Monday, December 22, 2014

Reviews: The Hobbit Part 3, Foxcatcher

I managed to see two films over the past weekend, both very different in tone and scope. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies and Foxcatcher. The performances in Foxcatcher and the CGI wizardry in The Hobbit were the standout achievements in both films.

The Battle of the Five Armies is the third and final film in Peter Jackson's drawn out re-telling of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. In a similar trend he went through with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson has made better films as the series has gone on and Five Armies is the most impressive of the bunch thanks to a lot of action and large scale epic battle sequences. Martin Freeman once again takes center stage as Bilbo Baggins who ends up smack dab in the middle of an all-out war between men, dwarves, orcs and elves over the treasure left behind by the dragon Smaug.

Even before the title credits roll we see Smaug lay waste to the village of Laketown and watch as Bard attempts to slay the Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced beast. The sequence is intense to watch and serves as an appetizer for the main course (the titular battle). Jackson spares no expense in building the action and tension to a grandiose scale (similar to but not quite as emotionally intense as the final battle in Return of the King). WETA Digital does what WETA Digital always does, bringing top-notch computer generated effects that help convey the epic size and scale of the battle sequences. Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) brings a human element to the central Dwarf King of the film. Thorin lets power corrupt him only to find peace before his demise as he reconciles with Bilbo. Ian Mckellan's Gandalf makes his 6th appearance in a Peter Jackson film and ties the various strands of narrative together.

This film is fun to watch and brings the Hobbit series to a proper close. As a whole however, the series is just not as powerful as LOTR and lacks the emotional depth of the previous trilogy. As I watched a similar goodbye sequence to Return of the King, watching Bilbo say goodbye to his dwarf company just didn't affect me the way the parting of the Hobbits did in Jackson's Best Picture film. The heart and soul of the characters is lost a bit in this latest trilogy and makes The Hobbit a far inferior series of films as a result.

Still, it was fun to see Jackson return to the Shire once again for the last time. He ends up tying the end of the Five Armies into the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring with a seamless transition that works well. 4 out of 5 JRs for probably the best of the Hobbit trilogy of films and a fitting farewell to Middle Earth for one of the greatest directors of his generation.

Foxcatcher is Bennett Miller's (Moneyball, Capote) retelling of the true story of Mark and Dave Schultz, USA wrestling brothers who end up befriending and training with John Du Pont, heir of the Du Pont family fortune in the 1980's and 90's. Channing Tatum plays the younger Schultz brother Mark who is first wooed to the Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania by Du Pont (a somber Steve Carrell with a hell of a prosthetic nose) shortly after the Schultzs both won Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984.  Dave Schultz (a gruff looking Mark Ruffalo) initially refuses Du Pont's training offer and decides to stay with his family instead. The movie focuses on the relationship between the three men and the father-son bond Du Pont and Mark Schultz have. I won't get into the real-life tragic event that occurs towards the end of the film so I don't spoil it for those who do not know about it.

Miller's film is pretty droll and bland with limited musical accompaniment and a deadpan delivery from most of his actors. The film does a good job of giving the audience an inside look at the life of a reclusive and wealthy philanthrope, but it really is the performances alone that carry an otherwise slightly boring narrative.  Carrell gives probably his best performance of his career as an ornery individual who tries to live vicariously through the talented young men he trains. He actually comes across similar to the Gru character he voices in Despicable Me. His lack of emotion and empathy for certain aspects of his life is strange and off-putting. Tatum is really solid in his first real dramatic role and brings a sense of passion and eagerness to Mark Schultz. We can tell he's a little reluctant of Du Pont at first but learns to put his full trust in him as he realizes he can be the best wrestler in the world by utilizing the training resources Du Pont can afford. When Mark fails to give his best performance in one of the Olympic Trial events, his ensuing rage within his hotel room is authentic and believable. Channing Tatum has never been better in a film. Ruffalo is solid as well and is very believable as the older nurturing brother.

Overall the movie is not that strong as a whole. Yes, the performances are great, but the movie doesn't really expand upon what happened in the end. The tragic event that occurs just "happens" without explanation, buildup or any sort of follow-on analysis. The motive is very unclear (as apparently it was in real life as well) and the payoff just isn't there. I would highly recommend to wait for video for this movie unless you absolutely want to see it before awards season. Carrell will get an Oscar nomination (and really Tatum should as well). A lukewarm 3.5 out of 5 JRs for Foxcatcher. One of the more muted and strange films of 2014.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Reviews: Wild (and Mockingjay Mini-Review)

I have two movies to review from the past few weeks. I'll plow through the first one quickly. The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1 is the penultimate movie in Suzanne Collins' celebrated series of young adult book adaptations. I'm sure most of you have seen the first two movies in this series and this one. This is by far the weakest movie in the series to-date as the movie focuses on Katniss' role as a propaganda piece for the president of the rebellion (Julianne Moore). There really isn't a whole lot for stars Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark) to work with. The plot is slow and plodding and all we really get is a lot of buildup to an evident war in the final film. This is the first "Hunger Games" film without an actual Hunger Games competition and the hole in the story is painfully noticeable. That being said, it is still entertaining at times and the love triangle between Katniss/Peeta and Liam Hemsworth's wooden Gale is at least getting more complicated and interesting. Lawrence overacts some more like she did in Catching Fire but I'm hoping that the series can end on a high-note next year in Part 2. A mediocre 3 out of 5 JRs for Mockingjay Part 1.

After the critically acclaimed 2013 release of Dallas Buyers Club, Director Jean-Marc Vallee's  follows up with Wild, a story of Cheryl Strayed who spent over 90 days walking 1100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail in an attempt to recover from personal tragedy. Reese Witherspoon (in arguably the best performance of her career) plays the role of Cheryl, a 26-year-old free spirit whose dalliance with sex and drug addiction stands as the behavior issues she's walking away from during her epic solo hike. The movie does a great job of showing the vast quiet beauty of the American Western landscape and how an escape from the day-to-day grind can help clean a person's soul.

Vallee brings the audience into Cheryl's world in mid-hike as we see a frustrated Witherspoon hurtling a too-tight boot off of a cliff. We don't know why she's hiking at first but the source for her inspiration and purpose is eventually revealed through carefully placed flashback sequences that highlight the relationship between Cheryl and her mother (played brilliantly by Laura Dern). Through repeated moments and highlights of the bond between mother and daughter, it is easy to end up understanding Cheryl's need to "find herself" on this journey. Witherspoon herself gives her all to this role and doesn't ever really overact in making the audience believe in her will to keep going on her quest. She brings a bit of humor to Cheryl too in some lighthearted interactions with the various characters she meets on her trek (intermingled with a few situations of tense dredd in meeting some questionable men on her route). Witherspoon easily re-establishes herself as one of the more likeable actresses in Hollywood and I'm certain we'll see her as one of the front-runners for Best Actress next year.

Laura Dern delivers one of her best performances in years as Cheryl's mother Bonnie. We see just how much she cared for her two children and how full of life and joy she was. Dern's positive attitude and compassion help make the eventual loss for Cheryl that much more believable. It's such a small role, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some Oscar love for Dern for this performance. The third character in the film is nature itself. Vallee paints a beautiful picture of the PCT with wide shots of snowy hills, sprawling vistas and other symbols of personal isolation that convey just how alone Cheryl is on her journey.

I enjoyed this movie more than the gritty, harrowing, politically-charged Dallas Buyers Club. It really did make me feel connected to the broken bond of mother and daughter. I also found myself feeling like I should add one of these hikes to my bucket list (just a few days, not 90!) at some point. This movie doesn't need to be seen in the theater but I would recommend seeing it before Oscar night if at all possible.  This is one of the better movies of 2014 and a performance that Reese Witherspoon can be very proud of. 4.5 out of 5 JRs for Wild.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reviews: Fury, Big Hero 6

Here are two quick mini reviews for films I've seen over the past week. Fury is a WWII movie directed by David Ayer (End of Watch) that focuses on a team of tank soldiers in Nazi Germany towards the end of the war. Brad Pitt leads the rag-tag "band of brothers" that includes Shia Leboeuf, Michael Pena and The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal through a series of missions that are beautifully filmed with stark action sequences that really beat it into your head that war is a terrible thing.  All of the tank sequences are extremely well-directed by Ayer. You really feel like you're there in the claustrophobic metallic confines with the rest of the group.

I really enjoyed this film and feel it's one of the better post-Saving Private Ryan war movies. Pitt and all his brethren are competent actors but the one who really shines above them all is Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson from the movie series) who plays a young fresh-faced soldier who is thrust into a role he's not suited for. Watching the dynamic of Lerman and Pitt play off each other is an entertaining subplot to a gripping war saga. A solid 4 out of 5 JRs for Fury.

Big Hero 6 is the latest film to come out of Walt Disney Animation Studios (not to be confused with Pixar). The studio has already delivered such solid efforts as the ever-popular Frozen and 2012's Wreck-It Ralph. Big Hero 6 is a sci-fi adventure set in the fictional hybrid city of Sanfrantokyo (complete with pagoda-shaped support towers on the Golden Gate Bridge) that centers on Hiro Himada, a young genius who ends up applying to a prestigious tech (nerd) school in an attempt to follow in his older brother's footsteps. After an early disaster, Hiro and his band of friends form a super-hero group and enlist the help of a healthcare robot (Baymax) built by Hiro's brother to track down a formidable adversary. The plot of the movie is similar to other superhero movies but the laugh and heart of this film is what carries it along.

All members of the super group of 6 have their own personalities and quirks and most of the humor throughout is spot-on, making it fun for both kids and adults. The highlight of the film is Baymax, one of the more memorable and "human" robots to grace the big screen. Baymax is slow, plodding but also lovable and very caring (he's programmed to help people after all). The interactions between him and Hiro as the boy genius tries to turn the white giant blob into a "fighting machine" are hilarious to watch. The movie also hands out real life lessons (which I tried to help sink in with my own kids), particularly that creativity breeds success and you should go out there and innovate to get somewhere in the world.  The visuals of the film are great and represent the ongoing improvement in CGI graphics. The voice acting in the movie is well done and is highlighted by Silicon Valley's features a wacky T.J. Miller as the ambitious stoner-rich-kid Fred.   This is a film that everyone will enjoy and ranks right up there with The Lego Movie as the most fun time I've had in the theater this year. An excellent 4.5 out of 5 JRs for Big Hero 6, a movie that is likely to lead to a Big Hero 7 in the near future.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar marks the 8th feature film in the career of 44-year-old director Christopher Nolan. Following a remarkable run of back-to-back-to-back amazing films (The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises), Nolan had a lot to live up to in his first outer space movie. Thankfully we can usually rely on the genius of Nolan and he totally delivered another incredible motion picture with Interstellar, a thrilling epic tale of pioneering and space exploration.

Matthew McConaughey (on a life-heater right now after winning his first Oscar and staring in True Detective) plays Cooper, a farmer in Colorado who along with the rest of the world is dealing with a food shortage crisis. Crops are dying and dust storms are becoming a common occurrence.  Cooper is a widowed father of two and through a chance encounter becomes involved with a team of scientists set on discovering a remote planet that can sustain life.  Michael Caine plays the leader of the braintrust, Professor Brand, who enlists his daughter (a rather low-key Anne Hathaway) and two other astronauts to join Cooper on the space exploration expedition. Cooper has a history of training with NASA so he's a natural fit as the pilot of the mission. After the team launches into outer space, the next two-thirds of the movie are a roller coaster ride in discovery and adventure.

Now there are a few key plot pieces I'd like to comment on but they can definitely be constituted as spoilers. So to keep those who haven't seen the film in the dark I will link to another post to comment on it. If you haven't seen the film come back later, if you have seen it, go ahead and click here.

Nolan does a great job of moving the narrative along. At 2 hours and 40 minutes the movie doesn't feel as long as it is. All of the space exploration scenes are beautifully shot and Hans Zimmer's powerful score ratchets up the tension. Scenes on the surface of the planets are stark and vibrant (a real location in Iceland was used for the bulk of the filming). The robot assistants in the film (T.A.R.S. and C.A.S.E)  end up being resourceful additions to the team of astronauts. Their simple rectangular design and fluid movements is rather unique as far as robots usually look in a sci fi film. Basically everything looks and sounds great in this movie and you just can't help but feel like you're along for the ride joining this group of pioneers.

Nolan explores themes of relative time shift that lets the astronauts age at a much slower rate than the rest of the people back on Earth. We see Cooper's son and daughter (Tim and Murph) age over time during the mission through video messages sent to the spacecraft as well as cut scenes back at home in Colorado. Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck play the older versions of the children we see at the beginning of the film. All of the acting is very good throughout the film but it's McConaughey who delivers the heart and soul of the movie. He is just a very likable actor at the prime of his craft and you end up rooting for him to succeed throughout the film. I was particularly pleased with the ending of the film which ties a few loose threads up and puts a fitting conclusion to the epic adventure.

This film is big and bold and needs to be seen on the IMAX screen.  I was fortunate enough to see it at the Air and Space Museum in DC, a fitting location for a movie that celebrates the pioneering spirit of space exploration. This is the best movie I've seen since Gravity (another space epic) and gets my first 5 out of 5 JR rating for 2014. Christopher Nolan cements himself as the best director working in Hollywood. Thankfully he's still relatively young and I feel we have a lot more to look forward to with his upcoming films.

Interstellar Bonus - SPOILERS




OK, you've been sufficiently warned. MATT DAMON is in Interstellar!! He ends up playing one of the 12 astronauts (Dr. Mann) who went on the initial Lazarus mission to explore unknown planets. The crew of the Endurance land on the planet that Dr. Mann has scouted out and wake him from his cryo-sleep.  When Damon is introduced, the whole theater gasped a bit. It's really remarkable that the Interstellar marketing team kept Damon's involvement a secret. The fact that he's such a douchebag in the film is a brilliant stunt casting move.

Other elements I liked about the use of time in the film are the black hole scene towards the end of the film and the scene just after the first planet exploration sequence. When Cooper end up in the black hole we see how he is responsible for all of the unusual "ghost-like" events in the farmhouse at the beginning of the film. I like how his discovery of time manipulation leads to his eventual rescue and the emotional reunion between himself and his elderly daughter (Ellen Burstyn in a quick appearance). After Brand (Hathaway) and Cooper arrive back on the Endurance after spending a couple of hours on the first planet, their other crew member (David Gyasi as Romilly) has aged about 20 years, spending all that time alone. It's remarkable to think of time passing so differently for some people and not others. The passage of time really does end up being the emotional core of Interstellar.

Finally, I wanted to touch on Nolan's great idea of having NASA be a rogue underground agency that continues to explore space outside of the public limelight. It seemed plausible that NASA would continue on without full government funding with people in charge who are passionate about space travel. I'm sure other reviewers will find some elements of the plot a little forced and kind of hokey, but I really did enjoy the entire story of Interstellar and was willing to go along with Nolan 100% on this space adventure.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton has been out of the limelight for a while now. His last memorable role might be 1996's Multiplicity. He is probably best remembered for portraying Batman in two Tim Burton films which makes 2014's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) an appropriate comeback vehicle for him. Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is the story of Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor (mirroring the career of Keaton) who is best remembered and most loved for playing the titular superhero role. This movie is entertaining and thought provoking for the most part but very slow at times and not very memorable.  However, the performance of Keaton and the technical wizardry of Iñárritu is worth the price of admission alone.

Birdman focuses on the production of a Raymond Carver play that Thomson (Keaton) has decided to direct and star in to revive his stalled career. With the assistance of his agent/friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis in a semi-serious role), he ends up casting Broadway it-actor Mike Shiner (the always great Edward Norton) to co-star in the play. We see the preview nights leading up to opening night and a wide variety of events occur that test Riggan's moxie and leaves him wondering if there's any way to remain relevant in Hollywood anymore.

The real genius of this film lies in the direction of Iñárritu who uses extremely long takes and camera magic to make the audience feel like they are right there with Riggan as he experiences all these events in real time. The camera follows all the main actors through the back stages and dressing rooms of the Broadway theater, moving in and out of windows seamlessly, even showing a virtual 360 degree view of a dressing room mirror without the camera being reflected. I really feel that Mexican auteurs like Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) are pushing the envelope of cinematic direction in modern movies. I don't know what it is about creativity in Mexico (maybe it's the water), but it's great to see these visionary directors take risks in camera movement that add a sense of immersion in these films. It helps that Iñárritu utilized the talents of Oscar-winning Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in this film.

Keaton is amazing as Riggan and he really gives a total effort in making you believe that he wants so bad to be relevant in an industry that seems to have passed him by. Norton balances Riggan's plight for stardom with his own sense of bravado. There's a hilarious scene near the beginning of the film where Norton is standing in front of a mirror totally naked and not at all embarrassed or ashamed. He exudes confidence, which as the film goes, on we can see is mostly misguided. The film takes a stand against the current trend towards big budget comic book films and presents the idea of delivering quality over box office grosses. The entire film is set to a drum-riff score with virtually no music other than the jazz beat of random drumming.  I found this a little off-putting and felt like it never let the audience get totally settled into the plot of the movie.

Overall, I just didn't love this movie as much as most people. Yes, Keaton is awesome in the role of a lifetime for him and the supporting turns by Norton, Emma Stone (as Riggan's daughter) and Naomi Watts are all good, but I just wasn't drawn into the story that much. Watching the inner-workings of a Broadway play just isn't my personal cup of tea. And a lot of the liberties that Iñárritu took with the voices in Riggan's head and his "supernatural powers" didn't really work for me.  That being said, the "no-take" camera work in this film is amazing and worth seeing. Keaton owns this film and will probably be rewarded by the Academy next awards season.  I would recommend waiting for video on this one though. You definitely don't need to see it on a large screen. A lukewarm 3.5 out of 5 JRs for Birdman, one of the more unique movies I've seen this year.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Gone Girl

David Fincher is on the short list of my favorite directors working today.  I would say he probably ranks 4th behind Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg and Neill Blomkamp.  In a follow up to his last film, the excellent (and Movie Blog Best Picture of 2012) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher delivers Gillian Flynn's popular novel Gone Girl to the big screen.  I have never read the book myself but have heard so much hype about it that I had to go see it (my wife and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to watch this in Albuquerque on our trip out there).

Gone Girl tells the modern-day story of relationship issues, infidelity and the media's sensationalization of a scandalous news story.  Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play Nick and Amy, an attractive married couple in suburban St. Louis who seem to have the perfect life on the surface. It doesn't take long for Fincher to reveal to the audience that everything is not perfect within the circle of their relationship. When Amy goes missing, the plot churns forward with a deep investigation into the disappearance of Amy by the local police (Friday Night Lights' Kim Dickens plays the lead investigator in her best performance of her career). As the film goes on, the layers of the mystery unravel and we see how the story plays out across the various media outlets. The news media as a whole ends up becoming a character itself in the film.

The movie looks great and has that signature Fincher shine to it. Through various unique camera shots (including a sensational gory sequence in a bedroom towards the end of the film) and terrific pacing, Fincher is able to keep the audience interested despite a bloated run time.  The atmospheric tension is ratcheted slowly thanks to yet another perfect accompanying score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

The acting is very strong across the board. Affleck continues to prove he's moved way past the Gigli/Pearl Harbor phase of his career.  Neil Patrick Harris gives a nuanced and slightly creepy performance as a former love interest of Amy.  Unknown Carrie Coon is very believable as the skeptic but loyal sister of Nick. The real find here is Pike who plays Amy in various layers of clever and conniving and totally owns every scene she's in.  This movie just wouldn't work without her daring performance. 

My biggest issue with this movie has to be the suspension of disbelief towards the end of the movie. I won't give anything away (for the few of you that haven't read the book) but the last quarter of the movie seems way too over-the-top and almost comical.  All of the serious tension and drama that was built up during the first part of the film gets thrown away as Nick and Amy almost become comic book characters that are no longer easy to relate to. If the film maintained it's dramatic integrity throughout I would have given this a higher rating.

That being said, I really did enjoy the ride and kudos to Fincher and especially Pike for committing 100% to this film. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good gritty R-rated drama that has a few moments of comic relief (Tyler Perry is AWESOME as the defense lawyer to Affleck's character). A strong 4 out of 5 JR's for another Fincher hit.  I would love to see Pike nominated for an Oscar, but I think most voters would feel her role is a bit too campy to be seriously recognized.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Two Mini Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy & The Skeleton Twins

Sorry readers, it's been about two months since my last post but unfortunately I've only seen two movies in that timeframe. The end of summer brings about the void of quality movies but things are about to ramp up in the Fall as most of the Oscar-Bait films are released. That being said, I'll give you two quick-hit reviews of the past two movies I've seen.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest entry into the Marvel cinematic universe and ended up being the surprise hit of 2014 this far. I really enjoyed the overall feel of this movie. Thanks to a killer cast led by the personable Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and the HILARIOUS Dave Bautista (in his first major role), director James Gunn was able to introduce a new set of "superheroes" to the movie-going public. Buoyed by an eclectic soundtrack that accentuates the fun on-screen and powered by outstanding voice-over work by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, you really find yourself sitting back and enjoying the action and humor. Vin Diesel makes three words go a long way in voicing the loveable & menacing Groot.  My biggest issue with the film is the scope of the world it represents. There are just way too many new characters, races, planets that are introduced here to keep track of. If things were a little less busy / confusing, I think I would have enjoyed this film a little more.  That being said, I am giving Guardians 4 out of 5 JR's as it's definitely one of the more fun movies I've seen this year.

The Skeleton Twins is director Craig Johnson's small independent look at an estranged brother and sister duo played by SNL vets Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader who each have independent brushes with death on the same day and grow closer as a result. Both Wiig and Hader are excellent in these roles and their natural chemistry carries the film. The mannerisms that Hader uses in playing a gay man in this film reminded me a lot of his character Stefon from SNL. Overall this is a fun and slightly depressing movie. Luke Wilson is pretty good as the quasi-frat husband of Wiig's character and Modern Family's Ty Burrell give a good creepy performance as a former flame of Hader's. My favorite scene of the film is a hilarious lip-syncing moment in which Hader and Wiig goof off to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." The movie is slow at times and really isn't overly memorable but it is worth a rental for the SNL icons' performances alone. 3.5 out of 5 JRs for this welcome slice of dramedy.

On the near horizon are a slew of films I want to see, headlined by Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and David Fincher's Gone Girl. I feel like the best of 2014 is yet to come.