Wonder of Life

boyhood-film-richard-linklater-ellar-coltrane[1]        “Boyhood” directed by Richard Linklater is one of most accurate and extraordinary films ever made about growing up. Shot over the course of 12 years the director achieves something never before accomplished; capturing a child grow into a man, an effect that is incredibly rewarding. A combination of documentary and film style, it’s made with actors and a script in a way that feels unforced and real. Capturing a regular American suburban life without strain, it’s like someone installed a camera in your house and released the footage. The years of footage and acting flow together to achieve something unique, made with understanding and grace.

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is six-years-old lying on a lawn, gazing up at the sky without a care in the world. As a viewer you will gradually gain parental instincts for him, a feeling rarely achieved in cinema. The impact of seeing someone age can’t be achieved through normal means of costumes or multiple actors. He lives with his struggling single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), they move from town to town looking for stability. Plot doesn’t play a huge factor, with a lot of the time devoted to everyday events like playing video games and camping.

Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawks) is an absent father, dropping by on the weekends in a muscle car to pick them up. His life seems on hold when we first meet him, yet he cares for his kids and teaches them important lessons. With glimpses of childhood we also get a sense of what it’s like to be grown up, with the adults leading rule constricted lives. Nothing dramatic really happens, though Olivia does have troubles with abusive drunk men who loose touch with what it means to be young. Linklater believes that life is spontaneous and that no one really has a handle on it, even the old and wise.

The transitioning years are done without being obvious, using music and news events to signify time and place but never describing emotions. Done without strain, there are some incredibly emotional scenes that work because they feel utterly real. Olivia is the heart of the film that tragically gives up her life to provide and love for her children; Arquette giving awards worthy performance. Coltrane plays Mason completely without dramatization as a normal kid, and Ethan Hawks also impresses as the father, showing his knack for comic timing and durable dramatic depth. And ignore the R rating, this should be seen by anyone.

Linklater has always been a fine director, releasing low-key yet quality features with a trademark humanist touch. This is his most accomplished and adventurous, discovering a way to use film technique to create a growing-up-story like no other. Using the camera for its ability to capture passages of time, the director captures life as we’ve all experienced it while validating the beauty and mystery of it all. Treating the film more like a documentary allows for a laid-back feeling that still resonates with deep emotion. This project could have been shaky because of the 12 year scope, but it feels complete. Breathing with the rhythm of life; it’s a beauty to behold.

(4 out of 4 four stars)

(Released: March 9, 2014)

Beasts of War

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” directed by Matt Reeves, is an exhilarating blockbuster that delivers on all accounts. Both emotional and visually splendid, it takes a chance to say something real about warfare and uses CGI in conjunction with sets to establish a beautiful reality. Taking time to discuss real issues about guns in a non-dramatized way, allows it to hit home. The intense apes vs. human battle scenes are there but they startle rather than excite, coming second to an absorbing story.

Set after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Earth’s human population has nearlybeen wiped out by a Simian flu outbreak and political/social degradation. We are first introduced to the apes living peacefully in the woods, where leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) rules with respect. Taking time with its narrative allows viewers to contemplate various issues, and lets the CGI become comprehendible. The conflict begins when the humans go searching for a hydroelectric plant in the woods, breaking their territorial agreement. This is treated like a war film, where both sides exacerbate the situation.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is head of the research team and represents the good in humanity; reaching an agreement to use the land without conflict. The apes are skeptical as humans have brought them great harm in the past, keeping them cooped up in cages. Koba (Toby Kebbel) the angriest of the pack leading a rebellion, not able to see good in people who left scars on him. Characters that resort to violence seem unintelligent and ignorant, seeking reparation for the wrong done to them. It’s striking how memorable these CGI characters are, creating distinct presences for each of them.

The director’s method throughout is to make this doomsday scenario with apes feel real and gritty in an affecting way. To do this, the CGI is laid on top of real settings so that it looks plausible- a new way to make and design blockbusters. Dramatically the movie works because it never strains for affect and isn’t afraid to tackle hefty issues. It gives every character a chance to reveal an emotional backstory, allowing them to feel dimensional. Andy Serkis gives a poetic performance in projecting Caesar’s bold political stance. On the human side of acting Gary Oldman is fantastic in an otherwise familiar role.

A summer flick as entertaining as it is thought provoking, goes to show what a real “blockbuster” is. Notice the fresh soundtrack and pounding drums that don’t highlight emotions, and the way the sunlight glitters on the apes brown coats. You can see attention and care in every scene, proving how much the director trusts the audience’s intelligence and his own. Sometimes the editing results in emotional disconnect, but its still powerful stuff. I consider this the best popcorn flick of the summer so far, an impressive fusion of special-effects and storytelling.

(4 out of 4 stars)

(Released: July 4, 2014)

Hidden In Shadows

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Locke” directed by Steven Knight, is an absorbingly memorizing journey of a man on edge. While the whole film is set inside a careening vehicle, its a classic noir where the hero is defeated before the story begins. Focusing on a man struggiling to fix his life over the telephone, is something we all can relate to. Employing a minimalist style where nothing is amped up for thrills, it creates an increasingly tense and unpredictable environment. It could have been pretentious, but instead the craft draws us into a man’s crumbling life as he hides within the shadows of his vehicle.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) walks gloomily away from his job at a cement plant, getting into a car where the movie will spend the entirety. Fear is strewn across his face; anxiously drives to the airport to meet his mistress Bethan (Olivia Colman) delivering his child. Unknown to his family, they sit happily unaware at home. Wearing nice clothing and owning expensive things, this is a man of stature. Having a list of things to do over the phone before arrival, he must confront his family and partners with past mistakes.

Keeping this engaging is Hardy’s complex performance, deploying a range of emotions from rage to concealed sadness. Ominous silence is used to allow tension build; Locke’s ordeal and emotions exemplify the human condition. Though the supporting cast only appears vocally, they create credible personas through expression alone. This technique reveals the power of dialogue, how words can create credible worlds in the viewer’s minds. With emotions bubbling under the surface Hardy is left the task to convey everything subtly, which he does brilliantly.

Setting the film solely inside a vehicle sounds constricting, but the director chooses to focus on character instead. Locke could easily have been a raving lunatic, or been a setup for a mindless action movie. Instead we get a patient and smart experience that explores faults innate to life and the mistakes we all make. What’s surprising is that you begin to sympathize with Locke and understand his reasoning. Though he’s flawed, you can see what’s made him so successful and looked up to.

This is a fantastic film that uses technical skill to make watching a person managable. It works because it doesn’t stoop to cheap thrills, telling the story of a desperate man thoroughly. Feeling modern in its analysis of an ill-fated business man, the director makes him real in faults. A film like this is rare nowadays because it isn’t afraid to use challenge the medium, while remaining consistently engrossing.

(4 out of 4 stars)

(Released: April 25, 2014)

Terror Of Existence

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        “Under the Skin” directed by Jonathan Glazer, is a stunning science fiction/horror film that attempts to capture the terror of human existence through alien eyes. Following an alien seductress that goes around capturing human victims, the movie doesn’t go for the usual scares. Similar to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001; A Space Odyssey”, the director concocts experimental images that are open to interpretation. It wants viewers to take time and contemplate life; done in so few words it’s nearly silent. Some of the subject matter is almost indecipherable, but overall it examines what means to be alive in surreal fashion.

An alien (Scarlett Johansson) awakes in Scotland, tasked by an unnamed man to go around and pick up victims. She puts on red lipstick, a fur jacket and fluffs her hair, adorning itself in a costume of human sexuality. Driving the streets, the alien looks at people who walking alone and shout foreign words. These scenes where she picks up men are shot with actual people, shot with a dash camera, allured by her body but still nervous. Female sexuality is depicted as a harrowing force that brings out the best and worst of men – crumbling in their inability to engage.

There is a masterful scene at a beach that shows humanity struggling against the elements of nature. Observing such tragic situations, the alien begins to feel empathy for humans. Ditching the mission, she takes time to appreciate life – standing in mirrors to observe her beautiful green eyes and naked body. The nude scene is done intimately, requiring the actress to reveal everything – she admires her body. Overall thetheme of lonely men is slightly archaic, but it’s more about how the director goes about it.

Viewers should be forewarned; for this is a challenging film that doesn’t explain anything upfront. If one pays enough attention though, there is a coherent story about examining humanity and how strange and rare it is – like looking under a microscope. Johansson is utterly fearless in a role that takes her skills to new heights – inhibiting a character with no personality and must fit in with the mood. Taking it’s time; it’s doesn’t really scare and is more warm at times. Thematically it is science fiction through contemplation of life, but content-wise it’s a horror movie.

What makes this movie special is that it doesn’t focus on a rampaging of a femme fetal, but on the alien’s point of view. Through powerful imagery it stirs provocative questions about life, like thr infallibilities of love and what’s inside us all – beneath the makeup and clothes. A unique movie that feels cold and detached, like the director wasn’t sure what to make of it. Where most modern movies’ have transparent themes, it’s refreshing to see someone harken back to 1970’s filmmaking to combine imagery with imagination to perplexing extents.

(3 ½ out of 4 stars)

(Released: April 4, 2014)

Voice like Velvet

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Jersey Boys” directed by Clint Eastwood, is a well-made fun musical that serves its purpose in telling the story of Frankie Valli, who found success in the Four Seasons pop group during early 1960’s. Nothing of this story is new, tracing the highs and lows of success with the familiar group conflicts and strained romances along the way. It takes a more biographical approach, with musical numbers done like real concerts instead of the cheerful self-awareness accustomed to its genre. If you’re looking for a good time at the movies, especially for audiences familiar with the group, most should leave satisfied.

Opening with a technique the film will use throughout, each member of the group narrates a different section of the story (not objectively, but straight forward). We first meet Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza); speaking with a New Jersey accent so thick you’d think he was in a Martin Scorsese flick. Friends with Frankie Vallie (John Lloyd Young), they nearly head into a life of crime before taking off with success. Taking its time in telling the story, we are introduced to various plot changes and characters that unfold with the rhythm of life.

This is less a musical than one would expect, with the numbers presented realistically – they sing without choreography. Eastwood has always been a director of economical modesty, and here he captures the 1950’s accurately in a grey color tone. In terms of the biographical aspects, it realistically shows how music writers come up with ideas – whether they’re sitting on a bus or in front of the TV. There are detractions like its inability to create an emotional connection, never pushing its dramatic elements. There is a subplot involving Valli’s troubled daughter, but it moves on before it has any affect. And something should also be said of the women in this film, who are always snarling or acting irrationally.

Overall it is enjoyable and serves as a fine bio-pic of the Four Seasons. High regards to John Lloyd’s subtle performance as Valli, portrayed as quiet yet strong. His singing is fantastic, with a velveteen high pitch that received rapturous applause from audiences. Dramatically it falls flat; but it’s finely produced and revives some infectious tunes. The cast does a good job, but nobody really gets enough time to establish their characters beyond a scene or two, with speeches usually given to telling the narrative. Anyone familiar with the time period or the group will enjoy themselves, and maybe that’s a good thing.

(3 out of 4 stars)

(Released: June 20, 2014)

Two to Tango

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         “22 Jump Street” directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is an energetic but slightly hit-and-miss comedy that focuses on a splintering cop buddy relationship. Its strength lies in Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum who use their opposite personalities to inject substantial feeling. There is an overreliance on crime clichés like car chases and drug dealers, and they never are subverted enough to be unique. Employing the structure used in “21 Jump Street,” things feel familiar. It also plays with the redundancy of Hollywood Sequels and their pointlessness, this almost falls into that category but it has enough heart to warrant a reboot.

Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is a shy but affectionate policeman, better at conversations than he is at partying. Blonde haired hunk Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) plays the action hero of this team, leaping on top of moving trucks and exuding endless confidence. They work for a Jump Street program for the Police department, going undercover posed as students at a college where the new drug “WHYPHY” is distributed. This drug allows students to focus for 4 hours for homework, then inducing a bodacious trip. The two cops don’t look like Freshman College students, but they fit in with the students anyways, choosing to go separate ways.

What works is the film’s buddy relationship which is portrayed almost romantically, but most important is Ice Cube’s explosively hilarious turn as the loud-mouth police chief. Plus there is a fairly ingenious scene involving a fist fight with a girl, but most scenes feel rushed and don’t give enough time to establish adequate comedic timing. It raises issues and quarrels about movie sequels, which are smart but only touched upon. Makes you think with a fourth Transformer movie coming out this week by Michael Bay. Overall I think this sequel falls short of its potential, but it’s worth a watch if you’re looking for summertime laughs.

(2 ½ stars out of 4)

(Released: June 4, 2014)

Apocalpyse Forever

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         “Edge of Tomorrow” directed by Doug Liman, is a freshly original action movie that uses the science-fiction twist to intelligent ends. Like a cross between “Source Code” and “Aliens”, we watch as a protagonist relives the same day over and over – until they accomplish a particular task. Watching scenes repeat themselves could be monotonous, but instead it is funny and subversive. Never striving for deep meanings, it uses the time traveling plot for thrills. The combination of eye catching style and action keep things enthralling.

Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a bumbling coward, creating ads for the military to get out of combat duties. Assigned to the front lines by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), he embarks on a doomed battle against invading aliens called Mimics. These deadly organisms slither under sand and spring upon unsuspecting troops, and are almost invincible due to possessing the ability to start the day over. Needless to say, Cage recieves these powers and gets stuck re-living the tragic day until he survives it. Never believing he is capable of accomplishing such a task, he nevertheless betters in every attempt.

Cage’s best chances of winning are working with Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a tough warrior nicknamed“Full Metal Bitch” – though no one would ever say it to her face. Quiet and brave, Vrataski had these powers and knows the effects. When restarting the day, the director shows events proceeding in order – though sometimes shortened and approached with comical self-awareness. Taking different approaches makes it bearable, showing how many things could happen in a single moment. Themes about the importance of experiencing failure and tapping one’s potential are touched upon, but never really explored.

The whole movie looks and feels like a video game, especially in its plot mechanic of resetting events after the narrator commits fatal mistakes. In terms of the acting, Cruise puts away his waxed-on sheen and plays a pitiful character. It’s Blunt who’s the most notable, delivering a tough heroine in vein of Ridley Scott films. She brings humanity to someone that has built walls around their emotions, basically to defeat an alien war. And the end is riddled in conventional action film clichés, which a film this brainy film shouldve avoided.

Most of the logic in the film comes second to the explosions and style, but that’s ok. For a summer film sometimes that’s all you want. Feels strange with its video game influences, but ut works because it molds it to the film universe using influences from action movies. I’ve always thought video games make terrible movies because they focus is on everything but character, but Liman makes it work efficiently. Would have been better if it had grasped for more resonate themes, but it’s still smart and original.

(3 out of 4 Stars)

(Released: June 6, 2014)

Let Your Freak-Flag Fly

x-mendaysfuturepast-8jpg-703cf1_960w[2]         “X-Men: Days of Future’s Past” directed by Brian Singer, is an epic superhero film that manages to express real feelings in an entertaining fashion. Using time travel as a plot device, the older X-Men (cast of Singer’s movies) meet their younger selves (cast of “X-Men: First Class” by Matthew Vaughn) to overcome an appocalpyse. Working within such a scope that can twist you’re mind in complexity; it may help to re-watch the series since it references them all. More thoughtful and potent than needed to be, this pushes the franchise forward in electrifying fashion.

Set in a future where the world is overrun by Sentinels, robots created by scientists in name of public’s protection, causse the mutants to nearly become extinct. In desperation the older X-Men select Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to go back in time and prevent these death machine’s deadly onslaught, meeting with the teams younger selves in the 1970’s. To succeed he has to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) – the creator of these machines. These political overtones are refreshing and reward close attention.

The historic moment such as Vietnam give real emotion, and though the characters possess super powers they feel relatable to modern times. Everyone knows what it feels like to be the other, to be defeated into accepting everything going on around them (when you know there are other ways.) Wolverine seeks out Professor’s Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) younger self Charles (James McAvory), finding him hiding and lazing about a large mansion. Ignoring his potential allows a destructive reality to overcome, instead of fighting to prevent it. This illuminates the responsibilities of everyone in society, how we must all use our “powers” to fight for better ideals.

What’s interesting is how much I identified with its message, the large cast lending invaluable dramatic depth. The writing and direction seem seamless, though it’s hard to follow how all the story lines connect. In terms of production I  dug the look of the 1970’s, creating a believable and non-tacky environment in an old fashioned-yellow granual cinematography. In terms of the action it delivers -though the heroes don’t fight like immortals for they get hurt,  pushing the stakes higher. Overall no one is really a villain; everybody is human in their decisions, bad or good.

Of the cast I think the best are Jennifer Lawrence (always a mesmerizing presence) and the quick footed Quicksilver (Evan Peters) in a scene everyone will talk about. Refreshing to see Singer back in the director’s chair, bringing such confidence to this ambitious story. Blending the action and comic book style that fans will eat up, but thankfully in a more serious and intelligent tone. Shows how important it is for all of us to use all our super powers no matter what we got, to fight for a better tomorrow.

(3 out of 4 stars)

(Released: May 23, 2014)

Wave of Sin

la_ca_0102_noah         “Noah” directed by Darren Aronofsky, is an ambitious reimaging of the well-known biblical story. The director and writer take artistic liberties with the story to focus on modern day concerns like environmentalism and human sin. Lessons in the bible about human sin persist, but there’s no way six-armed rock creatures called “The Watchers” feature in it. Combining a blockbuster sized budget with art ambition, this is an entertaining and absorbing take that miraculously doesn’t push a religious agendas. It’s more about how sin is inherit to us all and how we must learn to stop our ways before we eventually destroy ourselves.

It is set in a world ruled and defined by “men” – alpha males who forgo education and believe violence and pillaging will supply their needs. Noah (Russell Crowe) receives visions from the “creator” (the word god is never used), of the Earth drowned in rainwater to purposefully flush out the humans. Sin has run rampant throughout human history, and now it has run its course. Noah starts to build an arc to bring his family and a pair of every animal with him, accepting this task with vigor. Most of the drama takes place within the family, and it’s curious how absorbing it all becomes.

The leader of these scavenging men is the ruthless Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone), believing he has the right to take away any life or property of earth he wants. Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), the wife of Noah, is a strong mother that sees the goodness in life. Both of these characters represent the good and the bad of humanity, leaving Noah to decide whether to follow what he believes to be the “creator” message – or what is morally right. It becomes clear that he takes these beliefs too far. The movie illuminates the biblical text by focusing on human morality, not its religious messages.

As a portrait of human atrocity and a world in grave danger, it feels relevant and works best when it spends time with the family. There is an abundance of CGI that feels overblown, with moments coming off unintentionally corny. Some of the graphics seem intentional, begging the question whether events such as Adam and Eve holding took place or were they just visions. The actors all get a chance to shine with Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson working as symbols of human compassion. Plus the virtuosic fast cuts that mash periods of time together like of a river forming through land, are the movies dazziling centerpiece.

So who exactly does this movie appeal to? I say to anyone willing to give it a try, it’s actually pretty satisfying in terms of story and eye catching ambition. By taking the religious material and going the directors own path, it breaks territory for block buster films for what they can aim for. Anyone that does read the bible or is concerned about its unique depiction, should find it does carries the general story and lessons. If you’re in the mood to be entertained and challenged, this should float your boat.

(3 out of 4 stars)

(Released: March 28, 2014)

Growing Pains

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  “Neighbors” directed by Nicholas Stoller, is a raunchy comedy that examines the line between party crazed students and responsible adults. A pretty simple set up with a fraternity moving next door to a couple with a child, works because it spends a lot of time on character – unusual for the gross out genre. The comedic interplay feels improvisational, and though this can often lead to ill-defined or misfired jokes, it works in creating a frantic environement. Though it could have dug deeper in terms of the social commentary, it’s a blast to see well-known stars bounce off one another to entertaining lengths.

Newlywed couple Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) move into a neighborhood with their new child, ready to enter an adult world. From the way they engage in sex about the house like college students, you can tell they’ve had their fair share of recklessness’s during their youth. The problems begin when a fraternity moves next door, led by the scarily unmotivated Teddy Sanders (Zac Effron). Loud parties run rampant, and though the Radner’s are respectful asking them to turn it down, these students have no interest in ever studying.

Opposed to the Radner’s, the college students are uneducated and don’t speak much. But the film is warm and sensitive in seeing them as a group of dudes having fun with their youth. Their debauchery isn’t all fun, as it soon goes out of control and they cause harm to one another. A lot of the humor focuses on dildos, drugs and sex – things we’ve come to expect in these types of movies, but they do all reveal things about the characters and aren’t so over-the-top to stop it in its tracks.

As social commentary, it could have use better roles than the Lisa Kudrow character to show how the adult world lacks a childhood spirit. Works best in understanding how we grow in society, how maybe it isn’t best to ditch everything you’ve learned in the past to become an adult. Vice versa, it shows how frightening it can be when the youth don’t prepare to grow up. The lead actors share fantastic comedic timing and work well together.

While not consistently laugh-out-loud, it does have its earned moments that are more memorable than any comedy this year so far. What makes it fresh is how it gives more insight to the characters than was required. Showing restraint in its outrageous humor allows these characters to feel more real. With the summer movie season approaching this is a fantastic way to get the fun started and laugh it up, you’ll get your money’s worth.

(3 out of 4 stars)

(Released: May 9, 2014)