Top 10 Movies of 2014 (and more!)

24 01 2015

-Jerry Lundegaard

Movies: We love em. We hate em. We watch em. We rate em!

That’s pretty much the gist of this post. No need to elaborate.


10. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians-of-the-GalaxyMy expectations weren’t exactly sky high when Marvel first announced they’d be making a movie about a group of sci-fi superheroes (including a talking raccoon and sentient tree) nobody’d ever heard of. In fact, the announcement was kind of a disappointment. “Here we go,” I thought. “This is the beginning of the end for Marvel! They’ve had success after success and now they think they can make any movie they want. Well THINK AGAIN MARVEL! THINK AGAIN!” Anyway…turns out Marvel was right. They can make any movie they want. At least that’s the way it seems. And with their recently announced slate of projects for “Phase 3”, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel introduced audiences to a group of misfit heroes we never knew we wanted. The offbeat humor of director James Gunn gives Guardians a unique place in Marvel’s roster. The musical choices throughout give this movie a remarkable energy while the charming collection of characters compels audiences to keep following wherever their next adventure might lead.


9. Birdman

birdmanposterThere’s a wonderful sense of immediacy throughout Birdman that injects every moment with an electrifying vitality. This movie lives and breathes. Set during the final days leading up to a career-defining stage performance by Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), the tension and energy present in each scene is in large part credit to Alejandro Iñárritu’s direction. The choice to tell his story almost entirely through one very long, continuous take never allows the audience time to catch their breath. We’re right there with Thomson as he constantly feels the crushing weight of what he’s undertaken: the unsettling claustrophobia as we navigate through narrow theatre corridors, being blinded by stage lights as we knowingly stare into the judgmental abyss, and the sense of utter defeat as we see this house of cards gradually give way.

But perhaps Birdman‘s greatest strength is that all this unbridled tension is perfectly balanced by hysterically funny performances and a crackling score by Antonio Sánchez .


8. Starred Up

starred-up-poster-usThe “prison movie”. Much like the sports movie, it’s a well-trodden genre. So what’s a movie gotta do to stand out from the pack? Starred Up offers a pretty simple answer: be really good. Director David Mackenzie doesn’t try to reinvent the genre. Instead, he gets incredible performances out of his two lead actors and approaches the story head-on, save for one intriguing little wrinkle.

One of those great performances is given by Jack O’Connell, whom many audiences may know best from his turn as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken. Here, O’Connell plays a young inmate who’s proven too unruly for juvenile detention and is given an early transfer to an adult prison. When he arrives to his new confines, he learns that his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is incarcerated there as well. Given the dramatic setting and two of the best performances of the year by O’Connell and Mendelsohn, Starred Up delivers not only a great prison movie, but one of the most uniquely moving father/son stories in recent memory.


7. Whiplash

whiplash-uk-1sheetHow far is too far when the goal is greatness? Bolstered by incredible performances and a frenetic yet disciplined marriage of editing and sound, that’s the question Whiplash asks us in captivating fashion.

Whiplash is centered around a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and a hard-ass conductor (J.K. Simmons) determined to wring every ounce of greatness out of him. It’s a story about obsession and perfection and where to draw the line if there’s even a line at all. Perhaps the films greatest strength is that it asks these questions with complete, raw sincerity. There are numerous moments throughout the movie where writer/director Damien Chazelle could’ve taken the easy way out. After putting his lead character through the gauntlet, he could’ve wrapped everything up as a reassuring little morality tale. But he never does. Instead, he allows his characters to let their true desires drive the story relentlessly forward.


6. The One I Love

one_i_love_xlgPart comedy, part relationship drama, part science fiction. The One I Love dances effortlessly between genres. And I do mean effortlessly. The genius of the film is that, with the possible exception of the final act, nothing comes across as particularly elaborate or over-plotted. In fact, the ingredients are refreshingly simple. Two characters. One damaged relationship. One quiet weekend retreat. With these elements in place, the story begins to unfurl.

Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss have fantastic (and essential) chemistry as the troubled couple. Their somewhat unsettling circumstances yield moments of hilarity and heart while the audience tries to make sense of the situation right along with them. And as the story progresses, it manages to build the tension without sacrificing much in the way of levity or charm. There’s not a whole lot more I can say without delving any deeper into the plot, but The One I Love is definitely an exiting debut for first-time director Charlie McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader.


5. Boyhood

boyhood_xlgYou can’t talk about the movie Boyhood without talking about the making of Boyhood. Over the course of 12 years, director Richard Linklater would film the story piece by piece as his young actor, Ellar Coltrane, would grow up and blah, blah, blah…I mean it is incredible that this movie exists and that’s not lost on me, but let’s talk about the movie itself. It’s pretty great in it’s own right.

So much of Linklater’s story resonates with me personally, as I imagine it will for many who watch the film. But it’s not just watching as Mason (Coltrane) grows into a young man that proves compelling. It’s watching as his mother (Patricia Arquette) tries to find a balance between pursuing her own goals while providing for her children. It’s seeing his father (Ethan Hawke) attempt to stay connected with his kids, passing down wisdom as Mason and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) grow older. And each of these pieces is made all the stronger by seeing the time pass. Really pass. All of which makes Boyhood not just a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, but in storytelling.


4. Under the Skin

under-the-skinMany films have attempted to tackle issues such as beauty, identity, and humanity. None have ever done it quite like Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson gives a performance that is at once detached and incredibly vulnerable, unlike anything we’ve ever seen from her before. Many of the other actors in the film are non-professional, sometimes even unaware they’re being filmed at all. These interactions are terrifyingly unnerving, made all the more so by Mica Levi’s haunting score.

Director Jonathan Glazer captures a bleak portrait of Scotland while injecting his own striking visuals, oftentimes during what can only be described as the most disturbing seduction scenes ever put to film. Yet the harrowing and dispassionate nature of much of the film serves to accentuate the moments of real tragic beauty that exists amongst the darkness.


3. Edge of Tomorrow

edge_of_tomorrow_ver4_xlgFirst off, let’s just get this out of the way. The name of the movie is not Live. Die. Repeat. It’s Edge of Tomorrow. You had your chance to name yourself something that wasn’t totally generic, bland sci-fi and you blew it. Which is a shame because if anyone missed out on this movie for a reason as trivial as a boring title, they did themselves a massive disservice.

There’s one reason and one reason only that this movie is so high up on my list. It’s Fun. Fun with a capital F. The genius of the story (based on the Japanese “light novel” All You Need Is Kill), is that it applies a Groundhog Day-esque plot mechanic with sci-fi action. The result is a surprisingly hysterical summer blockbuster filled with inventive action sequences and great performances by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. I mean, it’s not Hamlet, but Cruise and Blunt carry the audience through this wild ride with fervor. Blunt kicks a lot of ass and Tom Cruise is vintage Cruise, though director Doug Liman actually plays on that “vintage Cruise” perception a bit to great effect. So please, if you haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow, rectify that.


2. Gone Girl

gone-girl-posterI think there ought to be a rule in Hollywood. Only David Fincher should be allowed to direct these kinds of movies. You know, these dark, murdery crime-drama thrillers. Because nobody does it better. Based on the popular novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl might be Fincher’s best, most murdery movie to date.

The grayish-blue color palette sets the mood while Reznor & Ross’s chilly score drips all over every scene.  There are fantastic performances across the board, from relative newcomers like Carrie Coon to unexpected surprises like Tyler Perry. But the most impressive of the bunch has to be Rosamund Pike as the title character. Pike has been solid in past roles from Die Another Day to Jack Reacher, but I could never have expected a turn like this.

The result of a harmonious marriage between director and source material, Gone Girl is simultaneously dark and funny and not quite what it seems.


1. Interstellar

interstellar-posterThere are some things that can only be experienced at the movies. Spectacles unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Director Christopher Nolan has achieved great spectacle through cinema before. But with Interstellar, he’s reached extraordinary new heights. Coupled with incredible photography by Hoyte van Hoytema and a powerful score from Hans Zimmer, the pure visceral thrill of Interstellar is a singular theatrical experience. However, the movies greatest strength is its heart. The father/daughter relationship between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain) is our emotional lifeline as the astronaut crew hurtles through time and space. Even in the face of astonishing galactic vistas and thrilling set pieces, the human element of the story is never forgotten.

Interstellar is not a perfect movie. But it doesn’t strive for perfection. Instead, it seeks to be an ambitious piece of cinema, a spectacle unlike anything we’ve ever seen. And in that, it succeeds magnificently.


Honorable Mentions

  • Locke – Tom Hardy in a car. That’s kinda the deal with this one. But it’s way more exciting than it sounds! Actually, it’s remarkable given the constraints. There have been other “single location” movies like this before, but never done this well. Hardy is outstanding.
  • I Origins – A fascinating premise and solid performances make writer/director Mike Cahill’s followup to 2011’s Another Earth worth a watch. Unfortunately the story falls prey to some preposterous moments and plot contrivances, but it’s nevertheless an encouraging step forward in a promising career for Cahill.
  • Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance alone is reason enough to watch this film. And I mean that quite literally. His performance alone. Writer/director Dan Gilroy makes some worthy points regarding television news, ambition, capitalism; unfortunately he does it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But Gyllenhaal really is terrific.

Movies I Missed

  • The Theory of Everything
  • Selma
  • The Babadook
  • Foxcatcher
  • Wild

Best Performances

Supporting

  • J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
  • Ben Mendelsohn – Starred Up
  • Edward Norton – Birdman
  • Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer
  • Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice

Leading

  • Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
  • Scarlett Johansson – Under the Skin
  • Tom Hardy – Locke
  • Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
  • Sarah Snook – Predestination

Best Scenes

  1. Whiplash – The Finale
  2. X-Men: Days of Future Past – Quicksilver in Action
  3. Under the Skin – The Deformed Man
  4. Gone Girl – Cool Girl
  5. Interstellar – Catching Up on Messages
  6. Frank – I Love You All
  7. Nightcrawler – The Dinner Date
  8. Under the Skin – Beneath the Inky Black
  9. Guardians of the Galaxy – Opening Credits
  10. Blue Ruin – Dwight Confronts Wade





Best Trailers of 2014

22 01 2015

– Jerry Lundegaard

The best thing about a trailer is that it exists separate from the final film. There’s a lot of versatility in that. A great trailer can stoke the flames of anticipation for a movie while standing on it’s own as a great piece of entertainment or (dare I say) art. Sometimes a trailer foreshadows greatness to come, other times a trailer may prove far more enjoyable than the movie itself. Whatever the case, we can all agree that the following is a 100% objective list of the absolute best movie trailers of the past year.


10. Tomorrowland (Teaser)

A brief glimpse into a potentially fascinating world. Clooney’s final line is the cherry on top of the intrigue sundae.


9. John Wick (Official)

Crazy, silly, over-the-top, badass action.


8. Birdman (Teaser)

Striking visuals. Great music. Kinetic energy.


7. Force Majeure (Official US)

Great mix of humor and uncomfortable, escalating tension.


6. American Sniper (Teaser)

Speaking of tension…


5. Guardians of the Galaxy (Official 2)

The music sets the tone and the characters keep the fun energy flowing.


4. Godzilla (Official)

Bryan Cranston’s foreboding voiceover playing over the endless scenes of destruction builds the suspense until we catch a glimpse of the movie’s real star.


3. Inherent Vice (Official)

The offbeat humor is what sets this trailer apart. Holding it all together is a terrific soundtrack and great voiceover narration.


2. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (Teaser)

If a good trailer does indeed stoke the flames of anticipation, this one dumps gasoline.


1. Nightcrawler (Teaser)

Everything here is working at a 10. The visuals are sleek, the music is haunting, and Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead is both captivating and unsettling. The trailer moves at a brisk pace, builds to a breaking point, and hums to a finish. There were some great trailers this year, but this is number 1…and it’s not even close.


Honorable Mention – The One I Love (Official)

This is less of an honorable mention really and more of a “I forgot to include it when I first made the list”, but then that in and of itself may justify its Honorable Mention status. Nevertheless, this trailer belongs here. It manages to intrigue without tipping its hand – a delicate balancing act. Definitely one of the best of the year.






Paging Dr. Feelgood

27 07 2013

-Jerry Lundegaard

“Where have all the feel-good movies gone?” That’s the question. Or is it?

You see, just the other day a friend of mine argued that there just aren’t enough feel-good movies anymore. My initial reaction was to disagree with him. After all, what about….um…you know, the one with….uhhhhhhh….and then I got to thinking, “movies have gotten pretty cynical these days.”

Just think about this past crop of summer flicks. I guess you could say Monsters University is a “feel-good” film, but then again it’s a prequel to a movie that’s 12 years old. And if there’s anything to be cynical about with movies these days it’s that there Imageisn’t an original idea left in Hollywood. So Despicable Me 2 is also out. But even if we open the flood gates for all the sequels, we’re still left with doom and gloom. Smooth talking Tony Stark spends half of Iron Man 3 dealing with some serious PTSD, Star Trek Into Darkness treads some tricky territory with plenty of 9/11 imagery, and the Rotten Tomatoes consensus for Hangover III says it’s “Less a comedy than an angrily dark action thriller.” Even Superman, the very embodiment of hope and the American Dream, was far more violent and brooding in Man of Steel than we’d ever seen him before. Why have movies gotten so aggressive with us lately? What have we done to anger them?!

But let’s take a step back for a minute. I mean, is it even true? Have there been less feel-good movies released in recent years than in years past? To answer this question, we first need to set the parameters for what a “feel-good” movie is. And after careful deliberation, I have compiled what I believe to be an irrefutable list of objectively “feel-good” films. They are:

This is not meant to be a list of the “feel-goodiest” movies of all time, simply a comprehensive collection of agreeable choices to effectively represent the term. Regardless of whether or not you think any of these are particularly good movies, I take it we can all agree that they are at least feel-good. Even if you don’t personally experience the uplifting emotions that typically come from watching a feel-good film, you should still be able to at least recognize the ability of these films to have that effect on other people. People whom, unlike yourself, weren’t BORN WITH A HEART OF STONE. But I digress…

For the sake of continuing the exploration of our thesis, I will assume agreement upon the films listed above as “feel-good”. And now that we have our definition of what that means, we can begin to determine if there truly are fewer feel-good films today. But when exactly is “today”? When did the feel-goods allegedly ease up and the darkness creep into our cinema? Where do we begin? At the beginning, of course! At the Batman Begins…ing.

ImageI must admit that, like many people, I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. And so I, like many people, may be part of the “problem.”

In 2005, Nolan made Batman Begins and did something with the character no one had done before (at least not in cinema). He took this beloved icon and transformed him from the zany and over-the-top caricature we all knew him as and made him into the dark and conflicted man we now know him to be. Aided by Christian Bale’s fantastic portrayal of the brooding Bruce Wayne, Nolan gave people something they never knew they wanted: “grittiness”. No longer was Batman a comic book character- he was a tortured soul in the real world. Gotham wasn’t some fantastical and outlandish creation, it was pretty much Chicago. The Batsuit wasn’t a nipple-laden nightmare, it was a Nomex survival suit with kevlar bi-weave. And the villains weren’t cartoonishly cackling loons, they were a corrupt psychopharmacologist and a drug-smuggling crime boss. This was a reinvention of a classic story. This was a bold step in a new direction. And people couldn’t get enough. After the incredible success of Batman Begins, “gritty reboot” was the name of the game. James Bond got his treatment in Casino RoyaleCaptain Kirk and crew got theirs in Star Trek. Even Flynn’s Arcade was awoken from a 30 year slumber for Tron: LegacyAnd when Nolan and company made a sequel to their first Batman flick, it went on to make over $1 billion.

So there you have it. The year 2005. The year that a cartoon character was made much more adult. Much darker. Angrier. And the result was massive box office success.

From that point on, Hollywood decided to cash in on this trend. “If people want more grit and cynicism, then by God we’ll give it to em!” Since then, there have been countless cities destroyed on the big screen. Endless blood spilled. A great dark cloud cast over the once sunny skies of Hollywood, CA.

But who’s really being cynical here? That kind of interpretation of where the industry has gone may be missing the forest for the trees. Sure, there’s been a trend toward more “grit” and darkness in some big blockbusters, but the “feel-good” movie hasn’t gone extinct, has it?

To answer this question we need to find our “Feel-Good Movies of the Year!”

In years past, the phrase “Feel-Good Movie of the Year” has been used as a huge selling point for many films. After all, people like to feel good. But can that kind of marketing continue to sell a movie or have audiences become too cold and calloused?

The following are what I believe to be the “Feel-Good Movies” of each year following 2005. They may not have been explicitly advertised as such, but as with our aforementioned examples used to define the term, these films have undeniable “feel-good” qualities.

  • Invincible/Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – Sports stories are notoriously effective fodder for feel-good films. Invincible, the story of Philadelphia Eagles walk-on football player Vince Papale, was another entry into that cannon. The film won it’s opening weekend at the box office and proved that audiences still flocked to Imagesee those classic underdog tales. On the other hand, a road trip with a dysfunctional family doesn’t exactly scream “crowd-pleaser”, but Little Miss Sunshine proved to be just that. It was nominated for several Academy Awards and was a hit with audiences as well.
  • Ratatouille/The King of Kong (2007) – Two very different examples here. The first is another successful outing by Pixar, a veritable “feel-good” factory. Ratatouille not only made over $600 million worldwide, but it was nominated for several Oscars and won Best Animated Feature. The King of Kong was a hysterical and uplifting documentary that launched director Seth Gordon’s career. Not only that, but Kong has proven so popular since it’s release that Gordon has been shopping the idea of a scripted remake of the film.
  • Mamma Mia!/Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – This year proved an interesting one for feel-good cinema. On the one hand, there’s Mamma Mia!– a film adaptation of the stage musical. While critics weren’t crazy about it, there’s no doubt audiences loved the film as it made over half a billion dollars at the box office. Then there’s Slumdog Millionaire. Not only a box office success, but critics swooned over it as the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. While some hailed Slumdog as the “feel-good movie of the decade”, it’s an interesting film in that it also contains quite a few harrowing moments. Perhaps it was the first feel-good film for the modern moviegoer. Dark at times, but no doubt uplifting by the time the credits roll.
  • Up/The Blind Side (2009) – These two movies prove you don’t need to reinvent cinema to be a crowd-pleaser. Up is another Pixar endeavor and it was just as critically and commercially successful as you’d expect, notching a Best Picture nod at the Oscars and raking in over $700 million at the box office. The Blind ImageSide was another uplifting sports drama which also received a Best Picture nomination as well as an Oscar win for Sandra Bullock for her work in the film.
  • The Fighter/The King’s Speech (2010) – Few feel-good movies receive as much critical recognition as these two did in 2010. Both were box office smashes, but they were both also nominated for a slew of Oscars. The Fighter won several acting awards while The King’s Speech won nearly everything else, including Best Picture.
  • The Artist/Win Win (2011) – The Artist is yet another example of a feel-good movie that made both critics and audiences giddy. It made bank at the box office and was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning five including Best Picture. But Win Win is a great example of an under the radar crowd-pleaser. While it didn’t receive the universal attention of something like The ArtistWin Win is proof that even smaller films can share in the feel-goods.
  • Pitch Perfect/The Avengers (2012) – Not every feel-good movie needs to be Oscar bait. Pitch Perfect is the kind of movie that has plenty of fun without worrying about the awards it’ll be pining for later. Critics and audiences agreed and a sequel to the film is likely. The Avengers is, like Slumdog Millionaire, an example of a more modern crowd-pleaser. It’s got all the over the top action and explosions you’d expect from a summer blockbuster, but it’s also the most fun you could have sitting down. Another critical and commercial success, the film made more than $1.5 billion worldwide.

Clearly feel-good cinema is still going strong, but there’s no doubt that the tone of many big blockbusters has been changing. If anything, what we’ve proven is that cinema is like any other industry, which is to say it’s an industry in flux. It’s constantly changing, constantly evolving to coalesce with audience sensibilities.

So if you’ve enjoyed the more mature nature of many Hollywood outings of late, you’re in luck! It doesn’t seem like that trend is going anywhere. As long as people keep paying money to see those films, you can be sure studios will keep making them. But if you yearn for the feel-good stories of yesteryear, fret not! They aren’t as far-gone as you might think. With so many films being churned out these days, it can be easy for some of them to get lost in the shuffle. We’re in the thick of the 2013 movie season, but we’ve already seen some great feel-good flicks. 42 is yet another testament to the feel-good nature of sports films. And Warm Bodies proved that even zombie movies can have a heart.

The industry is changing, but that’s nothing new. Sure, in recent years we’ve had to make room for the big, loud, gritty, and ominous. But make no mistake, feel-good cinema is alive and well.





Top 10 Movies of 2012

16 01 2013

-Jerry Lundegaard

The new year is in full swing and it’s time for me to get started on my first resolution: telling people who are largely uninterested my favorite movies of the year by placing ten of them in a more or less arbitrary order that even I could disagree with by the time I’ve written it all down. It’s gonna be a good year!

I’ve managed to see nearly every movie on my 2012 hit list, but I’ve seen just about all of them only once. I’m sure many of these movies would benefit from repeat viewings and a few might not hold up. With that in mind, let’s get to the list.

10. Zero Dark Thirty – A brutal and  captivating account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film is packed with a decades worth of thrilling espionage and government tedium, often to the detriment of its pace and characters. Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty recounts “the greatest manhunt in history” in riveting fashion.

9. Silver Linings Playbook – Not quite your typical romantic comedy and certainly not your typical rom-com couple. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have great chemistry as their characters are both incredibly frustrating and endearing. Funny and heartfelt, this is what happens when a romantic comedy is firing on all cylinders.

8. The Dark Knight Rises – When you’re one of the most highly anticipated movies of all time (for a certain crowd anyway), you’re bound to fall short of those colossal expectations. While the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy may be the weakest, it’s still incredibly fun and a fantastic ending to Bruce Wayne’s legend.

7. The Queen of Versailles – Captivating in it’s own right, this documentary is also one of the more timely films of the year. What starts as the story of a rich family basking in opulence soon becomes the story of a family struggling to adjust to a crippled economy and a new lifestyle. What could have easily been schadenfreude run amok is instead an intriguing look at familiar obstacles through a bizarre lens.

6. Sleepwalk With Me – Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia shines here as the writer/director/star of this adaptation of his own one-man show. The result is a movie that’s both deeply personal and very funny. An interesting look at relationships and the creative process, Birbiglia has made his personal journey into something widely relatable.

5. Bernie – The more I think about Bernie, the more I’m convinced it’s one of the most unique movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s just dark enough to be uncomfortably funny and it’s told in a quasi-documentary style that fits the small town story like a glove. Filled with plenty of amusing characters, none are as morbidly fascinating as Bernie himself.

4. The Avengers – The movie many people (myself included) expected to be a disaster of monumental proportions was instead the most fun you could have at the theater all year. The incredible action sequences and trademark Joss Whedon humor made The Avengers a geeks delight from start to finish. I never thought I’d say this, but it almost excuses Iron Man 2. Almost.

3. Django Unchained – Simultaneously the most disturbing and most hilarious movie of the year. Perhaps when it comes to Quentin Tarantino, it comes with the territory. The snappy dialogue, fantastic performances, and unbearably tense scenes all come together for an utterly satisfying Southern revenge story.

2. Looper –  A science fiction movie that’s both smart and thrilling. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis have a fantastic dynamic which only becomes more complex as the story unfolds. The movie has great action, serious heart, and is not afraid to broach some disturbing territory. All of which makes Looper equal parts exhilarating and harrowing. The best sci-fi film in years.

1. Life of Pi – Beautiful to look at and breathtaking to experience, Life of Pi is an incredible piece of storytelling. It is an enchanting and excruciating tale of survival that follows a man and his tiger as they drift along an infinite ocean. The film juggles themes of faith and humanity while letting the audience come away with whatever interpretation they choose. A fascinating film in many respects, Life of Pi is the best of the year.

Honorable Mentions: 

  • The Master – Beautifully shot and with incredible performances, the film is ultimately a collection of terrific scenes that never come together for a wholly engrossing story.
  • Indie Game: The Movie – A great documentary that examines both the creative process and the enormous pressure of big expectations.
  • Moonrise Kingdom – The trademark tone and aesthetic of Wes Anderson makes for a unique experience with this charming adolescent love story.

Movies I Missed:

  • The Sessions
  • Holy Motors
  • Les Miserables
  • End of Watch




Theater Review: X-Men: First Class

11 06 2011

-Ryan Famulari

ARTICLE CONTAINS HEAVY SPOILERS

Great. In the dictionary “great” is defined as something markedly superior in character or quality. I sometimes find that when someone says the word, great, they actually mean to say good, okay or average. Unfortunately the misuse of the word is due to our culture’s diminishing standards. In this case I’m really focusing on our standards in regards to cinema. We have loosened the restrictions on what we’re willing to deem great. The gauges are a little off. The scale is a bit skewed. Crap is now good.  And mediocre is exceptional. Mediocre is considered great. It is the bar to which everything is measured. It’s what we hope for. It’s what we shoot for.

Our creative sites are not set at the stars. They are aimed at the roof tops of our homes. It’s safer that way. The risks are not as big. But the rewards aren’t either. You can’t expect to write, create, build, or grow something of greatness without doing the cliché and shooting for the stars. Taking that leap. That risk. You can’t be safe and be great. You can’t perfect mediocrity and label it something that it’s not. You can’t lower your standards and call what’s average excellent. But the more trash Hollywood spews at the masses, the more willing we are to completely overreact to a decent, average, pretty good film. X-Men: First Class was not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It was not the perfect superhero film. It was simply a good one. A competent one.

To be honest, I did actually have a lot of fun watching Matthew Vaughn’s latest installment to the X-Men franchise. Walking out of the theater I even felt good about my twelve dollar invest. I’m pretty high on Vaughn right now and I loved his first three films – Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass. So rolling into this flick I was pretty excited. To say my expectations for this film were high would be a gross understatement. I couldn’t wait to see what Vaughn would bring to this tired superhero series.

In my Layer Cake review, I said that Vaughn would revive the X-Men franchise single handily. This is now a statement that seems a bit obvious considering the praise he has been receiving around the web. And while I don’t think this movie surpasses Brian Singer’s first two films, Vaughn definitely has the ship going in the right direction once again.

But Ryan, you say, what was with the “great” rant earlier in this review? You sound like you really enjoyed this film. Well, yes and no. Let me explain myself. I did enjoy the movie going experience of X-Men: First Class, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it was a missed opportunity. Everyone seems to be loving this film. Some are saying it’s the best superhero movie of all time. And I just can’t stomach that notion with all the flaws this film presents.

I give Vaughn a ton of credit. He pretty much had one year to shoot and edit this film before it was released to the masses. And under those severely rushed circumstances I think Vaughn produced the best movie he could. He elevated something that, in the wrong hands, would’ve been complete garbage. But even with that being said the movie still fell short of what it could have been and for that I can only be so pleased with the finished product.

One of the few things I was able to take away from this film was a new appreciation for just how amazing Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are at their craft. They were undoubtedly the highlight of this film. They brought a depth and an emotional complexity to two characters that really didn’t get the proper care and time they deserved from the screenplay. A screenplay which proved to be the biggest problem with this film. Everything felt rushed. And not just because Vaughn only had so much time to shoot, but because the writing was just so underwhelming. There were way too many characters in the film and far too many story lines. There was so much crammed into this film. At the end of the day this was a character piece that was mistaken for an action epic.

I loved Kevin Bacon in his role as the evil Sebastian Shaw. It would be ludicrous of me to compare his performance to Christoph Waltz’s performance in Inglorious Bastards (one of the best of the past decade), but it was the first thing that popped into my head when Bacon appeared on the screen with his impeccable German accent. But what did the character really bring to the film? Shaw’s motives were exactly the same as Fassbender’s Erik Lenhsherr’s. The only thing separating the two was the fact that Shaw killed Lenhsherr’s mother. A fact that made their conflict seem a bit trivial in the shadow of the Cold War and the battle between humans and mutants. Lehnsherr could have easily filled the role that Shaw played in the Cold War story-arc. Yes it would have taken some finesse to work that in, but by doing this you get rid of a character that took away a lot of steam from the ultimate conflict that I, and I’m sure most people, were interested in. The tragic friendship between McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Lenhsherr.

Then there were the mutant students. The “first class” of superheroes. There was really no need for them to be in the film at all, except that the film’s title would have seemed a bit out-of-place. The dramatic scenes that they were apart of felt forced and totally unearned. I want someone, anyone, to tell me that they felt it emotionally, deep down, when Zoe Kravitz’s character, Angel Salvadore, decided to leave the mutant team lead by Xavier for Bacon’s band of villains. Instead of an organic evolution of a character it came across as a clichéd beat the film had to hit. And that is just one example of the many cringe worthy “beats” the film forces upon its audience.

I won’t even touch the horrendous CGI of Kravitz’s Angel. If you saw the movie, you were most certainly laughing whenever her character was displaying her powers in action. Shout out (wink wink) to Banshee here, too. Their flying duel was borderline embarrassing.

The rest of the young mutants were alright CGI wise, but didn’t add any substance to the film either. All they managed to do was distract and detract from the heart of the film. Xavier and Lehnsherr. The only young mutant that had a place in the film was Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. Like Xavier and Lehnsherr, she wasn’t given enough time. We were told, instead of shown, how to feel about her character. There was such a great dynamic between the three: Xavier, Mystique and Lehnsherr. There was so much potential. But the film didn’t explore that potential properly. When it was time, at the end of the film, for Mystique to choose between her adoptive brother, Xavier, or Lehnsherr, I was left feeling a bit confused instead of emotionally torn by her decision to leave with Lehnsherr. Again, we weren’t shown the development and evolution of the relationships. We were told how to feel through cheesy dialogue and sterile action sequences.

The most lackluster of all the action set-pieces was Shaw’s attack on the government facility, where the mutants were hidden by Oliver Platt’s short-lived character. The scene began beautifully with the Shyamalan-esque bodies dropping from the sky. A little reminiscent of The Happening. When the teleporting badass, Azazel, started snatching guards and dropping them to their death, I was totally in. Until he entered inside the walls of the facility to continue the fight. The fighting and action inside the facility was far removed from the camera and looked very PG. You literally didn’t see anything. No stabbing. No blood. No real reason for the guards to fall to the ground dead. It started dark and eery, but quickly became boring was Azazel left the air and hit the ground. And what made it worse was that the focus during the fight sequence was on the young mutants running back and forth from window to window watching the destruction outside, instead of on the destruction outside. I didn’t want to see the reaction of the mutants, I wanted to see (preferably close up) what they were reacting to. But this is what the film ultimately was. It was distant. It was rushed. It was unpolished.

One of the biggest disappoints for me was just how horrid January Jones was as Emma Frost. She is an amazingly attractive woman, but as far as acting goes, she leaves a lot to be desired. The character of Emma Frost needed to be seductive, but Jones brought nothing. She needed the sex appeal and fierce demeanor of Famke Janssen in GoldenEye. But Jones had little or nothing to offer as the female villain. She just wasn’t convincing in her role and was really the only low point in a movie that displayed some pretty decent if not fantastic performances.

With all of its problems I was still able to enjoy this film and have a decent time at the theater. It was a good summer popcorn-flick and was worth the twelve bucks I shelled out, if for nothing else, the performances of Fassbender and McAvoy.  But the more I think about it, the more disappointed I become. This really had all the potential to be a great movie. Great actors, great director, great superhero property, but unfortunately none of it was given the proper time it needed. Did I come in with too high of expectations? Most definitely. But like I was hopefully getting across at the top of this post, it’s not my job to lower my expectations to the standard we seem to be getting from the big Hollywood studios. It’s the studio’s job to meet our high expectations.





Theater Review: Thor

10 05 2011

-Ryan Famulari

At last, summer is here and in a big way. Everyone seemed to be hoping summer would come earlier this year with the release of movies such as Sucker Punch and Rango, but with their lack luster performances at the box-office and poor critical reception, we’ve been left holding our collective breath for that first true blockbuster to hang our hats on. Well hold your breath no more. Let the color return to your face and give a warm welcome to the start of the summer season: Thor.

There are a hand full of big superhero releases scheduled for this summer. The “Big Four” include Captain America, The Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, and Thor. And to be honest, aside from Matthew Vaughn’s new X-Men reboot, I haven’t been all that psyched for the other three. In the case of Thor, my expectations were pretty much non-existent.  Blame the poorly cut trailers or the disappointing taste left in my mouth from Iron Man 2, but Thor was not a movie I was highly anticipating. At all. In anyway imaginable. The CGI (especially the work done in Asgard) looked cheesy. I was uncertain about Chris Hemsworth’s ability to go from his prologue portrayal of  George Kerk in Star Trek, to a leading role in a large action franchise. And I really couldn’t see a god with magic powers working in the “realistic” superhero world that John Favraeu created in his last two Iron Man flicks. The latter worry being the most important. Thor would have to fit perfectly into that world, being that all of these Marvel films are ultimately going to converge in the outrageously anticipated Avengers movie.

Kenneth Branagh (Thor’s director) was going to have the tricky job of incorporating a Norse god in a Tony Starks’ world and make it seamlessly plausible. A difficult challenge it seemed, for the director of movies like Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. But after seeing Thor (in 2D), he might have been just the right man for the job.

All three questions, or concerns I should say, that I had going into Thor were answered rather quickly. The CGI didn’t come across as being cheesy. Not in the least. Asgard looked gorgeous. And while one could argue the world felt rather empty (with a lack of that “epic” scale of population you usually get in a fantasy type setting – aka Lord of the Rings), Asgard felt…well, plausible. I bought it. And I bought it within the world of the Marvel films.

I think a way to get the audience to believe in your world is through the characters you populate it with. Between the direction of Branagh and the great acting from the entire cast, the characters really came to life. They were an easy way into the CGI Asgard. I believed in the characters and therefore believed in the world they lived in.

And yes. I said great when referring to the acting of the cast. How could the acting in a superhero comic flick be great, you ask? Well, go see Thor and I think you’ll see what I’m saying, but just to get a little more specific let me talk about Anthony Hopkins first. Now for those of you who saw the horrendous The Wolfman, that came out last year, you’ll know what I’m saying if I use the phrase “chewing on the scenery” when describing Hopkins’s performance. I actually think he literally chewed on a few things throughout the movie, but seriously, he was just too over the top and hammy in The Wolfman. That was not the case in Thor. His performance was subtle and genuine. There was a very Shakespearean feel to it. Now I would give equal credit to Hopkins and Branagh for that, but nevertheless, Hopkins gave a great performance as Odin, the father of Thor. He didn’t feel like a cartoon character. He felt real.

Another great performance was that of Tom Hiddleston, who played Thor’s brother, Loki. Let me first say that one of the problems with this film is that it, at times, rushes through the development of characters and their relationships with one another. The film can be a bit sparse in those areas. But that being said, Hiddleston gave a depth to Loki that a lesser actor would have missed. Being that the script flew through things a bit, Loki could have easily fell flat. The character could have been just another stereotypical sibling with a jealously complex, but that didn’t happen here. Hiddleston brought the goods and created a character that I am super excited to revisit in The Avengers.

And then we have Chris Hemsworth. The key figure whose shoulders the whole film sat upon. If he didn’t work as Thor, the whole movie wasn’t going to work. And man…did it work. I’ve heard a lot of people say that this is a “star in the making” role and although I’m always the one to be the contrarian, I can’t seem to find anything to say disputing that. I’m sold on Hemsworth. He has that swashbuckling charisma that made Harrison Ford one of the greatest action stars of his generation. There is a dedication in Hemsworth’s performance that comes across as charming. He delivers the cheesy lines with a certain confidence that you can’t help but fall in love with. And it is because of Hemsworth’s performance alone that I was able to overlook the rather head-scratching relationship between Thor and Natalie Portman’s character, Jane Foster. Again, things were a bit rushed there.

Another thing worth noting about the script was the fact that, like the Iron Man flicks, there was a lack of that one big climatic fight at the end that you usually expect with an action film like Thor. The difference here, though, is that the conclusion of this movie, as opposed to Iron Man and Iron Man 2, hit a more emotional climax and in doing so I was able to disregard the lack of that big action set piece that I would have otherwise wanted. The emotion behind the decision Thor makes at the end was enough to satisfy the “climatic fight scene” craving I had going in. Branagh was able to get just enough out of the rushed script to give the audience an ending that was easily digestible and filling.

Thor is not a perfect movie, by any stretch, but it delivers all the goods one expects when hitting up the local theater on a summer evening. It has the action and heart you look for in your typical blockbuster. The characters are fun (shout out to Kat Dennings and her role as Darcy Lewis – provides great comic relief), the story moves along with just enough momentum to keep you engaged all the way through and the special effects are top notch. I’d say Thor is a solid addition to the Marvel Universe of films. It’s a hell of a lot better than Iron Man 2. So if you were one of those people who couldn’t wait for the summer season to begin, here’s your chance to usher in the sun with Thor.

Check out Thor in theaters now.






Rental Review: Young@Heart

7 04 2011

-Jerry Lundegaard

Most people probably have a lot of preconceived notions about how senior citizens like to spend their leisure time. Bingo and shuffleboard quickly come to mind. I’d throw knitting in there. Gardening, maybe…just taking care of a little garden or something? The point is, if you made a list of things you’d expect senior citizens to do with their spare time, singing along to contemporary rock music would probably be way down at the bottom. And that is a big part of the appeal of the 2008 documentary Young@Heart.

Director Stephen Walker follows the Young@Heart chorus, a group of 22 senior citizens, as they prepare for a concert that is just weeks away. While the film certainly relies on the tried and true “old people are so cute, aren’t they?” formula, it is ultimately about much more. A unique examination of the creative process and the power of music, Young@Heart is a moving and uplifting documentary that puts those Rolling Stones kids to shame.

This movie actually feels more like something you might watch on PBS than a typical documentary. This is likely due to the fact that it was originally broadcast for television on Britain’s Channel 4 and later edited and extended for a theatrical release. The “PBS vibe” doesn’t really detract from the film and once you become involved with the people on screen you quickly forget about all that anyway. However, the T.V. to film transition doesn’t come without a price. The inclusion of several short music videos, where the seniors performed some of their popular numbers, really brought the films momentum to a screeching halt. While I wasn’t able to find out for sure if these videos were in the original Channel 4 broadcast, it seems more likely that they were produced afterward to extend the runtime and add some flair to the film version. Instead, the videos seem out of place and pale in comparison to the powerful live performances in the movie. This doesn’t wind up hurting the overall experience too much, but it’s worth noting.

Noted.

And now let’s talk about everything this movie does right! And there’s a lot it does right. As I said before, part of the appeal of Young@Heart is that it follows a bunch of old people singing rock songs. That’s bound to lead to a lot of laughs, right? Well it does, but it also leads to quite a few unexpected moments as well. It’s not long before you realize that this group of people getting together to make music is much more than a gimmick. That’s due in large part to the fact that the director of the chorus, Bob Cilman, doesn’t treat it like one. Cilman is tough on his crew when he needs to be, treating them like anything but fragile old fogies. But what emerges from his approach is a mutual respect between he and the group that is heartwarming to witness.

Another reason why this film is so charming is the cast of characters that makes up the chorus. It’s hysterical to see a 92 year old woman, sweet as could be, hitting on the camera crew and belting out Sonic Youth lyrics. All of the members are so full of life and vigor and the people the filmmakers choose to focus on couldn’t be more likable. And while it’s endlessly amusing to watch these old people do old people things, they’re also shown as real people with a passion for what they are doing. It’s this spirit, which is so alive in every member of Young@Heart, that carries the film.

And since you’re having so much fun with these sweet old folks it can be easy to forget that they are in fact old. But the sad (and not unexpected) reality is that not everyone in this group lives through to the end of the film. It is in seeing how the group handles these loses that Young@Heart truly shines. In particular, the live performances that the group dedicates to their fallen friends are some of the most powerful and genuine moments you’ll find in any film.

The members of the Young@Heart chorus are not the most spectacular singers in the world. They’ll miss a note, sing off key, lose the rythme….forget the words. But it’s only when you see this group in action that you understand why they can fill auditoriums show after show. Despite age, illness, and whatever else stands in their way, Young@Heart will never let the music die.

Young@Heart is available now on Netflix Watch Instantly