La La Land

la-la-land-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 9, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Damien Chazelle 

Directed by: Damien Chazelle 

Damien Chazelle’s critically-acclaimed modern musical is being hailed as one of the most original movies in years. That’s not surprising given the cinematic environment into which it has been born. It’s hard not to appreciate the oasis in a sprawling desert. While Disney animation in particular continues to inject original song and dance into each new incarnation, barring one or two high-profile exceptions the traditional musical has been all but banished from contemporary cineplexes. La La Land represents a change of tone from the writer-director’s previous exploration of creative obsession, and the scope has been broadened with the way he interrogates aspects of life beyond the singular pursuit of perfection. What he presents in 2016 is a lively, upbeat jazz musical that revisits several familiar themes.

Viewed through the lens of career ambition (okay, yes — obsession), the city of broken dreams offers an uncanny backdrop. Approximately 60 L.A. locales were used, ranging from dilapidated trolley stations to infamous stretches of freeway near the bustling metropolis. Coupled with the bright, neon lights and iconic landmarks, La La Land is a romantic outing in more ways than one. It is visually spectacular, an ambition unto itself. And while many of the musical interludes won’t leave any lasting impression, two of them — the catchy opening tune ‘Another Day of Sun’ and Emma Stone‘s stand-out solo ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ — are absolutely fantastic. These are certifiable “Oscar moments.”

La La Land tosses several significant and believable obstacles in the paths of our protagonists, once more asking viewers what we would sacrifice to ensure our dreams become realized. Our story, as it were, is constructed out of the interactions between two star-crossed lovers — Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) — as they evolve from strangers with road rage to significant others. In their third romantic pairing (Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad being the others), the actors feel entirely natural together. Under the guidance of Chazelle the two really are wonderful. They’re first spotted in the very traffic jam that opens the film in a surprisingly thrilling fashion. They’re not exactly amiable towards each other at first, with Sebastian blaring his horn at Mia having grown tired of the woman in front of him not paying attention to her surroundings.

Quite serendipitously the two will meet again, first at a small restaurant where Sebastian has just been fired for disobeying his manager (J.K. Simmons in a cameo) who told him explicitly not to play any jazz, only the Christmas jingles. This encounter is also far from pleasant. Later the two meet again at a couple of L.A. parties, where they could be meeting anyone. I would have rolled my eyes more but Chazelle writes so well forgiving these nagging coincidences is not only easy, it’s mandatory. Cheesiness is part of the fabric of the musical. Despite feigning disinterest in one another via the film’s obvious centerpiece — a beautifully choreographed dance number near Griffith Observatory synchronized with a setting sun that bathes the valley in royal purple — the two share an irresistible charm that reminded me of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s affectionate ribbing in Eternal Sunshine.

As the two eventually entwine their lives together they attempt to motivate each other to make their dreams become realities. A passionate jazz pianist, Sebastian sees himself opening his own club one day, despite how he barely gets by on the gigs he plays right now. The aforementioned fall-out at the restaurant finds the musician relegated to playing synth for an 80s cover band at birthday parties. His girlfriend scratches her head when she sees him stooping to a new low by going on tour with a mainstream band headed by a high school acquaintance named Keith (John Legend). “Do you like this kind of music?” Mia asks during a heated exchange over a candlelit dinner. Sebastian stabs back with a reminder that her acting career has yet to take off. Refreshingly, this relationship isn’t perfect. Matters of practicality vs. idealism begin creating friction. Sebastian maintains he is doing whatever he can to make ends meet. He no longer can afford to be so idealistic.

In La La Land conviction is everything. Enthusiasm and vigor prevent the production from descending into schmaltz. It’s a quality that applies to virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process, from Chazelle’s emphatic direction to the complicated dance routines that give characters as much soul as any awards-baiting monologue ever could. From the meticulous location scouting to the cinematography that makes Los Angeles bleed colors we haven’t seen since Nicolas Winding Refn lit the place on fire with 2011’s Drive. The songs won’t make you want to sing in the rain like Gene Kelly, nor are they quite as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as anything Julie Andrews did . . . but hey, they’re still catchy. And given the inexperience of the cast — Gosling learned to play piano and tap dance for his part, while Stone reportedly had some balance issues — the fact that we catch ourselves moving our feet in rhythm speaks volumes about the harmony of the post-production process. La La Land comes together very well, despite several familiar elements.

The film’s music is almost always fantastical, in some instances even ethereal as a lone spotlight falls on the singer of the moment while the rest of the world fades to black. But the fantasy doesn’t subtract from the authenticity of the emotions on  display.  Impressively the story stays rooted in reality, and the experience is not exactly pain-free. Chazelle is a passionate advocate for jazz music, clearly. I mean of all things, he landed on a jazz musical, in a day and age where country singers and pop stars are being manufactured on game shows. In an era of jaded 20-year-olds who think jazz is just music stuck in the past. And while thematically it feels like the writer-director is somewhat treading water post-Whiplash, ultimately he inspires simply because of the gamble he just took to realize his own ambitions.

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4-0Recommendation: La La Land, a film with enough verve and color to supply at least five other major productions, lingers in the mind because of the fascinating combination of modern actors performing arguably outmoded roles in an era where the musical is no longer popular. It’s a film for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fans and jazz lovers alike. It’s a film for romantics. But if you’re heading in expecting Damien Chazelle to up his game from Whiplash, you might find yourself disappointed. Because that film was a stroke of genius. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 128 mins. 

Quoted: “You could just write your own rules. You know, write something that’s as interesting as you are.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack movie poster

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Crystal Moselle

Short film director Crystal Moselle’s first feature-length documentary probably would have never happened if she weren’t on the right street corner at the right time of day. Her chance encounter with the Angulo brothers on the streets of New York one afternoon would seem like serendipity had it not been for the director and the boys sharing one major interest: a love of movies. For the subjects of this incredible film, maybe the statistical improbability of their run-in is more like karma.

Six young men with long-flowing, dark hair, dressed to the nines á la the guys from Reservoir Dogs and running down a New York avenue would probably seem to many a cause for concern, a group with only mischief on their minds. But Moselle wasn’t intimidated as much as she was fascinated by their presence. Four years later and their life story — or the story as it had been controlled up until that point — would serve as the basis for one of 2015’s most intriguing and unique documentary films.

The Wolfpack captures the Angulo family as they go about living in a cramped four-bedroom apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At film’s open the family dynamic reveals nothing untoward: boys are being boys and re-enacting their favorite scenes from their favorite Scorsese, Tarantino and Nolan movies (albeit with a creative fervor that should have them nominated for best home-made costumes). Mom and dad are elsewhere. Their young sister is separated, less interested in the collective cinematic obsession.

Fairly early on it’s difficult to ignore a crushing sense of stagnation, though. This isn’t a home of hoarding nor of physical abuse leading to the complete dissolution of the family unit. Rather, the Angulos have been living a hermitic lifestyle because of their father, Oscar. The Peruvian immigrant fundamentally disagrees with the way in which American society runs. Intensely afraid the dangers and influences of the outside world would have a negative impact on his family, he has rarely allowed them to leave the building. He keeps the only key to the apartment and monitors his wife’s weekly grocery trips. We’re not talking about a situation where the boys are restricted to socializing only on the weekends. This is total isolation.

This was a situation that had been ongoing for 14 years prior to the director stumbling upon them on the street. One of the older brothers informs us that a good year might have yielded a half dozen trips outside, while during a particularly bad year they never got out at all. Ventures outdoors were more likely when the season’s right. The same applied to their sister and their mother, who had been homeschooling her children while collecting on welfare. (Oscar also fundamentally disagreed with the concept of holding down a job.)

Moselle’s work isn’t the most tightly focused documentary you’ll see, but that’s because she’s aiming at extracting the essence of the Angulo’s personal relationships and how film has shaped and informed their lives. She’s there for the good times as much as she is for the bad; even though interviews remain fairly casual and lighthearted, a lingering look in an eye or a reluctant smile tells another story. There are moments where anger and bitterness surface, though the Angulo boys are, with these extreme conditions considered, remarkably well-adjusted. Polite, well-spoken and each intelligent and thoughtful, it’s often difficult reconciling their potential with the sheer number of opportunities that they’ve been denied.

The Wolfpack offers a fairly disturbing story but it’s never confronting. It’s intimate and honest; moving and at times absurdly comical. I’m left wondering, after viewing the footage themselves, if any of these brothers would end up owning this on DVD. They strike me more as the action/thriller/crime-drama crowd but after all they’ve been through together, re-watches of their own history could prove to be both a powerful reminder of history and a reinvigorating push forward into the future.

Recommendation: An inspiration for cinephiles everywhere, if there ever were one. Er, . . . one not named Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This quietly powerful documentary serves as a testament to the power of film and of brotherhood. Undoubtedly one of the year’s most memorable stories. Highly el-recommended-o.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Gift

Release: Friday, August 7, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Joel Edgerton

The Gift is a kind of addictive drug. The more of it you consume the more of it you want.

Considering this is the first time Australian actor Joel Edgerton has been in full control of a project, that may seem hyperbolic. However, the logic follows. Edgerton has proven over the course of a 17-year career on the big screen he’s able to do much with a bit of determination. And, well yeah, some pride and confidence. Edgerton’s not just talented but he’s principled. Criticism about projects he has chosen has rarely, if ever, questioned his faith in his own work. With resilience to spare, he continues to bear the marks of a reliable thespian. It would only make sense his efforts would translate to an altogether new aspect of filmmaking. This, the year 2015, would be the time to prove it.

The Gift, now almost three years in the making, is a gift to those who have kept the faith in him. As a mystery thriller it is incredibly tense, well-acted and the epitome of unpredictable. In it Edgerton co-stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who play a recently relocated married couple settling into the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles from their native Chicago. While shopping for home supplies, Simon (Bateman, in a compelling, atypically dramatic performance) bumps into someone who claims to recognize him from their high school days, a socially awkward but seemingly harmless Gordo (Edgerton). While the timing isn’t convenient to catch up in the store, Simon promises they will be in touch.

Simon is a partner in a billion-dollar company. His wife Robyn works from home as a designer. From what we gather initially the pair are but two seeds swept up in the current of modern day living, one that all but necessitates independent career earnings to support a family. Their beautiful home alone is but a part of a larger picture of success, and Simon and Robyn seem very happy together. One afternoon Gordo drops in unannounced; Robyn invites him in for a tour of their abode, not wanting to be rude to Simon’s ostensible old friend. This leads to a pleasant dinner later that evening, during which Simon and Gordo finally do some of that catching up. Most of it is casual chit-chat, but Edgerton being Edgerton, his character possesses a depth that jumpstarts his former classmate’s uptightness. An uptightness that gradually morphs into paranoia. Paranoia that evolves into legitimate suspicion.

The Gift is also written by the Aussie. On that front he proves himself a talent to keep watching, crafting a perpetual shape-shifter that creates at least as many questions as it does answers. That should be taken as a compliment of the highest order when it comes to the genre. Beyond an acting showcase — show me the role in which Jason Bateman has been better (or Rebecca Hall for that matter) — the film, particularly in its final moments, offers an adrenaline rush that manifests more as a high than anything else. Indeed if The Gift is a drug, it’s good for both the brain and body.

In an auspicious directing debut, Edgerton provides more than just sound narrative structure and an atmosphere in which his co-stars have clearly flourished — nevermind the fact that he shot his own role two weeks into production and in the span of a single week. He’s made his stance on childhood bullying abundantly clear. And of course he’s not content to stop there, evolving the conversation on the long-term effects of that infuriating reality into a discussion about how it takes a much darker and potentially more harmful turn when applied to adults engaging in such shameful behavior. If someone is looking for a fault in the film it’s that perhaps the issue is handled a little less than subtly in the pulse-pounding conclusion but that’s so incredibly secondary to the fact that he has taken this issue seriously, as it ought to be.

Recommendation: If you’re in the mood to be toyed with psychologically Joel Edgerton has the perfect film for you. Filled with deeply emotional performances and a wicked final (double) twist, his first shot at directing should earn him a score of new fans. This is pretty exciting stuff from a guy who’s always been reliable as an actor, and it’s safe to say this will go on to become a favorite for fans of the mystery thriller and intelligent, provocative filmmaking in general. The Gift is one of 2015’s greats. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Good people deserve good things.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Everly

Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Redbox]

Written by: Yale Hannon

Directed by: Joe Lynch

There’s an unshakable sense Joe Lynch and company didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity they had with Salma Hayek playing the lead in this economical, often comically violent home invasion thriller.

Despite having a strong presence Hayek is relegated to the role of Donkey Kong: all she must do is survive an incoming wave of bad guys and, barring something just completely off-the-wall in the script, she’ll be home free. Er, in a manner of speaking. She’s actually home the entire time, as Everly rarely leaves the confines of an upscale loft apartment, and when it does it saunters out into the hallway for a few long seconds just to see if the coast is clear. But it rarely is, and Everly is certainly not free.

If it’s not giving the film too much credit, Everly seems to harp on the idea of freedom more than its bloody special effects. On a small scale, Everly wants needs to be free of the physical and mental anguish brought on by her psychotic ex-boyfriend Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe). That her family winds up getting in the middle of several attacks (albeit on the back of some extremely foolish decisions) is surely reason enough for Everly to break free of her dark, dangerous past. Ironic that Lynch’s film can’t break free from the mould of the typical brainless action outing. Everly’s background is as unknown as the environment outside this building. And if there is freedom to be found it exists only in the physical: some way of escaping this hell-hole.

Everly’s ability to defend herself, while more often than not entertaining, makes her a thorough enigma if we are in fact meant to be rooting for her. Given the waves upon waves of attackers, each one seemingly more violent and depraved than the last, we want to assume Everly’s done something worse than cheat on poor Taiko; surely no degree of infidelity would justify this kind of a response. While the various intrusions mark Everly a prisoner in her own home her natural ability to quickly solve each recurrence of that very problem necessarily redirects a spotlight back upon her past. Alas, we don’t ever fully get to understand Everly.

As she exists in this version of the film — the final product, sadly — Everly is neither person nor prisoner. She’s a heavily-tattooed survivalist with no last name. Her current predicament, no more complicated than that classic video game. The controls are basically run, shoot/throw things, duck and hide. Despite Hayek’s faintly detectable humanity — even though, ew, she’s a hooker and shame on her for not being around for her young daughter — she doesn’t get to leave the stinging impression that the physicality of her performance wants her to. Drama is far more obsessed with getting even, an eye-for-an-eye when at least one of those eyes should be focused on the details. Like, why we should care about any of this.

While it’s good to see a female spin on this steadily-growing subgenre of action films popularized by Liam Neeson and his brand of vengeance-seeking, Everly overcompensates for its casting, eventuating in a grotesquely violent shocker that will be remembered less for Hayek’s energy than it will be for the blood stains it leaves behind.

“Say ‘Hola’ to my little friend!!!”

Recommendation: For those desensitized to brutal action, Everly delivers a lot of the good/red stuff. It’s suitably a short-lived home invasion and the experience packs in enough disturbing events to satisfy those sorts of fans but it’s a problem having someone as talented as Hayek in a role so poorly developed. She’s too mysterious to embrace but nowhere near sadistic to be rejected. Sad to say Everly is one to watch less for the character/actress than the crafty little kills she’s responsible for throughout.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Ted 2

Release: Friday, June 26, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Seth MacFarlane; Alec Sulkin; Wellesley Wild

Directed by: Seth MacFarlane

Ted 2 turns out to be ridiculous, which in itself is ridiculous. . .because it’s ridiculous to think the first was ridiculous enough to justify something ridiculous like a sequel.

Everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed stuffed teddy is growing up in the follow-up to Seth MacFarlane’s surprisingly successful debut about a child who wishes for his favorite cuddly toy to one day come to life. Now Ted’s getting married to his bear-boo, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) — who barely gets to show any, boo!

As predictable as an episode of Family Guy, a conflict materializes out of rather contrived circumstances, where we see their relationship falling on emotional hard times only shortly after nuptials were made official. Desperate to make Tami-Lynn happy again, Ted suggests they have a child, reasoning that if they learned to love a kid they might remember how to love each other again. Of course the epiphany has probably come right on the heels of what may presumably have been Ted’s fifth or sixth Bud Light. Still, it’s . . . it’s whatever. It works, leave it alone and let’s move on.

When finding sperm donors proves to be more of an issue than the couple expect, they turn to adoption as their last resort. Sadly it’s a move that brings the crushing blow of reality down upon them when their applications draw attention from the state government. Ted and Tami-Lynn’s marriage becomes annulled when officials declare Ted isn’t human, rather just a piece of property. He then finds himself enlisting the help of his thunder-buddy-for-life John (Mark Wahlberg) in his quest to prove both his status as a human being and a citizen of Boston, and that his marriage should be recognized as legal. It may not be a voice many are expecting to hear, but MacFarlane does contribute something to the conversation surrounding marriage equality and it’s welcomed.

What the film lacks in MacFarlane’s signature, perfectly choreographed musical interludes it makes up for with a surprisingly sensitive story. Suffice it to say, there have been far worse comedy sequels before; MacFarlane could have also chosen to build upon his western comedy concept. He shows restraint by not going that route. Not that this film is going to go down as a particularly memorable comedy. MacFarlane still can’t help but sketch outlines of supporting characters who do nothing more than function as signposts, convenient for when you inevitably get lost in this meandering little tale. Amanda Seyfried, while likable enough, seems to be twiddling her thumbs with her throw-away role of a pot-smoking attorney. Morgan Freeman is all but wasted as a more reputable civil rights attorney they all hope will help them after failing to get the courts to rule in favor of Ted and Tami-Lynn in the first of several courtroom scenes.

Beyond failing to justify such big names in such insignificant roles MacFarlane struggles to shape all the events into a cohesive whole. Although it feels slightly less episodic than the last outing, and certainly less so than A Million Ways to Die in the West, this narrative does its fair share of aimless wandering as Ted and John befriend Seyfried’s Samantha Jackson. As their legal representative she has the appearance of being book-smart, but then she smokes a ton of weed in her office so she’s obviously not too street smart. Do we need a 10-minute scene to get that point across, though? Freeman gets to have his moments (hearing him deliver the line “After I’m finished fucking myself. . .” is for some reason very satisfying), even if they, too, contribute far more to a bloated running time than to this campaign for emotional resonance. Indeed, the first time we even meet Freeman’s character it turns out to be nothing more than a wild goose chase. But hey — more time spent with this adorable teddy bear and his likable Bostonian pothead friend, the better, right?

There’s plenty of time to spend, too. At five minutes shy of two hours Ted 2 runs a risk of overstaying its furry little welcome. There’s this whole other subplot involving Hasbro toys and the company’s evil underbelly — John Carroll Lynch’s money-hungry executive and a creepazoid janitor named Donny, played once again with unbridled enthusiasm by the one and only Giovanni Ribisi. These men are after the teddy bear, determined the court will rule against Ted and declare him property, thereby making it legally safer for Hasbro to abduct the toy and use him in experiments to see if they can recreate his lifelikeness in other bears. It’s up to, who else, the stoner lawyer and her newfound friend John to save the bear from danger and then also get him legally declared a person before the film reel runs out. Ted 2 stuffs a lot in and not all of it works, but on the whole this sequel charms just as much as the stuff(ing) upon which it is based.

Recommendation: I never would have thought I’d be here justifying another round of teddy-bear-related hijinks but here I am doing just that. Ridiculous. On that ground alone, MacFarlane’s third feature film directorial effort should be labeled a success. If you laughed at the first one, you’ll likely have a good time with this, even though it in no way demands to be seen in theaters. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Did you hear that? You’re covered in rejected black men’s semen. You look like a Kardashian.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

San Andreas

Release: Friday, May 29, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Carlton Cuse

Directed by: Brad Peyton

San Andreas turns a massive crack in the earth into the Ultron of natural disaster villains, and Dwayne Johnson seems to be the only man fit to star opposite in this chunk of supposed summer entertainment.

The former wrestler fits in well with his surroundings as rescue helicopter pilot Ray Gaines, although it’s anyone’s guess as to how the guy actually fits inside a chopper. In a tense opening sequence involving a girl and her car stuck between a couple of rocks and a hard place, we are privy to Ray’s death-defying abilities. (Those will come in handy later.) A respected member of the L.A. Fire Department, Ray is of course no model human. An impending divorce from wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is putting pressure on him as he wants his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to remain in his life as much as possible. Both relationships remain fraught with tension since the loss of a fourth family member in a drowning incident some years ago.

While the strategy is far from original, getting us to invest in this particular family’s affairs works because Johnson and Gugino exude charisma as a couple on the brink of divorce. Strange as that sounds, the pair are suitably cast and make ridiculously cheesy character development somehow watchable. Or at least tolerable. For the world — make that the western American seaboard . . . er, no, strike that: the California coastline as far as Ray and his family are concerned — is about to fall apart in more ways than one.

Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is a scientist (you know this because of his permanent frown and a hairline that suggests his scalp and Rogaine have never met) at Caltech who is on the brink of discovering more accurate ways of predicting seismic activity. Unfortunately he isn’t too good at predicting that which strikes the Hoover Dam and claims the life of a long-time colleague. “Uhh, yeah — that fault line wasn’t supposed to be there. That was . . . my bad.” Or so says his furrowed brow in the ensuing scene, a retreat back to the university, when a local news crew inundate him with questions about any progress he might be making. Oh, such poor timing.

The incident at the dam is merely a precursor to a series of escalating, catastrophic earthquakes that come to define the plot, the characters, essentially the film’s score, ultimately any lasting memories of what you’ve just seen upon leaving the theater. However long those memories last may well depend on the magnitude of the ‘quake. The best way I know how to criticize San Andreas while sounding like I had a good time is that it is far too eager to get to these big CGI set pieces.

Everything is rushed, the biggest victim being the characters. For an action/disaster flick in 2015 there need not be a poetic fascination with them but there should be more discovery than what we get. Peyton clearly favors pushing past all that icky stuff to the visual goodies. A tidal wave engulfs many a Californian landmark; buildings collapse as though they are built from Jenga pieces; fires scorch the afternoon sky at the tops of those remaining upright. We certainly get the sense that not even Giamatti’s math could save millions from the carnage.

But the concluding sequence all but confirms the only interest Peyton and his writers have in showcasing the power of Mother Nature — the raging, pissed off one living beneath our feet apparently — is parading this year’s minuscule improvement in special effects technology. This is a visual feast and nearly two hours’ worth of society falling apart implies that, while the world may collapse, CGI will be here to stay. Like cockroaches living long after nuclear fallout. CGI is rapidly becoming the main vein feeding the industry, the lifeblood of many a filmmaker with eyes larger than their intellect.

Even by disaster movie standards, the chaotic (but beautiful) computer graphics dominate, rendering any human-related drama as deep as a paper cut. While science can at least somewhat support Peyton’s vision of a California torn asunder by massively destructive earthquakes — it has been three centuries since the southern portion of the fault line has made its presence known, and seismologists do in fact predict it is overdue for some kind of rupture — what begins as hypothetical quickly devolves into laughable.

Recommendation: Yes, San Andreas is harmless and mindless summer escapism but this is a film that had greater potential. I could smell The Rock cooking up a more memorable performance than this as well, but he and his co-star Carla Gugino pull off a marriage in trouble convincingly enough. But given the rest of the cast, they are outliers. There’s not enough in this action spectacular to recommend to the casual viewer of these sorts of things; diehards, on the other hand. . . .

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “The earth will literally crack and you will feel it on the East Coast.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Run All Night

run-all-night-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 13, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Emotionally resonant, impressively acted and frenetically paced to a fault, the latest demonstration of Neeson’s physical and intellectual stamina may suffer from a case of ‘been there, done that’ but that’s more in reference to the general direction this new release takes and less to its personality. There’s no shame in repeating a formula . . . if it works. What’s that adage — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Well Liam isn’t broken yet as this film proves; he’s got plenty left in the tank.

The 62-year-old Irishman crawls under the skin of what may be his most apparent antihero yet, Jimmy Conlon, a former hit-man with more ties to the mob than to his own family. When a thug, the son of one of Jimmy’s only remaining friends Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) makes a sloppy attempt at disposing of unwanted evidence in the wake of a botched murder by tracking down an escaped ‘victim’ to Jimmy’s son’s home and attempts to clean house, Jimmy is awoken from a particularly brutal drunken stupor in an effort to save his son’s life. Michael (Joel Kinnaman, finally coming to life) hasn’t seen his father in five years since the death of his mother and finds the timing a little odd to say the least. Knowing full well what the consequences of his latest kill are going to be, Jimmy makes a strong case for Michael to trust his trigger-finger and gut instinct for just one night.

It’s clear we won’t be dropping the baggage of old age manifesting in bottomless drinks and endless cigarettes this time around: Neeson’s character once more gets to tout his miserable existence on this mortal coil as experience no one around him ought to share in, but within this fragile father-son dynamic the pain caused by his rejection from society — or those who haven’t committed murder for a living anyway — not only registers with the audience but it’s a burden that feels earned. If it’s not a better life Jimmy wants for his son and his family, which includes a regrettably disposable Genesis Rodriguez as his gorgeous wife, then it’s certainly anything but what the next 24 hours are going to offer.

As for those aforementioned consequences, Harris’ ruthless Shawn, whose previous claims of running a legit operation these days belie the monster dormant behind cold, blue eyes, stabs a man in the back no less than ten times with a large blade during a shocking sequence of mafia-related retribution. It’s not quite like Matthew 5:38 (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”), but the allegory, even if as subtle as a backstabbing, works to heighten the tension. Every move Jimmy makes to protect his son Shawn mimics out of desperation — desperation with which we can actually empathize. Credit Harris’ gift for powerful acting. Credit screenwriter Brad Ingelsby for setting up the stakes sufficiently, as the fall-out between the two men culminates in a surprisingly emotional showdown.

Run All Night is of course not without its own missteps. Its many action-packed (read: very violent) scenes are spliced together with an energy that takes some effort keeping up with, even for director Jaume Collet-Serra. A dizzying blend of awkward camera zooms that whisk us from one section of the metropolitan maze that is Manhattan to the other and close-ups of characters at rest nearly results in nausea and does result in frequent detachment from the movie. Not to mention this story, though much more attentive to character development and emotional gravitas than the latter Taken installments, merely adds padding to Neeson’s post-Ra’s Al Ghul résumé. Run All Night is neither as poorly titled as Non-Stop nor as ill-advised as extending the legacy of Bryan Mills, yet it won’t survive the year in most moviegoer’s memory.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t a film worth checking out though. It packs a punch and has strong performances peppered throughout, unsurprisingly from its head honchos and even Joel Kinnaman. Yes, I do realize how much that sounds like hyperbole . . . but for once on this blog I feel like I’m underselling something.

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3-0Recommendation: Run All Night could have gone either way, but Neeson once again delivers, with dramatic heft and some interesting relationship developments backing him up. At his age this could easily have been Walk All Night, or Hobble All Night. Or Talk on the Phone Menacingly All Night. But this character feels a little more three-dimensional as does the narrative. May I suggest this one to the more devoted fans of the rugged and imposing Liam Neeson and some other big-named actors who offer solid work.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Tell everyone to get ready. Jimmy’s coming . . . “

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

St. Vincent

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Release: Friday, October 24, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

In St. Vincent Bill Murray is the sort-of-bad guy, and Melissa McCarthy is the sort-of-saint. The role-reversal almost seems self-congratulatory it’s so overt. But does that make this comedy a bad movie?

That largely depends on how you define ‘a bad movie.’ That nine-letter phrase can imply so much. So let’s, before the headache, establish that ‘bad’ in this case translates as lazy; predictable; easy. In which case, you might as well stick a fat check mark in that box. St. Vincent rests on formula when it’s strongest and tugs violently on the heart-strings when all else fails. Had it not been for solid performances (I suppose here’s where I could include ‘predictability’ within the parameters of ‘bad movie’) this unapologetically manipulative and downright boring affair would likely be one of the year’s biggest letdowns.

Bill plays a curmudgeon named Vincent — a veteran of some war (let’s call it the Vietnam War — that’s the one where American troops were appreciated the least, right?) who these days is more comfortable with a bottle of whiskey in hand rather than a woman. But he’s not completely stupid. He makes sure to exude the one other classic symptom of hardened-vet status: a fascination with ladies of the night. In particular, it’s this Daka girl — I can only hope Naomi Watts isn’t usually this annoying — whom Vincent is taken by. He manages to scrape by with a pack of cigarettes and his shitty home cooking and makes regular rounds to the horse track to pay off whatever debts he owes to whomever it may be.

Oh yeah, that reminds me: Terrence Howard is in this.

Vincent’s ability to wall himself off from everyone becomes a character defect best disposed of when the script calls for it; i.e. when young and earnest Oliver (an undeniably excellent 11-year-old Jaeden Lieberher) needs a place to hang out for a few hours while his hard-working mommy (McCarthy) slaves at the hospital to pay the bills after moving to Brooklyn in the wake of a nasty divorce. Credit needs to also be given to McCarthy who, for the first time in some time, seems to be caring about what she offers a film. She’s fantastic. She’s the rock currently holding the two together as she staunchly defends her right, as a good and basically decent human being, to entrust another person to look after her son while she tries to fix things at home.

Too bad her mistake was to loan the babysitting reigns to next-door-neighbor Vincent. After all, isn’t he a man still trying to make things work with a stripper? In a series of “unlikely” events — made actually quite likely given the grouch’s understandable routine of bars, booze, and race track backtrackings — the man and the boy grow into a weird friendship of sorts. Again, this is at the behest of this script. I see no natural development here. (Nor do I have much inspiration to go back and find it, either.)

While enrolled in a private Catholic school, Oliver is asked by his teacher (Chris O’Dowd) to find someone students know, or know of, who may have qualities befitting a saint. Well gee-golly-willickers — I wonder who our fearless Oliver is going to pick? Surely not the bastard who once guilt-tripped his own mother into paying for the fence (and the fucking tree branch) that the moving company she hired was truly responsible for destroying. Yup. That’s the one. Yeah.

In the same way I’m willfully dismissing St. Vincent as a hollow exercise director Theodore Melfi is trying to prove his production has depth; originality. It relies heavily on Bill Murray to provide the gravitas, Melissa McCarthy the humor, and the child actor the quotient of precociousness a film like this needs to survive. Well you know what? It all just fails. Nothing about it seems saintly or even vaguely redeemable.

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2-0Recommendation: I really don’t recommend this to many. For fans of Bill Murray, go watch Ghostbusters; pop back in the Caddyshack DVD; Moonrise Kingdom; hell, go re-watch Space Jam for something that better showcases his talents. Just stay away from this if you’re thinking all things Bill Murray. Unfortunately I’m in a bit of an awkward position because Melissa McCarthy is indeed saintly here. She’s great because she offers a great counter-balance to the permanence of Vincent’s depressive state, which is something Murray sells to great effect.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “A saint is a human being we celebrate for the sacrifices they make, for their commitment to making the world a better place.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Nightcrawler

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Release: Friday, October 31, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

For anyone reeling in nostalgia for the days of Donnie Darko, boy do I have some good news for you.

Jake Gyllenhaal is back and at least for the moment seems untouchable once more, playing the consummate weirdo very few of us are likely to be jealous of being incapable of mimicking. We are, however, gobsmacked by his talents again; in awe of a star’s willingness to go so far in the opposite direction of who they likely really are for the sake of seeking the truth in performance art.

Or, perhaps it’s not that big of a stretch. Maybe the male Gyllenhaal is naturally drawn to the darkness, as a fly to a light. This time he’s called upon by first-time director Dan Gilroy to don a façade whose ability to identify with humanity is often overridden by a need to separate from it. Self-sufficiency is the name of the game.

Meet Louis Bloom. He calls himself Lou, along with a number of other more professional and less personal adjectives. He’s first seen scouting a deserted construction site for some materials he will later try to sell back to the construction company for a small profit. The act functions as both microcosm — first he’ll try to take over a scrap yard and soon it will be the city — as well as a crucial first step towards chasing after much loftier ambitions. Audaciously he would go on to ask the man behind the desk about any available positions within the company, but the guy won’t hire a thief and so it is back to the drawing board for Lou.

It was probably for the better, anyway, as he soon encounters a television crew on the highway covering what appears to be a fatal car accident. It’s still early on in the film’s impossibly fluid two-hour runtime and we are getting to a place where we understand already subtlety is not a word in Lou’s vocabulary. He quickly makes his presence known at the scene and brushes up against Bill Paxton’s accomplished camera man to see if there’s any work for him with them. No, there’s not. But there is money in this racket, he’s told.

Lou quickly gets his hands on a cheap camera and he even hires a staff. . . .of one. He comes into contact with a slightly scruffy-looking man from the streets, a young fellow named Rick (Riz Ahmed) whose wide-eyed naivety and desperation for work makes Lou’s goal-setting seem an impossible quest for wealth and popularity rather than an act manifested out of necessity. Make no mistake, one certainly seems more desperate than the other.

They may seem an odd-couple like any other you’ve seen before, though the tandem quickly come to epitomize the term ‘nightcrawlers’ — workers looking for the good money by filming the stuff that makes early morning news — bloody and if possible, fatal vehicular accidents, home invasions, shootings, things like that — using any means necessary. Stalking the night. Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing work as a man who blurs the line between bystander and active participant in a crime scene is the butter to Gilroy’s toast. And his toast, of course, is a truly original and compelling screenplay that conjures up characters who live and breathe death and destruction for another paycheck.

Paired with focused and intense direction that often thrusts us into the middle of the street without any hope of knowing what’s to come next — this is a brilliantly unpredictable adventure even if the opening shots are more than foreboding — the story allows us to never entirely hate this character even if we know we are morally bankrupting ourselves by doing so. We are actually capable of something even sicker: understanding his motives. Even if we can’t rectify what gets sacrificed. Come the film’s bullet-riddled conclusion, we’ll see the genius in Gilroy’s creation in a new light.

Speaking of which, Nightcrawler is bathed in all kinds of beautiful lighting, despite its ostensibly exclusive nighttime setting. It has the feel of a noir but on a much grander, almost blockbuster scale. It’s a rare kind of film performance-wise as this is a role that may supersede the psychological perturbation of Donnie Darko. If I’m gushing over him, I should probably apologize, for there are others who turn in strong work as well. One of those is Rene Russo, playing the morning news director Nina, who strongly encourages Lou to pursue freelance journalism.

Nina’s a force to be reckoned with and operates within a very difficult realm, a gray area in which station ratings are directly related to how good the material is. (But be careful to not show viewers anything too graphic, they’ll be watching this stuff with their breakfast.) Never before has the media mantra “if it bleeds, it leads” been twisted to fulfill such a haunting cinematic vision. Also compelling is Riz Ahmed, Lou’s assistant, who is eager to get to work and earn some kind of wage for himself. He deftly conveys a nervous apprehension to the job being asked of him, while avoiding falling into the ‘sidekick’ trope. Paxton isn’t in it for very long but exists in the frame long enough to leave an impression.

Nightcrawler is, thanks to its performances and solid narrative pulse, one of the best movies of the year and another solid reminder that Oscars season is upon us. After experiencing one of the year’s most unforgettable characters, and if I am speaking honestly I am glad I made the money to buy this ticket.

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4-5Recommendation: It is hard to imagine anyone not getting sucked in by the curious trailers heralding a return to weirdness for Jake Gyllenhaal. How can anyone resist that soul-burning stare of his, sitting perched before a backdrop of the L.A. area bathed in sunset (or rise)? He is positively chilling in the role and 100% the reason you should see this film. And if the trailer isn’t quite enough to sell you, maybe the fact he was Donnie Darko will. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “My motto is, if you wanna win the lottery, you’ve gotta make the money to buy a ticket.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Godzilla

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Release: Friday, May 16, 2014

[RPX Theater]

I AM GARETH EDWARDS, HEAR ME ROAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Who?

Oh, a nobody, other than the guy who’s responsible for retrofitting the world’s most famous monster for a 21st Century outing.

The British director has been in charge of at least one more monster-related movie. It was actually ingeniously titled Monsters. Now, he’s been tapped to awaken a beast living deep within our oceans — an effort, it’s hoped, that should eradicate any last vestiges of the memory of what Roland Emmerich did to the legend back in 1998. The last man to touch Godzilla controversially recast the giant lizard as some unexplained and malevolent force of nature bent on destroying the world uptown Manhattan. He has posed on occasion throughout his lengthy film career as the villainous type, but never did he feel as disconnected from lore or irrelevant as a threat to mankind as he did then.

Now Edwards has arrived on the scene and there’s a detectable escalating tension in the room. With a restless fan base growing ever desperate to see Godzilla as it truly wants to see him, the time is now to deliver on promises. No more messing around. No more straying from the truth. Just deliver the goods, and no one else gets upset. Or hurt.

Godzilla, the creature, receives a quality facelift in 2014. (I emphasize quality just to ensure no one here’s under the impression of an un-sexy beast; that this is the Joan Rivers of monster lizards.)

He’s so massive the cameras have to take their time in a particularly memorable, vertical panning shot, the moment his true size is revealed. He possesses a thunderous roar that will give the most hardened of ex-cons no choice but to go running for their favorite blankey; and the combination of sheer size and the way he moves in an epic, lumbering gait makes the big guy, for all intents and purposes, the standard against which any forthcoming CGI-fests are to be measured. Behold, the Godzilla we’ve been awaiting, expecting, maybe even demanding — a behemoth so positively ridiculous it couldn’t do anything but sit and wait for technology (namely, visual effects) to catch up and be able to support its very scary ambitions.

In 1999 scientists working in the Janjira Nuclear Plant in Tokyo experience a catastrophic disaster in the form of a series of earthquakes that threatens to expose the entire city to toxic levels of radiation. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are dedicated researchers/engineers on the hunt for something enormous. As fate would have it, their dedication, a stubbornness woven into the fabric of human nature, would become a means to a very certain end.

A collaborative effort among Edwards’ three screenwriters, a trio which includes the one and only Frank Darabont, produces a screenplay that paints the human race as a mostly likable yet largely incapable species. Our sense of self-importance is quickly curtailed by the arrival of two massive insect-looking monsters the government is quick to label MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Mankind’s inability to stop experimenting has ironically produced its inability to continue living in its current state, apparently. Hence, Edwards’ decision to root the Brody’s at physical, emotional and psychological Ground Zero — they are a decent, hardworking family who clearly represents the best of humanity.

While not everyone’s performance strikes the same note — the movie’s biggest crime is that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Lieutenant Ford Brody is on occasion a bit too dry — the cast do what they need to in order to elevate the non-fantasy component to a suitably dramatic level, while still stepping back enough to allow our own fears and concerns to boil over quietly. We have time to ponder what we would do in these people’s shoes. And while characters fail to break the mould of archetypes — Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa might be the most irritating of the bunch, and Sally Hawkins needn’t even have bothered showing up on set her role is so limited — such is really all we need if we’re talking about retelling a classic and not reinventing it.

Godzilla is one of only a few films that succeeds in producing that gut-feeling, a fear so palpable we wish we don’t keep digging into the unknown. There’s a visceral reason to fear what we don’t understand or have never experienced. In the horror genre of today it seems copious amounts of blood and cruel, unusual ways of suffering and dying translate to “stuff that should scare people.” I mean, that works too. But it’s time the trend is bucked. Here’s a completely new taste for the palate. Packed with scintillating imagery, a generation of suspense that’s comparatively lacking in even recent superhero films, and crafted out of love and passion, the Alpha Predator is back and bigger than ever in an old-school film experience that recalls a bygone era in moviegoing.

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Godzilla is smiling. How can anyone be terrified of a smiling Godzilla?

4-0Recommendation: Quite possibly the biggest film of the summer, Gareth Edwards’ hotly debated second film understands how important it is as it handles the challenge of redesigning the beast on his 60th birthday with aplomb, with room to give plenty of attention to its A-list cast. While some characters are definitely better than others, there’s enough here to keep even the most casual attendee engaged in this global crisis. A movie that would never escape criticism, but considering the alternative (let’s never mention Dr. Nico Tattoo-lotsa-lips. . .or whatever his name was from the Emmerich version. . .) it has done alright for itself.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The arrogance of men is thinking that nature is in their control, and not the other way around. Let them fight.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com