Thursday, January 1, 2015


Let it be noted that in a world where everything seems to be falling to shit, movies can be the thing that still delivers. And in my humble opinion, 2014 was indeed a good year for movies.

The films of the past year were a roulette wheel of emotions; there were movies to make you laugh, cry, lean forward in your seat, nearly fall asleep, tremble in excitement, get infinitely frustrated with, drop your jaw in shock and maybe come away feeling like you've learned a little something about life.

For me, the following list is comprised of movies from the last 12 months that delivered on so many fronts and stand out because of it.

As a rule of thumb, this list is pretty much the "subjectiviest" subjective thing a writer like me can make. You may agree wholeheartedly or scoff at certain picks. Coolio, since it's all my preferences listed. No absolutes here, much as I would like them to be. 

As a college student with limited time and resources, I can't say I've seen every single thing to gain release this year, but honestly, who has? [Notable 2014 films like A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice and Selma won't hit theaters outside New York and L.A. until the coming weeks. How unfair is that?!] 

At the very least, it's my secret wish that you, the reader, seeks out some of the movies here you haven't yet seen and find that a pleasant surprise awaits ye.

Without further ado, here are my picks for the 10 best movies of 2014.

Just missed: The LEGO Movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, Birdman

10. The Babadook
Most of 2014's horror movie offerings made me weep as opposed to scream, so maybe that's why The Babadook stands head and shoulders above the rest. That, or it's just a great little spook film. The monster may be terrifying but simply knowing he's there is somehow even more bone-chilling. Atmosphere is such a huge part of The Babadook and the anxiety felt throughout is what helps separate it as a true champ. Even more impressive, there's a real, thoughtful human story going on underneath the otherworldly happenings and lead actress Essie Davis brings it forward wonderfully. 

9. The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game is a tried and true awards-bait, prestige pic. Here's the thing: it's far from a hollow one. Putting aside that it contains exactly what awards voters love, at its heart, this is an appropriately moving story of a brilliant, tortured man. Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely excels as Alan Turing, perfectly capturing the man's brilliance and standoffishness that masked some deeper secrets. The story has consequences and urgency while Graham Moore's script fills the characters with life and personality. It won't reinvent the genre anytime soon but it will certainly deliver a highly satisfying look into someone who changed history.

8. Interstellar
Problems with the general roughness of the film aside, Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic is undeniably ambitious filmmaking. You want a big movie? This is it. You want a movie where scientific theories are presented in an attainable and practical way -- and are arguably something of a hero in the story  -- and there's still room for an emotional core that works? This is it. Also, they threw in waves that are hundreds of feet tall just for good measure. Shepherded by what might be Hans Zimmer's best score in recent memory, Interstellar pushes past its relative shortcomings on the virtue that it actually tried. How does that incredibly ironic saying about shooting for the moon and ending up among the stars go again? 

7. Boyhood
"I think I might have witnessed something profound," is what a movie like Boyhood leaves you saying. Funny since the film, excluding the unprecedented detail of filming a boy's life over the span of 12 years, doesn't really carry a self-important vibe to it. It's a movie made up of the smaller moments in life; conversations that may end up shaping us without us realizing at the time. Because of that, the movie comes off as completely naturalistic. Again, this is all putting aside the fact that they filmed the same kid over the span of 12 years. I'm not a betting man but something tells me that you won't see that become Hollywood's new go-to production method.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Snowpiercer
Aka, the Chris Evans entry. Evans starred in two notable action adventure pics that, while on different ends of the spectrum, are both worthy of note. (Definitely not a coincidence they're sharing the same spot, though).

Winter Soldier is the transcendent Marvel movie for me because it manages to be a) one of a small handful of the studio's superhero offerings that feels like the events of the movie have lasting consequence, b) is socially aware and spun an engaging story from real-world concerns and c) found a perfect balance between their brand of humor and keeping the stakes high. Props to the film for having ScarJo be the least robot-y so far as well.

Snowpiercer, meanwhile, has just as relevant a message but is a little more tongue in cheek about its intentions. In a dark, messed up way. Keep in mind this is a film with a large section of ax murder and school children reciting the catchy tune "What happens when the engine stops? We all freeze and die." It's frequently silly and preposterous but doesn't bat an eye as it barrels forward in its sci-fi action goodness. Satire, ladies and gentlemen.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I'll be the first to admit I have my problems with Wes Anderson. Maybe that's what kept me hesitant towards this one. I'll also be the first to admit I laughed my ass off at Grand Budapest. Anderson didn't let his quirky obsession with symmetrical staging get in the way of delivering an interesting story (that's actually about storytelling) and letting Ralph Fiennes truly shine in the limelight. The pastel pinks that engulf the movie are deceiving, as GBH is a dark comedy and nothing works for me quite like a dark comedy done right.

4. Nightcrawler
Character studies can be painful if you don't give a crap about the character you're watching. All the more impressive that Nightcrawler focuses on a man who is truly reprehensible, but very watchable due to his charisma, and keeps the film fascinating throughout. Add in the murky world of shock journalism in L.A. and the movie is a powder keg of salaciousness. Jake Gyllenhaal is in absolute top form as the slimy Lou Bloom and Rene Russo is great as well. Nightcrawler isn't a movie you walk away from feeling joy or hope for humanity, but it is a film that is engrossing throughout.

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn is the next entry in the "sequels that are better than their already good predecessors" cannon. And what an entry it is. Not only did things go bigger this time around, they went more emotional and certainly more tense. Just from the title (and about 50 years of material) we know how things will end up, but Matt Reeves crafts a well plotted film that focuses on the similarities between ape and man that pushes the technical wizardry that Rise is known for even further. Simply, Dawn is 2014's blockbuster that concerns itself primarily with being a great film. Mission accomplished.

2. Gone Girl
I can't recall exactly what I was expecting from Gone Girl besides it probably being a pretty good movie. David Fincher directing and all. I certainly didn't foresee it being an absolute gut punch. Without getting too spoilery, the first 45-50 minutes of the film contain a great mystery set-up premise where we're given as much info on the matter as the characters. Then the twist hits and all bets are off. The film completely shifts gears into something amazingly wicked while remaining an impeccably written piece of work. [Venturing further into SPOILER territory, Gone Girl is, ironically, a great piece of work about the piece of work the title alludes to. Rosamund Pike so epically delivers in the role of the narcissistic and calculating Amy Elliot that it's stunning. Stunning.] Fincher's latest had my head spinning and heart pumping as I left the theater, which I didn't think was possible anymore.

Then one other film did the same...

1. Whiplash
Whiplash is as much a war film and horror picture as it is a music film. Only in this case, the anxiety level is so much higher than in any film I've seen in those genres. Maybe any film ever. Director Damien Chazelle must have had quite an experience as a music student because he perfectly conveys the pressure of striving to improve and ramps it up to 11 where the film stays for the remainder. The big band sequences are beyond amazing in execution. J.K. Simmons is a boss in every sense of the word as the tyrannical jazz band leader and Miles Teller hits a new high here. Sometimes films with high emotions leave you drained. Whiplash is the opposite and leaves you feeling alive. 

Check back later for individual awards for the year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


It begins. The 2015 awards season took its first major steps forward last week, following several weeks of various critics associations making their top picks, with the announcement of nominees for this year's Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes.

The nominees for the 21st SAG awards were announced Wednesday morning and are as follows for film:

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan HawkeBoyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Naomi Watts, St. Vincent
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Meanwhile, the nominees for this year's Golden Globes were announced the following morning. Here are the nominees pertaining to film:

Best Motion Picture – Drama
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore is earning raves for her role in Still Alice. 
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
David Oyelowo, Selma
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
St. Vincent
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical
Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Quvenzhane Wallis, Annie
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Bill Murray, St. Vincent
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes
Best Animated Feature Film
Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Birdman swept the Globes with seven nominations.

Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Director – Motion Picture
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay, Selma
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Best Original Score – Motion Picture
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything
Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Gone Girl
Antonio Sanchez, Birdman
Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
Best Original Song – Motion Picture
“Big Eyes” – Big Eyes, Music and Lyrics by: Lana Del Rey
“Glory” – Selma, Music by: John Legend, Common, Lyrics by: John Legend, Common
“Mercy Is” – Noah, Music by: Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Lyrics by: Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye
“Opportunity” – Annie, Music by: Greg Kurstin, Sia Furler, Will Gluck, Lyrics by: Greg Kurstin, Sia Furler, Will Gluck
“Yellow Flicker Beat” – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Music and Lyrics by: Lorde

What does it all mean? Well, as with any race, there are some surprises to be had, and a significant showing from films that have emerged as frontrunners. Let's take a look.

Perennial favorites Birdman, Boyhood, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything showed that they are here to stay for the rest of the season and are basically locks in the Oscars' Best Picture race. Each film is up for Best Ensemble at SAG with no less than two actors from each film recognized in the individual acting categories; a similar story unfolded with the Golden Globes, as each film garnered multiple nominations (Birdman has the most at seven).

There was a time when Foxcatcher's chances at awards gold seemed to be drifting away, what with its very limited run and good-not-great reception (supposedly, it's a hard movie to love). This week's announcements put it back in the ring. Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo have solidified themselves as contenders, while Channing Tatum is essentially out of consideration. In addition to Carell and Ruffalo coming out on top, the SAG and GG noms for best picture keep it well within the running.

Apparently the GG voters for Best Drama are high on biographical stories, as every nominee -- barring Boyhood -- is based on true historical events and people.

One of those films, Selma, won't see wide release for several more weeks but has gained a lot of traction within the last month or two. Chronicling Dr. Martin Luther King's march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, the film was left off SAG's nominees but found favor with the Golden Globes, as did its star, David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay. If more nods arise for DuVernay, she could become the first black woman to win a Best Director statue, much less garner continual nods.

Two yet-to-be-released titles that were predicted to be award darlings were noticeably absent from the proceedings: Clint Eastwood's war biopic, American Sniper, and Angelina Jolie's adversity-overcoming, sports drama, survival story, POW spiritual endurance story, Unbroken. The Oscars are known to split from the GGs on their picks but the early mixed/tepid response to the two might have done them in early. At best, expect just one of the two to proceed.

You know who was not done in, despite everyone expecting it to be? The Grand Budapest Hotel. Given the film's very early release in the year, many were sure the limited memory of the various guilds would play against the film's chances -- after all, there wasn't a single Best Picture nominee at last year's Oscars that was released before October. Last week's announcements blew away all doubts that Wes Anderson's whimsical, multi-narrative tale will be a contender (with signs pointing to the director himself placing well in the running). Not only has room been made for GBH at the nominee table, star Ralph Fiennes is also getting noticed for his hilarious role as M. Gustave.

Grand Budapest is a success story in keeping interest going that puts other movies of its ilk to shame -- movies that were released much closer to awards season. Several recent releases that were gunning to be top contenders seemed to have slipped in overall favor but are still getting nods in the areas they deserve praise for.

Gone Girl wasn't present in the Best Drama list but still took nods for Rosamund Pike's standout performance, Gillian Flynn's whipsmart screenplay and David Fincher's skilled direction.

Likewise, Dan Gilroy's media thriller Nightcrawler probably won't see much notice but Jake Gyllenhaal's transformative role in the film as the slimy Lou Bloom did not go unnoticed by both SAG and GG.

Like Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher, Whiplash is another film that hasn't found its box office stride (despite the fact that it is amazing). While that might have kept it from entering the forefront of voter consciousness, J.K. Simmons is still getting due attention in the Best Supporting Actor categories as a strong frontrunner.

As expected, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar didn't make a splash with voters (more like a thud) and was absent from any acting, directing and writing categories here. I see no reason to expect any less from the Academy. However, Hans Zimmer's score did make the cut at the GGs, and with Antonio Sanchez's score for Birdman unable to qualify for the Oscar, that makes it something of a frontrunner come Oscar time.

As stated, Interstellar just won't see any love from Oscardaddy in the major categories, despite Paramount's plans to pursue it -- mixed reactions and whatnot. That said, it would be foolish to not think the film will be everywhere come time for the technical awards to appear, especially visual effects and cinematography.

And finally, while it seemed pretty clear that The Weinstein Company would push The Imitation Game all the way in the drama side of the race, one surprise was in how far they bought campaigned for St. Vincent into the running. While it wasn't predicted to gain notice (like, at all), the film still picked up a SAG nom for Naomi Watts, and two Golden Globe nods; one for the film and one for Bill Murray. Could we have a dark horse on our hands? Another The Artist situation? Probably not. Hopefully not.

We'll just have to see where the wind takes us on this one.

The 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards, hosted again by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, take place first on Jan. 11, 2015 live on NBC.

The 21st Annual SAG Awards follow on Jan. 25, 2015 and can be seen on TBS.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


For a minute there, it looked as if horror was lost on 2014. When your biggest offerings in the genre are Ouija and Annabelle, it might as well be a sign to pack it in.

Enter The Babadook.

Coming from Australian director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is this year's diamond in the rough that stands apart. The film is not only a marvel of showcasing creeping terror, it's grounded in a highly resonant story that spotlights one of life's most destructive monsters of all: depression.

Seven years after the accident that took her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to raise her rambunctious son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), whose behavior becomes increasingly aggressive. One night Amelia unwittingly reads to Samuel from a bedtime storybook he brandishes called "Mister Babadook." After discovering the book's frightening content, Amelia is unsuccessful at keeping thoughts of the frightening titular monster from Samuel's mind as he obsesses over it. Maybe it's for good reason. Shortly after, Amelia finds herself slowly but surely stalked by unexplained visions and influences that make her a danger to her son.

In a landscape of "jump scare a minute" horror features, it's beyond refreshing to see a film that finds power in building up sheer atmospheric terror. Pitch black corners and tricks of the light take precident over things popping out at the screen. Kent skillfully builds tension in several scenes through editing trickery and sound choices so chilling they cause immediate goosebumps. Reality bends to levels of uncertainty that are wild and upsetting.

While the terror of The Babadook is almost overwhelming sometimes, it's the restraint the filmmakers show in handling the titular creature that keeps the fear ballooning. The Babadook itself is almost never seen in a complete way, often covered in shadow with only the briefest glimpse of the monster's disturbing face. Truthfully, it's more terrifying to know that the creature is present than actually seeing every detail of it.

What makes The Babadook so special, however, is that the overt horror aspects are secondary to the real human emotion that guides the story. Even more than lanky monsters that hide in the dark, this film shows these supernatural events as subsidiary to the tragic lifestyle Amelia finds herself in, day and day out. So often throughout we feel her hopeless frustration in raising an unruly child alone and it's unnerving when we feel that she may not love her child… and what that may mean in the end. This being is literally feeding off her grief and depression, becoming a force that so clearly can lead to child abuse in many situations. Can you say "metaphor"?

Even when familiar trappings spring up, such as the mother becoming possessed by the evil spirit, the overall thoughtfulness of the film makes it a cut above the rest. This is the litter chiller that could. It's harrowing in its drama and deeply unsettling in its tone, leaving an eerie feeling that, like the book says about the Babadook, you just can't get rid of.


Monday, November 24, 2014


Two halves are better than one. This idea seems to have become white noise for Hollywood producers and that means no literary adaptation is safe. The trend of splitting final books in a series into multiple films has been, in a nutshell, creatively disastrous -- exemplified by the uneven Harry Potter finale and the criminally overstuffed Hobbit films.

Things were looking up for the Hunger Games series, with director Francis Lawrence coming off delivering a spectacular entry that lives up to the hype with Catching Fire. Alas, good will alone can't save the series' last installment from the dreaded split, as Mockingjay - Part 1 comes up largely empty on content, making for the dullest entry in the saga of Katniss Everdeen yet.

After the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is taking refuge in the secret underground world of District 13, once thought to be bombed out of existence. There, publicity master Plutarch Heavensby (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and stoney district president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) are intent on molding Katniss into the face of the rebellion. Katniss, meanwhile, is more hung up on crying over Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the Capitol's hostage, who is being used to denounce the rebellion. Once she witnesses the Capitol's capacity for cruelty and with a promise to rescue Peeta in place, Katniss embraces her destiny as the Mockingjay.

The general justification behind splitting a final installment into two movies is that it allows for a more detail and closer adherence to the book. True to form, Mockingjay - Part 1 basks in capturing the intricacies from its source material, taking things slow to catch everything it can.The unfortunate result is a film that has, realistically, about an hour of good content stretched to two hours, stuffing filler in where it can and killing all pacing.

There is promise in the blocks of the film that do work, with a satisfying look at how this rebellion is fought with publicity as much as combat and a small handful of interesting action sequences and plot turns, including the destruction of a dam.

However, if any book in the series was in need of an overhaul, it would be Mockingjay. In cribbing from and expanding on its source material to the degree needed for a two-parter, the film never finds the visual and emotional pop that we saw in the last story. This can undoubtedly be attributed to so much of the movie consisting of people in identical grey jumpsuits having prolonged conversations in a dingy, underground bunker.

One thing that these movies had going for them through thick and thin was that Katniss was, for the most part, a relatable character and Jennifer Lawrence sold it. Here, even our steadfast protagonist reaches the point of unlikable. For a series that had wisely put the love triangle aspect in the background, Katniss' whole purpose here seems to be to juggle her clearly-interested-friend Gale at an arms length while breaking down to an ever-increasing state of weeping. Every action this character takes here seems to revolve around her fake boyfriend, Peeta, as opposed to, say, the good of others in this rebellion. Unfortunately, in a war between fascists, she's the best we've got to root for -- if only this movie didn't make that such a pessimistic prospect.

There's no doubt that the Hunger Games films are in better hands with Lawrence as director than Gary Ross, but even the I Am Legend helmer's skills aren't enough to avoid being hobbled by an unnecessary split to two parts. After a non-conclusion, Mockingjay - Part 1 ends on a passive cliffhanger, befitting of such a passive movie. Hopefully, Mockingjay will follow the Deathly Hallows pattern of the final part going out with a bang, but for now Part 1 is a film that can't sustain itself on just an hour of content and doesn't come close to justifying it's existence as a separate film. In the long run, it's the equivalent of a big shoulder shrug.


Saturday, November 8, 2014


At the risk of sounding like a Nolanite, let me just say that Christopher Nolan is one of the most respectable filmmakers around. Outside the obvious praise of him giving us the hands-down best series of Batman films to date, the hit director is commendable for intelligent, mind-bending stories exploring science and psychology, as well as his preference for practical effects and shooting on traditional 35 mm film.

With Interstellar, Nolan turns his focus to space travel, mixing in a heartfelt family drama with profound concepts like wormholes, relative time and gravity. At its best, Interstellar is majestic space odyssey rife with amazing visuals, intriguing concepts and good performances. But at its worst, suffering from a full, disjointed story and criminal pacing issues, Nolan's answer to 2001 sometimes feels like it hasn't delivered on its potential.

A resurgent dustbowl has wiped out all viable crops on Earth except corn, and the future of the human race looks grim. When former pilot and current farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) receives mysterious coordinates from an unseen specter, the struggling father is led to a secret NASA operation headed by a former colleague to look to answers beyond our solar system. Using a not-too-distant wormhole, a plan has been put in motion to send a team to survey far-away worlds that can sustain human life -- a plan they need Cooper to pilot. Leaving his devastated daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain) behind, he embarks for strange new worlds, but can he ever make it back to Earth and if so, will it even be in his children's lifetime?

Much like Inception, there's no lack of ambition at play with Interstellar. Space travel isn't a daring new topic in the film world but the details of Nolan and his brother Jonathan's story are. It's beyond admirable that these two can craft an engaging (well, mostly...more on that later), accessible story using high-concept theories of hard science and, for the most part, make them work in their favor.

As per usual, Nolan's look and sound of Interstellar is top-notch. Despite splitting from mainstay cinematographer Wally Pfister this time out, the look of Interstellar is breathtaking. Space is a surreal experience here, as distant worlds and otherworldly anomalies are brilliantly rendered on screen. If any film is destined to emulate the elaborate visual trippiness of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey on screen in this generation, this is it.

Likewise, frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer largely ditches the booming bass drums and low brass wall of sound for this score in favor of a more spiritual, majestic sound -- complete with pipe organ --  that is invaluable to the emotion of the film.

On the topic of emotion, there's a significant amount at the heart of this film. Nolan is a master of ratcheting up the tension, providing overwhelming stakes to Cooper's mission (like, say, the fate of the planet) and dire consequences for each mistake.

At least part of the reason this works is because of the bond between Cooper and Murph, a more traditional motivation that grounds the movie quite well. Nolan likes to keep his players cool and collected much of the time and McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain oblige, but each are given notable opportunities to cut loose that hit home.

So, if all these elements of the film work so well -- including an entertaining final act that starts as a thriller and ends diving into full-blown science fiction after several overt hints -- why doesn't the movie as a whole feel overwhelmingly good? It might be due to the fact that there's a lot of movie going on with Interstellar; too much. To generalize, a great many 3-hour films don't justify their runtime and Interstellar, at 2 hours and 49 minutes, falls squarely into that camp.

The final cut of the movie suffers from frequent sections of dragging while the script is in desperate need of doctoring to smooth out the extended sections of sciencey exposition and explanation, not to mention the somewhat episodic nature of the story as the team visits new worlds and deals with the hurdles each brings. It's like Inception but not as good as Inception.

In fact, smoothing out is the perfect description of what this story itself desperately needs, especially in editing the script to trim the bloat and get the movie to an acceptable length. There's a lot to cover with the film's current story and one can't help but wonder if trimming one plot thread, planet, concept or character would have helped. Interstellar is a smart film but it's a rambly smart film when all the pieces are in place for it to be a concise one. Just because the material is epic doesn't mean the length of the film needs to pump itself up to similar proportions.

Because of this, there's a really disappointing feel at times in the movie -- like you're being kept at arm's length investment right at the moment you're feeling closest. As mentioned, Nolan's space epic can be completely engrossing in parts but they're sadly often followed or proceeded by parts that don't match up.

Far be it to say Interstellar is a bad movie, it's not. In so many ways it embodies why we go to the movies in the first place: to be transported to far away worlds and see something we've never seen before. It even throws in the bonus of making you think a little bit. Sure, there's a frequent feeling that this good movie could have been great with more care in scripting and pacing but Nolan's latest succeeds on visceral entertainment (a screening in true IMAX is a must for film junkies), performances and admiration for making a film about relativity interesting.

It may not be the knockout success akin to some of his earlier films or what some of us may have been expecting, but it's far from something to turn your nose up at.


Thursday, November 6, 2014


It takes balls to revolve an entire film around a character who is downright unlikable. In a landscape of easily accessible protagonists and cheery goals and motivations, Nightcrawler spits in the face of joy and comfort to deliver a hypnotizing portrait of a man who has left morals behind.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) may believe in hard work and forward advancement in the business world but that hasn't changed the fact that he is a petty thief, stealing manhole covers and chain link fences when not busy assaulting security officers for their watches. Lou finds his avenue to success, however, when he falls into the world of "nightcrawling," videotaping latenight accidents, murders and robberies for local Los Angeles TV news. Once in, Lou will stop at nothing to reach the top, abandoning all morality while manipulating coworkers and taking out the competition.

Nightcrawler is a creepingly uncomfortable viewing experience all thanks to Jake Gyllenhall going the extra mile to be, well, the ultimate creep.  Appearance-wise, the actor is gaunt to the point of being almost unrecognizable and exudes unsettling focus and intensity, while first time writer/director Dan Gilroy crafts a character on paper that is repulsive but mildly admirable for his tenacity -- something Gyllenhaal jumps all over in performance. The story expertly unfurls the depths of Bloom's ruthless nature and why he does what he does to the point where all expectations of him doing the right thing disappear.

Everything pivots on the study of Bloom and Gyllenhaal fully delivers on his end of the slimy deal. Gilroy manages more than alright on his own as well, producing a smart script that keeps you thinking, whether it be about the effects of a recession and limited job market, racial selectiveness in crime reporting and the "if it bleeds, it leads" desperation that some media embraces. Gilroy's story is the sturdy bedrock on which all of Gyllenhaal's character work can build upon (props as well to Rene Russo, tactfully playing the similarly dubious and enabling but unsuspecting news director, Nina.)

As an unabashed character piece, it admittedly takes Nightcrawler a bit to get moving. The first 45 minutes of the film is all character work that, while good, feels a tad aimless. It's after then that the movie finds its plot and puts its character inspection to good use.

Nightcrawler acts like a passing car wreck you can't turn away from, while remaining a pristine example of filmmaking. Gyllenhaal's unsettling performance and Gilroy's cynical script make for one of the seediest, thoughtful film experiences this year that will keep you pondering long after.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014


As someone who devoted most of their formative years to music, I can say with confidence that the music making process can get intense. Tempers can easily be tested and the potential for embarrassment is always on the cusp. Lifelong insecurities come from this stuff.

With Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle understands that undercurrent of emotion (himself a former music student) and mines it for all it's worth. The story of a jazz drumming student pushed to his absolute limit by a ruthless instructor, Whiplash is a far more intense experience than a majority of thrillers and a kinetic, disturbing look at the lengths one will go to reach their potential.

War is hell but music can be pretty close. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young prospective drum student at one of New York's premiere jazz academies. It's there that he catches the eye of music maestro Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) and is given his big break into the world of top-tier jazz performance. Little does he realize that Fletcher sees greatness in him, which means he's about to launch a full-scale psychological campaign against Andrew to bring that greatness forward.

It's compliment that can't bestowed on nearly enough movies but it absolutely fits here: Whiplash is never boring. Chazelle delivers a taught, skillful film that asks questions about what it takes to achieve greatness and whether greatness through adversity is the right path. The game of war between Teller and Simmons is amazing to witness, with each subsequent moment of the movie feeling like it's reaching the razor's edge. Chazelle knows that in the world of competitive music even the most innocent mistake, like misplacing a music folder or not adequately practicing come rehearsal time, can cause a panic attack -- something he very well may be out to incite.

Of course, so much of that is due to the cast. Teller ditches the smarmy Vice Vaughn impression and plays a real, layered, driven individual. Through him we see both the triumphs and sacrifices that come with going for the gold and are asked "Is it worth this punishment?" Or rather, would I literally bleed as much as he currently is for my craft?

Which brings us to Simmons, who is nothing short of a knockout as Fletcher. The actor is constantly riding the line of being ridiculous in his abrasiveness, but by god it works. It certainly doesn't hurt that the writers have given him a very difficult, duplicitous character to work with; after doing something reprehensible, we'll see hints of humanity and maybe even empathize with him, which is usually followed by him doing something every more appalling. Simmon's performance as this battering ram of a person, understandable in purpose but deplorable in methods, is a standout.

Equal if not greater praise has to be given to the editing of Whiplash for keeping things constantly on the point of panic. Jazz is alive in the very fiber of this film's being. The big band performance sequences are some of the most comprehensive, memorable portrayals of music performance put to screen thanks to the deliberate, mathematical way in which they're put together. Maybe the sequences themselves come close to being long in the tooth, much like Simmons' performance, but they always hit the right note by the end. The effect is absolutely heart-racing.

It's stunning how lean and mean (emphasis on the latter) Chazelle's sophomore effort is. Its universal themes are explored in depth without being heavy handed, the performances are killer and the intense emotion of the piece pulls you in for good. Simmons' Fletcher may believe that "good job" is a poisonous phrase, but it's a vast understatement when it comes to Whiplash.


Sunday, October 26, 2014


From the opening drum riff and the very first image of a comet burning bright in the sky, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu makes it clear that you will be using your brain throughout Birdman. The Mexican director establishes from the get-go that his story of a former Hollywood star grappling to put together a Broadway production will be an "ideas movie."

True to his word, Birdman is rife with ideas, both thematically and in technical experimentation, that throw caution to the wind and just go for it. As one might expect, some ideas stick and some do not, but among the best of them is the decision to bring in both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton to really show us what they've got.

In an effort to escape his image as an aging celebrity, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is writing, producing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Apparently the universe has other plans, as Riggan is pushed to his wits end by the antics of a new, difficult costar (Edward Norton), who has set his sights on Riggan's troubled daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone). If that's not enough, Riggan also must ward off a venomous theatre critic intent on sinking the show, as well as his own impending mental collapse, brought on by the less-than-helpful disembodied voice of the character he made famous, Birdman. Oh, did I mention he may also be developing telekinesis?

At the core of things, Birdman is about Riggan's descent into madness, and on that level, the film is well done. It can not be stated enough how much Keaton's performance adds to the pathos of the movie, with the veteran actor expertly carrying the film. It's Keaton's comeback show but Norton, Stone, Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan all make their presences known. Horrible as it sounds, the plot points of Riggin's downfall are delightful to watch in that special, dark comedy type of way.

It's in how Inarritu goes about showing that story that things become a mixed bag. Some gimmicks are actually really cool and others show that the director is too preoccupied with making "art" that the natural intrigue gets lost in favor of manufactured intellectualism. Much as I hate calling things pretentious, this fits the bill in more than one area.

In the camp of things that are awesome, Antonio Sanchez's 100 percent drum kit score (barring just a few classical soundtrack interludes) pays off, flooding the film with improvisational street beats that marry the film's spastic psyche with the rhythms of New York City.

Perhaps the biggest trick Innaritu tries to pull off is the illusion that Birdman is one long, continuous camera take. While it sounds awesome in theory (especially considering Gravity's Emmanuel Lubezki handles the cinematography), the trick works amazingly for scenes with a lot going on, bobbing and weaving in between different character actions, then often fails in the slower sections of the story, leaving in the vacuums of momentum that editing could have rightfully done away with. By the end, most of the film's pacing is shot.

Outside the main dilemma of Riggan's fall from grace, Innaritu and his co-writers have a lot to say on the state of film vs. theatre, criticism, relevancy in the modern age, etc., but it too often feels just like a superficial look at these ideas (better than nothing, I guess). Character nuances are spelled out plainly in monologues, rather than shown naturally -- again blurring the line between cinema and theatre for the worst.

And where would the film be without a helping of magical realism, highlighted beautifully by Riggan's zany hallucination of Birdman himself, taunting the actor to abandon his quest for artistic integrity with lots of 'splosions, which audiences apparently eat up. It's a fun sequence and the most bombastic moment of an otherwise downplayed area of the movie.

Birdman is worth the price of admission alone in watching Keaton and his fellow co-stars do their thing. And while some of Innaritu's artistic nuances definitely work -- weird as it sounds -- it's hard not imagine what the film could have been if the filmmakers had played things just ever-so-slightly more straight.


Saturday, October 25, 2014


When it debuted in 2011, the most profound thing about FX's American Horror Story wasn't its blend of psycho-sexual horror, rather its ability to make the kitchen sink route work, throwing as many horror plots and nods out there as they can and still bringing it all together nicely.

This ambitious approach worked really well for showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuck for a while, giving us two stellar seasons of the anthology series: Murder House and Asylum.

But after a lackluster third season, Coven, and the first three episodes of the hotly anticipated fourth season, Freakshow, in the bag, the major flaw of the series' design is starting to show. Simply put, diminishing returns are catching up fast.

Freakshow takes us to Jupiter, FL, circa 1952, as conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson in a dual role) are forced to join one of the last remaining freakshows in the country after they are implicated in some suspicious criminal activity. Run by Mistress Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), a limelight-hungry German ex-pat, the community houses such mistreated "freaks" such as Jimmy, the Lobster Boy (Evan Peters), Ethel, the Bearded Lady (Kathy Bates, sporting the most confounding accent this side of Baltimore) and Meep the Geek, who makes his living biting the heads off chickens.

Things quickly go from crazy to mental breakdown with the arrival of strongman Dell (Michael Chiklis), whose history with Ethel and ambitions to assume control of the show over Elsa cause sparks to fly. Not only that, the Jupiter police are dead set on punishing the freaks, while a shifty conman and his assistant (Dennis O'Hare and Emma Roberts) are plotting on getting their hands on the twins for reasons that might be described as museum related.

Lest we forget, there is also a murder clown making the rounds in the Jupiter area doing exactly what you would expect murder clowns to do.

This synopsis is only referring to the first three episodes and only covers about half of the story arcs already established.

It's a lot to keep track of, and while there will always be plotlines that are more interesting than others, everything this season just feels like the air has been let out. There's no shortage of great visuals going on, with Paulson's performance as Bette and Dot providing a fascinating look at acting, while Twisty the Clown Killer is every bit as terrifying as people may lead you to believe.

And yet, the show hasn't yet tapped back into that magic that kept you tuning back in, week after week. Characters, despicable as they usually are in this show, haven't shown the type of charisma that past years have, with the mute clown assuming the role of most intriguing character over the usually terrific Lange, who is saddled here with her least interesting role on the show to date.

AHS certainly isn't known for pulling its pieces together early on (mystery, people) but the current plotlines they have going don't seem to demand any continued investment. Here we go with another love triangle, only this time it's with the conjoined twins, the lobster boy and the faux fortune teller (sounds awesome on paper, we'll see how it goes on film). Meanwhile the strongman is a jerk because he's impotent, because sympathy. Even the appearance of a ghostly freak legend (Wes Bentley) on Halloween hasn't reached its potential thanks to him being overly conversational.

Part of the problem early on might be the fact that each early episode runs upwards of an hour, as opposed to the standard 43 minutes, without much justification. If there was an abundance of cool things going on, this would be awesome; as is, it just feels like we're getting less for more.

[At least part of this problem could be solved if someone just sat Ryan Murphy down and screamed into his face that "THIS IS NOT GLEE." Every episode thus far this season has featured a hackneyed musical number, owing to the fact that somehow this freak show is focused around singing. This was a cute, inventive turn that one time they used it in Asylum; it then became questionable when they kept bringing in Stevie Nicks in Coven; now the tired gimmick needs to be retired. Forever.]

Freakshow still has plenty of time to pick itself up, starting with this week's concluding chapter to the annual Halloween episode, so who knows, maybe this season can pull off the hat trick and get back to greatness. But just going by these first few episodes, it simply looks like they've hit that point with all great TV shows and are running on a definite lack of steam.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Like the main man himself, the mythology of Dracula has been around for a long, long time.

With Dracula Untold, we have an attempt to go back to how it all started with the Prince of Darkness receiving an origin tale that screams "Game of Thrones meets gritty superhero reboot origin." -- Dracula Begins, if you will.

While it may be a pretty derivative way of handling the material, and the film certainly isn't high art when it comes to story or characterization, Dracula Untold overcomes its roadblocks by putting stake (get it) into simply being a fun, energetic time at the movies.

When the Sultan demands his son as an offering for his army, Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans), known once as The Impaler, strikes a deal with an ancient evil and is granted three days to eradicate his enemies with all the powers of darkness at his disposal. However, if he gives in to his unrelenting thirst for human blood within those three days, then he is cursed to roam the Earth forever as a creature of the night.

It has not been a good year for revisionist action films based on literary characters (maybe it's due to the whole "revisionist action film based on literary characters" part). This summer's Maleficent was an abscess of wonderment while this past winter's I, Frankenstein was a bigger abomination than its title creature.

Really, it's not like Dracula Untold is the Dark Knight of the unfortunate subgenre, either. First-time director Gary Shore and screenwriters Burk Sharpless and Matt Sazama play the story out in completely routine fashion -- gee, I wonder if Dracula will ultimately become Dracula? -- with a lot of the main cast, like Sarah Gadon and Dominic Cooper, just there to be necessary pieces in the puzzle. The film's story is nothing if not straightforward and predictable, with a healthy dash of unintentional dopiness thrown in, just for good measure.

However, the deciding factor here, above all else, is that the film is largely really entertaining. While not big on dramatic depth, Shore tries many inventive visual ideas in showcasing Dracula and his powers, a large majority of which pay off. For an action-horror movie, the blend between the two is surprisingly fun to watch, as visual representations of Drac's nocturnal POV and his ability to transform into and control bats are slickly rendered on screen.

Although the film has some blood let out of it by the PG-13 rating, which keeps things from getting too graphically sloppy, the mood and efforts to adhere to mythology are spot on here. It makes no bones about going for a GOT feel, but Untold's moody visual aesthetic -- shot in atmospheric Nothern Ireland -- feels genuine, while its depiction of both vampire lore and the Dracula legend is a nice callback to the classic days of horror. Ramin Djawadi's score also carries a lot of weight to it, excellently mixing the Gothic tones of Dracula, as well as the medieval action heft of GOT.

To its credit, it's also not a terribly long film, whizzing by at around 90 minutes, giving us just the bloody meat of things.

Evans has natural star charisma, and unlike many of his previous roles, he actually gets to put it to good use here. As a torn warrior, fighting against his own urges and past life (as well as the obvious invading army), Evans has the act down. As the undead nocturnal predator of nightmare lore... not quite there yet. That particular creature is embodied here by Charles Dance's elder vampire, an eye-catching mustache twirler who could have an interesting role to play in future films in this franchise.

And yes, it's quite possible this could be the first in Universal's new monster series, picking back up with Alex Kurtzman's Mummy remake. In that case, starting off as a medieval actioner is fine, but the series will benefit much more going forward by abandoning the war approach in favor of atmospheric horror and a much better script.

The good casting choices, strong tone and impressive visuals, however, can live on.