives. They are simply bad guys with guns, we never get a sense of their drive, their mindset, their motives. Had the film given us a more complex view of them, the film would have been all the stronger. As it is, it was as if they were fighting figures in a video game.

An overall effective, if not especially subtle, action film.

4/5 Stars

Philomena
Philomena(2013)
½

Powerfully told, memorable, and refreshingly concluded, Philomena is one of the strongest dramas of 2013. Based on a true story, Philomena revolves around the heartbreaking story of Philomena Lee who, at a young age, conceived a child only to have her given away for adoption (under undue pressure). The adoption occurred under extremely dubious circumstances, with the Catholic run agency blocking any sort of inquiry in to the whereabouts of the son. The film tells the story of disgraced former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, who begrudgingly agrees to write a "human interest story" regarding Philomena, with the two forming an uncanny bond.

Philomena represents some of the best of British film. The humor is unabashedly dry, but also funny and poignant. It has a very mature sensibility to it, with an authentic feel for its characters. The characterizations of both Philomena and Martin Sixsmith were brilliant. Judi Dench was phenomenal in her role, as a charming, positive, and gregarious old woman, albeit one with an immense burden. Normally films of this sort would have an easily identifiable protagonist, one with a firm righteous grounding and an unabashed idealism. This was not to be in Philomena. Instead, we are entreated to Martin Sixsmith. The film's characterization of him, and Steve Coogan's portrayal, was the most refreshing thing about the film. We see a man who is largely disinterested with these sorts of tales, with a biting cynicism that can scarcely be matched. Yet we see his progression as the film unfolds, a progression that finds him ever more immersed and passionate about finding the truth. This is done in a very organic way, and makes for one of the most impacting elements of the film.

Above all, Philomena is an effective story. It has themes of love, loss, acceptance, and forgiveness. The confrontation scene with Dench and the head Nun is one of the most memorable scenes for a film of its type in quite a few years, and really serves as a capstone for a drama which is largely brilliant in its execution. Highly recommended.


4.5/5 Stars

What Maisie Knew
½

In what can be described as a contemporary Kramer vs. Kramer, What Maisie Knew is a devastating portrait of the effects of parental dissolution on children. It's a film that is maturely executed, brilliantly acted, and powerfully rendered. The film follows a six-year-old girl, Maisie, as she tries to make sense out of the disarray caused by her parents break-up. The result is a drama that is penetrating in its commentary, poignant in its message, and absolutely captivating.

What is most unique about the film, is that the film's narrative point of reference stays almost entirely with Maisie. We see through her eyes, and thus witness the actions and behaviors of those around her with a sort of uncanny innocence. This makes for an extremely authentic study of children caught in the midst of such turmoil. Maisie's growing awareness yet relentless spirit is conveyed throughout. The film captures such family dynamics in a realistic way, which makes the emotional impact very strong, albeit often uncomfortable.

The performances also help create an effective character study for all involved. This is true of everyone, especially Onata Aprile, who gives one of the more remarkable child-actor performances in quite some time. Julianne Moore is also notable, turning in a remarkable portrayal as a broken, caring, yet torn mother who can scarcely hide her disdain and insecurity.

In the end, we are left with a film that resonates on a deep emotional level, especially for viewers who can relate to the film's bitter insights. Highly recommended.

4.5/5 Stars

Last Chance Harvey

Often funny, effectively rendered, and resonating on a deep level with its characters, Last Chance Harvey is the rare romantic drama that offers something new. The story revolves around the seemingly hapless Harvey Shine who, upon his trip to London, encounters his increasing disconnect from his estranged daughter before losing his job, only to meet the witty and affable Kate Walker (played by Emma Thompson). It's a story that has a certain light sensibility, yet an execution which respects its material.

The story itself certainly has familiar elements, and a predictable resolution. We are used to vulnerable characters, lonely characters, and yet hopefully stories of surprising love. Yet with Last Chance Harvey, director Joel Hopkins gives us a film that feels authentic to its premise. Its exploration of family estrangement is mature and restrained. He treats his characters with an intelligence and respect. The character arcs we witness feel real, the moments feel earned. This is certainly bolstered by the strong performances of both Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, both of whom have a palpable chemistry. Hoffman's character in a particular provides a nice departure from the normal male protagonist of similarly themed films, giving us a man of boldness, and not afraid to display his uncertainty.

Thus, while the outcome is scarcely in question, the ride in getting there is often uncomfortable. We are entreated to characters of profound vulnerability, yet hopeful dispositions. We grow with the characters, and thus buy the film's outcome. The themes it touches on are both poignant and effective, painting us a story that stays with us.

An overall very strong effort.


4/5 Stars

Sunshine Cleaning

Funny, poignant, endearing, and resonating, Sunshine Cleaning is an example of a dramedy done right. It's a film that captures the authentic family dynamics we can all relate to, in a story that is familiar, but with a narrative framework that is refreshing. The characters are flawed, the times are hard, yet the hopeful undercurrent is felt throughout.

The film finds Amy Adams as a single mom who, by happenstance, endeavors on a crime-scene cleaning business. She struggles to find balance between her own misgivings (an affair with a married man and high school sweetheart), her adrift sister, her mischievous son, and her well-meaning father. The film is full of humor, but never at the sacrifice for its central narrative. It gives us a tapestry of people who feel real, all with their own struggles, and manages to give all their due. The themes are familiar, yet executed in an uncanny way.

The performance of Amy Adams is, without question, the most successful thing about the film. She anchors every scene with a charisma, an energy, and comforting performance. We feel her insecurities, but appreciate her endurance. Her chemistry with Emily Blunt is also felt throughout, making for a very effective relationship between the two.

Above all, the film feels smart. It's not whimsical for the sake of whimsical, it's not cliché, but feels mature. The humor is organic, the performances are endearing. It's lighthearted at times, yet undeniably poignant at the end.

A very strong overall dramedy.

4/5 Stars

Nebraska
Nebraska(2013)

With Nebraska, talented director Alexander Payne manages to create yet another film that is uncanny in its approach, yet undeniably poignant in its resonance. It's a film that features a simple and confined story, yet delivers on its themes to excellent effect. In it, we see an old, borderline senile man, played by Bruce Dern, who falls for an obvious sweepstakes scam. Despite assurances to the contrary, the man becomes convinced he won a million dollars, leading to a reluctant road trip with his son, played by Will Forte.

Nebraska stands out in a number of ways. For one, Payne decided to film it entirely in black and white. Initially, this appears to be a weird choice, yet grows on you as the film progresses. It gives the film a noted poetic feel, and seems to accentuate the rather dull tones of the film. Secondly, it features characters that are largely disinteresting, at least on its surface, painting us a picture of people we can all relate to. The lives of the characters are mundane, their dispositions muted, and the lives they lead appear pointless. What Nebraska does is expose this, with some excellent societal commentary, but also build upon this. With humor, it finds the true humanity at the heart of its story. The world building is also keenly executed, with a truly authentic representation of rural America.

The performances in Nebraska are all very realist, with Bruce Dern having the strongest showing. His portrayal of Woody is both daring and simplistic. He is matched well by June Squibb, who's excellent as his cantankerous, yet caring, wife. Will Forte did a generally good job, though he is certainly more fit for straight comedy. It's hard for Forte to anchor a scene in a dramatic way, sometimes undermining the film.

An overall very interesting and noteworthy drama.

4/5 Stars

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

Loosely based on the short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is Ben Stiller's visionary interpretation of the story. In this rendition, Walter is a photo processor, working for Life magazine. When new management arrives, Mitty finds himself in charge of the cover photo for Life's last issue, sending him on an advertourous journey that finally allows him to live-out his daydreams.

What is most impressive with Stiller's version is the visual sense. It's filmed beautifully, with exotic locations, breathtaking landscapes, and an eye for authentic detail. We experience the true wonder of Walter's daydreams, and then fully experience his actual journey. This gives the film a surrealist quality, yet it never loses its actual grounding. Thus, Stiller strikes an effective balance between the dramatic and fantasy elements of the film.

The narrative itself is a rather simple story, a bored average man adrift with his direction in life, enthralled with a romantic interest, who, by happenstance, finds himself completely changed. As simple as it is, it's earnestly told, and done to great effect. We empathize with Walter's character, find ourselves emersed in his journeys, and bemused by both his set-backs and daydreams. In the end, the film really does pack an effective theme and an inspiring message, delivering on both accounts.

The film is kept briskly paced with humor and very likeable performances. The chemistry between Stiller and Kristen Wiig is pitch perfect, befitting of the material perfectly. It's true that the dramatic elements aren't resoundingly deep, yet the film is going for something lighter, something more whimsical, yet it still achieves something greater, leaving us with a true sense of wonder.

The film does have too many product-placements, and more time could certainly have been spent on Walter's home life. Yet, even as the film feels light, it never feels slight. Overall, it's enjoyable, uplifting, and visually inspiring.

4/5 Stars

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street represents yet another teaming of director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, this time in the most irreverent, satirical, and comedic collaboration yet. The film, based on the exploits of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, explores the rise and subsequent 'fall' of Belfort, who swindled millions upon millions of dollars from investors in various stock market schemes. The film is full of debauchery, with Scorsese injecting the film with the fervent mania of its characters.

With Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese obviously set out to make a film that fully captures the depravity, disregard, and amorality that is so prevalent in Wall Street. It's a drama, to be sure, but has plenty of humor, and is narratively framed in a self-referential manner, with DiCaprio narrating the film. It can perhaps be accurately described as Goodfellas meets Wall Street, with Scorsese's most audacious blend of humor and drama yet. The mania is all captured very well, made possibly by both the energetic direction, but also the powerhouse performances by both DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. DiCaprio, in particular, is very skilled in his portrayal, injecting his scenes with the charisma and believability of a Tony Robbins, yet with the nefarious underpinning of a Gordan Gekko.

The script is intelligently arrived at, giving us characters that are undeniably shallow, yet authentically realized. The dialogue is excellent throughout, and we are entreated to not only their actions, but their mindset. Scorsese does a fine job of translating this all to film, weaving a story that is unbelievable in its heights, yet hauntingly true.

For all it does right, Wolf of Wall Street does start to wear out its welcome. The film, coming in at about three hours, is overly long for the material. Certain scenes play out far too long, and the gags start to feel repetitive about half-way through. Perhaps this is intentional, the characters are repetitive, yet the film could have better served its attention elsewhere, including more specific details of the fraud, as well as the ultimate fate of those involved.

Overall, it's not Scorese's most dramatically powerful film, yet it's certainly one of his most unique, and well worth a watch.

4/5 Stars

Shadow Billionaire
½

Based on the enigmatic life and convoluted probate proceedings of his death, Shadow Billionaire is a rather fascinating insight in to DHL founder and billionaire, Larry Hillblom. Hillblom is painted as a brilliant, yet deeply flawed man, whose penchant for young Asian prostitutes became especially visible after his death in an unexplained plane crash (his body was never found).

The bulk of the documentary is aimed at the immensely complicated and quite extraordinary circumstances of the probate proceedings. We meet the women who claimed to have children by Larry, and we are shown the mechanizations and schemes of the big-time lawyers who had a vested interest in maintaining the money in a trust they control. What follows is a world of intrigue and conspiracy, when mainland lawyers lie, cheat, and cover-up to defraud the rightful heirs of Larry's estate, illegitimate children. The film is very successful in this regard, taking us through the proceedings briskly and in an engaging way, supported by a host of charismatic individuals, such as David Lujan, the lawyer for Larry's son. The film entreats us to both the mysterious man, and the relentlessly ruthless friends and associates who stopped at nothing to control the money. In this way, the film is both an effective character study, and an intriguing recounting of events.

If Shadow Billionaire has a fault, it would be its failure to more fully examine the lives of the children themselves, especially post settlement. This seems to paint a very interesting picture of Larry, and the film would have been better served to follow that.

An overall very strong documentary.

4/5 Stars

Ain't Them Bodies Saints
½

Intimate, beautifully shot, methodically paced, and exceptionally composed, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is certainly one of the best independent dramas of the year. The film tells the story of two in love 'outlaws' in rural Texas who find themselves separated for years, in a constant struggle to reunite. It's a film of character study, of tone, and of fate.

What really separates Ain't Them Bodies Saints is the mature filmmaking. Scenes are allowed to build organically, the characters are allowed to distinguish themselves on screen, tension is built through the narrative. The story itself, though a simple one, is used to excellent effect, exploring themes of love, loss, fate, and morality. We are given characters to follow that are nuanced. There is no straight protagonist or antagonist, just flawed characters living in a flawed world, trying to defy the odds. The dialogue is captured brilliantly, with its rich, yet simple, texture and poignant nature. This is accentuated by the phenomenal performances of Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who have amazing chemistry, and are yet able to anchor every scene they are in. The film's one major flaw is not pairing them on screen together enough, but such is largely the nature of the story.

The cinematography with this film is amazing, evoking comparisons to Terrence Malick, and other maturely visual directors. Every scene holds a beauty and an apprehension, with director David Lowery finding the pitch perfect tone. He creates a world that is mesmerizing, alluring, but also foreboding. Everything about the film is intelligent, from its execution to its composition, making it a truly enthralling experience.

Overall, a hidden gem for the year.


4.5/5 Stars

Parkland
Parkland(2013)
½

Released just ahead of the 50th anniversary of that tragic day, Parkland is an examination of the JFK assassination from the point of view of the "on the ground" players. It weaves a narrative that examines the event from the point of view of secret service agents, investigators, doctors, and bystanders. It's a film that seeks to paint a picture of the assassination and the immediate aftermath rather than retell history.

As a narrative, Parkland is a bit of a mixed bag. There's a plethora of stories to cover, and no one story-line fully pays off. We get the sense of a lot of inner turmoil and frustration, but the film doesn't have the level of cohesion one might like, missing a central protagonist. At the same time, the film's varied narrative approach does give us a more expansive view of the assassination, and involves us in characters that, though centrally involved with the event, often get passed over. Ultimately, it's the performances of the film that really give it the necessary texture in order to maintain our attention. The ensemble cast is quite impressive, and features a number of powerful performances, notably by Paul Giamatti, Ron Livingston, and James Badge Dale. Through their performances we get an authentic sense of the emotion involved, which seeks to anchor the film.

As history, Parkland treads lightly between 'mainstream' view and apolitical. The film heavily implies that Oswald acted alone, and conveniently skips over a myriad of inconsistencies involving him. Robert Oswald wears the look of guilt the entire film, looking disapprovingly at his doubting mother. The secret service agents watch in horror at the Zapruder film, yet that film's implications are never explored. As a timeline of what happened and how lives were impacted, it has value, but as a source of investigative work, the film is very dubious.


An overall successful film, mostly because of the performances.


3.5/5 Stars

Lovelace
Lovelace(2013)
½

Based on the famed pornographic film Deep Throat, and its title star, Linda Lovelace, Lovelace gives a surprising look at the industry, the personalities, and the cultural impact that the film had. It starts out as less of a critique than where it ends, but finishes with a compelling case for the dangers involved. It's never quite as insightful as it wants to be, never quite as focused as it should be, yet well acted and earnest enough to make it effective.

If there's an aspect of Lovelace that is the most effective part of the film, it would surely have to be the leading performances from Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard. Seyfried inhibits the vulnerable and unassuming demeanor of Lovelace well, while also maintaining a sort of allure to her. Sarsgaard was the most impressive of the two, completely inhibiting his character in to a controlling, nefarious, unstable, yet sly Chuck Traynor, who orchestrated the circumstances of production. The abusive relationship between the two makes for a compelling story, and is the most well done narrative element of the film.

Where Lovelace struggled was on the exact character arc of the title character herself. Her realization of how destructive the life was did not take place until the very end, yet we never fully witnessed this transition. Her personality, in fact, seems consistent from the onset, initially reserved by easily allured. Had the film given us more insight in to her character, and how she evolved, the film would have been more successful.

Overall--not in the same league as Boogie Nights, but a strong film nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars

I Am
I Am(2011)

Famed comedic director Tom Shadyac's entry in to documentary filmmaking is an interesting one. With I Am, his scope is big-- a dissection of the world's problems, the mechanisms behind those problems, and the solutions to them. Through interviews with scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders, he paints a rather broad canvass that spans from philosophical to metaphysical.

What I felt I Am was weak in was its presentation of talking heads and their insights in to the world's problems. Many obvious things were said, "poverty", "way", "hunger", yet there wasn't much of a dissection in to those specific issues. Saying, for example, that capitalism is exaggerates these problems is politically correct, yet logically unfound. The film contained too many of these large pronouncements, which distracted from what the film did right. It simply stated many things as fact without backing them up--what about, for example, the higher standard of living produced by capitalistic nations in comparison to the more "egalitarian" governments?

The strongest part of I AM was, undoubtedly, the exploration of quantum theory and some of the new revelations that have come to light. The power of consciousness and its relation to reality is immense, and the film did a good job explaining this. Had the film focused more on this, and less on the platitudes, it would have been all the stronger.

Overall, thought-provoking, but uneven.

3/5 Stars

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
½

Anchorman 2 falls in to the usual sequel pitfall in being familiar, yet surpasses the end result of most comedies in that it manages to be funny, entertaining, and a worthy follow-up. With Anchorman 2, we see Ron Burgundy and his team transplanted in to the newly minted GNN, a 24 hour news network, who inexplicably finds himself as a ratings draw. The film uses this to have a sort of obvious satire on our current state of news, providing a number of laughs on the way.

What makes Anchorman 2 work is the film's energetic approach. For most of the film, it's briskly paced, giving us ridiculous yet humorous situations, and placing its characters in situations which let them use their comic genius. This is certainly most true of Will Ferrell, who was used to perhaps even better effect in this film, and was the undeniable comedic drive of the film. It's full of strong supporting performances from an impressive ensemble cast, yet Ferrell is never quite matched. The script also features some interesting satirical bits and a few scenes (a dinner scene in particular) that are quite memorable. The humor is certainly hit or miss, and the film does have bouts of misses, yet it manages to stay fresh enough to keep us engaged.

If there's a serious criticism to be had of Anchorman 2, it would be the final third of the film, which becomes sluggish in its pace, unfocused in its approach, and overly silly. The tone of this last act is so outlandish, in fact, that it feels very much out of sync with what came before it. This is not to say that there is no humor to be found in the last act, yet the narrative structure feels largely disjointed.

Overall, a solid comedy, but ultimately not quite reaching the level of its predecessor.

3.5/5 Stars

American Hustle
½

At least partly based on actual events, American Hustle is yet another fantastic entry by David O Russell in the dramedy category, a film that is both intensely serious, darkly funny, and bitingly satirical. Coming off the success of Silver Linings Playbook, Russell manages to direct a film that is mature, intelligent, enthralling, and yet lasting in its impact.

What struck me most about American Hustle was Russell's continual emphasis on characterizations. His films are filled with rich, flawed, complicated, and yet wonderfully vivid characters. There is no real protagonist, and no real antagonist. Everyone in the film acts out of their own self-interest, which happens to collide with each other. In this way, Russell makes a profound statement on ambition, politics, and our conception of success. Those that are found guilty in the end seem comparable, and in some instances more likable, than those that put them there. Russell does not feel the ever-annoying need to feed us with clear villains, but rather notices the complexities and nuances at play, and sets this in a framework that is realistic to our current political/societal climate.

These characterizations are undoubtedly helped by his enormously talented cast, including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, and Robert De Niro. All are brilliant, with Bale having the most unique on-screen demeanor of his career. His physical changes and voice inflections are so changed, one can hardly recognize him. That he is paired with Amy Adams is to the film's credit, as she is able to match him with her fervent energy, nefariously-oriented intelligence, and noticeable insecurity.

The film also takes its time to build its story. For this reason, some may find the film a bit slow. While this is a fair criticism to some extent, it's really a testament to Russell's restraint. He's not interested in stylistic flourishes, but in story. What happens has weight to it, we are invested in the characters. This is also the point of American Hustle, not so much the actual hustle itself, but the way in which people are motivated, manipulated, and labeled.

A fantastic end-of-the-year film, and another notable entry in to a brilliant directorial career.


4.5/5 Stars

Adam Resurrected

Adam Resurrected is, without question, the strangest Holocaust themed film I have seen, and likely will see. Based on a novel, the film follows Adam Stein, a magician that acted as a sort of clown/pet for a concentration camp commander. The film finds him in and out of bouts of insanity, followed by manic outbursts of what some considered to be brilliance.

What makes Adam Resurrected so strange is the tone. The film is simply all-over-the map. At times, it seems to be going for surreal and whimsical, other times it goes for serious and profound. None of this is ever achieved, as the film has no real dramatic anchoring. There are scenes that are seemingly inexplicable, dialogue that is both hard to understand and verbose. The tone shifts are so drastic, one can hardly take the film in. It's all too manic and kinetic in its approach. Schrader simply comes across as earnest, certainly, but helplessly bogged down in the film's own supposed cleverness, with no real sense of organic story-telling.

The lone bright spot with Adam Resurrected is Jeff Goldblum, who has a truly great performance. The problem, however, is that his character is simply awash in a film that is otherwise dramatically adrift, and devoid of focus.

2/5 Stars

Blackfish
Blackfish(2013)
½

A powerful indictment against 'performance' aqua theme parks, Blackfish represents a potential game changer in the industry. The documentary focuses specifically on one killer whale, Tilikum, and that whale's experience over the decades, which culminated in the brutal attack of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Through this framework, the film explores the entire system of captivity for these whales, and captures brilliantly the innate cruelty and immorality of these actions.

Through numerous captivating interviews, Blackfish weaves a tale that gives a full account of how such an event could happen. Moreover, the film demonstrates that the Brancheau killing was one in a long line of events that speaks to the sort of psychosis these whales go through, after so many years in a hopelessly confined cage. The film documents the horrific capture procedures, inhumane caging, and haphazard procedures of so many theme parks. In the end, we are left to completely empathize with the animals, who undergo trauma after trauma, making them volatile and, ultimately, aggressive.

The film is careful to never come across as a sort of vain "animal rights" endeavor, but rather acts as an expose and a character study. We are left breathless at the intelligence of these animals, and humbled by its implications in our treatment of them.

It's a brilliant documentary in many ways, with a confined focus, yet far-reaching implications.

4.5/5 Stars

The Fountain
The Fountain(2006)

The king of esoteric films, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is perhaps his most divisive work. It's a movie that is incredibly ambitious in its scope and narrative format, yet simple in its story. It's both enthralling and, occasionally, inaccessible. The film's style is grand, imaginative, and highly symbolic. Whether one likes it seems to be a product of if you buy its central theme, or at least if you understand it.

The film tells the story of a man, played by Hugh Jackman, trying to save the woman he loves, played by Rachel Weisz. This sees him in three separate journeys, in apparently three separate incarnations. The stories are interwoven cleverly with match cuts and visual tricks, making the film very abstract in both content and execution. The central theme is that of mortality, and our quest to defy it. Symbolism is rife throughout, with many biblical references, adding to the film's abstract nature.

The visual aspect of the film is its greatest specter, with Aronofsky avoiding CGI as much as possible, opting for creative uses of macro photography and other techniques, which serve to give the film a unique feel. It doesn't feel ornate for the sake of ornate, rather it looks truly surreal and meticulously conceived. It's this visual wonder that seeks to anchor the film through its more esoteric moments, and sustain its momentum.

That the film is abstract is a given. Its approach is reminiscent in some respects of the more recent Tree of Life, though more accessible with its strong central story. Had it not been for this story, the film would have failed. Yet Aronofsky smartly recognized the need to keep the film anchored. The symbolism does perhaps get away from the story to some degree, especially toward the end, and the film does suffer from some disjointed moments and abrupt changes in tone. Yet, this is made up for by the rich and vibrant world building, in addition to the intelligent approach to the story, which doesn't opt for easy explanations, but rather puts faith in the audience.

Overall, a very unique science fiction film.

4/5 Stars

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
½

Peter Jackson's second of his Hobbit series, Desolation Of Smaug, is yet another well executed chapter in the Lord of the Rings franchise. This adventure picks up very much where the first left off, with Gandalf and his team of Dwarves taking a quest to Erebor, with the hope of reclaiming the kingdom, along with its lost jewel. It's a film that offers thrills, visuals, and a sense of wonder. It's also a film that's the product of a dubious trilogy, stretching material that could have fit two films.

What Jackson does well here, he has done well in all of his films for the series. We are entreated to filmmaking with a visual imagination. The universe keeps looking better, with grand scale and seamless world-building. He sets his stories effortlessly in this backdrop, never forgetting the need for characterization. We are entreated to both new and familiar characters, all of whom turn in excellent performances. This is done with even better action set pieces than the first Hobbit, and with a phenomenal rendition of Smaug by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The problem I had with this Hobbit were largely the same as the last. The length of the film is simply too expansive for the material. We get the firm idea that Jackson tries to remedy this with the continual introduction of side characters, yet this feels like a diversion, albeit often interesting diversions. The scenes are well done, everything is well staged, yet, what is really accomplished at the end? The film makes a great case for a third film, but it feels like that is largely all it achieved. Like the first Hobbit, it lacks the dramatic capping that a film needs, and which really good trilogies manages to accomplish. Empire Strikes Back, for example, did not simply set-up the final battle of the third film, but witnessed dramatic growth and adversity from its central characters, forever changing the tone of the series.

In the end, it's a fine film--yet, is it almost superfluous? The ending only underscores the grand climax to come, yet one can't help wonder if the ride was a bit too slow getting there.

3.5/5 Stars

The Art Of The Steal

Compelling, informative, tragic, and undeniably entertaining (often unintentionally), Art of The Steal is an excellent documentary. The film examines the Barnes Foundation, named after Albert C. Barnes who, for many years, housed countless masterpieces of art (valued in tens of billions) in one building. The building, dedicated to be a purely educational institution, was awash in non-conformity in both presentation and execution, angering the establishment of his day.

The film documents the undermining of Barnes and his will, who laid out explicit instructions on the operation of his collection, as well as his intentions. We are introduced to a number of characters who, in their own way, seek to undermine this purpose. In many cases we hear them firsthand, other times we are introduced to their machinations by others. Taken literally, the film is about civil procedure, but at its heart, it's a film about greed and opportunism. The director, Don Argott, does a masterful job in presenting his case, and building tension. The legal subtleties of such a story are not necessarily interesting to most, yet Argott makes it positively cinematic, treating his subject with passion and skill.

In the end, it's a powerful indictment against supposed non-profit foundations, and the politicians who seek to capitalize for personal gain at every opportunity, with the Barnes collection marking a surprising intersection of all these interests.

4/5 Stars

Bonnie and Clyde

With new attention being drawn to the story, having spawned a History Channel miniseries, I thought it time to visit the acclaimed 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. Receiving large praise for its ingenuity and boldness, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde can rightly be called a classic. It's a film ahead of its time in approach, style, and execution.

Watching Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, one might forget the way it redefined cinema for its time. This is a testament to how it has aged, being almost indistinguishable, and in many ways better, than modern films. The violence in this film is unflinching, not sanitized, but also not over-glamorized. The characterizations are surprisingly fresh and bold, casting two anti-heroes, both with deeply flawed personas and hints of even social taboos.

The film progresses at a brisk pace, yet never feels rushed. Penn guides the narrative in a way that feels organic and engaging, giving us necessary back-story, but never feeling the need to pander. The hallmark of the film is the central performances from Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway. Both have a palpable chemistry, and both bring an enormous amount of charisma to the screen. Dunaway is perfect as the lonely, thrill-seeking, and self-destructive Bonnie Parker, and Beatty is superb as the vulnerable, yet dogged Clyde Barrow. These performances are set against strong action scenes, and within a script that emphasizes the characters, never attempting to force-thrills.

The one criticism of Penn's Bonnie and Clyde is the historical accuracy. To be sure, we expect liberties to be taken, and Penn's version is certainly more true than others, yet the film subscribes to some of the more dubious notions about the couple. The hints of Clyde's impotence, for example, seem to be a substitute for other questions regarding his sexuality, yet substance for this is lacking, with an actually and intense romantic relationship between the two being likely more accurate.

A strong film overall, largely befitting its classic status.

4/5 Stars

The Duellists
½

Ridley Scott's feature film debut is perhaps his most distinctive. Set in the Napoleonic age, the film follows the feud of two army officers, a feud that lasts nearly 16 years, encompassing several duels. It's a mature effort, one that relies on its great cast and cinematography for its dramatic heft. It's a film that represents some of Scott's best tendencies, while also illustrating his later growth.

The Duelists is not a thriller by any stretch of the imagination. It's a drama, and a fine period piece. The story is surprisingly simple and yet inexplicable. The actions of Feraud appear obfuscated, a man driven by an intense hatred and bizarre notions of honor, which simply mask for immense insecurity. In this sense, Harvey Keitel is unsettling, inhabiting his character in a way that is hard to pin down. The low-key, gentlemanly Keith Carradine is the perfect juxtaposition, and makes for one of the most successful elements of the film.

The film's visual sense is almost impeccable. Scott brings his characteristic visual ingenuity to full effect, reminiscent almost of Stanley Kubrick, in that it's the scenes visual tendencies that drive the film. The period piece elements are also well down, capturing a beautiful yet flawed era.

The film does have its problems, however. Scott is never able to achieve the level of dramatic engagement or tension here as he does in his later films, a symptom of a sluggish pace, but also of a script that is elusive in its characterizations. We see interesting characters, yet we're never completely let in. Scenes linger a bit too long, and tension rarely builds itself.

Overall, an interesting and impressive film debut.

3.5/5 Stars

Out of the Furnace

Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart was brilliant, authentic, captivating, and immensely insightful. When the trailers for Out of the Furnace were released, it seemed as if this could be repeated. With Out of the Furnace, we are treated to another family drama, one that has strong themes of fate, futility, free-will, and generational violence. It's a film that has all the working parts for a great drama, though it never quite lives up to the heights of Crazy Heart.

With Out of the Furnace, we see Christian Bale working a dead-end job of a soon-to-be outsourced steel mill, looking after his restless and hopelessly troubled brother Rodney, who oscillates with local underground fights and tours in Iraq. Through Rodney's exploits, we are introduced to Harlan DeGroat, a hillbilly crime lord with an extremely intense demeanor, played by Woody Harrelson. All of the characters are played to excellent effect by a cast that is headlined by Casey Affleck, Christian Bale, and an unusual performance by Forest Whitaker. These characters are placed in a bleak world seemingly devoid of hope and filled with a stagnant sense of energy, and a foreboding air.

The film itself has a very atmospheric and dark tone. It feels gritty, it looks real, and the world simply feels resonate. This is what the film does well, capturing the mood of the script, and executing with excellent performances. The family dynamics feel real, and I appreciated the film's refusal for forced endings or clichéd resolutions. Cooper is not afraid to take risks, and it shows.

My reservations about the film come from its lack of a really coherent message and through-line. The film's obsession with tone and bleakness seems to lose the point of what it's trying to say. There's a lot of interesting performances and scenes, yet they sometimes feel disjointed. The film seems as if it has a lot to say, yet by the film's end we are left wondering where the climax lead to, ending at a place without a clear resonance. Cooper was obviously attempting to go against the grain, yet one still needs a clear message in order to make a film impacting.


An overall strong drama that perhaps never quite lives up to its potential.


4/5 Stars

Red 2
Red 2(2013)
½

Red 2 benefits from the fact that we know what we should expect, unlike its predecessor, alleviating one of the chief problems with the first film. In Red, we were entreated to a lot of camp, stylized action, and a story seriously lacking in credibility, yet the film always seemed as if it was trying for more, perhaps even taking itself a little too seriously. With Red 2, all pretenses go out the window, resulting in a film that is witty, satirical, often dumb, but always fun. It's a sequel that bests the first.

The tone in this Red is always consistent, it's whimsical, satirical, and very campy. This can be done well, and it can be done poorly. It is done well here, with all of the actors hitting on all the right beats, and the script finding a balance between silly subplots and what anchors the film, its humor. The film does a great job of keeping a brisk pace, but not too rushed, providing us with a wide variety of settings, and setting up its scenes well. Each location offers a unique texture to the story, with undeniably interesting characters. This, to be sure, is the greatest achievement of Red 2, its ensemble cast. Everyone on screen looks sold on the project, as much as can be possible with Willis these days, and brings their own unique spin. The performance by Anthony Hopkins especially was noteworthy, with him chewing the scenery with his affable, yet nefarious persona.

The story in this Red is a simplistic one, yet what Red 2 does well, and to some extent the first Red, is make the story appear all the more vibrant and interesting with back-story, countless factions and, as mentioned, a stream of interesting characters. The film captures the eccentricities of geopolitics in a unique (terribly simplified) way, that makes what we see feel different. It's not simply about action set pieces, rather the character moments in between.

For all it does right, Red 2 really is what it is. It's not serious, the plot is clichéd filled, the action scenes are ridiculous. Yet, the film knows this. It's camp, not for the sake of camp, but more for the sake of its peculiar sarcasm. All in all, it's an enjoyable ride.


3.5/5 Stars

Europa Report
½

There is perhaps not a harder genre than the science fiction genre, a genre that requires an immense amount of ingenuity, visual sense, forward-thinking, and some sort of realist backing that keeps the story grounded. To do it in a mockumentary fashion is even more challenging, as witnessed by such failed attempts as Apollo 18. Europa Report, however, manages to weave a successful film that is part documentary and part found footage, in to one rather effective science fiction thriller.

The story follows a crew of six astronauts as they are sent to investigate possible life on Jupiter's moon. Interestingly enough, the story takes place in our contemporary time. The exposition is achieved through news footage and documentary-style, with the rest of the film being composed of cleverly conceived found footage devices.

It's the film's smart direction and well-realized script that makes the film's elements work. The world-building feels current and realistic. The script refreshingly takes science at least passably seriously, introducing real-world situations and problems, entreating us to a crew and ship that are fragile, and hopelessly outmatched against the bleakness that is space. The footage is put together coherently, and to good effect. There is rarely any over-bearing narration, or irritating figure heads spelling out what has just occurred, rather we are left to witness events as they unfold, with the emotional backdrop of real-world implications.

The performances are strong all around, crucial for a film that relies on very intimate relationships. The crew composes many different personality types and demeanors, yet all interact in believable and identifiable ways. The direction creates just the right amount of tension, and delivers us a narrative told in a very methodical manner. It never feels rushed, it occasionally feels slow, but the last act is all the more effective for it.
Europa Report does have its faults, however. The emotional resonance in the last act is never quite what it should be, a symptom of never fully identifying with one character, and the short running time. The pace is a bit sluggish in parts, though never overly slow.

The biggest flaw is the documentary aspect of the on-Earth personnel, we never quite get a dramatic through-line for them. The way they are utilized should seemingly pay-off differently than it does, and thus I felt more could have been done with that aspect.

Overall it's a nice addition to the genre.

3.5/5 Stars

Homefront
Homefront(2013)
½

A widowed ex-DEA agent retires to a small Louisiana town, looking to get out of the life for the sake of his young daughter. An unfortunate sequence of events brings his past back to haunt him, trouble ensues, and the ex-agent is forced to confront what he wanted to leave behind. This is the plot of Homefront, the new Jason Statham film which, on its face, sounds indistinguishable from other Statham films, not to mention scores of other B action films. Perhaps its this knowledge and low expectations, but Homefront actually manages to transcend these parameters and is instead a film that both delivers and surprises, a B action film that actually thrills.

The premise, to be sure, is familiar. The ex-agent set-up, the precocious daughter, the past that comes back to haunt, it's all very cliche and over-done. Yet Homefront manages to execute on this premise to a very strong degree, and then surprise. It does this by giving us strong performances, especially by Kate Bosworth, whose delivery as the white-trash meth addict mother was the headline of the film for me. James Franco, oddly enough, was also effective, with a characterstic Statham performance that, though it lacked depth, had a strong charm and action prescence that was needed for the material. The script also gave us some refreshing scenarios, it was Bosworth's character that, instead of being weak and victimized, was actually the source of the antagonism. It was Statham's daughter that was strong, not needy and vulnerable, yet ready to stand firm. This gave the film some subtext that other similarly themed films don't have.

The action in Homefront is also very well choreographed and shot. Shooting scenes feel especially impactful, and are easy to follow. The director, Gary Fleder, used Statham's action prowess to notable effect, having some of his better action scenes as of late, some of which are almost grippingly effective. This is true of the chase scences in well. Fleder also didn't overdue the action, and made it feel more organic to the story, not simply jumping around from action set piece to action set piece.

This is not to say Homefront is without its flaws. The cliches are endless, the jumps in logic plentiful. One scene saw Statham's car roll-over countless times, only to have him emerge seemingly unharmed, and perhaps even more energized. The dramatic elements are good for what it is, but it's not a fine drama. Taken on its own terms, however, it's a surprisingly good ride.

3.5/5 Stars

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire proves to be that rare sequel that, in most respects, outperforms its predecessor. In Catching Fire, we see Katniss Everdeen returned to another Hunger Games, this time competing with other winners, as the political climate continues to escalate in its precariousness.

The first film was effective, to be sure, yet Catching Fire feels like a more mature, even darker, endeavor. The emotions here are more effective, they feel more authentic. This speaks to the film's more in-depth exploration of its themes. Whereas the first installment was occasionally rushed and overly concerned with exposition, this Hunger Games takes a more methodical approach, with a renewed emphasis on the characters. In fact, this is the most effective thing about Catching Fire, its focus on character development. The central character dynamics at the heart of the film anchor it, which makes the action all the more compelling on the screen. We are also entreated to characters that have complexity, not simple villains or protagonists, but people with flawed characters, and yet identifiable motivations.

The world building in Catching Fire is also taken to the next level. Everything feels more well-realized, with amazing CGI, excellent visuals, and an overall universe that feels real. The costumes, the sets, the entire context of the film inhibits itself organically, a strong testament to the film's technical merits.

This is not to say Catching Fire is free of flaws. The scripting can be a bit obvious, especially in its dialogue. Too often are we entreated to intense discussions amongst characters literally spelling out the motivations and themes, "we need fear" "as long as they believe in her", when the film really does not need to do that. I feel that moving forward the franchise needs to move away from spoon-feeding its audience, and instead move toward the intelligence and subtlety it's capable of.

An overall excellent follow-up.


4/5 Stars

Thor: The Dark World

As the Marvel Universe continues to expand, one can't but help wonder when, if at all, the quality will begin to suffer. Up to this point, the studio has been turning out high-quality films, with Iron Man 3 representing a surprisingly effective follow-up to Avengers. With the first Thor, we got a film that was fun, funny, light, yet undeniably charming and effective. With Dark World, we get a film that manages to repeat some of the success of the first Thor, yet fails to seize upon the moment of the subsequent Marvel films, feeling adequate, but not satisfying.

My biggest disappointment with Dark World was that the film's universe didn't feel organic to the subsequent events the other Marvel films. Throwaway lines to "New York" doesn't count in and of itself. Iron Man 3 achieved this with a darker tone, and a more shaken Tony Stark. With Dark World, references to the other films feel gimmicky and shallow. Taken on its own merits, this Thor never achieves the same wonder as the first, and thus suffers from an un-involving, almost lazy, narrative. The set-up feels recycled, but with new characters. The events themselves all feel very familiar, making much of what happens seem like a placeholder for the ultimate finale. At the end of this Thor, it is easy to find yourself asking if that was really it, as if most of the significant plot points occur in the very third act and with the after credit scenes.

This is not to say that Dark World is poorly done on a technical or acting level. The performances work, with Chris Hemsworth embodying the perfect Thor, having noticeable chemistry with Portman. Tom Hiddelston's Loki continues to be the most interesting thing about the series, offering a complex man that is often fascinating in his machinations. The action set pieces are well staged, and the Universe itself is well realized from a scope-standpoint, offering great visuals. The problem is that none of this is really taken to its true potential, following a largely predictable trajectory.

In the end, it's an entertaining film. We get what we would expect, but nothing more. Perhaps Marvel has set the bar too high, as the ambition of such a vast interconnected Universe is unparalleled, and the execution thus far has been superb. As it is, one cannot help but feeling a little let-down in this case.

3/5 Stars

1492: Conquest of Paradise

Long associated with action films and high-brow science fiction adventures, 1492: Conquest of Paradise represents one of director Ridley Scott's less noted films. It's a film that is quiet, grandly scaled, beautifully shot, and very ambitious. It's also a film with narrative flaws, a lethargic pace, and perhaps an overly generous take on Columbus.

The best thing about 1492 is Scott's world building. We are entreated to fantastic cinematography, with shots that capture the vastness, wonder, and yet stark nature of the real world. Scott films his scenes with a masterful sense of scope, never placing his characters above the scenery, as a skillful reminder of the grand stakes at play. The world-building is equally impressive, with sets that are fantastically realized. It's a period piece that doesn't simply look like its' period, but rather inhibits it. As such, the technical merits of 1492 can scarcely be questioned.

The film's narrative, however, is a mixed bag. The performance by Gerard Depardieu was surprisingly strong, offering a more complicated view of Columbus than other film treatments. The supporting cast is also fairly well received, and is served by a script with intelligent dialogue and a keen eye towards subtlety. The trouble comes from the film's almost disengagement with its subjects. We see Columbus's struggles, but never feel them. We see the stakes, but never quite feel involved in them. The film suffers from a disengagement, most likely originating from it hands-off approach towards Columbus. Had the film tried to be more of a character study, giving us more of the human dynamics (particularly the politics involved), it would have been more successful. The treatment of Columbus is also undeniably generous, painting a man ahead of his time, relentlessly ambitious, but also exceedingly humane. History would perhaps suggest some of these notions are a bit dubious, Columbus was a rather hard man.

Overall, however, I found the film engaging. The technical merits alone made it always watchable, and the story itself was treated with great respect by Ridley, who populates the story with interesting characters, strong performances, and large scale, though with plenty of problems along the way.

3/5 Stars

12 Years a Slave

In what is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, director Steve McQueen delivers a brilliant, nuanced, intense, and unwavering historical drama. It's a film that offers insight without telegraphing its intentions, conveys emotion without forcing it, and inhibits its' period rather than creating it. What it achieves is a masterful, and truly historical, look at slavery in the antebellum south, as well as the complicated dynamics surrounding it.

The film's mature composition is guided by McQueen, whose sense of pacing, framing, and tension are all beyond reproach. The methodical pacing allows for tension to build organically, giving ample opportunity for the performances to truly breath life in every scene and, as is the nature of the film, underscore the tremendous agony of its protagonist. The result is a film that can feel quite and subtle in its execution, but undeniably powerful. Put simply, McQueen knows how to stay out of the way of his subject.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are all exceptional. Chitwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup is a man of unbelievable courage, phenomenal perseverance, yet with an underlying vulnerability and conflicted nature that grows during the course of the narrative. This is accompanied by one of the better supporting casts in years, headlined predominately as Fassbender. Fassbender is absolutely riveting as the callous, insecure, cruel, and yet subtly human Edwin Epps.

The film's narrative itself is one that transports us without spoon-feeding the audience. There are certain things that are as uncertain to us as they are to Solomon. We are entreated to a world in the same way he experiences it, and are thus provided with a dramatization that feels as authentic as the story itself.

A brilliantly realized piece of film-making.

5/5 Stars

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

While never being a fan of the Jackass franchise, but appreciating such endeavors as Borat, I went in to Bad Grandpa with a fair idea of what I'd be getting. To say the film is often funny is a given, yet it never quite measures up to what it wants to be. It's a film that uses scripted elements blended in with the reactions of real people. Characteristically with Jacksass, it relies heavily on sexualized humor, gross-out situations, and general shock value.

The most successful thing about Bad Grandpa is the balance it strikes between scripted and hidden camera. The heart of a story, of a young boy in a tumultuous family becoming closer with his grandfather, is never forgotten about, and serves as a vehicle for the entire film. Blending such elements can be hard to do, but Jackass strikes a good balance, supported by child actor Jackson Nicoll, who has a hilarious on-screen charisma, and an apparent gift for straight scripted acting.

It's the humor in Jackass that's largely a mixed bag. Throughout the entire run, we get the incessant feeling that it should be funnier than what it is. The film lets certain gags play out too long, apparently believing they turn out funnier than they do. There's a lot of chuckle moments, but nothing approaching the heights of films such as Borat. The reason for this seems rather obvious, the filmmakers had a hard time getting out of their own way. The situations often felt terribly forced so as to deliver a certain type of humor. Rarely did they let a situation unfold organically, rather it was always pushed in a certain direction, namely towards sex. The film's preoccupation with sexualized humor boarded on obsessive, leading the film to try and force laughs, rather than let them occur naturally by exploring other levels of absurdity.

Funny, to be sure, but ultimately only a passable comedy.

3/5 Stars

Before Midnight

The third in a trilogy following the brilliant Before Sunrise and After Sunset, before Midnight finds Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in their married life. Whereas the first two explored themes of love, life, philosophy, free will, and direction, Before Midnight takes a more serious, almost darker tone, devoid of much of the charm that made the first two so enjoyable. The result is almost a two hour argument, with characters that have undeniably changed, with no sense of enchantment. It's not a bad film in the least, yet not necessarily always enjoyable.


My reservations with Before Midnight in large part stem from its dialogue. As is the case with all three films, the scenes in Before Midnight are very long and feature long dialogue exchanges. In this film, the conversations, like the people, seemed overly negative, over-sexualized, and almost whiney. One can rightly say that such is the change in characters, yet the exchanges never seemed to evolve. The film felt like one big drawn out argument, albeit a well written and well acted one.


The actors are all great, with the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy being just as tremendous as it was previously. The difference is that neither character is especially as likeable, especially true of Delpy, who's almost grating in her incessant self-righteous whining. The direction, however, does take a step back. The first two films incorporated the scenery so nicely and kinetically so as to make the film flow seamlessly, with Before Midnight, however, it feels much more stagnate and confined, despite their being plenty of opportunities for amazing cinematography.


An interesting piece, but devoid of the magic of its predecessors.


3/5 Stars

The Counselor

With films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road, Cormac McCarthy's work has been hallmarked for its bleakness, unique sense of character, and its methodical yet enthralling pace. Directors such as the Cohen brothers have done amazing work bringing his films to cinematic life, delivering them to devastating execution. The Counselor represents a screenplay (not adaptation) penned by McCarthy, and directed by famed director Ridley Scott, whose career has demonstrated an ability to create smart, atmospheric, and memorable thrillers. All of this, combined with an all start cast, should have made The Counselor a dynamic film. Instead, it's a film of good ideas and some interesting characters, but executed with overly indulgent and verbose dialogue, with clunky focus and seemingly disjointed direction.

Where The Counselor disappoints most is the staging of its narrative. The film's story is essentially a simple one, yet the film seems hell bent on making it seem convoluted and confused. We are never up to speed with the characters, and are always left to sort out their actions and intentions afterwards. Good McCarthy films don't resort to such trickery, they let the story unfold organically before the audience, and give complexity with the characters themselves, not the plot dynamics. The Counselor isn't like that, we never quite know what's going on-seemingly done intentionally. McCarthy's dialogue vacillates from stylistic and fun, to unfocused and verbose. There's simply too much talking with not enough being conveyed. The characters always talk in symbolic ways with affected mannerisms, with the realism of McCarthy's other works seemingly being lost.

The direction, like the script, never seems focused. There's multiple storylines going on, yet we are never fully grounded in one. The film goes in different directions, and never seems to assimilate these divergent paths. Cameron Diaz, for example, has a rather bizarre character arc which is never explored. The thrills are to be had, yet they are seemingly lost in the film's larger confusion.

This is not to stay that The Counselor is resoundingly bad. In fact, it's a film that is quite interesting, never boring, and thought-provoking. The criticisms only stem from the fact that it could have been more. Taken for what it is, it's a film that does manage to stay with you, with great performances from all around, save Diaz (very out of place), headlined by Fassbender. McCarthy still manages to weave complex themes together, which results in a more intellectual exercise than most films, albeit an often tedious one.

Undeniably flawed, but still passably worthwhile.

3/5 Stars

Escape Plan
Escape Plan(2013)

Escape Plan features Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the 80's action duo teaming up to break out of prison, with a mysterious adversary in Jim Caviezel and plenty of conspiratorial intrigue to keep you guessing. In other words, it's a dumb B action film made to be a dumb B action film. That it has hints of being something more is actually to the film's detriment, with moments of promise coming crashing back down to reality with the next action set piece. In the end, it's a by-the-book Stallone and Schwarzenegger picture, with solid directing, exciting action stars, but a hapless plot and script.

With Escape Plan, Stallone continues to prove that he is still a very reliable lead actor that can shoot a gun, punch, look intense, and occasionally deliver dialogue with emotion. His later career has really shown an enhanced acting ability (though that's not necessarily saying much). Schwarzenegger's limited range is always felt, yet Escape Plan does a good job of masking that, relying on the ambiance of Schwarzenegger rather than Schwarzenegger himself, and doing so to good effect. The chemistry between the two is disappointing, yet both do a good job of anchoring the scenes, and continue to possess strong screen intensity.

Trying to analyze the plot of Escape Plan is really a fool's errand, as that is really not the point. It does manage to place Stallone and Arnold in a unique setting, with the appropriate stakes, and do so with a nice twist. That said, one can't help but think the film would have been stronger had it been played straight. Had the film simply been about two convicts, old in the tooth, needing to break free--it would have been all the stronger. As it is, Escape Plan can't help but offer ever ridiculous characters and situations, with exposition being filled in with the likes of Curtis Jackson.

Plot deficiencies aside, Escape Plan does have a good sense of self. The movie simply feels cool, the back-drop is well thought out, and the film never lags. It's reminicenst of the underrated series Prison Break, in which the twists and turns are never especially logical, yet they are masked by good execution. In this case, it delivers on all the necessary action beats, and manages to elevate the film by some interesting performances, and some well placed humor.

Overall it's a familiar, ultimatley forgettable, but enjoyable enough ride.

3/5 Stars

The East
The East(2013)

The East is an intriguing thriller by writer-actress Brit Marling, one that weaves together elements of eco-terrorism, drama, thriller, and moral nuance. Following an eco-terrorist group named the East, infiltrated by a private intelligence agent, the film weaves together an interesting blend of elements that make it a unique experience.

What I appreciated most about The East was its meditative tone. The film poses a number of questions, and gives us characters with complexity to channel those questions. There really is no clear protagonists or antagonists, and that's the idea. The film tries to paint a portrait of nuance, and does so largely authentically. We see the flaws at play with all of the characters involved, and thus we are forced to question their motivations and logic ourselves. This speaks to the films maturity, trusting the audience to make evaluations.

The script penned by Marling not only gives us interesting characters, but features authentic dialogue and situations that serve the story well. You never quite know what direction the film would take, and when the twists do happen, they mostly feel organic to the narrative itself.

While the script gives the film a sense of intelligence, it is the fine performances which give the film its real vibrancy. Ellen Page was characteristically great, but it's the palpable chemistry between Alexander Skarsgard and Brit Marling that takes center stage. Both posses a hidden complexity that gives the film the needed texture. These performances are set against tight direction which creates a very atmospheric tone, with a methodical pace.

The film's unique premise, diversity of charactes, and smartly written script make it a compelling drama overall. Another great entry form Fox Searchlight.


4/5 Stars

Unraveled
Unraveled(2012)
½

The financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing Ponzi scheme unravelings in 2009 make for very compelling stories, lessons, and character studies. In unraveled, director Marc Simon looks at the case of Marc Dreier, whose case seemingly embodies all of the above. Dreier, a supposedly hugely successful New York attorney, was found to have engaged in a $400 million dollar fraud that had him bizarrely impersonating, and hiring others to impersonate for him.

While an interesting premise, Simon fails to really seize the opportunity. Filmed in the 60 days prior to his sentencing, this was a unique opportunity to paint an intimiate portrait of a man that was deeply torn. Instead, the film gives him far too much leeway. Drier is his own narrator, and seemingly dictates the flow of the film. Good documentaries take a more objective look, and force the subject out of their comfort zone. In Unraveled, that comfort zone is never pushed. Dreier seems remourceful yet prone to excuses and rationalizing, never being conforted to the contrary.

This results in a documentary that feels far too safe, and devoid of the sort of insight one would expect. We get plenty of Dreier's rationalizing and humanizing, yet never fully get to the heart of what went wrong, the intimate details of the fraud, nor a profound change in character of Dreier.

An overall bland and disappointing effort.

2.5/5 Stars

Captain Phillips
½

With Captain Philips director Paul Greengrass proves that not only is he still very much a masterful director, but he has refined his craft, delivering a movie that is intensely focused, enthralling, smart, and tension filled throughout. Based on a true story, Captain Philips is a nuanced look at the hijacking of a U.S. shipping container, and the resulting response by the US government.

Whereas other Greengrass vehicles have a tendency to rely far too heavily on "shaky cam" and other seemingly gimmicky camera tricks, Captain Philips appears to be a far more mature effort. The film conveys action and tension in an organic way, and not getting in the way of the coherenace of what is transpiring, as has been a previous problem for Greengrass. Instead, we get what he does best, realism, but a heightened realism, in which the stakes are never in doubt, the story never lost.

That the film also features great performances almost goes without saying, this being a return to excellence for Tom Hanks, who delivers a performance that is layered. Hanks inhibits his character perfectly, with a cool exterior, matter-of-fact demeanor, but a courageous man deeply connected to others.

What really makes the film standout is the way it unfolds. The characterizations are solid, and the story is built up to great effect. We see vulunerability and nuance where it exits, with the film never forcing tension, rather it unfold organically. This refusual to hasten the action is perhaps the only flaw-as the film does have a tendency to let scenes overstay there welcome.

Overall, Captain Philips is smart, intelligent, dramatic, and relentlessly intense. One of the best films of the year.

4.5/5 Stars

Welcome to the Punch

Welcome to the Punch is the perfect example of a film too enamored with its own supposed cleverness. Set in against the backdrop of a criminal London underworld, the film follows a complex heist gone wrong storyline, one that quickly delves in to a web of political intrigue and relentless violence.

Welcome of the Punch has all of the hallmarks of a dramatic noir-type genre piece. There is an abundance of wide-angle shots, a palpable tension, saturated colors, an atmospheric tone, and a methodical pace. Visually, the film is actually fairly impressive, capturing a stylized London in a gritty, yet eerie way, not unlike the great Michael Mann films. This is the good.

The problem, however, is that the film essentially makes no sense. The plot is absurdly convoluted, disjointed, and incoherent. The characters talk with a deep-rooted intensity, and the actions seem as if there should be weight, yet it all falls on deaf ears because of one simple problem- the narrative. The film seems to get so caught up on its own supposed wit and cleverness, that the writers never realized the need for fleshed out characterizations and through-lines. The film simply goes past its audience, assuming we are fascinated with whatever is transpiring, meanwhile forgetting the need to fill us in on the way. In the end, the reveal demonstrates a silly premise, with no pay off. It's a Michael Mann style film with Tyler Perry level writing.

The action also never works. It feels to randomized and needless to have any weight. The action scenes feel over-dramatized and over-written, as if so say-wasn't that audacious?

In the end, a definite misfire.

2/5 Stars

Gravity
Gravity(2013)
½

Director Alfonso Curaon, director of other masterful sci fi films like Children of Men, delivers yet another relentlessly captivating film with Gravity. It's a film that is intelligent, nuanced, enthralling, and terrifying, while also being often quiet and meditative. It's a film that dwarfs the bombastic blockbusters of the summer, delivering on all the thrills, but with refreshingly adult themes and sensibilities.

The visuals in Gravity certainly headline the film, and this is for good reason. The CGI is nearly flawless, the space imagery is breathtaking, and the framing that Curaon brings to the film never fails to place larger context on the scene. Clooney and Bullock seldom take center stage, and appear hopeless against the beautiful, if not cold and unforgiving, space orbit. It's picturesque yet intimidating, captivating and yet humbling. Curaon depicts this brilliantly, capturing the vastness and bleakness of space perhaps better than any other film in recent memory.

The dramatic story is a confined one, contrasted with the vastness of space, in that it almost solely centers around the characters of Clooney and Bullock. Both are excellent in their roles, and enjoy a sort of chemistry that many Hollywood films fail to reach.
There is no forced romanticism, simply two colleagues that organically grow together because of a tragedy. Clooney's affable charm is demonstrated well with his character, but it's Bullock's performance that is perhaps one of the best of her career. She plays a woman that is deceptively conflicted, desperate, yet uncomfortably cool with the prospect of death, with a slight fatalistic air about her. Clooney's character could have been paid offer better, he seems almost too calm, yet the heart of the story felt authentic.

Above all, what Gravity does best is transport the audience. It's a film that imparts feelings, sensations, and wonder on the audience. It's minimal in approach, but unrelenting in its impact.

The best science fiction film of the year.

4.5/5 Stars

The Frozen Ground
½

Based on the unconscionable killing spree of Robert Hansen, The Frozen Ground, finds Nicholas Cage in a return-to-form as a State Trooper on his trail. It's a film with a very compelling story, albeit a film that is overly conventional, to be sure, yet still effective in its execution.

Forunately for Nicholas Cage fan's, his performance in this film ranks among the best from him in recent years (not saying much), bringing back the intensity and screen presence his best roles are known for. In Frozen Ground he is relentless, obsessed, yet disillusioned, all traits he seems to inhibit well on the screen. He's matched by a fairly good supporting cast, with John Cuscak effective as the eerily creepy Hansen.

The film is conventional in its approach, surprisng considering some of hte liberties the film took. It's very procedural, and we often get the feeling that perhaps the material deserved something more compelling, something in the vain of Zodiac. That said, it does hit on all of the expected beats, though with some dramatic cliches, and features performances that elevate the material. The film's bleak tone and dark mood are consistent thoughought, and I felt made for some effective world-building; we see a side of Alaska rarely seen. It's the film's darkness that I found most compelling, even ending on a dreary note, which I felt was a good departure from the otherwise formulaic approach taken prior.

It's not among the best in the genre, but it's an all-around solid drama of a very disturbing story, done well enought to leave you uncomftable.


3.5/5 Stars

Rush
Rush(2013)
½

Director Ron Howard's Rush is a return to excellence for him, and represents one of the better efforts of the year. While ostensibly a sports drama, the film manages to be so much more. It works to amazing effect as a simple sports tale, yet has numerous layers of complexity to make it a much more dramatic and impacting experience. In the end, we ultimately care not about who wins the race or who loses, but marvel instead at the characters at play, their growth, their rivalry, their flaws, their unbridled ambition, and yet the markedly different ways in which they channel that energy.

Ron Howard's direction is both exhilarating and exacting. The race sequences are some of the best put to film in many years, perhaps ever, engaging the audience with an incredible energy, yet staging them authentically, and never sacrificing the realism of the film. Many sports films create artificial tension, yet Howard lets the scenes escalate organically, and never forgets the cardinal rule of any successful film-- the attention must be, first and foremost, on the characters.

The performances from both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl work perfectly together. Neither performance could rightly be described as "powerhouse", yet the chemistry was there, with the script and Howard placing both actors in position to succeed. It was the contrast that the two drew that was the most striking. Hemsworth as the reckless gambler and Bruhl as the analyst played well against each other. We got to see their differences through their mere body language and on-screen presence, rather than forced bits of dialogue.

What I found the most fascinating with Rush was the character of Daniel Bruhl. The film paints Bruhl as a rather austere man, conservative in his personality, and generally reserved. Yet, there is a sense of danger and restless ambition within him that I can scarcely recall being put to film to such an effective degree.

In the end, Rush is a film that gives you an appreciation for the sport, yet uses the actual racing sequences as a backdrop for its more nuanced character study, a study with no clear verdict, no clear protagonist. It's a fascinating film.

4.5/5 Stars

The Kings of Summer

There is perhaps a scarcely more crowded genre than the coming-of-age genre, a fact that especially holds true for indie coming-of-age genres, even those with a quirky sensibility. Some feel redundant, some feel fresh (Perks of Being a Wallpaper), and some surprise. The Kings of Summer is one of those films that surprise. It's off-beat humor is underscored by strong performances, and a message the ultimately works.

The film finds two best friends, disenchanted with their hilarious home lives, finding a seeming oasis of isolation in the woods, setting out to build a house there. This disappearance sparks a rather lackluster search effort for them, while the boys enjoy misadventures with the bizarrely unsettlingly Moises Arias, while also finding themselves at odds with a girl, played by Alison Brie. While the basic elements are nothing original, the film has an original execution to it. This is most true of the humor, which, by far, sets the film apart. It's quirky, to be sure, and a bit stylized, yet it manages to dryly capture the frustrations of many adolescents, and does so in a hilarious fashion.

The performances, headlined unquestionably by Nick Robinson, are all laudable, with some of the best chemistry between child actors as I have seen. All play off the humor to great effect, and inhibit their roles to such a great extent as to make the dynamics at play feel well realized and, most importantly, authentic.

In the end, the message of Kings of Summer isn't distinguished, but the overall execution is. It's enjoyable, funny, and quirky enough to give it a serious memorable factor.

4/5 Stars

Redemption
Redemption(2013)
½

Redemption is a different sort of Jason Statham thriller, more subdued in its tone, and keen on its dramatic element. With its action-heavy cast but its gloomy, downbeat script, it never feels right. Instead of a revenge or thoughtful action film, we get something that never adds up to anything substantial, or anything especially compelling. It's a literal misfire of a film.

The plot finds Statham as an ex-Special Forces solider (surprise) returning to his home city of London as a distraught man. We find out this trauma relates to something in his past (surprise), with him eventually channeling this repression of emotion to aid a criminal underworld (surprise). In his 'journey', he comes to meet a beautiful nun, who inspires him to change his ways (surprise). While this is all very clichéd, the film takes it especially seriously, and does so with a slow pace and a heavy tone. The biggest problem is that the film keeps wanting to set itself up for a big action finale, and a break-out arc for Statham, yet it never happens. The entire film feels like build-up for something that doesn't happen. Instead, we seemingly get a more dramatic piece of work, but without any originality, and without any real impact.

The biggest sin of Redemption for Statham fans is that Redemption is simply boring. There are some action scenes, to be sure, but they are too far and between dramatic scenes that never work, set against a world that never feels quite real. The paranoia the film sets to achieve, with Statham's character believing he's being watched, falls flat, and does so with poor execution.

Not your typical Statham film, and that's not a good thing.

2.5/5 Stars

Olympus Has Fallen

The first of two White House disaster films released this year, Olympus Has Fallen proves itself the stronger, being significantly better than Olympus Has Fallen in all major aspects. This is not to say Olympus is a great film (it's premise is still profoundly silly), but it does posses the action skill and acting talent to make it work.

The film revolves around the capturing of the White House by North Korean terrorist, with the country finding their only hope being disgraced former secret service agent Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler, as the clichéd protagonist with a chip on his shoulder and past 'mistake' that continues to haunt him. To be sure, it's all very absurd. Yet Olympus Has Fallen does what White Hpuse Down failed to do, in that it tries to offer some sort of plausibility, giving us antagonists with identities, and events that feel like they actually have weight to the film.

It's the performances that give Olympus a sort of intensity and charm that is needed for an action film like this. The actors actually behave in ways befitting their situation, with Gerard Butler proving himself to be a formidable action star. The tone reminded me somewhat of Air Force One (though that film is certainly superior), in that there's a seriousness to it all that keeps one engaged, unlike White House Down.

The action itself is staged well in the hand-to-hand sequences, a testament mostly to the tight direction and strong performances. The film's CGI, however, certainly leaves something to be desired, as it becomes almost cringingly bad at certain spots, yet not enough to outweigh what the film does right. For a B action film, all of the appropriate beats are hit.

An overall serviceable action film.

3/5 Stars

Bullet to the Head

That Sylvester Stallone is still starring in action films is perhaps almost as surprising as the fact that that Bullet to the Head is any good. It's derivative, to be sure, but Bullet to the Head manages to be a surprisingly solid B neo-noir type film, relentlessly violent and often thrilling. It's a film that's dumb, but also a bit daring, familiar without being boring.

Stallone is the best thing about the film, oddly enough, having the perfect tone for the role, as a gruff, brooding, unpredictable, yet unmistakably human hit man. The chemistry he enjoys with Sung Kang is also a bit surprising, though Kang does not bring much to the role. It's Stallone's presence that really elevates the film, he still inhibits the action badass to good effect, undoubtedly honed in by his Expendables franchise.

The plot, as mentioned, is familiar, yet it strikes notes that manages to distinguish it enough. What I appreciated most was how unapologetic it all was. Stallone was bad, and never tried to really redeem himself. In most action films, the surrounding cast would try to get him to see the error of his ways, yet Stallone in Bullet to the Head plays as more of an antihero, and the characters seem to be fine with that.

The storyline itself is overly simplistic, and the ending takes too wild of a turn, yet for a film that knows what it is, it works. It's a B action film with some pulpy thrills, and a neo-noir sensibility, but with a straight-to-DVD script. Overall, an enjoyable enough ride for action/Stallone fans.


3/5 Stars

To Rome with Love

To Rome with Love represents one of Allen's lesser works of the past decade, especially in light of the brilliant Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. It is a slight film, and only sporadically funny. Woody Allen is the master of the lighthearted comedy, but his best work finds the human dynamics at play, and gives us humor with a biting satirical edge. To Rome with Love simply feels too gimmicky with its plot devices, and too on-the-nose with its humor. Consider the plot line involving the Italian man who becomes famous for no reason, it's all too obvious and inexplicable, even for Allen.

The biggest failing with To Rome with Love is that none of the story-lines are especially compelling, nor are they connected with any ingenuity. It's all too light, whimsical, and shallow. That is the most striking indictment against the film, it's shallow. Allen is capable of great nuance and some of the most intelligent humor put to film, To Rome with Love is simply lazy Allen on autopilot. It has some charm, to be sure, with a few funny moments, but the film feels too derivative of Allen's earlier works, especially his lesser works.

The cast feels wasted amidst a script that doesn't give them any real room to develop, placing its characters in increasingly absurd situations for the sake of absurdity. It's all very over-done and lackluster in its execution.

A disappointment all around, especially for any serious Woody Allen fan.

2/5 Stars

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
½

Vicky Cristina Barcelona represents one of Woody Allen's many attempts at blending comedy and drama. In this case, it's a strong bend toward drama. With Allen, these attempts can be very successful, or flat. In this case, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a largely effective blend of the two, a unique film, and a yet another story about relationships from the director with a masterful talent at depicting interpersonal dynamics to film.

The film finds two friends, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, on vacation to Spain. Over the course of the film they become enchanted with a local painter, played by Javier Bardem. It's through this lens that the film examines themes of relationships, love, direction, life, and the perils of over-indulgent personal liberalism. The cast is perfect for the story, with strong performances from all around, with Javier Bardem representing the mysterious dreamer perfectly, contrasted with Rebecca Hall's uptight character, and Johansson's free spirit. All have great chemistry, and really serve to elevate the material.

While there is humor to be found, the film's dramatic tone takes precedence, and to good effect. The story is lighthearted enough to not get bogged down by melodrama, but with enough substance to make it more than an Allen farcical excursion. The film is complemented by beautiful cinematography as well, set against the Barcelona picturesque landscape.

A solid all-around edition to the Allen filmography.

3.5/5 Stars

Prisoners
Prisoners(2013)
½

Relentlessly intense, Prisoners is a masterful drama, full of suspense, intrigue, and an intelligent sensibility that separates it as one of the top thrillers and dramas of the year. It's a film that doesn't telegraph where it's going, and defies the normal conventions of a police procedural, working both as a haunting thriller and a penetrating character study.

It is the performances in Prisoners that give the film a depth and texture that is hard to match. It is headlined by Hugh Jackman, absolutely brilliant in his role as the tortured father who loses his humanity, in a performance that certainly ranks amongst the best of his career. The rest of the film is populated by equally strong performances, notably Jake Gyllenhaal as the driven, independent-minded detective, and Melissa Leo as the seemingly broken mother.

The script is intelligently written, with a tragic crime at its heart that provides a platform for a more meaningful exploration of the film's other, deeper themes. How the characters react, the arcs they go through, their motivations, their insecurities, their tragedies, all of these intersect to reveal a tapestry that is nuanced, enthralling, and undeniably thrilling. To be sure, the film does feature a number of twists, but they are executed especially well, not progressing in obvious ways, but rather occurring as a series of pieces in to a larger puzzle. Unlike other films that rely on absurd twists that are not organically grounded,
Prisoners genuinely features a complex web of stories, and interconnects them seamlessly.

Above all, what I appreciated most about Prisoners was the dark and foreboding atmosphere that pervaded the film. It added a heaviness, and an intensity level that defined the film. Every action of the film has weight, every scene has meaning. At the end, you are left with a feeling that stays with you, the emotion simply resonates effectively.

An excellent thriller.

4.5/5 Stars

Love Liza
Love Liza(2002)
½

As illustrious as Philip Seymour Hoffman's career has become, Love Liza perhaps offers a hidden gem in his laudable career. In it he plays a distraught widower, whose wife killed herself for seemingly unknown reasons. This propels him on a strange journey involving gasoline and remote controlled airplanes. It's an undeniably indie film, unconventional in many respects, and effective on an emotional level. Its narrative arc, however, leaves something to be desired.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance is certainly the most notable aspect of the film, making it worth watching for its shear depth and power alone. He embodies the manic personality perfectly, sometimes deliriously upbeat, other times helplessly distraught and confused. This is what the film gets right, a loss such as what Hoffman's character experienced is not easily gotten over, and does not offer happy endings or easy answers. Life can be confusing, inexplicable, and harsh, Love Liza captures this with a mature sense surpassing many similarly themed films.

The problem with Love Liza, however, is that its script, smart in its characterizations, doesn't pay off in a narrative sense. The relationship between Hoffman and his wife is never fully explored, with no sense of resolution to be had, which can work, but only if we can more aptly identify with the dynamics at work. The film offers interesting characters, but raises more questions than it answers, leaving the film in a bit of a meandering spot.

An overall effective drama, notable for its strong central performance.

3.5/5 Stars

McCabe & Mrs. Miller
½

Widely considered one of the best revisionist Westerns in the genre, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is certainly an unconventional film for its time. Set in the turn-of-the-century Western wild, the film tells the story of an ambitious man who encounters an equally ambitious prostitute. Together the couple become a powerful force in the community, only to be confronted with the harsh realities of the life.

A Robert Altman film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is beautifully shot. The scenes are composed with great care, an Altman Hallmark, beautifully strung together to reveal a really wondrous landscape. This is set against good performances, with Julie Chrstie stealing the show.
What I appreciated most was the grittiness. The film sets itself apart from other Westerns in that it doesn't romanticize the era, rather paints a vivid, often more realistic, portrait of the time. It also has a sense of nuance and moral grey areas not seen in many Westerns at the time.

My issue with the film primarily centers on the relationship between McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I felt their relationship was never properly developed, and felt occasionally forced. The back-story for both characters is lacking, with McCabe seemingly offering a very interesting character of pronounced masculine insecurity and vulnerability, yet this is never really explored. Had the film developed this relationship to a fuller extent, it would have been all the stronger. Altman seems to spend too much time on things second to the primary narrative, that the heart of the story is somewhat neglected, and therefore a bit meandering.

Overall, a film of merit, but flawed in a narrative sense.

3.5/5 Stars

Blue Jasmine
Blue Jasmine(2013)
½

As varied in quality as Woody Allen's films can be, Blue Jasmine represents an undeniable return to brilliance, rivaling Midnight in Paris for the best Allen film within at least the last decade. It's a film of nuance, of humor, of terrific performances, a creative narrative structure, and a poignant message.

Blue Jasmine follows a housewife, Cate Blanchett, who experiences a profound fall from grace after her ostentatiously wealthy husband, Alex Baldwin, is disgraced, having been found to be a fraudster. Jasmine finds herself seeking the help of her adopted sister, whom she continues to treat with a veiled disdain.

Whereas some of Allen's best films are lighter, Blue Jasmine represents Allen's return to more of a drama, albeit one whose darkness is matched with Allen's characteristic dry humor. The film works as an excellent commentary of the extraordinarily rich, while not condescending to the characters. It does this through a framework of family dynamics, which are layered in their complexity.

The best part of the film is, by far, Cate Blanchett's performance. She embodies the shallow narcissist perfectly, but also an exceedingly vulnerable and broken woman, prone to delusions. Her character feels real, her behavior, though often reprehensible, is relatable. All of the relationship dynamics involved are well executed and feel authentic. She is matched well by excellent performances from all around, especially Alec Baldwin, as the charming yet slimy real estate mogul.

The film's complexity is hard to convey without watching the film, as the nuance is conveyed often visually, and is inextricably related to the performances on screen. It is an intelligent entry by Allen, and one of the stronger film's of the year thus far.

4.5/5 Stars

Spartacus
Spartacus(1960)

Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus is, in many ways, a remarkable achievement. Centered on the slave rebellion that threatened Rome, Spartacus is a true swords-and-sandals epic. The performances, the script, the set design, the costumes, everything comes together to make a finely executed period piece.

What makes Spartacus work the most is the exceptional cast, all of whom inject the film with an undeniable sense of life, charm, and even whit. Especially impressive was Laurence Olivier, whose nuanced portrayal gave us a sort of antagonist that was ahead of his time, complex in his machinations. He was matched well by Kirk Douglas, but also Charles Laughton, whose grounded presence and affable nature contrast against Olivier's dark intensity, making for an especially interesting dynamic.

The script is also intelligently written, penned by one of the famed Hollywood 10 (writers blacklisted during the McCarthy-era). It provides us with great dialogue, and fills the story with interesting characters. This is not to say there's no clichés to be found, I found the romance rather contrived (as was very common for this time period), but its overall tone and end note represent a notable departure from other films of that era.

Spartacus has largely aged well. The action scenes are still impressive to today, and its world building more than rivals films of today, with an un-paralleled scope. The film's romantic elements are a bit dated, and the film does get dragged down from time to time in its own melodrama, but all-in-all, it more than holds its own to any epic of today.

4/5 Stars

Brazil
Brazil(1985)
½

Lauded and visionary director Terry Gilliam's Brazil is a strange, though daring, film, one that employs a truly imaginative sense, yet one that seemingly gets lost in its own supposed cleverness. Set "somewhere in the 20th century" Brazil follows a young hapless bureaucrat as he follows a rather strange twists of events that finds himself at odds with an Orwellian bureaucratic state.
Gilliam's visionary sense is undeniable, as much of the film feels original and inspired. His world building is strong, giving us a world that is fantastical, to be sure, yet hinged enough to our current reality that it doesn't lose us. The dream sequences, though bizarre, fill the film with a sense of wonderment.
The problem for me, however, was there was simply not a strong enough narrative to keep me involved. I wanted to know more about the inner-workings of the state, yet Brazil never seems interested in involving us in the story, simply too content to humor us with its world. The film becomes very frustrating in that we don't understand the characters involved, or the dynamics at play. Jonathan Pryce's character comes across a few subversive types, such as De Niro, but we never understand their place. Thus, the intereactions he have never make much sense, any sort of development we see seems lost, and there's no actual substance to be had.
As the film progresses, it devolves into a series of whimsical scenes full of colorful people, but devoid of coherence or sense. As the confusion mounts, so too does our detachment from the film. In the end we have something that feels original, yet disjointed, and nonsensical.
2.5/5 Stars

The Iceman
The Iceman(2013)

Based on contract killer Richard Kuklinski, suspected for the murder of more than 100 men, The Iceman is both an effective character study, and a compelling mafia thriller. It is never short of fascinating, and is made by a truly exceptional performance from Michael Shannon.
It is, without question, Shannon's performance that makes The Iceman well worth taking in. Shannon's characteristic brooding intensity and enigmatic exterior is served very well here, giving Kuklinski a marked depth, yet a sort of nefarious simplicity that makes him all the more terrifying; he simply does not care. Shannon channels this intensity to a stunning effect, every scene is focused on him, if just because of his mere presence. The complexity he is able to convey, and how he conforms to the environments and situations he's placed in, make it a truly compelling character study as well.
The script and film do a good job giving us a narrative and strong story without resorting to constant historical markers that many semi-biographical films do, while also giving us a clear sense of how his rise to infamy happened. The script, however, does seem to get a bit muddled, perhaps even rushed, in its middle to latter act, as the pace quickens quite a bit, resulting in certain elements of the film not being well served. Chris Evans as Mr. Freezy, for example, brings a rather interesting dynamic, yet this is never fully fleshed out.
As a whole, The Iceman never ceases to engage with its audience, and offers an intelligent and undeniably compelling character study.

4/5 Stars

Good
Good(2008)
½

Good is yet another example of a stage-play that has a lot of interesting ideas, and ambitious themes, yet lacks the appropriate transition to film. Taking place in Nazi Germany, the film looks at a professor and his growing relationship with the regime, and the disenchantment that follows.
That the film features good performances is not in contention, with Viggo Mortensen having one of his better roles as of late, possessing the affable, yet reserved, charm that enables him to excel as a torn intellectual. The surrounding performances are also strong, especially form Jason Isaacs.
The problem comes with the script, it's simply not cinematic. Having lofty themes and commentary is laudable, but it must accompany a narrative that's compelling in order to constitute a film. Good has one, but only in a limited sense. The scope is too confined for a film, or at least one that requires more breathing room than what it received here. The characters are well played, yet characterized thinly, with the exception of Mortensen. We don't see enough of the inner-dynamics to truly care about them. Once more, the film is too predictable and one-note, seeming to ignore the more interesting aspects of the story. It treats its protagonist as naive, yet his actions seem nothing but self-serving. Had he be painted as more of an anti-hero, it would have been far more interesting. As it stands, Good is all too predictable and one-note, trying too hard to pull on our heartstrings, and not giving us enough to stay engaged. That, above all, is Good's greatest failing, too often coming across as boring.
An unfortunate misfire.
2.5/5 Stars

Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation is one in a long line of 90s film adaptations of a stage play, centering around a young man, played by Will Smith, who enters the lives of two socialites, both confounding and informing the people he crosses paths with. It's a very unique film, though not entirely successful.

That the film is based on a theatrical play is evident throughout. It's very talky, and completely dialogue-driven. If done correctly, this can be work, but if done poorly, it can be a disaster. Six Degrees of Separation manages to give the script a cinematic flavor, changing up the scenes, keeping the story kinetic, but still has a stylistic and affected dialogue which is simply not befitting of a film drama. The acting seems fine, but the lines the characters have to deliver never quite feel true. To be sure, capturing the finer points of modern intellectual discourse is tricky, especially in a comedic format (perhaps they should have consulted with Woody Allen), but doing so properly is essential. Thus, the film never fully makes the transition from theater to film, many of the situations simply feel more at home in an art house, not a movie.

The story itself is undeniably intriguing, however. What I appreciated most was how the film incorporated all of the characters, and weaved a story that connected all of them, yet not in an obvious or melodramatic way. Instead, the film weaved the narrative such that we are painted a portrait of New York socialite life, while also taking the time to give some social commentary (albeit a little on-the-nose).

The humor is inconsistent, but also undeniable at times. The exact tone of the film can be a bit unnerving, in that we're never quite sure if it's being tongue-in-cheek, or unabashedly preachy. This can certainly be considered a failing, as the film seems lost in itself often times, a bit too bogged down on its own cleverness.
With its theatrical roots, it certainly isn't for everyone, but interesting enough to give it merit.

3/5 Stars

Antiviral
Antiviral(2013)
½

Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral is a strange film. Its themes are interesting, yet executed in a largely obvious manner. Its mechanisms are disturbing, yet never quite elevated to the level one might expect. Categorizing it as a sci-fi film is perhaps most accurate, with a slight horror bend, yet it never conforms to one specific genre. At the same time, it never fully satisfies on one particular element either.

The film revolves around a future society in which celebrity obsession has been taken to an all new level, with people paying to inject themselves with viruses from celebrities, and a society in which people eat flesh, copied off celebrity cells. In this world, one such salesman, finds himself caught up in a sort of murder conspiracy. All of this sounds very bizarre, and it is, yet the film never quite sells its premise in a compelling way. The celebrity obsessed theme is done to interesting effect, with especially interesting world building, yet such a premise will only get you so far without a cohesive narrative to really tie the story together. All great science fiction films have a story you can identify with on a base level, and yet Antiviral never delivers on this. On the surface, the murder mystery should be more interesting than it is. In actuality, the film never delivers on this premise. It's far more interested in its surrounding mechanisms and commentary, with too little attention being paid to the actual narrative on hand.

To be sure, the film features some good performances, and has a cool, calculated, and detached direction that I appreciated. None of this makes up for the film's lack of engagement. It feels more like a work of artistic exercise, taken to far, than an actual film. Interesting never substitutes for story, and Antiviral is proof of this.

2.5/5 Stars

At Any Price
At Any Price(2013)
½

Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price is an interesting film, often feeling authentic, and disturbingly insightful, while at other times feeling a bit disconnected with itself. The film centers on ambitious farmer and seed seller Dennis Quaid, and the relationship with his restless and disenchanted son, played by Zac Efron.
What I liked most about At Any Price was the film's tone. It was observant without being judgmental, poignant without being obvious, and almost clinical in its execution. The film was not entirely far from feeling like a Cohen brothers vehicle, with the characters finding themselves in ever-deeper situations. We are entreated to a family that on the surface seems to be embodying the American dream, but with a dark undercurrent of greed and corruption. It is populated by strong performances and interesting character dynamics, with Dennis Quaid having an undeniably strong performance.
On a technical level, At Any Price features beautiful cinematography, beautifully utilized framing, and a consistent pace. The problem, however, was the script, which was far from as polished as the rest of the film. Its dialogue felt stilted and often too-on-the nose. Had the caliber of actors not been lesser, it would have failed on its face. Quaid in particular struggled to really sell many of his lines, with his character being overly verbose, and the dialogue too strained, desperately trying to sell a quaint and folksy personality. Thus, while the film has a number of intelligent undercurrents, the scripts execution often undermines itself.
Despite its complete lack of polish and notable scripting deficiencies, At Any Price is still an effective drama, offering a good story, and ending on a rather compelling note.

3.5/5 Stars

The Flowers of War

Flowers of War represents some of the worst tendencies of Hollywood films, with the notable exception being that it's a Chinese film, with an international bent. The film centers on the fall of Nanking, when the Japanese invasion of China lead to a bloody slaughter of many civilians, and a complete devastation of the city. In Flowers of War, a group of prostitutes and school girls find themselves under the protection of a wayward Westerner, played by Christian Bale.

Flowers of War definitely has the look and feel of a good film. The casting of Christian Bale gives a notable weight to the film, who excels at his part. His emotions are conveyed authentically, and he gives his character a personality and depth the rest of the cast comes nowhere close to matching. The cinematography is well done, with the overall world building of 37' Nanking looking especially authentic.

The problem starts with the direction by Yimou Zhang. He is far too indulgent for his own good, adding needless stylistic flourishes to every scene. The action, instead of feeling kinetic, feels disjointed and strangely distant from the overall narrative. The constant slowing of the frames, the never-ending shifting of the camera, the angles, everything serves as a distraction. Far from feeling inventive, it feels gimmicky, cheap, and notably out of place.

The script also has a number of problems. The Japanese are not portrayed with any nuance, a source of controversy in the wake of the film's release, with the entire conflict being framed in the most simplistic of terms. We are reminded, through a terrible narration, of how great certain characters are, and how bad others are. The dialogue often leaves a lot to be desired, giving us a number of shrieking characters who do little else but whine and raise their voice. There is no real character development to be had, rather we are treated to obviously vulnerable characters in obviously vulnerable situations, in a shameless attempt to play on the emotions of the audience. Everything is all too contrived, and feels contrived in every sense.


2/5 Stars

Lee Daniels' The Butler
½

Another in a long line of civil rights dramas, The Butler tells the inspired true story of a black butler, serving eight presidents in the White House. Through his story and experience, we see the evolution of the civil rights movement, as well as the change in attitude of the black community to civil rights issues. It's an interesting film; what it does right, it does inconsistently, what it does wrong, it manages to mask. The result is a film that is undeniably uneven, but also often compelling.

The best thing that can be said of The Butler is the cast, headlined by Forest Whitaker. He completely inhibits his character, bringing us a conflicted man, but also one of optimism, charm, and an unrelenting affable personality. The supporting cast is excellent all around, with, surprisingly enough, Oprah Winfrey having a deeply effectively portrayal of his troubled, yet compassionate, wife.

What the Butler manages to do well is interweave these characters to give us a canvass of the civil right movement and the personalities involved, with a particular emphasis on the dynamics of the community itself. The problem, however, is that this sense of nuance is sometimes lost on the overall narrative. We are treated to some interesting personalities of the presidents, yet their exact relationship to Cecil remains elusive.

My biggest issue with the film is its last act, in which its' liberal sensibilities get away from itself. The film becomes preachy and heavy-handed, and crosses the line when it politicizes the issues themselves. Particularly troubling was the largely unflattering and mischaracterized portrayal of Regan, absurdly implying racial insensitivity, grasping at ridiculous straws such as his opposition of South African sanctions to prove this. This is followed by a tacked on montage featuring prominently President Obama, feeling like a campaign commercial.

Overall, the film does enough to overcome its later missteps, having an undeniably emotional appeal.

3.5/5 Stars

Trance
Trance(2013)

Danny Boyle's Trance is perhaps the best encapsulation of his career yet, in that it has a lot of compelling visuals, a mature narrative, a sense of character, yet is undermined by a self-indulgent streak that makes Trance feel over-produced, and sometimes gimmicky. It's a stylish thriller, to be sure, populated with interesting characters, an imaginative story-line, and a keen visual sense, but yet it never feels complete.

What I liked most about Trance was the performances and interesting premise. James McAvoy makes a strong protagonist, and is matched well by the supporting cast, especially Vincent Cassel. The initial set-up offers a lot of promise, and Trance managers to keep it thrills up, while not sacrificing the characterizations, despite a very brisk pace.

The biggest indictment against Trace, however is the script, which is reveled as thin towards the last act. Events start to unfold in a faster fashion, and are less organic to each other than came previous. There's a tendency to more gimmicky plot devices, such as the 'just a dream' scenario. Boyle is simply too kinetic for his own good often times, seemingly having a very difficult time leaving "well enough alone", always feeling the need to add artistic flourishes that distract from the narrative rather than add to it.

Overall, it's not without merit, and remained an enjoyable enough thriller, though not without some weaknesses.

3/5 Stars

My Amityville Horror
½

Having long been fascinated by the Amitville saga, and its many facets, I went in to My Amityville Horror with a peaked interest. My Amityville Horror is the story of Daniel Lutz, 10 years old at the time of the incident, the resulting trauma he experienced, and the anguish he is still in years after the events, real or imagined (perhaps both). As a documentary, it is exceptionally well done, spellbinding, and relentlessly thought-provoking.

Director Eric Walter is successful the most in evoking the immense emotions, intensity, and general unsettlingly nature of Daniel Lutz. We see a man that is in many respects tormented, yet unbelievably passionate. Through his narration, we are captivated by, if nothing else, his believability. He is a cinematic experience in of himself, and Walter does a fantastic job of channeling this anger and raw emotion in to a coherent story, bolstered by other interesting personalities involved with the phenomena.

As far as Daniel's depiction of the events, one should keep in mind that his younger brother, Christopher Lutz, has gone public with his suspicions of George Lutz as the, at the very least, catalyst for such events. His reliability might be called in to question because of his anger for his step-father, but I found his narration compelling, if not gut-wrenching.

A must see, if only for the character study it offers.

4.5/5 Stars

The Company You Keep

In a lot of ways, The Company You Keep is the sort of drama that we need more of, one with a preoccupation with dialogue and build-up, rather than forced chase sequences or overly simplistic commentary about complex social issues. It has a very mature feel to it, in that it tries to convey a sense of dramatic tension organically, yet it never fully delivers on this tension, and never quite lives up to the bar which it tries to set for itself.

The film tells the story of a family man who, through a seemingly inexplicable series of events, finds himself exposed as a fugitive of a militant leftist group. The film follows both the man (Redford), and the journalist on his trail. Though this sort of trope is familiar, that of the young budding journalist with an uncanny ability to put the pieces together, the film did a generally good job of not telegraphing where it was going to go, at least immediately. The problem is that the script bogs down the film in the mid to later acts with a plot that feels terribly overwritten, and an ending that feels strangely too simplistic. Interesting plot lines are raised, but never paid off, the resolutions that do occur never feel well earned. This is a symptom of unpolished script writing, as well as a lack of focus with Redford's direction. Redford seemingly wanted to do a lot of things, but never excelled at one thing. Thus, the film feels incomplete as a drama, and certainly incomplete as a thriller.

The performances, to be sure, are characteristically strong, especially by Redford. We are treated to these characters in a very old-school, almost clinical manner, and are therefore left to wonder about the motivations involved, which does make for some interesting character dynamics. The pace is slow, but consistently slow, and befitting of the material. Technically it's well made, and never boring (occasionally tedious perhaps). As such, it does enough right to keep you interested, but ultimately does fall in to that ever-frustrating category of "it could've been more".

3/5 Stars

Emperor
Emperor(2013)
½

Emperor is the sort of historical drama that looks at a large subject through the lens of a small subtext. In this case, the Pacific conflict is narrowed down to the investigation of the Japanese Emperor's culpability in war crimes, set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The execution of Emperor is, in some respects uneven, representing a compelling historical drama on some levels, and then becoming frustratingly familiar and predictable. The end result is nothing especially laudable, but also something not without merit.
From a critical standpoint, the most notable thing about Emperor is the performance of Tommy Lee Jones. General MacArthur makes for an interesting personality to portray, and Jones manages to do this, completely adjusting his mannerisms in line with the character, yet already possessing the folksy directedness which made him the perfect choice. Had the story focused more on MacArthur, and thus feature more of Jones, it would have perhaps been all the more interesting. As it were, the focus is on General Bonner Fellers, played inconsistently by Matthew Fox. Fox occasionally shows potential, yet in other parts has the feel of an actor with a limited dramatic range. This was most notable in the romantic subplot, which could be more of a symptom of his lack of chemistry with Eriko Hasune.
What I enjoyed the most about Emperor was the story of the Emperor. The political intrigue is interesting, and offers keen insight in to an otherwise saturated genre. We get a feeling for the complexities involved, and appreciate the loyalty and perseverance which was Japan's greatest strengths, but also her greatest weaknesses.
Emperor became frustrating, however, when it went down the romantic drama path, focusing on a doomed romance between Fox and a young Japanese woman. This simply did not work, and instead distracted away from the much more interesting narrative.
The heart, however, of Emperor was good. It was informative without being preachy, and genuinely featured nuanced characters and a compelling story, though it could have used more focus.
An overall good historical drama.
3.5/5 Stars

We're The Millers

We're The Millers is another in a long line of comedies that relies on a series of sketches for its comedy, and offers a 'story' that only serves as an excuse to find characters in ridiculous situations, doing so in a lackluster, but also expedient way. It's not smart, it's not always funny, and it's very uneven. The ultimate verdict, therefore, hinges solely on whether or not it manages to stay funny more often than not.

The story revolves around Jason Sudeikis who, after finding himself in some predictable trouble, assembles an unlikely cast of characters to pose as his family in an effort to smuggle a large amount of marijuana from Mexico. This set-up is handled absurdly fast, with his cohorts getting on board all too easily. This speaks to the film's lack of coherent and organic follow-through, all of the plot points feel like shallow excuses for exposition, which they are.

Despite its lack of scripting ingenuity, We're The Millers manages to stay mostly funny. Sudeikis has a considerable amount of comedic presence, and his dry wit is very much used to effect here. He's also matched with some talented young actors, including Will Poulter and Emma Roberts. The situational humor is considerable, and there are plenty of laugh out loud moments. It's dumb fun, to be sure, but We're The Millers does enough right to keep it lighthearted and briskly paced. The performances from all around we're good and on the same comedic tone, save Ed Helms. Helms was, by far, the worst thing about the movie, continuing to demonstrate his profound lack of comedic presence.

The overall result is a comedy which sets out a rather low-bar, but meets that bar nonetheless.

3/5 Stars

The Deep End
The Deep End(2001)

The Deep End is a well-executed all around noir, one that features yet another powerhouse performance from Tilda Swinton. The story, revolving around a housewife caught in the midst of a blackmail scheme involving her son, is told in way that creates constant tension, being truly suspenseful. The end result is a film that is smart, engaging, well acted, and often compelling.
What catapults Deep End over typical noir films is, without question, Tilda Swinton. Swinton's acting range has long been lauded, and here she completely inhibits her character, conveying a powerful sense of desperation, while also employing a smart cunning. She is surrounded by other strong performances, the most impressive of which being Goran Visnijic, with whom she held a great deal of chemistry.
The script for Deep End is also smart. It gives us scenarios that are grounded in reality, characters with motivations and actions that we can identify with. We understand why they act the way they act, and are therefore invested in both the decisions they make, and the situations they find themselves in. This smart script is complemented by tight direction, which creates a magnificent atmospheric yet intense tone, in the vein of other great noir films, such as In the Bedroom.
While offering us the intrigue of a good noir film, Deep End never forgets to keep the emphasis on the characters and their plights. This emphasis on character dynamics serves the film well, and makes it an overall strong noir piece.
4/5 Stars

Dark Skies
Dark Skies(2013)

Dark Skies is the sort of horror film that should only tangentially be categorized as a horror film. It has the premise of a science fiction horror film, but the execution of a standard drama, with the horror elements tact on sloppily in its last act. It It's a film that seems to set itself up for something good, yet never quite pays off. Taken on its own merits, it works better as a simple science fiction drama than anything else.

The story in Dark Skies revolves around a suburban couple, who encounter an increasingly bizarre array of events, aimed at their family. They begin to question their sanity, and eventually arrive at the conclusion that it's alien forces at play. This makes for an interesting, if not somewhat familiar premise. The family feels well realized, and the performances by both Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton offer some promise. The film starts with a restrained approach to the subject matter, and then gradually gets in to the horror elements.

The problem, however, is that the buildup is too slow and never substantial enough for its last act. In the third act, things spin out of control, as none of the events feel earned. In this way, Dark Skies can be thought of as a muddled film. There's long stretches when nothing of note happens and, when it does, it never has the weight one would think it should have. The film is not exactly boring, but not scary. It's interesting, but not sufficiently intriguing for just a straight science fiction exercise. There's a lot to like, such as the individual moments involving the bird deaths or the kitchen scene, but they are never as tied together as one would like. This is the greatest fault of the movie, never sufficiently delivering on one particular category, be it scares, drama, or straight intrigue.

An overall misfire, but with some good elements.

3/5 Stars

Elysium
Elysium(2013)
½

Elysium is the sort of pseudo-high concept science fiction movie, which masquerades as biting social satire and allegory, but is, in fact, nothing but an excuse for a sci-fi film that would otherwise fail on its own elements. Ostensibly, Elysium takes place over a hundred years in the future, a society in which the very wealthy live in a man-made space station, while Earth is left to succumb to poverty and crime.

The obvious analogy the film is trying to make is that of US immigration and healthcare policy. In this way, Elysium is essentially the US, with Earth being analogous to Mexico. Elysium's absurdly advanced healthcare technology (which cures everything) is exclusive, with the poor left to get 'care' from ill-funded hospitals back on Earth. The problem is that Elysium telegraphs its liberal/pseudo-intellectual message in such an absurdly simplistic way, that the film's otherwise interesting science fiction world is lost. None of the situations are portrayed with any sort of complexity, and there is no character ambiguity to be had. This is seen through the stilted dialogue, contrived character arcs, and one-note characterizations. It feels like a leftist children's 'morality' tale, in which we are constantly being bombarded with its politics. I'm not criticizing the film for its message, rather the way in which it choose to convey its message.

The performances of Elysium are largely a symptom of its script, in that there is no nuance to be had. The characters are simplistic and too easily read. This bleeds over in to the performances in that they feel bland. This is not to say the performances are bad, per se, rather lackluster. Jodie Foster, however, was bad, with terribly delivered dialogue and no significant screen presence.

The action and world building is well done from the futuristic standpoint. The technology is advanced, yet has a gritty feel. Elysium has a polished feel to it, while Earth is rendered in a very dirty way, juxtaposed with the vestiges of old and new technology. The action scenes are generally well done, incorporating a number of interesting elements, but is lost amidst a story that is otherwise devoid of any texture.

An overall disappointment

2.5/5 Stars

2 Guns
2 Guns(2013)

2 Guns is the sort of movie you've seen before, and you know you've seen it before, but can't help but checking out for the named stars. 2 Guns, to be sure, is really a story of its two protagonists, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. That it works is a testament for their charsima, and to that alone.
Without Wahlberg or Washington, 2 Guns would simply be a violent action film with a familar script, filled with absurd plot twists, forced humor, and a lot of mistaking outlandish for witty. The story involves two undercover officers, one for the DEA and another from the Navy, who get wound up in a sordid plot that eventually involves the CIA and a drug king pin. There's a lot of factions vying against each other, and a lot of supposed behind the scenes machinations which we never really buy. While I recognized the faults of this script, having twsists just for the sake of twists, and never really grounding its storylines, it was able to inject a sort of light-hearted and wry charisma and humor. By doing so, 2 Guns was able to sustain itself throughout.
The action scenes were engaging, through eventually seemed to outgrow themselves, in that the sense of stakes was lost. Such is a common issue for these sorts of films, we never feel like either of the characters are in any sort of danger. The muddled plot and incoherrent allegencies were not a benefit either. However, both Denzel and Wahlberg excelled at these parts, anchoring their action with well-timed humor, and having a sort of energy that the film thrived on. This was bolstered as well by Bill Paxton, who did a particuarly strong job as the eccentricly nefarious CIA boss.
Thus, while 2 Guns is never smart, it's also never boring. The film does enough right to keep one engaged until the end, yet it doesn't exactly defy or reinvent any genre conventions. Wahlberg and Washington's characters are both deeply flawed protagonists, and the film thrives on this dynamic for some fun banter.
Dumb overall, but also fun
3/5 Stars

The Wolverine
½

The Wolverine is the sort of movie with an especially impressive exposition, a middle act which is so-so, and a third act that is a bit of a letdown. It's a movie in which we think we're in for something really unique, giving us the technical polish and performances to guide us in that direction, only to have it pan out in a way that feels oddly inconsequential, if not a fun ride. It's a good film, in the spirit of the good X-Men films, but not necessarily particularly noteworthy within the series.

There's a lot to like about Wolverine. The action scenes are staged well, showcasing Hugh Jackman's abilities in ways that previous installments would not be able to match. In this film he truly does feel like a superhero, with Mangold filming and framing the action in just a right way so as to maximize his effectiveness on screen. Mangold's direction as a whole is impressive, being able to handle more dramatic scenes of dialogue, as well as the ubiquitous action scenes, meanwhile weaving them coherently within the film as a whole.

The script itself also starts out very well. The beginning of the film, beautifully shot, is handled to great effect. We see Jackman's character as we would expect, disillusioned yet caring, apathetic on the outside, but ever heroic on the inside. How he's tossed into the Japan story arch feels organic, and never feels choppy. Mangold simply brings a polish to the film that is very much appreciated. The story for the first two thirds of the film feels unique, atmospheric, brooding, and smart. The use of flashbacks are impressively handled, and actually accentuate rather than hinder the story.

The problem with Wolverine is that approaching the end of the film, we start to ponder what this was all about, and what it all meant. The film harkens back to the comics and previous films constantly, yet the story is strangely disjointed from the larger mythology. This is not inherently bad, but the story in this case, taken on its own merits, feels silly and, again, inconsequential. There's not the sort of weight to the antagonist that one would expect, the stakes are too small. The climax in particular starts to get silly, with the entire ninja robot sequence feeling profoundly out of place and inexplicable, in a film which otherwise stayed mostly grounded.

Overall, not without flaws, but an entertaining ride nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars

Solomon Kane
Solomon Kane(2012)

Solomon Kane is, to be sure, a dumb, often profoundly silly, B action horror film in the vein of Season of the Witch. Its' plot and resulting resolution are telegraphed too early, the mechanisms cliched, and the action often cheesy. Yet for all the camp, there's a heart to Solomon Kane that suggests there's elements of a compelling film at play, if not always completely visible.

What I appreciated the most about Solomon Kane is the title character, Solomon Kane. His gruff and beyond-redemption character is familiar, yet James Purefoy does enough to give his role a texture not seen in other similar characterizations. His complexity is seen in his performance, and felt in the material. He's a protagonist that is not completely likable at first, yet one that feels strangely enthralling.

The film also has a brisk pace, and solid world building. We see an Elizabethan-England that is plagued by witchcraft and death, with a dark foreboding throughout. The performances all around, though never great, are always serviceable. The action is corny but prevalent, and director Michael Bassett manages to bring enough to the table to keep the otherwise familiar material fresh.

At the same time, Solomon Kane is full of imperfections. The CGI looks cheap, and film has real issues with its tone. At times it has an atmospheric tone that feels well realized, but then suddenly shifts to such silly plot devices, that what came before it is undermined. It's as if the film wanted the weight of a foreboding tone, but the likability of high camp. The script does nothing especially memorable, with a very lackluster third act.

Overall, it's an enjoyable enough B action film, with potential to have been more.

3/5 Stars

The Last Emperor

Grandly staged and beautifully executed, The Last Emperor is a visually stunning biopic on the life of Aisin-Gioror Pu Yi. The film covers his rise to power, his privileged isolation, and the political turmoil he found himself in later in life. At three and a half hours, The Last Emperor is a film that requires some patience, but has the technical skill and sufficient narrative power to keep you engaged.

Director Bernardo Bertolucci is able to fill The Last Emperor with so much visual intrigue, that one can hardly afford to look away. Each scene is framed with immense elegance, and is accentuated masterfully by brilliant costume design and set design. In this way, the world building for Last Emperor is nearly perfect. We see China and its traditional grandeur, the awkwardness that the outside poverty offers, and the contrast to the more modern changes taking place. As such, it is an exceedingly strong example of how a period piece should be staged.

As a narrative Last Emperor is largely successfully, but not flawless. Whereas the technical elements of the film are executed to excellence, the story in Last Emperor is told with some mishaps. It offers very interesting characters, but not full characterizations. Peter O'Toole's character, for instance, is a hallmark of the first half, but is never fully paid off. O'Toole brings a fine performance, as does John Lone, but the relationship between the two is never fully realized. How his influence escalates is never quite shown, he exits in far too much of a disjointed manner.

This is true of a number of the secondary actors as well, such a Vivian Wu, whose character feels oddly inexplicable in the film. The character arc for Lone is done well up until the last act, where his seeming betrayal is never explored enough, and whose increased intellectual prowess never seems quite on point with where he should be.

Taken on a whole, however, the story in Last Emperor is fascinating. The themes are interwoven especially well, examining class, power, change, and retrospection. We are treated not only to a historical journey that is reality-based, but we are also given a biopic that would exist successful on its own dramatic merits, outside of the actual people it's based on.

An overall strong and memorable drama.

4/5 Stars

Hitchcock
Hitchcock(2012)
½

Hitchcock takes a potentially expansive subject, that of Alfred Hitchcock, and opts not for a full biopic, but instead a very confined slice of his life, focusing on the production of his famed Psycho. The result is something that is well acted, fun to watch, wry, and undeniably interesting, though lacking in depth.

As is the case with many similarly structured films, we can't help but think of the many other events and circumstances in Hitchcock's life that would lend itself to film. That an entire movie can be made about the production of one of his scores of films, is a testament to that. There feels like a tremendous back-story that we never see. This is felt throughout, with the actual execution of Hitchcock being solid all-around, but never exactly what one would expect, or perhaps what should have been delivered.

The film's characterizations are surprisingly well done for such a confined subject matter, especially in regards to Hitchcock himself. Hopkins' portrayal of Hitchcock never strikes a false note, with Hopkins completely changing his mannerisms, way of speaking, and overall demeanor, totally inhibiting his character. Had the film opted for a full-blown biopic, the potential would seem to be quite high. The other performances range from good to impressive throughout, with Helen Mirren having a particularly strong performance to balance with Hopkins.

The film's script does manage to be more than a simple "making of" retelling. It incorporates many elements between the lives of Hopkins and Mirren that gives more substance to the material. In fact, the actual production logistics of Psycho itself seems to take a backseat, which was probably to the film's determent. The narrative devices employed, between Hitchock and Gein, are uniquely utilized at first, but becomes a bit of a distraction later.

The film's pace is fast, giving Hitchcock a very lighthearted vibe. The humor is consistent throughout, and the dialogue often poignant and endearing. In this way, it is very much entertaining, and successful in what it sets out to do. One could only wish that is set out to do more, however.

3.5/5 Stars

Gosford Park
Gosford Park(2001)

In what can be described as Clue meets Downton Abbey, director Robert Altman manages to weave a large and talented ensemble cast through a complex plot, doing so while keeping a cohesive narrative.
The result is something quite notable, a smart drama that has richly defined characters, with a witty sense of humor and acute social commentary.

Gosford Park is, above all, a highly skilled period piece. Everything from the dialogue, personalities, and set-design perfectly embodies early 1930s England. The class system depicted, right on the precipice of massive change, is keenly observed, with the antiquated air of British aristocracy still being ever so slightly kept alive.

The script of Gosford Park takes a large cast, and sets them within a mystery that has so many different facets, one never knows what will happen. It does this while creating very subtle relationships and inter-dynamics between the characters, we get a very broad view of the issues going on. This creates a film that is fascinating to watch just for its very essence, not just in service of the plot. The cast itself is immensely talented, with such reliable greats as Helen Mirren, Clive Own, and Maggie Smith. Each performance is excellent, with the sense of intrigue being kept alive in every scene.

The Altman's direction further showcases his great talents. The way he structures the scenes and frames the shots, everything is done to great effect and after obvious thought. The film is nearly entirely dialogue driven, yet never boring, and lengthy at almost 2.5 hours, yet it never feels slow.

Overall Gosford Park is a quite intriguing period piece, filled with great performances, smart writing, and intelligent humor.

4/5 Stars

Erased
Erased(2013)
½

Erased is the prime example of a movie which simply does not need to be made. Ostensibly, Erased is a 'thriller', about the ever-ubiquitous ex-CIA agen ("black ops as the movie often reminds us) who is set up as part of a vast conspiracy, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game that results. Unfortunately, Erased doesn't deliver on its premise to any real effect, resulting in something that feels bland and lackluster in execution.

Erased's script features stilted and obvious dialogue, in a story populated by actors that are thinly written and one-note. The conspiracy never makes much sense, and is very poorly integrated in to the film. What good spy thrillers do is involve the audience in a mystery and chase for the truth that is tension filled, what
Erased does is give vague exposition with bland action, and no real sense of stakes. We never care about what's going on, because the film never seems to.

The acting in Erased, though filled with a talented cast, is poor all-around. Aaron Eckhart does not have the intensity level required for such a role, and is matched with Liana Liberato, a child actor who suffers from the terrible script. The other supporting actors are all bland and just "there", with no one doing anything to elevate the material.

The actions scenes are terribly un-interesting, filmed in the most obvious ways imaginable. What action does transpire feels muted and thrill-less. There's never any tension to be had, things just seem to unfold in a "going through the motions" manner. This is undoubtedly a testament to the bad direction, which does nothing to distinguish the film.

A disappointing all around execution.

1.5/5 Stars

The Conjuring
½

I went in to The Conjuring with somewhat high hopes, both out of respect for the real Ed and Lorraine Warren, and in anticipation of an old-school horror film in the style of the Amityville Horror. The film largely delivers on a telling that is much more 'grounded' and traditional than modern CGI fests, and features a story that delves in to familiar territory, but manages to do it well.

The Conjuring is the most impressive when taken at its technical achievements. It uses a unique framing to create tension, with creative camera angels and shots that don't feel gimmicky, rather fresh and often ingenious. The cinematography is both beautiful but is also a classical throw-back. The film really does feel like its setting, that of the late 60s.

The scariest parts of The Conjuring are jump scares, but done in less telegraphed ways than most films. It's the fact that The Conjuring starts out dialed down that makes it most effective, letting the story build-up, and giving us a sense of actual characters before ratcheting up the stakes. This makes it a smarter horror film than many films of today, letting its' horror unfold rather than trying to bludgeon the audience.

If there's criticism to be had of The Conjuring, it certainly lies with the script. The dialogue was often stilted and bordered on bad. Things were spelled out to a more obvious degree than needed. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are fine actors, but the film didn't see very interested in really exploring the nuances or abilities of their characters. Instead, they seemed thinly written and never as connected as one would think. The last act also proves problematic, with the film's once restrained nature giving way to an ever-absurd array of effects, giving us an ending that feels too forced.

While not entirely successful, The Conjuring is still an effective haunted house movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Perfect Sense

An indie and romantic take on the apocalyptic genre, Perfect Sense focuses on a romance amidst a bizarre outbreak which affects the senses. The result is something truly bleak, interesting, cinematically daring, yet not entirely engaging.

What Perfect Sense does well is the romance between Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. Both have a palpable chemistry on screen, and the film uses the progressive loss of each individual sense to test that relationship. Thus, the emotional trajectory feels real, and the stakes stay interesting. The strain felt by both Green and McGregor gives us the sort of relationship dynamic that the film's apocalyptic nature needs.

The problem, however, is that the actual outbreak itself is never examined to any real effect. The way the film would make it seem, there are three scientists (Eva Green included) working on the 'virus' in total. No answers are provided, and no one seems particularly earnest in solving the mystery. Instead, the film just embraces a bleakness that seems more the result of apathy than inevitability. Had the film explored its origins, and done more with the global response, Perfect Sense would have been much more compelling. Instead, it never serves as anything more than an interesting backdrop.

The confined nature of Perfect Sense is also used to mixed effect. The relationship between Green and McGregor is intimate and well told, but the surrounding characters feel very thin. There's no development to make us care about anyone other than Green and McGregor, and little to suggest they really care.

To be sure, Perfect Sense deserves credit for how it conveys the loss of hearing, sound, and taste on film. There are long stretches of silence, and moments of darkness. The premise is thus used to some effect, but never as engaging as one would hope.

An overall mixed bag, which ultimately prevails due to the strong central performances.

3/5 Stars

The Lone Ranger
½

Loud, action-packed, long, and tonally erratic, The Lone Ranger is yet another summer blockbuster by Gore Verbinski that thrives on its whimmiscal sensibilities and action set pieces. An orgins story, Lone Ranger gives us a Western with a bit of a superhero feel, and to varied degress of effectiveness.

Like Verbinski's other work, notably Pirates of the Carribean, Lone Ranger relies heavily on its comic relief to buffer its immense display of action. The humor in this film is not as well executed as in his other films, in that its not as well integrated in to the dramatic elements . This is not to say that it doesn't work at all, however, with Johnny Depp bringing his characteristic charm to the role, and really keeping the lighter air about the film alive. The cast, on a whole, is impressive, with great performances from all involved, but to a less effective degree with Armie Hammer. Hammer, though earnest, simply does not have the screen presence or comedic timing to match with Depp.

The script of Lone Ranger uses an elderly Tonto to tell of his adventures with Lone Ranger, in a narrative style that is both familiar (Little Big Man), but yet effective. It blends different scenes together well, with unique time shifts.

It is the tone of Lone Ranger that is perhaps the most disconcerting. The moments of whimsy and farce are plentiful, but are awkwardly placed within scenes of great dramatic tragedy. The film wants to be a lightly toned action adventure piece, but at other times a darker commentary, and still at other times a foreboding Western. This makes Lone Ranger feel unfocused, underscored more by its running time, which is certainly bloated. The action pieces are staged well, and are never boring, but are too ubiquitous, and thus serve to unnecessarily lengthen the film.

On the whole, Lone Ranger is an entertaining action/adventure story. It has more characterization and nuance than similarly themed films, and has both energetic action and direction to keep it engaging, if not a bit too drawn out.

3.5/5 Stars

Phantom
Phantom(2013)

When compared to the films that came before it, notably Crimson Tide and The Hunt For Red October, Phantom pales in comparison. It has neither the dramatic heft nor the tension of those films to be considered a worthy successor. For all its faults, however, Phantom does generally deliver on its premise and does enough right to make it at least a passing thriller.

It's the script for Phantom that feels the most unpolished. The exposition is rushed and a bit hammy, and the dialogue often stilted. The characters are placed in situations which should be tension filled, but pass too suddenly, and to a largely muted effect. This is also a direction issue, with a far too many stylistic indulgences by Todd Robinson.

The cast features some reliable talents, but is undoubtedly headlined by Ed Harris, who lifts every scene he's in, and injects the film with the sort of apprehension it seemed to be going for. Duchnovny is a character actor, to be sure, and is a bit miscast but still manages to deliver on his part. William Fichtner, terribly underrated, also brings a fair amount of presence to the screen, and has surprising chemistry with Harris. Though the cast didn't make up for the film's lack of polish, it certainly elevated the otherwise lackluster material.

As a pure thriller, Phantom does hit on the major beats one would expect. The story, that of a rogue Soviet ballistic missile sub, is compelling, especially considering it was inspired by real-world events. That it's a very Americanized version, the actors don't even speak with accents, is a bit disconcerting, but the heart of the story does seem to pay off well at the end.

Not without some flaws, but an adequate enough drama.

3/5 Stars

Stoker
Stoker(2013)

Methodically paced, hauntingly executed, and consistently chilling, Stoker is the rare example of a horror movie done very well. Director Chan Wook Park manages to take a premise that isn't entirely new to the horror genre, that of the enigmatic and dangerous stranger, and takes it in a refreshing direction. The result is a film that is dark, engaging, and not easily forgotten.

The best thing about Stoker is the atmospheric tone, which is consistent and heavy throughout. The film never wavers from this, and populates its world with characters that feel real and organic to the story. It's, at times, gory, but never for the sake of gore. It has surprises, but never shocks for the sake of shocks, rather twists that follow from the narrative. This is a testament to a well written script, one that treats the audience with respect, and features characterizations that give us complicated characters.

The performances of Stoker are standout from all around. Everyone involved in the project is fantastic, and brings to the table exactly what is needed. Mia Wasikowska is pitch perfect as the cold and eerily perceptive India, and is matched well by both Matthew Goode and yet another standout performance from Nicole Kidman, brilliant as the manipulative and spoiled widow.

Everything about the film feels well directed and staged. The cinematography is beautiful, the editing effectively uses framing and angles to create tension, and the pace if keot consistent. Even the soundtrack is intelligently conceived and unforgettable. Stoker has the polish and deliberateness of a Taraninto film, while at the same time staying true to its genre.

An overall smart and effective film.

4/5 Stars

Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim(2013)
½

Guillermo del Toro's delve into the summer monster movie genre is an interesting one, with a plot and sensibility weird and quirky enough to fit right along with his other endeavors. Its' story is original, its conventions are not, and its' tone is a mixed bag. It's the sort of movie that tries to defy Hollywood convention, but doesn't necessarily improve upon it.

The plot of Pacific Rim revolves around an underwater bridge/portal that brings with it a litany of enormous and devastating creatures, known as Kaiju. As a response, the countries of the world unite to create their own destroyers, massive robots called Jaegers (think Iron Man meets Transformers). It's all very silly, with plot mechanisms that never make sense or are never fully explained. The very idea that we would create such logistically unfeasible and enormously inefficient robots is preposterous. The capabilities of the machines range from futuristic and imaginative, to just plain stupid, seeming content to just bludgeon the Kaiju to death. The fact that the material is original does give it points, but the world that film tries to create never feels quite right or fully realized. This is also partly to blame thanks to a sloppy exposition, and characters that are never very interesting, left to deliver dialogue that often comes across as stilted.

The cast of Pacific Rim is a who's who of TV stars, with no real standout to be had. For a film this outlandish, a big name star, or at least a big personality, is an imperative. Pacific Rim has none. The actors are all fine, but none have the necessary charisma to really deliver the humor or ratchet up the stakes. What humor there is feels forced and awkward, and is very much out of alignment with the dramatic moments. This speaks to another problem with Pacific Rim, it does not have a consistent tone, seeming at times to want to be light, but at other times wanting to be darker and more foreboding. It's as if del Toro wanted it to appeal to as many audiences as possible, and yet never fully satisfies any one demographic. Another example of this is the film's abundantly obvious attempts to make it appealing to international audiences, with a diverse group of characters and accents, but done to a distracting extent.

This is not to say Pacific Rim is boring. It is, in fact, a visual spectacle. The CGI is very impressive, perhaps some of the best of the year, and the action scenes, however absurd, are often riveting, and always well staged. The world building on this visual level is exceedingly well done, with beautiful and haunting shots. The rest of the film fails to really capture this, however, resulting in something that is both fun and frustrating to watch.

Overall, Pacific Rim is simply another example of style over substance. There's a lot to like on a technical level, but the heart of the story never resonates. It's a close call, but a disappointment on the whole.

2.5/5 Stars

Promised Land
½

Promised Land is the sort of environmentalist drama that wears its themes on its sleeve, with clear protagonists and antagonists, set in a clear cut morality tale. This can sometimes work and even be done interestingly, but Promised Land instead opts for conventional story-lines, shallow characterizations, and predictable outcomes. It feels less like a film than a politicized commercial with a bland after-school special treatment, drawn out to over one and a half hours.

The chief problem with Promised Land is the script. Everything about Promised Land feels predictable, there is no sense of ambiguity or fairness. Instead, it comes across as preachy, exceedingly liberal, and condescending. The way the townsfolk react, the melodrama of the third act, the stilted, and heavy handed dialogue, all of it feels manipulative. Add to this the fact that the film features little else than condemnations of fraking, as none of the human elements that it attempts to inject, poorly so, feel real or involving at any level. The performances are all fine, with a charismatic Matt Damon, and the always great Frances McDormand, but there is nothing to the substance of the film that allows any of the actors to bring any vibrancy to their roles. Everything feels by-the-book, conventional, one-note, and agenda-driven. Above, it's simply boring.

2.5/5 Stars

A Late Quartet

A Late Quartet manages to tackle what is a very niche subject matter, that of classical composition and quartet orchestration, seemingly appealing only to a select audience, and yet manages to widen its reach to be a truly successful drama. It does this without ever sacrificing its indie sensibilities, or dumbing down the inner-workings of the group, but rather does this with an emphasis on the characters and their dynamics. The result is a film that never ceases to be engaging, and one that feels both emotionally raw and poignant.

To pull off such a feat, a superb cast is needed. A Late Quartet masters this, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as his usual brilliant self, Catherine Keener inhibiting her role perfectly, Christopher Walken having a refreshingly straight performance, and Mark Ivanir having one of the more calculated and interesting performances of the film. All of the actors have palpable chemistry with each other, which is very much needed for the film's many melodramatic moments. Their exchanges feel real, their intensity is undeniable. The film's smart script, which focuses on characterizations, allows the actors the necessary room to breathe, an especially daunting task for an ensemble cast and a shorter film.

One should not go in to A Late Quartet expecting a clinic on how a Quartet is run, or the finer points that such music involves. This is simply a background to a moving story on the lives of a group of inter-connected people at a crossroads. Taken on these merits, A Late Quartet is a strong success, smartly written, executed well, and appropriately moving.

4/5 Stars

Limbo
Limbo(1999)

John Sayles' Limbo is a fascinating film on many levels. It's a drama in the truest sense of the word, with interesting characters, relate-able situations, realistic world building, and character dynamics that interweave seamlessly to create a really compelling story.

At the same time, Limbo is markedly different from other dramas. It utilizes a unique narrative format, unconventional in its approach. It shifts between characters, juxtaposed with other story-lines, but all in an inner-connected and coherent way. So unconventional is this approach, that Limbo almost mesmerizes the viewer with its story and themes. We are never so much concerned about the plot developments as we are the characters themselves, and how they are feeling in any given moment, a hallmark of excellent direction, and any intelligent drama.

As such, Limbo's script is both intelligent and often ingenious. It clearly has a point, but underscores it in a very subtle way. The dialogue took a while to get used to, but remains consistent and true to itself, in such a sort of stylized way, that it becomes part of the film.

The acting in Limbo is also quite strong, with a terrific ensemble cast. This is headlined mainly by the underrated David Strathairn, with one of the best dialed-down (as his characters often are) performances of his career. He is matched well with Mary Mastranton and Vanessa Martinez, in an especially impressive performance.

The one aspect of Limbo that some are bound not to like is it's ambiguous ending. Some may look at it as a cop-out. Such criticisms are valid to an extent, although I found it daring. Had the film not earned the moment, I'd be upset, but, as it were, it felt in-line with what the film was trying to convey, an enormous sense of uncertainly, with both characters and the physical world.

4/5 Stars

Dredd
Dredd(2012)
½

Dredd is an example of a remake done well, one that transcends the original in every way. It also represents what an action film should be, with genuinely inventive special effects, involving action, all-in performances, and engaging direction.

While Dredd has a familiar action set-up, the dreaded building that they must escape from at all costs, the execution is very strong all around. The set design is especially impressive, giving us a futuristic vision that both feels and looks ragged, gritty, and crime-filled. The world building succeeds in transporting us to a time in which the set-up seems organic, we buy the role of the judges, we start to understand the dynamics of the society, something the original failed to do. The film does this not by having overly in-depth exposition, but with strong scene composition, incorporated to strong effect in the story.

Dredd features some excellent cinematography to accentuate the already strong world-building, giving us a consistent gritty tone throughout, one that has a very atmospheric feel, befitting of the story itself. To be sure, all of the technical features of Dredd are strong, with action that is lively, and a slow-motion shooting style that is inventive, and visually stunning. The action does get a bit redundant towards the end, and feels perhaps a bit gratuitous. The blood and apparent realism of the shooting scenes, however, does represent a welcome departure from the over-abundance of PG-13 action films we have grown accustomed to.

The plot-line itself isn't anything inventive, simply an excuse to introduce us to the characters. The actors involved, Karl Urban and Olivia Thrilby, both seem to fit their roles well. Neither was given much opportunity to add nuance to their characters, however, with there being essentially no characterizations. For this particular film and set-up, however, that's okay, as having a Judge Dredd that is so sure of himself, without any sort of questioning, makes for an intriguing premise for any subsequent films, and fits the bill for what this film needed. Karl Ubran's Dredd is never unmasked, and never makes excuses or over-rationalizes his decisions. Instead, he acts, and acts with intensity. I found this to actually be a strong suit of the film, which takes some chances.

A solid all-around action film.

3.5/5 Stars

White House Down

The king of big, usually light hearted, action movies, Rolan Emmerich, manages to raise the stakes once more with White House Down. The film, in may respects, serves as a showcase for what Emmerich does well, delivering non-stop action with a consistent charm and kinetic energy that serves to cover for the plot and logic deficiencies which are prevalent.

The cast of White House Down consists of pairing of Jamie Foxx as the President, and wannabe secret service agent Channing Tatum. The two do have some level of chemistry, but it is, surprisingly enough, Channing that has the better performance. Tatum's knack for these sort of roles is uncanny. He's given cliched history and often bad lines, but manages to find just the right tone to toe the line between serious and parody. The other cast members are mostly okay, essentially a who's who of character actors, but we never get an antagonist to match Tatum's charisma and screen presence (James Woods felt out of place).

For much of the film, Emmerich manages to weave the cliched elements together in a relentlessly fast fashion, yet it never feels rushed. The action is staged well, with Emmerich managing to weave together some strong character moments in between the action set pieces. In short, he keeps things entertaining throughout.

Too be sure, White House Down is profoundly stupid. The terrorist cell never makes any sense on any level. Their motivation, the logistics of the team, their plan, all are horrendously shallow, one-note, and illogical. The script is a cliche-fest, with a bad habit of using contrived plot devices (the annoying little girl that is always in peril, the idealistic president), combined with grand declarations of a "military industrial complex", but with no grounding in the story. The ending in particular is very weak, dragging on, and offering resolutions that make the already dumb film embarrassingly asinine. This would be a death sentence for most filmmakers, but Emmerich somehow manages to salvage this by keeping the audience dazzled with the ever-growing set pieces, and amused by the vast array of one-liners.

The epitome of a dumb B action film.

3/5 Stars

The Call
The Call(2013)
½

The Call is one of those films, a growing rariety, that defies expectations. With a trailer that made it look campy, simplistic, and one-note, I went in to it expecting something much different than what I actually got. All in all, The Call is a very effective thriller. The film keeps a solid pace, has good performances, and does enough different to keep you guessing. It's really a fun ride.

Perhaps surprisingly, from the marketing at least, Halle Berry is the best thing about the movie. She has a charisma and intensity level that completely suites her role as a 911 operator. Despite having little on screen time with the other female lead, Abigail Breslin, she is able to keep a chemistry going between them, conveying a tremendous amount of emotion, over distance, and does it in a manner which feels very organic and real to the film. The supporting performances are not quite up to this level, but are all adequate, with Michael Eklund making an effective villain.

For the vast majority of the film, The Call manages to take conventional thriller elements, execute them well, and then do just enough differently to keep you guessing. This was particularly evident in how the film ended up converging in the third act. Certain parts of it were familiar, to be sure, but it was done to such a good effect as to make that almost a mute point. The pacing was fast, the direction effective, the performances in-line, everything delivered on what it needed to.

The last act of the film, namely the latter portion of the act, did get a little too-self indulgent. The twist that was taken was overly silly, especially for a film that managed to stay grounded enough most of the way through. Had the film just left well enough alone, it would have been much better for it. Instead, it ended up undermining itself by passing off what is ridiculous as clever, all too common for films of this ilk.

Overall, a bit too 'creative' in the last act, but a very enjoyable ride nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars

Pawn
Pawn(2013)

Taken on its own merits, as a B thriller, Pawn is largely successful. The hostage genre has been done to a large extent, and Pawn certainly follows many of its conventions. This includes a script with logic-defying twists, and an ending that simply feels too neat. But for a film of its caliber, Pawn does seem to pack a surprising punch.

The most successful thing about Pawn is the direction and set-up. The exposition at the diner, and how the different players were introduced, was done to a good effect. The characters and their story-lines, overly brief to be sure, felt well integrated, with the film never losing its flow. The cast was also strong, with performances by such great character actors as Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta, and even Michael Chiklis. What the film dares to do with some of these characters, killing one off very soon, gives the film a sense of stakes and weight that it otherwise wouldn't have. Such actors seem to have a good chemistry, a necessity for such a confined story.

This isn't to say Pawn does anything especially interesting, we can see the ending a mile away. The characterizations are shallow and one-note. As an enjoyable ride, however, you could do far worse.

3/5 Stars

World War Z
World War Z(2013)

As over-saturated as the Zombie genre is, World War Z manages to bring a unique, fresh, smart, and enthralling addition to the genre. It's a film that has the thrills of a good action film, a script that is much more intelligent than many similarly-themed films of this ilk, and an intensity level that has yet to be quite matched by any blockbuster yet this summer.

The best thing about World War Z is the tone and overall style of the film. It's executed in a very clinical (no pun intended) way, in that the spread of the zombie infection is treated much like any other deadly virus. The way it spreads, the actions that are taken, the research in to its origins, all are far more grounded than the mythology of such a genre would suggest. Particularly impressive was the rate at which the infection spread, going so rapidly (turning a human in 12 seconds), that one can barely register what is happening. The film handles this to great effect, resulting in a fast-paced intensity that is felt throughout.

The script handles the various elements of the film in a fresh-way as well. The origins of the virus are never fully explained, but not ignored, and treated in a mature manner. It also offers a number of effective and original scenarios, such as the set pieces in Israel, which were especially well handled. There are cliched and telegraphed moments, to be sure, but these are mainly overcome by the consistently tight direction and strong cast.

The performances in World War Z are all strong, but are anchored solely by Brad Pitt. Pitt's role as the reluctant investigator/adventurer is done very well, with Pitt having the pitch perfect tone, who genuinely feels torn on the screen, and brings with him a presence that carries the film to great effect as well.

Overall, World War Z manages to distinguish itself. It's fast without being rushed, methodical when it needs to be, but never slow. Zombie thrills are done with a sense of realism, incorporating a more conventional and cold approach. The ending itself was a refreshing departure as well, having a different feel than the first 2/3 of the film, but still feeling organic.

4/5 Stars

This Is the End

This Is The End takes a unique perspective on the raunchy stoner comedy with a premise that involves the end of the world, with the cast playing a satirical version of their personas. The result is an interesting one, one that works on some levels, but is perhaps never as clever or as witty as it thinks.

The cast of This Is the End, pretty much a who's who of Judd Apatow movies, all do a great job of embodying a satirized version of themselves. Danny McBride in particular is hilarious, doing an excellent job of embodying his on-screen personality with his supposedly real persona. This was the part of the film that worked the most, and was certainly the funniest. The integration of their film personalities and off-screen antics was handled well, and made from some great references. The bulk of fun that can be had from this movie revolves around the pop cultural references and how they play a part in the story itself.

The actual end of the world premise is handled to a mixed effect. I appreciated that the film went all-in, and wasn't afraid to appear silly. At the same time, it's executed in such an absurd way, that it distracts from what would otherwise be funnier distractions. The movie simply keeps trying to out do itself.

Is it funny? The answer is, kinda. This Is the End surprisingly works best at the beginning portion of the film, before all the absurd antics start. As the film progresses, much of the initial charm and humor is lost. Funny moments are to be had throughout the film, to be sure, but they become increasingly silly, and never seem to have the wit that the filmmakers seem to think.

What makes This Is The End ultimately worth it is its interesting premise and daring execution, in addition to some genuinely funny moments. Does it get bogged down in its' self-satisfied nature? Certainly, but overall it's a ride that works well enough.

3/5 Stars

Man of Steel
Man of Steel(2013)

With a varied filmography and less than 10 years separating the much maligned Superman Returns, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel carried a lot of uncertainty with it. What we end up with is a film that represents a very unique take on the Superman story, with Snyder's keen visual touch, told in a mostly compelling way.

The cast in Man of Steel is very well composed. Every actor seems to embody what that character needs to be, but does so in a far more authentic and organic way than the previous versions, as well as certainly many other blockbusters. This was the most clear with Superman's parents, played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in an absolutely fantastic supporting role. They embody ordinary people, yet with a certain folksy wisdom and humility that makes his early years all the more compelling. What was especially unique was their reluctance for Superman to demonstrate his powers, advocating for restraint that brings about a number of moral questions. Amy Adams was also fantastic Lois Lane, and Henry Cavill was a surprisingly strong Superman. The only one that slightly disappointed was Michael Shannon, who seemed, at times, too dialed down for the role, and other times too dialed up.

The biggest weakness of Man of Steel is its script. It's not resoundingly bad by any means, but it also isn't especially strong. The dialogue occasionally borders on stilted, and the exposition and last act never quite work as well as the middle of the film. The actual mechanisms of the world building is especially bad, with Kryptonite having a very muddled back story, and Shannon's character never having a plan that is fully fleshed out. This is a common problem of films of this type, to be sure, relying on some knowledge prior. However, it's certainly a fair criticism to say the film never fully envelopes the audience in what is going on, as a lot of terminology is tossed around, followed by a big action set piece, but missing a fully realized through-line and story.

I found Snyder's direction and imagery to be mostly impressive, with beautiful, albeit ominous, cinematography, and unique world building. His pace for 2/3 of the film was pitch perfect, with a sloppy first act. What really set his interpretation a part, however, was the somber tone and reflective nature. The characters are never completely sure of themselves, with inner-struggles that actually felt real. I also greatly enjoyed Snyder's use of flashbacks, which were seamless within the narrative. His action pieces, though a bit repetitive toward the end, were nonetheless excitingly staged, and did a good job of conveying actual impact.

Overall Man of Steel represents one of the more entertaining blockbusters of the summer so far, and a re-imagining of the Superman universe that is well deserved.

4/5 Stars

The Purge
The Purge(2013)
½

With a plot line that would seemingly make it an ideal candidate for a cult hit, The Purge never quite finds the right balance between its message and its thrills, feeling oddly disjointed and badly executed.

The plot line, in which all crime is legal and enforcement suspended for a day, is an interesting one. The film refuses to pursue this premise in an intelligent way, however. As opposed to letting its commentary shine through the characters and flow through the material, the film makes it's themes (class, race, socioeconomic status) abundantly clear, to the point of being annoying. Characters give stilted monologues, clearly laying out what the film has to say, showing a complete lack of trust in its audience.

The script itself is full of cliched plot devices and shallow characterizations. The actors are all fine, but there characters never feel real. Their actions don't' seem to correspond with each other, making all of the action and dramatic elements feel forced. This is especially noted in Max Burkholder's part, who feels like a parody of what a child actor would be in a horror movie. This is not to say the performances are bad, they are just adrift in a film that is never really in sync with itself.

The action is all very routine and not particularly interesting, and never inventive. For such a unique plot, the film never tries to be daring. Instead, it treats the audience like they are dumb, spelling out what it has to say at every turn, and filling the screen with cliched plot developments, and characters that never seem to fit together.

An oddly composed, and certainly unpolished, disappoint.


2.5/5 Stars

Stand Up Guys

Stand Up Guys is the sort of film that gives you everything you'd expect, nothing more, and to a lesser execution than what you would hope for. With a cast including Al Pacino and Christopher Walken involving a mob story, you'd expect something standout, dramatic, smart, and charismatic. While Stand Up Guys does offer a few true dramatic moments and some occasional humor, it never rises above mediocrity.

The biggest thing holding the film back is the script. It features dialogue that is often stilted, and feels inorganic to the characters. The humor is obvious, and rarely clever, and the plot devices are all familiar. Without a doubt, it is the strong cast that elevates the material, and gives the script more of a heft than it should have.

The performances are as good as one could expect, with Walken and Pacino having good chemistry, and Alan Arkin having a great, although overly brief, part. They both have a certain amount of inherent charisma that never ceases to elevate whatever material they are in.

On the whole, it can not be said that Stand Up Guys is not enjoyable. It never ceases to be at least passably entertaining, and does have a couple of good moments. Cliches and a weak script aside, there are some laughs to be had, and some dramatic beats that feel real, anchored by two strong performances.

3/5 Stars

Mama
Mama(2013)

Mama is an imitation of an old-school horror film that attempts to upgrade its familiar story via the use of twists and a more daring visual sense. What it fails to do, however, is live up to the scares or charm of old-school horror, and instead is overly self-indulgent, silly, and dull.

The acting in Mama is more than competent, with some good work by Jessica Chastain and child actors that are actually fairly impressive. Like so many horror movies, however, they are set back by a script that makes the characters clichéd, and has them recite often stilted dialogue. The story simply did not let them breath, with Chastain's character being the only one that didn't suffer from an overly shallow characterization.

The script itself is clichéd, and when it tries to be original, it's profoundly silly. The premise is familiar, the tormented spirit with unfinished business, and the investigation upon that premise by the characters is haphazard and never feels real. The heart of the story never makes much sense, and is contrived to the point of silliness in its execution. The third act is perhaps the most embarrassing part of the film, which borders on self parody.

The most damning thing one can say about any horror movie is that it's not scary. Mama fits that bill. It tries cheap tricks, to be sure, but has neither the atmosphere nor the story to make it work. It's daring in that it gives you more visuals than most horror films, but I found the CGI to look rather cheap and uninspiring.

For those wanting a decent old-school ghost film, Mama will disappoint. You would be better served checking out the recent and underrated, The Awakening with Dominic West.

2/5 Stars

After Earth
After Earth(2013)
½

Having ruined his once promising career with such duds as The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water, and The Last Airbender (basically everything he's been involved with since 2002), no one was perhaps more disinterested in seeing another M. Night Shaymalan entry than me. His voyage into the post-apocalyptic genre, very over-saturated as of late, does not do much to inspire confidence in a comeback.

The premise of After Earth has Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith stranded on Earth, after a confusingly explained failed mission, with the two left to fend for themselves. In this time, Earth has evolved significantly to the point where seemingly every living organism is a threat to humanity's existence.

First, the good. I may be in the minority, but I found After Earth to offer a fairly intriguing premise. The world building was mixed, but I appreciated the thought put in to how the creatures and the environment evolved. What I especially liked was the evolved nature of the humans, who have a very stylized way of speaking and a sort of new age approach to everything. The film incorporated this in a way that didn't go out of its way to point itself out, so much as actually be. In this sense, After Earth had a bit of an indie film vibe (an absurd thing to say because of its budget, I know), as it moved at its own pace, and was very assured of itself and its ideas.

The elements of the film that didn't work, however, are plentiful. First off, the acting is not especially good. Jaden Smith is not a strong actor at this stage in his career, and simply did not belong in a leading role. He has neither the developed talent, charisma, or heft to carry such a role, and the film suffered for it. Will Smith was okay, but was restrained by a script that provided him with cheesy dialogue and marginalized his part later on. The narration throughout the film is routinely terrible, with Jaden Smith having the worst opening monologue in a film I have ever heard.

The visuals of the film were a mixed bag. Some of the CGI seemed up to par, while others simply looked cheap and fake. This was particularly evident in a number of creatures, including the alien species.

The script also leaves a lot to be desired. The relationship between Will and Jaden is never fleshed out to any real significance, and feels very contrived. We don't understand the inner workings of the culture, how the culture came to be that way, or what exactly the characters are doing. The filmmakers did not seem to care about informing or really engaging their audience, and were simply too self assured.

The pace of the film was also a bit slow, even at only 90 minutes. The action was never very engaging, and was always proceeded by bad narration, clichéd dialogue, and familiar plot devices.

After Earth is not a resoundingly bad film. Some of the elements worked, and the film always interests. There is definitely large ideas to be had, they just weren't realized well. But for poor execution and cast decisions, it may have been a very compelling film. As it is, an overall weak effort.

2.5/5 Stars

Carrie
Carrie(1976)
½

Learning that a re-make will be coming out this October, I thought it was time to revisit 1976's Carrie. In a lot of ways, Carrie has become dated. This is evident in the special effects, some of the plotting, and the actual horror elements itself. However, Carrie never loses its central power, remaining a memorable, and disturbing film.

The most successful thing about Carrie is that it delivers on the premise. We truly feel for Spacek's character, and can identify with the isolationism and torment she feels. Her home life is a bit melodramatic, to say the least, and I was not impressed with Piper Laurie's performance, but Spacek kept that part of the story grounded nonetheless. In the end, her tragedy rings true, and the turn she takes is all the more effective for it.

The other characterizations were hit and miss, with Travolta having a good role, as well as William Katt, but the exact motivations of some of the other girls in the film felt weak and ill-sketched, something the re-make will hopefully improve upon.

It is the prom scenes that catapult Carrie into something memorable. It's staged exceptionally well, filmed in such a way to capture the emotions for Carrie, and really offers an authentic vision of what such things are like. Her facial expressions, the way people interact with her, it's all achieved to great effect, making the climax all the more tragic.

Undoubtedly there is much to be improved upon for a re-make, but also much to be admired.

3.5/5 Stars

Now You See Me

A movie about magicians with a cast including such greats as Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, and Morgan Freeman with an intriguing premise, involving the robbing of a bank thousands of miles away while simultaneously conducting a show, would seemingly have a lot to offer. Such is the not the case. Now You See Me is a nearly textbook example of style over substance, with a lot of flash and dazzle, but no fully realized dramatic elements. It's a movie made in the most obvious movie way possible, National Treasure without any believability.

The greatest hindrance for Now You See Me is the script. It's full of hammy dialogue, thin characterizations, and rushed exposition. The way we meet the characters is fast and not engaging, and how they came to work together is never fleshed out. The magic tricks aren't tricks, they are asinine excuses for CGI, covered only by laughable explanations by Morgan Freeman, who has no actual way of knowing anything, but is given gravitas by a camera crew following him around. The best movies about illusion and magic have realism, here there is none. The movie passes as clever contrived plot devices, nothing we see is remotely plausible...ever. Add to that a through-line about some bizarre secret society, and you have a movie that makes very little sense in any way, shape, or form.

The one good thing about Now You See Me is the cast, with likable performances all around, save Ruffalo. Mark Ruffalo's performance as a cranky FBI agent never felt real, and seem more like an impersonation. The film also has a brisk pace about it, which sometimes helps masks the massive plot definiteness, but is never fast enough to mask that which is wasted talent.

Overall, undeniably disappointing.

2/5 Stars

Rabbit Hole
Rabbit Hole(2010)
½

All films of such a profoundly sad subject matter, as Rabbit Hole, have to struggle with conveying its message in a cinematic way, one in which the narrative is done smartly, and not simply a rumination of misery. Rabbit Hole manages to do just thought, looking at the issue of losing a child in an intelligent and dramatic way, not simply relying on its inherent tragedy to give it weight. In this way it refuses to be 'misery porn' and instead aims to be something higher.

Rabbit Hole succeeds the most at being a character study, a study in how different people deal with grief, and look for hope in their own way. The film is bolstered by two fantastic performances by both Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Both have great chemistry, and represent two interesting takes on their loss. Their performances are captivating throughout, and give the film a great sense of authenticity. Eckhart, for example, embodies a man of cool temperament, nice and intelligent, but we always sense his inner uneasiness and trauma, which is a testament to his fine performance.

The script is also well written. It feels like an authentic examination of how two parents would deal with such a loss, surrounded by people who, though aware of the trauma of these two people, can never fully identify with it. The insight it gives in this regard is another very strong aspect of the film.

For everything it does right, however, Rabbit Hole does seem to drag a bit in the third act, and never seems to resolve itself to any real climax. This is perhaps the point of the film, showing how such grief is stagnant, but in order to be truly cinematic, one would expect greater development. Where the characters end isn't too terribly different than when they begin, and the entire subplot involving the driver never feels quite right.

Still, a fine drama, with excellent performances.

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Stand

Though his career, both film and political, has undoubtedly past him by, Arnold Schwarzenegger manages to turn in an adequate performance in the dumb, familiar, shallow, yet effectively campy and fun, Last Stand. It's a big dumb action film that realizes it's a dumb action film, but hits on all the right elements for such a film to work.

The plot is certainly nonsense, involving an asinine escape by a notorious drug kingpin, with a comically horrendous plan to make it to Mexico. At the same time, the film does have a generally well done subplot involving a small and boring town, which Schwarzenegger serves as the sheriff of. The film does a good job of setting up this up, having a more slow burn feel, with solid world building. The script itself doesn't take itself to seriously, and has enough humor in it, though rife with plot cliches, to make it pass as a B action film.

The performances are also in line with the tone of the film. Forest Whataker does a great job as a really intense federal agent, with Schwarzenegger channeling his former 'glory' days well, and actually managing to convey a small town presence while not sacrificing the weight his stature brings to the role. The entire cast is on board with the camp, and all seem to have decent chemistry.

The action, though asinine, is also well done, with some very well executed chase sequences and interesting gun battles. Overall, for any tacit action film fan, it's worth a look.

3/5 Stars

The Hangover Part III

The first Hangover was fresh, unique, and consistently funny. The second one was derrivative, formualic, and essentially a complete rehash of the its predecssor. Part 3 is a different sort of end cap, a departure from the formula of the first two, but not nearly as funny as either of them. The result is a film that feels tonally inconsistent within the series, and oddly out of place.

What part 3 does well is a better sense of character development than the first two. We see a better depth to Zach Galifanakis as well as Ken Jeong, spending more time humanizing both of them. The plot itself is different, with a good performance by John Goodman. The film has a more dramatic feel than the first two, with a much darker tone.

The problem, however, is that the darker feel of the film doesn't seem to fit within the rest of the series. I love that it tried to take a more daring approach, but it simply wasn't nearly as funny as the previous two. The story-line was more interesting, the writing darker, but the laughs were not very consistent. This was a symptom of a script that relied too heavily on references to what came before it for laughs, and again resorted to familiar plot devices for gags. There is some humor to be found, but it's not consistent. What we end up with is a film that feels more of a commentary of the first two, with an odd black comedy bent, than something that organically grew out of the series itself.

Better than the second for its efforts to distinguish itself, but not in the same league as the first.

3/5 Stars

Fast & Furious 6
½

That Fast & Furious 6 is any good is perhaps more surprising than the fact that the series is now six films long, with more forthcoming. Much like Fast 5, this edition is big, loud, dumb, and action backed. It is undoubtedly profoundly stupid, but also fun, which is really the most anyone can say about the series.

The plot is good from the standpoint that the series has taken a more 'serious' turn in its mythology, trying desperately to incorporate the previous plot-lines. This results in a lot of self-referential moments, which are enjoyable for any fan of the series, though probably seemingly lost on the more casual fans. The thrust of this film revolves around an ex-Special Forces operative out to steal a computer chip with an absurdly exaggerated performance, and doing so in a way that is incredibly silly. It's all very idiotic, but such is the series.

Like Fast 5, Fast & Furious 6 has a lot of humor, very well executed action scenes, great chase scenes, and ever fantastic growing displays of absurdity. This results in a film that is consistently engaging, fun to watch, and never boring.

The humor though, and the 'plot', never rise to the level that Fast 5 did. The movie is simply an excuse to get the gang back together, but with a storyline that just feels too familiar, and with twits that get ever more asinine. The action elements still work, which make it a higher end B action film, but I fear the series is increasingly in danger of overwriting itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Downfall (Der Untergang)
½

Immersive, riveting, brilliantly acted, and tragic, Downfall is an amazing German film, depicting the last ten days of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. At 2.5 hours long, the film manages to give the viewer an insightful look at the inner workings and utter chaos of those last days.

Undoubtedly one of the most remarkable things about Downfall are the performances. Bruno Ganz as Hitler was simply brilliant, showing a man profoundly troubled, tragically devoted, crazed, manic, but yet not without some hint of humanity. Ganz's intensity on screen is riveting, inhibiting his character to such an extent, one may draw a parallel between the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis and his depiction of Lincoln, in its depth and nuance. The supporting cast is impressive as well, with each character feeling well realized and completely authentic. It is through their performances that we see the true complexity of the Nazi regime, filled with the dedicated, the opportunistic, the evil, and those desperately looking for direction. We see their growing anxiety, and the tragic hopelessness of their fate.

The film does an amazing job of serving as an effective character study of the players involved, namely Hitler, while at the same time working as an effective drama of the surrounding events. We see the chaos amidst the inevitable military defeat, the growing dissension, and the horrendous extent of murder left in its wake. It never ceases to both engage and inform the viewer, making it a resounding success.

A brilliant war film.

4.5/5 Stars

Parker
Parker(2013)

The king of B action movies, Jason Statham, returns for yet another revenge picture, but this time with a focus of a heist set up, and a poorly conceived subplot involving Jlo. Unfortunately for Parker, this is one of the lesser Statham films, with an un-involving, uninteresting plot, lackluster execution and action, and a very "going through the motions" feel.

The primary problem with Parker is the script, which is a mess. Had the film had one set focus, such as the typical Jason Statham revenge plot, it might have worked. Instead, Parker adds in too many elements that don't work. The entire subplot involving Jennifer Lopez feels very out of tune with the rest of the film, and distracts from the larger plot. The villain characters are never interesting or particularly menacing, seeming more aloof than anything. The main plot is familiar and generic. To make matters worse, the film is filled with stilted dialogue, with no real charm to it.

The performances, besides Statham's traditional one-note character, are resoundingly bad. This is especially true of Jennifer Lopez, who feels awkwardly cast in her role, and doesn't seem to fit what characterization there is. To be sure, the script doesn't give them much to work with, but with a strong supporting cast including Wendell Pierce and Nick Nolte, one would expect a much more involving, display.

A misfire all around.

2/5 Stars

Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3(2013)

Fresh off the enormous success of Avengers, Iron Man 3 had a lot to live up to. The result is a film that is more a direct sequel to Avengers than Iron Man 2, done with good charm, strong action scenes, and a continual humor undertone. It never really defies the conventions of blockbusters, but delivers on all the elements one would want to make a truly enjoyable summer action movie.

One of the strongest elements of Iron Man 3 are the interesting set pieces we see, with the action being done in a very effective manner. The dynamics of the suit themselves are done very well, with truly spectacular action scenes befitting of any good summer blockbuster, with solid integration into the story itself.

The performances are also predominately strong, with Robert Downy Jr. bringing his characteristic sarcastic charm, bringing weight to every scene. This is met well with Ben Kingsley, who brings a lot of comic relief to the role. The problem, however, is that we don't see the sort of character-arc and development that we've seen in other Marvel movies, with Downey never seeming to evolve to quite the extent we would expect. Many of the supporting characters, notably Don Cheadle and Gwneth Paltrow, don't have much new to bring to the table, often feeling very secondary to the story.

The script and plot of the film are a mixed bag. The twist of the film is done well, and is especially refreshing. I also loved how the opening scenes were executed, hinting at later developments, but being well integrated with the entire film. The plot as its unveiled, however, is familiar. The struggle never feels as big as one would think necessary for a film like this, with the exact details of the scheme never making a lot of sense, never being fully explained. There's interesting elements, but a lack of complete cohesion. That said, the film never loses its sense of humor, and has a number of dramatic and humorous recalls to the previous films (namely Avengers), and thus works well within the overall series, if it doesn't necessarily distinguish itself.

Overall the film is consistently fun, which is what the franchise has always been good at delivering. Plot deficiencies aside, there's plenty of humor, action, and good acting to keep you engaged.

4/5 Stars

The Paperboy
The Paperboy(2012)
½

Decadent, incoherent, slowly paced, and simply bizarre, Paperboy is a disaster of a film. Part pulp, neo noir, melodrama, and camp, the film is a weird mix. Throw in a narration and a supporting role by Macy Gray, and you have a recipe for a really bad film.

The Paperboy does have a few things going for it. For one, the performances seem to be tonally consistent, and are 'good' from the standpoint that they are all appropriately melodramatic, and work well within the context of the film. Everyone is crazy, compulsive, intense, and illogical. Matthew McConaughehey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, none of them phoned it in. The cinematography also looks good, and the film generally does a good job of having an atmospheric tone.

The trouble comes from the script and direction of the film. While set-up initially well, the film becomes a meandering mess close to the halfway mark. The supposed 'plot', the murder of a sheriff, is seemingly tossed aside for interchangeable scene after interchangeable scene of weirdness and sexual perversion, and for no apparent purpose or reason. None of it makes any sense. It's as if the entire film is just an excuse for bizarreness for the sake of camp. Yet, the film never seems to want to completely veer in to camp, taking itself very seriously. The problem is, of course, there's really nothing of substance to make one take it seriously.

Because of the disjointed nature of the film, and the weak direction, Paperboy feels relentlessly endless, even at its standard running time. There's no sense of purpose to anything being put on screen, everyone's talents feel wasted in what ends up feeling like an X rated made-for-tv movie, with the target audience of perverts and people of no discerning taste.

A mess.

1.5/5 Stars

Hombre
Hombre(1967)
½

The western genre embodies many different sorts of films, from typical shoot 'em up adventures, to more nuanced films that seek to convey commentary within the western framework. Hombre is a fantastic example of the later, representing a late 60s western that features Paul Newman as a Native American. The film is an intelligent western, concerned with characters, dialogue, themes, and thus is uniquely situated within the genre, having an amount of ambiguity that is very uncommon for that time, and puts most modern movies to shame.

Hombre features excellent performances from all around. The notable one is of course Newman. Though the blue-eyed Newman lacks the physical characteristics for an Indian, his performance more than makes up for that. The way he embodies his character harkens back to early Eastwood westerns, with a strong presence, conveying a lot even in silence. There is really not a weak link to be had in the supporting cast, with Diane Cilento having some terrific work as an outspoken and headstrong frontier woman.

What I appreciated most about the film was the script. The dialogue was simply tremendous, with exchanges that were intelligent and felt real. The characterizations were strong and multi-dimensional, far surpassing many of the clichéd characters we are often treated to.

Though the film's methodical pace and concern with characters, as opposed to action, may turn some off it's really a grade A western, and a must see for any fan of the genre.

4.5/5 Stars

Holy Rollers
Holy Rollers(2010)

In what essentially amounts to a film version of a good Locked Up Abroad episode, Holly Rollers tells the story of young Hasidic Jews who were recruited to smuggle ecstasy from Europe to the United States. Specifically, the film looks at the inculcation of Jesse Eisenberg's character to this new lifestyle.

The story that Holy Rollers seeks to tell is a familiar one, but one that should translate well to film. The film does a good job at the start, establishing the rigid belief system and antiquated social structure of Eisenberg's background. His introduction to the world is believable, but the film soon seems to lose its sense of build up and pace. Whereas it set up the Jewish community so well, Essenberg's rise in the drug world seems rushed, with the character arcs of those surrounding him never being fully fleshed out. It's as if the film stopped trying to distinguish itself about 1/3 of the way through, and instead opted for auto pilot.

The performances in the film are all good, with Eisenberg having an especially interesting depiction of his character, conservative, awkward, shy, but yet curious and strangely competent. The problem, however, is that many of the supporting roles never fully developed, being especially pronounced with Justin Bartha's character. The relationship between Eisenberg and Ari Gaynor is also not handled especially well.
Despite the weaknesses, Holy Rollers remains entertaining. It has most of the hallmarks of an effective drama, though it never stops to catch itself and reignite its originality.

3/5 Stars

Star Trek Into Darkness
½

J.J. Abrams managed to take the Star Trek franchise into another direction with the 2009 film, with a good story, strong action, charm, and humor. His new follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, manages to stay in that vein, offering a fun, if not as inventive, science fiction movie that is a solid addition to the series.


As is characteristic of all J.J. Abrams endeavors, the action set pieces in Star Trek are fantastically staged. Abrams has a keen sense of how to ramp up tension within a scene, and on a dime. This is complemented by great special effects, and action that is engaging, in that you can follow what is transpiring, with each action having the appropriate impact. This is in stark contrast to most action films of today, full of scenes with lots of things going on, but no discernible idea of who is doing what. Abrams avoids this, thus always keeping the viewer riveted with what is transpiring.


The theme of this Star Trek is an interesting, perhaps daring one, exploring ideas of false pretences used for conflict, and the moral ambiguity surrounding it. I thought these themes were actually well implemented within the framework of the film, representing a story that is a bit more complex than a traditional good vs. bad dichotomy, with a certain level of nuance to be had (at least for its material). The trouble, however, is that the mechanics of the plot feels very familiar and ordinary. The film telegraphs who the villains are very early, and makes plot devices which become crucial in the last ask abundantly clear in the earlier portion of the film. Thus, while the action is very well done, we are not quite as impacted by the dramatic elements of the film, because we feel like we know precisely what is going to happen. There simply isn't as great a sense of stakes as one would like.


The dialogue is occasionally stilted, as is Star Trek, but also humorous. The chemistry between the actors feels real, with the young cast injecting a lot of palpable energy on screen. The performances are also good, with Chris Pine continuing to make a charismatic Captain Kirk. It was Benedict Cumberbatch, however, who stole the show, with a phenomenal take on Kahn.


Overall a solid effort, with good action, charismatic leads, and humor, albeit with a somewhat lackluster script and plot.


3.5/5 Stars

42
42(2013)
½

All biopics face the question of how to find that fine line between being true to life, but also being cinematic. Too many biopics fall into the category of re-telling events without finding the true essence of the story and putting it to film. In order to be a truly effective biopic, the film must work as dramatically effective outside of the factual events itself. That is to say, it must be a compelling story outside of the inherent weight that being based on a true story gives you. Though it struggles with finding this line, 42 is generally successful at being a one such biopic.

What I apprecaited about 42 the most is the actual characterization of Jackie Robinson. The film doesn't bestow sainthood on him, and shows him as an actual person, full of supressed rage. The performance by Chadwick Boseman is the single most effective thing about the film, as he completely inhbits the character, feeling very authentic. It's also full of strong supporting performances, including one by Harrison Ford, and also a hauntingly effective performance by Alan Tudyk.

42 has good baseball scenes, staging the action well, supported by good narration. It does, however, get bogged down in convention occassionally, such as one particular scene in which Jackie's home-run is met with a self-aggrandizing soundtrack and an unberably slow sequence of him runing the bases. This speaks to the biggest issue with 42, it's often too safe, feel good, and conventional for its own good. It seems to call attention to itself and its themes rather loudly, lacking a lot of subtelty. Had it had more comlex characters, too many are one-note, and more abmigutity, it would have been stronger. In addtion, the film could have been more in depth with Robinson's upbringing, with major events of his life only being briefly aluded to.

Overall, it's an undeniably moving story, and well worth seeing. As a biopic, it doesn't take risks, but does what it sets out to do rather well.

3.5/5 Stars

The Piano
The Piano(1993)

The Piano is the sort of film that does a great job evoking emotions and conveying its message through imagery and expressionism. The story centers around a women in an arranged marriage who, partly as a product of her obsession with her piano, has an affair with another man.
The story is a unique one, and certainly a strange departure from the conventions of current dramatic film making, being a confined story, and with no overt melodrama. It has mature themes, looking at obsession, love, and isolationism (among others). As the story is confined and devoid of a lot of 'action' (in the traditional sense), the film relies completely in the talents of the actors. In this case, the cast is fantastic all around, with Holly Hunter undoubtedly giving one of the best performances of her career, playing a mute woman. As she has no speaking parts (save a small voice over) the entire film hinges on her expression and ability to convey emotions silently. To that aim, she was phenomenal, achieving a level of depth and intensity without speaking that was uncanny. She is also bolstered well by strong supporting performances from both Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel.
The film is also shot very well, with beautiful cinematography. The main issue, however, lies in the pace of the film. The Piano is one of those films that either has your attention from the start and never lets go, or comes across as tedious, and ultimately never does much to beat those expectations. For me, I found the film to often be slow. I did not have enough vested in Hunter's character to be truly engaged in until later in the film, and simply felt the material was too sparse and devoid of action or conflict to translate well to film. To be sure, The Piano has a very unique sensibility, which might work well for some, but for most, I fear it risks coming across as boring. Still, a smart film with a lot of merit.

3/5 Stars

The Great Gatsby

Having been put to film before, and largely unsuccessfully, an adaptation with the visual skill of Baz Luhrman and the acting talent of Leonardo DiCaprio would seem to have the makings for a great, true to form, adaptation. What we end up with is largely a mixed bag, filled with moments that tantalize us with what should have been, but also with far too many missteps.

The one consistent praise for this film has been, and should be, its visual sense. The flair that Luhrmann brings to Gatsby is laudable, capturing the mystique, the exaggerated grandeur, and the stark contrasts of the novel. The film looks, to a large extent, like the sort of world that Fitzgerald was trying to create, or at least relate, in his novel. The parties, the mansions, the costumes, all have a sort of stylized depiction that both transport the viewer, and capture the essence of the time.

However, this visionary attitude is brought to bear to far less effective extent in the other aspects of the film. The editing is bad throughout, but is horrendous for the first two thirds of the film. Luhrmann, no doubt, wanted to create a fast-paced opening so as to streamline and add excitement to the source material, but instead he creates scenes that seem haphazardly strewn together, with an erratic pacing and editing style that is immensely frustrating. Simply put, the film-making employed is far too self-indulgent and gimmicky, and distracts from the film, feeling very disjointed in its exposition.

The film also tries far too hard to "update" the novel. This is seen most egregiously in the soundtrack of the film, which borders on bad to terrible. Playing hip hop and other pop songs, remixed to have a more 20s feel, is an absurd idea, and cheapens the film. What we see never quite seems to match up to what we hear, sacrificing the unique liberal elegance of the period's music.

The script itself is not a bad adaption, although certain scenes have dialogue which is too sparse. All in all, the dramatic elements work, but only when they are allowed to work. The performance from DiCaprio is strong, and when the focus is on him, the film feels right. It's the erratic editing and ill-executed score that undermine the film, which feels overly concerned with style over substance. The supporting roles range from serviceable to good, with Carey Mulligan having the weakest performance.

Overall, Gatsby looks great, has a good story, and occasionally works as a drama. Unfortunately, what it does right gets easily lost in the over-stylized and ill conceived framework of the film.

3/5 Stars

Mud
Mud(2013)

Fast becoming one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood, Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), delivers another fascinating, authentic, and captivating tale. The story, revolving around two boys who come across an at large fugitive, is set against fantastic world building. The southern rural community that is shown feels real, having an underlying atmospheric tone and old style charm that characterizes the film throughout. Nichols populates this with interesting characters, engaging dialogue, and a story that never ceases to engage the audience.

The performances in Mud are strong all around, with the actors completely inhibiting their roles, and feeling at place in the world Nichols creates. It's headlined by a really strong performance by Matthew McConaughey, who has one of his best roles to date. The child actors, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, are able to do what so many child actors struggle to do, create nuance, having a relationship that never feels false.

The story itself manages to stay interesting for most of the film, with characters actig in real ways, not necessarily ways in which we would expect in conventional filmmaking. Everyone has shades of ambiguity and nuance. This is seen most keenly in the relationship between McConaughey and Witherspoon, bothing having idolized versions of each other that feel real to them, but are utterly naive to the viewer. There are also a number of subplots that give the film a real charm and authenticiy, notably Tye Sheridan's parents, having one of the more interesting family interactions put on film in quite some time.

The only weakness of Mud is the third act, which does seem to resort to come contrivances in its latter half. This keeps the story largely sweet and heartfelt, but does seem to undercut its darker tones.

An overall smart, interesting, well realized, and engaging drama.

4/5 Stars

Jurassic Park
½

Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park is the perfect lesson on how blockbusters should be made. The film is consistently tense, engaging, entertaining, and masterfully executed. It's filled with like-able performances, the people feel real, not like archetypes, and we genuinely feel their terror and amazement. Spielberg takes the time in this film to always set the stage, the action doesn't feel rushed, and the situations are organic to the events themselves, not simply thrown in the ratchet up the tension.

The 3D release is simply outstanding, unquestionably one of the best post 3D conversions ever done, rivaling that of Titanic's re-release. In this case, the 3D serves a purpose, making the film all the more life-like, and giving it much needed added dimension. This accentuates many of the animatronic scenes, and feels seamless with the rest of the film's polish. The special effects themselves have held up quite well, and are a true testament to the visionary that is Steven Spielberg.

4.5/5 Stars

Talk Radio
Talk Radio(1988)

While among Oliver Stone's less known work, Talk Radio is one of his most interesting films nonetheless. The film looks at a shock radio personality, whose shtick both endears him to some and alienates him from others, culminating in his eventual death, being based on actual events.

Taking place predominately in one setting, a radio studio, Stone was able to create a very noticeable level of intensity and earnestness, albeit a very confined intensity. This is a testament to his style of scene building, with an especially keen sense of framing that both underscores the emotion of the scene, and creates great tension. This works, as the film is essentially a character study, and an exploration of the medium of radio as well, a medium both intensely personal and yet also impersonal.

The performance by Eric Bogosian really anchors the film. His manic energy, his seeming callousness, his cynicism, embodies the role perfectly. Through the progression of the film, we see his character arc, which is done in both an authentic and organic way.

The themes explored in Talk Radio are done well. It captures the societal fascination with decadence and the mundane in powerful way, while also being a commentary on our modern media culture. Some of the dialogue used in the radio scenes can be stilted at times, but it's always sold well by Bogosian.

An overall underrated and overlooked smartly executed gem by Stone.

4/5 Stars

Quills
Quills(2000)

Quills is the sort of historical period piece that is frustrating, feeling both fascinating and inaccessible. The film revolves around Marquis de Sade, a nefarious and deeply troubled aristocrat with a knack for causing controversy with his explicit writings. The film documents his relationship with a chamber maid, who helps smuggle out his writings, and the ramifications of it.

The film's take on de Sade is fascinating. It portrays a man that is relentless in his quest to spread his vile writings, with Geoffrey Rush giving a very fine performance. We see a self obsessed, driven, but certainly psychotic man. The film uses this to examine themes of expression and moral ambiguity, which I appreciated. It's also matched with equally strong performances by Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and, above all, Michael Caine.

Where the film becomes frustrating, however, is in the supporting characters. Their actions never seem believable, and are frustratingly irrational. It's as if they are acting as they would in the mind of de Sade, without any respect to the actual context of the situation. Their character arcs don't feel organic to the events that are transpiring, making the film often disengaging and hard to watch. This is especially true of Kate Winslet's character, whose fascination with de Sade is never fully explored, and with Phoenix's character, who is simply written as an ignorant, highly emotional, and weak man. The themes the film brings up are interesting, but without other dynamic characters to compliment Rush, it's of no use.

The dramatic action of Quills never seems to culminate in anything. There's interesting points, but to no real payoff to them. Overall, there's enough here to hold your interest, with a good premise, but a frustrating execution.

3/5 Stars

Restoration
Restoration(1996)
½

Restoration is the sort of period piece that succeeds almost entirely in its world building. Set during the mid 1600s, after the English Civil War, the film revokes around a young physician and his escapades with the Royal aristocratic establishment. We see the evolution of his fall, discovery, and rise, set against a genuine historical period.

The thing that sets Restoration a part is its unique story-line. Certainly the themes are familiar, but Restoration is very ambitious in how it sets about resolving its plot. The film is expansive, introducing several main characters, and at various stages. We see Downey's character over a period of years, yet the film never feels rushed, paying off its story-lines well. That the film introduces major characters and hints at sub plots, but instead focuses its attention elsewhere, was refreshing, never feeling predictable (until the final act). The entire progression of Restoration was not concerned with hitting on plot points, being more concerned with immersing Downey's character in a variety of situations, and watching his development from there.

The one drawback with Restoration's expansive nature, however, is that we lack one central dramatic through line to anchor us. Downey's performance is strong, as are the others, but with the shifts in focus, the viewer can feel a bit disengaged, making it harder to keep us empathetic with the actions of those involved. Still, the script does a good job of providing us interestingy characters, and was intelligently written, with a keen sense of dialogue.

Overall, Restoration is a mature period piece for those that enjoy sophisticated world building and interesting characters, albeit with plot that is not quite as impacting.

3.5/5 Stars

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Though many films have been made on the subject, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is certainly one of the best takes on the struggle for Irish independence. The movie is unflinching in its look at the struggle, not shying away from the many family and political dynamics that made it such a complex time.

It's often hard to watch, but never ceases to engage. This is due to the solid direction by Ken Loach, which keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, but not too fast. The scene orchestration is excellent, the scenes develop organically and feel well realized. This is complemented by beautiful cinematography, which captures the amazing landscape, while also transporting us perfectly to 1920s Ireland.

The performances from all around are moving, especially by Cillian Murphy, who brings a considerable dramatic weight to every scene. We're almost transfixed by his earnestness, impressed with his dedication, and fascinated by his unwavering nature. He is complemented well by the rest of the cast, all of whom embody characters that are not polished, clichéd, or pretty, but real. If the film accomplishes anything, it's that it feels real.

The script also has an effective balance between being a drama, and a historical telling. The story centers around two brothers, but the conflict between them feels organic, we see the ambiguity of their later actions, feel their pain. The dialogue is also appropriate to the people, not losing a sense that this was a struggle, of more than anything, of the common people.

A highly effective historical piece.

4/5 Stars

Pain & Gain
Pain & Gain(2013)
½

Michael Bay's latest film is certainly his strangest, and perhaps most 'dramatically' effective film since Armageddon (not tongue in cheek). Pain & Gain is in many ways a self aware comedy, a satire, an action film, and, at least in stretches, a drama. The words used to describe it continually appear as "crass" "ludicrous" "loud", and simply over-the-top. This is true. It's a bizarre film in many ways. That it ultimately works, at least at its most basic levels, however, seem to suggest that the film oddly benefits from Bay's 'style'. Its detachment from the personal storyline, far more concerned with the spectacle of itself, essentially mirrors the inherent story, and hence, worked well.

The script, based on actual events, never takes itself too seriously. It certainly has some shallow characterizations, especially of Dwayne Johnson's character, but does enough with Mark Wahlberg's character that we are able to, at the very least, understand his wrapped view of events. It accomplishes this whilst having humorous dialogue, and weaving together a dramatic through-line that keeps the story grounded, no doubt anchored by Ed Harris. We never stop thinking, "this is a strange movie", and we know we aren't taking it as serious as it should otherwise be treated, but we're also never confused by the film's motivations or style. We get that it's commentary, certainly low level commentary, but satire nonetheless (Michael Bay style).

The acting in Pain & Gain is like the film itself; it works, oddly so, but it works. Ed Harris is the only one that's good in the traditional sense of the term, bringing the film a much needed sense of reality. Wahlberg, for his part, certainly puts himself into his role, and does a good job bringing a lot of earnestness to his portrayal. His supporting cast of Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie struggle with any dramatic nuance, such is the script, but strike just the right comedic tone. Dwayne Johnson especially continues to show, if nothing else, a strong awareness of what's expected from him. Tony Shalhoub, however, was mostly annoying, having perhaps the most overrated comedic presence in Hollywood, and being more obnoxious in his performance than endearing.

The story never ceases to be engaging. The events that it's based on are tragic, and certainly deserving of a serious treatment. But they are also absurd. Pain & Gain is an exercise in illustrating the absurd by being absurd. In that way, it's effective. We see the insanity of the situation, the bizarre dynamics of the situation involved, and are left to wonder how such thought processes occur.

Not for everyone, but certainly one of the more interesting films of the year.

3.5/5 Stars

Dead Again
Dead Again(1991)

Kenneth Branagh's attempt in at romance noir culminated in Dead Again, a bizarre, lackluster, and increasingly dumb affair.

To be sure, I love good film noir, and Dead Again has its moments. This is especially notable at the start of the film, having a good atmospheric set up, and a certain stylistic touch to the dialogue that I appreciated. As the film progressed, however, it got increasingly melodramatic to the point of almost being self parody. The existence of supernatural 'themes' is not an excuse for a profoundly dumb third act, with motifs about as subtle as the film's climax (an apartment decorated with pictures of scissors, for example).

An overall misguided and disappointing entry by Branagh.

2/5 Stars

Kumaré
Kumaré(2012)
½

In Kumare, Vikram Gandhi sets out to prove how faulty the idea of a guru is, and seeks to illustrate his point by becoming one himself. What ensues is an undeniably interesting documentary that examines the new age phenomenon and why people gravitate toward supposed teachers when, in reality, all the necessary changes comes from within.

I appreciated the experiment itself, with Vikram doing a strong job embodying a guru, but in a way in which deception is minimized. The way Vikram set about his experiment was to have his 'followers' project on to him as much as possible, which gave the documentary a certain validity to it.

As a film, Kumare never ceases to be entertaining. There are a number of moments of intended and unintentional humor, and the subjects' reactions are often priceless. As a commentary on the whole new age movement, Kumare is also successful, having some insightful things to say. I do wish he had been more expansive in his examination, however, as he seemed a bit too dismissive of some of the more cult-like aspects of the groups he visited. Had he spent more time on the psychology of both the groups, gurus, and follows in general, as well as the tactics employed, Kumare would have had more of an impact.

As it stands, a short, albeit interesting, and enjoyable special interest documentary.

3.5/5 Stars

The Place Beyond The Pines

In easily the best drama of the year thus far, and among the best in recent memory, The Place Beyond The Pines does what so few movies can. Director Derek Cianfrance follows up Blue Valentine with this incredibly ambitious film, which interweaves its plot in three distinct structures, with themes that look at inter-generational effects. For many directors this would have been too much to handle, but Cianfrance is able to do it brilliantly. The end result is a film that is exceptionally well realized, intense, atmospheric, moving, compelling, poignant, and profound.

The performances in the film are phenomenal from all involved. With any film that has an ensemble cast, it's crucial everyone be on the same page. Here, every performance is pitch perfect, and delivered with appropriate nuance. Ryan Gosling has an incredible restless intensity that sells his role to a perfect degree, as he's able to completely inhibit his character. Bradley Cooper follows up with another tremendous performance, one in which we see him develop into an unassuming rookie cop, into a calculated politician, a metamorphosis that feels organic and is developed within the film. The supporting actors, form Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, to Ben Mendelsohn, all accentuate each other, and represent the best working cast in recent memory.

The script is certainly another brilliant aspect of the film. It looks at themes of greed, crime, forgiveness, loss, regret, and does so within a truly authentic framework of character dynamics. Each character is given their appropriate due, with strong dialogue, and equally strong character arcs. The structure of the film, with its essentially three part structure, is pulled off amazingly well, and never feels disjointed or incoherent, a huge risk for such an undertaking.

The direction also delivers a consistent atmospheric tone. It's methodical in its pace, certainly, but never ceases to be engaging. Cianfrance understands build up, and is able to keep the film moving a long at just the right pace, enough to keep us hooked, but not fast enough so as to make the narrative suffer. He also composes his scenes to great effect, complemented by brilliant cinematography.

Sure to be one of the best films of the year.

5/5 Stars

The Awakening

Old school, The Awakening is the sort of old fashioned horror thriller that has died out in recent times. It offers a pretty conventional story, that of a suspected haunted boarding school, and a skeptic bound to bust the myth of its haunting. As events unfold, that skepticism wears down. Yeah, it has been done before.

What I will say about The Awakening is that it never ceases to engage with the audience because of how fast paced it is. The plot deficiencies are often masked by this, as we briskly go from one scene to another. The acting is also strong, with Rebecca Hall really elevating what could have otherwise been a pretty lame part, and Dominic West providing a good supporting role. Their dynamics are interesting, the period piece backdrop of the film gave it a strong atmospheric tone, combined with tense direction.

The obvious negative of Awakening is the script, which is conventional and serviceable for most of the film, but quickly becomes a mess, with asinine plot turns, in the last act. This has, unfortunately, become the norm for these sort of films, always wanting to reach absurd heights to be memorable.

Overall it does enough right to make it a good B thriller, nothing more.

3/5 Stars

Into The Abyss

Werner Herzog is certainly one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of our time, and Into the Abyss represents his examination of the criminal justice system. Like his past documentaries, he does a great job of getting his subjects to say insightful and penetrating, things on screen, with emotional breakdowns commonplace. This is Herzog's greatest strength, getting to the key emotional and political undertones.

The film is often compelling in many of these interviews, with the execution guard testimony being unforgettable. The problem with the documentary, however, is that it simply felt too detached. Herzog's the king of long camera takes, but he indulges that too much here. The story is told, but in too cold of a way, and often confusing. The film itself was also a bit slow, meandering too much after appearing to make a point. In this way, it wasn't always as engaging as Herzog's other efforts, often feeling more tedious than interesting.

Still, it has a lot of interesting things to say, and is worth a watch for any interested in the subject.

3/5 Stars

The Impossible

The Impossible is certainly one of the more disturbing true-story themed films to have come out in recent years, featuring a real life survival account about the horrific tsunami in 2004.

What I liked most about The Impossible was its' unflinching sense of realism.
Everything about the film felt real. The actual tsunami scene itself was brilliantly staged, the effects were tremendous, and the family dynamics felt very authentic. This was an actual family we were watching, actual turmoil they were facing, and a truly chaotic environment they were plunged in to. It did what "based on a true story" films rarely do, stayed true to itself without the use of plot gimmicks or cliched devices. It was a mature film for a mature subject. The script it utilized was also strong, with realistic dialogue, and a true sense of how the characters developed over the course the event.

The acting is also certainly what takes The Impossible to the next level, it was top notch all around. Naomi Watts in particular was phenomenal, giving one of the best performances of her career, and was matched well by Ewan McGregor. Even the child actors were fantastic, all on the same page with the tone of the film, all with similar progressions.

Disturbing to be sure, it's sometimes hard to watch. If it does have a weakness, it's that it's perhaps a bit too long, with the third act being needlessly dragged out. Still, an excellent overall drama and moving story.

4/5 Stars

Day of the Falcon

Day of the Falcon is one of the stranger period pieces in the past few years. It's a movie that is bad, interesting, dull, exciting, smart, and dumb. It's the cinematic definition of a mixed bag.

Perhaps the greatest testament the film offers as to being a mixed bag is the acting. Antonio Banderas is not good. The protagonist toward the mid to late acts, Tahar Rahim, is serviceable, but not good. The other supporting cast are likewise serviceable, with Mark Strong being the only one of distinction. With his performance, the level of engagement he brings, we see what the film should have been.
The actual composition of the film is impressive. It looks great, with fantastic world building, amazing cinematography, and conveying a realistic sense of early 20th century Saudi Arabia.

The film's script is ambitious, encompassing a narrative with great ambitions. It does succeed in offering an interesting history of the time, from a uncharacteristically positive view of Islam and the Saudi powers.

It achieves this, however, with often stilted dialogue, forced plot mechanisms, and a lack of nuance. The characters too often spell out what they are thinking, and, even with the film's positive depiction, they seem hypocritical and profoundly narrow and illogical in their mindset, which the film fails to acknowledge.

The pace of the film starts of almost unbearably slow, with set-up that is unnecessary, unfocused, and all over the map as far as tone. That the film picks up considerable steam about the mid way point is its saving grace, becoming very engaging after that point.

Overall, Day of the Falcon does enough right to warrant a watch for those fans of period pieces and history (perhaps not so much from an accuracy standpoint), but one that certainly does not live up to the lofty goals it sets for itself.

3/5 Stars

Oblivion
Oblivion(2013)

Oblivion represents science fiction at its best with its visuals, but not quite at its best with its story. It's a movie that is polished on many levels, but perhaps not as finished as one would expect or hope. What it succeeds at being, however, is a film that offers fantastic technical elements and visuals, great acting, an interesting, if not fleshed out story, and consistent entertainment.

As most have noted, Oblivion looks great in every aspect. The framing builds tension, the cinematography is gorgeous, the CGI is impeccable. The composure of every scene has a fine attention to detail, but doesn't call attention to itself in the most obvious of ways. It's a post-apocalyptic world that feels realistic in the way it was rendered.

The acting is also predominately strong, with Tom Cruise undeniably bringing his best to the role (consistency in performance has always been one of his strongest suits). He anchors every scene with intensity, charm, and drive that propel the narrative forward. The supporting cast around Cruise is good as well, but they do seem to suffer in his shadow. Some of this is due undoubtedly, at least to some extent, on characterization issues (Morgan Freeman's character is not given enough time or material to really work with).

The script is, at times, the film's greatest negative. The story is never fully fleshed out in a way the feels realized, the alien species is never given enough due so as to make them a sinister/mysterious force (such as in the vein of the recent Prometheus), but rather goes more for ambiguity, but to such an extent in which we don't fear them, nor hate them, we're just confused by them. That said, the premise of the film is also what sets it apart from other science fiction films. It really is going for something uniqu and it largely succeeds at that. The film explores themes that are mature, and has a smart way of conveying them, with a surprisingly good payoff at the end.

Overall, Oblivion is an immensely enjoyable film that doesn't surpass the best science fiction films of the past few years, but certainly delivers on a high standard, in addition to being a very strong overall action film.

4/5 Stars

The Greatest Game Ever Played

Predictable movies, that with an inevitably uplifting ending and familiar character progressions, can still be good. The Greatest Game Ever Played is one of those films. The premise, that of an underdog underprivileged young man going up against the greatest golfers in the world, has been done. Like many of said stories, this one is based upon actual events. Unlike many similarly themed films, however, it strikes a resonance beyond the mere fact it's based on a true story, with a really effective execution.

The acting is very strong all around, with Shia LaBeouf fitting his role perfectly. He captures resilience, charm, and bottled frustration as well as anyone, and felt very in tune with what the role called for. I liked the interactions he had with the rest of the cast, with Stephen Dillane being especially impressive. Dillane's deadpan intensity gave the film a dramatic weight that it wouldn't have had otherwise. All of the inner-character dynamics felt authentic and well realized.

From a script standpoint, the film did an excellent job exploring the different character arcs. It was heavy handed, to be sure, in its main theme critiquing the aristocracy, but this was outweighed by the effective and inventive use of flashbacks. What was especially well done were the parallels between Dillane's early character and LaBeouf, with the film appropriately restraining itself from being too obvious.

The film also struck a good balance from a tone standpoint. It worked as a pure drama and an underdog story, while also having a noticeable charm and humor to it.

A fun, refreshingly positive, and always entertaining sports conventions fest.

4/5 Stars

Red Dawn
Red Dawn(2012)

Why they would remake Red Dawn is a mystery, how this movie avoided straight-to-dvd treatment is a greater one. It's bad on every level. The opening scene seems to offer promise, but is quickly drowned out by nonsensical action, a plot that redefines asinine, and 'acting' which wouldn't make it past most network television shows.

The premise, of a North Korean invasion, is never fully delivered upon. Soldiers suddenly appear and take over the town, with no apparent resistance, and no explanation (save a cursory reference to U.S. troops being spread thin). It's laughable. So, too, was the original, but some time was given to try and deliver on plausibility, whereas none of that is found in this Red Dawn. What the wolverines do is of no interest, of dubious consequence, and seemingly random. It's not built up, it just happens. There are no dynamics between the characters which felt real, interesting, or worthwhile.

The action is terrible. The acting is worse, and the script apparently wasn't present. One of the worst remakes in recent years.

1/5 Stars

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
½

It's hard to think of a reason another G.I. Joe movie was made then for simply the sake of making another movie. Nothing about the first one offered anything that would give promise to a sequel, and Retaliation only underscored this point.

Retaliation is a nothing movie. There's kind of a plot, but no set up, there's plenty of things blowing up, but with no impact. There's people talking with intensity ("I need him for this war I'm about to start!"), but to no effect, and placed within a context of such idiocy, that's it's often not even funny, with a few exceptions. We simply care nothing for what's going on, and wouldn't be able to 'follow' (used loosely to mean the sequence of action beats) whats going on even if we did.

The 'acting' in Retaliation is appropriately cheesy, but with absolutely no character development. Shallow characters and one-liners are fine for most B action movies, but there is not a semblance of substance to any of the characters here. No one seems to elevate the material or offer any charm, they're simply all going through the motions. Willis, for his part, was noticeably dis-interested, though his part was so overblown and short as to make him near useless.

A nonsensical mess.

Note: There is one undoubtedly unintentionally funny sequence that almost makes the film qualify as passably entertaining. Almost.

1.5/5 Stars

For Love of the Game

Clichéd in parts and involving in others, For Love of the Game is a largely uneven romantic drama/baseball movie. It has a premise that is familiar, hinging on a final game and involving a romance that prematurely breaks up, but also has a clever structure in that its built up largely from flashbacks. This results in moments that feel real and well realized, and others that feel too tired and forced.

The performances are also hit or miss, with Kevin Costner being mostly strong, but having no real chemistry with Kelly Preston, especially in the beginning two thirds of the film. Both actors seem to hit their stride in the last act, as does the script and direction, but the chemistry is certainly not evident in a number of scenes. This speaks to the film's overall momentum, lagging for most of the film, but picking up considerable strength in what is an actually fairly well done ending.

The direction by Sam Rami was good from the standpoint that it built tension well, especially during the game moments, but got overly self indulgent, especially with the very last game sequence, feeling a bit choppy.

Overall, it has elements that work well, and other elements which feel dull, but does enough just right to make it pass as a serviceable drama, if not one of Costner's more forgettable baseball movies.

3/5 Stars

The Collection
½

The Collection is a supremely disappointing follow-up to its promising predecessor, The Collector. Wherein The Collector offered legitimate scares, had an excellent sense of tension, and was largely well executed, The Collection seemingly makes a parody of that.

The film starts absurd from the first scene, with a comically clichéd set up, and an increasingly absurd plot. The Collector's mechanisms are elaborate yet idiotic. His lair is an abandoned hotel seemingly in the middle of the city, populated with vagrants. The devices he utilizes seem to be a rip-off of the later Saw sequels, but with even less thought. In short, there is no element of realism to be found anywhere in the film in any way, shape, or form.

The actors are mostly bad, left to inhibit characters that are vacant of any substance, in a film devoid of wit, charm, or, especially, intelligence. It's not "so bad it's good", its "so bad its bad".

1.5/5 Stars

Edward Scissorhands
½

Not being an especially big Tim Burton fan, I went in to Edward Scissorhands with some apprehension. I was surprised, however, to find quite a strong film, that has all of the strengths of Burton's subsequent works, but without any of the blatant weaknesses. He uses Scissorhands as a vehicle for his imaginative ability, having a brilliant visual sense, but does not lose sight of the story and its characters.

By keeping the focus on the characters, the film maintains a strong heart, which keeps the film grounded and engaging. The visuals and magical elements complement the story rather than propel it. It's first and foremost about a central theme, that of the nature of love and the outsiders who need it, and never loses this fact. Burton's visuals and world building accentuates this story, having world building that creates a universe that is fantastical, to be sure, but one that also feels strangely real and grounded. The viewer is never detached from what is happening.

Add to this the awesome performances from all around, especially from Depp and Alan Arkin, who bring charm, charisma, and humor to the film, with an especially deep and likable performance by Depp. Smart, amazingly well realized, funny, and relentlessly enjoyable, its surely Burton's greatest work.

4.5/5 Stars

The Factory
The Factory(2011)
½

The Factory represents a film that, at first, seems to defy its straight-to-dvd nature, and seems strangely competent for what it appears to be. It has effective performances, an atmospheric tone complemented by moody cinematography, and a story that, despite being unoriginal, is interesting enough to make it pass as a B thriller.

All of that goes out the window as the film progresses, particularly in its third act. The action becomes less grounded and tense, and more ridiculous and forced. The dialogue becomes borderline comical, the film seems to lose everything it had going for it. The final twist ending is what really kills the film, being absurdly asinine, poorly executed, shamelessly setting up a sequel.

2.5/5 Stars

Chopper
Chopper(2001)
½

Chopper is made by the performance of Eric Bana, who shows depth previously unseen in his other performances. His charisma, his intensity, and his delivery underscores every seen with the sort of manic criminality that makes the film truly effective. His ambiguous motivations, and the film's reluctance to ascribe real meaning, making the film all the more fascinating as a character study.

It also works on a dramatic and, at times, comedic level, providing us with authentic character moments, and very interesting dynamics. Some of the dialogue can be a bit hard to decipher because of the accents, to be sure, but it nevertheless remains as an effective story of a twisted man, told in a brisk, gritty, and entertaining manner.

3.5/5 Stars

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Of all the descriptions used for Beasts of the Southern Wild, the most common and true would be that of "poetry on screen". The film, from it's stylized elements including the script, acting, cinematography, and direction, feels like a poem. It has a narrative, to be sure, but an unconventional one, not concerned with story so much as message. At that same time, it stays anchored in a literal world. As such, it avoids the trap of being overly self indulgent and indie, while also being quite distinguished and uniquely realized.

The acting is perhaps the most impressive thing about the film, with a powerhouse performance from the young Quvenzhane Wallis, who has an amazing screen presence and expressive posture that anchors the film throughout, with incredibly impacting scenes toward the third act. She is complimented well, though on a different, more grounded level, by the remaining cast, making for very interesting dynamics, especially with her father.

The script is smart with its use of narration, sparse dialogue, and scene set up. It feels coherent but not contrived, poetic, but not lost in its own message. It is clear in what it wants to say, conveying feelings of mystery, love, and tragedy, and to excellent effect.

Memorable, executed greatly, and visually stunning, it's one of 2012's more interesting films.

4/5 Stars

The Imposter
The Imposter(2012)
½

One of the most memorable and compelling documentaries of recent memory, The Imposter never ceases to be gripping, fascinating, enthralling, and absolutely thought provoking.

The story, completely true and previously publicized to a large extent, is told through well realized re-enactments and interviews with the family and the perpetrator himself. This is blended extremely well, and compliments each other brilliantly. We hear from the family, with their tragic ineptness and heartbreak, and then we're given context from Frederic Bourdin himself, an enigmatic and bizarre man, who explains step by step his plan. Later on, we are also given background from others involved, including a private investigator and an FBI agent, who inject even more intrigue in to a completely over-the-top but true story. Simply put, the direction by Bart Layton seamlessly weaves an intricate story in such a coherent and engaging manner, so as to be almost unbelievable.

The only minor criticism would be the documentary's thin examination of some of the family dynamics involved, but that is certainly a symptom of wanting to focus more on the more interesting personality of Bourdin himself. A superb documentary.

4.5/5 Stars

Dead Man Down

Dead Man Down represents perhaps the most odd blending of film styles in a thriller this year, and with mixed results.

The story, cliched in many respects, is not without it's interesting elements. This is perhaps where the foreign director's touch is felt the most, with a very European sensibility with its scene set up, seemingly completely uninterested in pace, and far more interested in building slow momentum and character intrigue through the use of long scenes. This, unfortunately, doesn't work well on the whole, and makes the film feel sluggish.

The screenplay has often terrible dialogue and sloppy plot twists. It does have some more competent elements, but is notably unpolished and is the worst thing about the film. Having said that, however, the actors manage to lift the material up through their delivery, and save what would otherwise be a hopelessly inept story.

It has a certain cinematography that is reminiscent of Michael Mann in a polished, saturated, yet realist way. This gives the film an atmospheric tone that is felt throughout, and weights the film to a grittier level than it would otherwise be. That is to say, the film undoubtedly looks and feels better than the actual material and execution would suggest.

Overall, it's certainly a mixed bag, but it works well enough to make it a serviceable B thriller.

3/5 Stars

Anna Karenina

As a fan of period pieces, and a fan especially of Joe Wright, I greatly looked forward to Anna Karenina. On the whole, it would have to be said that it's a rather disappointing showing for Wright.

The film does a lot right. The cinematography is well done, the acting is strong, the world building is impeccable, and the story is compelling. What's lacking, however, is a screenplay that's as smart and engaging as Wright's other work. This film is far too interested in being stylized, and to no real effect. The use of a literal stage, and the gimmicky film devices employed seem to undermine what otherwise should a very intelligent story. This greatly disrupts the tone of Anna Karenina, which alters between an involving drama, a quirky comedy, and sometimes self indulgent melodrama.

Overall, it does enough well to make it worth a watch for Wright fans and those who love period pieces, but it certainly represents one of his weaker entries and a lackluster adaptation at best.

3/5 Stars

Deadfall
Deadfall(2012)
½

With an interesting premise and a serviceable cast, Deadfall offered a lot of potential to be a poor man's Cohen brothers sort of crime noir piece. Instead, it ventures too much on the "straight to dvd" category that it ultimately falls flat.

The cast is a mix of 'known' actors, Eric Bana, Sissy Spacek, to character actors, Kris Kristofferson, to those more new on the scene and known for their television work, such as Charlie Hunnam. All are okay, with the exception of Kate Mara who is a very inconsistent actress, that with better material they could have clicked. Unfortunately, they were faced with a weak script and apparently weak direction, with no one talented enough to carry the film.

The script has an interesting, if not somewhat familiar story, but doesn't nothing new with it. It's riddled with clichés (the daughter who can never live up to her father's expectations, the son who made a mistake that will forever haunt him, the protective brother with a dark past), and refuses to do anything beyond the surface level. The dialogue is especially weak, sounding stilted and bare-bones, there is no richness or subtext to be found, just dull set up for the next dull, clichéd ridden scene.

The film does look good, and the director succeeds in giving it an atmospheric feel. This makes the films' otherwise lackluster execution all the more disappointing, with a stronger cast and a better script, it could have been an enjoyable, perhaps memorable, little noir piece. Overall, however, it fails to do enough right to make it recommended.

2.5/5 Stars

Hick
Hick(2012)

Hick is a movie that wants you to take it seriously, but lacks the execution necessary in order for that to happen. It has the familiar theme of a precocious young girl who comes from a troubled background, meeting people of similar vulnerability.

The premise itself, leaving home and the people you meet on the way, is enjoyable enough, but feels disjointed in the narrative, which doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. The film constantly calls back to other films, and apparently tries to embody them, but without a consistent tone. It's sometimes dramatic, quirky, 'romantic' (in quotes for a definite reason), and other times more introspective, but it never seems to really deliver on any of those elements. This is partly a symptom of the script, to be sure, which tries desperately to fit too many things in with far too many homages, and the direction, which feels unfocused.

The performances are also sporadic. Chloe Moretz is certainly charismatic and talented, but feels awkward and not properly directed in her role here. That she's matched with Eddie Redmayne, an actor with no discernible screen presence whatsoever, doesn't help. What was especially disappointing were the wasted roles of Alex Baldwin and Juliette Lewis, who got very little screen time.

For it's faults, Hick does aim for something higher than it ultimately delivers, and it deserves credit for that. It's themes do resonate on certain levels, and there's a number of good scenes to be had, and, at its heart, it's a good story. Unfortunately, however, it simply lacks any real polish.

2/5 Stars

The Master
The Master(2012)
½

Like much of Paul Thomas Anderson's work, The Master is partly enthralling and well executed (There Will be Blood), beautifully shot, but also overly self indulgent and inaccessible (Magnolia). It's undoubtedly one of his more enigmatic films, with a nuanced sense of intelligence and reveling in its ambiguity.

The performances in The Master are what make the film standout. Joaquin Phoneix is simply brilliant in his portrayal as the grief stricken, manic, and lost Freddie, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the affable, charming, smart, but manipulate 'cult' leader. Both men anchor every scene and make the film work as, if nothing else, a fascinating character study.

The film's script is written well, with phenomenal dialogue, and themes that are serious, mature, and thought provoking. The film, however, seems to lose sight of itself a bit in parts, feeling meandering at times. It's definitely trying to say something but what that is isn't entirely clear, almost as if it wanted to avoid any overt statement. This can work well, but is a bit distracting, especially when certain scenes seem to almost contradict themselves with the tone. This makes the film feel somewhat frustrating and, especially at the end, unsatisfying.

At it's heart, The Master seems to be a study of charismatic movements and desperation, the search for answers, and those that seek to fill the void, hopelessly lost in their own pseudo-intellectualism.

Overall, it's a film well worth watching, but one not always accessible, and sometimes a chore to get through. The performances, and it's uniquely mature sensibility however, make it ultimately succeed.

3.5/5 Stars

Sophie's Choice

The Holocaust is always a difficult subject to translate to film, and especially difficult to put to film in a way that is meaningful beyond the subjects' inherent weight, in that it doesn't rely on the tragic nature of the Holocaust to bring it resonance. Instead, it manages to bring an interesting story, in its own merits, and interweaves it with skill, albeit perhaps a bit too melodramatic at times.

What really makes Sophie's Choice work are the characters involved, which are impeccably cast. This is anchored primarily by Meryl Streep, with a characteristic powerhouse performance, but also matched well by Kevin Kline as the manic, intelligent, but hopelessly charming Nathan Landau. The actors inhibit their characters with such nuance, with such dedication, that it really makes the film impacting, even with the bloated run time.

The script was also another standout with the film, which takes its time to build the characters and realize the setting. The flashbacks are exceedingly well written and incorporated, with the film feeling coherent and organically composed. The dialogue and narration are also well done.

The only real drawback to the film is the running time, which feels a bit bloated. The film does seem to lose momentum towards the end, which is partly a symptom of this. It's also a little too over dramatic in many respects, but the actors and strong writing always keep the film engaging, and definitely moving. A powerful drama.

4/5 Stars

Snitch
Snitch(2013)

A lot of "inspired by true events" films have a tendency to get away from themselves, and lose all elements of realism. Snitch, however, doesn't do that. Despite some outlandish action sequences and twists, the heart of the film anchors itself by a genuinely realistic premise and moving message, one that points out yet another absurd aspect of our criminal justice system, mandatory minimum sentence laws.

Surprisingly, Dwayne Johnson manages to turn in a serviceable performance, as he hits on enough true emotional beats, and has just the right presence to carry his role. What really elevates the film, however, is the supporting cast. Barry Pepper was undoubtedly the highlight of the film, having a remarkably changed demeanor and persona for this particular role, with an especially convincing performance as a DEA agent.

The film's script does a good job with its set-up, giving us a family situation that, though cliched in many respects, manages to hit on a number of true and relate-able elements, offering us characters in situations that we can believe and empathize with. Its message about minimum sentence laws, and the drug war in general, is a bit too on the nose, but certainly well received.

The dramatic elements of the film are certainly better executed than the action scenes, as the action feels lackluster and often rushed. That it works on a purely dramatic level, however, is a testament to the actors, its message, and the direction. It never ceases to be entertaining, has a true emotional heart, and a strong sense of story.

4/5 Stars

Compliance
Compliance(2012)

Timely, unsettling, and riveting, Compliance is a memorable, and undeniably disturbing thriller. The premise, based on actual events, revolves around a prank call, and the seemingly inconceivable things that fall-out from it. The film yields an interesting balance between commentary, character study, and enthralling thriller, succeeding admirably on all parts, and managing to make an impression.

The acting is what I appreciated most about Compliance, with excellent performances from all around, performances that are so naturalistic, and so relate-able, that the realism of the film stays consistent and engaging. Especially impressive was Ann Dowd, as the affable, slightly naive, but well meaning manager, who is tragically manipulated. All of the actors had great chemistry, and inhibited a world that so resembles our own, so as to make it that much more unsettling.

The script and direction is also done well, with a great sense of tension, and smart characterizations. While liberties were taken, the heart of the film has a factual basis, and the script did a good job relating what is an all too rule societal problem, why do we unquestionably submit to authority? The one element that didn't quite work, however, was that of the caller, who I felt wasn't appropriately fleshed out, which is disappointing, as the film seemed to allude to some possibly interesting story-lines.

Overall, a thought provoking, uncomfortable, but well executed drama.

4/5 Stars

Margaret
Margaret(2011)

Uniquely conceived and executed, Margaret is one of the most interesting films to come out in quite some time. That it was originally scheduled for a 2007 release date, but only found a theatrical release this past year, makes it that much more interesting. It follows a teenager, Margaret, who witnesses a fatal traffic accident, but one in which moral ambiguity seems to carry the day.

What is certainly the most notable thing about the film is Anna Paquin's portrayal of Margaret. It's brilliant, passionate, and authentic, albeit not always easy to watch. This is a testament to the realism Paquin brought to the table, playing a character that most would find interesting, but also often strident, with a flair for hyperbole and melodrama that most actresses could only hope to imitate, but Paquin successfully embodied.

The other stand out thing about the film is simply how naturalistic it is. Director Kenneth Lonergan was able to capture emotions in an uncanny manner. This is how people feel, and this is how people react, even when such interactions are difficult to sit through, because it is so realistic (capturing the harsh dynamics of New Yorkers). So while the story is simple, it's rich in how detailed and down to earth it seems.

For what it does well, Margaret does seem to have a script and scope that is a bit too ambitious, with many characters. Not every character is quite given their due, despite a long running time, and some story-lines are never paid off or given any real attention. The main through-line, however, is done quite well, and largely anchors the film.

A must watch for any enthusiastic of independent film making.

4/5 Stars

A Good Day To Die Hard
½

When going in to a film like A Good Day to Die Hard, it's good to have expectations in check, and a realistic sense of what it'll bring. The series itself has its high moments (notably the first film) and its definite low points, so it'd be reasonable to expect a B action movie with good lines, good action, and at least a passable story. This Die Hard works on some of these elements, but not consistently, and lacking a lot of the charm we'd come to expect from the series.

The film starts out with a good opening sequence, which seems to offer a good dynamic between action and some interesting characters. This, however, was not to be, as it quickly turned in to a litany of explosions and chases without any sort of rhyme or reason, and to varying effectiveness. A few of the action beats work, but many seem overly drawn out, and lack the set-up to really make them meaningful. This is a symptom of the script, as there really isn't one. The premise is outlandish, of course, but also largely nonsensical. There's a twist, but a befuddling one. It doesn't have the same sort of stakes as past Die Hard movies, as we can't empathize with the situations the characters are in on any level. In this way, the writers seemed to be relying far too heavily on the fact that it is a Die Hard film, as opposed to trying to move the series forward.

There is some charm to be found, however, in some of the one-liners, and even a few of the interactions between the characters. There are also some truly funny moments, and sometimes these match up with certain action beats. The actors, notably Willis, are just not given enough room or story to really breath and bring a lot of personality to the table to the extent that we would like, however.

Overall, it's a serviceable B action film in a lot of respects, but with not enough story or substance to really sustain it or elevate the franchise.

2.5/5 Stars

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

With it's disgusting premise and exploitative nature, Human Centipede probably does not warrant much being said about it. For what it is and what it wants to be, it is successful in that it creates a truly menacing villain, Dieter Laser, and puts characters in situations that are shocking to even modern standards. The 'acting' and dialogue is rough at first, but seems to find it's stride towards the mid and latter portions of the 'film'. It would be hard to argue that it rises much above torture porn, but director Tom Six does seem to have a knack for tension building, with one specific scene involving two detectives having a particularly well crafted sense of pace and build-up. That, and an unpredictable last act, make it a step above a B movie, while still being a novelty by and large. Recommended only faintly for those with the sensibilities.

3/5 Stars

Side Effects
Side Effects(2013)
½

Steven Soderbergh's latest entry is also undoubtedly one of his best, representing some of his most effective tendencies, being cold, calculating, chilling, smart, with a strong feeling of realism being felt throughout.

The film is just as engaging from beginning to end, being methodically paced, and yet so well crafted so as to never lose any sort of dramatic tension. This is a testament to Soderbergh's staging, he can brilliantly film even the most mundane situation with such a clinical sophistication, to the extent that every thing feels important.

The acting of the film is very good from all involved, with Rooney Mara having an especially captivating performance, embodying the sort of restrained anti-social craziness that worked beautifully for her character in this and other films. The way she conveyed emotion, and the hopelessness of depression, resonated powerfully throughout Equally impressive was Jude Law, with his charming, yet calculating performance.

The script was characteristically smart, as so many Soderbergh films. It starts as one film and ends up as another, yet never really hits a false note. The dialogue is strong, the characters well realized, and the twist is refreshingly well executed and unpredictable.

The best thriller of the new year so far.

4.5/5 Stars

Warm Bodies
Warm Bodies(2013)
½

For a genre as worn out as the zombie genre, Warm Bodies would seemingly offer an interesting premise. It seeks to insert a 'classic' love story in a post-apocalyptic world, in which zombies think, while at the same time being fully capable of evolving up, or devolving down.

The acting is good from that standpoint that it fits the tone, with Nicholas Hoult having an especially strong performance. The problem, however, is an apparent lack of chemistry. The was partly symptomatic of the script, which is cliched, with a romance that feels forced, and never believable, even in the film's world. It also seems to be a problem of casting, Teresa Palmer is never on the same wavelength as Hoult.

This is also felt with the other performances. The zombies acted like people trying to be zombies, rather than zombies trying to be people. Again, this is, at least partly, due to a scripting problem. The logic of the film makes no sense, forcing the cast to act restrained by their nature one minute, while at the next, acting in more human ways (this is even prior to the 'solution' being offered). In one scene they can't move fast, in another scene they can jog. Somehow, they can devolve into skeletal creatures with even more strength and less limitations. In order to have a successful film with any sort of fantastic premise, there has to be a sort of logic operating within the film itself, Warm Bodies simply had too many holes.

The film's PG-13 rating was also felt heavily. It seemed to want to create a dark world, but was restrained from doing that, with lackluster action scenes, and much less gore than you'd expect, and that would even be appropriate. It was desperately trying to walk the line between mainstream, and appealing to the "tween" audience, ultimately never satisfying either.

Overall it does a few nice things, but is bogged down with cliches, scripting problems, and ill-executed world building.

2.5/5 Stars

Manhattan
Manhattan(1979)
½

Manhattan represents one of Woody Allen's greatest critical responses, widely considered to be among his best. It's a well conceived film, to be sure, with amazing cinematography, a unique story, and a script penned by Woody that is filled with his characteristic wit and dialogue, with good characterizations and an avoidance of clichés.

Set against a beautiful backdrop of late 1970s New York, and filmed in black and white, it looks brilliant. The acting is as strong as most Allen pieces, with solid early performances from greats Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. All of this contribute to what feels like a very real story. This is what Allen is perhaps best at, injecting humor and comedy into realistic situations.

My issue with Manhattan, however, is that the story isn't as involving or as engaging as his other works. It's also not nearly as funny. This is perhaps at least partly due to the dated nature of the film, not aging as well in humor as even some of his earlier works, such as the fantastic Annie Hall. It's enjoyable, but it never reaches the pinnacle of Allen's other work which are often more poignant, hilarious, and engaging.

3.5/5 Stars

Lars and the Real Girl

Categorized as a comedy but succeeding as being a drama, albeit with a sort of quirky and dark comedic sense, Lars and the Real Girl represents a unique sort of film, and a standout moment for Ryan Gosling.

The film examines themes of isolation, mental illness, love, regret, and loss, in a poignant way, with a script that doesn't opt for easy answers or clichéd characters, but instead offers a tragic, but fair, view of a torn, confused man. This man is played enormously well by Ryan Gosling, who injects the film with its dramatic weight. The supporting cast is equally as strong, each contributing to the film's unique tone.

The one aspect of the film that did give me trouble was the reaction of the townspeople, which seemed overly optimistic, and a bit out of tune with the rest of the film. Granted, this played to the comedic elements, but I thought occasionally it undercut the realism.

Overall, it's a funny, moving, and uniquely realized character study, filled with fine performances.

4/5 Stars

Broken City
Broken City(2013)
½

While it's certainly not Chinatown, or even among the best of its genre, Broken City is still a surprisingly solid drama, with more value than its mid-January release date might suggest.

The script, pitting an ex-cop against a corrupt Mayor, has faults in that it doesn't seem to weave an intricate plot strong enough to sustain its heavy-handed themes, and instead seems to opt for more formulaic ways of solving itself. Still, where it fails on plot, it seems to have a better time with dialogue. There were a number of dialogue exchanges which felt well-realized, with better-than-average uses of in-movie political punditry (some of what was said actually seemed like it may come from a politician, unlike many of today's movies).

Mark Wahlberg manages to bring a lot to the role, anchoring it with charisma, and bringing a lot of intensity (thankfully this time in tune with the tone of the film) to each scene he's in. Russell Crowe is also strong, albeit with a rather dialed down performance. Some of the other cast members seemed under-utilized, however, notably Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jeffrey Wright.

What the film ultimately gets right is an atmospheric tone, a consistent level of engagement, and enjoyable performances. The plot isn't nearly as dumb as many films of this ilk, but it's certainly not the smartest of political noir films. It lacks the polish and sophistication to make it great and particularly memorable, but for what it is, it works.

3.5/5 Stars

Zero Dark Thirty
½

Kathryn Bigelow, director of the gripping war films K-19: The Widowmaker and The Hurt Locker, delivers an amazingly gripping and well executed film, again set during our current, and supposed, War on Terror.

The film is expertly directed, with brilliantly laid out scene construction, and a perfect sense of tension. This tension is built organically, and through dialogue. It's not at all forced or concocted, but arises out of the atmospheric nature of the film, and the methodical, yet undeniably gripping, narrative that unfolds.

The script is especially impressive, with a detailed sophistication, that lays out the hunt in a chronological way, as to convey how time had changed the nature of the conflict, as well as the different characters. The dialogue is realistic and rendered well, giving the characters a lot to work with.

The acting from the entire cast is noteworthy, with Jessica Chastain having a very nuanced performance. We can see the change in her character by subtle mannerisms and expressions, with a phenomenal screen prescience. The supporting work from the rest of the cast is also stand out, with each actor bringing a special flair to the role.

What I appreciated most about Zero Dark Thirty was its ambiguity. It doesn't necessarily take a stand on what is going on, be it the torture, or the immense amount of resources being undertaken for a single mission, but tells the story in a seemingly "just the facts" manner. This leaves much of it open to interpretation. I didn't take it as a justification for torture or an endorsement of the conflict, rather an examination of the people in it, and the, perhaps, hallow nature of any supposed victories.

Going in to the film, I had reservations about its very premise. The entire "hunt" for Bin Laden is riddled with inconsistencies and suspicious events. I don't take the film is non-fiction, but simply as a "true" representation of the facts, as laid out officially. Because the film didn't seem bent on delivering a particular view, I was able to watch it as simply a film, looked at in its own context.

4.5/5 Stars

Silver Linings Playbook
½

While it only fits the genre in a vague sense Silver Linings playbook, is, by far, the best romantic comedy, and one of the best dramas, of 2012. It's a smart film, delivered well, and hitting on emotional beats that so many similarly themed films fail to hit.

The scripting renders characters that feel real. The depiction of mental illness, and the resulting isolation it can form, is done in a tactful, humorous, but undeniably authentic manner. It doesn't dwell on normal rom-com gimmicks or follow most rom-com conventions, but sets its own unique tone.

The chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is especially strong, with each embracing each other's idiosyncrasies, but with a real heartfelt connection. The charm both actors bring to every scene is palpable, complementing each other perfectly, and working very well with the material.

The journey each character goes through is executed effectively, and not in a predictable manner. We have a certain idea of what's going to happen, but not in an always foreseeable way, the film does a good job of keeping you guessing. That, and the pitch perfect blend of humor, drama, and commentary, make it a must see.

4.5/5 Stars

Across the Universe

Across the Universe features is a different type of musical. It is both lighthearted and appropriately dramatic. The narrative at its heart is immensely recognizable, with character arcs that are predictable and familiar, as is the case with most romantic films. In this case, what sets Across the Universe a part is its, mostly strong, musical numbers. They are all delivered, though perhaps to varied levels of effectiveness, with a keen visual sense. The film never ceases to look good. That, and the performances, keep is mostly engaging. Though the story isn't unique, the uniqueness is derived from its music, with strong implementation of Beatles songs, and in a literal way that feels real to the story. Not for everyone, but musical lovers will love it, and casual viewers will certainly find enough to like.

3/5 Stars

Gangster Squad
½

For a film with such an awesome cast, it may seem strange why Gangster Squad got a January release. But, after seeing the finished product, it's perhaps not as big of a surprise. It's a film that has a makings of a great gangster picture, from the actors, the setting, to the stylistic flair, but, in a lot of ways, it falls flat.

The acting ranges from serviceable to poor. It's not readily easy to tell if this is a symptom of a lack of direction, lack of performance depth, or because of dialogue. It's probably a mixture, with Sean Penn being especially disappointing, seeming more comical than nefarious, though his make-up certainly didn't help.

The script is what really lets Gangster Squad down. The dialogue is often too blunt, stilted, and too corny. The film wants to be a neo-noir esque Gangster picture, but has the writing talent of a B action film. The scenes don't flow especially well, and the characters are grossly underwritten, clichéd, or too familiar. The grittiness is simply not seen in the intangibles.

The one positive of Gangster Squad is the style of film-making. The world building is fairly believable, with beautiful cinematography. The action scenes are particularly stylized, and actually look good, though are staged in a bit of a lackluster, self-indulgent manner (the slow-motion is horribly overdone).

Overall, it's not an unwatchable film, but it's certainly disappointing from a standpoint of its cast and seemingly interesting premise.

2.5/5 Stars

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger falls into the passable, discernibly Woody-like, but certainly not one of the best, Woody Allen films. It follows two married couples, and the people within the relationships who decide, to their own detriment, that the grass is always greener on the other side.

Like all Woody Allen comedies, it has its moments, with some strong situational and sarcastic humor, with the typical Allen flair for smart dialogue. However, it's occasionally tedious in what it has to say, often re-using the same joke, and never quite delivering anything especially insightful or unique.

The film is acted well, with a strong cast of English and American actors. The chemistry on screen is noticeable, but the material just doesn't offer much for them to really elevate the film. It's message is too familiar for Woody, and the delivery is not particularly poignant or biting, like some of his best work.

Ultimately, it's still smarter than the vast majority of romantic comedies out there, but isn't one of his best pieces.

3/5 Stars

Les Misérables

Though not generally a fan of musicals, but a fan of the story itself, especially the 1998 fully dramatized version with Liam Neeson, I found Les Miserables to be worth checking out. It's certainly put together with strong sophistication. The world building is done beautiful, the costumes, styles, scenery, everything makes it stand out as a well staged period piece.

The musical acts are generally done well, with great style, and with good to impressive performances by the majority of the cast. Though their singing talents are sometimes dubious, lead actors Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe did an admirable job. Who really stood out was Anne Hathaway with her excellent screen presence, and strong vocals, at least theatrically. The one performance I wasn't impressed with, however, was that of Eddie Redmayne, who has an almost unbearably dull screen presence, and posses no measurable charisma. I also had a problem with the timing, with some of the acts starting quite jarringly between each other, making for some awkward transitions.

My biggest issue with the film is the pacing. It's simply far too long for it's own good. Certain acts move briskly and are engaging, but others are sluggish and even boring. These are especially prevalent in the last act, which lacks the proper momentum, and drags out the film with needless melodrama.

It's a mixed bag, with a grand spectacle that works on a visual, stylistic level, but with an overly slow pace, and vocals that, though never bad, were sometimes inconsistent. Worth checking out for fans of the musicals, but fans of the traditionally dramatized version might be disappointed.

3/5 Stars

Safety Not Guaranteed

Funny, charming, endearing, and immensely enjoyable, Safety Not Guaranteed is an independent comedy/drama that works, and works very well. It is smart in that it doesn't treat the characters with disdain, it doesn't condescend, but instead offers what feels like authentic character dynamics, with believable back stories and realistic character arcs.

The performances all around are stand out, with Aubrey Plaza doing a phenomenal job as the detached, cynical, lonely girl, who then guides her character through what feels like a real transformation, to someone more hopefully and enchanted. Her chemistry with Mark Duplass is palpable, who plays his character with an enthusiastic charm that never makes us dismiss his story.

The script is smartly written, blending a good number of elements, from quirky comedy, drama, coming-of-age, to science fiction. It does so while never undermining the films overall tone. The story was both moving and cohesive, with its themes executed effectively.

The film manages to be consistently engaging with its humor and plot development, being briskly paced. It perhaps could have been longer, but what it's able to achieve in its short run time is certainly of note. The very ending was a bit too obvious for me, however, as I feel something more subtle would have fit the overall narrative better, but it was a strong third act nonetheless.

Overall, it's a very strong independent film, uniquely conceived and executed, making it well worth watching.

4/5 Stars

This is 40
This is 40(2012)

As a sort-of sequel to Knocked Up, This is 40 doesn't match up to the same level of quality. Sure, it's raunchy, offensive, sexually charged, and funny, as Knocked Up is, but it doesn't have the sort of heart or narrative progression that Knocked Up offered. There are laughs to be had, too be sure, but they sometimes feel drowned up by a story that doesn't offer anything insightful or especially involving. It tries hard for laughs by seeming to force situations, as opposed to making them feel organic to the characters. The characters themselves aren't particularly likable, being spoiled, conceited, and shallow. You'd expect to see some growth with them, as is the case with most comedies, but with This is 40, they seem to remain rather stagnate and not easy to relate to.

The film is very well acted however, with Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann making for a great comedic pair, and with strong supporting performances from Albert Brooks and Melissa McCarthy. As mentioned, the script does lack narrative power, but is good with giving the characters effective lines to work with, with the film chemistry seeming to work well throughout.

Overall, it's a mixed bag, with hit or miss humor, an uneven script, but with good performances. It's funny enough to sustain itself, however, making it ultimately watchable.

3/5 Stars

Trees Lounge
Trees Lounge(1996)
½

"So what. I mean everybody's fucked up. Nobody wants anyone to think they are, but everyone knows anyway"--Tommy (Steve Buscemi)

Trees Lounge is a unique sort of character study, in that it doesn't necessarily revolve around one specific theme, but instead focuses on a culmination of them, including alcoholism, loneliness, angst, and sets it in a believable world. Buscemi does a great job as both the lead actor, and as a director. I appreciated how the film incorporated the characters, and gave us relatable situations, while still maintaining a sense of humor, albeit a dark one. In that way the writing is strong, having an authentic feel for character dynamics. This is helped by the strong supporting cast, notable Chloe Sevigny, who plays a convincing adrift teenager, hopeless infatuated with the equally lost Buscemi.

I thought the story itself could have used more back-story, however. We never fully got an appreciation for why exactly Tommy ended up the way he did, and so we never relate to his character arc, or lack thereof, in as meaningful way as one would hope. The same can be said of the other story-lines as well. However, taken together, the story-lines do complement each other well. Ultimately, the film depicts its world well, we get a strong feel for the sort of hopelessness and confusion that pervades in it, while at the same time staying engaged with its enjoyable charm.

Overall, it's a strong, finely acted, indie drama, with some interesting things to say.

3.5/5 Stars

Django Unchained

The king of exploitative cinema, Quentin Tarantino, delivers yet another brilliant, stylistic film, that is sure to spark controversy and unsettle many viewers. It's daring, incredibly well acted, very well directed, and unexpected, making it one of the more memorable cinematic experiences of the year.

The performances of all involved were phenomenal, with Leonardo DiCaprio seemingly stealing the show with his nefariously charming personality and immense presence, with captivating performances as well from Christoph Waltze, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L. Jackson. All deliver the dialogue they are given with a keen sense of their characters, all offering unique personalities that add up to a vivid, if not dark, world.

The script is characteristically strong, and methodically paced. The first two acts are essentially a slow burn until it reaches an explosive (no pun intended) third act, one that feels organic to the story, and is undoubtedly satisfying. In some parts it feels like a traditional western, with many long continuous shots of dialogue, followed by rapid bursts of action. Yet it departs in that the violence is unrelenting, graphic, and quite stylized.

By exploitative, it should be noted that the film itself is skillfully exploitative. It's not simply violence for the sake of violence, or race baiting for the sake of race baiting. It really is a work of art, if not simply on a cinematic level. Anyone looking for historical realism should of course be careful. The villains were meant to be caricatures. The antebellum south is certainly painted with a broad brush, the realities of the time were far more complicated than most Hollywood films care to acknowledge. The use of racial epithets is extreme and unsettling, to be sure, and the violence that Foxx displays in the film is glorified. Some may find this a form of racism in and of itself. On a certain level there's validity to that, but only if taken on face value, which Tarantino films never should. It's sophisticated cinema, not necessarily as sophisticated in its themes. Looked at in this context, I didn't find the film particularly offensive (aside from what is intended). What I saw Tarantino as trying to do was flip the bigotry of that time on its head, in certainly a provocative manner, and to essentially illustrate the absurd by being absurd.

Undeniably enjoyable, beautifully filmed, engagingly directed and acted, it's one of the top films of 2012.

5/5 Stars

The Words
The Words(2012)
½

The Words is a film that seemingly offers an interesting premise, but doesn't quite follow through with its delivery. It involves a number of story lines, some of which are certainly more interesting than others, with the Quaid story-line never seeming to work. In that sense, the script is a mixed bag, with some good dialogue (delivered by Jeremy Irons of course), and some smart uses of flashbacks, but at the same time it's seemingly overly-written, with too many threads that don't seem to connect. This gives the film a certain disjointed, unpolished feeling.

The acting, however, is pretty strong throughout, with Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons making for an interesting pairing. A lot of the scenes were staged well, with a consistent tone, and a respect for the talents involved. The script, however, never gives them much to work with, with its constant shifts and lack of a coherent through-line. This makes the film seem a bit meandering in that it never seems to quite pull itself together.

The message, that of the past coming back to haunt us, dealing with our limitations, and the fear of inadequacy, I appreciated, and the film certainly had moments in which it conveyed all of these films well. Overall, however, it simply didn't have the narrative to give it the necessary engagement. As such, it fails on a cinematic level, seeming more fitted for a book or even a stage play.

2.5/5 Stars

Killer Joe
Killer Joe(2012)
½

Incredibly dark, sometimes comic, and engaging, Killer Joe is an uncanny film about uncanny people. Set in a Texas trailer-park, the film delves straight in to unlikable, shallow, dumb characters, and gives us a familiar premise, killing for insurance money, and does not look back.

Killer Joe has a lot working for it. For one, Matthew McConaughey's performance of a nefarious and sadistic cop/hired killer, with a vague sense of self-awareness, absolutely makes the film. He inhibits his character completely, and brings a very engaging presence to his role. The other performances are strong in their own way, with Thomas Haden Church playing good comic relief.

The film is also composed well, with great world building. We see an environment as it truly would be, with excellent photography and scene construction that present us what feels like a very authentic take of rural/trailer trash Texas.

The script is strong from the standpoint that it has good dialogue, and generally does a strong job of incorporating some comedic elements. However, I felt the third act was lacking. A character is only vaguely referred to and introduced, but is an integral part of the later developments. We are never afforded the chance to understand him, which undermines the later twist. This is a problem with many of the characters, with too shallow characterizations. This is perhaps intentional to some extent, but more balance could have been shown between giving us back-story and motivations, while at the same time acknowledging that thought didn't go in to a lot of their actions.

It's not quite a Cohen brothers film, but a strong dark comedy nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sessions
The Sessions(2012)
½

The Sessions is the sort of indie drama that tackles an uncomfortably subject, but does it in a largely moving and well-handled manner. In this case, it's based on a true story of a severally disabled man and his adventures with a sex surrogate.

The story is blunt and unapologetic in its subject matter, giving it an honest and authentic feel. The script does a good job with its dialogue and placing its characters in settings that feel real. The script is given life by the strong performances from all of the actors involved, with John Hawkes having an especially impressive showing, forced to do all of his acting with face expressions. He brings a sort of nuance to the role that most actors wouldn't be able to match.

My big issue with The Sessions is that it's not consistently engaging. We are propelled right in to the life of Mark, with no real back-story to anchor us in his predicament. The life of Helen Hunt's character is never fully explored,but seems to offer some promise. The priest character is also not appropriately played out, we think his character arc is going somewhere, but we never see it to its fruition. There's simply not enough set up to sustain the story, and with a simplistic, character-driven story such as this, that's necessary.

Overall, despite some if its narrative problems, The Sessions still manages to offer a moving, and uniquely told tale, with a sort of frank honesty that the subject deserves.

3.5/5 Stars

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
½

With lofty expectations, and cast in the shadow of the much beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson faced a large task. What results is a film that, though definitely flawed, is charming, enjoyable, and imaginative. At the same time, we also have a prequel that doesn't have the polish or dramatic power of the Lord of the Ring series, and thus serves as a mixed bag as an entry in to the universe.

The acting is strong all around, with Martin Freeman having an especially strong showing as Bilbo Baggins. He has just the right amount of charm, self-doubt, and quiet strength that the role requires. He's a perfect fit, and is matched well by a very talented supporting group, including Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage.

Technically, The Hobbit is another exercise in brilliant visualization. Jackson yet again displays an amazing visual sense, with breathtaking CGI, beautiful cinematography, and remarkably imaginative and uniquely executed world building. These elements are what keep the film engaging through its slower elements.

What The Hobbit struggles with, in comparison with the Lord of the Rings series, is it's overloaded, and often unfocused, script. The film is simply too long. This is a symptom of taking what could have easily been a one (perhaps 2) film story and stretching it out to a trilogy. There's too many story-lines, and too little follow through. We feel like the film is constantly building to something, but we never experience any real resolution or effective climax. Instead, we're treated to too many rabbit trails of plot lines and references. It's too concerned with set-up, and not enough with story. This makes the film drag, in parts, it's 2 hour 46 minute run time is felt, something the Lord of the Rings films always avoided.

At the end, The Hobbit is an enjoyable ride. The imagination, the characters, the visuals, it's all strong. What's missing is a narrative that both builds up and satisfies at the same time, with the decision to add in so many things keeping the film from really finding itself. Still, for what it does well, it does very well, and is engaging enough for even casual fans of the series to enjoy.

3.5/5 Stars

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

With a profoundly silly set-up, an asinine script, and a ridiculous integration of history, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter offers a lot not to like for discerning film-goers. Taken on its own merits, however, with the cheesy elements and all, it's not a half-bad B fantasy film.

The acting is serviceable to good all around, with an okay showing from Benjamin Walker, and solid tongue-in-cheek performances from the supporting cast, notably Rufus Sewell. They are given a script to work with that, though obviously highly fictionalized, is smarter than the material may suggest, with often creative uses of historical figures and settings.

The CGI is also mostly good, with an impressive visual sense, and world building that's largely effective, composed with an eye towards its period setting and an appropriate use of color saturation. The make-up is hit or miss, with the older Lincoln not being particularly convincing, and some of the vampire effects being a mixed bag.

The tone is a bit uneven. I appreciated the more serious tone, but this wasn't consistent, as the film seemed interchangeably serious in stretches, but also self-aware and corny in other parts. Overall, it's not particularly memorable, but not un-watchable, and enjoyable enough.

3/5 Stars

The Poker House
½

Lori Petty's autobiographical directorial debut is a moving one, told in a very intimate way. The film revolves around the tumultuous 'home' life of three sisters, who are forced to confront drugs, prostitution, pimps, alcoholism, and degenerate gambling on a daily basis.

The story is told uniquely in that it follows each of the sisters interchangeably, from different narrative standpoints, and with different tones and styles. This works on some levels, as we see how each sister deals with her own situation, yet the film does occasionally feel disjointed from its other parts.

The acting is quite strong all around, with an especially moving performance by Jennifer Lawrence. It is her character's struggle, underscored by her amazing portrayal, that really elevates the film to a solid dramatic piece.

The one real issue with the film is the lack of concrete back-story. The plot is too confined with the current moment, and not enough attention is given to the overall big picture. We are left wanting to know more, how exactly did this situation come to be, and how did the people involved evolve to this point?

While not perfect, it's definitely worth watching, with a moving story at it's center.

3.5/5 Stars

Jack Reacher
Jack Reacher(2012)
½

Jack Reacher is a crime thriller that feels familiar in many aspects, yet boasts an execution that keeps it interesting and engaging throughout, and perhaps setting up another successful film franchise for Cruise (both on a financial and quality level).

The action scenes range from generic to great, with a particularly impressive car chase sequence. These are integrated pretty well into the narrative, and avoid the "tacked on" feeling that many similarly themed films have.

Cruise's performance was definitely the stand out, having a gritty, blunt, yet uncanny charm and presence that harkens back to such action greats as Eastwood and even some of Bruce Willis's earlier work. He is matched well by an impressive array of supporting actors, notably Robert Duvall, and famed director Werner Herzog, whose unique vocal tones and facial expressions made him pitch perfect for the role. The only one who disappointed a bit was Richard Jenkins, who seemed out of touch with the overall tone of the film.

The script is a mixed bag. What I appreciated was the set-up of the scenes, the attention to detail given to setting up the action sequences, and later paying off. I appreciated the more mundane moments that most movies would skip over, it was certainly going for a unique sense of realism, and succeed to a certain extent. However, the plot line itself simply doesn't hold up well. This can be said of many films, but for Reacher, we are supposed to be able to understand the conspiracy, and realize Reacher's brilliance. But instead, we are left often scratching our heads, were it not for his deductions, none of this would be particularly believable. Reacher isn't helping the plot unfold, it feels more as if he's writing it as he goes.

The resolution of the three acts was satisfying, however, ending with a strong character note for Reacher, and a good set-up for subsequent films. Despite some of the plot and script decencies, it makes for a solid thriller.

3.5/5 Stars

Premium Rush
Premium Rush(2012)

Premium Rush offers a familiar story, but with a unique twist. This twist, the cycling aspect, is played to get effect, with energetic action scenes, and an editing style that isn't too conventional, yet also isn't too gimmicky.

The performances are enjoyable from the two leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the always-reliable Michael Shannon. Both fit their roles well, with Shannon having a particularly fun time in his role as a manic detective.

My problem with Premium Rush is that it's too one-note. The protagonist, Levitt, isn't shown with any real complexity, and either is Shannon's character, who seems hopelessly inept. The rest of the supporting cast is also markedly one-note, especially Levitt's love interest. This keeps Premium Rush as a B action thriller, at best. Had the premise, that of delivering a message, been a bit more involved, some of the scripting issues may have been more forgivable. As it stands, it's an enjoyable, but not particularly memorable, ride.

3/5 Stars

Arbitrage
Arbitrage(2012)

In what may be thought of as this year's Margin Call, Arbitrage is a compelling drama that also serves as an effective character study and commentary of the 1% and their influence on society.

The best word to describe Arbitrage is smart. It's a film made for adults, not trying to dumb down the material. The actions of the characters, their motivations, the situations they find themselves in, all are well written, involving, and rendered with an effective sense of realism. The script doesn't shy away from the complexities involved, and doesn't resort to worn out cliches. The way the narrative unfolds feels authentic, and un-predictable.

The performances all-around are top notch, with Richard Gere having his best role in years, delivering a powerhouse showing. The supporting cast is also anchored well by such reliable greats as Susan Sarandon, and a particularly interesting performance from the underrated Tim Roth.

Ultimately, Arbitrage is a welcome change from the sort of cliched thrillers and "action-packed" films we have grown accustomed to, and instead offers something better, something that is both intelligent and thought provoking.

4/5 Stars

Michael Clayton

Revisiting Michael Clayton on blu ray only underscores how amazing this film is on all levels. The writing, acting, direction, pace, execution, everything is at it's top peak. The story itself is simple enough, but told in a nuanced and intelligent manner. It works both as a dramatic thriller, but also a slow burn character study. We see Michael's character arc evolve in subtle ways, we understand his motivations not from blatant statements, but organically in how the film develops.

The pace is tense, yet methodical throughout. The direction is masterful in how each scene is composed. The climax of the film, a long dialogue sequence, represents one of the most powerfully acted and executed scenes of the last 10 years.

The writing yields wonderfully realized dialogue, realistic yet unique to the picture. It frames the plot in a world we can empathize with, filled with internal struggles and paranoia.

The acting is also incredible from all involved. Each performance gives a unique aspect to the film, be it Michael's troubled, yet cool demeanor, Tom Wilkinson's manic intensity, Tilda Swinton's nervous insecurity, or Sydney Pollack, with his callous nature only being slightly subdued by a slight empathetic streak.

Without question, one of the best films made post 2000.

5/5 Stars

Mean Streets
Mean Streets(1973)
½

Scorsese's first film has a lot of the elements that he becomes known for, with skillful scene construction, a keen visual sense, and strong story-telling ability. It features two Hollywood greats in their early years, with Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. Both actors are matched well, and are given room to breath, with Keitel having an especially intelligent and well-rounded performance.

The writing is strong, in that the dialogue is gritty and realistic, and the world building of the film, set presently when the film was made in the early 70s, still feels real. We get a good sense of what the streets are like, what the characters go through, and their motivations.

Where Mean Streets fails to meet the excellence of Scorsese's later works, however, is the dramatic power of its narrative. We don't see the film culminate in the effective manner of his more polished entries, such as Goodfellas. The momentum never seems to take the film the full distance, the climax feels muted and we are left wanting more.

Looked at on its own elements, it's still a strong film. But perhaps what passed for "mean" when the film was made has dated the film to an extent that it feels incomplete. Still, the acting, composition, and overall execution, all combine to make Mean Streets worth watching.

3.5/5 Stars

For Greater Glory

For Greater Glory tackles a conflict that few know about, and one that has more than enough elements that should make for a compelling drama, as the Cristero War is filled with heavy themes, horrific violence, and enough story to make for good cinema. The result, however, is largely mixed.

The cast of Greater Glory is good, but the acting ranges from okay (Andy Garcia), serviceable, to bad (Eva Longoria). The script they have to work with is a mixed bag as well, with thin characterizations, a lack of a real back-story, but with some good dialogue. From a screenplay standpoint, it seems as if the film tried to tackle almost too much, and therefore never quite got the dramatic heft it needed out of its main plot line. The plot line involving the US and oil interests, for example, seemed particularly out of place.

A few of the action scenes were quite good, but a few towards the end of the film were less impressive. The film was never able to keep a sustained momentum going. It was occasionally entertaining, sometimes tedious, and other times forgettable. The film's timely themes ultimately give it value, and the execution is done well enough to make it always watchable, if not sometimes enjoyable.

3/5 Stars

Party Monster

Funny, self aware, and sometimes absurdly campy, Party Monster is a different sort of fact based crime drama. The humor mostly works, simply because it's so daring, and seems to have the right sort of actors for the job. The performances themselves seem befitting of the film's tone, with Macaulay Culkin certainly having some stilted moments, but it seems to work for his character, and is, perhaps, at least somewhat intentional.

The story-line itself takes a while to find its footing, and the third act never seems to really have the climax that it should. We never fully get a sense of why Culkin's character did what he did. This also speaks to the film's thin characterizations, we never fully emotionally empathize with them.

However, the film does enough right to make it watchable, with some good humor, a few good dramatic scenes, and some wild performances.

3/5 Stars

Detachment
Detachment(2012)

Detachment does what so many other similarly themed films fail to do, and that is have a sense of realism combined with a heartfelt soul. It looks at the subjects of depression, adolescence, and the educational system in a uniquely poignant and compelling manner. The characters feel real, the situations all too identifiable, and the feelings are all to easy to relate to.

It is Adrien Brodyâ(TM)s performance that elevates the film to such an effective and moving level. Itâ(TM)s certainly his best performance since The Pianist, he inhibits his role completely, conveying depression, emptiness, and regret with every expression, every gesture. His work is the most unforgettable part of the film. He gives the film its authenticity, itâ(TM)s soul, itâ(TM)s identify.

The supporting performances are also strong, and uniquely portrayed by each actor. The smart script helps, with a good blend of intelligently written dialogue, characterization, and commentary. The emphasis is not so much on the system itself, rather the individuals actors within that system, and the hopeless and tragic cycle that is simultaneously the cause and a symptom of it.

From a technical standpoint, itâ(TM)s directed well, with good framing and a methodical pace. My only significant criticism of the film is the sometimes over-indulgent editing techniques, which sometimes distract from the scenes, with constant shifting.

Overall, itâ(TM)s a memorable, thought provoking, look at the educational system, society, and the internal struggles we all deal with.

4/5 Stars

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly manages to be a thriller (of sorts), a drama, and a successful dark comedy all at once, and does so with great skill. It's a film that some will undoubtedly hate, partly for its themes, partly for its content, and certainly for its style. But taken on its' own merits, it's really quite unique.

The most enjoyable aspect of Killing Them Softly is the script, with (mostly) brilliantly written dialogue, delivered by actors in their top form. These conversations take the center stage of the film, and convey its satire and message, while also providing a basis of keeping the audience engaged. Some will find this to be pointless or meandering, but such criticisms are mistaken because Killing Them is concerned with characters, not with sustained action, it wants to be, and is, a smart character study. In this way, it is very successful; every conversation and every piece of dialogue, feels like it fits what the film is trying to do, and feels real to the world that it is trying to convey. The characters feel real, with their insecurities, bitterness, and cynicism.

For what action is present, it is done with a stylistic flair, and is done well, with an almost hyper-realistic feel. It's executed greatly on a technical level, with an atmospheric tone, a methodical pace, and well composed/framed scenes (notably the conversations between Pitt and Gandolfini, reminiscent of some of Michael Mann's work).

As mentioned, the performances here are very strong all around, with Pitt, Liotta, and Gandolfini bringing dramatic weight to every scene,and also managing to pull off the dark humor very well.

The one negative of Killing Them is the sometimes heavy-handed nature of what it's trying to say. The constant political speeches being heard in the background are too on-the-nose. We sometimes get the feeling that the filmmakers are trying to force feed us their commentary on our economic system and the nature of the dog-eat-dog world, commentary which seems to take a very dark view of human nature, and a short-sighted understanding of the free market system. The final line of the film, though very memorable, seems to bare this out.

It's not for everyone, and it's not perfect, but Killing Them Softly is very memorable, well executed, and uniquely enjoyable.

4/5 Stars

The Salton Sea
½

The Salton Sea offers a familiar base story, but with a very unconventional sense of style and dramatic flourish. At it's heart, it's about a broken man dealing with the trauma of his wife's murder (not exactly unheard of), couched in a neo-noir setting filled with drugs and decadence.

The world building of Salton Sea is undoubtedly it's great attribute, the film does a great job of depicting a subculture, and is especially skilled at promoting authentic relationships by its characters. This is helped by the strong performances from the cast, with Peter Sarsgaard turning in an amazing supporting performance, and even Val Kilmer doing some good work (albeit in his classic dejected way).

The script is strong at points, and weak at others. I enjoyed a lot of the dialogue exchanges, but the plot twists seemed ill set-up and not well written toward the later half of the film. The climax and last act is especially disappointing, losing a lot of the built up realism, and opting for something more cliched, while also implausible.

Technically, Salton Sea has great cinematography, and keeps a fairly good balance between it's stylistic touches and keeping it grounded, with only a few of the unconventional narrative devices feeling "gimmicky".

Despite some weaknesses toward the end, Salton Sea is a solid dramatic neo-noir film, with indie sensibilities that are executed well on a technical level, making it worth watching.

3.5/5 Stars

Life of Pi
Life of Pi(2012)

Visually stunning, uniquely told, and thought provoking, the Life of Pi is one of the more interesting films of the year. The narrative, told via flashbacks and narration, has a lot of successful elements, in that it tells a story that is humorous, at times unbelievable, and appropriately dramatic. It is this mixture that really makes Life of Pi work.

Directed by the great Ang Lee, Pi has a good sense of pacing and framing, with beautifully composed scenes. The technical achievement with the CGI and cinematography is masterful, giving the film its needed sense of wonderment. It's one of the best looking films of the year.

The acting is strong throughout, especially by Irfan Khan, who, as the adult Pi, injects the film with a sort of dramatic seriousness that really anchors some of the more fantastical elements. The rest of the performances are all equally great, with Suraji Sharma having a good screen presence as the young Pi.

The film seemingly has a lot of themes, but the exact message perhaps gets a bit drowned out in the last act. The ending, with its sense of ambiguity, is partly good, but doesn't seem to have the sort of dramatic resolution befitting the rest of the film. The momentum seems to slow too early, making the last act seem somewhat unfocused and lethargic compared to what came before it, though it certainly doesn't undermine it to any significant degree.

Overall, Life of Pi offers a rewarding experience, with intelligent themes, an emotional impact, and a good message.

4/5 Stars

Tortured
Tortured(2008)
½

Tortured, for the most part, is the sort of film that you think is going one direction, and ends up going in another. This is largely to the film's benefit, being more concerned with set-up, story, and characters. As a character study, Tortured is helped greatly by a strong performance from Cole Hauser, who does an excellent job keeping up a sustained level of intensity, and has a depth not seen by the rest of the cast, despite some good work by James Cromwell (Laurence Fishburne phones it in for the most part). The writing holds up for most of the film, save the last act, which seems to lose the film's earlier sense of realism. Still, the plot twists help keep it suspenseful, and the execution is enough to keep you engaged. It ultimately doesn't rise much above a B thriller, but for what it is, it works.

3.5/5 Stars

Looking for Kitty
½

Looking for Kitty is the sort of indie comedy that is far too smug for its own good. It has some scenes that work well, but the film itself just feels too one-note, simplistic, and far too confined to justify its already brief running time. The characters aren't particularly interesting, the situations aren't particularly funny, and the narrative isn't nearly as clever as the filmmakers seem to believe it is. About the only thing it has going for it are the indie sensibilities that inject a sense of realism. That, however, only goes so far when there isn't much else to keep the audience engaged. The acting is serviceable, and the writing okay, but the story is too bland. Overall, a lackluster attempt at Woody Allen imitation.

2.5/5 Stars

Trouble with the Curve
½

Trouble with the Curve is predictable and formulaic in the sense that every mainline Hollywood sports film is. We get a sense from the beginning where the story is going to go, the arcs the characters are going to go though, and the ultimate resolutions. From that standpoint, there are really no surprises to be had. What is good about Trouble with the Curve, however, is the journey in getting there.

The film features strong performances from the cast (even Justin Timberlake whose bursting enthusiasm fits his role well), with the always reliable and formidable screen presence of Clint Eastood, matched with the charm and general appeal of Amy Adams. Both leads have a noticeable chemistry. The script, though predictable, has a number of good lines and places the characters in situations and settings that are interesting. The film is executed well enough that its themes are not lost or made to no effect, with a surprisingly good (albeit clichà (C)d) ending. It's funny when it needs to be, appropriately dramatic in other parts, and also often meditative. The film seems willing to explore uncomfortable areas that other similarly themed films wouldn't.

So while it doesn't reinvent the wheel with anything it does, it accomplishes what it sets out to do well, and is really a solid film all around, with enjoyable performances, and another opportunity to see the legendary and always charismatic Clint Eastwood at work.

3.5/5 Stars

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
½

While there are a lot of films that examine adolescence and the high school years, few films treat the subject with the authenticity, realism, and keen insight that The Perks of Being a Wallflower does. It's a film that takes on themes regarding isolation, social stigma, growing up, mental illness, and identity, and does so in a manner that feels true to the subject matter.

The acting is really top notch all around, with Logan Lerman turning in an excellent performance as the introverted teen, with a phenomenal subtlety and charm that really defines the role. Good too is Emma Watson, as the unique free spirit who inhibits her role to strong effect, reminiscent of some early performances of Natalie Portman.

The script also sets the film a part in its smart writing. There are familiar coming-of-age plot-lines, but in this film they are written well, and flow with a narrative that is organic, yet distinct. It's Almost Famous meets Juno.

It's also a particularly moving film, with emotional arcs that pay off, but not in an easy or convenient manner. We see character development in a realistic way, not overtly contrived, as so many similar films do. Instead, Perks of Being a Wallflower seems dead-on in how it views its subject to such an extent, that we can't help but be involved.

Overall it's smart, moving, well written, very well acted, and timely.

4.5/5 Stars

Lincoln
Lincoln(2012)

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a brilliant piece of film-making. It offers an intelligent take on the later part of the Civil War, and does so in a manner that completely transports you to the times. We see the political intrigue of the time in a totally unique manner. Spielberg manages to take something that could be dry, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and makes it in to a spellbinding experience. It's the closest you'll come to watching history unfold (though certainly a particular view of history).

In an undeniably brilliant, Oscar-worthy performance, Daniel Day-Lewis inhibits the man of Lincoln in a way any other actor would be incapable of. The expressive nature of his face is evident in every scene, depicting a conflicted man carrying a profound amount of sadness, but with a charm and wit that manages to conceal it. He delivers his lines in a completely authentic manner, and seemingly with accurate inflections and pitch. It's a performance that simply mesmerizes you with its depth. And that is one performance from a cast of film legends that properly accentuate, not detract from the film, with Tommy Lee Jones giving another memorable performance.

The writing is another aspect of Lincoln that really sets the film a part. It masters the dialect of the time, without compromising the prose and distinction of the words used by men of stature in that era. The incredibly capable cast chews on the dialogue, and delivers it such that, even with some of its complexities, one can understand the feelings being conveyed. The script also does a good job in giving insight to the different political machinations that were on going, with great uses of the House chamber.

The historical accuracy seems to be strong, from at least a mainline standpoint. The exact extent of Lincoln's involvement in pushing through the Amendment's passage is not universally agreed upon, but the record does seem to indicate more than a cursory support of the Amendment. The historical characters are all depicted well, and with fairness. Like a lot of mainstream thought on the Civil War, the film is too simplistic in its view of the conflict and the place slavery held in the struggle. There were a number of reasons for the split, and most in the North didn't regard slavery as the paramount reason for prosecuting the conflict. The film did acknowledge the wide-ranging views of slavery, which was a welcomed change, but was perhaps too vague on Lincoln's actual feelings. It did a good job, however, of showing the embattled nature of Lincoln, who was wildly criticized from everyone on the political spectrum, and was a man under a tremendous amount of pressure.

Overall, Lincoln is moving, beautifully acted, written with great care, and truly memorable. One of the year's best.

5/5 Stars

The Last Supper
½

The Last Supper attempts to be witty, poignant, and smartly satirical, but instead it's dull, un-interesting, and supremely stupid. The script is written with liberal cliches galore, with a moronic sense of its "opposition". The cast is left to deliver stilted dialogue while complaining about evil right-wingers that are depicted in an almost cartoon-like fashion. We end up hating the self-righteous idiocy of the roommates more than those they target. There simply is no believe-ability in the script.<

The acting is also sub-par, partly because of the bad dialogue, but also from an apparent lack of chemistry with each other. The interactions have the believe-ability of a daytime soap opera, but with unbearable political "commentary".

Overall it's a disaster, with no meaningful message to be had, no humor to be found, and nothing of particular value.

1.5/5 Stars

Red Lights
Red Lights(2012)

Reading the synopsis for Red Lights, and seeing the cast list, one might think it offers a smart, interesting, and unique take on paranormal phenomena and the societal repercussions for those that fake it. You would be wrong. Red Lights is plagued by an incredibly unfocused script, with stilted (and comically verbose) dialogue, stupid plot twists, and terribly written scenes.

The direction and composition is particularly bad, with erratic editing, making the scenes seem manically unfocused, and the entire narrative feel remarkably disjointed. Aside from some good cinematography work, the film has no polish. It's as if it was put together on a laptop by a film student.

The acting is serviceable, but the cast has nothing to work with. Cillian Murphy seems especially in to his role, but has such a poorly written character, and an apparent lack of direction, that his character's tone is all over the map. The same is true of De Niro's character, with poor De Niro reduced to giving horrendously scripted non-nonsensical monologues, to no effect.

The result is just a badly executed, terribly written, and ill-conceived film. It borders on the "so bad its good" territory, but doesn't quite get there, if only because it features names such as Sigourney Weaver and De Niro, and has the occasional competent scene. A disappointing misfire.

2/4 Stars

Dead Presidents

Consistently engaging, well acted, and ambitious in its themes, Dead Presidents is a strong and interesting look at the Vietnam War, race in the 60s-70s, and class differences. It features strong performances from its leads, with excellent efforts by Larenz Tate, Keith David, and Chris Tucker (who provides a lot of needed comic relief).

What is most impressive about Dead Presidents is the films world building. The Bronx we see is undeniably authentic, with the film seamlessly transitioning to Vietnam, without missing a beat. When the film transports back, we see the passage of time (a few years), in a very real way. In that sense, the direction is quite strong, with a good build up for most of the film, and an emphasis on the characters.

The script is good from the standpoint that it has sharp dialogue, and doesn't opt for film cliches or really easy stereotypes. Instead, we're treated to an intelligent examination of a lot of themes. This, however, came back to hinder the film in the final act, with an overly rushed heist set-up, with the heist itself seeming tonally inconsistent and implausible. The last third of the film just doesn't seem to be very cohesive, we never fully understand the character motivations, it all seems to happen quickly, in an otherwise patient narrative. It was as if the filmmakers tried to tackle too much ground, and spent too much time focusing on themes and story lines that don't fully pay off, and weren't directly related to the climax.

Despite its weak ending, however, Dead Presidents does more than enough right to make it well worth watching, if not for the strong performances and unique take on Vietnam.

4/5 Stars

Skyfall
Skyfall(2012)

Not only is Skyfall one of the best Bond films, with a strong argument to be made for the best, but it's also the strongest dramatic action film of the year thus far. Like Casino Royale, Skyfall delivers a Bond film that is intelligent, layered, enthralling, entertaining, but also true to the series. Sam Mendes manages to bring the same sort of dramatic nuance of his past films, the brilliant Revolutionary Road and American Beauty, and transports it to the Bond universe, but does so without sacrificing the charm of the past films. The result is something truly compelling, which pays off as a full cinematic experience, not a simple popcorn action flick.

The performances in Skyfall are what really cement it as a masterpiece of the series. Daniel Craig continues to excel as a cool, confident and slick Bond, but also one with inner conflict and a sense of vulnerability not seen in past Bonds. Craig's Bond is one that gets tired, disillusioned, and occasionally falls down, a much more complex Bond than in the past. Like all Bond films, the villain is what makes or breaks it. In this case, we get Javier Bardem (of No Country for Old Men fame), as a truly creepy, menacing, but also hauntingly believable nefarious character. Judi Dench, a hallmark of the series, also takes a prime role and does so beautifully, with a very well executed story arch.

On a technical level, Skyfall is seemingly perfect. The cinematography is beautiful, we get the sense that every scene is constructed with great, meticulous, care. The direction is sharp, with a strong pace, and fantastic scene construction. One long continuous shot in particular, featuring Javier Bardem, offers the most memorable and chilling scene of the film.

Brilliantly conceived, executed, and composed, Skyfall is the most memorable Bond films in years, and among the best of 2012.

5/5 Stars

Unlawful Entry

Dated in some ways (it has only become more formulaic with the passage of time), but still a serviceable thriller, Unlawful Entry is a paranoid movie that justifies paranoia.

Russell is convincing as the 'every man' having to deal with the always enjoyable and underrated Ray Liotta, as a crazed and envious cop. It is their interactions that really make the film watchable, and helps sell the more absurd elements of the narrative.

The direction also does a good job of keeping the film tensely paced, with scene construction that builds up the suspense well. The script is adequate from the standpoint that, while we know where the script is headed, it manages to keep enough surprises in store that we stay engaged. At the same time, the overall set-up strains believably--how can Madeleine Stowe's character possibly be so dumb and naive? How could others in the department not notice the unhinged and impulsive Officer Davis (Liotta)? There are simply too many holes and logical leaps to make Unlawful Entry anything more than a B level-thriller. But taken on those terms, it's enjoyable enough, successfully playing on some of our worst fears (wrongful arrest, the system out to get us), and doing so in a generally effective way.

3/5 Stars

Desert Flower

Desert Flower is a great biopic film that aims for a specific message, and delivers that message powerfully and to great effect. The tale it seeks to lay out works on a number of levels. From a rags to riches story, it succeeds, with very moving and well integrated flashbacks, contrasted with a much different, though still quite flawed, modern day London. Where the film really makes an impact, however, is with the horrendous, but all to believable, subject of female genital mutilation. This is handled with grace, the film doesn't hit you over the head with how terrible it is, but instead chooses to go the more subtle route, not showing its hand until we care enough about the character and her journey to really feel impacted.

Though the film does occasionally stumble on tone, the script is largely well done, and so is the direction and composition, one that straddles the line between the different themes fairly well. It's also acted impressively, with Liya Kebede delivering a strong performance.

Though the ending may come across as a bit conventional and too direct, the film never loses its heart, and conveys what it seeks to in an effective manner, making it a strong and memorable drama.

4/5 Stars

Flight
Flight(2012)
½

Flight manages to do what so many other dramas try to do and fail at, it captures a disease, in this case alcoholism, in a dramatic, tense, engaging, humanizing, and authentic way. It has a mature sensibility that doesn't force story lines or opt for easy answers, but instead looks to capture the events as they unfold. It's guided by the talented Robert Zemeckis, whose filmography shows past examples of taking confined stories to a cinematic and moving level. These directing talents are witnessed throughout, from the gripping crash scene to the moving ending, paced with precision and filmed with great care.

The acting is very strong all around but, as many have noted, the bulk of the credit goes toward Denzel Washington, with his nuanced performance that anchors every seen, and injects the film with an unshakeable sense of realism. We see the transformation unfold by his movement, facial expression, and inflections, he completely inhibits his character. That he had a great script to work with should also be noted, one that has fantastically written dialogue, and a methodical sense of build up and pay off.

What is perhaps the most enjoyable thing about flight is that it meets convention to some extent, but not in an overly-neat way. Redemption is found, but not necessarily out of necessity. Guilt is present, but not from the on-set. Instead we see a man with regret, but with a strong arrogant streak, one that keeps him from really coming to terms with his own issues. The ultimate climax and ending feel organic from what has come before it, and is executed very well, with a particularly memorable cross examination sequence.

If Flight has a weakness, it's that we don't get to see enough of how Whitaker's actions are felt by those around him, prior to the crash itself. He almost functions too well considering the level of addiction that is shown. We see others discuss his problem, and see the family dynamics, but we don't necessarily see the performance implications.

Overall, Flight offers one of the smarter dramas of the year, well written, acted, directed, and conceived, if not a bit depressing.

4.5/5 Stars

Sinister
Sinister(2012)
½

Like all horror films, Sinister has a number of familiar elements, but manages to stay interesting by defying some of the usual conventions, especially in its last act. It features tight, effective direction, that is usually good at avoiding over-indulgent editing tricks, and instead manages to create a pretty effective atmosphere. The script is strong from the standpoint that it has some twists, at least a few of which weren't widely evident, but it also has some cliche character moments. The acting is also a bit of a mix bag, the child actors aren't particularly convincing, but Ethan Hawke brings an excellent intensity. As mentioned, the third act, though increasingly absurd, takes a rather daring direction, and helps elevate sinister from other B horror movies. For a genre so over-saturated as this, that alone counts for a great deal. Solid piece.

3.5/5 Stars

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas(2012)

Enormously ambitious, and executed with a keen visual sense, Cloud Atlas is one of the most unique films of the year. It's an anthology film, of sorts, which intertwines a number of stories throughout time, connecting them with themes of redemption, soul groups, patterns, and the profound impact even the most innocuous actions can have. The acting is strong all around, especially from Xun Zhou, in a performance with anchors the film throughout. The visuals are inventive, with an intelligent world building aspect that has an imaginative sense of the future. The script is also surprisingly strong and intelligent, being able to weave the far-reaching narrative, and takes things in to account such as language development, and an overall impressive attention to detail.

Each of the storylines are composed well, but each are not created equal. Some are connected to the overall through line more than others, making the filmâ(TM)s 2.45 hour running time seem a bit inflated. They also donâ(TM)t all have the same tone, with one particular storyline being overly comedic, which I thought distracted from the more effective dramatic elements of the film as a whole.

Overall, Cloud Atlas offers a unique and though provoking experience, making it one of the best science fiction films of the year.

4/5 Stars

Heaven & Earth
½

Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth completes his "Vietnam Trilogy" by examining the conflict through a Vietnamese woman, a woman who later marries a US solider and moves away. It's not as compelling on an emotional level as his other two (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), as it seems to tackle too many themes, and doesn't have a completely focused message. The initial set-up is especially by-the-numbers and familiar, until Tommy Lee Jones's character is introduced, from that point the story takes on a much more interesting direction, with some excellent exchanges by the two actors. Hiep Thi Le's performance is also noteworthy, with a very expressive face that conveys a great deal of emotion. Uneven, but ultimately solid.

3.5/5 Stars

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths is another strong black comedy from the writer/director of the immensely enjoyable In Bruges. The dialogue is appropriately witty, with a hilarious mix of violence, deadpan humor, and a smart script which delivers twists that culminate in a strong climax. Like In Bruges, the dark humor is done with great delivery, with strong performances from all involved, with an especially strong performance from Sam Rockwell. It does not have the same dramatic weight as In Bruges, however, as it's much less narrative driven. Instead, it's self-aware in a style not-unlike the much more seriously toned Adaptation. But this is incorporated well, with a strong script, and a focus on the characters. Overall, it's energetic, funny, witty, and unexpected, a mix that rarely comes to fruition to the extent that it does here. One of the year's most unique films.

4/5 Stars

Argo
Argo(2012)

Argo is the rare fact based film that tells the events in a captivating, smart, and thrilling way, without sacrificing authenticity. It's the sense of realism that Argo keeps that really makes the film, it transports you back to the events itself, with all the uncertainty and apprehension, with minimal Hollywood gloss. The script features sharp, poignant, and occasionally humorous dialogue, and a set-up that doesn't ignore the wider complexities of the event. The story itself is a cautionary tale on blow-back and a champion for a "let cooler heads prevail" approach to diplomacy, which I really appreciated. The acting is very strong all around, with Affleck giving an appropriately muted performance, and anchored well by reliable greats like John Goodman and Alan Arkin. The film does have a few weaknesses in that the opening act seems a bit fast, and more character development for both Affleck's character and the six diplomats would have been good. But overall, it's a very well-executed effort, with great acting, interesting characters, an intelligent sensibility, and an excellent sense of tension. One of the year's stronger dramas.

4/5 Stars

The Two Jakes

The Two Jakes suffers from what most sequels to highly successful and acclaimed films do, in that it relies too heavily on its predecessor, the revered Chinatown, to give it a narrative heft, and, in turn, doesn't work as well as it should on its own merits. It has an atmospheric mood and generally good acting, but a muddled plot too concerned with recalling back to the past, and executed with a meandering pace. The direction by Nicholson is largely hit and miss, with a number of good scenes with a keen sense of framing, but also, at times, seemingly unfocused. The actors do a good job keeping the story interesting which, along with great world building, make it passably worthwhile, yet still a disappointing follow-up.

3/5 Stars

Brick
Brick(2006)
½

Having greatly enjoyed Rian Johnson's recent Looper, I wanted to check out his first effort. Brick is an impressive debut, in that it has a smart technical sense. The scenes are composed in such a way that give weight to the characters, filmed to give them added depth, and always with a keen understanding of the narrative impact. This is one of Johnson's greatest strengths, composing scenes in compelling and interesting ways. The noir style, with its stylized language in the vain of classic films from the genre, is incorporated well with the high school setting. It does take a sense of realism out of the film, however, which was distracting, as characters did not act in ways consistent with the time or age group. At the same time, an especially impressive performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt helped keep the film grounded, as he was the most authentic aspect of the film. The tone was a bit inconsistent, ranging from self-aware to dark and brooding, but smooths itself out toward the last act, with a particularly memorable last scene.

3.5/5 Stars

Taken 2
Taken 2(2012)
½

A half-baked and silly premise undermine Taken 2 from