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.
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.
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.
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.