Wednesday, December 31, 2014

At the Movies – January 2015 – Part 3: Most Anticipated Films

Must-See of the Month:

Blackhat – Mystery Thriller – Jan 16
Plot Summary: Hacker Nicholas Hathaway is released from prison to help American and Chinese officials track down a dangerous and mysterious cybercriminal. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Michael Mann, composer Atticus Ross and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Actors Involved: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, William Mapother, John Ortiz, Ritchie Coster, and Yorick van Wageningen. Quality Potential: Medium. Michael Mann is one of our great working auteurs, specializing in grand crime dramas and intense, realistic action with films like: Thief, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies (his French-Indian War film The Last of the Mohicans and his drama The Insider are also both very good). Blackhat looks to be yet another good thriller from him; however, the mere fact that it is coming out in January makes me a little concerned. Generally, nothing good comes out in January (outside of prestige films expanding wider). Also, Mann’s last two films Miami Vice and Public Enemies were not as well received critically as most of his past work (though, I think there are both very good films). Blackhat does look good; but based on its release date, it may not be among Mann’s best – although, it will likely be the best of the month. Trailer: Here.

At the Movies – January 2015 – Part 2: Hollywood Films


Taken 3 – Action Thriller – Jan 9
Plot Summary: Bryan Mills, finally reunited with his family, has his world shattered when his wife is murdered – even worse, he is being set up for the crime. Now, on the run, he evades the police while searching for the true killer to exact revenge and clear his name. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Olivier Megaton and writer-producer Luc Besson. Actors Involved: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Forest Whitaker, and Dougray Scott. Quality Potential: Low. Indeed, this third film in the Taken series features Mills’s daughter again being taken (because original ideas are hard). That aside, Taken 2 director Olivier Megaton returns (he is a frequent collaborator with French action guru Luc Besson), meaning that Taken 3 will probably be no better than Taken 2 (which was far worse than Taken). This is a throwaway, pointless action sequel. Fans of the series can check it out, but otherwise it is probably not a worthwhile theater-going experience. Trailer: Here.

Black Sea – Thriller – Jan 23
Plot Summary: Down on his luck, Captain Robinson takes a shady job to pilot a submarine in search of a submarine rumored to be loaded with gold. To do this, he must work with an unscrupulous backer and crew of ruffians in the depths of the Black Sea. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Kevin Macdonald. Actors Involved: Jude Law, Jodie Whittaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy, and Tobias Menzies. Quality Potential: Medium. Kevin Macdonald made his feature debut with the well-received The Last King of Scotland after proving to be a talented documentary filmmaker; however, since then, he has struggled with underwhelming dramas (State of Play, The Eagle and How I Live Now). Black Sea looks like a decent thriller, but what makes it interesting is its great cast. Black Sea is probably not a great film (being that it is being released in January), but it may make for an entertaining rental with good performances. Trailer: Here.


The Wedding Ringer – Comedy – Jan 16
Plot Summary: Doug Harris is about to get married. The problem is that he does not have any groomsmen. So, he hires wedding specialist Jimmy Callahan to help. Jimmy puts together a makeshift band of oddballs, but it just might work. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Jeremy Garelick. Actors Involved: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Olivia Thirlby, and Cloris Leachman. Quality Potential: Low. Kevin Hart had a big 2014 with Ride Along, About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too, and Top Five. He wants to keep the momentum going with two comedies in 2015: this and Get Hard. Writer-director Jeremy Garelick makes his feature debut with The Wedding Ringer. He also wrote The Break-Up. The Wedding Ringer looks kind of funny (a bit like a lower-end version of The Hangover or other wedding comedies like Wedding Crashers), but also like a typical January film (generic and unremarkable). This probably only for Kevin Hart fans. Trailer: Here.

Paddington – Family Comedy – Jan 16
Plot Summary: Paddington Bear comes to London only to find himself lost in the city. Then, he is befriended by a young boy and his family, who take Paddington into their home – hoping that having a bear in the house will not cause too much trouble (but of course he will). Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Paul King and producer David Heyman. Actors Involved: Ben Whishaw (voicing Paddington), Nicole Kidman, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton (also both voicing characters), Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Hugh Bonneville, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent. Quality Potential: Medium. Paddington is Paul King’s second feature (following up Bunny and the Bull, a film that is likely completely unknown outside the U.K.); however, many will know him for his directorial work on the very funny British comedy series The Mighty Boosh (that features Old Gregg). The cast is quite fantastic and the film has been very well received in Britain, where it opened last November. I am curious if Americans who did not necessarily grow up with Paddington Bear will enjoy the film as much, but it is a very good and funny family film. Trailer: Here.

Mortdecai – Action/Mystery Comedy – Jan 23
Plot Summary: Charles Mortdecai is a famed art dealer. When a famous painting is stolen, he is brought in to find it; however, he has other plans, as the painting may be his link to finding a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director David Koepp, producer Johnny Depp and composer Mark Ronson. Actors Involved: Johnny Depp, Olivia Munn, Aubrey Plaza, Ewan McGregor, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, and Jeff Goldblum. Quality Potential: Low. David Koepp is better known for writing Hollywood blockbusters (like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) than his directorial work. As a director, he has made five generic films of varying quality but nothing great. Mortdecai looks very silly, filled with pratfalls and buffoonery (it looks like a poor attempt to recapture the magic of a character like Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series). Koepp does have a great cast, however, and this role seems to suggest that Depp (who created the project for himself) is looking to find a new character to build a franchise on. The solid cast makes this film a potential rental, but probably not worthwhile for the theater (given that it looks mediocre). Trailer: Here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

At the Movies – January 2015 – Part 1: Independent Films

Art-House Dramas:

Still Alice – Drama – Jan 16
Plot Summary: Alice Howland is a successful linguistics professor, happily married with three grown children. Suddenly, she begins to forget words and places. She is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Now, this devastating diagnoses will test the strength of her marriage and relationships with her children. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Actors Involved: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Alec Baldwin, and Hunter Parrish. Quality Potential: Medium/High. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have their breakout project with Still Alice (thanks mostly to its higher profile cast). This film is a good character drama, showcasing the skill for extracting fine performances the filmmakers promised with their Sundance favorite Quinceanera in 2006. Julianne Moore is excellent in the film; she is the frontrunner to win Best Actress at the 2015 Academy Awards. This is a worthwhile film to catch for fans of intense emotional dramas and great performances. Trailer: Here.

Red Army – Sports Documentary – Jan 23
Plot Summary: Remember the unbeatable USSR Red Army hockey team that a group of college kids miraculously beat in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid? This is their story, told from the perspective of their captain Slava Fetisov portraying his transformation from national hero to political enemy, mirroring the cultural change within the country (the Soviet Union becoming Russia). Key Filmmakers Involved: Director-producer Gabe Polsky and composer Christophe Beck. Quality Potential: Medium/High. This tells the story behind the unbeatable Red Army team, maybe the greatest dynasty in sports history. It is a must-see for hockey fans and USSR history buffs. It is also one of the best documentaries to debut in 2014. Trailer: Here.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Movie of the Week – No Country for Old Men

This week’s movie: No Country for Old Men (2007)

Llewelyn Moss comes across a drug deal gone wrong in the Texas desert, discovering a bag full of money. He takes the money, never imagining the evil that will descend upon him to recover it. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tries to find Moss first before the vicious, murderous Anton Chigurh gets to him.

The film is from auteurs the Coen Brothers (who have also made the brilliant films Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and True Grit). No Country for Old Men got them out of a bit of a rut, as their previous two films (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers) represent the weakest of their career to date. Not only is No Country for Old Men among their very best films, it also won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Directing and Writing. The Coen Brothers worked with their frequent collaborators composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Jess Gonchor on the film.

The cast is excellent as well, and works more as an ensemble. It features Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem (who also won an Oscar for his work in the film), Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, and Stephen Root.

No Country for Old Men is the best adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel to date (although, I do think McCarthy’s original screenplay also produced a great movie with The Counselor). The film is a modern western dealing with the nature of evil, fate and corruption of the modern world. It is built around wonderful performances (Bardem in particular creates one of the decade’s most iconic villains in Anton Chigurh), beautiful aesthetics and sharp writing. The Coen Brothers’ trademark dialog is just as fantastically witty as ever. The film is graphic and funny, something that few are able to pull off in a serious piece. It is a must-see for fans of the Coen Brothers and westerns. It is among the very best films of the last decade.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) – Review

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings is a grand epic of spectacle, built around the changing relationship between two brothers and impressive visuals.

The film is about Moses and Ramses. Pharaoh Seti found baby Moses abandoned in a basket along the Nile river, deciding to raise him as his own along with his natural son Ramses. The two brothers grew up as princes, relying on it other in battle and life; however, as the brothers come into their own, Moses learns about his past – that he is actually of Jewish decent (a downtrodden people who are greatly abused as slaves by the Egyptians) – a truth he refuses to believe. Once Pharaoh Seti has died of illness and Ramses becomes leader of Egypt, enemies of Moses expose his secret. Always slightly fearing Moses’s power and the love his father showed him, Ramses ceases the opportunity to banish Moses. Far from Egypt, Moses struggles to accept the truth about himself and the new mission his people’s god has anointed him with – to set the Jewish people free in Egypt. Moses, now with newfound purpose, returns to Egypt to do just that, but Ramses will not make it easy on him.

Director Ridley Scott’s biblical epic feels very similar to his other religious epic Kingdom on Heaven. Exodus: Gods and Kings features impressive visuals, a massive scale and scope and very good central performances. Yet, like Kingdom of Heaven’s theatrical release, which was gutted of most of its character moments in favor of a shorter runtime, this film too seems to lack needed character moments for its supporting cast. Moses and Ramses have their moments, and the story does serve them well, but no one else is really given much to do (while the film still runs for around 150 minutes), leading me to believe that this too was streamlined for its theatrical release and somewhat expect a fuller, longer version of the film to be released for home consumption – keeping the runtime under a certain length allows the film to screen more times in a day, which theoretically translates to more box office, at the expense of creative expression/integrity (because Hollywood moviemaking is a business first, and that is especially true for massive blockbusters like this film). It is just too bad, as the film would have played a lot stronger with its supporting characters fleshed out and overall narrative given time to breath, allowing the emotion and drama to be more fully realized. As it is, the film works solely thanks to its impressive aesthetics and great leading performances.

Even at 150 minutes, the film is paced rather briskly (presumably thanks to much of the extra dramatic meat being cut out of Scott’s initial version). Time passes in chunks in between scenes in many instances, requiring viewers to pay extra attention or lose their place.

Scott is a very skilled filmmaker, and that is clear again with Exodus: Gods and Kings. Aesthetically, the film showcases the stark juxtaposition between the wealthy Egyptian lords and the impoverished slaves – possibly drawing comparisons to the ever-widening wealth gap in the western world (let alone the rest of the world). Some fear that if the struggling classes ever really found out how the very wealthy live, there would be a revolution. Maybe that sounds dramatic and far-fetched, but history shows us that it has happen again and again throughout time – this film detailing one of the most famous (along with its overlying religious aspects).

Scott takes a very evenhanded approach to religion in Kingdom of Heaven, treating Islam with respect and fairness, when many films focus more on the negative factions (something that seems to tinge many, if not all, religions). Here, Scott is less so. The Egyptians are portrayed as many villains are in many films of this nature – entitled, ambivalent and uncaring. The slaves are just that, not deserving a second thought. The slaves are a subspecies in their minds, existing only to benefit their interests, and thus do not deserve the same rights and freedoms. When the Jewish god unleashes the plagues upon the Egyptian people. They are bewildered, refusing to accept that this god is more powerful than their own, that these people should be set free. Ramses sees himself as a god on Earth. He just cannot accept that to be untrue, as it crushes his whole way of life, his whole belief system. The brisk pacing does not give Scott the opportunity to explore the Egyptians any further, leaving them mostly as seemingly out-of-touch, arrogant villains – even though there are certainly strong hints that Scott intended much more depth.

The portrayal of god in the film, as a young boy, is an interesting choice. In the story, god must do great and terrible things to the Egyptians. Things that seem cruel and viscous, but they are done because the Egyptians (and Ramses) just will not accept the truth of the circumstances, because it goes against everything they believe. I think Scott chose god to be seen as a small child to juxtapose the terror he must rain upon the Egyptians with the innocence of a small child. Although, at the same time, young children can also be the most cruel and vicious when left to their own devices. Without societal pressures and laws obstructing them, children have been shown to act sometimes without compassion (think of the classic example: Lord of the Flies), exhibiting our natural tendencies for survival, stronger oppressing the weaker. A childlike god, though capable of love and compassion, might also act when angered with unabated rage and cruelty.

In many ways, Exodus; Gods and Kings is a disappointing film, as Scott’s films always have so much promise (based on the great works of his past). It features all the ingredients to be something special and yet it is lacking – namely in dramatic weight and fuller supporting characters. Scott does do a good job with the central drama of the film, as Moses and Ramses are fleshed out and their narrative is compelling, but everything else feels incomplete – and it probably has do to with the film being revised down from its original longer version for theatrical release. As I said above, it is too bad. But, hopefully, the film as it was initially intended will be released later (as Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner’s director’s cut eventually were).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ridley Scott makes fantastically impressive visual films. Exodus: Gods and Kings follows in that tradition. Visually speaking, it is quite entertaining on a spectacle level with a grand scope and scale. Scott also garners very good performances as well, and this too is true of this film. Despites the film’s commercial and critical failings, I do hope to see Scott’s director’s cut at some point (assuming it is released) and his next film The Martian, coming next year.

On a quick side note, with Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah. It is interesting to see biblical stories being portrayed in a darker manner, stripping away some of the overly rosy arbitrage and getting right at the heart of what is actually transpiring. In each story, god’s actions directly result in the death of thousands (millions in Noah’s case) of people. The films do not just focus on the justification of these actions (be them teaching humanity a lesson or helping his people find freedom) but also on the gravity of the actions, which is much more compelling.

Back to the aesthetics, composer Alberto Iglesias provides a score for the film that tonally fits well and captures the flavor of the time and place. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s photography is very good, as he uses mostly a more washed out color palate, which too fits the darker tone the film has. His work, along with production designer Arthur Max’s (whose sets, as always, are brilliant), also highlights the striking economic differences between the Egyptian lords, who are covered in clean whites and gold jewelry, inhabiting expansive homes, and the slaves, who are packed in dirty, crowded, cramped environments. The Egyptians are all very manicured and without facial hair (assuming I remember correctly) while the slaves are bearded and somewhat unkempt. Interestingly, Moses has a beard from the start, but it is much more groomed than any of the slaves’ beards. As he comes to accept his place among them as their leader, his beard becomes more unwieldy.

There are quite a few name actors in the film who have had their roles essentially cut out due to most of the supporting character work and excess drama being taken out. Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley almost have nothing to do in the film (outside of a scene, here or there).  Indira Varma, Maria Valverde and John Turturro are good in small supporting roles. Ewen Bremner plays a scientist of sorts in the Egyptian court, explaining the logic behind the plagues, assuring that they are not acts from an angry god. He is just fantastic and goofy in the small role. Ben Mendelsohn, also in a small role, playing the corrupt Egyptian Viceroy Hegep, who outs Moses to Ramses, is wonderful as well. He is so smarmy and slimy. He is a great character actor – one of the best currently. Joel Edgerton is very good as Ramses, bringing the right mix of entitlement, compassion and utter bewilderment about what is happening to the role. In lesser hands, Ramses would have been a one dimensional, boring villain, but here he is a full character. Christian Bale is excellent as Moses (as he generally is in everything he does). He is able to convey the heartbreak of his deteriorating relationship with his brother and the pain of finding out the truth about himself. The scenes with god could have played as being a bit odd, Moses conversing with a young boy, but Bale plays the scenes with complete commitment. Despite the gutting the film seems to have gone through during its final edit, it still works thanks in most part of Bale’s great performance.

Summary & score: Exodus: Gods and Kings lacks emotional and dramatic depth, and yet it is still an entertaining, visually compelling and overall solid epic due to Ridley Scott’s fine directing and strong central characters (and great leading performances), overcoming its shortcomings. 7/10

Monday, December 22, 2014

Movie of the Week – The Fault in Our Stars

This week’s movie: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Hazel is a young woman suffering the effects of a long battle with cancer, leaving her with weak lungs. She dreams of a full life of adventures, but has resigned herself to the realities of her situation, all but turning her back on love. Under protest, she gives in to her parents and joins a support group for cancer patients.  There she meets the young outgoing Gus. A cancer survivor himself, his approach to life seems much more carefree, taking in everything. Gus is attracted to Hazel right away, opening her up to a whole new world. This is the story of their great love.

The film is directed by Josh Boone, who had a slight breakthrough with his first feature Stuck in Love (a small film that has caught on with many viewers). He worked with composers Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, as well as talented up and comers cinematographer Ben Richardson and production designer Molly Hughes on The Fault in Our Stars.

The film stars Shailene Woodley (who many will know from her great work in The Descendent and The Spectacular Now) and Ansel Elgort (who also stars in the Divergent series with Woodley). Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, and Willem Dafoe feature in support.

The Fault in Our Stars is the second 2014 release that I am highlighting as a “Movie of the Week”, the other is The Raid 2. Both films I missed in theaters, but found them to be great once I got to them. I am sure there will be a few more I get to in 2015.

The Fault in Our Stars is a great romantic drama, built around its fantastic leading performances. It is touching and sad, but also hopeful, championing love. The film was always going to be a tear-jerker along the lines of A Walk to Remember, but it feels very fresh and vibrant – thanks to the great energy Woodley and Elgort bring to it. It seems that each year we are treated to one or two wonderful young adult dramas (recent films Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now and The Perks of Being a Wallflower come to mind); 2014’s is The Fault in Our Stars. It is a must-see for fans of romantic dramas.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014) – Review

Review: The Theory of Everything is an enchanting and inspiring love story and character drama.

The film is about theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane Wilde. The couple met at Cambridge, shortly before Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuro disease. They decided to get married, despite the uphill battle their relationship faced, with Hawking getting worse and losing more of his normal bodily function. They each achieved PhDs in their fields, but the film focuses more on Hawking’s work and Wilde’s struggle to keep herself together while having to dedicate herself to taking care of Hawking.

The Theory of Everything works on two narrative levels. On one hand, it is a very touching love story about two people who take the bad with the good to make a life together – and eventually part as friends. On the other hand, it is a character drama focusing on how each other them cope with the circumstances they face. For Hawking, he must face a life filled with moments of loss, as little by little, he will lose parts of himself (the ability to walk, speak and so on). For Wilde, she must face a life in which she becomes less of a wife and more of a caretaker, sacrificing in many ways her own life for his.

Director James Marsh does a good job with both of these narrative devices, structuring the film to take advantage of each. As a romantic drama, Marsh plays with the big moments in their relationship, focusing on their courtship. When Hawking was diagnosed (in the mid-1960s), he was given two years to live. Wilde seems to have been a big reason for him to not give up and keep going, even encouraging him to pursue his work and a full life. She is his strength. Marsh does a great job conveying that while their relationship is not perfect (but really, whose is) it is their deep friendship, beyond romantic love, that kept them together, despite the great obstacles they faced. Their love and friendship saved Hawking (or so the film might suggest).

On a character level, Marsh devotes a lot to developing these two characters, allowing the audience to see things from their perspectives, to feel what they feel. Hawking just wants to be normal (something that is very relatable), while Wilde gets worn down and just needs a life of her own. As Hawking’s condition worsens, raising the family and taking care of him fall solely on her. Plus, she does not have help of any kind for many years (professional or otherwise). Marrying Hawking she knew she is making a sacrifice and she goes into fully aware of what she is taking on, but time can and will wear down any resolve.

What I like about the film is that Marsh does not focus only on Hawking and his accomplishments, persevering in spite all the challenges he faced (and faces). It would have been easy for the film to take this narrative perspective. Hawking is, after all, the known entity. Instead, Marsh devotes just as much time to Wilde. Her emotional struggles and triumphs are given just as much dramatic weight. One might say watching this film that Hawking achieved what he has because Wilde was there to support him. Without her, he might not have done the things he has. It is a narrative theme that is not often explored in cinema – the importance of those behind the more famous people who achieve great things, especially when it comes to homemakers.

The Theory of Everything is a beautiful film because the audience is right there with the characters, feeling what they feeling, wanting what they want, and rooting for their success. Marsh structures the film to play to its dramatic strengths, which is emotionally manipulative even boarding on melodramatic at times, but in service of the narrative. The film is inspiring and charming.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: James Marsh is a very good director of documentaries, most notably Man on Wire (which is brilliant) and Project Nim. With his fictional feature films, he has not had as much success. The best of which prior to The Theory of Everything is probably his directed chapter of the Red Riding Trilogy (he directed Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980). With The Theory of Everything, he combines his talent for telling true-life stories and garnering strong performances. It is his best feature film to date.

Aesthetically, The Theory of Everything has a lot going on. Composer Johann Johannsson’s score is wonderful. It plays beautifully with the love story elements as well as the inspiring moments of the narrative. It is uplifting. Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography is excellent as well. Here, Delhomme and Marsh maneuver the look of the film to fit the emotions at play in the moment. Sometimes the film is overblown with light, everything appearing radiant, and in other moments the lighting is rather dreary and dark – echoing the highs and lows of Hawking and Wilde’s relationship and personal struggles. John Paul Kelly’s production design grounds the film in a realistic feeling world, in some ways counter balancing the extremes of the photography. Kelly does a great job signaling the passage of time in the changing of décor, costumes and hairstyles.

The cast in the film is superb. Adam Godley, Christian McKay, Simon McBurney, and Emily Watson are all very good in small supporting roles. David Thewlis is also very good in the smaller supporting role, playing Dennis Sciama. Thewlis often at his very best in a mentor-like role (see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and to some extent Kingdom of Heaven – or conversely, as a complete bastard in Naked). Charlie Cox plays family friend to the Hawkings, Jonathan Jones. Cox uses his naturally friendly face to portray the man as being incredibly nice and understanding, and in many ways just what they needed. It is one of Cox’s best performances. Felicity Jones is fantastic as Jane Wilde. She has a lot of emotion to get through in the film, exhibiting the struggles that Jane faced and her strength. Jane (as a character) is in the difficult position of having to eventually leave Hawking but still remain likable (which is true to life, but could be somewhat hard to get across to an audience). Jones is excellent, as she woos the audience, expresses her character’s pain and needs, but also her warmth and fight. Jones is completely likable, throughout. Eddie Redmayne is incredible as Stephen Hawking, giving an extraordinarily physical performance (unmatched by anything else I have seen this year so far). Redmayne perfectly captures Hawking’s mischievous wit, compassion, ambition, and his physical tendencies. It is remarkable piece of acting.

Summary & score: The Theory of Everything could have been overly sappy, far too rigid a biopic or unfair to the people it portrays. In most cases, it would have been these things in lesser hands. Yet, as it is, the film presents full characters and even more important fully realized and powerful emotions, portrayed through excellent performances. 8/10

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Foxcatcher (2014) – Review

Review: Foxcatcher is a dark and intense character study.

The film is about Mark and David Schultz, brothers who both won Gold Olympic Medals for wrestling in 1984. In 1987, Mark is approached by wealthy businessman John du Pont, interested in making his family farm, Foxcatcher, into a wrestling training facility. Mark agrees to join du Pont on his farm, while his brother Dave is hesitant initially, but eventually gives in to du Pont’s financial advances. Mark wants to be the best wrestler in the world, but there is a weird dynamic that starts to develop between him and du Pont that distracts him. Meanwhile, du Pont struggles with feelings of paranoia and jealously, specifically targeted at Mark’s relationship with his brother. As tension mounts, feelings of uneasiness and fear form between each of the men.

Films made as pure character studies are almost unheard of in today’s cinema, as audiences seem to need narrative to direct and engage them. With Foxcatcher, director Bennett Miller seems to have made a pure character study – maybe in the guise of a sports drama. The results of the wrestling matches are meaningless to this film (which seem to be the character’s main focus). Instead, this film is solely focused on the darkness that seems to be brewing in these characters (more specifically John du Pont and Mark Schultz).

John du Pont, as presented, is incredibly powerful, seemingly getting everything he wants. Miller often shows him in meetings with military personnel and surrounded by military hardware (du Pont’s family company is a leader in arms manufacturing). Yet, he grew up friendless and his mother seems to have had a negative impact on his upbringing, creating a man who is very envious of what others have. Maybe deep down, he just wants to be liked, but only on his terms. Growing up in controlled isolation, feeling both powerful and alone, he wants to be respected and have friends, but is jealous of others who garner similar feelings in others.

Meanwhile, Mark Schultz, though an Olympic Gold Medalist, lives in his brother’s shadow. His brother, Dave, is a student of wrestling – competing not only as a world class wrestler but also as an expert coach. Mark has what it takes to be the best, but seemingly only if his brother teaches him and prepares him. In du Pont’s offer to train at Foxcatcher, Mark sees an opportunity to make a name for himself on his own – something he craves; however, without his brother’s positive influence, Mark falls on bad habits and is overconfident. He does not seem to be able to make it on his own, which only feeds into his own negative tendencies.

John du Pont and Mark Schultz form almost a father-son relationship as Mark trains for the World Championships in 1987. At first, everything seems to be going well and they become friends. Yet, Mark finds himself distracted by John’s needs – he wants to be regarded as a good wrestler as well, he introduces Mark to drugs and he is not a real coach even though he likes to think of himself as one and be treated as one. John seems to want all the benefit with none of the work – both in terms of being Mark’s father figure and turning Mark into the best wrestler in the world. The problem is, however, that Mark needs a real mentor and coach, like his brother, to get him ready. Left to his own devises, he is self-destructive. Thus, extreme frustration builds in both men – neither getting exactly what they want out of their relationship in the long-term. John also seems to be emotionally manipulating Mark, making him feel bad much in the same way John’s mother emotionally bullies him.

When Dave joins them at Foxcatcher, it proves to be a recipe for disaster. By this time, Mark is already emotionally finished with John, after failing at the 1988 Olympics and being treated poorly by John. Meanwhile, John, plagued by unfounded feelings of jealously and paranoia, sees Dave as replacing him as the head of Foxcatcher wrestling – as coach – and poisoning his good relationship with Mark.

Miller does not really make big narrative choices with the film in terms of telling a story. The wrestling matches are not really that important (though, they are designed and executed very well and are quite compelling). Instead, he wants the audience to focus solely on the characters – on the anger and madness that seems to grip them. I almost think that the most interesting character is Dave. He seems the most normal and is clearly aware that things are not right with John du Pont and yet he stays and placates him. Is he corrupted by the money that John is offering both him and USA Wrestling? Is he making a personal sacrifice for the greater good of his sport? He also sees the pain and anger in his own brother, who definitely has a hard time in life (for whatever reason). He is very supportive of his brother and does everything for him. Ultimately, he finds himself between these two broken people, and his goodness is eventually enveloped by the darkness that he attempts to take on.

The film is tonally incredibly bleak and intense, and paced quite slow. Miller could have easily staged the narrative as a thriller (as du Pont descends into madness) or given the film more narrative touchstones (or clichés) that the audience recognize in its structure. I call the film a pure character study because Miller simply presents his characters, all narrative elements exist only as background devices to place them in time and space, allowing them to naturally gestate for the audience as complex emotional beings. As a result, the film is very gripping in moments and fairly slow in others. The film is not so much entertainment as it is a deep look into human emotion (focusing more on its darker spectrum: pain, anger, fear, paranoia and so on).

Foxcatcher is brilliant in terms of it character work, exposing its characters’ souls; but it is not an entertaining film and certainly will not work for anyone expecting something light or story-driven. Yet, for those wanting to look deep inside these characters, to explore both the darkness and light of man, it is absorbing.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Bennett Miller is an excellent director, especially when it comes to digging deeper into his characters. His three features, Capote, Moneyball and now Foxcatcher, all have interesting stories that surround the characters, but Miller focuses on his characters, presenting the narrative elements as purely background – elements that merely place his characters in a moment in time but do not define them. Miller is much more interested in their emotional makeup and what elements in their past have contributed to their emotional makeup in the present. He also elicits wonderful performances from his actors – something that would seem essential for a director that is so focused on character. While I think (objectively) Capote is his best film to date, my personal favorite is Moneyball. I very much look forward to what he does next.

Composer Rob Simonsen’s score is understated, almost nonexistent in many instances; yet, it helps establish the tone of the film very well, as it plays on the darker themes. Cinematographer Greig Fraser’s photography as well seems to cast a very dark, bleak hue over the film, as his palate is almost void of color. Really, the film is rather depressing from a visual stand point (although, Fraser’s work is also very good – there is a beauty to his shots of the farm). Jess Gonchor’s production design grounds the film in a very naturalistic, realistic space. The film feels authentic, both in performance and visual aesthetic.

The performances in Foxcatcher are all excellent. Vanessa Redgrave does not have much screen time as John du Pont’s mother Jean, but her presence lingers over him. She is firm and overbearing in her scenes with him, casting down disapproval, which seems to haunt him. Mark Ruffalo is brilliant in the film. His performance as David Schultz feels extraordinarily natural, as if he were born and lived his life as the character. It is quite remarkable. Steve Carell is incredible as well. His performance is so different than anything he has done before. His portrayal of John du Pont is chilling, as he creates an emotional bully (taking out the emotional burden that his mother puts on him on others). The performance, however, does not feel as natural, as Carell is clearly in a lot of make-up that makes du Pont feel somewhat cartoonish at times. Channing Tatum is also great as Mark Schultz. He is able to emote so much pain and anger, as he seems to not be able to cope with his inner demons.

Summary & score: Foxcatcher features many of 2014’s best performances, as the film explores the dark emotional recesses of its dynamic characters. It is a skillfully crafted pure character drama, in the truest sense. 8/10

Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie of the Week – Kingdom of Heaven

This week’s movie: Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Director’s Cut

After being sought out by his estranged father (back from the Crusades) in France, Balian decides to follow his father back to Jerusalem to start a new life (during the 12th century). When he gets there, he finds the region embroiled in a deadly struggle as Christian and Muslim hostilities put their truce in jeopardy. The only thing holding the peace together is the just King of Jerusalem; however, he is unwell and near death. Balian pledges himself to the defense of the King and the people of Jerusalem, placing him right in the middle of the struggle.

Kingdom of Heaven is maybe director Ridley Scott’s most epic film to date, as its scope and scale are comparable to that of Lawrence of Arabia (a film that seems to have been a big influence). Scott set out to make an epic in the style of old Hollywood classics (complete with a musical overture, intermission and musical entr’acte). Composer Harry Gregson-Williams delivers his career-best score (it is phenomenal). Cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Arthur Max also do great work.

Twentieth Century Fox was skeptical that releasing a film with a runtime over three hours would prove to be financially sound. Thus, they recut Scott’s film to be 144 minutes and released it to mild reviews and domestic box office (grossing just $211 million worldwide against its $130 million production budget, only $47 million domestically). Critics complained that the film felt incomplete and lacking texture. Fox’s cut left the film to play as a blockbuster when the film is really so much more (actually having something of substance to say about religious tolerance). Thankfully, Scott’s director’s cut was released later. The film is restored to its 190 minute runtime with much more depth and historical perspective. It is by no means a perfect film, but as an epic costume drama it plays quite well. It is well-worth checking out for fans of epic films in the classical style.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Movies Spotlight – December 2014 – Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott is a British film director and producer who has made many of our most iconic films since his breakthrough with 1979’s Alien. He is known for his stunning visuals and often his grand scale and scope.

This month he has a new epic – Exodus: Gods and Kings – telling the tale of Moses and Rhamses. They grew up as brothers (Moses, an adopted brother), but as they became men their paths deviated. Moses saw the tyranny by which Rhamses ruled and the cruelty he showed his slaves, many of which shared the same background as Moses. They were just less fortunate. Seeing only injustice, Moses decides to lead a slave rebellion against Rhamses with the endgame of finding the slaves a new home as freed men. Here is the trailer.

Early Career:

Scott attended the Royal College of Art, helping to establish its film department. He started making short films and working as a production designer during the early 1960s. He also began directing episodes of British television. In 1968, Scott and his brother Tony founded Ridley Scott Associates, a film and commercial production company. Scott directed numerous commercials during the 1970s.

In 1977 with The Duellists, Scott made his feature film directing debut. The film won Best First Film at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. The film is about two officers, D’Hubert and Feraud, who have a life-long grudge with one and other, engaging in multiple duels seeking justice for their perceived grievances.

Science Fiction:

The Duelists made Scott a star director overnight, allowing him to pursue projects in Hollywood. His initial plan was to next adapt Tristan and Iseult, but then he saw Star Wars. This changed everything. He became enthralled by large scale, effects-driven films and science fiction. Scott accepted the job to direct Alien. The film was a smash hit critically and commercially, as Scott expertly created a cinematic experience that is both a terrifying horror movie and a cool and visually impressive sci-fi adventure featuring a strong female lead (Ripley played by Sigourney Weaver). Directors are still trying to replicate it to this day (including Scott himself).

Next, Scott made what is probably an even better sci-fi film with 1982’s Blade Runner. Here, Scott works with Star Wars’ star Harrison Ford, in a film that blends sci-fi elements with a hard-boiled detective narrative. It is a masterpiece of design, style and directing. And, like Alien, Blade Runner again redefined the sci-fi genre.

From there, Scott made the adventure fantasy Legend, starring Tom Cruise, the poorly received crime drama Someone to Watch Over Me, and the action thriller Black Rain with Michael Douglas.

Scott once again found his touch with 1991’s Thelma & Louise, telling the tale of two women who murder a rapist and then go on the run. Again, Scott made a film that is iconic to this day (especially the film’s ending) – also, look out for a young Brad Pitt. Scott earned his first Best Director Oscar nomination for his work on the film.

Scott finished off the 1990s with three less than stellar outings. First, the Christopher Columbus biopic 1942: Conquest of Paradise (a film that paints Columbus as more of a villain, contrary to the popular view at the time), then the doomed sailing adventure drama White Squall, and finally G.I. Jane, an action drama starring Demi Moore about a woman who is offered the chance to be the first female trainee in the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL/C.R.T. selection program (it is probably Scott’s worst film to date).


In 2000, Scott directed his greatest critical triumph, Gladiator. The film also marks the director’s first collaboration with Russell Crowe, whom he has worked with four more times since. The film about a Roman general who is betrayed and sold into slavery only to return to Rome years later to seek revenge as a gladiator won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Crowe). Scott received his second Best Director nomination.

Scott next made the forgettable The Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal (side note, watch Bryan Fuller’s TV series Hannibal; it is brilliant); however, he followed it up with his best film of the decade: Black Hawk Down. This war drama recounting the true events of a failed mission by U.S. armed forces in Somalia garnered Scott his third Best Director nomination. It is gripping and one of the best war films ever made.

Scott then directed the fun crime drama Matchstick Men about a phobic con artist and his protégé who are about to make a big score when his teenage daughter suddenly crashes the party. It features a great performance from Sam Rockwell.

Scott next returned to epic historical dramas with Kingdom of Heaven. The film has a massive scope and scale as well as a wonderful cast. Scott’s director’s cut of the film was deemed too long to be released in theaters by Twentieth Century Fox. Thus, they release a shorter, lesser cut. The film played to mild reviews and box office. Thankfully, Scott’s cut was eventually released. It is well worth seeking out.

Scott then set up three films with Russell Crowe to close out the decade. The first is the mediocre romance drama A Good Year about a career obsessed man who has a life revelation while in Provence. Next, the very good biographical gangster film American Gangster about Frank Lucas and the cop who took him down (Denzel Washington is quite good as Lucas). And lastly, the action thriller Body of Lies, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio. What makes the film unique and interesting (in addition to it being a strong thriller) is that it takes the position that maybe U.S. intelligence tactics are flawed.

Trying Something New & Revisiting the Past:

Okay, Scott made one more film with Russell Crowe, throwing his hat into the Robin Hood adaptation bin. The film finds Robin in the thirteenth century as a man who conspires to combat local corruption in his village – an uprising that leads to a power struggle with the crown itself. It was not well-received, but personally I think it is a decent enough action adventure drama.

Scott then decided to return to his past, making a prequel to maybe his most famous film, Alien, in the form of Prometheus. It is a highly flawed film, as the story and character motivations are pretty well ridiculous; but visually, it is marvelous. Scott again does make something that is stylistically impressive and fairly scary and thrilling as well. It is just too bad that the film makes almost no sense.

Author Cormac McCarthy writes very dense novels. The most popular adaptation of one of his works his the Coen BrothersNo Country for Old Men. McCarthy met with Scott, however, to try something different, making his first foray into screenwriting. Their collaboration gave birth to The Counselor, probably 2013’s most misunderstood film. It is brilliant, as it tackles the nature of good and evil within man, playing out mostly through a series of conversations. Critics and viewers expected something different, something more action-packed. It is a gem that will eventually find its audience.

Upcoming Projects:

Scott has a number of science fiction projects upcoming. The first, due in 2015, is The Martian. It is about an astronaut who is stranded on Mars, struggling to survive until help can reach him (or her). Scott has assembled quite a cast with Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

In 2016 and beyond, Scott has a sequel to Prometheus, a sequel to Blade Runner and a sci-fi thriller series set up at Fox called The Hot Zone.

Scott Free, Producing Films and TV:

Through his production company Scott Free Productions, Scott has also produced a number of highly successful films and television programs. Here are the highlights: In Her Shoes, Tristan + Isolde, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Cracks, The A-Team, The Grey, Stoker, Out of the Furnace, The Gathering Storm, The Company, The Good Wife, and The Pillars of the Earth.

Upcoming, Scott is producing the eagerly anticipated NFL Concussion drama (currently untitled) from Peter Landesman, starring Will Smith.

Career Highlights:

1)      The Duellists (1977) – director (Blu-ray, Video On-DemandTrailer)
2)      Alien (1979)* – director (Blu-ray, VideoOn-Demand, Trailer)
3)      Blade Runner (1982)* – director (Blu-ray, VideoOn-Demand, Trailer)
4)      Thelma & Louise (1991) – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
5)      Gladiator (2000) – director, producer (Blu-ray, VideoOn-Demand, Trailer)
6)      Black Hawk Down (2001)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
7)      Matchstick Men (2003) – director, producer (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
8)      Kingdom of Heaven (2005)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
9)      American Gangster (2007) – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
10)   Body of Lies (2008) – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
11)   Prometheus (2012) – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
12)   The Counselor (2013)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks