Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Birdman Review

“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” 

That line, said by Edward Norton during a heated exchange with Michael Keaton tells you all you need to know about Birdman. This is, essentially, a super-hero movie that despises super-hero movies and the trappings that go along with them. 

Twenty-Five years ago Michael Keaton lit up the screen as The Dark Knight in Tim Burton’s Batman, a role that went on to define his career whether he liked it or not. Fast-forward to 2014 and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Keaton is playing a fictionalized version of himself, trying to right the damage done by playing such a famous character. Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a once blockbuster-headlining superstar with one last chance at legitimacy as an actor. The man has sunk every last penny into a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and as the film starts, is at his wit’s end dealing with bad actors, a problematic daughter and oh yeah, the constant heckling from Birdman, the voice inside Riggan’s head.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Birdman, is a tough nut to crack. He’s previously shown a great ability to tell a globe-spanning tale of interconnected misery with his 2006 opus Babel. Here the misery and redemption is not globe-spanning but instead confined to a two block radius around the storied St. James Theatre in New York City. Iñárritu shows that he has an ear for great dialogue and is able to get some arresting performances from his cast. This is in thanks to some heartbreaking monologues where the actors/characters are able to bare their souls. Various subjects such as ego and obsession are touched upon with a grace (some would say heavy handedness), that approaches an ethereal quality that isn’t unwelcome in the least. This is a director who will constantly surprise you with the stories he chooses to tell.

Just so I don’t come off like a broken record from here on out, everyone in the cast is doing career best work. Keaton in particular is masterful as the on-the-cusp of redemption Riggan Thompson. He’s proven himself as a fine actor before in films like the underrated Game 6 and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but here he has upped his game into the stratosphere, giving his best performance yet. Filled with conviction and an indelible sadness, his is one of the towering performances of a year filled with great ones. The supporting cast is also one of the strongest you’ll see in theaters in 2014 as well. Emma Stone deserves particular praise for her portrayal of Riggan’s daughter, a fresh out of rehab twenty-something hiding a world of anguish behind her eyes. She’s truly given the opportunity to shine in Birdman, giving one of the strongest performances in the film outside of Keaton. Pathos that was only teased elsewhere in previous roles really comes to the fore.

The rest of the cast is aces as well, from Zach Galifianakas turning in a fine dramatic performance to Naomi Watts dazzling as always. Her character in particular has some strong moments and she hasn’t been this heartbreaking since 2001’s Mulholland Drive. The real star of the supporting cast, when it comes right down to it, has got to be Edward Norton. Playing a Broadway actor who is so full of himself he can be downright painful, Norton plays the role he was born to play: Himself. Few actors would have the courage to play an exaggerated version of themselves, especially when the character is so vile and Norton deserves some respect for even going through with it.

On a technical level Birdman is a masterclass. From the pounding drum score to the seamless editing, it’s a marvel. Emmanuel Lubezki is having an absolute field day here with his camera. Filmed and edited to resemble one continuous shot, the cinematography can be jarring at first but settles into a steady rhythm before long. Taking his sweeping camerawork he employed and won an Oscar for in Gravity and using it in the enclosed space of a Broadway theater is an inspired choice. Lubezki is a cinematographer with an eye for beauty in even the ugliest situations as evidenced by his previous work with directors Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) and Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and his work here reaches the same great heights as before.

An existential super-hero film if anything else, Birdman is one of the best films of the year. A great behind the scenes look into the world of Broadway and the way super-hero films can ruin the lives of those who star in them, this is a film that should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in strange, unique stories. Breathtaking from start to finish and a truly surreal experience, Birdman is one of a kind and a high point for the Fall movie season.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Halloween Review

Though not the first slasher film (Texas, Psycho and Peeping Tom came before it), John Carpenter’s 1978 masterwork drew the blueprint that every subsequent slasher would abide by. A simple story of a babysitter and her night with the embodiment of evil is great example of indie filmmaking and what a small budget can produce. Michael Myers is the stuff of nightmares.

Featuring gorgeous cinematography by Dean Cundey and a no-nonsense pace thanks to Carpenter’s sharp screenplay, Halloween is a classic in the genre for a reason. Jamie Lee Curtis shines as the young Laurie Strode with a scream most horror actresses would sell their soul for and Donald Pleasence is a pure delight in his signature role as Dr. Sam Loomis, Michael’s former psychiatrist. Halloween is the rare slasher with characters you can both relate to and enjoy thanks to the performances that “totally” bring them to life. 

Surprisingly bloodless, like most great horror films it’s what you don’t see that really gets to you. Sure, there are murders aplenty but the lack of gore, much like in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre four years prior, only adds to the mounting dread and tension. Aside from The Thing, this is John Carpenter’s crowning achievement as a director and the king of all slasher films.

The Shining Review

Derided upon release as slow-paced, boring and far too removed from the source material, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror has steadily grown in stature ever since. A far superior version of Stephen King’s original story, Kubrick’s version has been analyzed to death since release but suffice to say it’s one of the most unsettling and disturbing family stories ever made. 

A master of mood and style, Kubrick’s film is flawlessly made. From methodical steadicam shots through the halls of the Overlook Hotel to the barrage of terror that Shelley Duvall endures in the film’s final act, The Shining checks off every asset that makes a horror film effective and adds even more. Jack Nicholson may seem unhinged from the start but that’s a moot point, his is a singular performance and the movie as a whole would’ve been lesser without that menacing stare present in almost every scene. 

There’s palpable dread throughout and it’s brought to vivid life thanks to Kubrick. Horror and the haunted house sub-genre of it would be lesser without his contribution and all we can do is thank him for it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Movie Review: All That Jazz

Biopics tend to get a bad rap and for good reason as it can be close to impossible to fit an individual’s entire life into two hours of film. However, when something like Bob Fosse’s “auto-biopic” comes along, it throws conventional criticism of the genre out the window. All That Jazz, a thinly veiled autobiographical telling of Fosse’s life, is like no film you have ever seen before; a ‘musical that isn’t a musical’ that’s both visually and thematically stunning with towering production values and performances from all involved.

All That Jazz tells the story of Broadway/Film director Joe Gideon, played by Roy Scheider in a career best performance, as he simultaneously juggles directing a musical, editing a film, a crippling pill addiction and multiple women all while recalling his entire life to the Angel of Death. If that sounds like it’s all too much to take in on one viewing, it isn’t. Fosse’s direction makes everything apparent and easy to follow as he intertwines stunning visuals that don’t regulate themselves to the numerous dream sequences. This is a gorgeous film throughout thanks to Fosse’s keen eye and Giuseppe Rotunno’s Oscar nominated cinematography, aided by the director’s signature choreography, especially in the rehearsal sequence for a scandalous musical number that is the centerpiece of the film.  

Gideon’s discussions with Death, a stunning Jessica Lange, though jarring at first become second nature and a window into Gideon/Fosse’s past. Like every other woman in Gideon’s life, he flirts with Death both metaphorically and literally. Gideon is a force to be reckoned with and from the way the film tells it, Death, or at least the fear of Death, is the only thing that can possibly keep him in check. It never does though, since even when he’s in a hospital bed he’s still flirting, smoking and working on his two productions. Nothing can stop this man from producing art and like most tortured souls it does indeed take its toll.

Though he does carry the bulk of the film, this isn’t just the Roy Scheider show, the cast that surrounds him is stellar as well. Leland Palmer is great as Gideon’s ex-wife and mother to his child, playing the lead in the Broadway production. There’s a sadness and dedication in her performance that mirrors Fosse’s real-life ex-wife Gwen Verdon’s situation at the time. In terms of the supporting actors, Ann Reinking might be the best on display here. Playing Gideon’s live-in girlfriend, Kate Jagger, she clearly is pulling a lot from her personal experiences, since at the time she was Bob Fosse’s real-life girlfriend. Her arc is heartbreaking at times as she’s clearly playing herself and is outmatched by Gideon’s towering personality and ego.

It’s almost shocking to watch a 35 year old film that has such a brisk pace, predating the quick-cuts of Edgar Wright and Tarantino’s films by decades. Alan Heim, who had previously worked with the director on Lenny and would edit Star 80 (Fosse’s final film), won a well deserved Oscar for All That Jazz. Seeing as how this was up against a power-house like Apocalypse Now, it’s quite telling that Heim’s then unheard-of edits were recognized as revolutionary even at the time. It’s a key part of the experience and will leave a strong impression on anyone even the least bit interested in filmmaking.

Much has been written about how this movie along with Cabaret, for which Fosse won Best Director, are his crowning achievements as a filmmaker and it’s difficult to dispute that fact. I for one would have to side with All That Jazz as the better of the two since it comes from a far more personal space and isn’t an adaptation of a previous work. This is a legendary film and for a reason, though fanciful at times it all seems real, almost too real. Scheider knocks it out of the park with one of the best screen performances of all time and although he’s not the most likable character, you definitely feel for him towards the end of the picture.

The movie begins with Gideon’s morning routine which ends with his mantra, “It’s showtime, folks.” It’s a scene that recurs throughout the film, each time faster than the last (matching Gideon’s deterioration), as a sort of affirmation, Gideon and therefore Fosse are constantly putting on a show that they hope can get them through the day. This also brings into discussion that perhaps Fosse was a little too easy on himself with All That Jazz, as by most accounts he was even worse than Gideon when it came to his vices when he was in his prime. In the end that’s of little consequence as the end result is one of the best films of the 1970’s and the pinnacle of Bob Fosse’s brilliance as a director.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Sacrament

In recent years, Ti West has become one of the best directors in horror and his latest film, The Sacrament, further cements that point. A fictionalized retelling of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where 909 members of that church lost their lives in a mass suicide, The Sacrament follows a Vice Media news crew to the community of Eden Parish.

Since the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, the sub-genre of horror known as 'found footage' has been used repeatedly by a multitude of directors to varying degrees of success. For every victory like Blair Witch there's a disaster in the form of Romero's Diary of the Dead, it's a technique that allows films with modest budgets to really make an impact on the genre. That impact can vary however when a mediocre script or director tries to utilize 'found footage,' luckily Ti West is a master of slow-burn suspense and he lifts the maligned genre to great heights with The Sacrament.

A horror film, to be truly effective, needs a believable premise and the fact that Vice Media allowed the production to use their name was a smart move. The Vice integration allows the 'found footage' to actually make sense as The Sacrament is filmed more like a professional news report/documentary than anything else. There is some slick cinematography on display thanks to Eric Robbins who worked with West previously on The Roost, his first feature from 2005. The Sacrament looks like it was shot professionally, just like a news broadcast, another rarity for this horror sub-genre. 

Cast members from West's previous projects return as well, all giving stellar performances. AJ Bowen makes a great horror lead and his character has depth that most other films would love to have. Amy Semeitz carries over some of her "crazy eye" from 2013's Upstream Color and impresses here as Caroline, the initial cause for Vice's trip to Eden Parish. West knows how to choose a cast and it shows since even the smallest of parts are played with convincing performances across the board which leads to Gene Jones as Father.

One of the creepiest and strongest performances in a horror film in ages, Gene Jones commands the screen whenever he's present. His reveal is teased throughout the first act of the film via ominous loudspeaker announcements that are both welcoming and unnerving, adding to the power of his presence at a gathering of the entire congregation. When Jones finally takes to the screen, it's through a ten minute interview scene that under a lesser director would grind the film to a halt. Here, however, it only adds to the tension and sense of foreboding that Eden Parish isn't what it seems.

This interview is terrifying from a secular viewpoint; the members of the Parish are true followers and believers in Father and the film knows how to key in on that type of mania. Jones commands the crowd with a fervor, constantly seeking and demanding his follower's approval, while ignoring Bowen's questions and giving typical roundabout answers. His performance is convincing in a way that gets to the core value of a great horror villain. Like the best character actors, you just can't take your eyes off of him once he's on screen. It's one of the best performances in years and not just in the horror genre, this is one for the ages.

Once things get real, West ratchets up the tension like an old pro. His past two features; The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers were where he proved he's one of the best of the new school of horror directors. It only makes sense that a director like Eli Roth (Hostel) would take an interest and agree to produce The Sacrament. Those films were incredibly stylish in regard to cinematography and mood and this is no different. West finds a way to make this style his own producing one of the best of it's kind in years, maybe even the best since The Blair Witch Project. 

'Found footage' has been used to death in recent years as a way to make a horror movie on the cheap. So much so, that audiences have begun to grow weary of the once popular format and yet West with his eye for strong characters and mood hits the nail on the head. This is 'found footage' done right that shows that in capable hands can stand up to traditional techniques. As long as the story is compelling and well written, genre films like this can stand toe to toe with the best horror has to offer.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Movie Review: Witness

A classic thriller/romance from director Peter Weir featuring one of the best performances of Harrison Ford's career. The story of a police officer on the run from crooked cops who takes shelter in Amish Country, this is a touching and intense film.

Mention Harrison Ford and most people automatically think of Indiana Jones, Han Solo or Rick Deckard. In a perfect world, the first name out of their mouths would be John Book, his character in this film. Rarely before or since has Ford shown such skill as an actor, the emotion on display is simply staggering. 

Other than the score, which is very 80's, the movie flows without a hitch. An impeccable, Oscar winning screenplay by Earl W. Wallace keeps the pace running at a healthy speed and the direction by Peter Weir is understated but effective. Featuring a great supporting cast featuring Kelly McGillis and Lukas Haas, the world building that Weir accomplishes is simply top-notch.

One of the great masterpieces of the 80's as well as Weir and Ford's careers, I can't recommend Witness enough.

Monday, May 26, 2014

From the Vault: Planet of the Apes

An ingenious, thought-provoking science-fiction film that holds up over 40 years after its initial release, Planet of the Apes is a cinematic experience like none other in film before it. Spurred from the mind of producer Arthur Jacobs with a script by Rod Serling, it’s a classic “new kid in town” story where the “new kid” just so happens to be played by Charlton Heston and the “town” is an alien world controlled by super-intelligent apes.
Heston plays Taylor, an American astronaut who crash lands on an Earth-like planet after years of hibernation during his crew’s journey through space. Joined in the early parts of the film by two fellow astronauts, they eventually come upon some primitive human beings who behave more like cavemen than anything else. Soon they become hunted by several gorilla warriors and Heston is taken captive and held prisoner in Ape City.
Heston gives a particularly interesting performance considering his Hollywood stature at the time. Used to playing capable hero types, this time around he’s treated more or less like an animal in captivity and ends up giving one of his more memorable turns as an actor, marred only by a few “over the top” moments. As good as Heston is, even better are Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as Cornelius and Zira, the chimpanzee scientists who take Taylor under their wing when they find he’s far more advanced than any human they’ve encountered. McDowall and Hunter have a great chemistry together, you really believe that they’ve known and worked together for the longest time, mostly evident during the trial/inquisition scene.
Maurice Evans plays a perfect villain in the form of orangutan scholar Dr. Zaius, bringing a menace to the role that's unsettling at times. Dr. Zaius and his beliefs are also where a lot of the real world issues come in to play, issues that are still relevant in 2014. From separation of church and state, racial and sexual equality, unfair trials and overreaching/controlling governments, all are just as relatable as they were in 1968. I was pleasantly surprised with the realization while watching the film, that I came to sympathize with Hunter’s Zira the most, her being the scientist under religious duress by Zaius.
Modern audiences might be turned off by the lack of action or computer generated effects, but those with a love for the old-school will find a lot to appreciate here. The Oscar winning makeup effects by John Chambers are a sight to behold and are still very effective to the point of having to do a double-take every now and then to make sure that those are really people underneath all that latex. Later make-up artists owe a lot to Chambers’ work on this film and it’s great to see makeup from over 40 years ago still look so damn convincing. On the action side, the few scenes that contain it, specifically the early hunting sequence, are impressively staged and edited together and add quite the amount of thrills to the film.
Planet of the Apes is a definite classic of science-fiction and had it not been for the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a few months later, would have been the crowning achievement for the genre in the 1960’s. For fans, it more than warrants a revisit, if however, you’ve never seen this masterpiece, I urge you to track it down as being disappointed is a hefty challenge.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Top 20 Films of 2013

This article is a long time coming and I apologize for its tardiness. Sometimes life gets in the way and until recently I haven’t had the chance to sit down and compile this list. I saw many films in 2013, so much so that the original idea for a Top 10 had to be expanded to a Top 20. So without further ado, please to enjoy my Top 20 favorite films of 2013.

20. Mud - A great coming of age story from director Jeff Nichols.  Matthew McConaughey rocks the screen as the title character, a drifter with a price on his head who befriends two teenagers. Tye Sheridan gives one of the best performances by a young actor in recent years and one can only hope he stays on this path of choosing roles in great films.

19. Stoker - One of the most intense and strange family dramas I've ever seen. Stoker, the first English language film from Chan-wook Park, is a sight to behold with beautiful cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung that makes this a very rich experience. Mia Wasikowska gives a truly disturbing performance as a young girl meeting her estranged uncle for the first time and Matthew Goode delivers as well as the aforementioned uncle in one of his best roles yet. Oh and Nicole Kidman is pretty great too!

18. Behind The Candelabra - Steven Soderbergh's alleged final film is nothing less than fabulous. The sometimes dark story of Liberace's doomed relationship with Scott Thorson, this is a tale of glitz, glamour, extravagance and not knowing when to stop. Featuring gorgeous cinematography by Soderbergh and one of Michael Douglas's best performances, Behind The Candelabra is a gaudy topper to the director's illustrious career.

17. The Counselor - Director Ridley Scott and novelist Cormac McCarthy teamed up for this marathon of awful situations and the results are maddeningly beautiful. Like a McCarthy novel come to life, the characters wax philosophical on life, the universe and everything with dialogue too wordy to be realistic but just enough to be surreal. This is an absolutely crazy film that needs to be seen at least twice. The Extended Director's Cut is much more fleshed out when it comes to the story and is a more cohesive film overall. Fun turns from Bardem and Cameron Diaz make this a disturbing yet enthralling experience.

16. Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coen Brothers tackle early 60's Greenwich Village and succeed triumphantly. Like other Coen films, Inside Llewyn Davis is filled with awkward characters doing awkward things, yet not to the point of parody but to the point of deep sympathy. The film may not be a perfect representation of the early folk scene in New York but it's definitely the Coen's perfect representation. Solid performances, great music and never ending circle of terrible situations, this is the Coen Brothers doing what they do best.

15. Spring Breakers - I've never seen a film from Harmony Korine before Spring Breakers and from what I've heard, I probably shouldn't. This film is an imperfect beast of crime and satire as well as a smart takedown of the youth culture it was marketed towards. James Franco gave one of the strangest and most mesmerizing performances of the year as gangster rapper/drug dealer/pimp/entrepreneur Alien, who takes four party girls under his wing. I was never not entertained by him from the tour of his house to an impromptu performance of 'Everytime' by Britney Spears, his was one of the best supporting performances of the year. Spring break forever, y'all.

14. 12 Years a Slave - Steve McQueen's harrowing third feature film is a powerful reminder of our country's past. I'd like to believe that most people would understand how wretched and disgusting the practice of slavery is, but if for some reason they don't, they should see this film. Ejiofor and Fassbender are great as expected but Lupita Nyongo was the true standout for me, her character, constantly abused and put through torture both physical and psychological was heart-breaking. This film should be seen not just for the powerful story but for the deft screenplay, gorgeous cinematography and pitch-perfect direction.

13. The Grandmaster (Chinese Cut) - It seems that every few years we get a martial arts film that takes the genre to a whole other level, in 2013, Wong-Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster was that film. Telling the story of Ip-Man, the legendary master of Bruce Lee, the movie, while not a typical biopic in any sense, takes the viewer on a journey of beauty and overall darkness as we follow Ip through most of his life. The cinematography on display is mesmerizing and the setting actually brought to mind Ang Lee’s criminally underseen Lust: Caution. Performances are excellent, especially from Tony Leung as Ip-Man and the always beautiful Ziyi Zhang as the daughter of a martial arts master. Zhang might be the best part of the film, with a character that is at times menacing and heartbreaking. I’d highly recommend staying away from the Weinstein/American edit of The Grandmaster, as many important plot points were lost on the cutting room floor and the shorter length greatly decreases the film’s impact.

12. Frances Ha - With Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created a character that could be considered the epitome of a “poor soul” but one that you can’t help but root for. Sure, all of her troubles are basically brought on by selfishness and a false sense of personal worth, but in the end, like all good characters, she finds a perfect middle ground. I first heard about Frances Ha on Twitter where critics were both praising and bashing it in equal measure, and after watching it three times in one weekend I joined the former. This is a film of boundless energy and comedy with characters who truly grow on you as the runtime progresses. Gerwig gave one of the best performances of 2013 and it’s a shame she didn't get more recognition for her work. Frances herself may be eternally “undateable” but the film itself is anything but. Oh and the soundtrack is absolutely lovely.

11. The Conjuring - Director James Wan is no stranger to the horror genre having basically kick-started the “torture-porn” craze of the early 00’s, but The Conjuring, his based on true events tale of paranormal investigators the Warrens is another beast entirely. Perfectly shot by cinematographer John Leonetti, this is a horror film more in sync with 1970’s classics like The Exorcist or The Omen, with characters you actually care about as opposed to the typical victims found in modern genre films. That Wan was able to capture the vibe of the period so faithfully and bring this story to the screen with such clarity is a pure joy. The scares are effective, well earned and never cheap and the duo of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson give the best performances of their respective careers.

10. Pain & Gain - A few years ago, if you had told me that Michael Bay was going to make one of my favorite films of 2013, I would have said you were insane and recommended a mental health professional. Happily, that would have been folly, as Michael Bay has indeed done just that. Based on a true story, I see a theme developing for this Top 20, Pain & Gain goes through the tale of a few muscle-headed dolts who decide to kidnap and rob a rich client for all he’s worth. With an Oscar worthy performance from Dwayne Johnson as well as a fine leading turn from Mark Wahlberg, Pain & Gain brings the laughs and action that are expected from Michael Bay, except in a whole new package. This, unlike most of his other movies, is an actual film, one that entertains and overall is his absolute crowning achievement as a director.

9. The Wind Rises - If it’s true that Hiyao Miyazaki has left us with The Wind Rises as his final film, we should all be happy with the gift. What struck me with this film was that unlike earlier Miyazaki pictures, there was almost no need for this to be animated at all, this could easily have been live-action through and through. A Kurosawa film in everything but name, The Wind Rises tells the captivating story of Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of the Zero Plane which was eventually used as a kamikaze plane during World War II, something that is not at all lost on the man. Hirokoshi, unlike other Miyazaki protagonists, is grounded firmly in reality and with the exception of a few dream sequences, rarely becomes anything larger than life. This is a beautiful film that is truly the best animated feature of 2013, if this really is Miyazaki’s farewell, he has left all of us with something special.

8. Rush - Knowing close to nothing about Formula One racing and the fact that the theatrical trailer seemed to tell the film’s entire story in a tidy three minute package, I figured Rush would be another Ron Howard snoozer. Thankfully, I was dead wrong as Rush turned out to be one of the best films from Howard in a long time. The true story of the 1976 F1 season where Niki Lauda and James Hunt fought to become the best racers in the world, Rush has everything you’d expect from a big Hollywood production and more. It also has something you might not expect, an Oscar worthy turn from Chris Hemsworth. What a delight it was to see him so dedicated to a character and actually showing some human emotions as opposed to hitting monsters with a mystical hammer. That’s not to diminish the performance of Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda, who more so than Hemsworth, embodies his character and gives a dynamite performance. Watching interviews with the real Lauda after watching Rush, I was floored by how well Brühl captured the persona of Lauda. Rush, in my estimation, is one of Ron Howard’s best films next to Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, it’s one that’s almost impossible not to enjoy.

7. American Hustle - David O. Russell’s American Hustle doesn't have much concern for its story in the long run, being more concerned with the characters and performances. Normally this would be a major turn off for me but when the characters are this interesting, I’m willing to give the film a pass. Until this film, I never thought Christian Bale would be able to top his performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and yet, here we are with the character of Irving Rosenfeld, a two-bit con artist who gets caught up in an FBI scandal. Bale throws himself entirely into the role completely transforming from his usual build and gaining close to 50 pounds, at first glance he’s barely recognizable. Rosenfeld, more than any of his other characters, is one you feel for throughout the entire movie. Russell knows how to work with actors more than he can handle a story these days it seems and I’m fine with that. Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Louis C.K. all give some of the best performances of their respective careers as well. From the excellent characters to the setting and costumes, American Hustle is simply a damn good time. Oh and that soundtrack? One of the best albums I've heard in ages, so many great hits in a small package. Plus, it has Electric Light Orchestra, so that’s always a plus.

6. Gravity - When does a film transcend its definition and become an “experience?” When that film is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. In the making for years, this space adventure shows loneliness in the sparsest of environments. Using state of the art cinematography and visual effects, Gravity is one of the most intense 90 minute rides in all of cinema. Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone gives a performance that’s so good that it completely makes up for her maudlin turn in The Blind Side. The musical score by Steven Price can be a bit too much at times, almost to the point of overwhelming the film, but in the end it does nothing to diminish the power of Cuaron’s vision. Outside of Kubrick’s 2001, I’ve never witnessed a more believable depiction of space, Gravity is an intensely great time that only improves on repeat viewings.

5. All Is Lost - Robert Redford gives one of the best performances of his long and storied career here, holding your attention with nothing but his presence. This is an actor at the top of his game, given a relatively dialogue free screenplay and commanding the screen through sheer talent. You truly feel for Our Man as one terrible situation after another comes his way; from the wayward shipping container that begins his plight to horrific storms and a malfunctioning radio, Redford is constantly overcoming one horrible situation after another. Described by some as Gravity on a boat, All Is Lost is far more effective than Alfonso Cuarón's film mostly because it's more relatable . Very few, if any of us will ever become astronauts but being stranded in the middle of nowhere here on earth is all too real and all too possible. Gravity was a very good film where All Is Lost is a great film, Chandor does more with so much less and the journey is all the more effective for it.

4. Captain Phillips - Paul Greengrass brings his trademark visual flair to Captain Phillips and along with a powerhouse performance from Tom Hanks, delivers one of the best action films in years. Too often, action movies will completely skip over the human drama that makes these conflicts interesting, luckily Phillips has that in spades. Thrilling from beginning to end and culminating in the finest ten minutes of Tom Hanks’s career, Captain Phillips is one of the most gut-wrenching and satisfying films I've seen in ages.

3. Her - This is a film that will make you look back on every failed relationship you've ever been a part of and perhaps even question your current one as well. People do change, we are not constant images. We evolve in our relationships and in life and that's what Jonze shows with brutal accuracy. Her will be dismissed by many as frivolous and hard to understand but I was floored once the credits rolled. This movie turned me into an emotional wreck like few other have in the past. Her is one of the best films of 2013 and one of the best romances you'll ever witness. A film that makes you question yourself almost as much as you question the film. I have a feeling that we are heading in the direction that Her presents and it will be an interesting and ultimately heartbreaking time to be alive.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street - Scorsese knocks it out of the park with his best film in years and his best collaboration with DiCaprio to date. The screenplay is sprawling and all encompassing but never falters. Featuring fantastic performances all around from Jonah Hill showing some great range to DiCaprio in his career best role, this film really has it all. Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long but you'd never know it. Thanks to Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker's deft hand in the editing room this feels like a brisk hour and 45 minutes at the most. I can't stop thinking about this film and I doubt I'll be able to stop for quite a while.

1. Nebraska - My absolute favorite film of 2013 and of course it comes from Alexander Payne. I’ve said this before but Payne’s films always seem to connect with me on a deeply personal level, he makes family films that are anything but typical. These are not your run of the mill Hollywood families that all get along, these are people that are rough around the edges and very true to life. Much like About Schmidt, Nebraska is a road movie concerning an aging father. Where Schmidt tackled the story of a newly retired salesman, here we have a fantastic character in the form of Woody Grant, perfectly portrayed by veteran Bruce Dern. Most people on their first watch won’t realize the subtlety Dern brings to the performance but under closer examination there are so many layers it becomes hard to keep track. Woody is a character that is only strengthened by the presence of his son David, played by Will Forte in a surprisingly effective dramatic turn for the MacGruber actor. Their interplay is the focal point of the film and the love and admiration that eventually surfaces between the two nearly brought me to tears. Nebraska is a beautiful film that everyone should see and it just might be Payne’s best film to date.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

MovieDrome: Episode One - Oscar Talk

Greetings and salutations! There's a new podcast on the streets and it goes by the name of MovieDrome. Within, you'll find the bi-weekly ramblings of myself and fellow film enthusiasts Samantha and Edwin, it's a grand old time sure to be enjoyed by all!

So check out our inaugural episode that premiered yesterday where we ran down our personal Oscar picks for last night's ceremony. How many did we get right? I'm not too sure because I'm awful at math. Check it out below and don't worry, an mp3 will be available very soon.

The next episode should be up this week where we'll discuss the winners as well as Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises.

Monday, February 3, 2014

An Appreciation of Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

"We are not helpless...and we are on a journey that risks the dark." - Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master

Yesterday at around 11am, my boyfriend and I had checked out of our hotel room and were starting the two hour drive back home. Our conversation turned to movies as usual and I randomly brought up the 2006 Oscar ceremony and the ridiculousness that was Crash winning Best Picture. After a quick search I found that it was up against Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich to which my boyfriend replied, "Wow, all those are better than Crash." This then led to me talking about the genius of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Capote as I'll take any opportunity to talk about how much I admire his work. Fast-forward a few hours and we're sitting down for lunch when I receive a single text from my best friend that read "Matt. Check the news." I did just that and immediately lost my appetite while having to fight off an emotional breakdown in the middle of a restaurant.

I'm not going to mince words, Philip Seymour Hoffman is my favorite actor of all time and his performances have left an indeliable impression on me. I've never seen a man on screen in my lifetime that truly gave himself to every role, no matter how small, and made it the most memorable part of any film he was in. I first noticed PSH, like many film buffs of my generation in the Paul Thomas Anderson film Boogie Nights as Scotty J, a gay boom mike operator who devastates himself and the audience by professing his attraction to porn star Dirk Diggler. The aftermath where Scotty is continually cursing himself as "a fucking idiot," has stuck with me for years. 

I next saw him in PT Anderson's Magnolia, which is still one of my all-time favorite films. PSH plays Phil Parma, a hospice nurse in the service of dying media magnate Earl Partridge, played in one of his last screen roles by Jason Robards. Hoffman brought a frankness and honesty to his role that was, like most of performances, very true to life and believable. When Parma is desperately trying to get in touch with Earl's estranged son Frank and constantly being put on hold, the tension is ratcheted up several notches through PSH's performance alone. 

Hoffman has always had strong bit parts in films, ranging from Twister ("Fooooood!") to his role as the Big Lebowski's faithful assistant Brandt ("Her life is in your hands, Dude."). These roles, while they could have been played by anyone, are made more memorable by the simple fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman embodied these characters so well, no matter how little screen time he was afforded. From a terrifying villain in the third Mission Impossible movie to a shady mattress salesman in Punch Drunk Love to an embattled priest in Doubt, PSH always gave performances that were to me at least, a punch in the gut, but a most satisfying and welcome punch.

In 2006, Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor for his transformative portrayal of the titular character in Bennett Miller's masterful Capote. The rare biopic that works as a cohesive film and requires no prior knowledge of its subject, Capote features one of the best performances of the last decade. This film is cold in the best sense of the word and PSH so owns the role that you almost forget it's him after a while. He truly became Truman Capote and basically carries the entire film on his shoulders, the film would have been a totally different beast with another actor in the lead. No one portrayed an outsider with more skill than PSH, his reaction to the local Kansans' stares get under your skin and remind me of the stares that anyone who's different can get from strangers.

As good as he was in Capote he truly elevated his game in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus The Master. Playing a loose approximation of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard in the form of Lancaster Dodd, PSH didn't so much steal every scene he was in, but commanded your attention instead. It's fitting that he starred in The Master because that's exactly what he was, a master of his craft. Dodd may very well have been his best performance in a career filled with "best performances," his subtle inflections and the pure conviction he brought to the role are nothing short of astounding. Lancaster Dodd was a character that was clearly fraught with many inner demons, and much like the actor himself, turned to substance abuse to try and fight them. Rewatching the film last night, the parallels between Lancaster Dodd the character and Philip Seymour Hoffman the man, in that aspect at least, became more apparent than ever.

It goes without saying that Hoffman left us far too young at the age of 46 and it's a shame we won't get to see him play the older roles he was meant for. It's pointless to bring up the circumstances of his death since they're so well known at this point but I will say this; addiction is a terrible thing and Philip Seymour Hoffman was not an "idiot" or "stupid" as many ignorant people have been saying. He was simply a man with a disease, a terrible disease that for one reason or another he couldn't cope with, and that's the real tragedy. I as well as many other film fans will miss him dearly. He was a unique talent in the medium and to think that he can be replaced is pure folly. Cinema as a whole has lost one of its most talented performers and films going forward will be lesser because of it. 

"More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." - Truman Capote

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Movie Review: All Is Lost


"I'm sorry... I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here..." - Our Man

And so begins the story of an unnamed man and his battle against nature. All Is Lost is a harrowing look at eight days in the life of a sailor and all the measures he takes to ensure his survival. Waking up from a nap to find his boat has been struck by a wayward shipping container, Our Man quickly finds himself on the offensive against Mother Nature leading to some of the most intense 100 minutes of 2013.

Robert Redford gives one of the best  performances of his long and storied career here, holding your attention with nothing but his presence. This is an actor at the top of his game, given a relatively dialogue free screenplay and commanding the screen through sheer talent. You truly feel for Our Man as one terrible situation after another comes his way; from the wayward shipping container that begins his plight to horrific storms and a malfunctioning radio, Redford is constantly overcoming one horrible situation after another.

J.C. Chandor's work behind the camera is astounding. Directing from his own screenplay, which was only about 30 pages long, Chandor impresses at every point. Though barely any words are spoken throughout the film, it's never boring which is a true credit to his talent as a filmmaker. All Is Lost is only his second film and judging from that we'll be able to enjoy his work for many years to come. 

Described by some as Gravity on a boat, All Is Lost is far more effective than Alfonso Cuarón's film mostly because it's more relatable. Very few, if any of us will ever become astronauts but being stranded in the middle of nowhere here on earth is all too real and all too possible. Gravity was a very good film, All Is Lost is a great film, Chandor does more with so much less and the journey is all the more effective for it.

A great story of survival with one of the single best performances of 2013, All Is Lost is a phenomenal experience.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Movie Review: Her

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves." - Samantha

It was only a matter of time before Her came to be. Go to any public place; a bar, coffee shop, park or even the mall, and you will see a multitude of people staring down at their smartphones. Her asks the question of what happens when our smartphones become intelligent beings who can actually listen to us, give advice and yes, fall in love.

Spike Jonze's Her tells the story of Theodore, played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix, a writer in the midst of a nasty divorce with Rooney Mara, who on a whim decides to switch to a new Operating System with artificial intelligence. This OS, which he names Samantha is played by Scarlett Johansson in one of the best voice acting performances I've ever heard. Theodore and Samantha make up one of the best film couples in cinematic history which is quite the feat since she isn't ever on screen. This relationship is at once outlandish but terribly believable, there's a real weight to their trials and tribulations that are on display here.

Jonze's vision of a near future Los Angeles is a sight to behold. There are no flying cars or jet packs, this is the future as any rational person would see it. From the clothes to the technology to the architecture on display, Jonze creates a world that is both science fiction and probable fact.

This is a film that will make you look back on every failed relationship you've ever been a part of and perhaps even question your current one as well. People do change, we are not constant images. We evolve in our relationships and in life and that's what Jonze shows with brutal accuracy. Her will be dismissed by many as frivolous and hard to understand but I was floored once the credits rolled. This movie turned me into an emotional wreck like few other have in the past.

Her is one of the best films of 2013 and one of the best romances you'll ever witness. A film that makes you question yourself almost as much as you question the film. I have a feeling that we are heading in the direction that Her presents and it will be an interesting and ultimately heartbreaking time to be alive.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers have always populated their worlds with awkward people doing awkward things, five minutes into Inside Llewyn Davis our lead is carrying a tabby cat through the streets of New York. So clearly they haven't lost their knack for the awkward.

The tale of a down on his luck folk singer "living" in 1961 Greenwich Village, Llewyn Davis is a man who doesn't seem awful by choice but by his circumstances. The perennial "guy on the couch" at various apartments throughout the city, Davis just can't seem to keep his mouth shut, which is bad since he only seems to spit venom at everyone trying to help him. There are times you're actively rooting for him to just be quiet so maybe something good will come his way but that's not who Llewyn is and this is a Coen Brothers film.

Film critic West Anthony once described the Coen's Fargo as "bad things happening to people at all times," and that's an apt description for this as well. Llewyn Davis just can't seem to catch a break no matter how much he tries. The sad thing is that he's actually a very talented singer with some good material, and I hate to go back to it but this is a Coen film, so that isn't going to get him anywhere.

The cast that's been assembled here is supremely talented and I was constantly impressed with the performances, every character no matter how small seems fleshed out even if they only get a few minutes of screen time. Oscar Issac is a revelation as the lead, bringing a believable sense of defeat and a fantastic singing voice. Carey Mulligan plays a woman scorned with crisp take-downs aimed at Davis. John Goodman on the other hand plays a cantankerous jazz pianist who always has something to say, very little of it nice, but he brings some great comedic levity to the shit-storm that is Davis's life. Also as usual, Justin Timberlake gives a solid performance as one of Davis's friends with a heart of gold.

Inside Llewyn Davis may not be a perfect representation of the early folk scene in New York but it's definitely the Coen's perfect representation. Solid performances, great music and never ending circle of terrible situations, this is the Coen Brothers doing what they do best.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

A colossal disappointment from one of my favorite directors, Pacific Rim is a wooden, anger inducing mess.

How could the man who made Pan's Labyrinth have anything to do with this? Nothing seems fleshed out beyond a rough sketch. Sure the monsters and robots look cool and it's some fun to watch them fight but the human element is nothing but cliches and catchphrases.

Charlie Hunnam is an absolutely atrocious lead here, with the range of a cardboard cut-out. I felt bad for his co-stars since he clearly brought nothing to the table.

Good special effects can't save this wreck from being anything other than C grade sci-fi.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Movie Review: Cronos

A dark, adult fairy tale from Guillermo Del Toro with fantastic makeup effects and performances.

The story of a kindly old antiques dealer who gets in way over his head with an immortality device, Cronos was Del Toro's first feature film. Though a bit rough around the edges, this is a film with a purpose that accomplishes what it sets out to do.

A one of a kind vampire film and undeniably raw, Del Toro does what he can with his budget to explore death and death after death. Not to give anything away but this film completely shifted gears in what I was expecting about half way through and I couldn't have been more pleased with what I saw.

Performances are enjoyable here including a delightfully unhinged performance by Ron Perlman as the villain's crazy, brutish nephew. Great praise should be reserved for Federico Luppi as Jeśus Gris, the lead protagonist, he brings a warmth to the role that was a nice touch. The relationship he has with his granddaughter Aurora is both believable and in the end quite sad.

A great debut from one of my favorite filmmakers and a wonderfully original vampire story, Cronos much like his later Pan's Labyrinth is a fairy tale even adults with enjoy.