Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tales from the Cryptologist: “The Imitation Game” is an Important Historical Drama

There are so many important stories from World War II it’s almost impossible to keep track. Of course, there is once such story that was truly game changing. Years into the war a group of intelligent Britons, were tasked with deciphering a German Enigma machine. A task that could potentially be an important turning point in the war for the Allies. If the story of the Allies getting their hands on an Enigma machine sounds familiar it is: the 2000 submarine thriller “U-571” tells that storie of American sailors trying to get their hands on one of the devices. It was a film that was basically pure Hollywood myth – none of it really happened. “The Imitation Game” tells the real story – not so much getting the device- but Great Britain’s covert mission to break the code and help win the war. The man at the center of all this was mathematician Alan Turig (Benedict Cumberbatch) who became one of the most important people to help win the war – though no one ever knew it. This is his story.

“The Imitation Game” basically tells three stories. First, is a young Alan Turig during his unhappy teen years at a boarding school and his friendship with another male student. The film’s major storyline with involves an adult Alan as he’s recruited along with a small group of other math geniuses as they attempt to break the naval code from a recovered German Enigma machine circa 1941. And the third story takes places about a decade later as horrible allegations are being thrown at Alan because he’s found out as a gay man. All three stories are interwoven almost guaranteeing editor William Goldenberg an Academy Award nomination. Even with all the crosscutting we’re never truly confused as to what time period it is.

When a film is based on true events much is said about how those true events are depicted. Many have claimed the film has downplayed the fact that Alan was a gay man. It’s not downplayed, it’s just not the extreme focus of the film: this isn’t “Milk.” This is the story of an obviously lonely man (depicted here with an autistic-like social disorder which has been refuted) who’s goal was to serve his country who just so happened to be a homosexual. His friendship with fellow code breaker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) is the heart of the film as is probably one of the film’s highlights. The fact that the film doesn’t even reveal Alan’s sexuality until halfway through the film proves the film doesn’t want you to judge him. The film wants to show that despite whatever issues he had, and the troubling past, that he was able to overcome all that and do something terrific for his country.

Morten Tyldum  (I’ve never heard of him either) directs a solid feature though I can’t say I was overwhelmed visually. He wants his film to be a thriller but “Argo” this is not and “U-571” was the action thriller version of this story. Graham Moore’s script works more like a standard biopic with an obvious important goal for the characters. And since we know the eventual outcome, most of the suspense is sort of lost. That’s ok because one of the film’s strongest elements is its characters and the actors’ wonderful performances. Cumberbatch is very strong here especially in the film’s later scenes where he’s forced to keep the secret that he had anything to do with helping the Allies win the war. The film’s goal, even if it isn’t completely historically accurate (this isn’t a documentary remember) is to bring to live an important real life story. Unfortunately, Alan is eventually persecuted for being gay and isn’t recognized as the war hero he really was. He was a genius who basically invented the computer so he could crack the German code. The things he created and accomplished are still around to this day.

Overall “The Imitation Game” is a very strong film. Since I’m not an expert in British lingo I sort of got lost in some of the political and historical aspects of the film, but even if you’re not an expert in 1940s British history you can generally get what the film is trying to accomplish. It’s more of a straightforward drama than the suspense thriller it sort of wants to be but it doesn’t mean there aren’t pretty thrilling moments. It actually makes a pretty decent companion piece to this year’s other British biopic “The Theoryof Everything.” They’re two films about extremely different people who both did extremely important things with their lives. Thanks guys, way to make the rest of us feel like crap.  GRADE: B 

Trailer for The Imitation Game on TrailerAddict.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Politically Incorrect: “The Interview” is a Controversial Piece of Cinematic Hilarity

Seth Rogen has certainly proven himself to Hollywood. He started acting in silly comedies and even worked up into writing them. Heck, last year he even started directing. His directorial debut “This is the End” was a hilarious mix of meta Hollywood humor, fantasy-horror, and disaster flick that was hysterical and satirical. It was a movie that felt larger than life. It makes sense that his next feature  with co-director Evan Goldberg (though Dan Sterling gets sole screenwriting credit here) would try to top it. And they certainly have. While “The Interview” isn’t necessarily better than “This is the End” it shows so much more promise that Rogen and Goldberg are certainly creative forces to be reckoned with. And they’re certainly not scared of the evil dictatorship that they mock incessantly in it.

In “The Interview” Rogen plays Aaron Rapoport the producer of an entertainment talk show called Skylark Tonight. The onscreen host Dave Skylark, played by James Franco, and he’s as outrageous, cocky, and stupid as you would expect the host of this type of show to be. In fact I’m pretty certain that Rogen and Goldberg are more interested in mocking the American media and the entertainment industry more than they want to mock North Korea. Speaking of North Korea, it turns out that their supreme leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) just so happens to be a big fan of Skylark Tonight and wants to appear on the program. Being one of those reclusive leaders, Aaron and Dave plan to fly out to North Korea to induct what is sure to be the biggest interview of their careers.

In the meantime CIA agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) recruits Aaron and Dave to assassinate Jong-un because he’s on the brink of starting a nuclear war. It must be said that hiring Aaron and Dave to assassinate one of the most dangerous leaders in the world is probably the stupidest idea the CIA could ever come up with but this is a silly action comedy so we need to just go with it. Aaron and Dave are briefed on how the plan will work and it seems anything but a simple task. They’re concerned but they see it as a prime opportunity – especially Dave who insists that it be filmed as it would be denying his audience a terrific “money shot.”

When Aaron and Dave get to North Korea they’re sort of surprised. Aaron is quickly taken in by his surroundings as everything seems pretty normal. He even meets Kim Jong-un face to face and he seems like a pretty cool guy. They hang out, play basketball, and even get with the ladies. Aaron, who is the obvious intelligence of the duo, sees right through the dictator as he’s known as a master manipulator. Will Aaron get it together or will he have trouble assassinating the guy who’s starting to become friends with?

“The Interview” is utterly ridiculous in the best way possible. All political satires are and should be. It’s easy to decry the film as being inappropriate, or politically incorrect, or offensive. It’s hard not to take a step back and realize how crazy the film truly is (though I feel Rogen & Co are much more interested in making dirty jokes and making fun of the media more than it mocks North Korea) but it’s also something worth admiring. Even with all of the controversy surrounding the film, it’s ultimately just a silly action comedy. It plays on tropes  of different genres and feels like a best of. There are movie and pop culture references everywhere and the film feels like it was made for the same generation of moviegoers who grew up watching everything that came out of Reagan Era Hollywood. It even features some sequences that were genuinely suspenseful. It almost feels like a strange cross between “Pineapple Express” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

I’m not saying the film is a classic American comedy, but those who know what they’re getting into will find much to enjoy. In a way it feels like a modern (though much more vulgar and graphically violent) version of “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Great Dictator”; those being political satires that were controversial in their day.  It’s almost like “Team American: Wold Police” without the puppets. And it’s certainly proof that even today you can’t keep a good political comedy down.  GRADE:A-

Trailer for The Interview on TrailerAddict.

The Trees of Life: “Into the Woods” is a Wonderful Fairy Tell Reworking

In the years since directing the Oscar-winning musical “Chicago” nearly 12 years ago, Rob Marshall has been in desperate need of a hit. He was sort of looking like a one-hit wonder after helming the beautiful-looking but underwhelming “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Nine.” Even a foray into the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise didn’t do much to prove he was able to direct something as great as his directorial debut. Now we have the long awaited (for many) release of the Broadway classic “Into the Woods” which brings together lots of well-known fairy tale characters and interweaves a fascinating story about curses, giants, and a large forest where magical things happen. I can finally say Mr. Marshall has finally given his “Chicago” fans another film they can love as “Into the Woods” is a wild success offering wonderful characters, a fun story, an equal dose of drama and comedy, and catchy songs you’ll be singing along to without a doubt.

Having not known much about the original Broadway show “Into the Woods” I went in not expecting too much and I left pleasantly surprised. Composer and lyricist Steven Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who also wrote the screenplay) have crafted a truly wonderful story – it’s as light as it is dark – that takes a bunch of fairy tale characters and creates a sort of Robert Altman story where certain characters cross paths and affect each other’s stories. The main plot concerns a baker (James Corden) and his nameless wife (Emily Blunt). They have been unable to conceive a child and they want one dearly. It turns out the old witch next door (Meryl Streep) had placed a curse on the baker’s family. She offers them a chance to reverse the curse if they can bring her four specific items from the woods that include references to Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood.

It’s pretty amazing how well these interlocking stories work together. Each character has some sort of wish or ultimate goal and each is affected by the actions of the other characters. When Jack heads into the woods to sell his family’s cow, the baker’s wife offers him seemingly worthless beans given to her by the witch. And we all fill in the blanks in the story once we see that the beans have created a giant beanstalk headed for the sky. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who longs to live in the castle with the prince (Chris Pine) gets a chance to attend the ball but after realizes the prince may not be her cup of tea. It’s the baker’s wife who sets her eyes on the charming prince.

All of these fun vignettes are interwoven with brilliant songs that exhibit the characters’ ultimate desires and wants. But as the old saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.” And if you think you know how all these famous stories will end you’re dead wrong. The film’s already established story is extremely strong so Marshall has a tremendous foundation to work from. And unlike the songs-as-fantasy element he perfected in “Chicago” he takes another road here and let’s characters break out into song when necessary. By now we’re all pretty much used to it, especially since the general tone of the film is of a live action Disney musical.

“Into the Woods” has its dark elements; it seems as though the entire point of the film was to actually going against the whole good-natured Disney work but here we have Into the Woods as a Disney production. And even if the film carries a family-friendly PG rating there’s enough here to satisfy adults and plenty here to scare even the most desensitized young child.

Again one of the strongest elements of “Into the Woods” besides its fantastic story and its wonderful songs, are the company of actors who have brought the movie to life. Streep is a wonder to behold as always as the scene-stealing old witch. Blunt is simply delightful as the Baker’s wife and has an amazing voice. Many will be rather impressed with Chris Pine’s crooning. He hams it up with fellow prince co-star Billy Magnussen (who’s storyline with Rapunzel feels the weakest and most underdeveloped in the entire film) in perfectly campy and hilarious sequence as they sing about longing after the loves of their lives. The entire ensemble is really amazing.

“Into the Woods” is a really fun movie. It’s something anyone can enjoy whether you’re a fan of the original show or not. Its ingenious story takes everything you know about fairy tales and sort of turns it upside down. It’s a beautifully polished production with top-notch effects, camerawork, and beautiful costumes and art direction. It’s certainly one of the best movie musicals in some time.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for Into the Woods on TrailerAddict.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Artist: “Big Eyes” is a Delightful Change of Pace for Tim Burton

“Big Eyes” is the Tim Burton film you never thought Tim Burton would ever make. It makes sense that he would make it, but it is definitely the most un-Tim Burton film he has ever made. First of all, it doesn’t feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter and it has no fantastical elements whatsoever (except for a brief surrealist sequence). Heck, even Danny Elfman’s score doesn’t sound like a Danny Elfman score. On paper this sounds just awful for the Tim Burton fan, but as someone who loves all of his films (yes even his “Planet of the Apes” has some merit) I found “Big Eyes” to be a refreshing change of pace and shows an artist at work prepared to change things up a bit. It makes sense then that this film is actually about an artist.

When you really take a good look at “Big Eyes” even if it feels unlike most Tim Burton’s other films, it has elements we’ve definitely seen before. Even if the film takes a more realistic approach it has a whimsy to it that only Mr. Burton can give a film. The pastels take over here and the film’s setting feels like an expanded version of the pastel 50s suburbia he presented in “Edward Scissorhands.” Burton also downplays any sort of obvious visual effects. This is not “Alice in Wonderland,” though at times the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel gives the film an almost soft, dreamlike quality. For as many elements that feel like things that you’d see in a Tim Burton film, there are other elements that just aren’t there. Did I mention that this is a movie about an artist taking credit for another artist’s work? Coincidence?

“Big Eyes” tells the true story of artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams). She famously painted pictures of children with large eyes. After leaving her husband with her young daughter in two she attempted to make a life for herself in California while selling her sort-of-creepy-in-a-Tim-Burton-way portraits. There she meets the charming Walter (Christoph Waltz), a struggling artist himself, whom she later marries. The couple is an indelible pair. Margaret  is the obviously more talented painter but Walter makes a great businessman, schmoozing with art gallery owners and restaurant owners to let his wife’s works be displayed for sale. Later, a quick misunderstand leads to Walter taking credit for Margaret’s work which snowballs until they are both committing full on fraud. Walter insists it’s best for business: people would rather buy art from a male artist obviously and he knows how to basically charm people into buying the art (even though people who buy it obviously really like it). But is that really fair? Not at all.

The film’s screenplay was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who specialize in telling the true life story of strange people. They previously wrote “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon,” and Burton’s “Ed Wood.” Here they give Margaret the spotlight that she deserves and Amy Adams plays her with all the spunk, appeal, and emotion that you’d expect from the always terrific actress. And Waltz matchers her in every way. He’s a appealing guy; you get why Margaret would be intrigued by him and it makes sense that he’s able to make the big eye paintings the success they were. However, once you get to know more about Walter and his ultimate drive towards “success” you see the monster that was hiding in plain sight. It all wraps up in a quirky courtroom scene that feels almost out of place (the film has a weird mix of almost silly comedy and very serious drama) but Burton directs it with the verve that he’s been so absent in his last few films.

“Big Eyes” is the shot in the arm Tim Burton really needed. With a fresh cast and a fresh palette he has created something that is very different from what he’s done before and yet it has Burton marked all over it. You won’t find any weird creatures or freakish outcasts but his quirky personality really shines through (and you really get the sense that Burton has been heavily inspired by Margaret’s work). Even if it’s the most un-Tim Burton film he’s ever made it feels like the one many have been waiting for.  GRADE: B+ 

Trailer for Big Eyes on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Army of Darkness: Peter Jackson’s Fantasy Series Concludes with “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

It’s a proven fact that my brain lacks the ability to fully comprehend anything Tolkien-related. Otherwise I can’t really explain my distaste for the many fantasy epics that so many others love. It is with that foundation that it must be said that the final film in “The Hobbit” series has two things going for it: it’s officially the shortest of all these Middle Earth-set films and it’s most definitely the last (at least for some time). “The Hobbit” prequel series have always felt like a series of films made especially for strict fans who can’t get enough of Middle Earth. Odds are if you’re into fantasy films and enjoy seeing hobbits and elves and dwarves and other fantastical creatures fight each other odds are “The Hobbit” is right up your alley. But is it a fitting ending to the trilogy?

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is mostly all action and why shouldn’t it be? Filmmaker Peter Jackson, who could practically make one of these films blindfolded by now, had two films to set up the plot and characters and get his audience invested in the story. If you were invested in the first two films you’ll most likely care about who lives and who dies in this third chapter. If you recall, we left off with the dragon Smaug being unleashed on the town of Laketown. The film opens with a rousing disaster pic set piece as Smaug attacks the small city. It feels like a great opening but it also feels like it should have actually been the ending of the previous film. How much of an awesome cliffhanger would it have been to not know whether Bard (Luke Evans) and his son were killed in the destruction?

After Smaug’s destruction a bunch of stuff happens that i could care less about. And apparently every group of fantastical creature in Middle Earth wants the mountain filled with gold. Orcs and elves and trolls and more attack the dwarves in the mountain leading to the battle of the film’s title. It’s all rousing and I found myself decently entertained throughout even if I personally didn’t feel very invested in the conflict. There’s something about our hobbit hero Bibo (Martin Freeman) hiding an Infinity Stone, err, sorry wrong universe, the Arkenstone which in true McGuffin form “does something important.”

I personally can’t distinguish these three Hobbit films from each other very well. They all feel like one cohesive narrative, so I’m not sure that one is really better than another. And the evenly paced film nice and neatly leads right into the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. This last entry has the most action and fighting so that’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what floats your boat. Odds are if you’ve enjoyed the first two films there’s not much to complain about here. It won’t necessarily make anyone beg and plead for yet another trip to Middle Earth and I’ve certainly had my share. 

Trailer for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on TrailerAddict.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Wrestler: “Foxcatcher” is a Disturbing Film with Stunning Performances

Director Bennett Miller is a genius at getting amazing performances out of his actors. Don’t believe it? His first two feature films had four acting Oscar nominations between them (and one win for the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote”), and his latest drama “Foxcatcher” is almost guaranteed at least two more.  More disturbing than the film itself is that the best performance in the film is from the actor you’d least suspect: Channing Tatum.  As real-life Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, Tatum gives a career defining performance as a lonely man determined to win. Steve Carrell, known for years as goofy workplace boss Michael Scott on the sitcom “The Office,” gives an equally impressive performance as an equally lonely guy with a severe personality issue. He plays the real life eccentric millionaire John E.  du Pont who coached wrestlers on his wealthy Pennsylvania family’s estate and ultimately used his fortune to make friends.  His relationship (which eventually sours) with the young Olympic gold medalist is the core of the film and offers one of the most creepy and disturbing real life stories put on film this year.

“Foxcatcher” is not going to be a film that is easily loved by everyone. It has a pervasively disturbing atmosphere. It sort of leaves you feeling icky. And that’s a credit to the wonderful performers and Miller who has crafted a purposely slow-moving and eerie film. Granted this isn’t a horror film by any means but something horrific does eventually happen (a real life incident which I won’t spoil here). This is Miller’s third feature film and it feels like a weird hybrid of this first two movies: “Capote” which also features a uncannily good lead performance, and “Moneyball” a fascinating true-life sports drama.

This film depicts the real life story of Mark Schultz who is recruited by du Pont. Du Pont is determined to train and coach a winning wrestling team to compete in the 1988 summer Olympics.  He invites Mark and other wrestlers to live and train on his fancy rural estate. Du Pont is a strange, peculiar man as depicted by a nearly unrecognizable Carrell. The makeup is as impressive as Carrell’s chilling performance. Du Pont is a creepy fellow and he’s shown as a man of solitude who you quickly realize is an extremely lonely and disturbed man. Schultz and Du Pont hit it off and form a sort of father-son relationship. That chemistry is soon disturbed by the arrival of Mark’s older wrestler brother David (Mark Ruffalo). Mark and David have their own issues but the well-meaning David soon drives an unintentional wedge between du Pont and Mark which eventually has devastating consequences.

Miller is a fascinating director because he really lets the actors do most of the work. He coaxes terrific performances from them and doesn’t let things like fancy camerawork get in the way (though as disturbing as the film is the photography is almost beautiful). He builds tension almost unbearably slow. The script from E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman is equally fascinating and mellow. You really get a sense of who these people are. Mark and Du Pont are lonely individuals who only want to succeed. The problem is that ultimately they’re standing in each other’s way. Carrell in particular is amazing at not only getting the physical mannerisms of Du Pont but in showcasing the almost cold rhythms of his character’s inner turmoil. He’s criticized by his cold, elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and which almost gives him a weird Norman Bates quality (not to mention his weird obsession with birds and his almost homoerotic fascination with wrestling).

Everyone is great in “Foxcatcher” but Tatum almost steals the show from Carrell and his creepy, pointy noise. His depiction of a lonely athlete determined to succeed is nothing short of brilliant. The entire ensemble works amazingly well together and the overall icky feeling the film projects is spot on by Miller who gives us only his third film. It’s an amazing achievement for a filmmaker to present a real life story that is filled with heart-stopping tension (the wrestling scenes are shot and edited particularly well) and yet is one of the slowest and meditative films of the year all the while already knowing what ultimately happens. That’s the power of great filmmaking.  GRADE: A- 

Trailer for Foxcatcher on TrailerAddict.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

2015 Golden Globe Award nomination predictions

Best Motion Picture – Drama
Gone Girl
The Imitation Game
(The Theory of Everything  - if there are 6 nominees)

Best Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
St. Vincent

Best Actress – Drama
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Reese Witherspoon – Wild
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Shailene Woodley – The Fault in Our Stars

Best Actress– Musical/Comedy
Amy Adams – Big Eyes
Angelina Jolie – Maleficent
Emily Blunt – Into the Woods
Julianne Moore – Maps to the Stars
Keira Knightly – Begin Again

Best Actor – Drama
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Steve Carrell – Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper – American Sniper
David Oyelowo - Selma

Best Actor – Musical/Comedy
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Bill Murray – St. Vincent
Joaquin Phoenix – Inherent Vice
James Corden – Into the Woods

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
Keira Knightly – The Imitation Game
Anna Kendrick – Into the Woods

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
Edward Norton – Birdman
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
Johnny Depp – Into the Woods

Best Director
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – Birdman
Angelina Jolie – Unbroken
David Fincher – Gone Girl
Clint Eastwood – American Sniper

Best Screenplay
Gone Girl
The Imitation Game

Best Animated Feature
The Lego Movie
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Boxrolls
The Book of Life

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Sounds of Science: “The Theory of Everything” Features Top Notch Performances

You simply won’t believe your eyes when you see Eddie Redmayne’s performance as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. It’s an amazing, transformative performance that elevates the film above the typical bio-pic Oscar bait that we usually see this time of year. “The Theory of Everything” isn’t a documentary. If you want to learn about the theories and science from the mind of Mr. Hawking look elsewhere. The film deals with the relationship with his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) and the onset of his motor neuron disease that robbed him of his ability to move and speak but not his ability to be a brilliant scientist. The film is a sort of hybrid of “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Diving Bell and theButterfly” without the former film’s plot twists and the latter film’s artistic merit. The film is simply told, written, and shot, but it’s the film’s performances that truly make the film work.

The film starts as a college-aged Stephen Hawking begins wooing a young college-aged Jane Wilde while attending the University of Cambridge in 1960s England. As their relationship begins to take off Stephen begins noticing strange things about his body that results in a terrible prognosis: he’s given two years to live. He’s diagnosed with a neurological disorder similar to that of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He quickly insists on shutting everyone out including his college friends and Jane. But Jane is defiant and declares her love for Stephen and so begins their rocky relationship including marriage and children, which we get to see in short bursts depicted in nifty 8mm home movie montages. As time passes Stephen’s condition worsens, first to the point where he can’t walk and then after having a tracheotomy, no longer being able to speak. 

There’s no real focus on Hawking’s scientific theories, but how many of us would actually understand much of it anyways? And unless they were to add some “A Beautiful Mind” storyline trickery, I believe the film’s current straightforward narrative was the wise choice. The film’s script by Anthony McCarten is more interested in the relationship than Stephen’s scientific theories as it should be – the film is based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s book about her life with Stephen. Director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), denies the film any real sort of standout visual energy but rather focuses on the performances of his actors. Redmayne is a revelation giving such an astounding physical performance that’s equally as good as anything Daniel Day-Lewis did in “My Left Foot.” He knows how to rein it in however, refusing to ever overact. He gets the job done flawlessly. Jones’ work is much more subtle though it makes sense – she’s in the supportive wife role and therefore has a less meaty role. She does get more to do when the film introduces church organist Jonathan (Charlie Cox) who Jane begins to have feelings for. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s piano-centric score is also a standout.

“The Theory of Everything” is a nice little film. It’s not particularly flashy or fancy but it presents an interesting unconventional love story with really good performances, especially Redmayne’s moving, show-stopping performance elevates the film almost singlehandedly. He's almost as brilliant as the man he plays. I was really emotionally invested in the film and its triumphant story. It does sort of gloss over the more scientific aspects of Stephen Hawking’s life but it’s a triumph of simple storytelling done well.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for The Theory of Everything on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rebel with a Cause: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” Lacks the Energy of Its Predecessors

“Mockingjay – Part 1” is flawed; just look at its title (the “Part 1” portion). This is one half of a movie, and like the last Harry Potter and many other young adult film adaptations, the movie-going public is forced to pay to sit through a movie that’s half finished. That would be fine and dandy if this first half of “Mockingjay” had a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It’s more of a really long beginning and some of a middle. Besides the structural issues, the movie is dank and bleak as was heavily implied by the dour cliffhanger ending of the outstandingly entertaining last entry. There’s nothing particularly wrong or bad about “Mockingjay – Part 1” but it essentially lacks the spark (no pun intended) of last year’s “Catching Fire.”

I get that the film would have Hunger Games survivor and District 12 heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, who could play this role in her sleep by now) riddled with survivors guilt and suffering from post-traumatic stress. But the closing shot of “Catching Fire” showed a face ready for retaliation. Instead, we’re given cowering Katniss who must be coaxed into becoming and being marketed as the symbol of the rebellion. But hasn’t she been that for the last two movies? Ever since volunteering for her younger sister it has become the catalyst for the uprising. So I expected some more actual uprising. Instead we trod into the depths of the mysterious District 13 which is almost run in a similar police state by steely President Coin (Julianne Moore) but without the couture of the Capitol.  Of course, this place isn’t nearly as bad as actually being ruled by the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his malevolent regime who insist on murdering members of the districts on live TV who show the slightest attempt at revolting. District 12 was destroyed but we’re only shown the aftermath.

The film’s plot is basically “let’s train Katinss to be the voice of rebellion – the Mockingjay, if you will – by hiring a propaganda film crew to follow her every move and intimidate the Capitol.” Some familiar faces show up to help including Jeffrey Wright’s tech guru Beetee, a sobered up Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and former gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Luckily, self-proclaimed refugee Effie (Elizabeth Banks) shows up to brighten things up a bit even if she’s forced into wearing grey rags. The emphasis in this third outing is definitely the love aspect which always felt quite shoehorned in this series anyways. Katniss does love Gale (Liam Hemsworth) but she’s also quite concerned about Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) as he’s been captured by the Capitol and completely brainwashed. It’s also a shame the movie can’t find anything interesting to do with Finnick (Sam Claflin) who was such an interesting character the first time around. And seriously missing is Johanna, also captured by the Capitol, who was also fascinating in “Catching Fire.”

The problem here isn’t director Francis Lawrence whose second entry improved immensely upon the already pretty great first film, but the script by Danny Strong and Peter Craig who fill the movie with so many political statements and allegories that it forgets to have any fun whatsoever. The suspense and excitement is replaced by stillness and exposition and waiting to see when the heck the final battle will actually begin. There are some fleeting moments of revolting and tension (as entertaining as bombings can be these days), and we get to see Katniss take out a bomber jet with her bow, but it’s all essentially just a tease. Even if the film exists as a setup for the ultimate conclusion it at least has a reason to exist, we just have to wait a little bit longer for the good stuff. It’s a decent appetizer for what is sure to be a delicious main course.  GRADE: B- 

Trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 on TrailerAddict.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stupid is as Stupid Does: “Dumb & Dumber To” is Terrible

“Dumb & Dumber” is not even close to being a cinematic classic. It is, however, a terrifically funny silly comedy. And a lot of people love it, including me. It’s also undeniably dumb. The thing is though; it’s not a poorly made film. It’s simple, but it’s not simple-minded. It’s raunchy and juvenile, but you can feel that the people behind it knew what they were doing. You’ll hear it time and time again in Hollywood, comedy is really hard to do but it’s probably the least respected. Why that is I’ll never really know. “Dumb & Dumber” was special, probably because it hit right at the right time, and because it was one of several movies released that year that introduced the world to the brilliant, comedic talents of Jim Carrey. For anyone who fell in love with the comedy duo of Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) seeing them reprise their roles twenty years later is a proposition almost impossible to resist. The problem however is that seeing old Jim Carrey and old Jeff Daniels repeat the same goofy, slapstick humor is just sad and depressing, and surprisingly unfunny.

Yes it’s true; “Dumb & Dumber To” is a complete disaster from beginning to end. There’s nary a standout funny moment in its nearly two hour runtime. That’s just sad since the first film functioned on an “Airplane!” let’s see how many of these jokes and gags stick level. It’s twenty years later and I still find myself quoting lines from the film in everyday conversation. No one will be quoting the sequel, even months from now.

Bobby and Peter Farrelly who branded this type of silly goofy comedy back in the 90s (and for the record, haven’t made a good movie since 2005’s “Fever Pitch”) seem oddly distant from the material this time around. It really shows: the film feels sloppy, hastily put together, and has no real comic timing or rhythm, and it goes on seemingly forever. Something is just off. Perhaps it’s the six writers’ “attempt” to come up with any kind of story for these two characters that could possibly sustain another full length film. The end result is a terrible SNL sketch drawn out to feature length.

The plot is promising enough: Harry needs a kidney, and also finds out his has a long-lost biological daughter.  And the pair head out to find her in hopes she’ll donate her kidney. It’s a good idea to get these guys out on the road – a premise that worked extremely well in the first film – but the movie has way too many bumps along the road. The first film featured a serious kidnapping plot with an interesting MacGuffin that was the perfect counterbalance to the goofy goings on with Harry and Lloyd who stumble upon it. Here it’s too forced and feels almost too convoluted and overly complicated. And worst of all, you never care about this story or how it’s going to turn out. And it wastes the talent of the actors involved. Expect for the terrible actress  - who I won’t even name - who plays Harry’s grown up daughter who has no actual talent Her performance is just awful and it’s a major insult to all other actresses who could have played the part.

There were exactly two jokes that I found even remotely funny. One involves Harry and Lloyd ending up at the wrong address and another involves a throwaway reference to Asperger’s. That’s all. There is too much of an emphasis on silly sight gags with no payoff. How about, a meth cook as a roommate. Ok. The cat licks the crystal meth. Ok, where is this going. Then the cat… hangs from the chandelier. That’s all? Let’s not even mention the poorly throughout “mistaken identity” plot that takes over the film’s final act. Only two things in the entire movie that’s funny? Not worth the time or effort.

To think hundreds of people worked on this film for such little payoff. The most fun thing about the movie is counting all references to the first movie. Even the end credits, displaying shots from the original, reminds the audience that what they just watched was a subpar version of the movie they fell in love with decades ago. I’m not sure why anyone, Carrey and Daniels especially, felt this script was worth shooting considering the expectations of people waiting twenty years for a proper sequel (no, “Dumb and Dumberer” doesn’t even count). Yes the movie is dumb, we all know it would be, but unfunny? I don’t like it a lot.  GRADE: D+

Trailer for Dumb and Dumber To on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Revenge of the Nerds: The Hilarious “Big Hero 6” Flies Animation and Super Heroes to New Heights

Super hero films have become so over-saturated in the movie marketplace it’s almost borderline annoying. At least most of them that come out are actually good. It’s just becoming sort of difficult to tell them all apart. They even come out in animated form as evidenced by Disney’s new action-comedy “Big Hero 6.”It’s sort of refreshing that Walt Disney Animation Studios have been diversifying their animated films as of late and it’s worked wonders for them. They can go back and forth from making princess movies to action comedies and haven’t taken a misstep since before “Tangled.” Hot off the success of the phenomenon “Frozen,” Disney gives us a something completely different yet just as fun, fresh, and beautifully animated. Sure there aren’t any musical numbers or magic, but they do deliver one of the most delightful Disney characters since Dory in “Finding Nemo.”

“Big Hero 6” takes place in a fictional amalgamation of San Francisco and Tokyo appropriately called San Fransokyo. Our young hero is appropriate named Hiro (Ryan Potter) who is a some sort of robotics genius 14 year-old who takes part in back alley robotics fights. He’s urged by his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to apply to the robotics program at his college. He invents these amazing microbots that he can control and morph into various objects and shapes with his mind, which obviously attracts lots of attention, but before you can say “every Disney movie needs a tragic family death” something traumatic happens in which the only thing left behind is a lovable, medical robot named Baymax  (Scott Adsit) made by Tadashi. Baymax, who senses that Hiro is hurting emotionally is activated and becomes his personal healthcare companion. Baymax is simply one of the most amazing animated characters in quite some time. Together, Baymax and Hiro form a typical bond found in movies like this (think “E.T.” or “How toTrain Your Dragon”) and eventually happen upon something quite sinister lurking in San Fransokyo.

The film is actually based on a little known Marvel comic book series. Having little knowledge of the comic, it can be said that the film at least is quite a success. The rich characterizations are quite something. Hiro doesn’t just feel like any kid who has experienced loss. And the bond between him and Baymax is simply a pleasure to watch. It’s funny and everything about these two feel genuine. Nothing here feels forced. Eventually Hiro and Baymax form a super hero team with his nerdy college-aged friends who are all super geniuses too. The group is diverse and every character feels memorable and is given something to do and there’s even a memorable villain on top of everything else. Don Hall and Christ Williams have taken an almost worn out genre and crafted a really great film that could easily become its own franchise with plenty of good characters to go around. 

“Big Hero 6” is a delightful family film. It’s a complete 180 from last year’s “Frozen,” but it’s every bit as good. It’s certainly more in the vein of “Wreck-It Ralph” or “The Incredibles” but it may be even better than those. The animation is really amazing (the microbot sequences in particular), Henry Jackson’s score is as exciting as the action and the humor in Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Jordon Roberts’ script works really well. The entire concept of Baymax is really outstanding, from his physical design (he’s described as a gigantic marshmallow at one point which feels accurate) to the terrific voice work. I was really blown away by this really funny, moving, and exciting animated film. It was a blast. GRADE: A- 

Feature Trailer for Big Hero 6 on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Galaxy Quest: The Audacious “Interstellar” is a Mind-Bending Intergalactic Journey

I don’t think I have a high enough brain function to ever fully understand everything that was going on in “Interstellar.” And that’s how you know you’re watching a great Christopher Nolan film: the amazing visuals outweigh the technical jargon and perplexing plot elements. My best approximation for describing “Interstellar” would be a cross between “Contact” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” filtered through “Inception.” Ok, so it’s basically “Inception” in space without the whole heist thing. It features crazy, top-notch photography, great performances from its Oscar alumni-heavy cast, and a fascinating story that seems to be polarizing audiences everywhere. No doubt about it though, this is a film worth seeing on the big screen and discussing for days on end.

The basic premise of “Interstellar” (which originally had Steven Spielberg’s involvement) isn’t anything particularly new. In the near future, Earth is no long able to provide a place for people to live. Dust storms ravage the land and people are forced to eat nothing but corn-based products. And like all great sci-fi films the only hope is to explore the possibility of leaving Earth and finding another place that can sustain human life. Enter Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) a former NASA test pilot who lives on a farm with his teenage son, young daughter Murph, and his father (John Lithgow). Murph believes some kind of “ghost” is haunting her, leaving a Morse code message which turns out to the coordinates of a top secret NASA facility where a mission to explore other galaxies in the hope of either transporting the Earth’s population or Plan B: repopulating a new planet with fertilized eggs leaving everyone on Earth to eventually die. The scientists have discovered a wormhole near Saturn, which they believe was placed by otherworldly beings, which would therefore make traveling such a far distance feasible.

The film’s setup is simple enough. Cooper is distraught about leaving his family behind, especially Murph, but he chooses the space mission in hopes that he can one day, even years in the future, return to his family on Earth. He’s joined by Dr. Brant (Anne Hathaway) and two other crew members, in addition to AI robots one of which is named TARS. Jessica Chastain plays Murph as an adult and the film spends much of its duration cross cutting from the devastating moments on Earth with the intense space sequences which are sometimes just as devastating.

To say anything else about Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan’s sometimes hokey script would ruin the fun. But let’s just say the film – like “Inception” – has a fun time playing with the concept of time and how in this film’s case, time is relative to your location in the galaxy. It’s certainly an audacious concept, and while one could easily find it farfetched, I really dug it. Most of these elements are based on real scientific fact and theories at least. It’s really the film’s final act that is most divisive as the film becomes truly bizarre and “out there.” But if you can make sense of “2001” then this film should go down easily enough.

The real reason any film fan wants to see “Interstellar” is for its amazing - non-3D - visuals. The cinematography is simply stunning. Nolan’s longtime DP was busing making his directorial debut and critically trashed “Transcendence” and was replaced by “Let the Right One In” cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema who shot a lot of scenes with IMAX cameras, one of which was reported mounted onto the tip of a Learjet. The sound design is appropriately loud and intense, though like last year’s “Gravity,” the film plays a lot with the fact that there is no sound in space. And Hans Zimmer provides another terrific score, not quite as bombastic, he was definitely going for something different here with some almost 80s sounding music queues that fit the visuals quite nicely.

It’s easy to want to compare “Interstellar” with last year’s “Gravity” but the whole films couldn’t be more different. But films are some of the most amazing movie set in space you’re bound to see. “Gravity” was simple, realistic space thriller. “Interstellar” is a much larger film on a such a big scale that it takes place in more than one galaxy! It has honest themes about family, time, and life that are truly impactful and there’s a surprisingly strong emotional core which I found particularly moving. Did I get everything that was going on at every moment? Heck no. However, Nolan certainly set out to give us something we haven’t seen before, and while there are plenty of elements gleaned from other films, he does give us a unique vision that was simply a pleasure to watch. Even if it’s not the nail-biting experience that was the swiftly-paced “Gravity,” this film certainly feels like another glorious giant leap forward for the movie going experience.  GRADE: A- 

Theatrical Trailer for Interstellar on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Lens with Benefits: The Astounding “Nightcrawler” Features Newsworthy Performances and Suspense

Where the heck did Jake Gyllenhaal go? He looks all gaunt and squirrely, almost as if he’s wasting away, in his latest crime thriller “Nightcrawler.” It’s a scathing media satire and crackling crime thriller from first time feature director Dan Gilroy. The actor with his black slicked back hair and stark dark eyes almost fades into the background of the creepily shot scenes of wee hours Los Angeles where he begins as an amateur cameraman trying to get footage of accidents and crimes moments after they occurred so he can get paid by a local news channel who is struggling in the ratings. Gyllenhaal has given one outstanding performance after the next in challenging material be it “Prisoners” or “Enemy” and here he has found his Travis Bickle role with a performance that is sure to be remembered for years to come.

Any questions of whether Gyllenhaal is playing an immoral character is vanquished in the film’s first few moments when he assaults a security guard and is later seen wearing the guy’s fancy wristwatch. He’s a scavenger. Gyllenhaal is Louis Bloom who begins the film turning in scrap metal for cash. But then he witnesses amateur camera guys filming a car crash aftermath and decides to try it out for himself. In the film’s first half we witness the trials and tribulations of Lou becoming a “nightcrawler” - those pesky camera guys who are always shoving their lenses in the faces of innocent victims of crimes or accidents and freelancing the footage for local news stations. And then Lou almost perfects it.

Lou sells his increasingly graphic footage to a local producer Nina (Rene Russo channeling her inner Faye Dunaway) whose morning news show is the lowest rated in the city. Both Nina and Lou seem to bond over this creepy footage and Lou especially becomes obsessed with pleasing Nina’s outrageous quest for high ratings and his increasing need for more money. Of course he goes about it in the craziest ways possible whether that means moving a body to get the perfect shot or withholding photographic evident from the police to further his career. You can only feel bad for Lou’s naïve apprentice Rick (Riz Ahmed) who he hires as his “intern.” This is a film that forces us to follow along with a morally empty character who makes increasingly unethical decisions. And the film’s suspense is shoved into overdrive in the film’s last act when Lou makes some of the boldest and insane decisions imaginable.

“Nightcrawler” works like a modern suspense thriller version of “Network” much of if functioning as if were Michael Mann’s post-“Collateral” crime actioner. Cinematographer Robert Elswit shots the film as if it were a dirty, urban 70s noir. He captures the crime riddled LA nightscape with breezy intensity.  The movie, shot on actual film, captures the grainy cityscape perfectly, including an incredibly intense car chase that pits the viewer in the middle of the action. James Newton Howard’s electronic, almost rock-like score feels as strange as the film itself and works perfectly. Like Gyllenhaal’s character it’s odd but charming. In fact, Gyllenhaal’s scraggly, amoral but cordial (and arguably insane) character could be an evil distant cousin of his similarly rogue and heroic cop character from “Prisoners.” Both men are wholly solitary and strange individuals with completely different motivations.

“Nightcrawler” is compellingly watchable and that’s because Gilroy’s script and direction are top notch. Facing double duty, this guy makes the right decision at every possible time, resulting in a perfectly paced thriller with appropriately suspenseful sequences, impeccably shot and timed action, and a captivating morally bankrupt character at the center. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. The idea of satirizing the news media is not even remotely a new thing, but this film makes for one fascinating experience and is as relevant as ever.  GRADE: A

Trailer for Nightcrawler on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Birdman Cometh: The Darkly Comedic “Birdman” is an Impressive Cinematic Achievement

How do you even describe the film “Birdman” to someone? I guess you can tell them it’s a black comedy about a former super hero movie actor who tries to reinvent himself as the writer, director, and star of a Broadway play while going through the wackiest midlife crisis imaginable. Oh and the guy who plays the former super hero movie actor is played by none other than former super hero movie actor Michael Keaton. And did I mention the film is gloriously shot to simulate taking place in one single, unbroken take. Think “Rope” meets “Death of a Salesman” meets “Noises Off!” If that isn’t the weirdest combination of movies imaginable I don’t know what is. In other words, “Birdman” is a triumph; it’s an entertaining, perfectly executed cinematic achievement with outstanding performances from its wonderful ensemble and mind blowingly amazing camerawork.

Michael Keaton is Riggan. Decades earlier he had played the title character Birdman in three Blockbuster films. But in his current form he’s just a washed up actor. Though he still has fans coming up to him on the street asking for photos and autographs. He’s plan for a career revival is writing and directing a Broadway play and starring in it as well. His friend/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is producing the show. And the play also stars first time Broadway actress Lesley (Noami Watts channeling her "Mulholland Drive" character a tad), Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and last minute replacement and cocky Mike (a delightfully loose Edward Norton). There’s also Riggan’s daughter/personal assistant Sam (Emma Stone) who happens to be a recovering drug addict. The film follows Riggan in and around the theater during the last few days of previews before opening night including bizarre talks with his former Birdman persona.

What seems like a simple story is anything but as director Alejandro González Iñárritu, known for such dramas as "21 Grams" and "Babel," has decided to shot the film as if it were done in one single unbroken take. There is some digital editing trickery going on here to the watchful eye, but otherwise the film is chock full of long unbroken takes that are simply stunning to watch. It almost makes you feel as if you’re watching a play, and yet the film never feels stagey or stagnant. It’s wholly cinematic. And let’s not forget the utterly crazy good script with hilarious dialogue. It’s a scathing satire of Hollywood, celebrity, criticism, etc, which is certainly nothing new, but the craft here is impeccable. It feels like it was so expertly handled it’s as if Robert Altman came back from the grave to make it. And let’s not forget the amazing subtle aspects like, for instance, the minimalist drum score that goes from non-diegetic film score to source music within a single shot.

Sure the film isn't quite going to be for every taste. For every film nerd who will sit there at awe at the clever handiwork of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, there will be plenty who find the film’s more “out there” fantasy-like elements either over-the-top or downright confusing. And let’s not even mention the bizarre, what just happened ending, that will most likely get audience members into long film geek discussions after the credits begin rolling. Iñárritu, masterfully balancing both the comedy and drama, and his actors are in top form and they have all helped craft an utterly original and fascinating movie that is certainly one of the year’s best.  GRADE: A

Teaser Trailer for Birdman on TrailerAddict.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Child’s Play: “Annabelle” Offers Decent Scares But is No “The Conjuring”

I can’t really complain when a horror movie is “decent.” Most of the time they’re just not even worth seeing, that I don’t mind when one is a little clichéd but at least has its moments. “Annabelle” is once such film. It’s a sort of prequel/spinoff hybrid (pre-off?) of last year’s overwhelming successful “The Conjuring” which remains of the best horror films of recent memory. In it we learned a little about the case of Annabelle, a possessed doll that wreaked havoc for a pair of nursing students. Here we learn about how the doll came to be possessed in the first place. It’s basically a made up story, and even the film knows it. The movie feels more inclined to remind you that it’s related to “The Conjuring” instead of reminding you that’ it’s “based on true events.” And rightfully so. But is it any good?

First off the film has a delightful “Rosemary’s Baby” vibe which I enjoyed. We’re introduced to a young, happy married couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis, yeah that’s her name seriously) and John (Ward Horton, sort of bland but likable). Mia is pregnant and everything seems right in the world. That is until satanic cultists murder the older couple next door (an extremely intense and well executed sequence) and attack Mia and John as well leaving Mia on permanent bed rest for the rest of her pregnancy. And you know that creepy antique doll that John just gave to Mia? One of the satanic murderers possessed it before killing herself.  Of course Mia and John don’t quite know it yet. Mia suspects something’s up as she notices strange occurrences in the house, one of which causes the couple to move to an apartment building after one intense incident. This sets into motion the clichéd idea that Mia is witnessing strange activity and her husband doesn’t believe her.

There is something strange going on and it has everything to do with the creepy doll that just doesn’t seem to go away, even when John tries to throw it out. Most of the visions and incidents that Mia experiences are similar to what we’ve seen in the “Insidious” films. And that makes sense since first time feature director John R. Leonetti was James Wan’s director of photography on those films (and many others). Where “Insidious” creeped us out with that scary red-faced demon, we’re given an equally creepy demon that stays hidden enough to cause a good case of the willies. He gives the film and equally creepy and familiar feel which sort of works. He emphasizes suspense over gore.  And his attempts to make normally unscary objects, like sewing machines, creepy sort of works. The film sort of hits all the standard horror movie beats and all the scares  are firmly in the right place but I sort of was transfixed by this likable couple and their plight, even if the story’s progression feels sort of herky jerky.

Most audiences won’t forgive this nubile couple for actually wanting such a creepy doll in their house, whether possessed or not, but sometimes you have to just go with it. The real life Annabelle was just a Raggedy Ann doll but I imagine Raggedy Ann sales would plummet if portrayed in such a way. “Annabelle” is a competently made movie. It’s nothing particularly special, but there’s nothing overtly terrible about it. It’s scary enough and sometimes that’s good enough. It suffers in comparison to the “The Conjuring” mostly in that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are sorely missed but odds are if you enjoyed that film you’re bound to enjoy this. Just leave the creepy dolls at home.  GRADE: B 

Trailer for Annabelle on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Ben, Her: David Fincher’s Masterful “Gone Girl” is a Stylish, Absorbing Mystery

Is it even possible to remotely review “Gone Girl” without talking about its many interesting plot details? I’d say not really. So the only things that can really be said about the film are how truly great it is and that’s it’s definitely worth your time and hard-earned money. What little details can be said about the story without giving much away is what people who haven’t seen the film probably already know. That it’s about a man whose wife goes missing. Is she dead? Has she been kidnapped? And was the husband involved? Nothing more can be said nor should be said for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, except for this: by the film’s midpoint it’s a completely different ball game and you never quite know where the film will end up. It’s also completely intoxicating from start to finish due to Fincher’s dependable direction, tremendous performances, and such an intriguing story that any plot hole or other far-fetched element can be completely and rightfully dismissed.

Ben Affleck stars here, in another one of his more recent, outstanding performances, as Nick Dunne. His beautiful wife is Amy (a revelatory Rosamund Pike) and like him she’s a writer. The problem is the modern world is a horrible place for writers as they’ve both recently become out of work. Also recently, Amy has gone missing. Nick comes home to what appears to be a bit of a struggle in the living room but there’s no sign of his wife. There also doesn’t seem to be much concern in Nick’s face which sort of makes us wonder if A) he had anything to do with it, or B) he even cares that she’s missing. A detective (Kim Dickens, also great) is brought in to investigate and eventually Amy is officially considered a missing person.

What comes next is a complete media circus. This is where Gillian Flynn, who wrote the script based on her best-selling novel, really shines as the film is essentially, and appropriately, a complete dig at the news media. Every news outlet loves a story about a beautiful wife who goes missing and following the every move of the supposedly innocent husband who barely even seems to seem at all concerned in front of the cameras. This is an engaging, and surprisingly humorous look at the sensationalism purported by the media when an event like this occurs. And that’s exactly what it becomes when something horrible like this happens: it becomes an event, complete with logos, titles, and its own theme music.

But “Gone Girl” isn’t your average thriller, it’s smarter than that and certain things will be revealed throughout the course of the film which really changes everything you thought you knew where the story was headed. There’s more to Amy and Nick’s marriage then you know at first. And Fincher stages everything simply wondrously. He’s a guy we know gets a kick out of exploring the dark recesses of the human mind. He’s not afraid to take his audience to dank, depressing places. But what really elevates the film is its surprising sense of humor. And that mostly comes from Nick’s touching relationship with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and with a popular defense lawyer played by Tyler Perry, sans drag, of all people. Even Neil Patrick Harris, completely cast against type as someone from Amy’s past is outstanding as well. It’s an odd ensemble, but it all somehow works.

“Gone Girl” is a stunning cinematic achievement. All aspects of the production, with the help of Fincher regulars, are top notch. Everything from the evocative music (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), the sterile cinematography (Jeff Cronenweth), expert cutting (Kirk Baxter), and aforementioned performances are all outstanding. The script is a surprisingly witty critique on the media and marriage and offers an amusingly dark and twisty plot. It may not always be completely air tight, but I’ll be damned if your jaw isn’t agape when it’s all over.  GRADE: A 

Feature Trailer for Gone Girl on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Paths of Glory: “The Maze Runner” is One of the More Outstanding Young Adult Adaptations

Everyone wants to duplicate the success of the young adult phenomenon “The Hunger Games.” And who could blame them? That series of films, so far, is a standout film series surely made to stand the test of time. “The Maze Runner,” adapted from the book of the same name, tries its hardest to capture the same dystopian feel with a more male-centric story about boys and young men trapped within the confines of a gigantic maze. It’s sort of “Lord of the Flies” meets “TheHunger Games” with a bit of “Lost” thrown in for good measure. Is it as good as “The Hunger Games?” No, but why should it be? It feels miles ahead of all other teen centric garbage flooding the multiplexes. It’s thrilling, action-packed, features impressive performances from its young cast, and gives us an undeniably fascinating premise.

Thomas, (played by Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien) who can’t even remember his own name at first, appears in the Glade, a grassy area that’s surrounded by gigantic walls. There are only other teen boys, wearing mostly tattered clothing. No one knows why they’re there, how they got there, or what exactly is going on, except that there are creatures beyond the walls that hang out in the maze that surround the relatively safe central Glade area. He meets some of the other teen boys, one of which is Alby (Aml Ameen) who appears to be the leader of the group. Gally (Will Poulter) also appears to be somewhat in charge but is way more antagonistic. Thomas also meets the most recent addition to the Glade, besides himself, Chuck (Blake Cooper). He also meets the mysterious Minho (Ki Hong Lee) who is a runner. The walls open up in the morning and the runners enter the maze to attempt to find a way out. Every kid seems to have a place within this small group but only certain people are responsible for finding a way out or finding out why they’ve been put there.

It’s a simply fascinating premise that grips the viewer instantly. There are many questions as the film progresses the film uses Thomas for us identify with. He knows as much as we do. O’Brien is certainly charming in his first major lead role and I can easily expect great things from him in the future. The film has an appropriately dark look and tone as many of these young adult adaptations involve depressing post-apocalyptic societies. This film is refreshingly void of any sort of love story. There’s just no time for love even when a girl named Theresa (Kaya Scodelario) is mysteriously sent to live with the boys. Director Wes Ball, making his feature film debut, injects a strong sense of mystery to the proceedings, as the script slowly reveals more and more information. He also unleashes some pretty intense moments which certainly help ramp up the suspense. The creatures, who the boys call Grievers, are appropriately scary and the visual effects are pretty well down for a modestly budgeted movie. I really liked the overall feel, tone, and look of the entire story-driven movie.

You really do get a sense that author James Dasher was heavily influence by the novels “Lord of the Flies” and “Ender’s Game.” I didn't enjoy the “Ender’s Game” film as I never felt invested in the story but here I was in it every step of the way. The ending may leave some people with more questions than answers but it sets up what is sure to be a truly fascinating series of films. For once, I can’t wait to finish reading the book and learn even more about this captivating world.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for The Maze Runner on TrailerAddict.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Brother, Sister: “The Skeleton Twins” is an Expertly Acted, Mostly Depressing Drama

“The Skeleton Twins” should come with a disclaimer. Not because it’s bad or anything but because I can imagine people lining up to see the latest Kristen Wiig comedy expecting “Bridesmaids” and getting “Requiem for a Dream” instead. No, no it’s not that bad but the film deals with the tough subject matter of suicide and depression in a realistic way. It’s never exploitative or heavy handed; it just is what it is. It also features two truly dynamic and wonderful performances from its leads Wiig and her former SNL co-star Bill Hader. If you can go into this little indie gem knowing it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs you will be sad, depressed, but ultimately moved by the film’s interesting story and fascinating characters.

Wiig showed a lot of promise of her real dramatic acting chops in “Bridesmaids.” Sure it was a silly comedy, but go back and look at Wiig’s performance again. It’s alive with drama and subtle nuances of a woman completely overwhelmed and depressed. Yeah she’s hilarious, but she also shows dramatic range which is on full display here. Wiig and Hader (also amazing here) are Maggie and Milo, an estranged pair of adult siblings. They’ve had a rough childhood which can be seen in glimpses. After a failed suicide attempt, Milo goes to stay with Maggie in her upstate New York house. Maggie is married to Lance (Luke Wilson) and they have a rather normal and uneventful life. They’re trying to get pregnant though Maggie isn’t quite ready to have children. Milo is gay and lives the life of a struggling actor in LA. The pair hadn’t seen or heard from each other in ten years and we don’t really know why. This dramatic event just may be the catalyst to get their once close relationship working again.

It’s obvious that Milo and Maggie have a strong connection. We eventually get filled in on their childhood and upbringing. And suicide and depression tend to run in their family. It doesn’t help that they’re mother is basically MIA and was apparently too busy to attend her own daughter’s wedding. These are really sad people. It’s sort of hard to watch. They’re not happy with their lives even if they seem to have things sorted out for the most part. They both sort of think ending it all is the only option for both of them. But they need each other and that is where the true heart of the film lies.

Wiig and Hader have some of the most exquisite chemistry I have ever witnessed in a film. And why shouldn’t they? They’re obviously good friends from their tenure on Saturday Night Live and most likely know each other very well. They’re practically siblings and it comes across magnificently onscreen. Director Craig Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman, has weaved an interesting story for these two fully realized people. The script slowly reveals elements of these sibling’s pasts and we’re filled in on the events that lead them to their current states. The directing is fluid and realistic and the themes are throughout and work (it helps that the sometimes dark story is also set around Halloween).

This is a film that I can certainly recommend if you’re in the mood for something with heavy and dark subject matter. While the characters’ eventual connection is what really lifts this out of depressing territory, the film is rather morose - though with some well-timed bits of solid comic relief. It isn’t what I’d exactly call a feel-good film though when it comes down to it it’s ultimately uplifting. If you want to see another side to two of our best comedic actors working today you’re certainly in for a treat. If you’re expecting a raunchy comedy then you’ll certainly feel tricked.  GRADE: B+ 

Trailer for The Skeleton Twins on TrailerAddict.