A blunt force psycho-tale that's smarter than most, this Guest invites… MoreA blunt force psycho-tale that's smarter than most, this Guest invites itself into the horror genre but earns its place thanks to some bloody good thrills and a scarily dead-on lead performance. Redundancy runs amuck in this genre. If this thriller wasn't such an intelligent predator of other sociopathic killer flicks, it might've simply played out like The Hitcher - or its god-awful remake - without a car. But the premise imbeds this psychotic charmer into the victims' and our own good graces before the body count starts to rise. Oh, the phoney baloney conspiracy backstory drops the overall IQ of this otherwise whipsmart thrill-ride with some over-the-top super soldier blarney but the villain at The Guest's center keeps us all drawn into the violence.
In this R-rated thriller, a soldier (Stevens) introduces himself to a family (Kelly, et al) as a friend of their son who died in action, only for a series of accidental deaths to get tied to his presence.
Stripping off any aristocratic airs left from his stint as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey (and at least 20 pounds besides), Dan Stevens looks like a lost puppy even with an unhinged thousand-yard stare. If it weren't for the fresh skills of director Adam Wingard, however, we'd just be looking at another pretty face with blood on his hands. Having crafted one of the best horror flicks of 2013 (You're Next), he takes a well-worn stalker story (think: Cape Fear in the desert) and whips it up into a cool albeit dark frenzy. Plus, perhaps borrowing a cue from Drive, the pulsating '80s synth soundtrack adds another layer of eerie menace and suspense to this slick psychokiller.
Bottom line: Let the Aw Right One In
Trying to spice up soft core pulp by hard selling a limp romance, this… MoreTrying to spice up soft core pulp by hard selling a limp romance, this oftentimes dull adaptation of E.L. James' steamy novel ends up to be many shades shy of sexy or entertaining. At least, the movie tries classing up the joint. The novel's one-note first person prose wants for creativity so bad that it might as well be presenting an emotionless MS-DOS conversation between a computer and user. But many readers submitted wholeheartedly to this rudimentary format, expectantly awaiting H'Wood to up the ante of their lurid fantasies with a full tilt boogie bells and whistles, er, whips and chains interpretation. Despite coloring in the Grey areas by focusing on the courtship, backstories of the two PYTs, and build-up to the S&M in the first act, the rest plays out like a whimper--not a bang. It's amazing how a flick with so many supposedly scintillating acts actually ends up to be boring. Even with all of the hard bodies and spanking, no sparks fly between what's on screen and the audience. Worse, moments and whole scenes abruptly just end. Nothing, ahem, climaxes. It's understood that Christian Grey isn't a romantic but his masochistic acts should at least elicit more than yawns from moviegoers.
In this R-rated adaptation of the erotic romance novel by E.L. James, literature student Anastasia Steele's (Johnson) life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire Christian Grey (Dorman).
Director Sam Taylor-Wood attempts to bring some verve to their 'dating' portion, trying to get you invested in these rather colorless characters. Ultimately, however, she and screenwriter Kelly Marcel fail to make the goings-on go flush with liveliness. Dakota Johnson seems bound for bigger and better things despite this tourist trap stop in Dullsville. Jamie Dorman, meanwhile, sometimes looks the part but sometimes looks like he doesn't want to be there either.
Bottom line: No Spank You, Ma'am
Descending the sci-fi genre into a near-laughingstock, the Wachwoski… MoreDescending the sci-fi genre into a near-laughingstock, the Wachwoski siblings' appalling latest flight of fantasy might boast some eye-popping visuals but only at the cost of sitting through some mind-numbing storytelling. You would think that this talented team, the visionary twosome that brought audiences the groundbreaking actioner The Matrix (and some less revolutionary sequels), would've learned of the dangers of candy-colored excess from a style-over-substance pop culture car wreck called Speed Racer. At least THAT cinematic pitfall tried to be something--namely, a live action cartoon. The jury's still out on what Jupiter Ascending tries to emulate. Much in the same way that the 1980 reimagining of classic serial Flash Gordon, what with its ham-fisted hunk acting and camp-tastic trappings, became a cult hit for all the wrong reasons, this miscalculated raspberry proves operatically over-the-top and unintentionally laughable. Also, much in the way that David Lynch's well-intentioned 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, what with its muddled and hollow narrative, became a critical punching bag, this empty excursion to oblivion instantly earns your ire. Nevermind waiting for a Rifftrax, even the driest of moviegoers can make their own jokes this just fine from the get-go.
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi fantasy set in a bright and colorful future, a young destitute caretaker (Kunis) gets targeted by a ruthless son (Eddie Redmayne) of a powerful family that live on a planet in need of a new heir, so she travels with a genetically engineered warrior (Tatum) to the planet in order to stop this evil tyrant.
So far as world-building (something about the planets in our solar system being part of an infinite dynasty and Mila Kunis being the reincarnation of this reigns murdered queen), Andy and Lana Wachowski more or less speed you along through their fantastical phooey--we're not alone in the universe, here's an abbreviated version of whats what, yadda yadda yadda, so on and so forth. Its almost as if they cave into the fact that we've seen similar overall stories before (ignorant humanoid bound for galactic greatness (hello, Star Wars!) and just expect us to drink the watered-down Kool-Aid and get with the program early...but this program involves a cat-like bodyguard who doesn't sing Andrew Lloyd Webber songs and the guy who plays Stephen Hawking chewing the CGI-generated scenery while sounding like Dumbledore-era Richard Harris. Sure, a lot of the tech and SFX hold the potential to fascinate but you just cant get over the fact that Channing Tatum, one of the biggest stars in the world right now, signed off on this love-turned-insult letter to Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
Bottom line: Stupider Upending
A carefully plodded thinking mans morality tale, J.C. Chandor's… MoreA carefully plodded thinking mans morality tale, J.C. Chandor's awe-striking and atmospheric latest easily ranks as one of the decade's best crime stories. Many films have charted the less-than-successful attempt of social climbing criminals to go clean (The Long Good Friday, The Godfather Part III, Carlito's Way). This film does the same with a scrupulous business unsuccessfully trying to STAY clean. Its a sad and cynical parable reflecting American politics and commerce--not just today but for as the story knowingly relays through the ages. Through generous amounts of dialogue, the film plays out like a high-stakes white-knuckle chess match. You'd think that these sequences would feel too talky, but they only build the tension and suspense of this searing drama, which works excellently as both a character study and proto-gangster story. Like every word in a James Joyce novel, the lines of this film just like the photography and shots - are meticulously chosen and controlled expressions of these powerfully drawn characters.
In this R-rated crime-thriller set in New York City during 1981, an ambitious immigrant (Isaac) fights to protect his business and family (Chastain, et al) during the most dangerous year in the city's history.
Without the brilliant lead performance, itself meticulous and controlled, A Most Violent Year wouldn't amount to such an auteurial tour-de-force. If Inside Llweyn Davis didn't already compound this fact: Isaac is one of the best actors working today. With Chastain, who builds upon an already ridiculously great CV (The Help, Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar), he brings immense heft to a thought-provoking, weighty story, and yes violent story. Whats amazing is that this film bowed in 2014 and amassed zero Academy Award nominations. Someone should've yelled miss-deal.
Bottom line: My Favorite Year
A blistering, bloody, ballsy, and yet brainy first bow, Quentin… MoreA blistering, bloody, ballsy, and yet brainy first bow, Quentin Tarantino's debut crime caper comes close to perfection but nevertheless remains one of cinema's single greatest directorial debuts. So much about Reservoir Dogs nearly errs on the side of caustic. Between the rambling speeches, numerous pop culture references, and oft-putting material, it all nearly self destructs. Revisionist and raw, however, the ballistics behind this pulp paperback gangster film reveal it to be a very suspenseful and very smart character study. Despite how deplorable these men come across (obviously, some more than others), glimmers of humanity rise to the top. It's a Reservoir Dog-eat-Reservoir Dog world in LA's underbelly but human nature still exists as much as criminal nature. Also, for the most part, the pop references aren't disposable. Frankly, they're already classic as Tarantino's vivid edginess makes the film more than just a simple throwback. Between the seamless integration of K-Billy's Super Sounds of the '70s and locker room discussions of dated cop shows, you actually feel like you're watching a '70s crime thriller...albeit one with a very unique modern punch. His world starts to feel too outlandish at times but this is an unapologetic heightened reality.
In this R-rated crime-thriller, the surviving criminals of a jewel heist gone awry begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant.
Beyond the direction, the amazing performances ground the gruff roughnecks at the center of the familiar but colorful story with enough verve and rawness for an entire cable TV mini-series. Their dialogue might seem long-winded but that's just it: it's dialogue, not monologues--oftentimes broken up in a rat-a-tat fashion that keeps you fully invested with an almost maddening tension. Plus, the out-of-sequence storytelling makes this particular take on the well-worn heist film seem fresh. How else could a twist delivered in the 1st act carry through and still end up as a double-barrel gut-punch at the very end? True Romance was supposed to mark Tarantino's writing-directing debut, but Reservoir Dogs nonetheless rings true and betrays a great romance with classic cinema.
Bottom line: Au Revoir Les Enfants, Bonjour Magnifique
An electrifying presentation of real events that never feels like a… MoreAn electrifying presentation of real events that never feels like a history lesson, Selma's authenticity and timeliness make for a rousing spectacle that feels present and not unreachably epic. The director puts you wholly in the moment, never letting style (and the film boasts a good deal) get in the way of passing down an imperative piece of our country's narrative. Even with so much attention to period detail and historic figures, Selma speaks so truthfully in the present tense not just because current events eerily reflect the story to a startling degree but because the characters come alive to such a degree that you feel like you know them. These are characters, mind you, that have been blown up to mythic degrees on everything from inspirational posters to coffee mugs. Plus, screenwriter Paul Webb's multidimensional characterization of all involved articulates the still-ongoing struggle for equality.
Ava DuVernay's PG-13-rated drama chronicles Martin Luther King's (Oyelowo) campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
As realized by David Oyelowo in a brilliantly layered performance wrongly denied an Oscar nomination, Martin Luther King has never been represented on screen so letter perfectly. In fact, everybody from Carmen Ejogo, who looks like news footage of Coretta Scott King come to life to Tim Roth's on-the-racist-nose portrayal of George Wallace rings completely true...except for Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. Why DuVernay would go to extreme lengths to flawlessly present the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and NOT have the actor nail down LBJ's distinctive Texas drawl is beyond comprehension. Still, this mostly British contingent (Oyelowo, Roth, and Wilkson hail from the UK) gets it damn right. Just like with the production team behind 12 Years a Slave (also mostly British), sometimes it takes an outsider to hold up a proper mirror to our society. Regardless, you don't have to be American for this tale to resonate and echo in your heart and mind...and it does.
Bottom line: Civil Righteousness
Subtle and brilliant, Hal Ashby's prescient comedy may've bowed during… MoreSubtle and brilliant, Hal Ashby's prescient comedy may've bowed during the Me Generation, but it packs more of an ironic punch and makes even more sense today. A film like Being There never happens by accident. The narrative and presentation prove so mannered that you begin to wonder if the writer-director himself shouldn't be afforded the same godly status that sometimes gets ascribed to the main character. Even his name, Chance, holds a great deal of wink wink knowingness, as an accelerated and cynical culture accidentally turns this seemingly simplistic man into a pariah. The film's commentary on media addiction and political spin doctoring perhaps grabs latecomers the most, however, pre-dating our current society in which we largely communicate and gather information and opinions through multiple screens. Even though it arrived in cinemas at the end of the '70s, the film earns a top spot during both the Easy Riders-Raging Bull Generation AND still today.
In this PG-rated comedy, a sheltered gardener (Peter Sellers) becomes an unlikely trusted adviser to a powerful businessman (Melvyn Douglas, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) and an insider in Washington politics.
Without a brave and letter perfect lead performance, however, Being There wouldn't work on any of these meta-levels. Having an actor known mostly for absurdist comedy take on this one-note yet endlessly complex figure is brash enough. Pulling through with the apathetic mimicry needed to sell through this right-place/right time stooge is another thing altogether. Peter Sellers was called many things but genius is the one that's wholly agreed upon. His brash director, Hal Ashby, likewise earns this status--if not just for this, then for his entire CV (Harold and Maude, Shampoo, The Last Detail, Coming Home). Finding inquisitive angles to spy these goings-on while letting a lot of the action play out in long takes (with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel brilliantly helping to set the mood and tone), you get caught up in the hypnotic spin as much as the supporting characters. If it doesn't play well for every last modern filmgoer, afflicted as they are with a gnat's attention span, it's not Being There's fault for Being Square. It's simply too smart for some rooms.
Bottom line: There, And Back Again
A ridiculously tense pressure cooker of a thriller, the extremely well… MoreA ridiculously tense pressure cooker of a thriller, the extremely well played Black Sea can be described as Die Hard on a Submarine or Das Steel-Toed Boot, but it ultimately boasts too much unique hard-charging depth of its own to be pigeon-holed. Its a hardscrabble action movie; its an atmospheric thriller; its a hard-hitting drama; its three-three-three films in one! To paraphrase an old hard-sell TV advertisement for a monster truck rally: Black Sea sells you the whole seat, but you only need the edge. For example, as the characters tempers begin to simmer and then explode, Black Sea dives and rises with heightening suspense as if there is a perpetually lit fuse burning under you the entire time. In a confined dark space that feels like a jagged-edge soup can, greed gets pitted against compassion in a bare-fisted battle between the two poles of human nature. This all, of course, ignites more feral emotion and conspiratorial plotting into a veritable chess game...albeit a game in a pressurized rusting casket. And THEN, there's a shocking twist.
In this R-rated thriller, a submarine captain (Law) takes a job with a shadowy backer and combustible crew to search the depths of the Black Sea for a Nazi U-Boat rumored to be loaded with gold.
Straddling these genres so well makes sense given that director Kevin Macdonald's CV already boasts exceptional flicks that likewise accomplish this juggling act (Last King of Scotland, State of Play). These films also showcase gangbuster performances, however. After giving tough guy action a go with middling results (Repo Men, Dom Hemingway), Jude Law proved his knockabout mettle with Sherlock Holmes. Here, however, he establishes himself apart from the jokey fisticuffs in that particular flick (plus, he and Robert Downey, Jr. are more of a one-two punch whereas he stands alone with Black Sea). Though his hands do plenty of talking, this actor shows a seismic shift from calm to rage with just his eyes. He leads an awesome cast working from a wonderfully layered script by relative newcomer Dennis Kelly.
Bottom line: Sea of Much Love
A kindly and laugh-filled bear hug of fun family entertainment, this… MoreA kindly and laugh-filled bear hug of fun family entertainment, this British production Pads a classic children's book with a generous amount of mirth, merriment, and - yes - marmalade--just not to excess. In fact, the movie gets just about everything very right, serving the storied stories for all-ages exceedingly well. Notice the words "all-ages," as this is something that the movie gets right as well. From script to cast to CGI execution, this bear boasts a bite that kids AND adults will enjoy.
In this PG-rated family flick, a family befriends a talking bear (voice of Ben Whishaw) at a London train station. Oh, it assumes a lot of the same attributes that plague other half-animated kid flicks...only doesn't lose its stuffing as a result.
Perhaps, the production learned what NOT to do from three failed attempt at achieving the warm 'n' fuzzies. Like Alvin & the Chipmunks and The Smurfs, it uses some juvenile potty humor but - unlike them - not to the same overbearingly sickening degree (save for one scene involving toothbrushes and ear wax...ew). For the most part, Paddington keeps it classy. Like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Marmaduke, it uses celebrity pipes and celebrity live action performances but - unlike them - not just as gratuitous sales-over-substance selling points. Rather, Paddington's beautifully chosen talent roster services the characters letter perfectly (especially Nicole Kidman playing up the big bad to a delicious degree). Like Garfield and Yogi Bear, it keeps the action modern but - unlike them - never roots itself in disposable pop culture references. Instead, Paddington assumes a classic feel, successfully positioning itself for longevity (they even recast Ben Winshaw as Paddington after Colin Firth reportedly wasn't working in the roll, which shows its dedication to quality--not marquee quantity). A lot of the credit goes to producer David Heyman, who likewise shepherded the Harry Potter series to a beloved status in moviegoers' hearts.
Bottom line: Bear Neccesity