Friday, January 31, 2014

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Film Review

Entertainment

 
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

Another riveting Oscar-nominated film that is justified in all the accolades it is receiving. 

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB tells the true story of Ron Woodroof (an astounding performance by Matthew McConaughey), a straight rodeo cowboy who found himself diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live in 1985.  What follows is a sad but gripping story as he scrambles in desperation to combat this death sentence.  Caught in the midst of the gray line between "unapproved by the FDA" and "illegal" he seeks out treatments that did not fit within the approach the mainstream medical community was willing to indulge.

Set right smack dab in the middle of the AIDS hysteria of the '80s, the film perfectly captures the horrific shock and realization of Woodroof and the paranoid reactions from the rest of the world.  He finds himself drawn into the only culture that is able to accept him, that of the AIDS-stricken gay culture of Dallas.  Ron's friendship with transsexual AIDS patient "Rayon" (Jared Leto) becomes the heart of the film as we see the self-loathing, self-destructive, homophobic Ron embark on a business venture with Rayon.  Together they start selling monthly memberships in a "Club" that would then provide alternative supplements to the hopelessly growing segment of AIDS sufferers let down by the dismal early testing results of AZT.

There is a bit of a preachiness in the negative attitude towards the FDA and it's strong-arm tactics in shutting down any attempts to approach the epidemic with out-of-the-box thinking.  However, the whole of the film is so well-done and the acting by Leto and McConaughey really elevates this film to that Oscar level.

This is a powerful film, and not as utterly depressing as I expected it to be going in, and will stick with you afterwards.

★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Thursday, January 30, 2014

AMERICAN HUSTLE Review

Entertainment

 
 
AMERICAN HUSTLE
 
There really should be a special Golden "Globes" award for Amy Adams cleavage in this movie (see pic below).
I loved this film. There only a couple of minor nits I would pick in terms of directoral choices that didn't work for me, but it is just so captivating and interesting. The actors all dig down deep and give honest and deep characterizations. And while I joke about Amy Adams' lustrously freely flopping cleavage, she was seriously acting her ass off in this movie.

I was just a kid during the ABSCAM sting operation by the FBI in the late 70s (where they videotaped public officials accepting bribes from a fictitious Arab Sheik), so I really didn't know any of the details. Even though this film is fictional with composites and original characters filling in for most of the players, the broad strokes of the operation are laid out clearly.

This is a movie where there are no heroes or villains. Everyone has their flaws but also their charms. Really, when you think about it, from the opening sequence to the end what AMERICAN HUSTLE is about is exploring our human tendency to concoct and present false personas to the world around us and how we justify doing it. Not a single person involved in this operation is being true to others or to themselves. They are all either manipulating others or being manipulated (or both) and what is truth becomes ever more malleable as they get deeper and deeper into it.

It is not an easy trick to pull off a 70s-era piece like this where each character is a caricature but because of the skilled depth of the acting, they come off as real and believable -- people you become invested in. The humor of the movie is mostly centered around the obviously over-the-top 70s-era clothing and hairstyles, which given the context of this film also fits with the theme of exploring the facades that people project to the world (and even to themselves).

Oh, I almost forgot to give a special shout-out to Jeremy Renner for his performance as Camden, NJ mayor "Carmine Polito." Trust me, you will love him. I almost wish he were real.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★
 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

THE BOOK THIEF Film Review

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THE BOOK THIEF

Excuse me. *sniffle* I promise you it's just allergies. 
That's why my eyes have tears leaking out of them.

Allergies.

It has nothing to do with getting emotionally swept up in this beautifully haunting movie.

Seriously, though, this is the first movie of the year to bring me to tears.  Based on a best-selling novel of the same name, THE BOOK THIEF tells the story of Liesel a young German girl sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany. She learns to read with encouragement from her new family and Max, a Jewish refugee who they are hiding under the stairs.  The film mainly covers the span of the second World War from the point where Hitler marched into Austria to the liberation of Germany by Allied forces.

What unfolds during that time is a sympathetic peek into the daily lives of German families in a small village during the war.  It is unique to me in that respect. Most World War 2 films focus more on the war than on the interpersonal dynamics of families in the lesser-known smaller villages. 
Within this canvas, the director paints a very real picture of love and fear; life and death.  I came to really love and care about these people which is a testament to the directing and the acting as I am cynical enough to have had a bit of a defensive wall in place going in that was expecting a predictable and preachy movie.

However, from the opening shot from above of a smoke-puffing passenger train chugging through the angelic snow-covered landscape while a mesmerizing narration by a personified "Death", I was hooked.

The script is smart and perceptive. The actors, across the board, are incredible but especially the lead actress who plays Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and her foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson).  I fell in love with Hans from the first moment his soulfully wise and loving eyes appeared on screen. The chemistry between Rush and Nélisse was strong and completely believable. 
I could relate to Liesel and her overwhelming desire to learn to read and to go to any lengths to get books. I could relate to Max and his need to think and interpret the world through metaphorical interpretation. I could relate to Hans and his absolute and instant parental love and protection of his "Princess". 

Aw hell, I'm tearing up again just writing this.

You should go see this movie.  It will stick with me forever and I bet it does you too.

★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Review

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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Based on a play (screenplay by the playwright), this actor's circle-jerk is the most riveting, but ultimately pointless, display of group masturbation by some of the greatest actors of the day.

I mean, seriously, look at these names from the cast:
Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, and a glorified cameo by Sam Shepard (in a role I suspect isn't actually portrayed by anyone in the stage play -- but I could be wrong).

There really isn't a plot.  This is an opportunity for actors to dig into some seriously screwed up characters and play off each other.  The reason is that there's a lot of truth in the way the dysfunctional family dynamics play out.  While most viewers are not going to be dealing with a wholesale family from Hell like this one, there's enough here that nearly everyone will find some moments of self-identification -- and for some of us this will be somewhat painful if you force yourself to admit it.

Basically, you have a death in a family which brings all the estranged members of the family back together and in the house where they can all be emotionally abused once again by their foul, hateful, drug-addicted, mouth-cancered mother (played by Streep).  But especially, the relationship between Streep and the oldest of 3 daughters (played by Roberts), is what makes you sit in your seat and endure the endless variations of vomitous verbal and emotional abuse by this horrid women who I was wishing would die 15 minutes into the movie.

As I said, the movie is essentially pointless other than an excuse for actors to have a grand old time playing relentlessly depressed, angry, and wretchedly unhappy people who are emotionally stunted and feeling trapped in a fatalistic life defined by ever-deteriorating relationships and distorted concepts of love.  It's just plain depressing as shit.

And yet....every one of these actors brings their "A" game and takes this material and turns it into an acting class.  But, as I said, unless you yourself are planning to be an actor, the whole exercise seems utterly pointless as a piece of entertainment or art.  There's no spiritual truth here. There's no sense of better understanding the human condition. There does not appear to be any higher purpose to this other than tossing all the negative things about "family" into one arena and letting actors get their groove on with each other.  And because of that, it is an excellent movie.

If there's any message that I would say you should take away from this movie it would be this:  Remove toxic people from your life (whether family or not).  The earlier the better. And never look back. Don't let toxic people destroy you like every single person in this film is hopelessly ruined.


★★★★ out of ★★★★★

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

I, FRANKENSTEIN Review

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I, FRANKENSTEIN

You know what you get when you take pile of stupid and add in a little stupid then wrap it in a stupid tortilla? You get this insipid, but modestly entertaining for its unintentional hilarity, film called I, FRANKENSTEIN.

Starring Aaron Eckhart as the titular hero and Bill Nighy as a Demon Prince (Nabirius, I think?), the film is written and directed by Stuart Beattie and purportedly based on a non-existent graphic novel of the same name by someone named K...evin Grevioux (who apparently has some connection to the UNDERWORLD film series). You know, I have a pretty good knowledge about the comics industry and even I couldn't find any evidence of this thing actually existing. The little bit I found mentioning it in an interview with this Grevioux, it sounds like he wrote a screenplay and then had a few pages drawn up comic book style to help give a visual component to the project as he tried to sell it to Hollywood producers. I don't know how in Hell that qualifies as being based on a graphic novel.

The movie stinks from the opening narration (with I'm guessing about 20 minutes of straight exposition) to the ending narration that concludes with Eckhart out Batman-ing Batman while growling out "I............Frankenstein."

Nothing makes sense in this mess. Even the concept makes no sense. Somehow we have demons in what look like human bodies, but arbitrarily they burn off the skin to reveal their rubber mask demon faces and then put the human skin on. So, they get to run around as humans, but for some reason the entire plot seems to revolve around having hundreds of thousands of reanimated human corpses for the demon horde to inhabit and for some reason those corpses are more desired than the human bodies they already have.

At the same time, we have angels here on Earth, but they disguise themselves as both gargoyles sometimes and humans sometimes. There's really no reason given other than that this is how the Archangel Michael set it up. When the angels are in their human form they even apparently have the ability to grow whiskers and beards, but yet Frankenstein himself doesn't seem to grow facial hair. I'm not sure what's up with that. Also, Bill Nighy's entire acting range in this film amounted to him cocking his right eyebrow whenever someone spoke to him. Not sure what's so evil about his right eyebrow or where that affectation came from but it was at least less damaging than Frankenstein's tendency to always enter and leave rooms by hurling himself through window glass...or sometimes walls.

I seriously don't know what was going on. I was kind of chuckling and giggling through the entire thing. It takes itself so damned seriously but it has the sensibility of, maybe, a 12 year-old writing what he thinks is the coolest comic book ever!

Please, only waste your money and time on this movie if you plan on getting completely toasted as you watch it. As bad as you expect it to be, I think it will exceed even your lowest expectations.

The turds are blossoming early this season.
 
Barely earns ★ out of  ★★★★★

Saturday, January 25, 2014

HER Review

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An incredibly thought-provoking and emotional film.  This is true science-fiction using the concept of the advent of the Artificially Intelligent Operating System in a near-future world as a storytelling device to speak to the human condition as it is right now.  This is a true zeitgeist film
The story, and Joachim Phoenix's performance especially, delve deeply into the heartache and emotional frustration of the introverted intuitive in a world that just doesn't much accommodate or often recognize the value in.  Scarlett Johansson, likewise, delivers a seductively charming voice-only performance as "Samantha" the Operating System that mutually falls in love with Phoenix's "Theodore".

What was so interesting to me to watch and experience (I felt a lot of kinship--for good or bad--with Theodore) was how when Samantha first wakes up, the connection between the 2 is eerily instant.  As the film progresses, we see the two of them go through all the phases of relationship but also we see them growing emotionally and spiritually.  At the start he is farther along and is drawing her along with him but by the end she outpaces his self-actualization (because she is not bound by time and space and past and physicality) and she becomes the catalyst for his own painful, but necessary growth. 

While this all plays out, the metaphor for modern-day online relationships is very clear.  The near-instant intimacy and 24-hour immediacy and availability of those we connect with through the virtual world is mirrored in the very real love and relationship between Theodore and Samantha.  However, just as most virtual intimacies will stay virtual, Theodore and Samantha must always be that way without even the faint hope of eventually being together in the physical world.

As they interact and deepen their bonding and dependency upon each other, the filmmaker wisely brings home the difference between the purity of the virtual only relationship by letting us see Theodore interacting with his ex-wife and finally signing those divorce papers he's been avoiding for over a year.

The film does not ever treat Theodore and Samantha's relationship (nor do his close friends) as anything less than real, but it demonstrates clearly the wider societal deteriorations that are happening as people disappear more and more into their own heads by way of the virtual world.
It's a sobering movie.  It should give us all cause for reflection and some self-evaluation.  One of the profound visual moments for me was a scene where Theodore is walking through a crowded area outside and he's talking to Samantha as if she is walking right there with him.  And as he's doing this, you notice that everyone around him is doing the exact same thing...but absolutely nobody is talking to anyone who is actually there.

There's another moment where they are in a serious discussion and he keeps asking her whether she's talking to anyone else at the same time.  Any of us in relationships who have been carrying on a conversation with someone next to us while texting a conversation with one or more other people, knows the frustration the other person expresses oftentimes at that sense that he or she is not being given the respect of attention.  Again, a sobering moment for all of us, I'm sure.

The deepest theme of the movie is just simply about expanding our view of love and to not box it into our own, or society's, preconceived notions.  We all would do well to recognize that each and every one of us have varying distinctions of what we understand love to mean and to be to us and it is not, and should not, be something anyone else should dictate.

I really liked the line from Amy Adams' character who said to Theodore that "falling in love is societally approved insanity."

Quite true.

★★★★1/2

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Friday, January 24, 2014

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT Review

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It's the battle of the facial moles. Chris Pine's enormous cheek mole versus Kenneth Branagh's 2 prominent chin moles. Guess who wins. Also, I never really noticed before that Branagh has no lips. He has a muppet mouth. I think it became more prominent in this film opposite Pine's dreamy full tulip lips....but I digress before I've even begun.

For my first foray into the world of the MoviePass, the wife and I headed out to see JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT starring Chris Pin...e, Kenneth Branagh (also director), and Kevin Costner.

I enjoyed the movie. It wasn't great tho. I surprisingly enjoyed Tom Cruise's turn as JACK REACHER last year much more. I know I've seen all the previous Jack Ryan films, but for the life of me I can't really remember anything about them other than the Russian commander's slightly Scottish brogue and an argument about the Silver Surfer in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. So, I obviously don't have much in the way of a preconception about the Jack Ryan character and that's probably good. It means I can kind of walk into this film without the extra baggage of whether it's "true to the character" or not.

Taken on its own merits, it's a decent action flick but honestly it's probably about as forgettable in the end as the previous ones were for me. I'll certainly remember it fondly as my first of a year of MoviePass flicks though.

Everything about the movie was pretty much just a modern-era, cookbooked action thriller without any real stylistic flourish. One of the things that makes the BOURNE movies and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movies, and especially the last 3 BOND films with Daniel Craig, stick with me is that director's touch that sends them over the edge of just a run-of-the-mill action adventure. So, I'm gonna say overall I was a little disappointed in Branagh as director here. I wanted the sharp and creative director of DEAD AGAIN and HAMLET but I got what felt like a paycheck job to me. But even a paycheck job is good....it just wasn't spectacular.

Most of the action sequences were pretty much standard fare -- cars sliding sideways, implausible diversions through crowded streets, Ryan himself displaying Bourne-level abilities of endurance and strength but at least they bloody up his knuckles occasionally. No matter how absurd the action gets, including that current film-makers' favorite -- the hero falling out of a speeding car onto the asphalt and not killing himself OR demonstrating any injury other than a bruise or cut -- Chris Pine once again conducts himself with confidence, charm, and charisma. He has old-school movie star written all over him and I just plain like him in anything and everything.

Kevin Costner redeems his asshole turn as "Pa Kent" in MAN OF STEEL with a strong and subtle performance here as Ryan's CIA recruiter. I didn't care for the actress who played Ryan's fiance' and I didn't feel the two of them really had chemistry together -- meaning I didn't really feel like they were in love. They basically could have done this story without her and I think it would've been stronger, but I'm sure the studio wanted that relational aspect to draw in female viewers.

I liked how it focused on terrorism the way that it did and I also liked using the Russians as the villains of the piece. It had a Cold War feel to it, but set in the modern paradigm with the financial marketplace. In that regard, the script was pretty smart.

I liked it. Whether you would like it probably depends on how critical you turn your eye towards your thrillers and what level of preconceptions about Jack Ryan you bring to the film.

On a scale of 5 stars, I would give it 3.5.

★★★1/2