Friday, December 26, 2014

The Immigrant review

We all came here on boats, whether they be real or metaphorical. All of us, at one time or another, have known desperation. Defeat. Hunger. Pain. They are universal human emotions everyone can relate to on some level. Some have just experienced them on higher levels. We have all had family members leave us, but how many of us were there as they were taken, violently, away? James Gray's newest film, The Immigrant, understands hopeless desperation like few other motion pictures. It tells the story of Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cottilard), an poor woman from Poland who immigrates to America with her sister. Upon arrival, Ewa's sister is stripped away from her for tuberculosis treatment. A shadowy manipulative man named Bruno picks Ewa out from the crowd. He promises help for her and her sister. The spider has caught the fly. He is a pimp, and Ewa is his next prospect. Thus begins the epic dirge that is The Immigrant. A melancholy meditation on the American dream and everything that comes with it. Gray has learned from the great filmmakers of his past. Hints of early Coppola and Elia Kazan, even Scorsese are visible here. It is easy to tell how committed he is to make a solemn and sobering film that one of the names mentioned would have made in their prime. It seems like he is trying to make The Great American Film. Something to be looked back upon in wonder. It's his stoic commitment to that that is his downfall. The film sometimes comes across as stuffy and dreadfully solemn. Luckily, it recovers quickly. There are enough moments of gorgeous imagery and terrific performances to get past the shakier parts. But when it all works, it really works. Gray uses close-ups the way David Lean used wide landscape shots of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Cotillard's face fills the screen and her utter weariness becomes more than apparent. Things that some less talented filmmakers would have communicated in lengthy monologues or numerous and complicated scenes Gray instead communicates in a single shot of a character's face. Joaquin Phoenix's character is possibly the most complex in the entire film ranging from wicked to remorseful and even pitiful. All of this is made known in a few simple close-ups. This all made possible by the massively talented actors working in the film. Gray loves the foggy wide shots of Ellis Island, but where he really flourishes are in the smaller and more emotional scenes. The always great Jeremy Renner gives a wonderfully understated performance and adds multitudes to these scenes. The Immigrant is a film of bold and sobering ideas. Showing the painful trek someone goes through to find a better life. Prostitution and lies are simply a price to pay for freedom. Freedom, barely visible through insomnia-puffed eyes, that seems so close yet remains always out of reach. That fiery knot in the pit of the stomach that urges to push onward. It does not always pay off. The boats sometimes have holes. Behind the facade, lies the true meaning of the American Dream. It is not pretty. America is truly a place of opportunity. The ways in which we achieve that opportunity may not be as simple and easy as one would initially think. The Immigrant, like The Godfather Part II and many of its predecessors, understands this, for better or for worse. Not it is only up to us to understand it. The flag is in tatters yet, it still rises. It still rises. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nightcrawler review

Blinding neon light and thick smog choke Los Angeles. People drive along the endless labyrinth of roads and interstates to get where they are going. The destination is not important. Not now. They are oblivious to the fate that has already befell them. A bump in the road, an extra drink at dinner, a reckless teenager coming home from a house party. The sparks are visible, the screaming cuts through the thick night air, the steel on the iron horse grows hot. The car flips. All they see is red covering asphalt. How did this happen? A light shines from somewhere above, they look up. Am I dying? A face. Gaunt, focused, horrifying. Whatever it is it cannot be human. It's red eyes glare down at them like two coins made of molten lead. It is the face of the devil, and it is the hour of judgement. "If you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life." This devil is Louis  Bloom, the main character of Dan Gilroy's debut film, Nightcrawler. A type of  cameraman who films disasters as they happen and sells the footage to television stations. He is determined and fierce. Focus like a laser beam. Bloom has the feral look and inherent loneliness of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but he has the sickening drive and sociopathic tendencies of Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Bloom is a hard working maniac fueled by some severely perverted ideas and a need to annihilate the competition. He's Michael Corleone with a camcorder. A malicious grim reaper stalking the streets of LA. Where there is trouble, Lou Bloom is there. With Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy has crafted a slick, cynical, and over-the-top satire that parallels films like Network. It is massively entertaining, emanating a kinetic energy that keeps a viewer totally sucked in. It's frightening and powerful. Most of the film's muscle comes from Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the crazed protagonist. Gyllenhaal has been steadily rising as an actor in recent years, being the standout in films like End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, and many others. Nightcrawler may be his best yet. Hell, I would even go as far as to say he gives the very best performance of the year. Bug eyed, emaciated, and greasy, Gyllenhaal creates a palpable persona totally his own. He owns the movie like no other actor could. Nightcrawler is a very good movie in many ways, but Gyllenhaal looms over everything like some kind of freakish God, truly inhabiting the role. He is so transcendent here, it's much easier to forgot the movies flaws, which it has a few of. This is Gilroy's first movie, and you can see him occasionally struggling. As I mentioned above, Nightcrawler is a film of many influences. At times, you can see Gilroy leaning too much on them for support. There were a few scenes that seemed directly taken out of Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood. It's hard to ignore, and does hinder the film at times. Gilroy is working with a few themes here. Media and how we as a society treat it, the bastardization of the American Dream, and greed. He does struggle to really go in depth with some of them, and the movie definitely could have benefited from some more fleshing out. Yet, I still cannot deny how crazy, entertaining, and energetic the film is. Robert Elswit does a fantastic job with the cinematography here. The movie looks great, and there are some landscape shots of LA that are downright haunting. Oscar worthy stuff. It's a wonderfully creepy tapestry of neo-noir and character study. Gilroy has made a good film here. Gyllenhaal has made a great one. Nightcrawler portrays a dark, morally ambiguous, pre-apocalyptic world of greed and evil. It is a fear-inducing world much too close to our own. And one I wouldn't mind visiting again. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

There Will Be Blood

Towards the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film, There Will Be Blood, there is a shot that descends from the bright sun-washed Californian desert into a dark long hole filled with oil. Below, is Daniel Plainview. This is where the movie begins, in Plainview's "heart of darkness." Daniel Plainview is not a man, not in the traditional sense at least. He is a demon, a devil, a fiery being whose origins unknown. It is not wholly unbelievable that he was simply begat by the bowels of the Earth, thrown forth in some vicious gushing of oil. Daniel Plainview cannot be a man, for he is far too ruthless to be anything other than supernatural. A god made of anger, gristle, fury, and determination. He is the ultimate personification of all of the greed and evil in America, a build up of pure corruption. Yet, one cannot help but feel a sense of respect for the character of Plainview. He is a "bad person", yes. But, he got to where he is all on his own. All of the oil wells and land and money he has procured, he has procured himself. One looks at him with the same fearful admiration they would of Adolf Hitler. A man of unconscionable evil, but he's worked hard to get all that evil. One of the greatest actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, portrays the character of Plainview. With a role like this, many other actors would make the character campy. Day-Lewis makes it one of the most intense and horrifying performances I have ever seen. It is a fact that he is great here, an indisputable one at that. It is a performance so good, people often overlook the other fantastic elements of the movie. There Will Be Blood, after all, is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. A filmmaker who I firmly believe is one of the best, if not THE best, person working in the movies today. There Will Be Blood is his masterpiece. A masterpiece, coming from a man who has made such films as Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and The Master is an extraordinary feat. The filmmaking on display in Blood is comparable to the best work of Stanley Kubrick. I do not make these claims lightly. Anderson began his career making brilliant character ensemble pieces. He frequently referenced his directing heroes, people like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. With Blood, he proves that he can make a film so purely his own. He also proved he is a true genius with filmmaking. I struggle to think of any other filmmaker who not only fully understands the human condition and how to write it but also how to film it. With There Will Be Blood, Anderson has cemented his name in the history books. At its very core, the film is about good versus evil. The pious preacher Eli Sunday (played by Paul Dano) up against the violent oil man, Daniel Plainview. In any other movie, good would prevail because goodness always rises above the evil. Yet, in real life that is not always the case. Eli Sunday may be a man of god, but his hands are far from clean. In the end, the most godly man does not win out, but the man who is most equipped. In some sense, There Will Be Blood is a perfect argument for Darwin's "survival of the fittest theory". The film takes place in between the years 1898 and 1927. An epic expanse of time that ends right at the edge of national disaster. The Great Depression. The events take place on the brink of a collapse. An apocalypse. At the end of the movie, Plainview (who at this point is near insanity) begins to scream "I am the Third Revelation! I am who the lord has chosen!" This line might be more than just ramblings of a man gone mad. Plainview is the harbinger of  the end. A horseman riding a steed made of oil, evil, and greed. He is the lord of his wide desert expanse. The very end of the film is the ultimate summation of Plainview's insane determination. It is the American Dream, like it or not. It does not come with a majestic waving of the flag over a bright blue sky, but with a bowling pin smashing down on a man's head. This is America. This is Daniel Plainview's America. Anderson does not point his finger at capitalism or at corruption in this country, he simply shows us it and laughs. With There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has more or less crafted a perfect film. I have seen the movie three times now and I can say that with the utmost confidence. It is a cinematic landmark that will be remembered for a long time.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Whiplash review

Adrenaline.
Pulsing, coursing through like a river after a hurricane. It keeps going. It is in a constant state of on. There are no downbeats. You cannot take five. In or out. This is Whiplash. This is cinema. And it dares to ask "What drives a person? What makes one crack?" When someone's skull is constantly pounded, metaphorically speaking, how long before they throw their hands up and go to the head injury ward? How long before they have had enough? Even more so, why go through the torture? Is it worth it? I imagine Damien Chazelle, the director of  Whiplash, only has one answer. Yes. Whiplash tells of one man's arduous journey to be the best he can be. Bloody fingers, psychological abuse, and car crashes are not even enough to get in his way. He is an all-devouring bulldozer made of confidence and pure musical talent. A warrior of the auditorium. The first shot of the movie, we see Andrew (Miles Teller's character). We see him through a doorway at the end of a hall, he is drumming. The camera pulls in. His drumming becomes more intense. This is his story, we know this from the start. Chazelle could make this story lengthy and complicated, filling up space with flashbacks and unneeded fleshing out of things that are damn well fleshed out already. A much less talented filmmaker would buckle in some of the more intense scenes. In one of the film's many intense moments, Andrew is center stage playing the drums. One slip up and his musical career is finished. Like Andrew, Chazelle powers through. He keeps things short and too-the-point. Chazelle does not lean on cliches or try and add on more. Economical is a good word to describe it. He does what needs to be done. Whiplash is Chazelle's directorial debut, and reminded me quite a bit of different director's film debut. Reservoir Dogs, weirdly enough. Both movies are exceedingly well-written and trim out the fat. Conversations are snappy and good, but they don't add in unnecessary odds and ends to pad things out. Every scene needs to be there. It can be flashy and showy where it needs to be, but not anymore than that. The flashiest and showiest part of the film is J.K. Simmons' teacher character, Terence Fletcher. A brutal, abusive, scary monster of a man who dominates the screen like he's King Kong when onscreen. Under less adept and much shakier hands, Simmons would be overdone and completely take over the film. At times it seems like he will, but Chazelle knows what he's doing and will always bring the camera back to Teller. He knows what story he's telling, and he'll make sure he's telling it right. What Chazelle also avoids doing is making Simmons so completely evil that he becomes nothing more than a rallying point for Teller's character. A symbol he is not. The teacher is unfathomably brutal. A fireman's hose of anger and insults. Yet, he thinks what he's doing is truly right. He thinks he's a good teacher. A guy who will push his students to be the next greats. This is a man with drive and feeling beneath his skin. He's still evil, but he is more than just an angry face to root against. Hey, even Hitler had emotions. It's just whether one chooses to acknowledge that he did. Chazelle understands fully, and that's one of the many reasons Whiplash succeeds. The film is lean, exhilarating, with one of the best endings I've seen in a while. It's not perfect per se, but it's good! There are all the right cogs, gears, and buttons for a good film. All that's needed is a talented engineer to put it all into place as a fully-functioning machine. Luckily, Whiplash has a damn good engineer.  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Birdman review

Watching Birdman is equivalent to watching a plane crash. Things and people of great stature colliding in a fiery inferno of ego and madness. Like the plane itself, these people are not aware of their folly. They go on and on with their self-destructive manner, not realizing the damage being done. Yet, it does not come across as some violently sickening act of destruction. It is much more of an apocalyptic waltz. To quote Pynchon "it is not a disentanglement of, but a progressive knotting into." We are watching the fall of the Roman Empire, but from our perspective it looks like the emergence of the Persians. A phoenix rising from the ashes-fitting. The subtitle for Birdman is "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." A joke on both the characters of the film and the audience. In some perverted way, their is virtue to be found in the depths of ignorance. It's just not the kind anyone is looking for. At the end of the movie, the main character Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), seems to have gotten everything he has wanted throughout the film. In reality, he's actually gotten the opposite. His ignorance and bullheaded stupidity masquerading as celebrity have made him the antithesis of his goal throughout the film. In some ways, it is a very depressing film even if it does not present itself as so. It is an indictment of show business while simultaneously being a celebration of it. Doing so in a way that is not hypocritical, but admirable. These characters are self-obsessed and theatrical lost puppies who come onto the scene screaming and raving in carefully practiced speeches because they have all lost the ability to just act like regular people. Maybe they aren't regular people, but a race of space aliens who landed on Earth and used E! news, Vanity Fair, and the biography of Corey Feldman to learn how to act like people. Even the movie's most "honest" character, Riggan's screw-up drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), has her lapses into self absorption and vanity. This a film steeped in utter madness. A loud and infectiously exciting barrage of drums accompanies the movie. In Riggan Thomson's most insane stretches of being, the constant beat of drums thrums along with it. The score reflects all of the character's neurotic and constantly frightened personas. One of the most present and important characters in Birdman is the camera filming it all. The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, has made a very bold and audacious decision to film all of the movie in a series of long takes, edited together in a way that makes it look like the entire film is in one endless shot. The main plot of the film revolves around Riggan, a washed-up actor who once played a superhero in a series of successful superhero films (very reflective Keaton in real life), who is now vying for artistic merit with a Raymond Carver short story he has adapted and will act and direct in. The method of using the constant long takes and tracking shots that Inarritu has adopted here is supposed to make it look like it is a play itself. The actors don't film one close-up and then have a smoke break, they are constantly on. This reflects the vain theatricality of the characters in the film. They live their life like they are in a play: loud, wordy, flashy, and full of dense dialogue. A directing decision that could have devolved into a tiresome gimmick is used for real artistic value here. The wonderfully awe inspiring decisions on Inarritu's part and the ace work of the actors can easily make one forget about the film's noticeable flaws. The script has some rough edges. There are a few jokes that don't quite land and there are some lines that feel incredibly mean-spirited and misguided. There are times when it seems like the screenwriter feels worried the audience won't get the message he is trying to convey and that he must continually expound upon what he's trying to say tirelessly. Those particular moments made me cringe. Yet, when stacked up next to the rest of the movie, they seemed minuscule and not even worth mentioning. My only true problem with the film was its ending, which I won't spoil for anyone. Let me just say it could have (and should have ended a few scenes earlier). Besides all that, Birdman soars higher than Superman on helium. It is a massively entertaining meditation on show business, madness, and the deformed sick elephant we all call "fame." Anyone who scoffs at the current state of Hollywood, pointing out the mind-numbing barrage of formulaic superhero pictures that gets pumped out every year, certainly isn't wrong in doing so. But you only have to look so far as to Birdman to know that there is hope for cinema yet. Do not despair common folk, Keaton has landed and he is here to help.    

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Master or The Young Man and the Sea: A Deconstruction of Paul Thomas Anderson's Exquisite Masterwork

Freddie Quell is a bird of the vast, grey, and infinite sky. He drifts through life like dust motes in a shaft of afternoon light. Women, jobs, alcohol, and people in general try to pin him down. To label him, diagnose him, explain him. Put him in the cold dank prison cell we all call a purpose. Many think they have the answers to Freddie, they know what's wrong with him. Whether it be doctors, therapists, or Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd. Many try, but they all fail. Quell is a character like that of some elusive and far away indecipherable message. One can try and understand him, to grasp him and fit him into a peg in society, but they will fail. When Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was released in 2012, a common criticism was that Joaquin Phoenix's character Freddie Quell did not change, evolve, or develop. He started out a confused and mumbling drunk and then stayed that way throughout the entire movie. What critics failed to realize was that Quell wasn't supposed to change. To have him develop would be completely disregarding everything the film has worked to establish. In fact, in launching this very complaint at the movie critics themselves are falling prey to the exact mistake almost every character in the film made: they tried to put Freddie under an umbrella. This is an impossible feat. He is a man so broken by the war, by life. Left with nothing to do but float drunkenly through the bottomless abyss of this here world we are all prisoner to. Freddie is the unchanging sea. Try as we might, we simply cannot chart his waters. No Captain Cook could ever penetrate through the exterior of him. Philip Seymour Hoffman's last monologue sums it all up perfectly: "Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas. You pay no rent, free to go where you please. Then go, go to that landless latitude and good luck. If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first in the history of the world." Freddie is a seaman, a directionless drifter who is bound by no chains, subjugated by no master. The film opens with a beautiful shot that repeats throughout the film. The flowing vibrant blue ocean. It is breathtaking simple. It is Freddie Quell himself. At another point in the beginning of the movie, Freddie lies down next to a woman he has crafted out of sand on the beach. In what I believe is the very last shot of the film, he once again lies down next to this mysterious sand mistress in an almost identical shot. He has not changed. Held down by no bride, he chooses to lie with the alluring beauty of the sea. I've often hear people complain about this movie in that it is too confusing and has little to say. Hogwash, says I. Anderson awes us and entrances us with his visuals and complex story about cults and religion. Yet, at heart The Master is truly about one man and his quest for ultimate freedom. A man so detached and broken off from the regularity of society he can only drift among the eternal waves of the Pacific. The film takes a look at the effects of war on a single man, but doesn't do it in the same formulaic way we have all seen before.  In many ways, Freddie's inherent wanderlust has made him a better person than most of the characters in the film. He, at least, is outright with his flaws of drunkenness and laziness. He does not hide behind any veneer, nor does he make himself slave to his intricacies and downsides. Everyone else in the film chains themselves to their persona's and auras of perfection they think they have. Amy Adams character looks down on Freddie as a boozer and possible criminal, but is too cold and uppity to see her own problems. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is so trapped in his hubris and power trip he simple cannot realize that he shouldn't try to change Freddie, but that it's really himself that needs changing. The Master in this film is not Dodd, but Quell. A man who in having no master, has become the master himself. Master of living life the way he sees fit. Like an eagle flapping its wings, Freddie glides along the winds of pure freedom and easy living. He is a man out of place in time, for there is no real time for Freddie. He lives outside the boundaries of linear time. His time is an ocean, and he is commander of the ship sailing on its waves. The Master is a beautiful, somewhat misunderstood, masterpiece from the Kubrick of today. An austere and wondrous tone poem that looks at humanity for what we are. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I believe F.Scott Fitzgerald unintentionally sums up the film best.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gone Girl review

Somewhat spoiler-ish review ahead.You have been warned.

There's a particular shot, or shots I should say, from David Fincher's newest film that has stuck with me. The first part is a flashback to when Nick and Amy Dunne (played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) had just met. Nothing but good intentions and a bubbly school-kid love between them. Amy leans in to kiss him, and the shot is quickly juxtaposed with Nick being examined by doctor at the police station with a tongue press. He gags on it. The juxtaposition perfectly encapsulates Nick's feelings about his marriage. The kiss to the gagging. He went from a love-stricken kid to a petrified husband with his balls held firmly by his rhymes-with-witch of a wife. One could even interpret it as a metaphor for marriage itself. It's a fairly low-key technique Fincher used, but an incredibly smart and effective one. With Gone Girl, David Fincher gets as fun and pulpy he's been since The Game and still is able to elevate his material to more than just a clever genre film. Gone Girl is based on the 2012 novel of the same name. It's a book I regretfully haven't read, I honestly don't mind. The film works perfectly fine without the flashy reveals and shocking twists, but experiencing those for the first time in clear and bloody celluloid is a devilishly wonderful pleasure of its own. Gone Girl is a man's horrible claustrophobic nightmare that quickly escalates into a psycho-sexual thriller of proportions just insane enough to work. Practically every element of this movie clicks excellently. My only real issue with it was some oddly stilted dialogue in the beginning, mainly in the flashbacks to the early relationship of Nick and Amy. The rest of the movie was terrifically written, so I wasn't exactly sure why those early beginning scenes felt so wrong. On further thought, I realized it's because it IS wrong. It shows that even from the start, the relationship between Nick and Amy Dunne is shaky at best. Their interactions aren't thoughtful or genuine. Amy is hiding behind a veneer and Nick is under her sway. Of course their dialogue is stilted, it's just a reflection of their relationship. Gillian Flynn may be writing a trashy crime picture, but damn can she do it well. It certainly doesn't hurt to have the people attached that the film does. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike give magnificent and incendiary performances as the two main characters. Affleck has officially proved himself a terrific actor  (not that he needed to) and gives a fantastic controlled performance here. Throughout the film you can see his character being trapped in by the media and by everyone around him. Watching Affleck act you can really sense the tension and social claustrophobia that surround his character like a suffocating cosmic blanket. He gives such a great performance, that I was easily able to forget how famous he is. As great as Ben Affleck is here, Rosamund Pike is the real star here. She's always been an incredibly solid actress (ex. The World's End) but has never gotten a real chance to shine. I don't know if Gone Girl is David Fincher's masterpiece, but I think it's safe to say it is for Pike. She plays innocent, evil, manipulative, and sexy like no actress I've ever seen. The best comparison I can make is maybe Barbara Stanwyck or Eva Green. If she doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I will be shocked. Again, of course having Fincher behind the camera always helps things. This isn't his best work, but it's definitely up there. It's no Zodiac, but it doesn't need to be. Gone Girl is a different type of movie. One major complaints from Fincher detractors is that he often employs the style-over-substance technique of filmmaking. That's a remarkably off-base thing to say about his films, especially this one. Fincher uses his camera to create a tone so palpable you could cut it with a knife. You can really feel his talent oozing out of this movie. It's wonderful. The movie has loads to say about the intricacies and failings of modern marriage. It's certainly a cynical take, but a bitingly interesting one at that. Flynn also takes a satiric look at media. Imagine Natural Born Killers but a helluva lot more subtle about its satire. In my mind, Gone Girl is Blue Velvet, meets a killer-woman grindhouse picture, meets neo-noir. And it's all done so, so well. Subverting our views of modern society, and giving us a delicious murder story as cinematically filling as a thick steak. Is Gone Girl one of the year's best films? You bet.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Badlands review

The idea of the American Dream seems to loom over Hollywood like a big, grey cumulonimbus cloud towering over a stretch of Midwestern highway. It's an ideal that seems so close and within reach, like a mountain in the distance. It seems so palpable and promising, yet it's still miles and miles away from you. This alluring idea seems as warm and intimate to you as a lover, or a good friend in a time of need. Yet, when you step away and look at it all you see you're just as cold and lonely as you've always been. A single man dwarfed by the intimidating landscapes of the American Southwest. The American Dream no longer seems as easily within reach as before, but further away than it's ever been. I've seen two Terrence Malick films so far: Days of Heaven and the one I'm currently writing about, Badlands. Both have been beautiful films packed tightly with flowering philosophical thoughts and vast beautiful, almost fantastical, images. Malick is a true artist. One who can make something as mundane as a cornfield seem like an endless and expansive entity that's equally mythical as it is visually beautiful. Both films I've seen by him seem, in some sense, to deal with the elusive and mystical idea of the American Dream. The idea is a constant in film. Dealt with in everything from The Godfather to that recent Michael Bay film. I do not think it is an unacheivable thing to "make it in America". But I do think that this "American Dream" has been blown out of proportion so it becomes an insurmountable hill to climb. A monster everyone can battle, but no one can defeat. The idea, not that one can become successful in this land of opportunity, but that one can become a rich and famous being of fantastical value. A veritable Hercules or Billy the Kid. Malick's 1973 film, Badlands, takes this idea and plays around with it beautifully. The movie follows Kit and Holly, two kids deeply in love. Holly's father does not approve of her dating Kit. Instead of talking this out and trying to convince him, Kit simply kills Holly's dad. It's dealt with like it's nothing. Her father is simply a roadblock, a detour if you will, in their quest for true love on the endless interstate highway that is America. The two are so in love, that they throw themselves fully onto this highway, murdering people along the way. Fueled by hormones, and that pesky little thing known as the American Dream. The whole lovers-in-crime plot has been told before, most notably in Bonnie & Clyde, but also in such films as Natural Born Killers and others. Even Thelma & Louise had a similar plot. What makes Badlands more than just a tired retread is Malick's breathtaking visual style and the wandering philosophical voice that seemingly pervades all of his films. In the beginning of the film, Sissy Spacek's character, Holly, says "Little did I realize, that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the badlands of Montana." But Holly is wrong. It didn't end in the badlands of Montana. It's still going on. Kit and Holly thought they were isolated cases having a little fun. But they represented something much bigger than puppy love. They are the embodiment of the bastardization of the American dream. A distorted idea that started out as a hopeful stretch of highway and ended in the blood soaked clothes of so many naive people. That is, in some way, what Badlands is about. In another sense, it's about not only the bastardization of the American Dream but of the utter futility of it all. That through all our ambitions and violent acts, we're still just specks on the grand prairie of the world. A mere beetle in the middle of a vast desert. Despite all that, Badlands isn't a depressing film. Even though at the end Kit gets sent to the electric chair, there's still  a sense of hopefulness that lingers over the movie like that smell the air gets before a rain. It's not overwhelmingly present, but it is there. Badlands is simultaneously a mediation on life and a cautionary tale for all of us. A wonderful and ethereal movie that has already canonized itself as a favorite of mine. I leave you now with the immortal words of one Bob Dylan. "No one is free, even birds are chained to the sky." Good night everyone. Long live the American Dream.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Calvary review

There's a scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson's character, Father James Lavelle, stands on a high rock outcrop overlooking an ocean off the coast of Ireland. He watches as the brilliant blue waves crash into the jagged rocks. It's one of the most beautiful and powerful scenes in a movie filled with beautiful and powerful scenes. It really put me into the mind of the film's protagonist. Throughout its 100 minute running time, John Michael McDonagh's film stumbles quite a bit: It's much too heavy handed with its symbolism and themes, there are a few scenes that feel awfully forced, and once in a while it dips into cliche territory. But when the film works, like in the wonderful scene I mentioned above, it really works. Really well. Calvary is about a good priest. He is giving confession one Sunday when a man tells him that he was brutally molested as a young boy. The mystery man goes on to explain how the pedophile priest has long been dead, and even if he were alive killing him would do no good. For killing a bad priest is almost expected and certainly won't cause much of a fuss. So this man, this victim, has decided to kill a good priest. That priest is Father James Lavelle. He has one week to get his affairs in order, then he is to meet the man on a particular beach the following Sunday to be killed. Lavelle does not go to the authorities, he does not try and have a violent final standoff with the man, he doesn't even really try and stop this inevitable fate from happening. The entire movie is him contemplating his faith and dealing with the various troublesome (but often good meaning people around him). I've seen the existentialist hitman before in cinema, but the existentialist priest is a new one. And damn, it's a good one. John Michael McDonagh is the brother of the uber talented Martin McDonagh of Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges fame. Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite directors and I think he's a genius. John Michael McDonagh is nowhere close to as talented as his brother in terms of writing. He doesn't even come close. Despite all that, John Michael McDonagh is still an excellent writer. His struggles are more evident in the film than they should be, but he prevails enough in the end that one can forget the menial issues in the beginning. And where he lacks as a writer, he makes up tenfold as a director. The way he films the beautiful Irish landscape rivals the cinematic skill of Stanley Kubrick and John Ford. Certain shots (like the one I mentioned in the beginning) remind me of Paul Thomas Anderson's direction in The Master. I mean that only as a compliment. McDonagh shares with his brother the skill of directing actors very well. Here, he's managed to bring the best out of the always terrific Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson never disappoints, but this may be his greatest performance to date. I swear if he doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I will riot in the streets. The rest of the cast is solid as well. Kelly Reilly is excellent as Gleeson's troubled daughter and Chris O'Dowd plays a silly character who appears to be nothing but comic relief (but proves to be more than that). Calvary does get a tad preachy at times, but never to the extent it could have. It's preachiness is slight and comes from a good place, but under the wrong hands this film could've turned into a two hour sermon talking about the evils of sin and the wonder of Catholicism. Calvary is a religious film, but it's not trying to recruit you. It simply wants to make a human statement that we can all connect with. And for all its shortcomings, it succeeds. Calvary is part black comedy, part morality play, and part mystery. It's wholly wonderful.   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lucy review

There seems to be a myth floating around Hollywood that humans only use 10% of their brain and the other 90% is basically not used at all. This is not even remotely true. We consciously use 10% of our brain for thinking and things like that. The other 90% is still in use. It's used for our subconscious mind and other things. It is not possible to 'unlock' this other part of our brain because it is already unlocked and in use. Even if we could somehow use this other 90% consciously, it certainly wouldn't give us godlike superpowers or even increase our memory and intelligence (like in the film Limitless). Luc Besson's newest film, Lucy, plays off of this age old myth about our brainpower and then takes it to extreme heights. It's really a ridiculous concept for a movie, but if you can get past that you may actually have some fun with the movie and really get something out of it. Scarlett Johansson plays the titular character here. She starts out as a seemingly vapid college girl studying abroad in Taiwan. Through a mix-up with her shady boyfriend, Lucy becomes a drug mule for a brutal Taiwanese boss and then in turn accidentally ingests the experimental drug she was supposed to be carrying. The drug allows her to slowly gain full access to her brain, which in turn gives her powers fit for Superman (Superwoman, rather) or a god. Lucy is in incredibly odd film. It's one half dumb Luc Besson action flick where the main characters traipse around in some foreign country getting in car chases and dodging bullets. It's also one half smart pseudo-philosophical science fiction film that tries to explain creation and the future of human evolution. It dabbles in interesting ideas but will occasionally stop for a gun fight with Taiwanese bad guys. Like I said, odd. But not all bad. Lucy was obviously heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick's awesome 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lucy begins with the Dawn of Man like Kubrick's film did, showing the first ape woman (also named Lucy). As the movie progresses, Scarlett Johansson's character becomes almost equivalent to the star baby at the end of 2001. A human who was been altered by an outside force (the monolith in 2001, the drugs in Lucy) and is now a god-like being who has been seemingly sent to save humanity and correct our oh-so-many problems. One thing I have to give massive credit to Besson for is not making this a movie that uses its head female star for nothing but eye candy and beating up bad guys. Too many action films (Kick-Ass 2 to name one) think making their head star a woman allows them to underwrite their characters and indulge in camouflage misogyny. Here, Besson focuses more on Lucy and her increasing intelligence and only uses the gangster subplot sparingly. I do applaud him for that. Another problem this movie could've run into is it being really bloated and drawn out. Instead, it's kept to a lean 90 minutes. This movie had the potential to be truly awful, I'm glad it was able to surpass all that. Yet, as I mentioned before, Lucy isn't without its issues. First off, it's completely illogical. But I already addressed that. There's also quite a few oversights plot wise that made me slap my forehead thinking "How could they not see that?".  It touched on a few different things that could've been really cool but doesn't really expand on them. As her knowledge increases, her humanity decreases. There's a part that hints that Lucy may want to keep her human emotional side. Unfortunately, Besson doesn't go into depth really at all. Despite it's many flaws, I found Lucy to be quite good. It's a really ambitious movie and somewhat succeeds on many fronts. It's no 2001: A Space Odyssey but I suppose it makes for a good pop action version of the film. Calling the movie stupid is easy and honestly a little unfair. For all its shortcomings, it really does make for a solid smart summer blockbuster. Hell, I'd say it's better than a lot of the blockbusters out in theaters this summer. Luc Besson has always annoyed me. I was never a huge fan of his films, but Lucy is a little different than most of his films and it shows he may have some real talent. I give Lucy 4.2 out of 5 stars. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies and like me on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies. Happy Viewing everyone!   

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Persona review

Persona is an illusion. A nightmare, an acid trip, a Kafkaesque beach vacation. Persona is a movie. 
I don't think a movie has ever really emotionally effected me quite like this one. After the credits rolled and the film was done, I continued to think about Ingmar Bergman's Persona. I sifted the scenes through my mind, thought about the movie in depth. I found myself shaking. My stomach churned. I was honestly shaken by this movie. It reached into the confines of my psyche and asked me questions about what made me, me. I'm not entirely sure what to make of a film like this. Moments after the movie had finished, I stared at the screen and thought to myself "What the hell did I just witness?". I'm still sort of asking myself that, but in a less condescending manner. Persona is about a nurse (Bibi Andersson) who is tasked with looking after an actress (Liv Ullmann) who, by her own free will, has decided to stop talking. It's about much more than that though. In some ways it's about the human condition and what makes us snap, in other ways it's about films and movies. The film is incredibly aware that it's a movie. At certain points the screen starts rip up as if the film in the projector had caught fire. At another point in the film it cuts to a camera crew and even the director himself, filming the very movie we are watching. I suppose it's the first 'meta' film in that way. I haven't seen anything by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman until now, but if Persona is any judgement of his other work than I'm sure the guy's a genius. Any director that can truly cut to the core of a person through a film is bound to be more than talented. Watching Persona reminded me of another movie I watched this year, Under the Skin. Throughout watching Under the Skin my mind went through a whirlwind of emotions. At first I was confused, and then I kind of liked it, and then I hated it, then I was confused again, and finally I was left in utter shock when it ended, still not entirely sure what my final opinion was on the film. After much thought, I came to absolutely love Under the Skin and have seen it twice now. That's basically how I feel about Persona. A film so strange, off-putting, and hypnotic that I had no idea what to make of it at first but now want nothing more than to see it again. I suppose you could call it a difficult film, and I imagine many people wouldn't like it very much. An understandable opinion, but I do urge you to give it a try with an open mind. It is a truly awesome movie. Some classics, while still good, seem to lose their power with time. Persona is not one of these movies. It is as powerful and scary and interesting as I imagine it was back when it was released in 1966. Practically everything about it is impeccable. The two lead actresses, Ullmann and Andersson, are fantastic. Every scene they're in radiates with dominance and talent. They're in pretty much every scene in the film and really have to devote themselves. They do not disappoint. Bergman, as I mentioned before, does a masterful job really reaching out and disturbing the calm in the audience. He creates such awesome and wonderful tension here that I don't think I've seen in any other films. He can make you sit on edge with nothing more than a closeup. And he holds his shots extremely long, which is very admirable. I often hear people dismiss black and white films, and even more so, foreign films as being pretentious or boring. I do not think Persona is either of these things. It's a classic. What more can I say. A film that's confounding and weird yet so captivating and intriguing. The film is about two different people, a nurse and an actress, who begin to meld personas. What an incredibly strange idea for a movie! But it works very well. And in doing so, creates an experience comparable with nothing else. Persona is a twisted and cool little film I feel will stay with me a long time. I will return to it, and hopefully I'll get even more out of it then. As of now, all I will say is that it is a great movie. I wasn't sure of this immediately after watching it, but am sure of it now. Persona is simply, a masterpiece. 
Remember you can follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies and like me on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies. Happy Viewing.      

Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy review

Guardians of the Galaxy is the best Marvel film yet.
Before I justify that, let me give you a little background. I've always deeply enjoyed all of the Marvel superhero fare (discounting the hit-or-miss Spider-man movies). Even their lesser movies are always fun and entertaining. Yet, in my mind, they never seem to truly go beyond one liners and explosions. What I mean by that is that the Marvel films always seem like they're kind of all doing the same thing. They're doing it very well, but most of the films are sort of the same in some way or another. Sure it's all fun, but after a while your Captain America: The Winter Soldier's and your Iron Man 3's start to blur together. That's why the newest Marvel tent pole, Guardians of the Galaxy, feels so refreshing. It's different than the usual Marvel stuff. I'm not saying it's groundbreaking cinema or anything (it's most certainly not) but it is a different kind of movie for Marvel, and that really is a good thing. Imagine Star Wars, Firefly, and Indiana Jones mixed together to a soundtrack of classic 70's pop songs and you'll more or less get this movie. But it's not just reheated 80's adventure films. It does draw inspiration from them, but it's wholly it's own film. Flawed? Of course! But not any more than your average Marvel flick. Guardians tells the story of Peter Quill (a very buff Chris Pratt). A kid from Earth who was kidnapped during his youth and is now a space bandit trying to make a living. Through a series of events involving a mysterious orb and some angry space dudes, Peter winds up in a space prison with a talking raccoon-thing named Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a giant tree with limited vocabulary (Vin Diesel), a very large alien with a death wish, and a murderess who's possibly the daughter of the main villain. Yeah, this movie is out there. But in a good way. Obviously Guardians isn't perfect. The villains are lacking to say the least. There's two main villains and I didn't care about them whatsoever throughout the entire film. Not that I cared, the rest of the movie was so fun I didn't even notice the villains. Some of the fight scenes are pretty poorly directed. It was fairly hard to even see what was going on and kinda took you out of the movie. And there were a few jokes here and there that didn't really land. Otherwise this movie knocks it out of the park. Chris Pratt is a great leading star with a perfect balance between jokey fun guy and commanding action hero. The rest of the cast is solid as well. I'm not very familiar with James Gunn as a writer/director. But I already love the guy. You can feel his presence here. Every song choice and dirty joke flourishes on the screen with an awesome effect not often present in the usual Marvel movies. Practically every moment made me smile and giggle. Next to The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is the funniest film of the year. Hell, I believe it's probably the best blockbuster film of the year. While most of the great films released this year have been more independent art-house movies (Boyhood, Grand Budapest, Under the Skin), I do feel the mainstream cinema has been especially strong. The action blockbusters have been excellent so far (Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer). The superhero flicks have been unusually good (X-Men: DOFP, Captain America 2). Even the children's movies have been more than substantial (The Lego Movie). It really shouldn't be that surprising how great this movie is. It makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes look like a boring cash-in flick. And I liked Dawn! Guardians is the kind of uber-fun and lighthearted space adventure this generation hasn't really had. This movie is 90% joy, 5% CGI, 4% dirty jokes, and 1% classic pop music. It's 100% good. This movie isn't just for over-excited kids like myself, there's a lot of winks and nods that the adults will enjoy too. It's the kind of film we haven't gotten in a while, and I'm incredibly grateful for it. So see it, hell, see it twice. I'm sure you'll want to. I give Guardians of the Galaxy 4.3 out of 5 stars. Happy Viewing everyone. You can follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies and like me on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies.    

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boyhood review

I recently saw a little movie called Boyhood. After watching it, I continued to think about it. A lot. I thought about my own childhood and how I connected with the movie and all that good junk one would think about after seeing a movie like this. I recently tried to review this movie. I also recently failed miserably at doing so. I kept trying to write uber profound statements about life, the universe, everything, and how it connected to Richard Linklater's newest film. All of these reviews came off as pretentious and shallow. The reason for that is because I am in no way fit to review Boyhood. The fact of this matter is that in some ways I'm still going through my own boyhood. Hell, I haven't even gone to college yet. Who am I to comment on a movie like this? I haven't lived enough. I could review the film and say "what a noble cinematic project it is" or "how Linklater's direction is truly astounding" and things like that. Yes, those are all true statements, but a review like that wouldn't do the film a fraction of the justice it deserves. I'm too damn young to be putting in my two cents on Boyhood. Maybe when I'm about 80 years old (if I live that long) and sitting in some future-type rocking chair I'll be able to truly convey a solid set of emotions and opinions on the movie. I'm not entirely sure this review of Boyhood will even have that much to say about Boyhood. Honestly, I just don't think I have enough life experience to say anything about it. I feel like this is the kind of film I'll return to in a few years and get something completely new out of. For me, I really connected with certain aspects of the film's main character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane). Maybe in a few years I'll realize I resonate with a different character, or pick up different things about the movie. A few months back I reviewed Spike Jonze's Her. Her is not only the best film of 2013, but one of my favorite films ever. My original review of Her was pretty bad. I felt everything I was saying felt forced and really corny. It may be one of the worst reviews I've ever written. At the moment, I couldn't express my love for the film in words. This is how I feel about Boyhood. I don't want to write some mediocre review. To use a quote from Boyhood, "Words are stupid." When a picture as vast and wonderful as this comes along, I can't really do it justice in a simple review. I don't think I'll be able to write a truly coherent review of this film until I see it a few more times and then age a little. I have many thoughts on the film, but I just don't feel completely equipped to share them all. One thing this film has confirmed for me is that we are living in a golden age of film. Last year was an absolutely awesome year for movies. Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, Gravity, and many other terrific films graced the big screen. I thought it was just a momentary bump in the quality of movies. A fluke, or a coincidence. Surely not something that would repeat itself. After watching Under the Skin earlier this year I suspected that maybe last year wasn't a fluke, but the beginnings to a renaissance. I am now sure of this. It seems every other week some new classic is being released. Boyhood is proof that directors I finally starting to take advantage of the wealth of amazing technology we have by using it to tell amazing stories and create masterpieces. I have a feeling Boyhood will be looked at in the future the way we look at films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Sound of Music right now. As you probably know, Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years. I do think the film benefits from this. You get to naturally see these people grow up, it feels natural. At the end of the movie I thought about how fast it all went. Yet, the running time is about three hours. In a nutshell, Richard Linklater has created a movie that is wholly about Life. That's the craziest idea for a film that I may have ever heard. And damn, it really works. I may not be able to fully articulate my thoughts on Boyhood now, but I'm sure the time will come when I can justifiably talk about this movie. I'm going to give this film 5 out of 5 stars. Ladies and gentlemen, that is all. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blow Out review

If you turn on the History Channel on an average day, chances are you'll come across some phony conspiracy theory show detailing how JFK was killed by the mafia or how George Washington was in a secret cult or some unbelievable nonsense like that. Now imagine you knew JFK actually was killed by the mafia. And imagine you had the evidence to prove it. Imagine yourself being called a crackpot conspiracy theorist by everyone around you , even though you're right. Scary, right? These are the circumstances John Travolta's character finds himself in in Brian De Palma's excellent 1981 thriller, Blow Out. John Travolta plays a sound man for exploitation slasher flicks. One night, while out recording sound for a movie, he accidentally records a car careening into a creek. Travolta dives into the creek yet, he's only able to save the girl, the man is already dead. The man in the car was a prominent presidential candidate. One that had the potential to be the next president of the United States. Was this merely an accident, or was there a second party involved? Paranoia, fear, and conspiracy shroud the rest of the film. And it's absolutely awesome. I feel Brian De Palma doesn't get the respect he deserves. The man has made some awesome movies (Scarface and Carrie to name some), but even so he's often demoted to nothing but a Hitchcock ripoff artist or genre director. "His films are all style over substance!" is one cry I've heard surrounding the work of De Palma many times. These detractors obviously haven't seen Blow Out. Here, Mr. De Palma marries his cinematic flourishes and Hitchcockian style with a taut plot line and in depth character study. The character study would of course be worthless if not for the excellent performance by a young John Travolta. This may be one of Travolta's best performances yet. Right up there with his work in Pulp Fiction. He's cool, intense, and assured. It would be very easy for this film to devolve into a simple and dumb thriller. De Palma could have easily given into cliches and used car chases and things like that as a plot device. But he's better than that, and does no such thing. With talent all his own, Brian De Palma keep us literally at the edge of our seat. He doesn't need plot contrivances to do this. While watching this, I felt inside the film. I was so caught up in the movie, it was as if it had opened up and swallowed me whole. One major problem with mainstream action and thriller films is that they too often rely on is the nice and tidy ending. An ending where everything turns out peachy and fine. Everyone's alive, the killer has been caught, and justice is served. Now the square-jawed main character can scoop up the leading lady and ride off with her into the sunset. Blow Out falls into no such trappings. The ending (I won't spoil it for you) is dark, frightening, and purely awesome. De Palma is first and foremost a director, but this film proves he can write a film just fine. Blow Out has some of the most ingenious plotting I've seen in a movie ever. Some great films are products of their time. Blow Out is a combination of political scandals like Watergate and the JFK assassination. What makes it great is how it transcends its time period and influences. The film is wholly original. It's quite possible this could be Brian De Palma's best movie, and maybe his only perfect one. I'm wary to make such claims just yet, having only seen this once, but it may be the case. I wasn't too sure what to make of the film after I watched it. After digesting it some, I have decided it's a masterpiece. Possibly better than Scarface, but I haven't decided that yet. Blow Out seems to have been overshadowed by some of De Palma's much flashier work over the years. I suppose Blow Out is a much more subdued movie in a sense. It shouldn't be. Every frame of this film is impeccable. De Palma can frame his shots like few other directors I know. Quentin Tarantino lists this as one of his favorite films. I can certainly see why. It's a full bodied and expertly crafted picture. Blow Out is like a delicious three course meal. It's very enjoyable, but it has real solid value as well. It's possible Blow Out's bleak ending has something to do with it's lack of popularity. A real shame, for this is a cinematic gem and one of the best films of the 1980's. I beseech you to see this, surely you won't regret it. It's a masterwork of tension, acting, and plotting. This is a crime film for the ages. Happy Viewing.
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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Life Itself review

Often when a particularly good movie ends, I'll sit in the theater and watch the credits for a while. Not because I'm incredibly interested in the end credits or anything, but because I have just witnessed something wonderful and need some time to soak it in. I'll sit there in the movie theater thinking: Wow. Sometimes a film is so damn good I'll need a few minutes to realize that yes indeed, I did just witness that. Other times a film is so achingly beautiful I'll have to wait a while for my emotions to run their course. Sometimes a film reaches for great heights and achieves these heights that all I can do is sit and stare at the screen in awe. Steve James' newest documentary on the great movie critic Roger Ebert did all of the things I just mentioned. After the film finished, I was left looking at the screen in tears knowing full well that not only had I just watched a wonderful film, but I had watched the wonderful life of a wonderful man. Pretty much every modern film critic owes something to Roger Ebert. He was the jolly, movie loving grandfather to us all. Bestowing his film knowledge and general happiness to the world. This documentary perfectly captures that sentiment, but it does something else too. It radiates the absolute joy that was Ebert and his life, but it doesn't sugarcoat the gritty stuff either. Often a documentary on a famous person who has passed on will devolve into nothing but idolatry and hero worship. One of the worst movies of last year, Salinger, was a documentary on the life of J.D. Salinger. That awful film did nothing but bow down to the life and works of Mr. Salinger for the first half of the movie before poking at the possibilities of conspiracies in the man's life. Awful cinema. Life Itself does no such thing. It looks admirably at Roger, but it also shows that the guy could be (for lack of a better word) an asshole sometimes. It shows the sometimes comical fights he had with his friend, business associate, and rival Gene Siskel. It shows the detestable taste in women Ebert had before he met his wife Chaz. It shows the time in his life where he had a serious drinking problem. Those parts can make you cringe, but the movie wouldn't be honest if they didn't show these parts. Roger Ebert was no saint, and I'm sure he would've wanted us all to know that. In addition, director Steve James doesn't shy away from showing Roger as he was when he died: very, very sick with his entire lower jaw missing. He even goes as far as to show Ebert being fed through suction with a straw. It's sometimes grotesque and makes you want to look away, but it's brutally honest and this information needs to be in there. What really struck me about Life Itself is how heartfelt it was. So much so, that the ending drove me to tears. You'd have to be made of stone not to. I did not cry because the film was overtly sad. It is sad, but not overwhelmingly so. I cried because I was so taken by this one man's love, life, legacy, and just astounding awesomeness in general. The emotion and devotion of his wife, Chaz. The love of Roger expressed by hard faced German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The scenes with Ebert during some of his last moments. These alone are enough to bring anyone to tears. Pieced together in this wonderful film, they make for an emotional powerhouse. I have to give the director of this film, Steve James, a lot of credit. Making a documentary like this seems incredibly difficult. So much ground to cover (An entire lifetime, literally!) in about two hours. Yet, James does it with a smooth and assured hand. He makes it entertaining and funny and sad and happy and fantastic. I am gushing a bit now, but I don't care. This film is terrific. It's fitting really, that a lover of movies should go out with such a good one. Go see this film. Even if you aren't or weren't that into Ebert's work. Just as a cinemaphile one should see this. The few cameos by Martin Scorsese are reason enough. For a film focused around a dead man, Life Itself feels so incredibly alive. It's hopeful. Normally I would give a film a star rating at the end of my reviews. But it feels redundant to stick some star on a film like this. It's great, I don't need a star to convey this. Here's my consensus: Life Itself is so many different kinds of wonderful. A great tribute to Roger Ebert, and cinema in general. Happy Viewing to all. 
Remember you can follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies and like me on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies to keep up with all my film related opinions and such.               

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review

A primate with a scarred face rides a horse through a city in ruins. He is firing two machine guns at once. The ape is shrouded in fire, his face is full of anger, malice, and sheer terror. This image, while it may sound absurd (and I suppose it is in a way), is one of the scariest and most real things I've seen on the movie screen this year. It is all of humanity's fears realized. It is the apocalypse personified. It is, in my opinion, possibly the most honest and realistic portrayal of what the end of the world would be like ever displayed on film. "Whit, this is a movie about talking apes who fight people. How is this honest?" Let me backtrack here. Obviously if the world did end there would not be apes on horses with guns riding through the once great ruins of human civilization. What I meant, is that in the event of the apocalypse, things would be absolutely insane. There wouldn't be time for heroes, love, and complex human interactions. Movies love all these things, as do I. Yet, in the event of the end of the world, there wouldn't be these things. In times of disaster, the only thing we have time for is war. Awful, bloody, and horrible war. There are no winners. There are no good guys! Everyone is fighting for the same thing: the right to stay alive. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the newest film in the seemingly endless slew of Apes films, understands this and uses it to its advantage. And it sure uses it well. Taken from a very detached and ignorant perspective, this picture is simply about a bunch of monkeys fighting human survivors in the future. The thing is that it's so much more than that. In this future, almost all of humanity has been wiped out by a virus of proportions similar to the disease in Stephen King's novel The Stand. A small community of survivors, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), are struggling to hold on to past society. Their power is about to go out if they're not able to get the dam running. The problem is that the dam is placed in the same area where the hyper intelligent apes community, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), have settled. The humans must learn to work with these apes to get this dam working. Except most humans are stupid, stubborn, and prone to violence. Unfortunately, most apes are the same way. That's probably what I liked most about this film. It didn't paint the apes as kindly geniuses, nor did it make humans out to be heroes or must always prevail. Both the humans and their primate cousins are warlike in nature, and still have a lot to learn. With the end of the world brings chaos, humans are far from immune to chaos. The same goes for uber smart apes. The film that came before this, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was surprisingly good. It had a touching human story and a lot to say about the testing of animals and the nature of science itself. The end battle on the Golden Gate Bridge was also quite cool. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ups the ante on the last film, and succeeds on all counts. It's grander in scale and filled with much more action, but it never loses sight of its profound messages or deep emotion. It's more exciting and thrilling in the case of its action sequences yet, it never devolves into a mindless explosions fest. The dialogue is also better than the first film. The only thing Rise did better than Dawn was have better written human characters, but I'm wary to even complain about that. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn't about the humans, nor is it about the apes. It's about the epic struggle for survival. It's about horrific chaos. Most of all, it's about how we're often not who we think we are. In the beginning of the film, the apes are shown living peacefully together. They've created a code of conduct (Ape Shall Not Kill Ape and that sort of thing). Although soon it is realized that not all apes are good. In fact, the apes are just like us humans at many times. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is what The Dark Knight was to Batman Begins. An excellent sequel that's darker and even better than it's already great predecessor. It's one of the best blockbusters I've seen in a long time and it makes me feel hope for the film industry. I do think we are in a new golden age of movies. The independent film circuit seems to be churning out classics all the time. Like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Under the Skin for example. While we do have some truly awful big budget blockbuster films being released (Transformers 4, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), we seem to have predominately great and smart mainstream films being released. Like The Lego Movie, Edge of Tomorrow, and this. Cinemagoers: have hope! Anyway, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was pretty terrific and I urge you to see it. It's far from perfect, but it's still damn good. I give it 4.3 out of 5 stars. Happy Viewing! Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies and like me on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies!             

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Snowpiercer review

According to the movies, the future is going to be pretty damn bleak and depressing.
Totalitarian governments, nuclear fallout, global wars....Our inevitable fate comes in many forms. For certain sociological reasons, movies are much more negative nowadays. Focused on The End. So many films detailing the apocalypse are released. Whether it's The Hunger Games or World War Z, our world seems to be in constant turmoil. Another 'end of world' film has to do something drastically different. It has to be well-done, but also intriguing, smart, exciting, and new. Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer is all those things and so much more. It's an action movie for the ages. The plot of Snowpiercer is cool enough as it is. In the near-ish future of 2031, the entire world has frozen over and most of humanity is extinct. The few remaining survivors have packed onto a giant train that perpetually circles the Earth. This isn't your ordinary train. The train is divided up into classes, or castes if you will. The back of it, the tail, is where the poorest of the poor stay. It is dirty and depressing. The people are hungry and sad. And angry. A revolt is brewing in the air. Then there's the front of the train. Golden, fat, and rich. Instead of starving, these passengers feast on steak dinners and wear decadent colorful clothing. The front of the train is where all control lies. Where the seemingly evil and omnipotent ruler Wilford (Ed Harris) lies. Curtis (Captain America himself, Chris Evans) is a tense and angry man living in the back of the train. He and his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) are planning a revolt. They have almost the entirety of the back of the train in on it. They're just waiting for the right time. The film starts off with a slow burn, but once the revolt starts, things begin to go bang. Snowpiercer is ridiculously exciting. The thing is, the film only takes place on a train. A big train, sure, but it's still a train all the same. It's impressive how much director Bong Joon-Ho is able to do with the confined space. It reminds me a bit of a foreign action film that came out a few years ago called The Raid. The Raid kept excitement and tension while only taking place in a single building. That's good cinema. Snowpiercer keeps excitement and tension except it takes place on a train. Except Snowpiercer not only is cool and exciting, it has a lot to say. It's more than an action movie. That's great cinema. The film works perfectly well on just an entertainment level. It's got plenty of battles, showdowns, and ticking time bombs for the adrenaline junkie inside you. But it also has things to say about our society and a solid human story. Snowpiercer not only entertained me, it made me feel cinematically nourished. When watching the movie, it soon becomes evident that the train they're on is a microcosm for our society. Films that do things like that can often feel heavy-handed and annoying, Snowpiercer isn't that at all. I feel weird calling a movie like this an epic, but in many ways it is. It's ambitious and magisterial. Epics traditionally take place on a grand scale, like a desert or a large alien planet (think Lawrence of Arabia or Dune). Bong Joon-Ho's direction make the train feel larger than it is. He makes it feel like its own world, because it is in a way. The train is the entire world for the people on board. It's only fitting that it feels that way. The acting here is very solid. Chris Evans is great as the lead hero. He doesn't go too much out of his range, but he holds his own quite well proving he is our next great action star. Tilda Swinton gives what's probably the best performance in the film. She plays a government worker with false teeth and the accent of a English schoolteacher. She's evil, and I wanted her to die the entire time, but she's also very funny and entertaining to watch. None of the rest of the cast really stood out for me. John Hurt plays a kindly and wise old man (a character I felt he'd played before) and Ed Harris didn't do anything I hadn't seen him do. But overall, Snowpiercer is awesome. An intelligent, exciting, and hopeful sci-fi film that we really don't get enough of these days. It'll be one of the best films of the year for sure. I just can't wait to see it again. I give Snowpiercer a 4.5 out of 5 stars. Happy Viewing! Don't forget to throw me a like on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies and follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Miller's Crossing review

Mobster pictures are somewhat of a staple of American pop culture and have been for a while now. Everything from the original Scarface to The Godfather to The Sopranos. Directors like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma have forged half of their careers off of gangster flicks. Something about the fast and violent lifestyle of the mafia has captured our imagination. Some of the greatest films ever made are gangster movies. And there are so many of them! You'd think after all this time one would grow tired of the genre. If you would think that, you'd be wrong. Truth be told, I really love mob films. Some of my all-time favorite movies (Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Departed, Casino, Scarface) are about the gang life. Done right, a mafia picture can be not only entertaining but have something profound to say about greed and morality and such. If done right, a mafia picture can look something like Miller's Crossing. Joel and Ethan Coen's 1990 film Miller's Crossing is about Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), an adviser to an Irish crime boss (Albert Finney). Tom is whip smart and incredibly cynical, almost an embodiment of The Coen Brothers themselves. The film follows Tom as he navigates the tricky crime landscape of the Irish and Italian mafia by playing both sides against each other. The film's narrative is very plotty and under less talented hands it could turn into a convoluted mess. With The Coen Brothers, they manage to craft one of the most entertaining and gloriously well-made gangster movies I've seen in a long time. Practically everything about this film is impeccable. My only real complaint is that the second half of the film didn't resonate with me as much as the first half. It drops off a bit, but other than that it's absolute gold. Probably my favorite thing about Miller's Crossing is the dialogue. Why this film didn't get a best screenplay nomination at the Oscars I do not know. It certainly deserves one. Every line is as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel. Every conversation goes at a machine gun rate. It's high quality stuff. A screenplay would be almost useless without decent actors to deliver the great lines. Gabriel Byrne is pretty solid here as the main character. He carries out his character's cynicism and wit pretty well, but I feel it could have been done a bit better. Albert Finney is superb as the head mob boss, Leo. Finney really underplays his character. It's a subtle performance, but it absolutely works in every way. The guy who really shines here is John Turturro. I've always known Turturro to be a good actor form seeing him in films like Do The Right Thing and The Big Lebowski (which is my personal favorite Coen Bros. flick). He's phenomenal here. The guy has a relatively small role, but boy does he play it well. Turturro's character is a real slick guy. He's a schemer and kind of an (if you'll excuse my language) asshole. But you can't help but like him. You want him dead yet, at the same time you kind of want to watch him a little bit more. Some actors could make the role insufferably annoying or even dull, depending. Turturro makes him funny and interesting. That takes talent. But this is The Coen's film, and they don't let you forget it. Miller's Crossing is stuffed with classic Coen trademarks. Dark humor, irony, noir lighting, femme fatale characters, swift direction. It has all the marks of a Coen Brothers movie, but it's 100% fresh and original. They don't just do what they've done before. They take an age old genre and morph it into something completely new. Something wonderful. A classic. I think it's safe to say I'm in love with Miller's Crossing. No, it's not The Coen Brothers' best film. No, it's not the best mobster film ever made. Yes, it is a really great film. I'm a pretty big fan of the Coen's, and they've yet to prove they're anything but genius. Miller's Crossing is a genius movie. Well directed, smartly written, and terrifically acted I can definitely recommend you watch it. Hell, watch it twice. I know I will. Happy Viewing folks.
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Friday, June 27, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction review

The fourth installment of the Transformers is the most Transformers-esque Transformers movie ever made. 
The newest Transformers film takes place after the catastrophic events of the last film. The supposedly good Autobots are now being hunted by the government, apparently no longer being welcome here on planet Earth. Inventor and single father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) just wants to make some money to put his daughter (Nicola Peltz) through college, but he's having some trouble with it. That is, until he finds a huge beat up truck in a decrepit movie theater. Said truck turns out to be the head Autobot, Optimus Prime. After the CIA raids Cade's barn and threatens the life of his daughter, Cade escapes with Optimus Prime to go fight some alien threat or something. Many explosions and slow motion robot fights ensue. Michael Bay is a director with a penchant for big action films with bigger pyrotechnics. His movies are a violent barrage of actual explosives and expensive CGI. In some ways, I respect the man. People have almost always given him guff about his films. "Too many explosions!" shouts the irritated moviegoers. "I don't care." replies Michael Bay. No matter how much critics have berated his pictures, no matter what people have said, Mr. Bay has still made his big explosive movies the way he wants to make them. Are the movies any good? In my personal opinion, they aren't most of the time. Yet they all fulfill the insane creative vision of one Michael Bay. He makes these convuluted set pieces, massive explosions, and slow motion shots of attractive females. The guy has his own style, and I applaud him for that much. Despite all that, the new Transformers movie is still really bad. So bad it actually made me yearn for the older Transformers films. The film was so atrocious that I actually started to enjoy it's blatant awfulness after a while. At one point, Mark Wahlberg's character crashes a spaceship into a truck carrying Bud Light beer. The driver angrily asks him "Do you have insurance for that?" Wahlberg responds by picking up one of the prominently placed Bud Light bottles and taking a swig from it. It's such obvious product placement I couldn't respond in any other way than confused laughter. The dialogue here is quite awful. Some of it is just plain expository, bland, and boring. Yet, at times it's unintentionally genius. Lines like "My face is a warrant." will go down in cinema history as some of the most befuddling and genuine lines to ever be spoken in a movie. One cannot react in any other way than shock and awe. This film is loaded with problems. They're all just so obvious and consistent that after a while I started not to mind. My biggest problem with this movie was probably it's pacing. People have been complaining about this film's running time, but a long movie isn't a bad thing. I wouldn't mind the film's 165 minutes if it was more enjoyable at times. The robot fights often run several minutes too long and the story is much too confusing and half-baked to really follow. This caused me to slump back in my seat with my eyes glazed over just sort of staring at the images flashing in front of me. What irritates me most about this is that it actually could be good. Imagine if Bay hired a decent writer to do something awesome and creative with this material? Think  of The Lego Movie. On first glance it seems like a mediocre kids film designed only to make money. Yet, it's actually a wonderfully creative film that all ages can enjoy and it has plenty to say. What if they did that with the Transformers films? What if instead of a two-plus hour spectacle of constant explosions it was used to convey messages and emotions and a raw human story? Maybe I'm just a romantic, but I imagine a Transformers film where the CGI and pyromania take a backseat to an engaging story with sharp dialogue and memorable characters. A film where the female characters were there for more e than just eye candy. All this technical wonder could pair perfectly with a terrific screenplay. Bay isn't an awful director. If he really applied himself to the right material, he could create something beautiful. But hey, that's just me. For now we'll all have to deal with this unintentionally hilarious explosion fest. At least it's not as bad as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, right? I give Transformers: Age of Extinction 2.5 out of 5 stars. 
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Enemy review

A man lives a repetitious, dull life. By day he teaches history. By night he grades papers and has loveless sex with his girlfriend. His apartment is gray and cramped. One night he rents a movie, via a recommendation from a colleague. He notices something odd about the film. One of the actors in it looks exactly like him. Thus starts the eerie turn of events that comprise Enemy, the newest movie by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I can already tell Villeneuve is a great director, having seen his very excellent Prisoners (also starring Jake Gyllenhaal) last year. Prisoners was a very straightforward movie. Enemy is not. Enemy is what you would get if David Fincher and David Lynch had a movie love child. It's dark, gritty, and brooding. It's also really, really strange. There's one scene where a naked woman with the head of a spider walks down a hallway. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a dream sequence either. One of the many interesting things about Enemy is that Jake Gyllenhaal plays the two main roles, Adam and Anthony. I consider Gyllenhaal one of the most talented actors working in cinema today. He's been really great in some really great stuff like Donnie Darko, End of Watch, and Brokeback Mountain. He's just as good, if not better here. Gyllenhaal shows us he can play sad schmuck or sneering villain. Melanie Laurent plays his blonde foreign girlfriend. She proved herself to be a wonderfully capable actress in Inglorious Basterds. Unfortunately, she's not given much to do here. It's not a huge problem, considering the movie's not about her, but I do feel her potential is being wasted a little. What I really liked here is how the two guys are shown. At first the two identical men seem quite similar in personality. As the film progresses it becomes quite clear that one has much more malicious intentions. Like an evil twin, if you will. The two become like split personalities of the same person. Although the film hints at prospects like the men being brothers or just simply insane, it never lets the answer be that easy. Why exactly do these two men look exactly alike is never directly addressed. Immediately after viewing I went online to try and find a reputable analysis of the film. I found one that was quite good and believable. While this was fun, I don't recommend doing it. Let the film soak in your mind for a while and create your own theories before looking one up. It's more fun that way. I haven't seen any of Villeneuve's other films besides this and Prisoners, but I can already see a style forming. His films seem to often poke at moral questions without being too outright about them. The story and atmosphere is often filled with noir elements. If he plays his card right he could very well be the next David Fincher. His direction here is really great. Villeneuve keeps the air of tension so tight throughout the film. I often had to remind myself to breathe. The cinematography certainly helped this. The feel of this film is something like A Serious Man meets Zodiac. That combination works extremely well for the film. Giving it a very claustrophobic vibe often characterized by horror films. I don't think I noticed too many of the clues about the true nature of the film on my first viewing because I was too drawn into the plot tension. I definitely think a second viewing would benefit me greatly. A bit of the tension would be stripped away and I could really delve into the film fully. I do think that's the sign of a great movie, when one wants to watch it again soon after the first viewing. A24 films, which released this, also released the very awesome Under the Skin earlier this year. Those are two of what have the potential to be some of the best films this year. Releasing this great experimental semi-small budget sort of indie flicks is obviously really working for them and I hope they keep it going. The film world could use a few more movies like Enemy and Under the Skin and a few less like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Enemy isn't for everyone. It's weird and alienating, but it's also awesomely cerebral and well done. I do recommend it, but be wary going in. You're in for quite the experience. Happy Viewing everyone. You can follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies and like me on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies.            

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow review

Tom Cruise is awesome. Stop trying to deny it.
When Edge of Tomorrow started its marketing campaign it very much came across as a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action flick that was probably going to be very mediocre. The only reason I was interested in it was because of the cast and the director. Doug Liman, though he's had a few shaky movies since, is the director of the excellent first Jason Bourne film. Emily Blunt was terrific in Looper, and I was looking forward to seeing her do a science fiction flick again. Tom Cruise, despite all the hate he gets, is one of my favorite actors and I'll watch him in practically anything. Plus, Tomorrow is written by The Usual Suspects scribe Christopher McQuarrie. Sure, the trailers looked very bleak and stale. But with the people involved, how could it go wrong? The answer is, it couldn't. Edge of Tomorrow is a fun, exciting, and just really awesome movie. It's the kind of summer blockbuster fare we should be seeing in the movie theaters. It's about William Cage (Tom Cruise) for the army. Aliens have invaded Earth and he's trying to sell the war to the public. A series of events lands him unprepared in the thick of battle. Soon, he dies. But reaction with alien blood makes him relive the same day over and over when he dies. What follows is one of the best action movies of the year. Although Tom Cruise has made some impressive dramatic turns in films like Magnolia and Born on the Fourth of July, recently he's been mainly an action star. Cruise is always able to bring an air of suave badassery to his action pictures. Here, he not only carries that action star persona, but exercises his serious dramatic acting chops as well. The guy is extremely capable of carrying a movie and he shows that here. Yet, he doesn't need to carry the film on his shoulders. Emily Blunt is excellent here. She plays this sort of Joan of Arc type solider who helps Cruise's character defeat the alien onslaught. She's funny, cool, and perfectly delivers some of the films best dialogue. Of course, these great performances wouldn't be much without a script. I can enjoy a decent action flick regardless of a great script. But that doesn't mean the movie will be very good. A film with solid and believable characters and good dialogue can only be good. Edge of Tomorrow is filled with great set pieces and edge-of-your-seat action, but it has a damn good script also. Christopher McQuarrie is a more than capable screenwriter. He's done some great stuff, but he's also done some not so great stuff. This movie is him at his peak. Everything just clicks. The premise may seem a little familiar, and it is. Movies like Groundhog Day have dealt with the living the same day over and over again plot before. And the whole alien thing is nothing new. It's the way McQuarrie crafts his story and his characters that make this film seem fresh. Not only is the film tense and awesome, it's actually very funny. I found myself laughing out loud at some scenes. Weirdly enough, the comedy doesn't feel out of place at all. The terrific cast certainly helps with that also. Doug Liman hasn't really made a great movie in a number of years. Luckily, this is his comeback film. Liman seamlessly directs the action sequences. A movie like this could fall into a jumbled incoherent mess under a different director (think McG with Terminator Salvation). Liman makes it work really, really well. Edge of Tomorrow may seem like just a summer blockbuster, and that is what it is. But it's more than that. It's a good summer blockbuster. Really good. Most big movies seem like they put in human characters and emotion just because they have to. This movie seems like the characters and emotion are in there because the makers of the movie actually want them in there. It's fun and all, but it's also a solid movie on its own. I give Edge of Tomorrow 4.3 out of 5 stars. Remember, to keep up with my reviews and movie stuff in general you can follow me on Twitter @WhitsMovies and like me on Facebook at Facebook.com/WhitsMovies.