For a film in such a saturated genre as The Drop, that of crime noir,… MoreFor a film in such a saturated genre as The Drop, that of crime noir, it distinguishes itself in an uncanny way, making it one of the most unique films of the year. Methodical, dark, immersive, and ultimately penetrating, The Drop is an experience that will bewilder some, enthrall others, and ultimately stand as another testament to the great Dennis Lehane, whose other tales have inspired countless other marvelous film adaptations (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone).
The story follows one Bob Saginowski, a loner of a man, whose quiet demeanor dials down what would otherwise be an intimidating physical presence. He works at a bar run by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), which serves as a front for money laundering. He soon finds himself in the middle of a robbery, and the center of attention of some of the neighborhood's more nefarious characters. The screenplay, adapted by Dennis Lehane from his own story, gives us rich characters, a seedy world awash in moral ambiguity and forgotten sins, interweaving it all through a narrative that keeps you guessing, and ends up in a place you never saw coming.
What I appreciated most about The Drop was the characters. Like many of Lehane's stories, the characters are all torn within themselves, flawed, nuanced, and resoundingly real. Tom Hardy's character of Bob Saginowski was one of the most memorable of the year for me, embodying a man of contrasts, whose simple veneer masks a exceedingly more complicated figure. This was of course made possible by the brilliant performance of Tom Hardy, who deserves an Oscar for his role. The entire cast had laudable efforts, with a befitting capstone to the amazing career of the late James Gandolfini.
Director Michael Roskam's direction gives the story a methodical slow burn, yet never sacrifices the suspension and tension. His film is confined to a very specific locale, executed by fantastic world building, capturing perfectly the socioeconomic realities of many Brooklyn neighborhoods. He weaves the story perfectly, and ultimately ends on a devastating note.
One of the year's best.
Briskly paced, consistently funny, and just clever enough, The Art of… MoreBriskly paced, consistently funny, and just clever enough, The Art of the Steal is a film that tries very hard to emulate the best heist pictures. It doesn't fully succeed, but it does surpass what other similar films have tried to do, mainly by relying on its talented cast.
With Art of the Steal, we find an over-the-hill motorcycle daredevil and semi-retired art thief, Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell), thrust back in to the game for the heavily clichéd "last job", teaming up with his estranged brother. Like the best comedic heist films, namely Oceans, we find a unique cast of characters, all with their niches, and all with their quirky flaws.
Where the film succeeds is with its tone. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and it doesn't simply go through the motions either. It earnestly tries to be something different. The on-screen chemistry and banter among its cast is pretty excellent, with a solid script backing them up. The direction is energetic, and keeps the film at a very kinetic pace, in keeping with the overall feel of the film. The heist schemes themselves aren't always especially realistic, but are far more grounded than can be found in other heist films, with a solid attention to detail. Where the film got a bit misguided, however, was in the last act, trying to do too much, and getting caught up in its own supposed cleverness. Still, it boasts a great cast, consistent humor, and a plot that keeps you engaged.
Solid all around. 3.5/5 Stars
Strange, fanciful, yet engaging and well performed, Electrick Children… MoreStrange, fanciful, yet engaging and well performed, Electrick Children is a unique movie, and an uncommon directorial debut for Rebecca Thomas. The story centers on Rachel, a 15 year old girl from a fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah who, after listening to a forbidden cassette tape with rock music, becomes inexplicably pregnant. Thinking it is the result of immaculate conception, Rachel endeavors on a quest to find the musician behind the music, befriending an odd cast of characters on her way.
The premise almost makes the film sound like a comedy. It's not. I went in suspecting a strong condescension toward religion coming, and yet-- the film largely resists that temptation. In fact, it starts quite strong, giving us interesting characters, a believable world (to start), and a set up that offers a lot of intrigue. Through the film, we keep waiting for the actual source of the conception to be revealed, yet the film takes its protagonist's view very seriously. If you can accept that, and just go with the film, what follows is a journey of discovery, and something quite unique.
The most impressive part of the film for me was Julia Garner's role as Rachel, an imaginative, wide-eyed young girl, who's not afraid to challenge her boundaries. Her interactions with the surrounding cast was well done, and her journey, however fanciful, felt genuine. Towards the end, however, the more whimsical elements did seem to get away from Electrick Children, resulting in a bit of an uneven tone. Still, the direction delivered an engaging narrative and a world with surrealist overtones, but real drama.
Woody Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, is a film of charm, some… MoreWoody Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, is a film of charm, some good lines, some likeable performances, and a lighthearted feel. Yet, it feels slight, and ultimately pales in comparison to his recent brilliant entries, Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, while still largely surpassing the likes of To Rome with Love. In short, it's passable Allen, yet not impressive Allen.
With magic in the moonlight, we find Stanley Crawford, a stylized stage magician with a passion for debunking spiritualists, and a self-absorbed outlook on life, compelled by his friend to try and find out the tricks of a beautiful medium, Sophie, who is in the midst of securing a marriage proposal from a smitten young bachelor. In typical Allen style, there's plenty of wit to be found, banter a plenty, and telegraphed themes of certainty in an uncertain world and the need for mystique. The performances are all passable, especially from Firth, yet not inspired. That, to be sure, is the film's greatest drawback--a rather lackluster sensibility. It seems too satisfied with itself. The best example of this would be the last act in which Allen inexplicable seems to switch tone and end on a note that feels false with the film's inherent cynicism. Even the central dynamic between Stone and Firth felt a bit forced.
Overall, it's an enjoyable film, yet a forgettable film.
Intense, unflinchingly dark, and executed solidly, Blue Ruin is a… MoreIntense, unflinchingly dark, and executed solidly, Blue Ruin is a unique indie film, and a worthy addition to the revenge drama. The film follows a disheveled transient, Dwight, whose life suddenly takes on a purpose in the wake of his parents killer being paroled. He thus sets out to revenge his parents and, at the same time, protect the family he has left.
The set-up, simple enough, is given more nuance in Blue Ruin because of the way director Jeremy Sauliner lets the story unfold. Little time is spent rehashing back-story or giving details, rather Saulnier simply films in the moment, giving the film a realist sensibility. His pacing is also very methodical, and a bit of a slow burn. This works well, considering the personas of those on screen. Macon Blair's Dwight is the most impressive aspect of the film for me, a man in over his head, profoundly scared, yet desperately dangerous and hauntingly detached. The acting from all of the unknown cast is very strong, making Blue Ruin the rare indie film that doesn't telegraph its independent roots.
My one criticism of Blue Ruin was that it lets some details slip by almost too fast. Some more development on Dwight's family, and those that killed them, would have been appreciated. More characterization for Dwight in particular would have been in order, being a fascinating character.
Well worth checking out.
The November Man starts as a film with the ceiling of typical B spy… MoreThe November Man starts as a film with the ceiling of typical B spy thriller and yet flirts with being something more, ending somewhere in between. It's a film that finds Pierce Brosnan's return as a spy, this time an ex-CIA agent (Peter Devereaux), lured out of retirement for the ever-ubiquitous "last mission" to protect an important witness. It's a film of action, double-cross, murky alliances, and an ever widening plot.
As a pure spy thriller, November Man is an interesting mix. It has many of the worn clichés of the genre, while mixing in a plot that is considerably more layered than your typical B action film, with more complicated characterizations. The film's major action beats come as no surprise, where it ultimately ends up doesn't come as much of a surprise, and many of the action beats are routine. None of them are flat, to be sure, just familiar. Yet, there's flashes of something much more. The character of Peter Deveraux, for example, is shown with a surprising nuanced nature, as well as that of his protégée Luke Bracey, who is given a number of interesting moments of his own. Yet the film never quite explores this to satisfaction. The script thus is a bit of a mixed bag, ultimately giving us a tantalizing plot, yet never fully satisfying it. The twist does genuinely surprise, and how it is unwoven is handled fairly well, and the film resists the temptation to spell everything out for us. Yet one can't help but feel this sophistication should have been seen in the other elements of the film.
The cast was another mixed bag. I quite enjoyed Brosnan, and Olga Kurylenko was also fantastic. The two had excellent chemistry and really anchored the film. Yet, the casting of Luke Bracey was largely a dud, and the usually reliable Bill Smitrovich was unusually flat here, perhaps not in tone with the rest of the film.
Overall, a mixed effort, yet with considerably more positive than negatives.
Orphans, a world war, lost souls, tragedy, and yet an underlying… MoreOrphans, a world war, lost souls, tragedy, and yet an underlying current of hope and love, Cider House Rules is a drama that has it all. Revisiting it 15 years after its release date, I couldn't help but be impressed by the shear ambition on screen and the resulting emotions. Set during World War II, Cider House Rules tells the story of a young man, Homer Wells, who spent his entire life in an Orphanage, seemingly groomed as the successor for the caretaker, only to embark on a journey of his own.
Uniquely, the best thing about Cider House Rules is the score. It is simply brilliant, resonating deeply, and being enchanting, sad, and reminiscent. This really sets the stage for the film, which has a bit of a vintage feel to it. There are many story lines introduced, with Homer anchoring the entire story. The films focus seems to be not so much on individual stories, rather the tapestry they form, and how these relationships form to create such a fantastical, yet brutal world. The performances are very strong all around, each adding their own layer to the narrative. I would count this is perhaps Tobey Maguire's best performance, with excellent chemistry between him and Charlize Theron. Director Lasse Hallstrom fills the screen with beautiful visuals, and a strong pace. It doesn't feel manipulative, rather it feels inquisitive in its approach, and non-judgmental in its observations.
Overall, one could say that Cider House Rules does flirt with melodrama. However, I found it to be largely authentic in its execution, and often moving. I would have liked more time to be spent with the characterizations, though the film has many big personalities to explore.
A masterpiece in every sense of the word, Boyhood is a film that… MoreA masterpiece in every sense of the word, Boyhood is a film that transcends genre, surpasses what we think cinema is capable of, and leaves us astounded with its authenticity. It is the best film of 2014 thus far, and a sure classic. With this achievement, Richard Linklater cements his position as one of our great American filmmakers, a man ingenious in his approach.
The very nature of the film is nothing short of remarkable. It was shot in a total of 45 days, yet filmed over the course of 12 years, with the same central cast. There's no real plot, other than a rumination on life and the paths we find ourselves on. We have three main actors, Patricia Arquette, Ehtan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, and Lorelei Linklater (daughter of director Richard Linklater). The bulk of the focus is on Ellar Coltrane, hence the journey of his boyhood. The performances from all are brilliant, with the film giving us all flawed, nuanced, and yet identifiable characters. There's no clichéd people, or forced storylines, everything that happens in Boyhood feels organic. This is accentuated by the very real growth we see on film, with the characters aging before our eyes. We not only empathize with them, but we feel as if we are, in a sense, part of the family. Every emotional beat is thus earned and deeply resonating.
The transitions of the film are breathtaking in how seamless they are, despite the massive time interruptions. Linklater is the master of making things feel organic and unscripted, and this is achieved to brilliance with Boyhood. It feels less like a film and more like a journey through time. It has the greatest realism of any film I've ever seen, and borders on a documentary with its feel.
The film has themes of life, family, milestones, regret, and identity. It's simple in its approach, with no strained plot, yet profound in its observations and outcomes. It will stay with you for a long, long time.
Werner Herzog's, Happy People is yet another example of what makes him… MoreWerner Herzog's, Happy People is yet another example of what makes him a good filmmaker. It's observant, beautifully shot, and restrained in its narration, letting the images and people speak for themselves. The film follows a group of trappers in the incredibly brutal and remote Siberian Taiga. So isolated, this area can only be reached by boat or helicopter, and only during certain times. Herzog captures this vastness beautifully, giving us expansive shots of the barren landscape, in its boldness and its breathtaking nature. Here we get intimate insights in to the men and women who brave this land, who, in their simplicity and assuredness, offer a lot of profound insight.
Visually, the film is stunning, as Herzog's work tends to be. Here Herzog is able to put to film something that seems surreal, it is so foreign to us. It is always engaging, and features just the right mix of narration, images, and dialoged from the trappers. Herzog lets what they say unfold organically, and the shots he is able to captures are nothing short of astonishing.
An excellent documentary.
Charming, beautifully told, and rendered with both a zeal for life and… MoreCharming, beautifully told, and rendered with both a zeal for life and a mature sense of nostalgia, Saving Mr. Banks is a film that strikes a balance between sentimental and authentically dramatic, and does so quite, quite well. Inspired by the back-story of the making for "Mary Poppins", the film examines the woman behind the characters, her unique temperament, and a past that forever inspires her present. In a several decades long journey to secure the rights for a screen version of the story, Walt Disney must convince her of his company's merits and benevolence.
That the film is pro-Disney goes without saying. One can't pretend it's an unbiased view of history. However, taken on its own merits, I was quite impressed by the film's complexity yet endearing simplicity, much like the story the film seeks to make. The telling of Ms. Travers upbringing, for instance, is handled in a very elegant, unique manner. Its flashbacks are vividly real, heartfelt, tragic, and completely germane to the story. Narrative structures like this can be clunky, yet with Saving Mr. Banks, director John Hancock does opts for a more subtle approach to his characterization of Travers, letting us connect the dots, and never feeling the need to be overly explicit with us. The narrative is smartly written, capturing an immensely strong-willed and interesting character in Ms. Travers, and an equally big personality in Disney. The direction weaves the story seamlessly, and never loses sight of the ultimate focus, that of Travers ultimate revelation and journey of forgiveness.
The most rewarding thing about the film are the performances. Some of the minor characters, though admirable, are a bit one note, yet the major players are done brilliantly. I found this to be especially true of Collin Farrell, in one of the more memorable flashback roles I've seen. Emma Thompson is fantastic, and is matched well with Tom Hanks, both of whom have the appropriate amount of chemistry for their roles. All of this is set in a film with strong world-building, and a narrative worthy of its talent.
Great all around.