Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

‘Noah’ review

Posted: April 16, 2014 in Movies, Reviews

Religious films are all the craze in 2014 and you bet your sweet ass that big budget Hollywood isn’t going to miss out on Sunday church groups flocking to theaters.  Granted Hollywood and Darren Aronofsky have been crafting how to translate the biblical tale of Noah and his ark to the big screen, for quite some time.  However, leading up to Noah’s release critics were skeptic about how Aronofsky’s talented vision would transition from modest-cost Oscar nominated films to his first truly big budget film. All of Aronosky’s previous films’ budgets don’t add up to Noah’s $125M.  Those critics probably feel pretty stupid right about now.

The story is pretty straight forward; a descendant (Noah) of Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth, is told by The Creator (God) that mankind is going to be destroyed due to their sin; Noah is tasked with ferrying the innocent (animals) into the new world while all mankind is doomed by a worldwide flood.  Of course, because it is a big budget-big production company backed film, there is some fluff and the religious fanatic will leave the theater in disgust.  But hey, screw you guys, it’ works!

Sometimes, when you’re tasked with telling a story that’s been told millions of times before you have to change some things in order for your vision to shine through.  It’s Aronofsky’s vision that is the big winner in Noah.  In order for Aronofsky to get his vision through to the audience we’re told that before the first end times, Adam and Eve gave birth to two sons – Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel because he’s jealous of Abel.  Cain then flees his parents and goes off to start the mankind’s first Industrial Age (fluff tale #1).   Cain is helped by some Angels who chose to fall out of the good graces of God because they were sad that mankind was cast out of the Garden of Eden (fluff tale #2). Oh did I mention that these Angels were turned to stone and live as rock creatures on Earth?   These “Fallen Angels” help mankind sully themselves in to the sinners they were when The Creator chose to wipe the Earth clean.  Mankind then turns on these “Fallen Angels” nearly killing all of them until Noah’s grandfather Methuselah saves them.  These “untold” events help Aronofsky accomplish his vision of Noah building a Titanic-sized boat by himself.

Noah has it’s battle scenes – it’s a “epic” tale afterall – but it’s the film’s villain that really separates this tale from being another bust.  I’m not talking about Ray Winstone as Tubal Cain, I’m talking about the transformation Russell Crowe takes the character of Noah through.  Afterall, the film is titled after our hero so it’s only natural that Aronofsky would toy with Noah being the anti-hero.  The film comes down to choices; does Noah jeopardize The Creator’s plan by making sacrifices for his family?  It’s an interesting dilemma that is gripping to watch unfold.

Russell Crowe is spot on as Noah it’s Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly who often end up stealing scenes.  Watson shows she is quickly moving past her 10 year stint in the Harry Potter franchise.  She is Il-la, adopted daughter of Noah, and romantically involved with Noah’s eldest son, Shem.  Watson’s raw emotion in a majority of her scenes is why Noah succeeds.  Between Crowe, Connelly, Watson and Anthony Hopkins – Noah thrives despite it’s false premise.

Is Noah the perfect biblical film?  Of course not.  Will staunch religious cohorts love it?  Nope.  Is it a fantastic film?  You betcha!

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‘Joe’ review

Posted: April 12, 2014 in Movies, Reviews

There comes a time in one’s career – hell, one’s life even – where you wake up, look in the mirror, realize how far you’ve fallen, and decide you’re either going to be remembered for what you’ve done lately or you’re going to pick yourself up, throw on your Sunday best, and re-establish yourself.  Welcome back, Nicolas Cage, we’ve missed you.

I wholeheartedly believe that Nic Cage woke up one morning, looked at himself in a broken mirror in a bathroom of a single-wide trailer somewhere and decided he was tired of making shit movies.  Tired of living movie paycheck to movie paycheck.  In that moment, the Nic Cage we all remember from Raising Arizona and Adaptation was re-born.  The actor who made terrible films such as Knowing, Drive Angry, and Seeking Justice ceased to exist, gone to another land, far from what we know as Hollywood.  Joe is Nic Cage’s re-birth, his reintroduction of himself to cinema-goers everywhere.

Joe is the type of film that Nic Cage needed in order to make a comeback.  In the film Cage plays the titular character, Joe, a honest-to-goodnees good guy – but one who’s made some mistakes.  He’s an alcoholic, but he’s trying to do better.  He’s got his own tree poisoning crew working for him doing manual labor.  Guys who respect Joe for who he is and not for what he’s done, and Joe treats them right.  He’s a boss you’d want to work for if you did manual labor for a living.  He’s got his demons, and he’s got his enemies.  But you know what, Joe’s not looking for the trouble that wants to follow him.  Everything appears to be going swimmingly until a 15 year old boy named Gary (Ty Sheridan) shows up looking for work so he can support his mute sister and abusive alcoholic father.  Joe gives Gary a chance and quickly sees that Gary is a hard worker who’s just looking for a chance to prove himself.  Throughout the film Joe plays the father-figure to Gary until a showdown with a man from Joe’s past and Gary’s father proves to be Joe’s breaking point.

It’s Joe’s and Gary’s relationship that is the true magic of the film.  Joe goes out of his way to make sure Gary is doing things the right way, taking care of his sister, putting food on their table.  However, Gary is trying to maintain his relationship with his own father while slowly trying to separate himself from the abusive relationship he’s in.  Time and time again Gary shows up at Joe’s door step with cuts and bruises on his face and body from where his father has beat him up, and it’s the restraint that Joe tries to have that makes the film really push through.  Joe is constantly telling everyone who asks that it’s “not my problem” and “I can’t get into everyone’s business”.   Only when Joe realizes that Gary is himself, at the age of 15, does Joe decide to intervene.  Now, the film doesn’t only exploit Joe and Gary’s relationship, it also exploits Joe’s relationship with his own troubles.  The problem he has with alcohol, the problem he has with authority, the nagging – short temper that he’s constantly trying to control.  Joe is a complex character wrapped in a story of anger and redemption.

Nic Cage may be the star of the show here, but it’s Tye Sheridan that steals some of the limelight.  You might recognize Sheridan from another Louisiana-based film – Mud – that redeemed another promising actor’s career.  I guess you can officially call Tye Sheridan the “fountain of youth for struggling actors”.  Sheridan helped resurrect Matthew McConaughey’s career when everyone had written McConaughey off.  Mud was our introduction to Sheridan, Joe is his coming out party.  It’s not hard to see Sheridan being cast in big budget films in the years to come.  He’s going to attract big name directors helming big name projects.  He’s that good.

Speaking of Mud, you could almost label Joe as it’s spiritual successor.  The stories are similar but not quite the same, the main characters (title characters) are both on missions of redemption, and both film’s feature a young boy at the heart of the story.  Nic Cage’s revival here on screen will most likely be forgotten and not seen by main stream audiences come Oscar season in the fall, but I sure do hope that when you read this review you seek Joe out and give it a watch.  It’s worth your time and you just might leave with the sense that one of the best actor’s of the 90’s is back and hopefully here to stay.

 

‘Her’ review

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Movies, Reviews

We live in the time of growing technology and with growing technology we’re certain to see something like what is presented in Spike Jonze’s newest film, Her.  A film about one lonely man’s growing relationship with an operating system in the not-to-distant future.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is coming off a soon-to-be divorced relationship and doesn’t really have the ambition to jump back into the dating scene.  Twombly works at a company that specializes in writing letters for other people to loved ones, using his computer of course.  When finished writing the letters with his computer, Twombly prints them out in the form of human script – making them appear hand-written.  It’s a rather lonely job, but that’s Twombly’s life at the moment.  Living vicariously through other people’s emotions is what Theodore does.  One day he invests in a new artificial intelligent operating system that syncs to every single device Theodore owns.  The OS, which gives herself the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), changes Theodore’s life for the better as he quickly develops feelings for his computer.

There are awkward moments in Her but they are genuine awkward moments.  Those moments are something you or I would have if, say, we fell in love with the voice coming from our computer.  Spike Jonze creates an elaborate sci-fi setting that doesn’t feel so science fiction.  The tech that Jonze envisions for his near-future setting plays out like technology that already exists in one shape or another.  Meaning it’s not hard for you to think “could this really work?” like most science-fiction films.  Joaquin Phoenix is damn near perfect in the role as Twombly – although I do have some reservations about his caterpillar mustache.  Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson’s voice is the real winner in the film.  Her voice is soft, yet playful;  sexy, yet confined.  She’s perfect as a piece of technology.  One particular scene where Samantha hires – from the confines of her always connected to the internet atmosphere – a surrogate sex partner for Theodore (since, you know, the two of them can’t have sex).  It’s a scene where Phoenix’s acting is so good and Johansson’s voice is so on point, you can actually envision the scenario playing out in real life.  Awkward, yet genuine – it’s the theme in Her.

In a film that features no leading actress, supporting actresses Amy Adams and Rooney Mara are a sight for sore eyes.  Adams is good in just everything she does, but Mara is the one that really shines in her limited screen time.  Olivia Wilde and Chris Pratt turn in welcome performances.

Her was never about just purely romance, it’s about love and how we perceive it.  It’s about connecting on an emotional level on a variety of levels.  It’s about acceptance.  Her is a nearly flawless film that should be seen by all.

Greed, excess, vulgar, and funny; all words that describe Martin Scorcese’s latest three hour epic The Wolf of Wall Street.  It’s the fulsomeness true story of one time successful stock broker Jordan Belfort who lived the life of a rich playboy and was eventually nailed by the FBI for securities fraud and money laundering for swindling his investors.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular anti-hero Belfort, Scorcese tabs DiCaprio to turn in one of the best performances of his career.  He’s loud, over the top, motivated, and smooth talking – he’s Leonardo DiCaprio like he was always meant to be seen.  It’s true, DiCaprio has played forms of this character before – Aviator and Django Unchained come to mind – but he’s never been this over the top and crazy.  The film tells the story starting from the beginning where Belfort is a wide-eyed young stock broker working for a rather brilliant Matthew McConaughey (seriously, he’s so great in his small role).  When McConaughey’s company, L.F. Rothchild, goes under in the stock market crash of 1987, Belfort is forced to seek employment just about anywhere he can.  He finally lands on his feet selling penny stocks out of a garage with three people working for him.  Eventually Belfort establishes Stratton Oakmont where he begins to defraud his investors with fraudulent stock sales.  It’s during this time that Belfort gets rich, develops the hard-partying lifestyle he was known for, becomes a drug addict, and completely alienates everyone that was ever close to him.

Scorcese’s film goes far beyond just telling a story, it’s a circus where the elephants dance and bears ride bicycles.   The high-flying act of DiCaprio as Belfort is transformative, mainly because you never get the sense – or motivation – that Belfort is a bad guy.  Sure, he’s a douche bag with lots of money.  Sure, he’s engaged in infidelity while having a smoking hot wife.  Sure, he’s a drug addict known for causing tons of damage.  However, Scorcese paints the picture that Belfort is just misguided, blindsided by so much money he just doesn’t know what to do.  I can imagine that being so successful (even if he did scam people to become successful) would have a changing effect on a 24 year old man, but the way Belfort reacts to money is so far beyond greed.  Frankly, it’s disturbing.  Scorcese makes sure the audience understands Belfort’s lust for money – especially when DiCaprio talks to the camera with a wink and a smile – due to the fact that Belfort did just about everything imaginable to keep his cash flow coming in.

The Wolf of Wall Street, named after a Forbes magazine article done on Belfort in the 80’s, is vulgar, obscene, over-long, tedious, but above all fun.  Belfort’s right hand man, Donnie Azoff (another great role from Jonah Hill – seriously, who knew that the fat kid from Super Bad would be this fantastic?), is always by his side and undertakes in the same debauchery that Belfort does – only his stakes are lower.  One scene in the film, embellished or not, where Belfort’s yacht is sunk by a monsoon on its way to Monaco only further illustrates the point that Belfort only thinks about himself.   Endangering the lives of his family, friends, and crew aboard the boat just to save a couple of millions of dollars and then wants to get high before he potentially dies.  It’s exactly the picture Scorcese wanted to paint when making the film.  Belfort was never about anyone other than himself.

The film will turn people off as far as viewers go.  It celebrates everything we’ve always been taught about greed and lust.  The movie uses the word “fuck” in one way, shape, or form over 500 times.  You can’t go more than 10 minutes without seeing some woman’s boobs or DiCaprio snorting cocaine off one of the many different surfaces the film depicts.   However, it’s all trivial in the grand scheme of things.  Scorcese was never interested in making Belfort look like a criminal and it’s exactly how the film turns out.   Greed is a bad thing but you can have fun while being bad.

 

‘August: Osage County’ review

Posted: January 8, 2014 in Movies, Reviews

There are films that tell stories and bring the actors’ characters along for the ride and then there are films that are vehicles for the actors themselves and it’s those actors who end up bringing the story along for the ride.

John Wells’ August: Osage County is the latter.  A film from the second time director adapted from Tracy Letts’ popular stage play is a hugely over-dramatic actor vehicle meant to garner individual awards.  I’m not going to lie, I didn’t enjoy the film.  I don’t know if it was because there are too many performances here where you can tell the actors are trying to “out-act” each other or if it’s because the subject material just isn’t that interesting.  Whatever the reason for me not enjoying the film, that has nothing to do with the tour-de-force performances the two lead actresses – Meryl Streep & Julia Roberts – put on.

The film, based around the life of Violet Weston (Streep) and how that life is falling apart following the suicide of her long time husband (Sam Shepard).  The film takes place largely in the house the Weston’s grew up in on the plains of Oklahoma where the entire family gets together following the father’s death.  The Weston family is probably the most dysfunctional family I’ve ever seen on film.  What transpires through the 2 hours 10 minutes running time is a lot of yelling, crying, talking, and finding out that your cousins just may be your brothers and sisters.  Your typical Oklahoma setting, I guess.

Julia Roberts’ return to prominence is on display here and she’s pretty magnificent as the eldest daughter trying her damnedest to maintain the family control battle, but losing the war.   The other actors in the film – and there are a ton of stars here – pull up the slack made from the rest of the plot.  Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper turn in especially great performances.  Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, and Abigail Breslin round out the rest of the cast.

John Wells doesn’t really have to do much directing with the star power going on in Osage County, other than maybe camera placement.   It’s a heavy-handed affair but August: Osage County may be worth seeing for the star power alone, but be prepared to get slapped in the face with the most dramatic BS you’ve seen in quite some time.

 

‘Lone Survivor’ review

Posted: January 3, 2014 in Movies, Reviews

A film based off of a true story involving U.S. Navy SEALS being ambushed and brutally attacked is usually a recipe for disaster if your movie isn’t named Black Hawk Down.  However, Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, which depicts the actual events of “Operation Red Wings”, takes a grisly formula and mostly delivers with it.  Operation Red Wings dealt with four U.S. Navy SEAL team members stranded on an Afghanistan mountain with no radio amidst hundreds of Taliban soldiers.  Ultimately, like the film’s title suggests, there was only one survivor – but everything that happened over the course of the operation was disaster upon disaster.  To this day it’s one of the most deadly operations the United States military as faced since being in Afghanistan.

The film stars Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster as the four Navy SEAL team members during the operation.  While Wahlber is the ultimate star of the film, it’s Foster and Hirsch that steal the show as they get lost in their roles.  In my humble opinion, Ben Foster is one of Hollywood’s best actors but for whatever reason he’s never gotten his due and has pretty much faded into becoming at best, a supporting actor.  Hirsch is in the same boat, a great actor that was once seen as Hollywood’s next big thing – only to fade into oblivion.  While all that may be true, Peter Berg resurrects both of their careers with these performances.  Kitsch is a Berg alum, as he starred in Berg’s first big budget feature film Battleship, and he’s pretty much going through the motions here but all the actors display a wide array of emotions when the bullets start flying.

Lone Survivor is a different military survival film as we’ve never really seen a movie explore the aspect of U.S. military personnel fighting for their lives on a mountain and the perils they face.  For instance, there are several scenes throughout the film where the four SEAL members have to jump off a cliff of rocks only to land on more rocks.  It’s completely brutal and some scenes are very cringe worthy.  However, the grisly images are never distasteful and you never get the sense that Berg is just punishing these characters.  A friend of mine compared the film to Tears of the Sun (2003) starring Bruce Willis in another true U.S. military operation gone awry, but the outcome isn’t the same, and with Tears of the Sun you never got Willis’ full acting range.  With Lone Survivor you get the sense that these actors are being genuine in their portrayal.

The story shifts once Wahlberg is the last remaining SEAL alive and he’s rescued by an Afghanistan farmer and taken to his village.  The story becomes that of good vs. evil, instead of merely survival.  While the movie essentially becomes two different sub-genres, it’s told rather well and the actors who play the Afghanistan villagers do so rather well.  By the time the movie ends you never get the sense that the story was all for nothing.  Sure, there are some questionable dialogue choices towards the end and there isn’t really a main villain (as opposed to the main villain being the Taliban), but the journey is more about survival and taking a leap of faith rather than defeating any one single man.

Lone Survivor isn’t going to be remembered as any great war film but it will have its place in your Mark Wahlberg collection.

‘Frozen’ review

Posted: December 22, 2013 in Movies, Reviews

It’s been quite a while since Disney Animation Studios has put out a film that is worth of the title “classic”, however, the studio’s latest animated film Frozen is made of stuff that the guys over at Pixar would be jealous of.

Frozen is a coming of age story about two sisters, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), who are princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle – a lush land built around summer and surrounded by water.  Elsa, the older of the sisters, has the power of winter at her touch and as a young girl accidentally endangers the life of her younger sister.  After the scare, the King and Queen of Arendelle decide that Elsa is a danger not only to herself but to the entire royal family and even kingdom, so she’s given a pair of gloves and is shut off from the rest of the world.  After years pass and a tragic accident involving the King and Queen, Elsa assumes the role of Queen of Arendelle.  There is a coronation scheduled for Elsa that the entire kingdom is invited to and the castle’s doors are being opened for the first time in years.  Anna is the happy-go-lucky sister that wants nothing more than to experience life as its presented with no regrets.  She meets a handsome prince, Hans (Santino Fontana), who she falls madly in love with and wants to marry right away.  Anna, being Anna, goes to Elsa after the coronation requesting her blessing for their marriage, to which Elsa denies.  This only angers Anna who yells at Elsa, which angers Elsa, and sets off an eternal winter in the kingdom.   Now, of course I’m being extremely vague for a reason, but that’s the plot synopsis in a nutshell.

What makes Frozen a great Disney film, and a great film in general, is that it takes the cookie cutter Disney princess mold and shatters it completely.  Anna is the first Disney princess that is, perhaps, too down to Earth.  She’s too free-spirited.  However, it’s her fire, passion, and love for her sister that drives the film and recreates the mantra of “true love”.  Disney has brainwashed little girls everywhere that princesses fall in love with prince Charming and it’s consummated with “true love’s kiss”.  It’s that tag line that Frozen exploits for the first two-thirds of the film and then throws it right in your face with a twist that you’re going to love.

Disney has always had a knack for family storytelling, but they’ve never ventured to the “true love” aspect that can only be occupied by someone with your blood.  Anna and Elsa’s relationship is extremely rocky but you understand both sides and where they’re coming from.  You understand why Anna only wants to be Elsa’s bestfriend, you also understand why Elsa feels she has to put as much distance between herself and her sister.  Anna’s journey to reconnect with her sister and save her kingdom is something that Pixar missed the chance to establish with their last animated feature, Brave.   Merida’s strong-willed independence only endangered her kingdom but the rekindling relationship with her mother  never seemed genuine.  Brave wanted to establish Merida’s independently free spirit but then they switched it up and wanted to explore Merida’s rocky relationship with her mother.  It didn’t work, and the film suffered because of it.   With Frozen, the relationship between Anna and Elsa is established in the film’s first scenes and is explored throughout the film.  It’s genuine and the writing reflects the film’s emotions.

Frozen‘s supporting characters are also one of the film’s greatest aspects.  Anna meets Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a young, handsome ice-trader who’s best friend is his pet reindeer, Sven.  Kristoff is the sturdy male character that accompanies Anna on her journey through the snow-plotted mountains, but he also comes across as genuine with his feelings for Sven, towards Anna, and why he’s on this journey with her.  Anna and Kristoff also encounter a magical snowman, created by Elsa, named Olaf (Josh Gad), who serves as the film’s “funny” character but Olaf’s purpose is genuine too.  Olaf is the creation of Elsa due to her memories as a child with Anna playing in the snow building snowmen.  After Elsa almost kills Anna as a child, Anna’s memory’s were erased and she never remembered those times with her sister.  Olaf is the constant reminder that Elsa and Anna had always been bestfriend’s, even if one of them didn’t want that relationship anymore and one of the them couldn’t remember the relationship.  Josh Gad, who voices Olaf, shows off his singing chops as well as his comedic timing.  Just about every major character introduced in this animated film is perfectly written and most excellently cast.

Kristen Bell is a force as a leading voice actress, but it’s Idina Menzel’s voice who completely steals the show.  You probably wouldn’t recognize Menzel if you saw her in a film (she’s been a reoccurring character on Glee) but her voice is unmistakable, especially when she’s belting notes.  Her song in the film “Let It Go” may be one of the best Disney songs we’ve received since Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”.

I took my daughters to see Frozen this weekend and instantly felt gratification because the story preached family love over needing that “prince Charming” love.  It’s refreshing to see, honestly, and I’m probably going to take my daughter to see it again.  I’d recommend you do the same.