Birdman Review

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Alas my friends, we have arrived at the undisputed champion of this years festival circuit. The film that every online blogger, newspaper critic, and random IMDB message boarder who was lucky enough to score a screening says that you ‘have’ to see, and why wouldn’t they? Birdman seems to have everything that these sorts of audiences love, experimental filmmaking techniques, hollywood satire, and a couple leading men in desperate need of a comeback. Hell, it seems as though this might be one of the main oscar contenders this year. Even with all that hype surrounding it, I did my best to approach Birdman not as an impending masterpiece going in, despite being almost certain that I would join that very chorus of ‘Birdman’ worshipers. I can’t say it worked out that way…

Birdman centers on Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor who back in the early 90s played an massively popular superhero named Birdman, but is now stuck writing/directing/staring in a broadway adaptation of a book for, as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) puts it, rich white people who are more concerned with what they are getting to eat afterwards. The rehearsals and previews for this production have been, simply put, a disaster. Not only is Riggan dealing with his own existential crisis as he faces the potential end of his career, but when one of the leading men in the play is brutally injured, Riggan is forced to turn to one of his actresses’ (Naomi Watts) boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an acclaimed but deliriously egotistical man who is almost purely concerned with how he thinks the play should be.

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On paper, Birdman certainly is a deeply impressive film, particularly from a technical standpoint. Almost the entire film is presented as one continuous take, and while there are certainly cheats here and there, this gives the entire film a very play-like feel (deeply appropriate considering the setting). It’s not only impressive based on the sheer level of technique and blocking incorporated, but it also really gives the actors a chance to live and breathe in these scenes. While the dialogue is certainly very over the top, the presentation aids that, and as such, the non naturalism comes off a great deal more organic then it would if the film was made traditionally.

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The actors here are mostly stellar. Keaton certainly has not had such a meaty role in quite some time, and he jumps full force into it, embodying Riggan’s madness stemming from wanting to feel important again. It’s deeply personal, darkly comic performance that does anchors everything wonderfully. Norton is even better, adapting to and satirizing the arrogant, control hogging persona that he seems to have built a reputation for having. Even so, Mike is never just a stock villain, getting plenty of moments to show humanity mostly through his interactions with Stone, who is also very strong as the film’s main voice of reason. Zach Galifianakis also has a nice role as Riggan’s agent, nicely subduing his normal persona while still delivering the laugh. The only weak link here is Watts, who goes slightly over the top here, particularly in several monologues where her character is going off about how she was just an innocent little actress with broken expectations. Her performance makes it feel a little forced, but granted, it’s not a very good character either.

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So with all these great working parts, how come this film didn’t hit for me the way it has for so many others? To put it simply, I just didn’t care. Despite director Alejandro Inarritu’s best efforts in making me sympathize and connect with these pathological, egotistical people, it just never connected with me. There’s an aura of self importance that protrudes through this film like an airborne virus, and it never lets up. It’s a movie that repeatedly bashed me over the head with just how “important” true acting and production is, and how “soulless and cynical” the world outside of it is. Yes, I understand that it’s all satirical, but since the film isn’t nearly as funny as it seems to think it is, it just spills over into condescension. As a result, I was never truly gripped by the main conflict, merely forced to enjoy individual shining moments (of which there are quite a few), as opposed to the film as a whole.

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Also, the movie completely squanders what could have been a brilliantly dark and deeply satirical final shot in favor of laboriously moving on for another fifteen minutes to end on an image that is equal parts baffling, nonsensical, and silly. I was literally ready to forgive most of my problems with this film because of this potential ending, and then it just spat in my face. Very disappointing indeed.

If I were to grade Birdman on a report card based simply on assembly, it would probably sore pretty high. There’s no doubt that Inarritu has created a masterfully assembled piece here, with some of the most fascinating cinematography I’ve seen in a film in many years, coupled by fantastic performances. With that said, I quite simply never found myself enjoying the film, and I would be lying both to myself, and to you, my lovely readers, if I avoided that simple truth. It’s definitely worth seeing to form your own opinion, but for me, this is one flight that I’ll definitely be only taking one way.

Grade: C+

John Wick Review

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It certainly seems as though Keanu Reeves has been in hiding for the past few years. While this certainly isn’t the case, making his little seen directorial debut with ‘Man Of Tai Chi’ and staring in the occasional sci fi remake or goofy over budget samurai flick here and there, it’s arguable that he hasn’t had a truly stand out role since The Matrix all the way back in 1999. John Wick aims to change all that, and give him an action vehicle explosively bad-ass enough to revive his career, a-la Liam Neeson in Taken.

The film opens soon after retired hit-man John Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) wife Helen passes away. As his grieving process begins, he receives one last gift sent from Helen right before she died, a small, adorable Beagle named Daisy. This seemingly gives John a chance at finding inner peace, until one fateful day. At a local gas station he comes across Iosef (Alfie Allen), the punk son of John’s former mob boss employer Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). When John rejects Iosef’s offer to buy his car, Iosef retaliates in force, invading John’s house and killing Daisy. Little does Iosef know who he’s just trifled with, as John possesses a set of skills lethal enough to “kill the boogyman”, and his indiscretion has unleashed the widely feared assassin upon him and his family.

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If there’s anything that this film proves, it’s that a simple B-Movie can rise above the norm and be fantastic just by sheer effort alone. John Wick is feverishly determined to entertain from frame one, and it does achieves just that in spades through a wonderful combination of beautifully physical and theatrical performances, frenetic action sequences, and an inventive world for it’s characters to play in.

Let’s just start by taking a moment to appreciate our leading man. I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed seeing Reeves in these sort of roles, having gotten annoyed with some of his flat out silly choices over the last few years, but here he shows that he is still a force to be reckoned with. Preforming most of, if not all of his own stunts here, his sheer physicality is incredible to watch as he mows his way through enemy after enemy with the grace and power of a man half of his fifty year age. Beyond that, he does a really solid job as an actor here, in fact, this may be the best performance I’ve ever seen him give. Funny, likable, and above all, deeply relatable in the emotional moments, we emphasize with his rage and root for him the entire way though. It’s one of the most rock solid leading performances in an action film in many years.

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The supporting cast is littered with character actors who are all just as strong as Reeves. Most surprisingly so is Nyqvist, who played a similar main villain role in ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’ to much lamer effect. Here, he not only intimidates, but also finds some great moments of humor in what could have been a fairly stock villain. William Defoe and Ian McShane show up as two fairly different mentors of John, McShane’s character with a much more sinister purpose, and add gravitas to each word they say. Meanwhile, Allen is appropriately slimy and despicable, and Adrianne Palicki (who is having a hell of a week between this and her debut on Agents of SHIELD) has fun as a hit woman sent to take John out. None of these characters are particularly deep, but they’re so well written and defined that they still greatly aid in establishing the crazy world this film lives in.

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Speaking of which, perhaps the most fun aspect of this film is that very world. Taking a cue from ‘Wanted’ to much cooler effect, all of the assassins in this film have known each other for a long time, living in a network that all converges in a hotel called The Continental that acts as a safe house for people in the line of work. This means that we get to see a great deal of fun interactions between John and the other characters as they all react to his return, giving us a sense that there’s a lot of history here that could be explored in future installments. It’s never shoved in our face though merely acting as a nice backbone to spice the proceedings up.

Make no mistake though, the centerpiece of this film is the action, and holy hell does it deliver. First time directing duo David Leitch, and Chad Stahelski come from a background of stunt coordination, and it shows. Each of the extended action set pieces here are not only incredibly physical, but masterfully photographed in five to ten second long takes. We see every punch, throw, or headshot (of which there are many), as Wick efficiently and brutally takes out his foes. Once this action starts, it rarely lets up, creating a non stop roller coaster ride of stylish carnage. However, this isn’t just action for the sake of it, there’s real artistry here, each fight not only serving a purpose in the story, but exuding themselves through sheer technique.

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The only minor misgiving i have here is that there is so much action, that after a while, it starts to feel just a touch redundant. John isn’t particularly interested in changing things up, going for shots to the head whenever he can, and as such, the last few fights definitely do blend together. However,  the climax is spectacular, and the ending satisfying, so it shouldn’t be too much of a bother.

While this is certainty not a film you go to for deep characters, or a winding, powerful narrative, it utterly succeeds at being exactly what it’s trying to be. Imagine the fast pace and scale of ‘Taken’ combined with the brutality and artistry of ‘Drive’, and throw in a little of ‘The Raid’ for good measure, and then you will have John Wick. It’s not only one of the best straight action films in years (possibly ever), but it’s a perfect comeback for Reeves, who I now deeply look forward to seeing in other things, one of which will hopefully be a sequel to this.

Rating: A-

Fury Review

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When it comes down to it, there are two types of war movies. The first, is the one with some kind of grand statement to make. Whether it’s something of the ‘OOO RAH AMERICA’ variety, or directly to the contrary will obviously vary, but at the heart, there’s something more political going on beneath the surface of combat. Then, there are films that simply observe war for what it is, in both it’s most brutal, and stalled moments. From it’s first frame, Fury quickly establishes itself as one of the later.

The film fallows a squad of soldiers who operate a tank nicknamed ‘Fury’. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) is clearly in charge, watching over the other men in the group with authority and wisdom. Those aforementioned other men are Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), a heavily religious man who sees his crew as blessed by god, Trini (Michael Pena), an enthusiastic and slightly odd man, and Grady (Jon Bernthal), who lives up to his codename ‘coon ass’ by being an unpredictable, wildcard hick of a man with a wild temper. In light of loosing one of their other teammates, they find themselves being joined by Norman (Logan Lerman), a timid typist thrown into combat, as they make their way through German territory in the final days of World War 2.

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Right off the bat, Fury seems determined to prove just how unbelievably brutal war can be on both a visual, and phycological level. This isn’t just a typical ‘men on a mission’ film, but more an examination of if these men can go on said mission without hitting their breaking point, and if the bond they’ve formed over time is strong enough to hold their sanity together through one last fight. Nothing is painted in broad strokes either. These soldiers are for the most part, not very good people, and we see exactly how far down the moral rabbit hole they’ve fallen strictly though the circumstances they’ve had to endure, and how sickening that depravity is to someone who is a newcomer to it all.

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The performances by the entire cast are absolutely top notch. Brad Pitt, playing a more subdued and intense variation on his character in Inglorious Basterds, once again proves why he’s one of the very best leading men in the business. His presence commands respect and authority, and we instantly believe that this group of pretty damn rowdy guys would accept him as an authority figure, and hold on to every word that comes from his mouth. Lerman is wonderful as Norman, who goes through such an insane mental ringer that it’s impossible not to sympathize with his transformation, as Lerman makes sure to never remove the humanity that we find empathy with in the first place. The real scene stealer though is LaBeouf. Completely evaporating any traces of his signature ticks and traits that we’ve all come to detest, he disappears completely into the skin of a man guided by religious morals, who perhaps has the deepest bonds to all of his fellow soldiers. He has a couple moments here that are just piercing to watch, and his performance as a whole certainly restores my faith in him as an actor. Pena and Bernthal have more broad characters to play, but they blend well with the ensemble, who all have wonderful dialogue and camaraderie thanks to sharp writing by David Ayer.

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Speaking of Ayer, he nails it in the director’s chair here. Not only is the film aesthetically beautiful, but the action sequences are an absolute joy to watch. They’re easy to see, fast paced, and remarkably brutal. Seriously, this is not a film for the faint of heart. Heads explode, limbs are shot off, and it’s all shown in vivid detail. However, it’s never in a way that just feels like gore porn, it’s an honest and completely realistic portrayal of the horrors of war, with no stone left unturned. Particularly noteworthy is a tank on tank battle midway through the film, that manages to be completely hair raising despite the two vehicles only being able to fire every ten seconds or so.

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It helps that we really care about the characters involved, with plenty of moments where the movie takes a beat to let us spend time with them. In fact, if the film has one weakness, it’s that eventually things do settle into a very predictable structure of ‘battle, break, battle, break’. This is broken up slightly by one extended sequence midway through involving two German girls in an apartment, but even that goes on for just a little too long. I think that if they had found a way to make this two hours on the dot, instead of two hours and fifteen minutes, it would have been just perfect.

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This is a film that makes you completely buy into everything happening in it, and that is a hell of a complement for a war film. It never feels cheesy, or overwrought, but entirely genuine and tragically realistic. It’s a film that finds humanity even in it’s most brutal moments, never forgetting that even the people on the opposition are just that, human beings. This is one of the best war films in recent memory, uncompromising, well acted, and exciting, all solid ingredients for what is by far one of the strongest action tickets of the year.

Rating: A-

Men, Women & Children Review

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To me, nothing is sadder in the movie industry then the decline of a great director. At one point, Jason Reitman seemed to be unstoppable, his initial three films, ‘Thank You For Smoking’, ‘Juno’, and ‘Up In The Air’ (the later being my personal favorite) all meeting huge critical acclaim. Then ‘Young Adult’ happened, and while it certainly was not a bad film, it was a major step down from those previous three. However, little did we know of the depths of Reitman’s creative lows until this year, when he kicked things off in January with the atrocious ‘Labor Day’, and now, he’s arrived with a film that is somehow even worse.

Men, Women & Children deals with several different sets of interconnected characters in a ‘Crash’ style narrative that primarily centers around the dangers that our technologically advanced age brings us. The whole affair takes place in a football obsessed Texas town. In ‘High School Stereotypes’ land, we have Tim (Ansel Elgort), a young man who has traded the world of football for the one of Guild Wars, so naturally, the entire world thinks he’s a waste of skin (because everyone in high school cares excessively about other people right?). He does however find solace in Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), an equally depressed girl who unfortunately has an Internet Nazi for a mother (Jennifer Garner). Literally, this woman checks all of her texts, Facebook interactions, and anything else that does not directly involve her. In a support group she puts together that involve such topics as a pamphlet on the danger of selfies, Tim’s father Kent (Dean Norris) and Donna (Judy Greer), a woman who runs a modeling website for her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), hit it off, and start to date. Meanwhile, Hannah is flirting with Chris (Travis Trope) the son of the most depressingly stalled married couple ever, Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt). Also, one of Hannah’s friends, Allison (Elena Kampouris), is discovering herself sexually with disastrous results. I apologize on behalf of this movie for that atrociously long plot summary.

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This is a film that does not respect it’s audience enough to treat them like adults. At one time a master satirist of societal ills, Reitman has made a film here that would not be out of place as a modern day after school special. None of the characters have any depth whatsoever, what you see is what you get, and they never are able to move out of playing simple types. Beyond that, this is a phenomenally depressing movie, with almost no traces of humor or humanity to lighten any of the proceedings. Everything feels gross, dirty, and unsavory, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a used sock, if used socks were a god awful social commentary on internet culture.

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The cast, chock full of great actors try their best to fight these miserable characters. Some succeed somewhat, and some fail miserably. On the more positive end are Norris, Sandler, and Greer, who all manage to wring authenticity out even in the film’s worst moments. Sandler in particular is impressive, looking like he’s gained some weight, while also seeming brutally emaciated by the marriage he’s trapped in. Seriously Adam, don’t let this movie get you down, do more dramatic roles please! Elgort is also fairly impressive despite having some of the most pretentious dialogue in the film, accurately tapping into Tim’s pain. Where we start to get negative is right around Jennifer Garner. I’ve been saying for a while that she is declining as an actress, and while it’s certainly true that she has the worst character in the film, she is not able to bring anything to it. She comes off as a shrill robot, without any sense of what it was like to be a teenager, or a human for that matter, probably because her programing won’t allow it.

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This is a movie that instead of just simply showing people as people, feels the need to employ false pseudo-intellectual nonsense about how Earth is small in relation to the rest of the universe and other things only needlessly cynical people say. Any of the sharp edge that Reitman has brought to his other films has been extinguished in favor of the forced sentimentality of Labor Day. The only thing I can really give him credit for here is his visual representation of people using the internet, with nice graphics that will pop up that drive home the sense of immediacy.

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I’m not just depressed about this movie because it’s bad, but I’m infuriated by it, because it forces me to remove someone from my list of favorite directors. I really liked Jason Reitman, but he has now proved time and time again that his former success was an utter fluke, and I’m tired of making excuses for him. Hopefully one day he will make something good again, but for now, consider me deeply unimpressed. Men, Women, & Children is a morose, unpleasant film that feels more like an educational video than an actual piece of entertainment. In fact, there is a film from a couple years ago called ‘Disconnect’ which is actually also a Crash style drama about the internet that is so much better than this, that it’s a wonder that this garbage ever rolled cameras in the first place.

Rating: D-

 

Whiplash Review

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I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t very many great movies about music anymore. Sure, we get the odd biopic now and again, but even more rarely do we see original stories about people fueled by one of the most encompassing passions known to man. Whiplash seems to be aware of this, and wants to give us a film worth all the ones we may have missed put together and, my god, it’s a beautiful thing.

Whiplash centers on Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first year drumming student at Shaffer with an obsessive personality pointed towards being one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. After seemingly befriending Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the head of the musical conservatory, Andrew joins up expecting to learn some new tunes, and hopefully make lead fairly soon. However, it turns out that Fletcher is an absolute firecracker of a teacher, to a borderline abusive degree, and he is willing to go beyond the bounds of morality to push Andrew to a level even he didn’t think possible, which naturally takes a physical and phycological toll on Andrew.

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When this film premiered at the Sundance film festival in January, it consumed absolutely all the buzz. Richard Linklater be damned, this was the must seen independent film of the year. While I was certainly excited by this, not only because of the premise, but because Teller and Simmons are two of my favorite actors working today, I tried to keep my expectations fairly out of the hype. As it turns out, there was no need for that. Whiplash is one of the most exciting, stirring films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing all year. It’s a movie that not only lives up to it’s reputation, but surpasses it.

I’ve heard this movie described as ‘The Karate Kid’ with music, and while that definitely downplays the intensity, it’s a very apt description indeed. This is not a movie about people kvetching about how music makes them feel, or the magic that happens when they go on stage, but a story of people nearly killing themselves to perfect their craft. Both Andrew and Fletcher are both so incredibly set in their ways, and as such, the clash between the two of them is simply incredible to watch, with the most tense rehearsal scenes you’ll ever see in a movie.

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Both of our leads go all in here, and are absolutely incredible. I’ve been convinced for a while that we have a major player in Miles Teller, and here he extinguishes any doubt about that. Not only does he completely deliver in the emotional department, but he finds plenty of moments for wry, cutthroat humor within his character’s calculating personality, bringing a whole lot of depth to what could have been a very one note character. Also, he enslaves himself to an insane degree to the physical aspects of the role. A drummer since about fifteen years old, Teller is the one preforming the whole time here, and because of the sheer intensity of what he’s playing, you see every drop of sweat and blood (some of which is actual blood) pouring out of him. Simmons is equally fantastic, extending his fiery rage to a point that would make J Jonah Jameson cry. However, he’s not relegated to exclusively being a stock villain, with plenty of warmer moments that bring out the humanity in him. It’s clear that despite his near sociopathic methods, he genuinely believes in Andrew, and wants to bring out the best in him. Both roles are perhaps the best performances of Teller and Simmons’ careers, and I’ll be shocked if we don’t see Oscar nominations for them.

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Second time writer/director Damien Chazelle (who adapted this from a short he made) does not see this as a drama, but an action movie. He knows exactly when to move, and station the camera, capturing both the the deep focus, and crazed madness Andrew is expressing. Beyond that, the pace here is just perfect, with very little filler keeping us from what we want to see. If this were a longer, more extraneous film, all I would have wanted would be to go back to that rehearsal room, and Chazelle understands this, making a film that isn’t mediocre at having one hundred story lines but exceptional at having one.

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Even so, there is still a little bit of nonsense going on. Melissa Benoist has a fairly small role as a movie theater worker who Andrew starts dating, and ultimately her story has very little to bare on the rest of the film, not to mention, she’s fairly bland and never really given the chance to be anything other than just a love interest. Fortunately, the pace is still razor sharp, and it never undercuts things too much.

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By the end of this film, I was more excited and awake than I was watching any action movie this year. That is what ultimately defines Whiplash. It’s a film that utterly embraces a profession many people think is strictly serene, and throws the conviction, and maddening processes right in their faces. Beyond that, you will root for Andrew more than any generic Texan in any sports movie ever, and it will make the crowd you watch it with cheer as if they are at a real concert. It’s one of the year’s very best.

Rating: A

The Judge Review

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Despite his meteoric rise back to the A-List through massive franchise films ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’, Robert Downey Jr seems to rarely want to step out of that comfort zone (not to mention the pay) and do something smaller. Sure, he’s appeared in The Soloist, Due Date, Chef (briefly), and Tropic Thunder, but only the latter has really attained him any significant acclaim. The Judge aims to change all that, and remind people that despite his mega star status, he is an actor’s actor, and there is certainly no better way to test that then pitting him against the legendary Robert Duvall.

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The Judge begins in an Illinois court’s bathroom, with Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr), a cocky criminal defense lawyer literally pissing all over the competition. As his latest case is about to begin, he receives news that his mother has passed away (in an odd echo of Downey’s real life). As such, he has to make his way to Indiana, and reunite with his two brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and deeply estranged father Joseph (Robert Duvall) who seems to preside over the only court in the whole town. All seems awkward and passive aggressive, until Hank learns that Joe has allegedly run over one of his oldest foes in the night, and finds himself having to defend the man who resents him most against an equally adamant prosecution lead by Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton).

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This is one of those movies that seems to be built out of a film school textbook. Narrative wise, there’s nothing really unique, but because the script insists on putting such high personal stakes into each and every inch of the story, it certainly makes for entertaining viewing despite it’s generic nature, with killer performances and above average writing certainly helping everything along.

We get to see some dimensions of Robert Downey Jr here that he hasn’t had to rely on in quite some time. Sure, we get a whole lot of typical Tony Stark-ish snark, but that’s just a veil for all the pain Hank is hiding inside, and we get to watch all that pain come to the forefront. Downey portrays it all beautifully, providing some wry commentary during the films more cliched moments, and knocking the emotional confrontations out of the park. Equally spectacular if not more so is Duvall (who I’ve missed dearly), who makes each harsh word out of his mouth sting with authority, while at the same time giving us a three dimensional character who gets several moments to break that facade. The supporting players are also strong, D’Onofrio anguishing in being the primary caretaker of the family, and Thornton swimming in the sea of smug condescending that he knows so well.

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The writing by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque is also very strong, with razor sharp dialogue and moments for each character to be more than their initial stereotype seems to allow. Also surprising is the assured direction by veteran comedy director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up). Not only does the movie look beautiful, really capturing the essence of this small Indiana town, but he manages to intertwine the family dynamic into all aspects of the story, including the courtroom scenes, making for some wonderful scene-work.

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Where the movie starts to hurt is in the pacing. This is one two hour and twenty minutes that would have done wonderfully with some trimming. Most glaring is a subplot involving Vera Farmiga as Samantha, one of Hank’s former flames, and her daughter. It’s not bad, and Farmiga does her usual wonderful work, but it serves no greater purpose, and if it was cut out, we could have had a much more focussed and tighter film. It’s a shame too, because it distracts from the very solid legal procedural here, which almost seems downplayed in the midst of everything else.

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This is also one of those movies with 170 endings (also known as Return of the King syndrome), and in an already long movie, you’ll definitely find yourself cussing at the screen during at least one of these fake outs. It doesn’t help that the story ends on a fairly weak, unsatisfying note, especially in one critical scene that is quite frankly just plain weird.

There are certainly pieces of a great movie in The Judge. It’s beautifully acted, and certainly proves that Dobkin is capable of more than what he’s been given, but it’s falls victim to it’s own heft. It’s a movie to watch on a rainy sunday afternoon when everything else you have to do is done and you need a nice long time to relax. With that said, in comparison to the recent ‘This is Where I Leave You’, which dealt with similar themes, it’s a hell of a lot better, and certainly makes me excited for more from Team Downey. Hopefully next time they step out of the box a bit more.

Rating: B+

Gone Girl Review

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To some people, there is no greater nightmare then being trapped in the thralls of commitment, isolated to relying on only one other person for the rest of their lives in the warped institution we call marriage. To any one of those people who ever felt alone, don’t worry, David Fincher understands you, and with Gone Girl, an adaptation of the popular Gillian Flynn novel, he has created a warped, winding, and disturbing thriller to make all of your worst fears come true.

The story centers on Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a middle aged and deeply unhappy bar owner, and part time creative writing professor living in Missouri with his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), who he has deeply grown apart from. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Nick comes home from sulking in self pity at the bar to find his glass table flipped over, and his wife missing. The police become involved, and a massive media frenzy starts to build, all around the suspicious nature of the case. You see, there’s plenty of significant evidence, but it’s not for a kidnapping, but for a murder, and the only person who seems capable of it is Nick himself, who’s cold reaction to the whole situation certainly isn’t helping matters.

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David Fincher is one of those directors who no matter what they tackle, I’m supremely confident that it will be something special. His ambient, chilling sensibility has been a godsend in creating some of the best thrillers of the past two decades. While he’s certainly able to step outside this genre, he’s definitely most comfortable in it, and therein lies both Gone Girl’s greatest strength and weakness. While it’s definitely a masterfully orchestrated story, it also has a slight undercurrent of redundancy, as if Fincher has already made it.

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This mostly isn’t the fault of the material however, which is chock full of some of the best characters and performances of the year. A great deal of people feel very negatively towards Ben Affleck for one reason or another, but here he definitively proves himself as an actor, turning in a career best turn as a man who’s been so beaten down by dying love, that he can’t even seem to summon extreme emotions in extreme circumstances. To go along with this, the film brilliantly plays into Affleck’s public perception, using what are sure to be some conceived notions of several audience members, and builds those into this mass of media hatred that comes to envelop this character.  The supporting cast is equally strong. Carrie Coon has several wrenching scenes with Affleck as his twin sister, the only person whom he can really trust, Neil Patrick Harris is appropriately creepy and awkward as one of Amy’s former stalkers, and to my utter shock, Tyler Perry steals every scene he’s in as Tanner Bolt, a savvy lawyer who makes saving Affleck from the death penalty his personal mission.

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Now, throughout that paragraph, you were probably mentally (or physically, whatever floats your boat) yelling about the omission of Rosamund Pike from the praise pile. I am both aware of, and very happy for the amount of praise that she has received for this performance, but unfortunately it just didn’t work for me, and is the first glaring weakness of the film. Amy, as we come to learn, is an extremely complex character, her mania expanding beyond the bounds of spoilers. While Pike certainly does a fair job of selling the deliberate madness of Amy’s dilemma, she never really knocks the emotional end of it out of the park. She’s always very shrill, and extremely cold, making it difficult for the audience to sympathize with her, making the moral quandary of the whole film seem a little more cut and dry then it could have been. It’s not an awful turn by any means, but it’s certainly weak in comparison to her cast-mates and since she’s such a prominent figure, that definitely hinders the narrative.

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As per-usual, David Fincher’s direction is near-flawless. Not only does he have a surgical understanding of the storytelling conventions for this type of film, streamlining it just enough to make it complicated and yet comprehensible, but also, he ensures that there isn’t a wasted frame in the entire two and half hours. This is a gorgeous looking movie that fills the suburbs of Missouri with a sense of eerie dread and foreboding. Gillian Flynn’s screenplay is a great aid as well, taking her already very cinematic book and giving it that just that slight bit of extra oomph, with strong dialogue and ever present themes of the nature of commitment, and the depraved places people will go when they feel crushed by that commitment.

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Honestly, my major issue with this film might just be a problem of expectation, but despite how well made this movie is, it really feels like just another day at the office for Fincher. He’s used a very similar storytelling aesthetic, down to the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score (which in certain scenes seems to annoyingly drown out the audio for some reason) for many years now, and it’s starting to feel just a little stale. There are several moments in this film that could have been straight out of Zodiac, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or even to a certain degree, The Social Network. It’s nothing that cripples the film, but it certainly hinders the film’s impact on me.

Don’t get me wrong though, you will get more than you bargained for if you check see Gone Girl. It’s a deeply fascinating story full of fantastic performances, particularly by Affleck, who really does deserve an oscar nomination, and unpredictable turns, and if you have seen fewer Fincher films that I have, you’ll probably leave blown away. Personally, I hope that his next project is something like Benjamin Button, that breaks his formula a little bit, but in the meantime, I’m more than happy to be held over by this, and something tells me I’ll appreciate it more on a second viewing.

Rating: B+

The Equalizer Review

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At this point, Denzel Washington could be in a movie as Barney the Dinosaur and I would be excited. The man is one of the last true movie stars out there, not just because of his endless charisma and wide range, but because of his ability to sell a movie just based on his presence alone. The only connection I have to the original Equalizer TV show is a brief joke in The Wolf of Wall Street, and on paper the concept seemed pretty generic. However, with Washington and his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua behind it, the potential is certainly there. Did they delver? Well that’s why you’re here isn’t it!

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The Equalizer centers on mysterious former intelligence operative and current hardware store worker Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) who possesses deeply tactical, borderline obsessive compulsive combat skills, and a keen sense of empathy for those being oppressed. As we start things off, his gaze is set on Teri (Chloe Moretz), a seventeen year old who has unfortunately found herself in the middle of an abusive Russian prostitution ring. When Robert violently intervenes, it sparks a turf war between the various factions within the cell. The Russians send in the sociopathic Teddy (Morton Csokas) who despite his goofy name makes for a formidable adversary for Robert.

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Even though it does not fully succeed, I must applaud The Equalizer right off the bat for attempting to have a little more depth then your average action fare.We don’t get nearly any needless exposition establishing Robert’s past, we’re just thrown into his world and expected as an audience to gather the pieces. Before the action even kicks off, the film spends a solid thirty minutes or so establishing Robert’s personality, and his relationships, specifically with Teri.  This really gives the actors a chance to breathe, and actually make us care about the barrage of action we’re about to see. Washington and Moretz both really shine here, the former creating a character who dispenses harsh justice, while still displaying a refreshing amount of kindness, and the later breaking our hearts with what seems to be a pretty futile circumstance to be in.

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Once things get going, the momentum is nicely held together by some genuine tension and what grows into a fascinating relationship between Robert and Teddy. When Csokas first shows up, it might be easy to dismiss him as the generic Russian villain who just postures at the camera, but as the film goes on, Csokas really effectively sells just how far gone this man is on a base phycological level. We get the impression that this isn’t just a job to him, but it’s the only thing he knows how to do considering that he sees humanity as mere packs of meat. The two don’t just fight, but actually sit down and have a conversation or two. All very nice changes of pace for this type of film.

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As for the action itself, it’s rock solid. I really enjoyed the stark, brutal sensibility Antoine Fuqua has brought to films like Training Day, and Olympus Has Fallen (yeah, I know the later is a pretty silly flick, but damn is it fun), and that continues in spades here. All of the violence here is beautifully photographed, and graphic without being over the top, while employing some very nice practical blood effects in the process (or if it was CG, hats off, because it looked great). Especially worth mentioning is the film’s climax in the hardware store, in which Washington picks off six Russian troops one at a time by stalking them and then using the various tools as mutilation devices. It’s really effective, seeming more out of a horror film then a shoot ‘em up. The only misstep in this department is the slightly heavy handed use of slow motion, particularly to highlight Robert’s deductive skills. It’s a neat technique at first, but it quickly gets tiresome and slows things down.

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Speaking of slow, if I had one major complaint about this film, it would be the length. While I appreciated the deliberate style in the first act, the story definitely takes more detours than needed, with Robert foiling a few random injustices that just seem like an excuse to make Washington look cool. There’s no reason this relatively simple story needed to drag on for two hours and fifteen minutes. Also, the story has a couple elements that are extremely derivative of Washington’s own Man On Fire, and while this is definitely a much better film (sorry Tony Scott fans), it’s hard not to notice it.

I have great respect for this film, even if it isn’t fantastic. It’s an action film that really takes it’s time to establish a character who isn’t simply just an extension of it’s star (although Washington’s sheer presence certainly does not hurt) and delivers violence that feels rough and full of consequence. I’m certainly intrigued by Robert McCall and his world, and I certainly hope the rumors of Fuqua and Washington returning for a sequel come to fruition, because I think that next time, they could really knock this thing out of the park. For now though, this solid action flick is just about all you can expect in the dungeons of September. Go for it.

Rating: B+

The Maze Runner Review

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I won’t hide it, I read a few of these young adult books from time to time. I like seeing what hype is about, as well as finding new guilty pleasures. So I feel fairly confident in saying that of all of these YA series, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner was one of the most original and well written books, perhaps only second to the original Hunger Games book. As such, I was pretty damn excited to see this one come to the screen, and although it’s taken a little longer than I would have liked, I’m happy to report that it was well worth the wait.

We start the movie in darkness. Thomas (Dylan O’Brian) is traveling up an elevator shaft without any knowledge of where or who he is. When the doors open, he finds himself in a primitive society of boys who live in a large enclosure called the glade boarded off by a massive maze. Every night, the maze closes and shifts, making the boys’ escape from this hellhole all the more difficult, and trapping those left inside with vicious creatures called Grievers. Much to the dismay of Gally (Will Poulter), one of the main influences in the society, Thomas starts to make some headway in the maze, eventually becoming a ‘runner’ which is the group’s term for those who explore the maze by day. Things start to complicate when a girl who knows Thomas named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) comes into the glade, with a message that she will be the last person ever delivered.

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I was very impressed with how well this material was handled, especially considering that Wes Ball (who has a background in visual effects) is a first time director. I say that because this movie is clearly assembled by someone who understands exactly how a blockbuster should be constructed, balancing a very fun premise with solid character development and some good looking action to boot.  It feels like the work of someone deep into their career throwing it back to their roots, and doing it better this time.

All of the characters here are likable and very well preformed. Considering his ‘Teen Wolf’ roots and his fangirl factor, I was dubious of Dylan O’Brian at first, initially finding him as a bland vessel for the rest of the characters. However, as the movie started to give him more depth, O’Brain really steps up to the challenge, and delivers us a character we can rally behind. He’s not a passive little piece of gunk like Percy Jackson, but a driven and tenacious guy who genuinely starts to care for his fellow captives. Also surprisingly good here is Will Poulter, who’s over-the-top goofy performance in We’re The Millers really brought the proceedings down. Here, he’s intense, full of rage, and arrogant, and he sells every second of it. Also solid here are Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Game of Thrones fame, and Kaya Scodelario, who both nicely bring things back down to earth.

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The story very nicely sidesteps many of the typical tropes we see in these things. There’s no goofy love triangle, broad social commentary, or silly Mcguffin to track down. It’s all very streamlined and goal oriented, which works wonders for the pacing. As far as adapting the novel goes, they made all of the right cuts, capturing the spirit of the story to an almost exact tee, without painstakingly including every detail (including completely omitting the most cumbersome plot element in the novel). There is not a wasted second here, the urgency of the story palpable throughout.

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Aesthetically speaking, this film is nearly flawless. Ball must’ve scoured the book for every visual detail he could uncover, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adaptation that so rigorously aligned with what I pictured in the book. In fact, the set design almost perfectly aligns with what little art there is in the book. Beyond that, the action sequences are tense, well photographed, and have real consequences. The Grievers make for worthy adversaries, both well designed and very creepy. There are several times where things feel more like a horror film, with the boys getting picked off one at a time, and although most of the gore is offscreen, Ball makes you feel the impact of every single death.

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One nitpick, I thought the ending could have been handled better. The last five minutes of this movie are basically the trailer for the sequel, and because the filmmakers felt the need to shove that in, we were robbed of what I thought could have been a very chilling note to end on. It’s not anything crippling, but it certainly knocks the wind out of what is actually a pretty tragic ending.

The Maze Runner isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s a well oiled machine of a movie that delivers everything it promises. As far as I’m concerned, Wes Ball is now a major player, because if he can deliver such a confident, exciting film on his first go around, I can only imagine what he can do once he acquires some more experience through the other two installments of this series. It’s the best possible adaptation of this material that could have been made.

Rating: A

 

Tusk Review

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While I have never been a massive fan of Kevin Smith’s films, I have immense respect for him as a person. His candor and insight into his creative process is absolutely beyond reproach, and I genuinely believe that he is completely invested into every film he makes (besides Cop Out of course, but that lead to some great stories.) In fact, it was especially fascinating that this film was born out of one of Smith’s podcasts. So going into Tusk, I was definitely optimistic. After all, I really enjoyed Smith’s previous foray into horror, ‘Red State,’ which was a biting and brutal satire of the pain religious organizations can cause, and…well how can you not be intrigued by a film with this premise?

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We center on a podcaster named Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), who with his co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) make a living out of brutalizing idiots on the internet. When Wallace goes up to Canada to interview a teenage boy who cut his leg off with a sword, he is dismayed to find that the boy committed suicide before he could get the interview. Now stuck in the great white north, he comes across an add in the bathroom that promises a place to stay, and many interesting stories. Desperate, Wallace travels up to the house of Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair bound man who claims to have been on a ship with Earnest Hemingway, and later on lost at sea, his only companion being a Walrus. Right around the end of that story, Long notices the sleeping toxin in his tea, and passes out. You see, Howe has a bit of a lightbulb going on. In order to recreate his blubbery friend, he will sow Wallace into a homemade Walrus suit.

 

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For it’s first two acts, Tusk really works. For one thing, the cheap look of Red State is gone. This is a beautiful, atmospheric looking film. It contorts the friendly, welcoming hills of Canada into a savage deathtrap, with Howe’s massive leviathan of a house as the centerpiece, eerie and omnipresent. Beyond that, the writing and the characters are just fantastic. Justin Long gives his best performance in a very long time here, tapping into Wallace’s unfiltered immaturity (which is very much a reflection of Smith himself) and sheer horror at his situation with equal ease. Parks is even better, relishing in the lunacy of this madman. As he delivers several extended monologues chronicling his life, we start to understand (as much as possible) what lead him to this, and although he truly is insane, there is a method to his madness. Before Long is drugged, there is an extended sequence that is just the two of them talking, and honestly, I could have watched that for the rest of the run time. Smith’s screenwriting here is as sharp as I’ve ever seen it, with beautifully punchy and poetic dialogue carrying us through.

 

Then…we get to the payoff.

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The moment Long actually finds himself contorted in the Walrus suit, the movie completely falls apart. What was once a twisted fable with comedy organically thrown in to highlight character flaws, ultimately turns into a straight out goofy comedy, and the transition gave me whiplash. Firstly, while it’s certainly a creative design, the Walrus suit becomes silly really quickly, so it’s hard to really invest in Wallace’s de-humanization for laughs or scares. It pretty much turns into Michael Parks playing with a big rubber blob. Also, every so often we cut back to Haley Joel Osment, and Genesis Rodriguez (as Wallace’s girlfriend) as they look for him, and they enlist the help…of good old Johnny Depp. Now, when Depp was cast in this movie, I was really excited to see him perhaps play a more down to earth role (in the context of this insane story), because frankly, I’m tired of his insistence on playing exclusively goofy characters.

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The moment I laid eyes on this character, I knew I would hate it.

Johnny Depp plays a long haired, cross eyes, French (I think) detective who has been tracking Howe for years, and it’s the most annoying character he’s ever played (which is quite an achievement). His first scene, which includes an embarrassing flashback where Depp and Parks (who is playing stupid) try to out mug each other for what feels like about an hour and a half,  goes on for a blisteringly long time, and it’s just a comedy skit. The entire vibe of the film is just yanked out like a bad wire, and it never finds it’s footing ever again, even when the walrus stuff is working.

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There’s certainly some stuff to like in Tusk. In fact, I would argue that the set up for everything is pretty damn brilliant. However, Kevin Smith can’t seem to restrain himself, and despite making a great looking movie, can’t keep a hold on the tone. It’s so frustrating, because he really almost had it here, and I think with one or two more passes at the script, this could have turned out to be his magnum opus. As it stands though, Tusk is an interesting experiment, just don’t expect anything to be scared besides your grasp on what you’re doing with your life.

Rating: C+