The Book of Life (PG)

9 Stars

If you’ve seen the trailer, the animation looks sketchy.

Cheech Marin covering Biz Markie certainly doesn’t help.

You’re not tantalized, and who can blame you?

Neither was I.

But guess which tops the list of Best Animated Features released in 2014?

1. The Book of Life
2. Mr. Peabody & Sherman
3. The Lego Movie
4. How to Train Your Dragon 2
5. The Boxtrolls

That’s right, folks. The BOL is pretty great.

The animation isn’t sketchy. Cheech’s solo isn’t hokey.

The visuals are wondrous in fact. The animation is multi-layered, lending the fabric of cartoon reality a wood grain texture.

Manolo’s hometown is beautiful; like an Hispanic Mont Saint-Michel. The other world he passes through is gorgeously rendered as well.

The humor is solid and consistent. The characters are compelling oddities.

The narrative is heart-warming and educational.

I worry because annually, the average moviegoer probably scrutinizes (at the most) two animated flicks via big screen.

Frozen is such a hit from 2013, I’d imagine most viewers anticipate the November 7th release of Big Hero 6.

Apparently everyone (and their mother) went to see The Lego Movie; and loved it so much a Lego Batman spinoff’s greenlit.

Therefore, most have hit their animated quota. Perhaps reconsider making an exception.

This reviewer attended Book of Life with his mother, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

‘Dia de los Muertos’; ever heard of it?

That’s Spaniard for ‘Day of the Dead.’

The Skeleton Twins, a dusty quirkedy released in September, touched on the same theme.

BOL’s tone is a bit more light-hearted.

Cheech isn’t the only one singing, either.

Diego Luna as the voice of the protagonist, Manolo, strums and clucks a number of ballads. Expect minor swooning.

Perhaps he’s not perfect in the musical realm, but Luna does a bang-up job. He’s more soft-spoken than your average hero, but that’s what makes his character endearing.

Channing Tatum is quickly becoming my favorite actor. Love that dude.

In the past two years he’s been fantastic in 22 Jump StreetSide Effects and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Plus he did three cameos: Two live-action in Don Jon and This is the End and one voice-acting as Lego Green Lantern.

Speaking of street-jumping, Ice Cube plays the voice of the Candle Maker. His character is very similar to the caterpillar from Epic.

In other odd news, the Candle Maker is arguably the most Caucasian character in the entire cast. Which is similar to Tracy Morgan’s performance in The Boxtrolls; he too voices a white guy.

Ice Cube’s great. He never mails in a performance, and seems like a real stand-up guy. Keep it up, Cube!

Another favorite, Zoe Saldana, enchants as the voice of Maria. This science-fiction titan plays major roles in the Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises.

Maria is a lovable delight.

Which comes as no surprise when dealing with Ms. Saldana.

Finally, perhaps the most praise should go to Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo, the voices of Xibalba and La Muerte.

They play the two most interesting characters, and are perfectly suited to the task. They’re the only ones that have to perform two separate voice roles, because their characters undergo a transformation.

Del Castillo navigates a particularly difficult role. At one point she must do an extended scream and gracefully pulls it off.

Which can’t be easy!

All in all, The Book of Life is a great addition to 2014’s animated canon.

We’ll see who tops the leaderboard, come November 7.

As Above/So Below (R)

7 Stars

Horror movies are rarely called ‘great.’

When was the last critically acclaimed horror movie released? You’d be hard-pressed to find anything since The Ring in 2002.

I haven’t seen The Conjuring, Mama or Oculus but people say they’ve got potential. I thought Drag Me to Hell was pretty good from 2009.

But the last great one I caught in theaters was Devil from 2010.

Which is also directed by John Dowdle. He wrote Quarantine (2008), as well – another solid semi-recent horror.

As Above/So Below is the best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time.

First of all, it’s shot on-location in Paris, which is a delight for any fan of that city. Favorite sights like Notre Dame and Sacre-Coeur are featured throughout.

The filmmakers use almost every shooting style. AA/SB is a mockumentary about Scarlett (played by Perdita Weeks) a young archaeologist searching for the philosopher’s stone. Therefore much of the footage is shot in first-person via headlamp GoPro cams.

Although I’m sick of ‘found footage’ it works better here. For obvious reasons, the budget can’t be massive, so this filmmaking style is particularly suited to horror.

The story is also good, co-written by the director and his brother, Drew.

There’s more nuance than usual. The main characters use deductive reasoning and historical analysis in order to solve riddles and navigate the labyrinthine catacombs.

There’s a lot of rebirth imagery, but I wonder just how far the metaphor goes. Are the ribbed tunnels supposed to be reminiscent of a vaginal lining?

Dichotomies drawn between light and dark, and up and down, are intriguing and thought provoking.

The cast of unknowns delivers strong performances. It’s tough to get through a whole scary movie without poor acting or cheesy moments.

Apparently I’m in the minority because AA/SB is getting 13% amongst top critics and 57% amongst the users on Rotten Tomatoes.

But I would encourage an open mind, because it’s a cut above the rest.

If you’re looking for a decent flick this weekend, especially if you dig horror, you can do a lot worse than As Above/So Below.

If You’ve Only Got a Mustache

The only thing giving Neil and Charlize a run for their money in A Million Ways to Die in the West.

If You’ve Only Got a Mustache
By: Amick Byram

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.