12 Years a Slave (R)

10 Stars

When I mentioned 12 Years a Slave to my Dad, he said, “I hear that’s great but depressing.”

An apt analysis, some may agree. But I would de-emphasize the depression aspect of this movie.

There are quite a few more tears than I am used to relinquishing, however, the majority are triggered by the happiness of the ending.

I’m not sure if it’s desensitization or a function of my age, but I would not describe the material as specifically “depressing.”

Horrifying? Sure.

Moving? Riveting? Absolutely.

But I don’t believe it induces a sad darkness that hitchhikes upon your brain for a number of days. We’re all aware slavery happened, right?

I do not mean this to be critical towards the specificity of my father’s diction. It’s more to discourage a certain mindset.

If you want to see a great movie, no matter how often you see them, 12 Years a Slave is easily worth the two hours and fourteen minutes. It’s shot remarkably well, edited masterfully, and retells the true story of the novel by Solomon Northup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is spectacular in this role. Perhaps it’s the lack of theatricality in his performance, but it’s just stunning. It’s the perfect mix of reserved and outspoken.

Towards the beginning, when the man breaks two separate paddles over his back, how does he prepare for that sort of acting? Seriously, it baffles me. I’m so thoroughly convinced by Chiwetel’s performance that I’m more focused on what the other actor is actually breaking the paddles over.

(I shouldn’t think like that during first viewings, but can’t help myself sometimes.)

According to IMDB, Chiwy learned to play the violin for this role! Could he be any more of a boss?

When he starts to sing with the other cotton-picking slaves is a wonderful transformative moment. But the whole movie is great; each scene is so beautiful and the conflicts running beneath are palpable.

You can feel the very value of his life diminishing as a product; a piece of human property. The film explores the themes of slavery so efficiently; that I wonder how much of the material actually came from the book.

The thing is, either way, the film takes place over the course of twelve years. I’m certain all of these things could have happened to him throughout that period. It seems like there are mostly only cruel white men in this world. Or at least, only slightly sympathetic Caucasians.

Which, as a side note, is perhaps the only loose thread in the screenplay’s quilt. Perhaps the only white slave depicted in the film shouldn’t be the one to betray Chiwetel to Fassbender. But that’s semantics, because it only further reinforces his apprehension when Brad Pitt rolls around.

So the weakness of that criticism is illustrative of any others I might have with this film – mild and without any real footing.

Like Eliza’s crying. It went on a touch too long, but perhaps that’s exemplary of the lifestyle Solomon had to endure. Perhaps there were times the crying went on much longer for him.

So overall, I give 12 Years a Slave two big thumbs up. It’s #4 on my ‘Best Films of 2013’ list.

It’s a visual masterpiece and tells an exhilarating narrative

American Hustle (R)

10 Stars

Yes, for God’s sake, I’m aware of the similarities to GoodFellas.

It’s a strange human trait, but if an individual in a group professes love for American Hustle, there’s always that one dude – The guy who believes he’s most ‘in the know.’

Regardless of any real opinions, he’ll say, “Yeah, I thought it was pretty good. But it draws too much from Scorsese’s early work; namely GoodFellas.”

If you hear this in a professional business environment, at home, in the church confessional booth or what have you; I urge you seek out this monster, and silence their blowharding with a crescent kick.

Because David O. Russell’s most recent effort is a spectacular film.

I don’t think I can oversell this character study, with its ten Oscar nominations and three wins at the Golden Globes.

One is for ‘Best Comedy or Musical.’ Here’s a diabolical scheme waiting to hatch: Remake The Producers (again) and secure a nomination for this award. No matter what the competition, it’d have to win by default, no?

Amy Adams took home a Globe for Best Actress and Jennifer Lawrence nabbed the gilded sphere for Supporting Lady.

As it pertains to performance in film, those were three of the most deserved awards distributed for the previous year.

I walked into the theater with my nose held high in the air. The movie looked overwrought with cliché, but I had seen the trailer several dozen times.

Plus, I was only familiar with one David O. Russell film by then; Silver Linings Playbook. For further reading on my historic disappointment in SLP check out my review.

(I caught The Fighter a month later; solidifying my certainty in Davey Russ’s directing ability.)

If you haven’t seen American Hustle, it’s #2 on my ‘Best Films of 2013’ list, so go into it with reasonable expectations and you should be swept away.

What else can be said? It’s a great movie that’s sure to delight.

So if you haven’t seen it and you’re sensitive to potential spoilers, stop reading now.

There is plenty of material up for discussion surrounding this film. For now, I’ll focus on several plot aspects I found noteworthy, and then talk a little smack about Jared Leto, before wrapping things up.

Jeremy Renner, who deftly performs a tense unfolding of his character’s arc, plays what is potentially the most compelling role, Mayor Carmine Polito.

The opening title card before Fargo, the Coen brothers’ film, is a comedic take on a common trend in modern movies. The appearance of the words, “Based on a true story,” is a complete red herring. Fargo’s entirely fictional!

David O. throws his hat in the ring with another satirical take on the opening title card. At the beginning of Hustle the words read: “Some of this actually happened.”

The message triggers a hearty laugh, and it’s a great reveal (especially being unacquainted with the story’s connection to reality.)

As I mention in my review of Elysium, the ‘parable’ is a prolific plot device often utilized in a clumsy fashion. Therefore, it often comes off as cliché or contrived. Neill Blomkamp avoids this by having the protagonist interrupt another character’s allegorical narrative with a summary of the conclusion. (To astounding effect, I might add.)

O. Russell’s version of the parable is a fishing story that Louis C. K.’s character (Stoddard Thorsen) tries to tell Bradley Cooper (as FBI agent Richie DiMaso) throughout the film. It’s uproariously comedic, eloquent and dynamic.

While it serves to reveal subtle character traits, it’s also a brilliant and original take on an ancient plot device.

Turns out I like my Cooper like I like my women: Unhinged and antagonistic.

That’s a dumb joke but the sentiment towards BC retains credence. On top of his roles in Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, Brad’s shown impressive villain chops, and we should all appreciate him a little more next holiday season.

Cooper, and by the same token Michael Fassbender (for 12 Years a Slave), were snubbed for the Best Supporting Actor Award.

But not to worry, because Matthew McConaughey, a handsome straight Caucasian depicting a character of similar description, will be winning an award, so they’ve reached their limit on that demographic.

I’m reminded of an award season several years ago, when Milk was getting a lot of press. Okay, yes, Sean Penn depicts a convincing portrait of a gay man. But the movie’s boring! (And, side note, Harvey Milk wasn’t the greatest guy in real life.)

Jared Leto (whom I don’t mean to criticize, unless we’re talking about acceptance speeches) did a fine job of depicting a transsexual. But I found his character enormously off-putting, and as much I appreciate the effort that went into the performance, Leto just doesn’t do it for me.

But that’s DBC, not the hustling Americans.

Ready for a strong opinion?

All of the cast’s main players are wildly prolific in modern cinema, and judging by their performances in previous films, are among the most talented actors working today.

Every single performance I’ve seen by Christian Bale, J-Law, Coop-A-Loop, Amy Adams, J. Renner and Louis C.K., has been spot-on, nuanced and (for all intents and purposes) near perfect.

If that doesn’t tell you anything about this film, nothing will.

Go out and catch American Hustle before it loses its crispy freshness!

Annie Hall (PG)

10 Stars

What sets Woody Allen movies apart is the prerequisite.

You must be a certain age to truly appreciate them. I think you need at least two decades under your belt before you can grasp the implications behind the character interactions, the political banter and all the cultural references.

Annie Hall is only the third Woody film I’ve seen besides Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. And I like it just as much.

The plot is basically a self-narrated character study of Alvy Singer (played by Woody) during the time in his life when he loved Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton).

This thirty-six year old movie holds up! I watched it with my Dad yesterday and we were both having a laugh.

It took home the Oscar for Best Picture in 1977 as well as three others: two for Woody himself (Best Director, Best Screenplay) and one for Diane (Best Actress).

Christopher Walken must be bummed because he was in two best pictures in back to back years (Deer Hunter nabbed the Oscar in ’78) and hasn’t been in one since.

What makes this film great is the humor and the style. I get the feeling that every beat, every complete thought contains some sort of joke. It’s all about subtlety, nuance, irony and implication when it comes to the funny.

At times I’m consciously deciphering the wording of a dialogue exchange, and will give up because the discussion’s moving ahead without me.

For example, there is a scene in which Annie and Alvy are talking on a rooftop, and subtitles translate the implications of each statement. I try to digest each sentence and corresponding subtitle, but can’t keep up.

And that’s how all of Annie Hall is: Packed with material and moving along at a lightning-fast pace.

The subtitles are only one example of the many occurrences in which the characters break the fourth wall. Alvy, Annie and Rob (Alvy’s best friend) revisit the scenes of his memories in a number of ways.

Rob, played by Tony Roberts, is great. There’s a scene where Alvy watches along disgusted as Rob orchestrates the laugh track for an episode of his sitcom. And, again, this is exemplary of the entire film, which keeps the audience chuckling ironically from a distance.

One narrative quirk that confuses me is an interaction between Rob and Alvy. Early on in the film, Alvy says, “Don’t call me Max,” and Rob replies, “Why? It’s a good name for you.” For the remainder of the movie, Alvy and Rob refer to each other as Max. It’s hilarious, and I’m sure it’s written that way for a reason, but these types of stylistic oddities are scattered throughout.

The plot revolves around the settings of New York and Los Angeles, and compares/contrasts the traditional Jewish and Christian families of the main characters.

I love how Alvy grew up beneath a roller coaster, and the scene where he’s introduced into the psychotherapy that never seems to work out.

There’s a smart scene in which the frame is split in two and the main characters conduct therapy sessions concurrently. In this dichotomy the monetary, sexual, emotional and psychotherapeutic health of each individual becomes a form of currency in their relationship. It’s a fascinating, not to mention pessimistic, method of breaking things down.

The discussion with his elementary school classmates, whose hair is similar to his adult self, is nothing short of brilliant. They remain children in his mind, but morphed slightly over time to better reflect himself.

I bet that sounds complicated. What’s not complicated is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo. He’s on the telephone at a party and says, “I forgot my mantra.”

Larry David pays homage to the Wagner joke in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. And that animation scene was probably very original filmmaking for its time, but if I hadn’t heard about it previous to viewing, it would have blown past me.

The ending is fantastic. Like the rest of the film, it’s nothing short of brilliant.

Hopefully Woody’s got a couple good ones left.

August: Osage County (R)

4 Stars

Well folks, I’m not sure what to do.

It’s funny how much I feel inclined to dilute my true feelings in this review.

I’d prefer to say, ‘this is a thumbs-up, and despite a dislikable narrative, several well-acted moments and a perfect performance from Meryl add up to a halfway-decent movie.’

But that would be lying. And I feel it’s a disservice to the reader to inaccurately portray my thoughts.

I find August Osage insufferable.

I watch movies for three reasons. 1) To enjoy a story 2) To learn or, 3) To be moved by compelling characters in complex situations. AOC accomplishes none of these goals.

The narrative is a series of arguments like this:

“I’m trying my hardest!”

“No, I’m trying my hardest! You need to try harder!”

“I’m just being honest with myself!”

“No, you’re lying to yourself. I’m the one who’s being honest!”

And the whole movie is just one melodramatic argument after another. The dialogue is painfully theatrical throughout.

On a basic level, it’s a dramatic character study.

The opening scene is mildly compelling at best, but everything falls flat after that.

Meryl’s performance is okay. That’s the most I’ll give her on this one. I know I’m supposed to say she’s wonderful, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I never once pitied nor cared for her character, and am bored and irritated every time she speaks.

Which is why I believe this must be more appealing to women.

During an early conversation, in between a smattering of selfishly sad comments, Meryl tells her daughter, “You look like a lesbian,” because of her new haircut. She’s sneaking pills (in a cutesy manner) behind the daughter’s back, and in reference to someone she says, “Oh, he smokes a lotta grass,” with a knowing grin.

Is this stuff supposed to be funny? Or edgy? It’s not, and dull as all get out.

Oh and the pills clacking against her teeth, the gulping noises and the heavy exhalations that follow, all I could think is, “Christ when will this woman shut up?”

I digress to emphasize this point. The amount of audible lip smacking, cigarette sipping, tongue clacking, gasping, scoffing, gulping, pill clattering, throat clearing, harrumphing and sighing that comes from Meryl is abominable. I don’t know what the filmmakers were thinking with all the mouth noises, but it’s unbearable.

When something is said outside of an argument, the conversations are so articulate; the character interactions unfold like a novel. And it’s cringeworthy.

For example. Early on, Julia and Ewan are driving out to Meryl’s, Roberts says (and I’m paraphrasing), “Ah, the Midwest. It’s more like a state of mind, a spiritual affliction, like the blues…” This is hokey, over the top, and overwrought with emotion and nostalgia. People don’t talk like this.

When they arrive at the house, their daughter, Abigail Breslin announces, “I’m gonna grab a smoke.” Julia turns to Ewan and says, “She gets that from you.” Okay, her character’s fourteen years old and this has been done so many times it makes me sick. It’s just typical melodramatic bullshit.

Later on, Ewan and Julia have a screaming match while retrieving chairs from a storage shed. It reeks of choreographed cliché.

Here are the sole redeeming qualities of the film.

Julia Roberts is the cream of the crop in terms of likability and acting performance here. So is Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor (albeit quite soapy), Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson and Dermot Mulroney (despite the ridiculous character he portrays).

The catfish scene’s great. Any scene where Julia drops an F-bomb is decent enough. J.R. should audition for the next female superhero. She’s badass in this.

The interaction between Abigail Breslin and Dermot Mulroney is just nonsensical and so painful.

Okay, so he blasts Livin’ La Vida Loca with strangers as passengers in his red convertible rental, passes other vehicles in an obnoxious fashion, he’s been married three times, answers his phone during the recitation of Grace at a funeral dinner, plays fast and loose about his heavy pot smoking, AND likes fourteen year old girls?

Wow. Never saw that coming.

In retrospect, I think we’re supposed to like Cooper’s character, but he humiliates Breslin over her personal beliefs. Wasn’t he the one lecturing about meanness?

What is going on with the long-winded southern-twanged monologues from old women about hardships from their youth? I think they’re sitting at that dinner table for almost a half hour.

Where did the romantic notions develop about the Southern twang? It gets extremely tiresome early on.

The momentary violence that follows the dinner scene provides the only thrill.

Holy Hell, why would I ever want to watch this?

I simply can’t conceive of the value I’m supposed to derive from this film.

It’s as if between arguments, each character is thinking about the nuances of their individual relationships. As if they’re chambering poignant, articulate arguments in self-defense.

We get it: Each character is wildly different from the rest, struggling with their own dark and complex conflicts. But why would I ever care about these horrific people? I bought in as much as I could

I’m sure this is a very good play, but as a film it comes off like a soap opera and a colossal waste of my time.

But there are people that must like this, right? Is it women? Is that where the synapses get disconnected?

Although it weaves an intricate and confusing narrative, the cast of characters is too large to keep you familiar with their various complexities in between recitations of Meryl Streep’s monologues.

I hate her character. I really mean that. That’s not a character I care anything about.

I never cared for anyone’s plight though, and never came close to crying. I felt a ping of emotion when Roberts realizes Ewan’s not coming back. But I quickly realize how little it matters in the grand scheme of things

It’s all very dark, and the conflicts add up to compelling motivations, but I don’t care. I’m watching too much melodrama, high-horsing and sadness.

I spent ten dollars (with the new OnDemand prices) just to rent this movie.

I don’t enjoy tearing it apart, but must be missing something here.

As usual, I’m less upset about being duped into paying for a dull film, than the absurd idea that this would be nominated for best picture.

I guess there’s an audience out there for this type of movie, but it’s not me or anybody with similar tastes.

I’m sorry to say I dislike August: Osage County and wouldn’t recommend it.

While it’s not devoid of intelligent content, it’s a drab and dreary picture that’s ultimately, rather unfulfilling.

Casablanca (PG)

9 Stars

It’s up for debate whether or not this film holds up.

If forced to pick a side, I say it does.

The reason I can’t commit to a hard and fast argument is because I’ve seen the film twice. Once in high school, six years ago.

The second occasion is yesterday night at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. The print is being screened as a promotion for the upcoming Turner Classic Movie Festival.

And the crowd is so eager to laugh at every minor joke, they completely overcompensate and ruin much of the movie.

The uproarious laughter is loud enough it stifles half the dialogue, and serves as a constant reminder we’re in a theater. There are some who will give pre-emptive laughs, chuckling during the buildup and destroying any comedic timing.

I sure hope the devil reserves a special place in Hell for these people. But I guess I should talk about the movie at some point or another.

Casablanca is very good, especially considering it’s release in 1943.

It is the epitome of a ‘classic movie.’ Yes, yes?

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine and Claude Rains as Capt. Louis Renault steal the show in this film. It’s a lot funnier than you might think.

There are lovable and despicable characters (which is always helpful) and dare I say it, some heartwarming moments.

In black and white! Can you believe it – kids in my Proverbial Audience?

(I’m prolific in the single-digit demographic.)

It’s a film about cynicism and impression, and can be surprisingly upbeat. The narrative is truly exceptional, and the ending is more than satisfactory.

This might be the most misquoted piece in history. Nobody ever says, “Play it again, Sam.”

I have no idea why that and, “Badges? Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges,” from Blazing Saddles are so commonly misquoted. It’s a rather strange phenomenon.

For some odd reason I thought Victor Laszlo was an antagonist, but I sure was wrong on that one. The role’s played by Paul Henreid, and he’s rather excellent as well. Peter Lorre, too, as Ugarte, is pretty great.

The hardest scene to swallow is his attempt to escape the police. The chase is a little silly.

What is it about Humphrey Bogart? Soon as I hear that brusque tone, I think, “Gee I like this fella.”

Maybe it’s him smoking that cigarette in the white jacket, or his ever-sustained calm.

He’s a great protagonist. And the movie’s a lot of fun.

I think you’ll like Casablanca.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out!

Defending Your Life (PG)

10 Stars

This is a ‘snoozer.’

Technically not a ‘sleeper’ hit, pulling $16M at the box office. Which, in 1991, is a lot of money, right?

Well, it’s money, we can agree on that.

Anyway. Now twenty-three years post-theatrical release, nobody remembers its existence. It’s a shame, really. That’s why I’m coining the phrase, ‘snoozer,’ a good movie everyone seems to forget about.

Because wow, this movie holds up.

I think it’s easier to watch Defending Your Life when you know the year it’s from. Even then though, the production design is spectacular. It’s easy to discern they’re shooting on a set sometimes, but it’s strangely enchanting.

First of all, this movie’s written, directed by and starring Albert Brooks as Daniel Miller. That man’s talent is underutilized. He’s a great actor, and Defending Your Life is an all-star picture that fires on all cylinders.

From recent memory, he’s great as Paul Rudd’s father in This is 40, and he’s just spectacular in Drive. In DYF he’s playing a much less antagonistic role.

An obvious and (what some may consider) dull comparison to make is with Kafka’s The Trial. Perhaps there was some inspiration there.

The script is reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie; each line’s meticulously written so there’s humor in every beat. Everything occurs for more than one reason, and it’s all very thought provoking.

Judgment City is one of the most intelligent and detailed depictions of the afterlife you’ll ever see.

The ‘attorneys’ (although they prefer not to be thought of that way) are the best part of this film. Lee Grant as Lena Foster (the prosecutor) and Rip Torn as Bob Diamond (Miller’s defense attorney) are stupendous. They establish a captivating back-and-forth from the get-go.

Grant’s role in DYF comes in toward the tail end of a long acting career. It’s her job to be the bad guy in purgatory, and she accomplishes this in spades, but Lena’s not without subtlety or nuance.

To use his own quote, Torn’s character is, “just dynamite.” He’s the most optimistic, lovable person and I enjoy seeing the loyal friend character; someone the protagonist (and the audience) can always count on.

Meryl Streep’s excellent also; her character exemplifies ‘affability.’ It’s the quality you recognize in all genuinely good people. She’s quick to laugh and can tell when someone expects her to, and she’s easy going; unfettered by worry.

Seriously, it’s quietly a masterful performance. This is the best role I’ve seen Meryl in.

Well friends, if you haven’t seen Defending Your Life, it’s a five star comedy with compelling characters, an intelligent narrative and some very touching sequences. Despite the predictable ending, it brought a tear to this humble reviewer’s eye.

But if you’re sensitive to spoilers stop reading now.

To comment on the aforementioned character of Lena Foster, it’s worthy of note because she’s intense and accusatory but you can see her feelings deep down. She wants Miller to move on from Earthly life, but she can’t force it on him. Ultimately, she wishes him the best.

In consideration of the inherent difficulty in world building, Brooks’ exploration of the material is vast and thorough. He put a lot of work into writing this screenplay, and it shines through in certain moments in an indirect manner.

For example, Miller asks where Diamond (Rip Torn) was the day before.

“I’d tell you but you wouldn’t understand,” Diamond says.

“Don’t treat me like a moron, try me,” Miller says.

“I was trapped near the inner circle of fault.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I told you…”

There are four main trial sequences, and instead of doing the exact same thing (having Diamond vehemently defend the merits of Miller’s choices) the stand-in utilizes a different defensive method by having Miller defend himself. This offers the viewer a greater variation in scenes.

And if the only option for pay-off is explaining it as nonsensical (literally), then so be it.

Another good example is during the final trial sequence.

I think we all know what’s coming when Foster shows the clip of the night before, a scene from the lobby of Julia’s hotel. Perhaps Brooks recognized the potential for cheesiness ahead of time, and wrote the following exchange as a precautionary measure.

Foster brings up the clip and Rip Torn objects.

“I was told we’re not doing that anymore,” Diamond says.

“No one told you that,” a judge responds.

It’s hilarious, nonsensical and completely out of left field, but it works! It’s a great joke, and totally justifies the placement of the scene.

Which transitions into my sole criticism of the film. It’s a bit predictable. But that’s fine, given the unbroken flow of well-rounded moments provided along the way.

It’s illustrative of a larger truth. A well-thought out story can be efficient. The ending doesn’t have to be spectacular for us to buy in. It can be satisfactory if the ride was even more so to get there.

Defending Your Life reminds us that great screenplays can often be great enough.

There’s still one thing that baffles me:

Why isn’t it out on Blu-Ray?

Don Jon (R)

9 Stars

Generally speaking, Sundance is not my gig.

Call me shallow, but I incline toward major motion pictures, or feature films.

I rarely watch documentaries or independents.

And I thought a movie about a guy addicted to pornography sounded gross and off-putting. But I should have known; Jo-Go would never let me down.

Don Jon’s a winner.

The narrative is timely, stylish and thought-provoking. It moves along at a brisk, enjoyable pace with a cast of relatable and compelling characters. Starring, written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who’s been one of my favorites for years) this movie depicts a regular guy, dealing with regular issues. And it’s great!

This is not the type of movie you watch with your girlfriend, your parents or your grandparents. Or your grandkids, for that matter.

It’s almost cheating with the casting choices made for this film. Scarlett Johansson’s one of the top actresses working today, Tony Danza was such a radical (but perfect) choice to play his father, and Julianne Moore is great as always.

First of all, Scarlett’s role as Barbara Sugarman, is nothing short of fantastic. It really explores the mindset of a certain type of woman. She’s so aware of her sexiness that she truly believes she inhabits a higher class of humanity.

It’s been a helluva year for Scarlett. Let’s hope she keeps it up!

The stylistic touches are probably what make the movie soar. Each shot adds to the story, and it keeps the pacing crisp as well.

If you haven’t seen Don Jon, it’s worth the watch. It explores a lot of truths that some may interpret as a misogynistic tone. I applaud Joseph Gordon-Levitt for writing such an honest, cutting edge screenplay.

Now, watch out for spoilers below.

There is one point in the movie that he’s watching porn and is narrating his actions through voiceover. What’s fascinating is it breaks the fourth wall in a subtle way, because Scarlett catches him at that moment. She interrupts the voice-over narration of himself!

It’s a bit of a time paradox if you think about it.

There are bursts of joy at times, when certain events occur in the manner you hope they will. When the stylistic fireworks go off, and pieces start to fall into the right places, you feel a swelling of happiness. And I think that’s noteworthy, given the limited storytelling that’s going on in Don Jon.

I love Acts I and II but didn’t adore the ending.

I’m not sure why. The whole movie skips along at such a brisk pace, but I never really enjoy the time he spends with Julianne Moore. It’s all just so sad and pathetic. But it’s not terrible!

I just found it underwhelming.

That being said,  Don Jon’s enormously insightful, brilliantly shot, masterfully edited, well-acted and just a good story all around.

Good on ya, Joseph Gordon!

Elysium (R)

10 Stars

I’ve put this off to avoid overselling it.

But Elysium is the best motion picture released in 2013.

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, this is his follow-up to District 9, which was nominated for best picture back in 2009.

I hesitate to use the word “perfect” to describe movies, so I’ll say that Elysium is ‘seamless’ instead.

You can watch films in one of two modes: Regarding it much like a critic, or a willing member of the audience. I always try to consider both sides of the equation, but I lean more towards the audience. I’m slightly more forgiving of stretch marks and minor chinks in the armor.

That being said, I couldn’t find any in Elysium. It’s seamless. You might be able to come up with something, but it’d be a far-reaching criticism.

The narrative unfolds at a swift pace with high stakes and an intelligent undercurrent running beneath. The CGI is excellent and the futuristic technology is realistically depicted.

All of the characters; their motivations, conflicts, societal positioning, relative levels of power, etc. are so well thought out and polished. It’s a vast group of players in this narrative; each with a complex and justifiable problem.

So enough general talk about Elysium – if you haven’t seen it, stop reading. I’m going to spoil some things now.

It’s almost a story where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have zero effect on the end result, and yet, goodness triumphs in the most satisfactory way.

If you really think about the tension underlying the different scenes, you’ll notice the conditions are truly horrific.

The interaction between Damon and his robotic parole officer is one of many brilliantly dark moments. The aggravation is palpable when he tries to explain himself, and the robot interrupts with, “Stop talking. Stop talking. Stop talking.”

In a way, it’s a beautiful and chilling scene. The higher class of humanity has become so far removed from the judicial system of the lower classes that all tasks have been delegated to inhuman mechanisms. The parole officer illustrates the inefficacy of robotics streamlining interpersonal relations, especially when moral judgment becomes a factor. A misstep, momentary foolishness or poor decision can’t be allowed in a realm governed by pure efficiency.

This theme of intertwining humanity and robotics is touched on heavily throughout. It’s explored in several intriguing ways, including the mechanical parts Matt Damon integrates into his biological makeup.

The cocky, loose-tongued and rabble-rousing protagonist has been done so many times, yet Damon performs the role excellently. Even while interacting with a gun-toting CGI robot!

That man sure is talented. When he gets mouthy with the guard in queue, it’s the type of exchange that is so easily criticized as a cliché but he makes it work, creating a truly disturbing scene.

I don’t like Jodie Foster as a person, but her character in this movie is spectacular, and she deserves serious praise for her performance. Her role might be the most compelling character in the story. When she dies it feels like the moral synapses in my brain are twisted. I want to keep talking about her character, but I must move on.

If you’ve seen/read enough stories in your life, much like a critic, it’s easy to notice commonly recycled narrative elements. Such as ‘the parable.’ It’s tough to write one into a story without it feeling abrasive to the critical eye.

Blomkamp’s playful use of a parable is, for me, the crowning moment in Elysium.

Three months after seeing the film, I was explaining to my mom why it’s such a great scene where Damon interrupts the girl’s story about the hippopotamus and the meerkat. We were in the kitchen and I think she was chopping onions, because I had to leave the room without finishing my explanation. I got so choked up I couldn’t get the words out.

If you buy in, it’s a profoundly moving moment.

Sure the ending’s been done before. I bet there are critics who’ve compared his work to that of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s. But that’s silly, and I truly admire Blomkamp’s decision to write it the way he did.

All in all, Elysium‘s a great film that hasn’t received the credit it deserves.

Despite its lack of praise, I hope it won’t be lost in the buzz of award season, and eagerly await Blomkamp’s next project.

Event Horizon (R)

8 Stars

There are natural forces that govern the universe.

And there are theoretical forces that may govern a fictive universe.

Good science fiction attempts to bridge the gap between the two realms. By taking unanswerable questions of physics and applying theoretical possibilities past our limits of understanding, one may craft a compelling story.

An event horizon, in general relativity, is a boundary in space-time beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. It is the point of no return, the moment when escape from a gravitational pull becomes impossible. They’re most commonly referenced surrounding a black hole.

(Side Note: In Mr. Peabody & Sherman the protagonists perilously approach such a boundary.)

Event Horizon falls prey to a common error in semi-recent science fiction: A drastic overestimation of our species’ developments in space travel. First of all, apparently we’ll still be recording ship’s logs on compact discs. This film is set in 2040, and it’s doubtful our explorations will spread to Neptune by then.

To hazard a charitable guess, this is an attempt to break convention in common science fiction thrillers. It certainly seems to be the case amongst other aspects of the plot.

Take note of Cooper’s ultimate fate. Richard T. Jones, whose voice I recognize, plays the kooky black guy.

Sam Neill and Larry Fishburne turn in strong performing leads as Dr. Weir and Captain Miller.

I’d place Invent Verizon more in the horror genre than anywhere else. So judging it as a horror movie, I give it eight stars and call it great.

To draw connection to a completely dissimilar film, it’s reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It tells a complex story that, due to production issues, builds on a cracked foundation.

Plot description that explains, “It’s left up to the viewer to interpret,” usually means the narrative’s incomplete.

So there are loose threads in the Extent Orion quilt. But most of the fibers are strongly woven with thought provoking ideas.

Profoundly dark musings, mind you; never forget it’s smart, but still a horror movie.

A vivisection takes place. Vivisecting, no matter how tasteful the visual conveyance, is never fun.

That’s not to say it’s poorly crafted: The CGI’s generally good enough, the special effects are sound, the gore isn’t over the top and the tide of tension undergoes a steady ebb and flow.

If you’ll allow the limitations set by the technology available in 1997 (in terms of CGI and production design) and can stomach a handful of unsettling scenes, then check it out for some thrills and chills. (It’s available to stream instantly through Netflix, and has been since my freshman year of college, six years ago. I doubt it’s going anywhere soon.)

But if you haven’t seen the movie and are sensitive to spoilers, stop reading.

To continue my introductory discussion of science fiction and the application of natural forces, the viewer will buy into a theoretical force if it compels the story forward.

When it comes to Event Horizon, I’m fine with everything up until they board the actual ship. The stuff with the magazine centerfold is intelligent and easily acceptable.

Then, things get a little shaky once you start to consider the implications of the ship’s consciousness.

What’s with the ice crystals? Was there a spill of liquid nitrogen? Did a change in atmospheric pressure trigger the freezing effect on the ship’s interior?

I believe there’s a subzero answer to these questions. Seems like someone fell in love with the idea of using the term ‘corpsicle’ in dialogue.

Okay, first of all, they had two options for explaining the darkness inhabiting (or possessing) the ship. The reappearance of Weir towards the end, when he battles with Miller in the hellish core, is a physical incarnation of the entity.

The nature of that demonic being is what the film’s final cut never nailed down. They could either call it Hell (a concrete location defined by religious beliefs, but at least a colloquial construct of reality), or generate their own mythological realm (the parallel dimension governed by chaos.)

Ultimately they choose not to answer the question, leaving it up to the viewer’s interpretation.

I don’t appreciate incomplete narratives, but I understand production difficulties. I just wish they’d picked a side and stuck with it. The majority of misunderstanding stems from this sole incongruence.

As I mentioned before, certain forces govern our reality. It’s simple enough to believe that the Event Horizon passes through this chaotic dimension (be it Hell or otherwise) but the affect it has on the ship requests a distant reach for our brains to continue the suspension of disbelief.

There’s a bevy of examples, so I’ll list a quick few. One of the main problems is what I call, ‘an incongruence of metaphysical properties,’ or the misalignment of surreal forces.

The quick and easy i.e.? Telepathic abilities don’t include clairvoyance.

Actions are governed by motivations, and for the plot to unfold the way it does, it would be according to the ship’s mandate. We can assume the ship’s all knowing and all-powerful, because it telepathically dissects the crew’s memories and locates their fears. Furthermore, it projects hallucinations onto their consciousness.

Even further, it can cause objects to vanish, like Miller’s gun. Meaning it can literally manipulate the fabric of existence.

If the ship has the ability to alter reality, its initial antagonism seems unmotivated and inexplicable. Why string along the entire crew through this revelatory process? What does the ship (or the evil entity possessing it) hope to gain through tormenting the individuals?

There’s an inconsequential argument to be made here. Perhaps the entity’s wish is to let the three crewmembers escape, thereby spreading…what, exactly? Hell on Earth? Why does Starck seem to be the only one ‘infected’ so to speak? The final scene suggests her mind’s plagued with the same malady inhibiting Weir’s character at the film’s open.

That being the case, what assumption can we draw from this implication? That events will play out in a similar manner for Starck as they did for Weir? That’s impossible; the Event Horizonis half destroyed and returned to Earth. Will she rein terror across the planet? The manifestation of that development seems inconceivable.

To pile on top, soon after the film begins, Weir dreams of the corpse floating on the Event Horizon’s flight deck. Thereby suggesting clairvoyance.

So you can see how the power imbalances, the inconsistencies between frames of reference, and an ending of minimal consequence add up to a deceptively contrived narrative.

A glaring error left un-snipped: What’s life going to be like for smiley Justin, after the macabre experience he’s been through? It’s almost cruel to let him live; disfigured, traumatized, psychotic and likely suicidal.

Then again, I have confidence in the writing’s veiled attempts at defying convention. Take Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) execution of Dallas (Tom Skerritt) in Alien for example, or more recently David (Michael Fassbender) in Prometheus. The tortured, tormented crewmember never makes it home.

It’s thoroughly twisted, but it seems the only impetus behind retaining that character’s life. Actually, it’s humorous when you consider his character’s position in the majority of the story. He’s lying comatose on that table (potentially infected with chaos and/or Hell, by the plot’s logic) and he never proves a danger to anyone but himself!

Poor lad. Let’s hope therapy helps.

As a side note, Samuel L. Jackson finds himself under similar circumstances in Sphere, where a group of scientists inhabiting Deepsea Habitats study an extraterrestrial object. The loose threads are more numerous and far less satisfying than Event Horizon, but the crew undergoes a similar fate where an evil consciousness delights in telepathic torment. Sphere’s un-good, even if judged as a horror; don’t waste your time with that submarine wreck.

Further side note, when Event Horizon gained its cult following, the demand for an extended cut became inevitable. Unfortunately, the director, Paul W. S. Anderson (not to be confused with P. T. A., the director of Boogie Nights) couldn’t cobble together much extra footage. According to Anderson, some footage had been stored in an abandoned Transylvanian salt mine.

I’m not sure why. I don’t remember any vampiric salt miners in Event Horizon.

The intercepted audio recording is the perfect microcosm for the whole film.

It’s creepy and ominous, and a believable mistranslation. I’ll even allow the idea that their manner of speech transforms to Latin.

And hey, for fun, let’s forego all discussion of computerized auditory scanners.

Who was the message, “Save yourself from Hell,” intended for?

And who had the wherewithal, after passing through the chaotic dimension, to broadcast the warning signal?

Oh. I get it.

Once infected, the spread of Hellish dementia’s a gradual multi-stepped debilitation.

First comes the transformation of basic speech faculties. After that, the craving for sadomasochistic orgy manifests.

Silly me. It’s all coming together now.

Better start rewriting this review.

Perhaps I’ve passed the event horizon…

(See what I did there?)

Frozen (PG)

10 Stars

Ah. The fjords.

Frozen is #8 on my top films of 2013 list. Besides World War Z, it’s the only film I’ve seen twice in full from the past year.

The mission? Keep the review beneath 1000 words. So I’ll be brief and swift.

Speaking of, the animated short shown previous to the ice-harvest open, Get a Horse is a brilliant piece of animation. I love seeing something completely original, smart and thought provoking. It lost the academy award, but can’t comment because I haven’t seen the winner, Mr. Hublot, yet.

The trailer; saw it way, way ahead of time when it was first released. Wasn’t all that pumped for the movie because the short’s devoid of narrative content. The reindeer and the snowman fight over the carrot nose on a frozen pond, and antics ensue. It wasn’t boring, but not overwhelmingly great either.

I liked the no-spoiler trailer.

So I think the lesson to take away, yet again, is know as little as possible about the plot previous to seeing the film.

Why’s director and writer Jennifer Lee’s name got the ‘(XXX)’ after it? Was that ‘pre Vin Diesel,’ or ‘post Ice Cube?’

Is she the thirtieth? Is that even possible? She can’t be an ex porn-star, can she? I didn’t know women had suffixes, let alone such a gigantic one. And I’ve never heard of a man being anything above a VII.

Based on the story “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, Frozen’s the newest addition to a list of Classic Disney Animated Features spanning back to the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Disney animation, but you’ll hear me groaning the loudest if I see that trailer for Planes 2 ever again. The Planes franchise is an inconsistency in life I’ll never get a grasp on. I highly admire the Walt Disney Company but have no respect for their misleading me into the clutches of Planes. It’s a horrendous movie, and has been falsely marketed as an outgrowth of the Cars universe.

There’s this weird market for horrifically bad animated stories. I think it’s intended for kids in kindergarten and below. Because Planes is such a considerable downgrade in narrative and animation from Frozen I’m surprised they’re still peddling this boring crop-dusting crew.

I was purposefully duped into spending six dollars on the rental. I understand their desire for the alternative source of income, but this misleading marketing campaign is deceitful.

But we’re talking about chilly Frozen, with icy Elsa and Anna, the coolest narrative since Tangled.

And now we’re sidetracking to the classics of recent years.

2012 saw the release of two five-star Disney Animated Features: Brave (produced under the Pixar name) and Wreck-It Ralph. Two other movies deserving of a near perfect score were released in 2010: Toy Story 3 (which was darn close to five stars) and Tangled (which exceeds five stars.)

2011 wasn’t the best.

But my point is Disney’s on a hot streak. Hopefully they keep up the same quality for decades to come.

Okay, I promise, the rest is about Frozen.

It’s fantastic. That’s all you need for now.

If you haven’t seen it, do so. The less you know the better so beware the spoilers below.

Do you know who’s great?

Kristen Bell.

I just love that little starry eyed delight.

Her breakout performance is hilariously understated in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she plays a funny cameo in the old Starz comedy series Party Down starring Adam Scott, and the compelling role she played in the western HBO series Deadwood goes tragically unmentioned. I’ve been eying that Veronica Mars movie for days.

I really enjoyed Anna, the character Kristen does the voice for. Let’s hope K-Bell stays prolific.

Idina Menzel does the voice of Elsa, and I must admit I’m more partial towards her character than her little sibling. This cold dame wears a gown made of ice. The fabric billows like it’s malleable. I’m not positive one could weave ice fibers into a fabric, even with sorcery at immediate disposal.

She must be a master on that ice-loom. I’m not trying to be snarky, the physics of Elsa’s magic didn’t concern me in the slightest during the movie. The ice gown exemplifies the beauty of animated films. A wonderful sort of idea is created that can’t be captured in any other medium. If Frozen were live-action, we’d be much less inclined to buy the idea of a flexible sheet of solid ice.

Now, on to nuance. One of the best tricks in the Disney feature handbook, is the inhuman sidekick. For Wall-E it’s the cockroach, Rapunzel’s is a chameleon named Pascal, Pinocchio’s got Jiminy Cricket, and so on.

My girl, Jen Lee the Thirtieth, who also wrote Wreck-It-Ralph, spins a similar sidekick song with Olaf the snowman. The alternative groove is he’s a sentient snow golem summoned through Elsa’s sorcery.

Olaf’s voiced by the promising young talent, Josh Gad. You know him as one of the original costars of The Book of Mormon. He’s also the funniest part of NBC’s 1600 Penn, an underrated comedy and solid show.

I bet we’ll see him popping up in all sorts of comedic antics from now on.

I remember hearing on a podcast that J. Lee Turkey (that’s a bowling reference, running out of Triple X jokes here)  aims to invert classic Disney motifs. So, for example, the ‘princess’ element to the story is a small and almost insignificant point in Wreck-It-Reezy.

With Frozen, Jennifer Strikeout takes these inversions several steps further, and it’s an enormous benefit to the plot. The original conflict and its innovative resolution revolves around a pair of sisters, which isn’t something we’ve seen before, and just a ton of fun along the way.

Soon after the movie’s open, there’s a heart wrenching scene with Anna singing about building a snowman, as she grows older through the years without her sister.

Fiddlesticks; that scene just rips me to pieces.

That poor little girl just wants to play in the snow with her sister…

So my basic point is, there’s some crying that occurs near the beginning of the film. I can’t remember another Disney movie like that, except The Fox and the Hound perhaps. Hunchback of Notre Dame’s another; I can’t stand to see Quasimodo pelted with that rotten produce.

And there’s some crying towards the end of the film. It’s a moving little cartoon, friends, and I think you’ll love it as much as me.

But anyway, it’s tough to keep these things under 1000 words, let me tell you. Barely missed it by 135.

Quickest wrap-up ever –

Completely original storytelling, moving conflicts, lovable characters, beautiful animation, educational, compelling, fun, melodic and heartwarming.

Disney as per the usual.

Good on ya Jenny Three Kiss.

Keep up the good work!