FIghting to Exist


Still Alice” directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is one of the most affective and illuminating movies ever made about mental disease. Following a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the drama never feels anything less than real. It ultimately explores what it means to be human – our strengths and flaws, revealing the resilience of the human spirit. Without flinching it shows how a person becomes disconnected from life, and the effects it has on those surrounding her.This isn’t a depressing slog; the movie is brutally honest and retains a feeling of hope throughout.

Alice Howard (Julianne Moore) is a renowned doctor of human memory, and is seen as a successful smart individual. She has a successful (if un-emotive) husband John (Alec Baldwin) and two children, living in oblivious bliss up to the point. During the early progression of Alice’s Alzheimer’s disease, she begins to forget friends’ names and certain words. Becoming diagnosed (finding out through her own resilience) she lets her family in on it – both her daughters are grown adults looking for stability. Suddenly forced out of her fast moving lifestyle, she notices both the positives and negatives of it.

Not only is this movie about a disease, but it’s also about life and the fragility of it all. We can see Alice fighting to stay present (using her intelligence to her advantage), trying persevere against diminishing odds. There isn’t much plot to speak of – the family has difficulties coming to terms with her debilitation, tending to treat Alice less (she’s more perceptive than others think). The emotional moments work because it feels watching real life, not performances or acting (in traditional sense). The director Richard Glatzer has a debilitating disease ALS (inability to use muscles) himself, granting the feature a lived-in quality.

This is a movie that makes you appreciate life because it shows how easily and fast it can leave a person – showing how things we thought were important – weren’t in the long run. It goes beyond character drama, enlightening on how important memories and personality are (the things that make us human). Moore doesn’t act so much as live the disease, never revealing signs of theatrics or dramatic strains. It’s amazing how she captures (unaffectedly) the stages of the disease, and able to indicate that the real Alice is still there. Alex Baldwin gives the best performance of his career, resonating as the husband trapped by worsening circumstances.

Still Alice” is a brilliant film, full of emotion and warmth – that makes you feel emotionally alive. This could have been depressing and overbearing but it ends up being life-affirming, being true to Alice’s humanity and strong soul. This is hefty stuff thematically, but it culminates into one of the most emotionally stirring films I’ve seen. The emotions work because it feels like we are watching everyday life. Effective because it stays true to a deep subject that will make you see life with a new pair of eyes.

(4 out of 4 stars)

(January 16, 2015)

Pushing the Limit


Interstellar” directed by Christopher Nolan, is a visually stunning space drama that sometimes stumbles in provoking awe. Meshing the cold wires of science fiction with warm family drama, you can feel the worlds of Spielberg and Kubrick colliding.  It often feels packed with too many ideas for it to be a coherent statement on anything. Watch this for this for its ambition and fine acting; even with faults the movie is never less than exhilarating. Less about aliens and space battles, it’s more about manning a machine and achieving the impossible – in the vein of “The Right Stuff.”

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer living in a rural dust-bowl-like society, where the plant disease blight has wiped out most of the world’s crops – draining the world of oxygen. These scenes depict a planet completely covered in dust; it feels realistic (no ruling class – just disintegration). Cooper lives with daughter Murphy (Early: Mackenzie Foy – Later: Jessica Chastain) and a son; the former relationship serving the movie’s heart.  Their relationship comes at stake when Cooper finds NASA headquarters, and becomes assigned to front a spaceship in order to save the human race.

(Spoiler Alert) With a plan to travel through a black hole – they must test Kip Thorne’s theory of space travel, to reach other planets. With a crew consisting of Doctor Brand (Anne Hathaway) – and other stock characters – they blast off. Things are never straightforward; Nolan throws in surprises along that change the events considerably. As it becomes more involved with space exploration, it loses sight of the family drama that grounded it. For me there was a divide between its special effects and story – with the plot holes and inconsistencies beginning to accumulate. And the ending refuses to offer any logical explanation, solely used as a plot device that feels implausible.

The movie attempts to weave science-fiction in the fabrics of humanity, showing how they are interconnected (one cannot exist without the other.) It always works on a visceral and visual level, but the intelligent material gets lost in thematic overreach. The acting is fantastic; McConaughey gives a warm and grounded portrait of a devoted father (if sentimental at times). The best is Chastain who gives an emotional performance, yet her character doesn’t get the powerful ending the father/daughter relationship deserved. I don’t dislike this movie; I think it’s something everyone should see – it’s smart entertainment.

(2 1/2 out of 4 stars)

(Released: October 26, 2014)

Trying to Soar

birdman-film-02[1]Birdman” directed by Alejandro Inarritu, is an energetic burst of ambition that takes a weary look at our block-buster dominated movie industry. It’s well known superhero movies are the most profitable and dominant nowadays – yet they forgo social relevancy for costumes and spectacle. Focused on an Hollywood actor torn between creating entertainment (which garners more profit and popularity) and art – the movie illuminates the industry and its indulgences. Shot in a single-shot throughout (edited to look it); this is a true technical achievement – capturing the feel and look of a play in all its unwinding realism. Though hampered by one-dimensional characters and story, it’s nonetheless a worthy check out.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is widely known for playing Birdman in a superhero trilogy – a blue feathered man with a deep masculine voice. Playing this role has gained him wide recognition and financial success, yet he wants to put this behind him and adapt a Raymond Carver novel onto the stage in New York City. Surrounding him are a cast of supporting characters that tend to enter frantically, bursting into the shot. With a recovering drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his personal life has always been at odds to the all-powerful character he portrayed on screen.

With his levelheaded lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), they sign on the notoriously eccentric Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) – a man committed to dramatic works. This is an actor who is unable to live outside of stage work. The movie boasts many supporting characters that tend to appear frantically, appearing behind closed doors or in unexpected corners. In order to fix his personal life, Riggin must choose between pandering and being true to himself.

Rare for American films it uses many fantastical sequences that are implemented more as technique and less as Freudian psychological insight. By filming in a single-shot, the director employs multiple effects like voice-overs and CGI action sequences to keep it entertaining. This maneuver relies on spontaneity and energy – never properly conveying the meaning or relevancy of a story. The depiction of Hollywood is a little snide and doesn’t feel accurate or plausible. Characters like the film reviewer Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) feel overly negative and are not given enough humanity.

It’s refreshing to see such commitment to boundary pushing, capturing a new way to choreograph and capture reality. The story itself stays one note and flat – with its depiction of Hollywood feeling simplistic and snide. Some of the film’s insights into stardom are less substantial than it’s presented. Still there are some fantastic performances – especially from Keaton who gets his chance to shine. While this is a technical achievement, this is a movie that runs off human energy rather than making memorable statements.

(3 out of 4 stars)

(Released: January 2 2014)

Monster Within

nightcrawler-movie-review[1]         “Nightcrawler” directed by Dan Gilroy, follows a man’s dark pursuit of wealth at any cost. It focuses on a cynical world of photo-journalism that thrives on images of death and suffering to attract viewers. This is a bleak noir that brings up real concerns about the world, that’s nonetheless flawed and let down by unsure direction. On the surface it looks like a thriller but it’s more dramatic based. It reveals a moment in history where media is becoming more unreliable and deceptive – a society where money talks louder than words. This is a memorably stylish and talky film that would have benefited from better character development.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) flashes shifty white eyes with an alluring smile that hides his predatory nature. The movie see’s horror in capitalizing on people’s pain – especially now since its being seen as socially acceptable. Nina (Rene Russo) runs a failing news business that broadcasts violent footage of social instances in hopes of increasing views and ratings. Being denied a job at a scrapyard, Bloom becomes interested in photography after witnessing a film crew on the scene of a deadly car accident. Money is the only thing he cares about and that’s all we really discover about him.

Deciding he needs a partner, he finds out of work foreigner named Rick (Riz Ahmed) – luring him with a small pay rate. With a police scanner they go on the road looking for crimes in order to beat the cops and other rival news networks (so they can get the best camera angle). Their relationship represents an uneven class system, yet it feels unexplored and too-over-the-top to take as fact. Concentrating on the gore and inhumanity of filming real life miseries –it still is incredibly thought provoking stuff. But like last year’s “August Osage County” it mistakes obscenities for profundity. Never allowing the actors to really stretch-out, the film feels monotone and shapeless.

Jake Gyllenhaal is stunning as the titular character, yet I feel the movie restrains him – never letting him truly inhabit someone. Rene Russo is also fantastic, mirroring a character in Sidney Lumet “Network,” who’s sexual and business wiring are one and the same. Nothing feels realistic and it is never guided with enough confidence to pull off it’spulpy ambitions. Much of the tone feels stunted as if the director was unsure exactly what he ultimately wanted. Trying to pull off an array of styles from action to social statement – it never inhabits any of them to the extent that they signify.

(2 ½ out of 4 stars)

(Released: October 31, 2014)

Finding A Voice

two-days-one-night02[1]         “Two Days, One Night” directed by the Dardenne brothers, is a powerful social drama about a woman trying to stay employed. Never straining to be anything but an unaffected piece of life, it’s a bold statement about the struggles in the workplace today. What’s happening is that employers are discovering that by cutting down on staff – they can increase profit for themselves and coworkers. This movie is concerned with the average working person, granting insight into the difficulties they encounter on an everyday basis.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is married and has a daughter – supporting them by working at a Solar Panel Company in Liege, Belgium. Her life seems to be on pause; just going through the motions. Even her husband seems to be more of a friend, giving advice from a distance. The directors don’t explain everything about them – hinting at things that may have happened in their past. Being on leave due to a nervous breakdown – she is notified that her bosses are holding a vote among the employees whether she should be fired. If they vote to have her fired, they will receive monetary bonuses. Tasked with tracking down coworkers to receive votes, we see how anxious this makes her.

Shielded by a comfortable life, she is now pushed to take charge. In one scene she has a co-worker talk to the bosses, being too afraid to stand up for herself. Having to speak to co-workers in person and over the phone is no small task. A rare depiction of social anxiety in film – Sandra is relatable because she’s so average. Some of the co-workers refuse to talk her in person, turning her down over the phone. It becomes clear they are not completely to blame; for their houses are falling apart and everyone is in need of money.

Never rushing into plot or emotional contrivances, it all leads to a powerful ending. Adding up everything that happened before – it triggers a hundred conflicting emotions. These filmmakers combine life and film techniques in such innovative ways. In the tradition of ordinary life dramas (common in Japanese cinema); it immerses the viewer in a regular life. Cotillard gives an incredible performance without ‘acting’ in the traditional sense. You’d think her beauty would seem out of place within such normality, but she works it completely without strain.

This is a movie about a woman trying to fight for her life and job. The struggle to emerge out of the comfortable daze we all fall into, and to begin feeling happy and alive again. Its topic is fiery and honest – describing a time where good jobs are scarce and wealth is favored over the well-being of others. There is a tinge of hope to it all; Sandra emerges with control of her life. With social difficulties becoming ever more common – this is a powerful and relevant social statement.

(4 out of 4 stars)

(Released: December 5, 2014)

Breaking the Skins


Whiplash” directed by Damien Chazelle, is a stunningly visceral movie about a young man attempting greatness through jazz drumming. Reveling in the dark side of achievement, it looks at the abuse and harassment one must endure to achieve immortality in art. Having a Professor that specializes in messing with student’s heads, the line between help and abuse becomes blurred. Jazz music is an exhilarating arena to highlight the psychological forces at play. Bustling with purpose and emotion from the first scene, it sustains neck-tossing tension throughout.

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) lives and breathes Jazz music. He commonly can be found looking up at posters of drummers in his room as if they were prophets. Spending all his energy on ambition, Neyman is a quiet shy person while walking through hallways – always in thought. Taking a Jazz course at a music conservatory in New York City, he meets the intimidating Professor Julian Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). With a squiggly metal-like vein strapped across his forehead, Fletcher hurls insults at students without any regard to feeling. He wants the best out of his players, dangerously pushing them to the edge of their abilities and will.

In a society where greatness is currently being relegated to normality, Fletcher wants to push his students to a level of achievement not common anymore. He is an intriguingly oblique character; but does he want to help out – or are his intentions toxic? We know that good music sends him into a state of bliss – now seeming desperate to recapture it. Newman is pushed until blood and sweat covers his drum set; becoming one with his passion. Being so focused on success – he begins to sacrifice any pleasures in life. It makes clear that pain and greatness are synonymous.

Jazz drumming is a fantastic place to examine this student/mentor dichotomy. The music is notoriously dependent on precise drum beats; otherwise the horns and bass would drift into utter chaos. Presented in a spontaneous way as opposed to traditionally staged musical numbers, the music performances are enrapturing and play with the senses. The acting is top-notch with Teller wholly inhabiting a young impressionable man. J.K. Simmons is a frightening force of nature with enough humanity to suggest a good side as well. The director pushes everything to a bursting point, rushing against audience expectations.

This film is so rivetingly made and full of purpose that it transcends the source material. Here are two words to define the film: interactive and powerful. It reaches out to you as a viewer; and there isn’t a weak spot in it. A rare modern adult film that takes place in our times (like Scorsese); it isn’t a fantasy or historical bio-pic. Not only is it well-acted and visceral, but it’s about something we all can relate to – trying to be remembered. This all leads to one of the more gripping and exhilarating endings in recent memory. Marking the arrival of a major talent, “Whiplash” is one of the very best films of the year.

(4 out of 4 stars)

(Released: October 10, 2014)

Losing Yourself

 Brad Pitt;Logan Lerman

Fury” directed by David Ayer, is an intensely unflinching look at the horrors of combat in World War 2. Uncommon for most films in the genre, it doesn’t focus on the Generals or the fact this was the point in history when rules and etiquette in war disappeared. The director puts you right onto the mud caked battlefield, it follows the plights of an American Sherman tank crew as they plow through Germany in 1945. While the violence in essence can be exciting, it never lets you forget the horrible acts being committed. This is a rare modern war film that actually deals with its brutal environment.

Don Collier – Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) is the Commander of a five passenger Sherman tank, sporting golden blonde hair and a tortured gaze. The result of killing is written on the soldiers’ faces, having to break morality and do horrible things to survive. Returning from battle with a lost crew member, they receive Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) as their new gunner. Innocent and wide-eyed Norman reminds the crew or the horrors they are committing, for they have long been desensitized by it. There is no real plot; the team drives from town to town, at a time when the fighting retreated into Germany.

The crew also includes Boyd Swan or Bible (Shia Labeaouf) cannon operator, Trini Garcia or Gordo (Michael Pena) driver, and Grady Travis or Coon-Ass (Jon Berenthal) ammunition’s loader. Along their journey are well-crafted action scenes with the explicitness of war shown without restraint. There is a scene where Wardaddy and Norman invade a German household, which serves as the heart of the movie. It shatters any illusion of their heroism and we begin to sense the horrible things they are capable of outside the battlefield.

Ayer is effective in displaying the cold grey landscapes of wartime Germany, using real Tiger (which Americans had trouble fighting off) and Sherman tanks to create an authentic environment. For the most part it stays away from usual Hollywood excess, and manages to inject real heart and emotion into its crew members. Brad Pitt in possibly his most impressive performance doesn’t show any of his Hollywood persona. LaBeaouf is fantastic in an against type role, playing a believer rather than a feisty arrogant character. Faults include the ending and that it never says anything new.

Never does the violence seem anything less than horrifying; with carnage shown to remind viewers that killing is dirty business. The soldiers try to laugh it off and hide themselves from their actions but never do their boasts or jokes ring true. They cannot hide from the horrors of war. Hollywood rarely funds movies like this anymore, with Ayer receiving free reign to do what he wanted. This is a better-than average war film that benefits from passionate performances. The explosions and gun-shots don’t enthrall, rather pushing viewers to experiece the harsh realities of warfare.

(3 ½ out of 4 Stars)

(Released: October 7, 2014)

Marriage of Deception


Gone Girl” directed by David Fincher, is an entertainingly dark adaptation of the hit novel that reveals the horrors behind marriage. Everyone tries to orchestrate a perfect life image, but the movie shows how deceiving appearances can be. Presented both as a Hitchcock mystery thriller and an urban romance drama, is at its best when focusing on the dark side of marriage. Concerned with how truth is being manipulated by a biased-media and appeareances, it represents our post-recession times. Exciting and thought proving, this will get your blood pumping and make you scared of America’s marital institution.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) possesses good looks and a movie star chin, yet his cheesy smile suggests darker dimensions. One day coming home, he discovers shattered glass splintered about his neat living room floor – where his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing. Contacting the police he tries to discover what happened to his wife, though he seems suspiciously slack in effort. The story is inappropriately mishandled in the news media, and Nick becomes the central suspect. It presents the news as being more concerned with sensationalizing than conveying actual truth.

This search is intercut with Amy’s early account of how their relationship began. Relayed in her “Amazing Amy” voice, a character featured in a novel her parents financially benefited from – this is how everyone perceived her. The novel itself is complicated, using literary tricks like deceiving narrators and internal dialogue and description. Fincher adapts these challenges seamlessly, communicating unseen tension through the stellar cast. Some of this material translates goofily on to the screen, but it’s so fast paced and riveting it works.

Even if you’ve read the novel, the movie doesn’t feel like an obvious retread and has enough surprises to keep it absorbing. What you get on screen is akin to a 1980’s horror movie with an artier focus on the disintegration of a marriage. Pikes performance is the haunted heart of the film and deservedly so, holding it all together with her intensely focused performance. She gets the role of a lifetime, and uses her anonymity to reach unforgettable heights. Surrounded by tip-top performances, every supporting actors get a chance to create a full impression. My favorites are the highly enjoyable Tyler Perry and Kim Dickens.

This is a smart, entertaining, and though-provoking thriller that boasts a rare central female role. It never quite reaches its full potential due to constraints of the source material, but I thought it was incredibly satisfying. It tackles topics relevant to our times and features stunning performances from an idealistic cast. This is an intelligent movie that understands anything or anyone can go sour – no matter how it appears on the surface. Without movie monsters – the scares are produced by looking at the dark realities of marriage.

(3 ½ out of 4 stars)

Released: October 3, 2014

Zeroes to Heroes


Guardians of the Galaxy” directed by James Gunn, is a slightly disappointing yet visually stunning superhero sci-fi feature. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed the recklessness and affinity for humor, but the jokes feel self-aware and perfunctory. Being the first Marvel film to be set in space and to feature hero’s most are unfamiliar to. Bizarre aspects are welcome, but it feels too willing to please and restricted by a script that thinly explores character. Boasting a nearly insignificant plot, it’s carried along at a snappy pace that feels light and fun for the summer season.

When we first meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), he is a child standing beside his mother passing away from cancer. This scene may be the only real thing about the film, and its a shame that it never figures satisfyingly back into the plot . Abducted by a group of space aliens, Quill gradually becomes a pirate and later attempts to steal a powerful orb to sell it. What does the orb do? It’s able to destroy the world, and everyone including the all-powerful owner Thanos are after it.

Arrested for theft, he meets a strange but memorable group of outcasts. There’s the green faced beauty Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the family revenging Drax (Dave Bautista), a scruffy loud talking Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and a talking tree named Groot (Vin Diesel) who can only say the words “I am Groot.” Teaming together to take on Ronan (Lee Pace), a minion sent to retrieve the orb, they gradually learn the power of friendship.  With the 1970’s soundtrack sounding like its coming out of a jukebox, it feels like a crime film with characters talking big and loud every chance they get.

Overall the plot is only slightly involving, and though the characters are fleshed it only scratches the surface. I enjoyed the bizarre aspects like the Raccoon; a fantastic CGI creation that is perhaps the most emotionally realized character. Praise for Chris Pratt may be a little high; he certainly looks the part and plays the part with heart and charisma. As with most superhero films this one supplements emotional development for action and spectacle, but the visuals are memorable. Wish the film tried to be more realistic, as sometimes it felt like an overly loud cartoon.

Its spontaneity and edginess are welcome, but the film tries too hard when a subtler approach would have worked better. It’s a shame the material was approached with such irreverence. This is visually inspired stuff from “Star Wars” to “Blade Runner”, yet the CGI sometimes makes it look like a videogame. Wish it had been more intent on providing an involving story along with the visuals. Though this tries to take the Marvel universe to more edgy territory, it fall shorts by being more interested in spectacle than story.

(2 ½ out of 4 stars)

(Released: August 1, 2014)

Man In Control


Get on Up” directed by Tate Taylor, is a fine music biopic that brings insight and humanity to James Brown. Giving a sense of the forces that shaped him and the role he finally played in the industry, he was a genuine force that controlled his music as much life around him. Compared to other bio pics, this is more focused on music itself. But it never gets its power from lavish music numbers, but through understanding he was. Story wise the director does away with chronology to give a whirling sense of an iconic man, richly illuminating Brown’s musical legacy.

Beginning with a shot of an older James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) walking down a hallway to a concert (backwards way to begin a bio-pic) reveals a man always destined for greatness. Raised in South Carolina, he was heartlessly abandoned by his parents at a young age. Left at a relative’s brothel by his father, he learns to fend for himself and discovers music by visiting churches. Before his fame he spent some time in jail, where he luckily met future Famous Flames bandleader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Right away Byrd senses Brown’s virtuosity, so he sits back and lets him do his thing.

Not told in sequential order, we get a glimpse of Brown’s dealings in the music business and how he eventually arrives there. Holding himself with assurance and confidence, this is a person who broke barriers and wasn’t afraid to make his talents known. This includes meeting the high energy Little Richard (Brandon Mychal Smith), and arriving when the industry was mostly white dominated. He was quick to garner notoriety and didn’t let anyone dictate his decisions – taking headliners people deemed too risque . The most important legacy was his music, breaking down barriers to predate genres funk and rap.

The material can feel dark at times, but the drama is somewhat restrained. Like when Brown finally meets his mother Susie (Viola Davis), it doesn’t dig deep enough to standout. Production is fine, but the direction can feel over-bearing and eventually boasts an anticlimactic ending. Though flawed, I found it to be entertaining and informative, saved by Boseman’s transfixing transformation that brings the man to life. It feels slightly restrained in displaying Brown’s negative qualities and even pushing his egotism to the point of monstrosity, but in the end he is ultimately celebrated for the genius he was.

If you’re interested or already a fan of Brown, this is a good way to learn how he approached music. Fans of Tate’s film “The Help” will not be disappointed, again making Hollywood films that deal with race related issues. In terms of music biographies this one is informative and well made, albeit a little long and lacking in vital dramatic tension. The soundtrack is well made with none of the musical numbers performed live; choosing to keep Brown’s original vocals intact in the songs, expressing the sentiment that no one can replicate his accomplishments.

(3 1/2 stars out of 4)

(Released: August 1, 2014)