Movie Watching (January, February, March 2015)

A college friend of mine, Joel Atkinson, started an off and on ritual a few years back.  On his Facebook page at a given months end, he would list the films he watched the previous month.  The various categories would be:  1)  Movies he saw in the theater.  2)  Movies he saw for the first time. 3)  Movies he rewatched.  At the end of the list, he would write his thoughts about the top 5 standout films he experienced.  Occasionally, he would trash a complete cinematic stinker.

This year, I thought I would partially plagiarize him.  Being that I love films and often write about them, I thought it would be interesting to record the movies I have seen and write some of my thoughts.  A kind-of cinematic journal if you will.

(Rating System is from * to *****)

January, February, and March:

The Immigrant- This James Gray film stars Marion Cotillard as Ewa who is a Polish-Catholic immigrant to Ellis Island in 1921. She arrives with her sister, Magda, who is taken away almost immediately and quarantined for tuberculosis.  Ewa, in a situation that grows more desperate, meets Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who takens advantage of her situation: tricking her into a life of vaudeville and burlesque shows.  Eventually, a magician (Jeremy Renner as Orlando) tries to save her and reunite her with her sister.  The atmosphere is rich in period detail.  The pace sometimes slow and given Ewa’s circumstances which are grave and unjust, her character is occasionally hard to believe in how she reacts to those circumstances.   *** (out of five stars)

I, Origins-An intriguing premise surrounds this movie as a philosophical materialist (graduate student Ian Gray played by Michael Pitt) seeks to prove the evolution of the human eye.  Thereby, he is trying to refute those creationists (or any believer in divine creation) and their teleological/design arguments.  Complications in his experiment occur when 7 years down the road, the hospital takes an iris scan of his son.  The scan reveals that his son may have identical eyes of a deceased man (perhaps a reincarnation or what?).  The film has grand ambitions and wants to dive deep into philosophical inquiry but the result feels muddled and underwhelming at the end.  The story almost doesn’t know where it wants to go and thematically, what exactly it wants to say.  ***

The Equalizer- Denzel Washington is a solid actor but he seems to, occasionally, have some problems in getting himself in good movies.  Now, he is one of the few gifted actors who can take a sub-par screenplay (John Q) and make the project watchable.  Here, he plays Robert McCall (this film obviously based on the 1980s TV series) channeling his inner-Jason Bourne to take on Russian mobsters.  He is a mysterious man with an unclear past and a sort of OCD loner.  The beginning of the film has a fairly good built up until things derail into action movie absurdity.  I like action movies and all, but we have seen a lot of this film before.  There are some style points as director Antoine Fuqua (who previously worked with Washington in “Training Day”) turns McCall into a blue-collar comic book esque character.  By the time we get to the climax, McCall is running around his hardware store dispensing of the bad guys.  Sadly, the end is unquestionably lame.  **1/2

The Imitation Game- I wrote about this film here.  “Imitation Game” is certainly Oscar-bait but the movie is well-made, has a strong performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and is a different World War II movie in the sense that the story doesn’t focus on combat but the behind-the-scenes race to break a German code.  ****

Left Behind- I was unfortunate enough to see the previous “Left Behind” incarnation which starred Kirk Cameron.  This rebooted rapture/apocalyptic disaster, starring Nicholas Cage in the Cameron role, makes the forebearer seem like a Hitchcockian masterpiece in comparison.  Please put aside the dubious theology which I wrote about awhile back and consider how epically awful director Vic Armstrong’s movie turns out to be.  Virtually the entire film is Cage, looking dreadfully bored, piloting an aircraft while the rapture occurs.  Filled with mind-numbing character clichés, atrocious dialogue and scenes that don’t make any sense, “Left Behind” is not even fun to watch.  I atleast thought I would be laughing at how stupid this movie would be.  I couldn’t even do that.  It is really bad.   *

The Motorcycle Diaries- Centered on the 1952 trip of a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his comrade, Alberto Granado.  They set off to discover “the real latin America” and the story tells of the formative years of the future communist revolutionary, Che.  No matter what we politically think of Che, this is a film that is profound in its plot simplicity and more complex in the observations of the societal and cultural encounters that Che and Alberto have on the road.  Walter Salles, who directed the film, tried to film at the actual locations as much as possible which adds an unique beauty to the proceedings.  ****

The Interview- The film that supposedly ramped up tensions and almost caused a pseudo-war with North Korea who were upset at Randall Park’s portrayal of President Kim (and the movie in general).  Park portrays President Kim as a fun-loving, frat boy leader with a serious temper and, of course, controlling-type tendencies.  James Franco (Dave Skylark) and Seth Rogen (Aaron Rapaport) are journalists, in collusion with the CIA, meeting with President Kim in North Korea under the guise of a “tell-all” interview.  Their plans are assassination. There are some really funny moments to the movie but occasionally, Rogen’s style of humor seems a little worn out.  Of course, the plot is ridiculous but the movie is self-aware of that fact.  Sony inexplicably cancelled the theatrical run after vague threats directed at movie theater chains and eventually released to streaming and on-demand services. In my humble opinion, considering all the free publicity and attention this movie received, the studio would have done quite well with a traditional theatrical run.  ***

Whiplash- Previously reviewed by me right here, this is one of the best movies of 2014.  A thought-provoking and wild thriller about an aspiring student and a hard-ass teacher (and that is putting it lightly) at a prestigious music school.  I could not recommend this film highly enough.  *****

Get On Up- James Brown is an iconic legend and the godfather of soul.  Chadwick Boseman gives an impeccable performance that was overlooked by virtually every acting awards ceremony.  Given those facts, what went wrong?  Well, just about everything else.  The flashbacks that the film uses to intercut different moments of Brown’s life are extremely distracting and take away from crucial moments.  Furthermore, there is an absurd lack narrative drama in the movie.  Moments of Brown’s life are reduced to episodes.  Admittedly, “Get On Up” was very well-received on, but I found the movie highly disappointing.  **

Take Shelter- A major under-the-radar film a few years back, “Take Shelter” has never received due props for great movie status.  Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon in a crazy solid performance) is a small town dad who begins receiving terrifying visions and dreams of a coming apocalyptic storm.  He starts by keeping these occurrences to himself and expanding an underground storm shelter in his backyard.  The film is effective at taking the audience inside LaForche’s mind:  is he a modern-day Noah receiving spiritual warnings of impending doom or is he mentally ill and subsequently, a danger to his wife Samantha (another great Jessica Chastain acting role) and his hearing impaired daughter Hannah?  The story holds the audience in that tension to a well-earned, surprising ending.  ****1/2

Training Day- The best acting Oscar award went to Denzel Washington for his villainous performance as Alonzo Harris- a corrupt narcotics detective.  The award was deserved but Ethan Hawke’s solid turn as rookie, Jake Hoyt, assigned to ride around Los Angeles with Harris is supremely overshadowed.  The acting is the primary reason to see this movie.  The story for three-quarters of the way is pretty good.  Harris takes Hoyt on a tour of the drug-filled streets of the City of Angels, arresting lawbreakers when he desires and slowly revealing his disturbing tendencies, as experience first-hand by Hoyt, of profiting off the crimes of which he is supposed to be issuing arrest warrants.  One wishes the ending were written better and gave these two powerhouse actors more of a compelling send off.  Michelle described the final fate of Harris as cartoon-y and ridiculous.  She is right.  *** 1/2

Gone Girl- David Fincher is one of the best directors working in Hollywood today and has been for some time.  His latest “Gone Girl” based on the Gillian Flynn book that I haven’t read is masterfully made, disturbing brilliant, and profoundly cynical at its core.  Ben Affleck (as Nick Dunne) is perfect as a sleazy husband who may have murdered his wife (Amy Dunne played by Rosamund Pike) or been instrumental in her disappearance.  I purposely tried to stay away from any description of this plot before watching the film.  Many of the twists and turns of this story are genuinely surprising.  This is not a high view of marriage but one that views the institution as a crafty game of manipulation.  A viewer may feel like taking a shower afterwards and they will not be able to deny the creepy effectiveness of the whole ordeal.  ****

Milk- I did not know a ton about civil rights activist Harvey Milk before I first saw Gus Van Sant’s big screen treatment of the mayor of Castro Street.  The biopic portrays Milk’s venture into political power through boycott’s of San Francisco businesses who would not serve gays, than into a politician and than tragically into a martyr for his cause.  The feel of the work is docudrama.  After watching the movie, it is really hard to imagine anyone other than Sean Penn playing this role.  His Harvey Milk is a supremely powerful performance (another well-deserved best acting Oscar win).   ****

Predestination- Just when I thought this film was going to be somewhat of a “Matrix” wannabe, I became surprised.  This is a truly unique motion picture starring Ethan Hawke as the Barkeep.  He is a temporal agent who is travelling back in time again and again in an effort to catch a notorious criminal who has eluded him.  Let’s just say that this film goes places one would never expect it to go.  Major points for originality.  However, I don’t know if the end holds up the preceding storyline from making much rational sense.  There are always logical problems with time-travel films and this one dashes way across those lines.  Still, incredibly interesting.  ***

127 Hours- While featuring an undeniably macabre act, there is a certain simplistic beauty to the filmed version of Aron Ralston’s struggle to survive in Canyonlands National Park after his right arm was trapped against a canyon wall by a falling boulder.  Writer and director Danny Boyle’s style illustrates Blue John Canyon’s scenery as Ralston (grippingly portrayed by James Franco) fights for his life.  The thematic elements are raw and simple:  a person’s will to live in the face of extraordinary adversity.  Franco, in pretty much a one man show, brings his character to life and the audience along with him.  Through flashbacks and visions of the future, Boyle keeps the circumstances interesting.  ****

The Drop- James Gandolfini (always Tony Soprano but here playing Cousin Marv) passed away one month after shooting ended on “The Drop”.  This is his final film release.  Bob Saginowski (played by Tom Hardy who is probably one breakout hit movie away from being a bonafide star) is a lonely bartender in Brooklyn involved with laundering cash for gangsters through the business.  There is a robbery of his bar that goes sideways and for the rest of the running time, thoughts and revelations about who is behind the robbery come fast and heavy.  There is not much about the movie that breaks any new ground but it is a decent film.  ***

Scoop- I try to set aside the alleged creepiness of Woody Allen’s personal life when checking out his movies.  I still have not seen too many out of his catalog especially when he releases a film about every year for decades now.  Hard to keep up.  “Scoop” is probably the most disappointing of Allen’s movies that I have seen.  The movie stars Scarlett Johansson (playing Sondra Pranksy), Hugh Jackman and Woody himself.  Johansson is an American journalism student who meets Allen’s character (Sid Waterman) on stage at one of his magic shows.  She becomes aware, through communication with the dead, that Hugh Jackman (playing Peter Lyman) is a murderer.  Johansson meets Jackman’s attractive aristocratic character and starts dating him.  In the limited Allen movies I have seen, there is definitely some recycled material here.  I also had a major problem with the plot.  If someone from the dead communicated with me about another person being a killer, I doubt I would want to spend a lot of alone time with them and that is what Johansson does here.  I’m not sure if Allen was trying to make some kind of statement about attraction pushes all other important factors aside in considering a relationship or what.  The story seemed to cruise on without trying to make an awful lot of sense.  **

The Theory of Everything- The Stephen Hawking biopic has been accused of hero worship.  I can report that is mostly the case here in James Marsh’s centered focus on Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones).  There is also some interludes on Hawking’s theories on black holes and striving toward a grand unified theory in physics and of course, his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  He introduces himself at the beginning of the film to Jane as a cosmologist.  She is not sure what that means and he explains it is a religion for non-believers.  Jane herself confesses she is a believer in God.  “The Theory of Everything” is good and there are some transcendent moments.  The movie seems a little tidy regarding the Hawkings marriage and it seems to quickly rush through the reasons for why the divorce happened which eventually led to Stephen getting remarried.  The film seems to carry their relationship as the focal of the picture and this seems like an unnecessary anchor.  In conclusion, I should say a word about Eddie Redmayne. His performance as Hawking is utterly brilliant in every sense of the word.  *** 1/2

The Homesman- Tommy Lee Jones is one of my favorites, not only as an actor but also as a director.  He orchestrated “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”- a profoundly brilliant film and the fascinating HBO drama “The Sunset Limited” where Jones and Samuel L Jackson debate God, philosophy, sin and other weighty subjects in one room for 91 minutes.  In “The Homesman”, Jones jumps back in the western saddle with Hilary Swank (playing Mary Bee Cuddy) and himself (as George Briggs) as they transport 3 women across the countryside who have been driven insane by pioneer life.  The film reminds us of the hardship of living during this period and a plot twist toward the end of the story is jaw dropping.  Occasionally slow-moving but all in all, a solid effort.  *** 1/2

Get Low- One can never go totally wrong with Bill Murray and in “Get Low” he is a relatively serious character (Frank Quinn, a funeral home director) who is hired by the local town hermit, Felix Bush (portrayed by Robert Duvall) to throw a “living” funeral.  Bush, before he kicks the bucket, wants to know what people will say about him at his funeral and as it turns out, desires to confess dark secrets of his past.  The film is as eccentric as the title character but that is a wonderful aspect.  This is a work that is funny, odd and moving but not annoyingly sentimental.  ****

Life Itself- To enjoy this documentary on the life of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert, one either has to love movies or the subject himself or ideally both.  I always enjoyed Ebert’s reviews even when I emphatically disagreed with him (“Fight Club” for instance).  Beyond the movie criticism, I also enjoyed his commentaries about life, politics or whatever else was on his mind (even though, I disagreed a fair amount there as well).  Watching “Life Itself” reminds us of how big of a loss Ebert’s passing was to the large world of people who love movies and make them.  The documentary goes back through episodes of his life, encounters with Gene Siskel on the set of “Siskel & Ebert”, and his final fight with thyroid cancer.  His striving to die with dignity and treating others with grace around him was very inspiring.  The documentary made me want to read his autobiography.  The movie is worth watching.  *** 1/2

Foxcatcher- One of the most disappointing movies I have watched recently is “Foxcatcher”.  The story is dark and based on the true story of the Olympic brother wrestling pair of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) who agree to train at millionaire John DuPont’s (Steve Carell) estate during the lead up to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.  The pacing of the movie is mind-numbingly slow.  When we finally get to the tragic circumstances of the end, I didn’t at all feel the story connected to DuPont’s motivations for doing what he did.  Sure, Carell is a pro in this role and nails the part but the screenplay does not develop what is, most likely, his mental illness.  Instead, we are left thinking this oddly, eccentric man committed a horrible crime at the end out of a context of complete randomness.  Maybe Bennett Miller (the director) was going for this feeling but it just doesn’t work when the rest of the movie seems overly laborious and detailed about other factors of the story.   ** 1/2

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day- I know things are bad when I spend most of an entire movie wondering what big stars like Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner are even doing in a film?  Case in point, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”.  I understand that some people may say this film is “cute” but that does not mean it is good.  Actually, the opposite of that I’m afraid.  Alexander has a bad day and then wishes his family would understand his horrible day by having a terrible day of their own.  Hence the plot.  Hence a bunch of wannabe slapstick that wants us to laugh.  We don’t.  * 1/2

The Broken Circle Breakdown- The premise of this movie was extremely interesting to me.  The execution, while adequate, not so much.  Don’t get me wrong.  The Belgium best foreign picture nominee of 2014 is well made and the acting very good.  Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) fall in love at first sight while she owns a tattoo parlor and he is in a bluegrass band.  They have a daughter together and tragedy strikes in their lives.  This is a profoundly depressing film.  My disappointment lies in the central beliefs of the characters and the subsequent development or lack thereof.  Didier is an atheist.  Elise is a religious realist (so she is billed and I’m not quite sure what that term means in the context of the film).  At any rate, the atheist’s reaction to the tragedy is developed well.  The “religious realist’s” reaction to the tragedy is not developed well in my view.  I wish there could have been more exploring of the nature of how an atheist and believer would respond to the same tragedy in their life but the story doesn’t go there.  *** 1/2

Nightcrawler- Jake Gyllenhaal out-creeps everything in this Los Angeles set look at the nature of the modern media and what draws eyeballs to the TV screens (thereby, keeping the ad revenue flowing).  Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom who uses his strong work ethic to hunt down crime scenes in LA and film the most graphic and up-close footage that he can of the victims.  The local news channel, including the presence of veteran producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) eats this footage up as the real-life bloodsport draws ratings.  Bloom creates his own business selling footage to the station and finds major success which pushes him more and more to blur the line between spectator and participant in the scenes he films.  Of course, a rather unsavory look at contemporary media practices.  The film however doesn’t just focus on the unsavoriness of Bloom but also implicates the audience who rewards individuals like this with our attention.  Dark, disturbing and pretty great.  **** 1/2

Rosewater- Jon Stewart, the comedic titan of the “The Daily Show” which he has just departed, enters the world of film directing with the very serious and true story of Mazir Bahari.  Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist, is detained in Iran under the suspicion he is a spy.  The movie is fairly good although the editing was an unfortunate distraction.  While Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) is in his jail cell, he has imaginery conversations with people and flashbacks into his past.  The way the movie is put together does not feel seamless in that regard.  Outside of that, there is not much to the movie other than Bahari being interrogated, sitting in a jail cell, and awaiting what his fate may be.  ***

St. Vincent- This is one great film and is a perfect showcase for the immense living legend that is Bill Murray.   Even when Murray’s accent fades in and out during the running time, he is still in prime form as Vincent, a war veteran and otherwise self-centered misanthrope.  Vincent ends up befriending Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) as he negotiates a babysitting fee with Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a divorced mom who lives next door.  The story sidesteps all the cliché pitfalls that it may have fallen in and winds up being both funny and genuinely moving.  Not only was Murray solid but McCarthy gives a serious performance that is one of her very best.  Highly recommended and one of the best of 2014.  **** 1/2

Under the Skin- Right off the bat, this is a maddening film to review and I’m not going to give “Under the Skin” a good review like most other critics have.  Sure, there is a ton of atmosphere in the movie that works.  The theme of gender roles is elusive most of the time but leaves a little for discussion.  Scarlett Johansson plays the female who drives through Scotland’s streets seeking out lonely men to…well…kill but otherwise, the purpose of the murders is not clear.  She is an alien and the story does a credible job of showing from this alien’s perspective the experiences of someone driving around Scotland and the people that are to be encountered.  She has a partner (Jeremy McWilliams) on a motorcycle that protects her and sets her up with what she needs.  Where are these two from?  Why are they stalking lonely men and melting them down?  There are plot points that are so inadequately explained that no amount of atmosphere can make up for.  The ending is very well filmed, suspenseful and haunting but there would have been so much more power with a little more story explanation.  ** 1/2


About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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