Latest Reviews
Wednesday
Dec312014

A Most Violent Year

“A Most Violent Year” is a movie with a somewhat misleading title. Despite one that implies action or, at the very least, some graphic content, the film rarely depicts onscreen violence, nor does it show anything particularly sexy or exciting. No, “A Most Violent Year” is instead a slow burner, a masterful crime drama that would feel right at home alongside the best the genre has to offer.

The year is 1981 and Abel (Oscar Isaac) is a business owner of a New York oil company. He is currently working on closing a deal on some prime real estate that will give him significant business advantages over his competitors. However, he finds himself struggling because his trucks keep getting robbed and the oil sold to one of those competitors. On top of that, there is an investigation underway in regards to his company, along with the entire industry as a whole. Some serious charges are going to be brought against him and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who may be responsible for many of them in the first place.

It may not sound like much, but this set-up leads to some suspenseful, emotional and sometimes even frightening scenes, exemplified in an early sequence when Abel walks around his darkened house looking for an intruder. And watching these scenes unfold is like watching a brilliant play come to life. Aside from one chase scene and one shootout, the movie maintains a small scope, usually opting to focus on its characters.

And with characters like this, such a decision should be applauded. Abel is a confident and sharp-tongued businessman who never backs down from threatening or uncomfortable situations and tells it like it is. But at the same time, he’s honorable. Despite the impending charges that could threaten his business, he does his best to keep on the good side of the law. The few moments where he does take action in potentially unlawful ways come as an effect of unlawful actions being taken against him. What he does is understandable, even as his priorities of business first and everything else after ensure he never becomes a completely sympathetic character.

Then again, flawed characters are generally more interesting and such is the case here in nearly every regard. Anna, anchored by an outstanding performance from Jessica Chastain, is the least conscientious of the two, the moment her true colors come out as she emotionlessly kills a deer being a standout scene of the film. Chastain brilliantly crafts a strong, intelligent female out of a character stuck in an era when women were more expected to abide by traditional gender roles than they are today. She plays the good wife to those around her, but her motivations and actions show there is much more bubbling beneath the surface, perhaps a genetic trait from her father, a well-known gangster from the area who has, presumably, since passed.

All of this is enhanced by a truly magnificent score, as it perfectly punctuates each scene. Otherwise rote dialogue, like early on when Abel gives a motivational speech to his salesman, is enhanced by a score that implies some sinister desires beneath his seemingly simple words. The score beautifully hints that the characters aren’t all they seem to be at first and while those character arcs and revelations aren’t exactly surprising, the score nevertheless remains a fascinating and integral component to who they eventually become.

“A Most Violent Year” isn’t going to be for everybody. After a little more than two hours at a sometimes slow and occasionally uneventful pace, some viewers may want more. But for those with a little patience to spare, “A Most Violent Year” is guaranteed to be one of the most interesting movies you’ll have seen this year, with a thoughtful ending that will leave you with plenty to ponder over when the credits finally roll.

A Most Violent Year receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Dec252014

Into the Woods

There’s a certain joy that washes over me when I watch a good musical. Movies and music are wonderful mediums for artistic expression, as each find their own truths and meaning in their own distinct, separate ways, but combining the two is complete bliss. Both complement each other, the music giving the visuals an extra flavor that would be missing had they been accompanied by silence, and vice versa. When those visuals are as striking and the music as wonderful as they are in “Into the Woods,” it’s impossible not to be entertained. This is visually one of the best musicals since 1940’s “Fantasia,” full of all the grandeur and wonder that one might expect from a Disney movie.

Adapted from the 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Into the Woods” tells a story that mixes together numerous childhood fairy tales. In a small town, there is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child, but whose family lineage has been cursed by an evil witch (Meryl Streep), making it impossible. She tells them she will break the curse if they can obtain four items for her in the surrounding woods: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a shoe as pure as gold. On their search, they run into Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is attending the Prince’s (Chris Pine) ball, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who is on her way to see her grandmother, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who is stuck in a tall tower with no stairs or doors, and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who is heading to town to sell his cow, but will end up trading it for some magic beans. The baker and his wife, thrust into the middle of all these stories, will do their best to get each of those items however they can.

“Into the Woods” is a magical film, one that combines the natural wonder of the fairy tales it portrays with terrific songs that simultaneously poke fun of those tales and lovingly embrace them. It doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of these Brothers Grimm tales, including the death of major characters—and yes, you’ll get to experience the evil stepsisters getting their toes cut off in an attempt to fit their feet in the golden slipper—but it never gets dark enough to lose its whimsy. Chris Pine, in particular, steals every scene he’s in with a self-deprecating performance that adds a satirical spin on fairy tale machismo as it upends the traditional character gender roles so many of these classic stories exemplify.

But Pine is merely one part of one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Streep, as is expected at this point, gives one of the best performances of the year as the wicked witch. The nuance she brings to the character makes the witch all her own, as she crafts someone who is both terrifying and also immensely likable. Even as she threatens and frightens the baker and his wife, she charms, as does Kendrick, cast perfectly in the role of the disheveled, but nevertheless lovely Cinderella. She has proven her vocal talent in movies like “Pitch Perfect,” but whereas that movie mostly featured an a cappella group singing together, she gets to shine alone here. Her story is the funniest and most emotional, so her songs bring with them added weight and she performs them with aplomb.

For those more interested in visuals, however, the star of the show won’t be Kendrick or Pine or Streep or even Stephen Sondheim, but the fantastic art direction that somehow manages to give colorful life to the dark settings. The costumes, props, sets all create a vivid world, one that would be desirable to live in were it not for the witch curses and giants stomping about. If you don’t mind a pervading sense of dread in your visuals, “Into the Woods” will amaze you, even if the songs and story don’t.

It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t, though, as almost every moment in this two hour movie is a delight to watch, the sole awkward part being the song sang by the Big Bad Wolf, played by Johnny Depp, which is full of enough (presumably intentional, but still uncomfortable) sexual innuendo towards Red Riding Hood to derail the mood up to that point. Luckily, it’s early on, so it corrects itself quickly, but in every other regard, “Into the Woods” proves itself as an absolute gem of a musical.

Into the Woods receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Nov202014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Ever since the final story in the “Harry Potter” film series was split into two movies, other popular franchises based on young adult novels have followed suit. From “Twilight” to the upcoming “Divergent” finale to this week’s “Hunger Games” entry, it has become common practice to milk every dollar possible out of their fanbases. While smart from a business point-of-view, such a tactic typically means the storytelling suffers. To date, each first entry in these splits have expectedly felt like the first half of a whole story. But whereas “Harry Potter” had some meat to it, the first part of the final installment in the “Hunger Games,” subtitled “Mockingjay,” has none. The film is a cash grab through and through, taking about 30-45 minutes of dramatic narrative and lengthening it to a plodding two hours. And that’s the least of its problems. Despite two solid entries in the popular franchise, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” fails to deliver in nearly every regard.

The story picks up where “Catching Fire” left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has essentially destroyed the Hunger Games and has been picked up by the rebels who intend to overthrow the Capitol. To do that, they need to get the people from each district on their side, so the rebel president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and her right hand man, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), convince Katniss to be the face of the rebellion, their Mockingjay, and they set out to make propaganda films they can broadcast all around the Capitol.

That is more or less all that happens in this part one of the “Mockingjay” story. It shoehorns in certain themes, particularly in its exploration of totalitarianism, but they fail to resonate. While a story about government intrusion and control over its people is not a bad one, it’s one that has been explored to death, especially in recent years when the US government arguably overextended its rights after 9/11. “Mockingjay” doesn’t do or say anything particularly different, or even well, instead opting to be what amounts to a rather basic “corrupt government vs. righteous rebellion” story.

Even if just looking at it from an action perspective, even if you go in just trying to satisfy your most primitive, visceral desires, “Mockingjay Part 1” won’t satisfy. The Hunger Games from the previous movies are over and the rebellion has begun, but their focus on propaganda films means much of the action happens at a distance, Katniss merely hearing about it or seeing it after the fact and subsequently expressing her frustration on camera, which the rebels use for future broadcasts. The fear, the thrill, the mystery, the intrigue; they’re all gone, replaced with unenticing answers and a glacial narrative pace.

Ultimately, its pseudo-intellectualism is the most prevalent aspect of “Mockingjay,” at least from a story perspective. Unfortunately, its visuals don’t do much to pick up the slack. The colorful eye candy from the two previous films are muted to drab grays and browns here; count yourself lucky if you pick out the fleeting moments of actual color. Though the aesthetic switch compliments the darker tone of the film, it nevertheless makes the movie a visual bore. It is possible to make a tonally dark movie with a dark, muted color palette without compromising the actual beauty of the film. The later “Harry Potter” entries are great examples of those films. “Mockingjay Part 1” is not.

Worse yet, the dialogue is full of some of the most heavy handed ramblings you’ll hear all year, as Katniss and her cohorts proselytize incessantly like loudmouthed doomsayers on a college campus. Lawrence is a terrific actress, but even she can’t elevate her dialogue from the drudgery of the page it was conceived on. When she isn’t talking, the supporting characters don’t do much better as they speak obvious truths, seemingly to appeal to the dumber viewers in the audience. After one character gives a very clear warning to the rebels, another yells out, “A warning! That was a warning!”

There are a few tense scenes, but they either pale in comparison to similar sequences in other films or they fizzle out before anything really happens. The finale in particular ends up going nowhere and the one would-be frightening scene where bombs are dropping overhead recalls 1942’s terrific “Mrs. Miniver,” and it reaches not even a tenth of the drama and fear that movie instilled in the viewer.

There’s not much going on for the majority of this film, but just when the story finally begins to gain some momentum, it abruptly ends. Though it sets the stage for a hopefully more exciting final installment—and when coupled with it, perhaps this first half will fare better—as a standalone product, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is a monumental dud, a huge nosedive in quality that is unprecedented in other major franchises. It’s unworthy of the venerable “Hunger Games” name and most certainly unworthy of your time.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 receives 1/5

Friday
Nov142014

Dumb and Dumber To

Imagine for a moment that 2003’s disastrous “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” never happened and that 1994’s hilarious “Dumb and Dumber” was left untainted as a comedy classic. Having laid dormant for 20 years, would a resurrection of those characters in a not-particularly-asked-for sequel work? The humorously titled “Dumb and Dumber To” is here to answer that question and, sadly, it’s a mixed bag. If the original film can be considered a classic while the ill-advised prequel exemplifies bottom-of-the-barrel comedy, then “Dumb and Dumber To” rests squarely in between.

The catalyst that gets our dimwitted duo out on the road again involves a discovery that Harry (Jeff Daniels), against all odds, has a grown daughter. It turns out that an evening he spent with the beautiful Fraida, who has since grown into an old bag played by Kathleen Turner, produced a baby. So he, along with Lloyd (Jim Carrey), who has spent the last 20 years in a psychiatric hospital just so he could play a joke on Harry, sets out to meet her at an upcoming convention where she will be speaking. Along with them is Travis (Rob Riggle) and a box of unimaginable worth, the contents of which could change the world forever. However, Travis has an ulterior motive, and only dumb luck is going to protect Harry and Lloyd and get them where they need to go.

Which is, of course, the entire conceit of the movie. As with the first film, the duo is oblivious to what is actually going on around them as they stumble into different scenarios that play out in ways that could only be dreamed up in a Hollywood screenplay. Luckily, those scenarios are relatively entertaining, even if they include some unnecessary shoehorning in of characters and props from the first movie. You’ll remember the “pretty bird” blind kid, the Mutt Cutts van and more, though they appear for mere minutes, if that, before disappearing into oblivion. While these moments serve as welcome fanfare for those that remember watching the original 20 years ago, they nevertheless do little to enhance the overall movie.

Many jokes from the first film are repeated as well, but there’s plenty of new content here to make up for it. Aside from a handful of set-ups that pay off later in the film, gags come fast and furious and both Carrey and Daniels, who are now in their 50s, are game to pull them off. Neither of them have missed a beat in the gap between movies, particularly Carrey, who is just as absurd as you remember him. “Dumb and Dumber To” often falls back on slapstick, which I consider to be the lowest form of humor, but if there’s anyone that can pull it off, it’s Jim Carrey and Daniels perfectly complements him. Even at the film’s worst, they’re fascinating to watch together.

What else can really be said about this movie? Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s not, but it knows what it’s doing. These are dumb characters in dumb situations doing dumb things and making dumb jokes, which is the entire point. “Dumb and Dumber To” doesn’t advertise itself as anything else and delivers exactly what people going to see it will want. If you’re one of those people and can set the proper expectations, there’s no doubt enjoyment will be had. This is no classic, but “Dumb and Dumber To” is good for some cheap laughs.

Dumb and Dumber To receives 3/5

Friday
Nov142014

Rosewater

Despite a tone that is meant to be satirical, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” plays an important role in American politics. A sad statement on American media it may be, but his show is more often than not the voice of reason in the seemingly endless deluge of fear mongering and scapegoating that major news networks like to drum up. Whether it intends to or not, his show has an effect on people. Nobody is this truer for than Maziar Bahari, a journalist who spent 118 torturous days in an Iranian detainment facility for, among other things, appearing on “The Daily Show.” His 2009 interview with correspondent Jason Jones was used as evidence against him, as he found himself accused of espionage for America and against Iran.

“Rosewater,” directed by Stewart in his directorial debut and based on Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came for Me,” tells a fascinating story, one that is bound to stick with viewer’s long after its credits have rolled. Unfortunately, it’s a case of the story being more interesting than the film’s overall construction. Stewart’s inexperience shines through here, much in the way one might expect when watching a directorial debut, as its tone is inconsistent and its narrative fails to find a rhythm. Even with a runtime of only 103 minutes, “Rosewater” feels much longer, partially due to its varying flow that Stewart can’t seem to get a hold of. Nevertheless, the story is so strong that it makes up for its subpar construction, though if it interests you, you might be better off just reading the book.

The most successful element of “Rosewater,” bar none, is the terrific lead performance by Gael Garcia Bernal, who gives his all. One senses that the story struck a chord with him, as he pours himself into this role in a way few actors do. He manages to hit all the emotional highs and lows such a traumatic experience would inevitably bring, even as the surrounding film fails to do the same. He carries this movie, as Stewart more often than not keeps the camerawork simple and lets his actors do the heavy lifting. Such an approach is the mark of a director who either knows when he has something good going or who doesn’t quite know how to spice things up. In this case, I imagine it’s a little bit of both.

That’s not to say Stewart doesn’t occasionally try to stretch his directing muscles, but when doing so, he fails. His artistic flourishes stand out like sore thumbs, like tactics an amateur film student would use when trying to make their film more “artsy.” This is best exemplified early on as Bahari walks down the street, narration going on about his family’s past while accompanying video plays in the background. It’s a moment that doesn’t work and feels more appropriate for a documentary about this story rather than a dramatic retelling, as does an odd sequence where Twitter hashtags fly about the screen as the world tweets their outrage over Iran’s election results, the very same election Bahari was meant to cover.

Too often, these misplaced stylish diversions get in the way of the actual story at hand. As Bahari suffers both physically and mentally in his cell, the screenplay, which is also written by an inexperienced Stewart, brings forth his dead relatives to converse with, to give him strength and hope and help him battle through the awful events he must endure. Nearly all of these moments land with a thud, particularly when Bahari tries to convince one of them that his beliefs that he fought for were misguided. There’s a revelatory moment here, as the camera lingers on the ghost’s face. Or maybe it was his lingering soul. Or, more likely, a hallucination. Regardless, the guy isn’t there and isn’t facing these current hardships. Such a revelation is unnecessary.

Still, “Rosewater” is absolutely worth seeing. If there was ever a movie that could be described as being more than the sum of its parts, it’s this one. Though not always successful, it’s always interesting and it kept me hooked all the way through, despite my knowing of how the real world event ended. That, if nothing else, is the mark of a story worth experiencing.

Rosewater receives 3.5/5