Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lone Survivor, Inside Llewyn Davis, August: Osage County, and Devil's Due too

Disclaimer: Some of these films I saw almost a month ago, so sorry about not keeping you up-to-date as to my moviegoing behavior and possibly having a hazy memory.

Lone Survivor
Dir. Peter Berg

Peter Berg: the director behind such beloved films as Battleship and The Kingdom.  If you were unable to read between the lines, the previous sentence was sarcastic - the aforementioned titles were both huge box office disasters and were pretty much destined to be thrown in bargain bins and shown as in flight entertainment.  So my hopes were not at all high going into Lone Survivor, the trailer for which seemed like an excessively "bro" movie about teamwork, with plenty of bland actors (Taylor Kitsch and some guy giving a cheesy speech) and overly inspirational music.  My mindset going in was negative and I honestly thought it would be tough to sit through, but I have to say, Lone Survivor is actually a fantastic war film.

Berg and co. really show what they can do if they're given the right material, and some of the scenes were just as intense as Saving Private Ryan (I'm serious).  Mark Wahlberg, in my opinion, gives one of the best performances of his career as the titular survivor, and not knowing the exact story of his rescue beforehand, I was floored by the events that unfolded (if it had been fiction I wouldn't have believed it, but the power of the film lies in its truth - much like my top film of 2012, Compliance).  The action scenes are incredibly brutal and unflinching in their violence, which is the way it should be, and I really felt like I was with those guys on that hill fighting for their lives.  The little sensory details of the sound of their bodies as they roll down a hill and smack into a tree, or when a bullet whizzes by at an unexpected moment - this hillside battle was captured so carefully with all the right moments emphasized.  Plus the whole movie rests on a fascinating moral conflict that arises when a young sheepherder discovers the location of the Americans (the question being should they kill the boy and remain undiscovered or let him go and potentially notify the terrorists).  Although the very end of the film, where a slideshow montage of all the dead soldiers flash by, is somewhat manipulative and overlong, I found this to be an incredibly intense, moving movie that blindsided me.  If you know or are someone involved in the military, I can't imagine you wouldn't be affected by this movie.

Rating: A-

Inside Llewyn Davis
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

To some, the Coen Brothers are Christ-like figures of moviemaking who can do no wrong, shifting from one genre to the next expertly.  Personally, I've always been hit-or-miss with them (I love a lot of their earlier films like Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and of course Fargo), and Inside Llewyn Davis is in the latter category of head-scratchers where I simply don't understand the heaps of year-end praise it's getting.  The mostly plot-less film is about a folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who's been living a couch-to-couch life ever since his partner died (though we never learn about their relationship or see them together).  Depressed with the world, and having a hateful eye towards the more "pop" sounds emerging from artists like Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake).  Besides some brief cat-rescuing and a road trip to Chicago to meet a record producer, not a lot really happens in Inside Llewyn Davis, just a lot of moping and one bad thing happening after another to the main character.

While the featured songs were soulful and nice to listen to on their own, and the cinematography was strikingly dour, I just didn't click with the film.  I really didn't care about the protagonist because although he was a struggling artist (which is easy to get behind), he was an asshole and a hypocrite.  One second he's bemoaning his ex (Carey Mulligan) about her "selling out" musically, and the next he's in the recording studio providing a backing track to "Please Mr. Kennedy," a catchy pop tune.  There was also some "interesting" uses of time manipulation in the film, but all it did for me was to emphasize the things I didn't like about the movie.  This was a hopeless film about a hopeless character just for the sake of it.  To me it didn't feel like it said much more than "life sucks," but maybe I'm just missing something.  Great soundtrack and a great looking film, but I just didn't connect with it.

Rating: C

August: Osage County
Dir. John Wells

Because I'm A) not cultured enough and B) too lazy to research, I have no idea as to how this relates or differs from the stage play of the same name (and same writer, Tracy Letts), so this is a movie-only review.  Going into this, I really thought this was purely an Oscar-grab from Harvey Weinstein.  So many great actors are crammed into one movie: Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGreggor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shephard, and of course Meryl Streep.  Because of the stage-play aspect of the movie, most of this southern family drama takes place in one house, the family brought together by a "family crisis" (is it a spoiler to say what it is?).  Feeling very much like a Tennessee Williams production, this is pretty much "Dysfunctional Family: The Movie."  The whole time people are yelling at each other harshly and/or crying, and to me it was overload.  The film is a smorgasbord for quality acting, but little else.  The story is almost entirely devoted to seeing how this family keeps falling apart, revealing one outrageous confession after another.  In a way, it's nice to see Meryl Streep work her magic in some long-form scenes, but the film as a whole didn't really make an impact on me.  If you like to watch great actors, you'll probably enjoy this film, but the film didn't really do much more than show a dysfunctional family disfunction.

Rating: C+

Devil's Due
Dir. Tyler Gillett & Matt Bettinelli-Olpin

Two of the quartet of directors known as Radio Silence (responsible for the 10/31/98 short in the anthology horror film V/H/S) are back to the found footage genre for Devil's Due.  The reviews for this film were pretty abysmal, but being a fan of Eli Roth, his seal of approval - tweeting not to "pre-judge" this "clever and inventive" movie - gave me hope.  Unfortunately Devil's Due sucks balls.  It's half Rosemary's Baby, half Paranormal Activity, all unoriginal.  The film is basically that: a woman thinks her husband knocked her up on her honeymoon, but it was really Satan, and now all hell is breaking loose (and being recorded) as the anti-christ starts growing in her tummy.  It's a basic plot and doesn't get more complex than that.  The film visually looks like everything you've seen before, from the obligatory weird symbols  everywhere to the creepy old psychic that warns the parents of some vague bad shit about to go down to the dog that barks at nothing like it has a sixth, demon-sniffing sense.  There is not one idea in this film that hasn't been done before and better.  While the movie itself isn't "badly made" per se, it's just so predictable and boring, especially when we've had a found footage film already come out this month, The Marked Ones, which actually did manage to breath new life into the genre.  More like Devil's Doo.

Rating: D

Thursday, January 16, 2014

10 Biggest Oscar Snubs of 2014

Earlier this morning the Oscar nominees were announced; not a ton of surprises or upsets this year, but here are some of the people and productions left behind this Oscar season.

10.  Tom Hanks snubbed for Captain Phillips

Not sure if I would consider this a snub because of the whole "only five nominations" thing, but Hanks was brilliant as always in this film, and the now-infamous end scene, the most powerful in the film, was improvised at the last minute.

9. Editing Snub for The Wolf of Wall Street (Thelma Schoonmaker)

If you've read anything about how this film was made, you'd appreciate how painstaking of a job Schoonmaker must have had taking Scorsese's voluminous footage and shaping it into not only a coherent film, but as energetic as anything Scorsese's made.  Not sure what makes certain films like Dallas Buyers Club get the nomination, but I think Wolf at least deserved the nom.

8. Short Term 12 snubbed entirely

Not surprised so much as disappointed for this one.  Brie Larson gave a fantastic performance in this little movie and deserved a nomination, along with best screenplay and possibly best picture.

7. Man of Steel snubbed for Best Visual Effects

When the Academy announced the ten flicks in the running for Best Visual Effects, Man of Steel wasn't even mentioned and it's a damn shame.  How Snyder and co. brought new life to Krypton and convincingly brought Superman into the "real world" was no small feat.  Not sure why it was not even considered, especially over The Lone Ranger.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis snubbed for Best Song

The songs in Llewyn Davis were often very meaningful and/or nice to listen to, from Coen Brother-collaborator T-Bone Burnett, and is one of the few "must buy" soundtracks this year.  Either there's some sort of clause in the rulebook making the songs ineligible or it's just not the Coen's year.

5. Octavia Spencer Supporting Actress snub for Fruitvale Station

While I love that Sally Hawkins got a nomination, I think the Supporting Actress category is sorely missing this heart-wrenching performance from Spencer earlier this year.

4. Monsters University snub for Best Animated Feature

Really surprised Pixar didn't make the list, but then again, the fact that it's a prequel probably didn't set well with the Academy.  Definitely disappointed this lost over those friggen minions.

3. Spike Jonze Best Director snub for Her

It's too bad Her wasn't given a better treatment at the Oscars (it's truly a better film than American Hustle, possibly the most overrated film this year).  Jonze created a wholly original sci-fi world and gave the film so much life in its subtle details - plus imagine the balls it must have took to even make a film like this.

2.  Blackfish snubbed for Best Documentary Feature

I haven't seen all the nominees yet, but I was sad to see the exclusion of this horrifying and enlightening expose on Seaworld.

1.  Joaquin Phoenix Snubbed for Her?!

Unfortunately it was a crowded year for the Best Lead Actor category this year, but Phoenix literally created a believable relationship out of NOTHING in this movie.  He has no physical person to act off of, and Scarlett Johanssen recorded her dialogue after the fact.  Another brilliant performance from Phoenix, who deserves a motherfucking Oscar already.

There you have it -- if you think of any other snubs be sure to list them in the comments section.  I'll work on my Oscar predictions soon, and I'm sure I'll be "off" as I usually am.  Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Paranormal Desolation of Mitty is Lost

OK, as a disclaimer, I saw some these movies a while ago, but I'm just getting to writing the reviews now...sorry.  I'm not perfect unlike you.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
Dir. Christopher B. Landon

Although I'm a big fan of the first three Paranormal Activity movies, I thought the fourth marked the beginning of the end - that the series had finally run its course and milked the franchise for all it was worth.  After all, there are only so many scares you can get with the same bag of tricks.  But the fifth entry in the Paranormal series, the spin-off The Marked Ones, defied my expectations; it manages to stray from the other entries while still building on the mythology.  Instead of being another "static camera" movie, where much of the action happening to the unaware protagonists is on security cameras, etc, this time it follows some high school-graduate latino youths with a handheld camcorder and time on their hands.  To those audience members too impatient for the other films, this one is definitely the most kinetic and at times reminded me of Chronicle, another great found footage movie.  The Marked Ones is a genuinely scary, tense horror film to bring in the new year, and the characters, although fairly stereotyped (of course they have a heavily spiritual grandmother and a chihuahua), were very likable and believable.  And the film features the scariest use of the game Simon ever devised.  As a true sucker for a good horror movie, I loved it despite its lapses in logic sometimes.  I can't wait for Paranormal Activity: Back 2 tha Hood.

Rating: B

All is Lost
Dir. J.C. Chandor

Robert Redford is alone on a boat with bad weather.  That short sentence pretty much sums up the entire film; J.C. Chandor's follow-up to Margin Call casts the veteran actor in a [nearly] dialogue-free film as a nameless captain who roughs it out against the raging, stormy tides.  While it's certainly an ambitious effort to make a film like this (especially today), I don't think this is as profound as other critics are making it out to be.  I'm sad to say the much-praised performance from Redford really just didn't do it for me.  Sure it's impressive that one man can carry a movie, but he doesn't really emote much at all.  He simply completes each boat-ly task as it comes to him, and it takes him more than half the run time to finally yell a cathartic 'FUCK' that didn't even pack the punch I was hoping for.  All is Lost may be an interesting endeavor, but I think the over-praise it's getting is unwarranted.  This is an extremely simple, predictable, at times even boring film (after a while you get used to the storm, the boat gets damaged, storm, the boat gets damaged rhythm) that doesn't really add much to the 'lost man' genre.  Just check out Cast Away again if that's what you want.

Rating: C

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Dir. Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller's latest directorial project is another ambitious misfire.  Loosely based on a character from a 1939 short story, Stiller is really going outside of his normal fare with Walter Mitty, attempting to make a more artful, "Oscar-y" work about a boring guy blossoming into the hero of his fantasies.  While the film is very well shot and imagined (with some film school-worthy examples of shot composition), it does however fall short of being the inspiring story it sets out to be.  The plot basically follows Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), a LIFE magazine worker who has his heart set on his co-worker Cheryl (Kristin Wiig), as he goes on a cross-continental trip in order to retrieve a missing negative from famous photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn).  The film is unfortunately flat in the story department, and the gorgeous visuals often don't make up for it.  The humor just falls completely flat more often than not, and there's enough product placement here to put Adam Sandler out of business.  Papa Johns, Cinnabun, eHarmony, the list goes on and on.  Walter Mitty is just not an interesting character; one second he's this cartoonishly shy, boring worker-bee, the next he's a scruffy skateboard pro/Everest climber. There's absolutely no subtlety in this film, every moment beats you over the head with its heavy-handed messages (and expect the obligatory Arcade Fire music cue). This story of Walter Mitty just doesn't have that certain spark to it - there's a reason why it had been kicking around in development hell for years (at one time or another Jim Carrey, Steven Spielberg, and Ron Howard were attached).  Walter Mitty didn't hit my funny bone or emotions - I commend the effort but something just felt off.  A better commercial than a feature film.

Rating: C

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Dir. Peter Jackson

I personally thought the first Hobbit film was fairly enjoyable - it captured the feel of the book pretty well and it's a novelty to have literally every moment of Tolkien's book given the "Peter Jackson" treatment.  But like An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug suffers from page-to-screen syndrome, where pieces of dialogue fit for the printed word take way too long to get through, and it's just sluggish.  Scenes like the pit-stop with Beorn, the bear-guy, barely advance the plot.  It's been said over and over, but this really should not have been split into three movies; it's hard not to be cynical about all these blockbusters splitting into multi-part events just because studios know that fans will pay them all the more money (look forward to parts 1 and 2 of Mockingjay soon as well).  Still, Desolation of Smaug features some great action set-pieces (such as a really fun barrel ride sequence and some rather large spiders), and Smaug himself looks and sounds amazing - Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel isn't bad on the eyes either.  As mildly enjoyable as these Hobbit prequels may be however, they just don't seem necessary and they feel like they're coming from the same place as the Star Wars prequels - Jackson is just being given total, unquestioning authority over the project, and I think it's overkill.  Still, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun.

Rating: C+
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