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 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. 
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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