Reel Opinions

Friday, October 31, 2014


Some of my favorite movies are the ones that make you look at something you see everyday in a different way, and Nightcrawler is one such film.  I guarantee that if you see this, you won't watch the local news the same way again.  This movie reveals the world behind the smiling news anchors, and shows us a realistic depiction of just how they get that footage of accidents, local robberies, muggings and murders.

Just like me, you've probably never given much thought as to how they get that footage, and that's what makes the screenplay by writer-director Dan Gilroy so effective.  He takes something we see everyday on the news, and rips open the lid, showing us how that footage gets on the air.  Our entry into this world is Louis Bloom, who ranks as one of the truly great antiheroes of cinema.  Louis is creepy, disturbed, and hides his contempt for humanity with a false sense of kindness and good manners.  As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Louis Bloom is one of the fascinatingly off-putting characters ever to appear on film.  Gyllenhaal supposedly lost a massive amount of weight for the role, and his skeletal, wide-eyed appearance makes the character all the more unnerving.  He doesn't just give a great performance here, but his physical appearance and mannerisms that he adapts adds to the character.

Louis starts the film off as a petty thief, swiping scrap metal and expensive bikes that he can trade in for cash.  While driving home one night, he comes upon a car accident scene, and is intrigued by a man who appears to be filming the accident with a video camera.  The man is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a professional "nightcrawler" who films these kind of accident and crime scenes, and sells them to the local news.  This intrigues Louis enough that he buys a cheap camera and a police scanner, and starts trying to get his own footage that he can sell.  After a few failed attempts, he finally is able to get some footage of a crime scene that is able to impress Nina Romina (Rene Russo, wife of writer-director Gilroy), the hard-nosed news director of a struggling morning news program.  The two strike up a close professional relationship, and as time passes, Louis not only becomes better at his job, but also starts to put aside his moral compass in order to get the best shot possible, even going so far as to, when he arrives at a car accident scene before the police, he moves the dead body of the driver so he can get a better shot of it.

This is not a moralizing film.  It never once questions the actions of its lead characters, even if some of the people around him grow increasingly uncomfortable as Louis is pulled further into his obsession of getting the perfect shot.  The chief person to speak against Louis' actions is, oddly enough, his partner.  That would be Rick (Riz Ahmed), a young man with no money or permanent address when the film starts.  He initially takes the job of guiding Louis to these crime scenes because he desperately needs the money.  But, he quickly realizes that his boss often values the job over his own safety.  Eventually, the police are involved, and Rick finds himself questioning what he's even doing.  The relationship between Louis and Rick is a complicated one.  Louis obviously has no real respect for his assistant, yet is able to manipulate him into helping him out further with promises of a raise.  He knows how to keep the people who work for him under his thumb with empty promises and false kindness.

Nightcrawler is a fascinating film, because it never once shies away from what Louis Bloom is really doing.  It forces us to watch his moralistic descent, and what's perhaps most shocking to the audience is that it is fascinating to watch.  Of course, the movie knows this.  It's built around the premise that we as a society are drawn to these kind of news stories.  We slow down when we see an accident, and we watch continuous 24 hour news coverage of the latest murder trial or police manhunt.  All this movie does is take us into the world that makes those kind of stories so compelling to most viewers, and how those kind of stories come to be.  The "nightcrawlers" who get the footage are not far removed from the paparazzi photographers who hound celebrities, only they follow police sirens.  There is a disconnect between the photographer and the subject.  This is to be expected, obviously, but it becomes downright chilling when Louis starts to set everything aside in order to get the perfect video set up or shot.

The movie is being advertised as a thriller, but it really is a character study as we follow Louis Bloom, and how he becomes obsessed with getting the perfect footage.  One of the many reasons I go to the movies is to see fascinating people, and he is one of the more fascinating I've come across in a film in a while.  His story truly is the American Dream, only much darker.  He starts with nothing, but becomes a self-made man, and works his way to the top of his field.  My only gripe is that I wish there was some more behind the scenes material about the news studio that he sells his videos to.  In one of the better scenes in the film, we see how Nina the news director edits and manipulates Louis' images, and then feeds words into an earpiece of the anchorman covering the story, making sure he sells the material with the right amount of fear and paranoia.  While fear mongering in the media is a well known subject, it's handled brilliantly here, and I would have liked to have seen more of it.

If anything, Nightcrawler makes us think twice about the images and information that the media is sending to us every day, and it really makes you stop and think about where some of the images come from.  This is an electric and truly alive film, one of the better ones of the year.  It might be unsettling for some viewers, but I also have a hunch that they will also be more excited by this film than they have been in a long time. 

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

St. Vincent

It's always a joy to see Bill Murray in a starring role, something he does seldom these days.  Seeing him in St. Vincent really shows what a talent he is.  He takes what could have been a cliched and one-note character, and makes him far more interesting with his performance and mannerisms.  He's supported by a wonderful cast, and a script that often feels a bit familiar, but never offends.  This is the very definition of a crowd-pleasing film.

Murray plays Vincent, a hard drinking man who lives alone, except for his cat Felix, and the pregnant hooker (Naomi Watts) that he likes to hang out with sometimes.  Vincent is more or less flat broke and is overdrawn at the bank, but still gambles at the local horse racing track as if he has nothing to lose, even though he frequently does lose.  The only friends he has in his life are the people at the local bar who tolerate him and the previously mentioned prostitute, who still sleeps with him, even though he is behind with his payments to her.  He lives in a ramshackle house that looks like it hasn't been cleaned in over 30 years, and is surrounded by a massive patch of dirt where a lawn should or probably used to be at one point.

A new family moves into the house next door - a soon-to-be divorced single mother named Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher).  Vincent wants nothing to do with them, and is happy to continue living his miserable existence.  Then, Oliver shows up at his door.  Some bullies at his new school have stolen his clothes (he had to walk home in his gym outfit), money and house key, so he can't get inside his house until his mom comes home from work.  Vincent begrudgingly invites the boy inside, and looks after him for the afternoon.  When Maggie comes home, she makes an arrangement with Vincent that she will pay him to look after her son every day after school, since her new job at the hospital will often keep her working late.  Vincent accepts, and before long, the bitter old man and the young boy are bonding as he touches the kid how to deal with the bullies, and also how to bet at the race track.  Oliver also discovers that there is more to Vincent than it first appears, and that the old man's heart may not be as cold as it initially appears.

Writer-director Theodore Melfi finds the right tone with St. Vincent, as it's sentimental without being gooey.  And even though this is a story that has been told many times, and the script doesn't really add any new ideas to the concept, it doesn't really have to, because the script knows how to make these characters into people we can care about, instead of just caricatures.  Murray and young Lieberher have a very easy and natural chemistry.  They don't overplay their mismatched relationship, nor are they required to get on each others nerves.  We can understand why this boy would cause Vincent's personality to soften a little over time.  Likewise, Oliver has been written as a very smart kid, but not so much that he feels like an adult in a child's body.  There is an honesty to the way these characters have been written, and the performances are equal to that honesty.

Even Melissa McCarthy tones down her usual manic and foul-mouthed comic persona here, and delivers a genuine and sympathetic performance.  She plays a woman overwhelmed by her new position in life as a single working mother who is in danger of losing custody of her son.  While she does get some laughs, it is the way she handles the more dramatic moments of her character that impressed me.  She does not overact, and while there is a scene where she breaks down under all the pressure she's been under, she does not play it up.  Again, it feels honest.  It is this honesty to the characters that I think elevates the movie, and makes it better than it was even written.  The actors sell this material perfectly, and don't overplay it.  Even if we know everything that's going to happen to these people, they're still interesting people, so we want to see what happens to them.

St. Vincent is charming, and often funny, and while it might feel familiar, it has been made with the greatest care.  We walk in with good spirits, happy to see Bill Murray on the screen again, and the movie itself is smart enough not to betray those good spirits by giving us a genuinely sweet little film.  This is a great example of not every movie needs to be an original masterpiece.  It just has to be done well, and make us fall in love with the characters.  Theodore Melfi has succeeded on both counts.

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There used to be a time when movies like Ouija knew they were bad, and would have fun kidding themselves.  Not anymore.  This is a glum, deadly serious and deadly dull horror movie that won't elicit an audience response, except from the most easily excitable or startled teenagers.  It takes forever to get to the point, and when it finally does, it's not worth the wait.

The movie is about a bunch of teenagers who are given quick introductions, mess around with a Ouija board, start being haunted by an evil spirit that they accidentally summoned, and then get killed off until only the lead heroines are left.  The obvious question to this premise is, so what?  Go a step further and make the teenagers interesting, or maybe give them a sense of humor.  These kind of movies have been around for years, and unless you find a way to set yourself apart, you join the masses.  The young actors at the center of the film deserve better than what they've been given, and will hopefully go on to better things.  After all, Johnny Depp got his big break in a teenage horror movie, specifically the original A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Of course, that was a movie with real ideas and tension - two things that are not found here.

As the film opens, we meet best friends Laine (Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig).  Poor Debbie's been acting kind of distant lately, which worries Laine, but Debbie assures her friend that she's fine and makes plans for them to meet the next day.  Then Debbie unexpectedly and supposedly kills herself.  But, something doesn't quite match up.  The adults exit the movie early on with vague explanations (business trips, vacations, etc.), allowing Laine and her friends full access to Debbie's empty house, so they can poke around and look for clues.  They uncover a Ouija board, and eventually discover that Debbie was messing around with it during the days leading up to her death.  Laine thinks there might be a connection, so obviously the smart thing to do is to start messing around with it herself.

She gathers up her friends, which include her boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), her sister Sarah (Ana Coto), Debbie's old boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) and good friend Isabelle (Bianca Santos).  They gather around the Ouija board and try to get in touch with Debbie's spirit.  At first, they think they've contacted her spirit when the lights start flickering, and the board spells out the message "hi, friends".  But then, everyone involved starts being followed and tormented by a malevolent ghost.  It starts out by leaving messages on the walls, car windows and desks for Laine and her friends, but it quickly moves up to more troubling paranormal activity when it starts killing them in ways that look like accidents or suicides.  Now Laine has to discover the truth about just who or what is haunting her friends and her, which involves some dusty attics and a hidden room in the basement of Debbie's house.

I found myself watching Ouija with weary resignation.  The pacing is completely off, as it takes far too long setting up the situation and introducing the characters.  The fact that it wastes so much time with its set up is surprising, as there's nothing here that requires a lengthy explanation.  Once the hauntings do kick in, they don't amount to much more than a gas stove turning on by itself, doors opening, and a chair being pushed away from a table.  The only moment that does get a reaction is a scene involving dental floss that I'm sure dentists everywhere will love.  Outside of that, nothing registers as being remotely interesting,  How can it, when it's all loud jolts and jump scares, and no real frights?  It's just another movie about dim-bulb teenagers going into dark places they really shouldn't.

Ouija might make a quick buck or two this weekend, then be forgotten once Halloween has passed.  If that's all the filmmakers were looking for, they've succeeded.  But wouldn't it have been smarter to try to make a truly scary movie that people would want to remember and possibly revisit?  Couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wick

For an action thriller, John Wick has an ingeniously simple premise.  It's titular character isn't fighting for the right or to save the world, he just wants revenge.  That's nothing new in an action movie, but that's not what impressed me.  In a movie like this, you'd expect him to seek revenge for the death of a woman he loved or a child.  What sends John Wick on a 90 minute raid of bullets and murder is something much simpler - He's pissed off because some lowly thugs stole his car and murdered his dog.

It's okay to laugh.  I did the first time I heard the premise.  And yet, the more I think about it, what else is a highly trained assassin like John Wick going to value more in his life than his prized car and faithful companion?  I've heard of men killing for lesser reasons.  The car is easy to understand.  Without it, he becomes the first action hero who's ever had to rely on public transportation to get to shootouts until he can get a new set of wheels.  That has to be embarrassing.  As for the dog, we learn early on that it was a gift from the woman he loved.  Until he met this girl, John Wick was a hired assassin, and a highly skilled one at that.  The kind who is still feared in the criminal underworld even though he's been retired for years.  John retired because of that woman he loved, who grew ill and eventually succumbed to the disease.  As he found himself slowly sinking into depression after her passing, the dog arrived on his doorstep - a final gift that his love arranged before she died.  The little dog represents the last light of hope in the man's wife, and when it is murdered by some thugs who want to steal his car, he loses that hope.

Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, and it's a strong performance of slow-burn anger and rage.  When the three thugs break into his house to steal his car, he doesn't seem to know how to react.  It's not confusion, it's more of a rage blinding every sense within him.  When the leader of the thugs, the spoiled and stupid adult son of a Russian mafia crime boss, kills his dog as well as steal the car, it sends him spiraling into an uncontrollable fury.  When the crime boss finds out that his son has pissed off one of the best assassins in the world, he tries to work out a deal with John, but quickly realizes that the man is too filled with rage to listen.  So, he sends a bunch of his own men to John's house to kill him, leading to the first of many impressive staged action sequences.  The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, and staged in such a way that we get to savor the details with no rapid fire editing covering up the details.  Not only does this scene demonstrate the expertise of the fight scenes, but it also displays a wicked sense of black humor when the fight is over, and a police officer stops by to investigate because of a noise complaint.

It's not surprising that the fight scenes in John Wick are spectacular when you learn that the film's directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, are veteran stuntmen making their filmmaking debut.  In fact, Mr. Stahelski was Keanu Reeves' stunt double in The Matrix films.  For their first time behind the camera, they show a great skill in keeping a relentless sense of momentum.  The opening 15 minutes or so are devoted to setting up John's quest for revenge, and the remainder of the film is an almost non-stop chase to track down the criminals responsible.  There are a lot of impressive shoot outs and fights, quite a few one-liners, and an overall sense that this is the best example of a "shoot first, think later" 80s-style action thriller in quite some time.  It's certainly leagues better than anything Sylvester Stallone has been able to dream up with his star-studded Expendables series. 

The key here is simplicity.  The premise could be written out on the face of a napkin, but it works because of the constant momentum that the film is able to keep up.  The movie also doesn't draw attention to itself, or making winking nods to old action movies.  It simply offers one excellently staged action sequence after another, with a streak of humor that is genuinely funny.  The movie also has some strong cameos by recognizable actors as John is reunited with some of his former associates and enemies as he gets back into the "killing business".  These include Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Adrianne Palicki.  Fortunately, these cameos never get in the way of the action, or distract from our enjoyment.  This is a very focused movie that knows how to use its actors.

For anyone looking for a simple revenge-driven action film, John Wick just may be the best example of the genre to come along in a while.  It's fast, it's thrilling, and it gives the viewer a giddy high that only a well-executed action movie can.  I don't think there's enough here for a sequel or a series of films, but as a stand-alone thriller, it's pretty much everything that last month's The Equalizer tried and failed to be.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Best of Me

There are a few crucial necessities that a Nicolas Sparks story needs.  It helps if you have two lovers who come from different walks of life.  That way, they can be hopelessly in love, yet surrounded by people who refuse to let them be happy, simply because he/she "is not one of us".  You also need a lot of music montages built around the young lovers frolicking in water or sun-drenched fields of flowers.  Don't forget to add some tragedy to the mix.  A car accident, a sudden case of cancer, or a wise old father figure passing on usually works.

The Best of Me, the latest Sparks novel to come to the screen, is a greatest hits album of the author's stories, as it contains all of these elements.  I couldn't help but notice, however, that something seemed a little off.  There is something very workmanlike here.  All the pieces are in place, but they feel like they're being checked off a list by the filmmakers rather than adding to the story.  The movie does what we expect, but that's as far as it goes.  It never digs deeper than the surface for its emotions.  I was ready to get caught up in the sentimentality of the film, only to find that it just didn't really want to make much of an effort.  You know a love story is in trouble when you don't care about the two central characters.  You know it's doomed when you start asking what they even see in each other. 

The love story of Dawson and Amanda is told in two different time periods, with the film cutting back and forth between both storylines, sometimes seemingly at random.  The two meet as teenagers back in 1992, where they are played by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, respectively.  In the present, as adults, they are played by James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan.  The two are reunited as adults when an old man who used to take care of Dawson named Tuck (Gerald McRaney) suddenly passes away, and brings them together.  The two obviously have a long history and a lot of deep pain between each other, evidenced by how uncomfortable and awkward Marsden and Monaghan appear in a lot of their early scenes together.  Or, maybe that's just them realizing too late what kind of script they've gotten into.  Through a series of drawn out flashbacks, we learn their story.

The two met as teens when Amanda started trying to come up with ways to flirt with the young Dawson.  They're both attracted to each other, but wouldn't you know it, they come from different worlds.  She's rich and popular, and he lives in a shack with a bunch of violent rednecks who look like rejects from a Texas Chainsaw Massacre family reunion.  Dawson leaves his abusive yokel father behind, and moves in with old man Tuck.  Now the two young lovers can be happy with each other with no worries or cares.  Here's where I started to notice something was a little wrong.  We never really learn anything about the relationships of these characters.  We don't get to see Dawson and Tuck bond, and we never get a true sense of the relationship between Dawson and Amanda, other than they're physically attracted to each other.  Sure, they fulfill all the requirements we expect.  The young lovers have wistful and romantic talks atop a water tower at sunset, and Dawson walks around with his shirt off as much as possible.  But it takes so much more than these basic elements to create a winning on-screen relationship.

Even the element of danger to their relationship seems undeveloped.  Dawson's redneck clan show up now and then, cackling evilly as if they know they are one dimensional villains in a romantic melodrama.  They show up periodically to cause trouble, but never come across as a developed threat.  Likewise, there's the required scene where Amanda's father takes young Dawson aside, and tries to bribe him with paying off his college expenses if he will break up with his daughter.  This scene literally comes out of the blue, as we have never met her parents before now, nor have we gotten a hint that there was any trouble with them dating.  It becomes all the more unnecessary when we realize that the scene has absolutely no point, as the father is never seen again, nor is the issue of her parents being against the relationship ever brought up again.  The scene exists simply because the movie knows the audience is waiting for it.  Sure, it gives us what we're waiting for, but it feels hollow and unwanted.

Through reasons that I will not reveal, young Dawson ended up serving an eight year prison sentence, and Amanda was forced to move on with her life.  In the present day, when the two are reunited, Amanda is unhappily married to a jerk, has a son on his way to college, and a daughter who died of cancer when she was very young.  Dawson has been working on an oil rig, survived an accident and...Well, that's really all we learn about what he's been up to, other than the fact that he's been pining away for Amanda all these years.  As the two spend time together, we expect the flames of passion to be rekindled, but again, there seems to be little to no reason for this to happen.  It simply happens, we get some montages of the lovers frolicking, and then Amanda is forced to choose between the rugged and handsome love of her life, or the cold and cynical jerk who ignores her that she's married to.  I don't want to spoil too much, but the final moments are built around one contrived crisis after another to the point that I just wanted the movie to be done with.

I think the problem is that there is no heart behind The Best of Me.  It's all manipulation, and no emotion.  At its very core, a romantic melodrama succeeds and fails on the couple at the middle of it, and whether or not we want to see them get together.  This movie couldn't seem to care less.  It slaps two different pairs of attractive actors together to play the main characters at different points in their life, but it doesn't give them anything to do or a chance to build a touching on-screen relationship.  It feels like the actors could have chemistry if the script had simply been written in such a way that it gave them something to work with.  The movie includes all the right elements and romantic images, but it feels mechanical and thrown together, because there is just nothing at all behind it.

Walking in, I thought it was strange that the studio was releasing this film in the weeks leading up to Halloween instead of Valentine's Day.  But, as I was watching the movie, I noticed something strange.  The adult Dawson and Amanda kept on saying they hadn't seen each other in 21 years.  Do the math.  The flashbacks are set in 1992, which would mean the present day scenes are set in 2013.  My guess is that this is a telltale sign that the film has been sitting on the shelf for a while, and the studio just decided to dump it out.  So, not only did the filmmakers not care about making an emotional love story, but the studio didn't even care about the proper time to release it.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Book of Life

For his first animated feature, co-writer and director Jorge Gutierrez seems to have pulled out all the stops with The Book of Life.  He grabs our attention in a lot of ways.  First of all, this is essentially a family film centered around death and the afterlife.  He builds his story around the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead"), where people honor the spirits of family and loved ones who have passed on.  Not only does the film work as a fascinating lesson on Mexican spiritual culture for both kids and adults, but it's vibrant and frantic, without being overwhelming.

The film's opening moments are devoted more or less to explaining the afterlife, and how it is connected to the Day of the Dead holiday.  We learn that there are actually two different realms that make up the afterlife.  One is known as the Land of the Remembered, where the deceased go when they die.  This realm is depicted as a kingdom of eternal joy, where our loved ones wait for us to arrive under the watchful eye of this world's spirit ruler, La Muerte (voice by Kate del Castillo).  We also learn that there is another side to the afterlife, and that is the Land of the Forgotten, a gray and desolate world where souls go when there is no one left on Earth to remember them.  This kingdom is ruled by a grinning beast covered in candles and skulls named Xibalba (Ron Perlman).  The lonely Xibalba (who is more than a little lovesick over the beautiful La Muerte) is tired of ruling over forgotten souls, and wishes to try his hand at ruling the Land of the Remembered.  Of course, she's not just going to hand over her kingdom to him, so a wager between the two spirits is made.  They will place a bet built around a love triangle that is starting to form in the "heart of Mexico".  Each spirit will get behind one of the two young men vying for the beautiful woman.  Whoever wins will have control of the Land of the Remembered.

The love triangle at the center of the wager takes place within the city of San Angel.  The young men in question are Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum).  The two have been best friends since childhood, and have always competed against one another for the attention and the heart of the lovely Mayor's daughter, Maria (Zoe Saldana).  Manolo comes from a proud family of bull fighters, and while he is a skilled matador himself, he refuses to kill the bull when the fight is finished, which is a source of constant frustration for his father.  Manolo actually longs to play music instead of fulfilling the family tradition, and always sings from his heart.  As for Joaquin, he is the son of a fallen war hero, and seems destined to follow in his father's footsteps and become the hero of San Angel.  The lovely Maria cares for both men, but she does not like the idea of being seen as a prize that they compete for, and wants to fall in love completely.

With La Muerte backing Manolo and Xibalba supporting Joaquin, both spirits try to manipulate things in their favor from behind the scenes.  And when it looks like that Manolo is getting close to winning Maria's heart, Xibalba decides to take control of things personally, and tricks Manolo intro crossing over into the Land of the Remembered.  With Manolo trapped in the afterlife, there will be nothing to stop Joaquin from wooing Maria, and Xibalba will get the prize.  In order to get back to the woman he loves, Manolo will have to take a journey across the various lands of the dead, teaming up with his departed family and ancestors who will help him in his quest to track down the gentle deity known as the Candlestick Maker (Ice Cube), who holds the Book of Life and may be the only way for Manolo to return to the land of the living.

The Book of Life is a very busy movie for one that only runs 95 minutes.  The movie's plot involves a love triangle, a journey across the afterlife, some evil bandits that are threatening the people of San Angel, and a mystical medal that can grant the wearer immortality.  It sounds like all this plot and exposition should crush a movie intended for kids and family, but this is an incredibly spry film.  It's fast-paced, with a lot of jokes and visual gags flying in from just about every frame of the film.  But more than that, the screenplay knows how to juggle all of these elements successfully, so that we never feel bombarded with information or plot.  The pacing is light and frantic, without being overbearing, and the story is definitely helped out by a very game voice cast.  Even actors that you wouldn't expect to find in a movie like this, like Channing Tatum or Ice Cube, don't seem out of place and seem to be greatly enjoying themselves.

But it's the film's visual design that stands out the most, as it's something we haven't seen before in a CG feature.  The human characters resemble wooden puppets, while the skeletons and creatures that inhabit the afterlife resemble ornate dolls.  This actually fits into the wraparound sequence that bookends the film, where a museum tour guide (Christina Applegate) teaches some unruly children about Mexico, and uses wooden puppets and dolls to act out the story she is telling.  And when we first experience the Land of the Remembered, the movie makes excellent use out of the 3D technology by making the Land resemble a massive theme park, with roller coaster roads, floating castles and skull-shaped hot air balloons drifting about in the sky.  This visual style seems constantly on the brink of becoming sensory overload, but director Gutierrez knows just when to go crazy with his visuals, and just when to hold back and let the story and characters speak for themselves.

This really is a winning combination of conventional storytelling and imaginative visuals.  It seems to constantly be walking a fine line between both, but it manages to find the right balance.  Even though this is Jorge Gutierrez's first feature, he is an experienced animator, best known for creating the Nickelodeon cartoon series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.  His background in TV animation explains the film's fast pace and quick humor, since TV animation is usually faster paced than theatrical, as they have less than a half hour to tell a story.  But Gutierrez also shows a talent for being able to create likable characters to go with the gags.  My hope is that this film will be successful enough for him to go to even better projects.  The fact that he has the backing of veteran filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (who produced the film) means that he's already taking steps in the right direction.

From the animation, to the tuneful pop songs that make up the soundtrack, The Book of Life is probably the most joyful animated production we've had since The Lego Movie.  It doesn't quite stand out as strong as that earlier movie did, thanks to some plotting issues, but it definitely showcases the talent of the filmmakers, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

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Friday, October 17, 2014


David Ayer's Fury is a remarkable technical achievement, putting us right in the middle of brilliantly staged World War II battle sequences.  Where the movie is less assured is with its screenplay.  The characters are simply too basic to care much about.  I am recommending the film solely on the experience and the rush of the battle scenes, which make up a large majority of the film.  I just wish the film had a little more on its mind when the bullets aren't flying.  

This is far from Ayer's best film (that remains End of Watch), but it is easily his best looking.  His sense of realism and creating the tension and chaos of battle is truly amazing.  I have a hunch that war historians and aficionados will get the most out of Fury,  They'll appreciate the attention to detail in the scenes depicting the planning of battle, as well as how the war scenes have been staged with an eye for accuracy.  The visuals, the performances and the details have been done with such care, you almost wish that the screenplay was up to the same level.  However, it is often repetitive and one-note, with thin characterizations and having little to say other than "war is hell".  If the movie didn't capture the horrors of war and the feeling of being trapped in a claustrophobic tank in the heat of battle, it probably wouldn't seem all that special.  Fortunately, it does, so it does feel special in a sense.

Brad Pitt is Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier, the commander of a small group of men who pilot and man a Sherman tank across Nazi Germany during the final days of the war.  The crew is small and ragtag, and the tank itself is severely under armored and underpowered compared to the vehicles that the enemy has.  Yet, they have survived this long on their skill and each other.  Pitt does a good job playing Sgt. Collier as a man who has been fighting the war so long, he's built up somewhat of a resistance to the horrors around him.  However, the performance never seems far removed from the one he gave in Inglorious Bastards.  As the film opens, one of his men has died in action, and is immediately replaced with Norman (Logan Lerman), a fresh-faced rookie who has no experience whatsoever with fighting or working with tanks, and was literally plucked by the military from his desk job as a typist.

Collier initially wants nothing to do with the young recruit suddenly thrust into his group, but over time, his attitude softens.  There is supposed to be a bonding relationship between the two men, and while it comes through in some way, it should have come across stronger in Ayer's screenplay.  The other men on Collier's team Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Pena), Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf) and Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal).  Again, the bond and sense of brotherhood that these men share is there, but really should have been emphasized.  We get a sense of comradeship, but they don't exactly stand out as individuals.  The film follows the five men as they carry out their mission, taking out the last remaining members of the Nazi party as their hold on Germany slowly but stubbornly begins to fall.  As the film reaches its final moments, Collier and his men will face a nearly impossible battle, and must decide if they will take a stand or not.

Fury is a visceral and brutal recreation of the horrors of the battlefield, as we see soldiers that are already dead being crushed into the mud as tanks roll over them, and staggering depictions of violence.  It's obvious that these battle scenes, and not the characters or their interactions, is where the film's main focus lies.  Does this lessen some of the dramatic impact that the film could have had?  Absolutely.  But the depiction of war here is so kinetic and terrifying that I found myself completely involved.  It actually seems when the movie steps away from battle and focuses on the men that things come dangerously close to slowing to a standstill.  There is an extended scene where Sgt. Collier and Norman spend some time in an apartment with two German women that doesn't work as well as it should, because the scene just seems to go on too long, and could have easily been trimmed while still getting the point across.  I understand why the scene is in the film, but due to the weak characterizations, it doesn't work as well as it should.

As long as you are expecting accurate depictions of battle, you will enjoy this.  David Ayer has a technically brilliant recreation of the horrors of war.  I just wish he had paid as much attention to the men fighting as he did to the details of war.  Fury may not be as emotionally compelling as I may have liked, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its own raw power.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

The Judge

Sometimes it's just fun to see two very talented actors go at each other.  In The Judge, we get to see Robert Downey, Jr and Robert Duvall not only share the screen, but test each other.  They play a father and son who share a lot of guilt and pain in each others lives, and are forced to confront those emotions when the father (a long-standing judge in a small town) finds himself under suspicion of murder.  The two actors not only play off of each other, but challenge each other to do the best in each scene they share together.

Fortunately, they are surrounded by a top-flight supporting cast.  And while the script may be a little predictable, it's still entertaining, and the cast makes it work.  This is an adult drama that really exists so we can see two pros at work.  It won't be nominated for any wards next winter, and that's just fine.  It's a crowd-pleasing drama that mixes the courtroom drama of the numerous John Grisham films of the mid 90s, and the sentimental drama of an estranged family coming together.  The combination works because neither half is too heavy handed, and the movie manages to keep a fairly light and sometimes humorous tone.  It's a melodrama for sure, but it knows how to tug at our emotions without making them feel violated or overly-manipulated.  The Judge is a fine film with strong performances.

Robert Downey, Jr plays Hank Palmer, a big city lawyer whose clients are mostly guilty people who hire him to make them look good in the courtroom.  When someone asks how he can deal with working with criminals on a regular basis, Hank tells him point blank "innocent people can't afford me".  Downey's performance here is not far removed from his portrayal of Tony Stark in the Iron Man films, especially during the early scenes.  He's slick, overly-confident, quick with a sarcastic barb, and talks so fast that it's a wonder anyone can keep up with him.  As the film opens, Hank is called out of his recent case when he gets a message that his mother has passed away.  This means returning to the small Indiana town that he once called home, and ran away from, vowing never to look back.

Returning to his hometown means reconnecting with his two brothers.  The elder brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) has stayed in town to look after the family, particularly the youngest brother (Jeremy Strong), who is mentally challenged.  And then there is Hank's father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), a judge who is seen by many as the pillar of the community.  There is a lot of bad blood between Hank and Joseph.  They are immediately icy with each other the moment they first lay eyes on each other.  A lot of it has to do with childhood demons Hank refuses to let go of, believing his father never really supported him.  Joseph believes that he supported Hank enough, and does not approve of anything his son has chosen to do with his life.  There are deeper problems, as well.  While sitting in the audience and watching his father preside over a trial, he notices that Joseph has a hard time remembering the name of his bailiff who has worked with him for years, and fears that his father might be drinking again after being sober for over 20 years.

Joseph is a hard and introverted man, and now that his wife has passed away, he seems to be withdrawing even more.  All Hank can think about is that he can't wait to leave this place once the funeral is done, and he never has to see his father again.  But then, more troubling news comes.  The police show up at the house, and charge Joseph with vehicular homicide.  It seems that at some point the night before, while Joseph was out driving to a convenience store, he apparently hit a man who once appeared before Joseph in a court case.  There has been bad blood between the two for years.  What's worse, Joseph claims to have no memory of hitting the man.  Hank wants to know the truth of what happened, and his father the judge is reluctant to share it.  Eventually, Hank feels the only way he will learn the truth is if he defends his father in court.

It won't surprise anyone that the more time Hank and Joseph spend together, both in and outside of the courtroom, that the two will discover that they are more alike than they ever possibly thought.  There will be a lot of family secrets, some revelations, and an old high school flame for Hank to reconnect with (Vera Farmiga).  While nothing all that shocking happens during the course of The Judge, it is the performances that keep us engaged.  Both Downey and Duvall are masters at commanding the screen, and when they are both together, neither one backs down.  That's the way it should be.  These are both dominant actors playing dominant characters who refuse to let the other one win.  They don't just argue over old family wounds, they seem offended by the very presence of each other.  Even when they start to soften up to each other by the end of the film, we can still sense a certain sort of one-upmanship.  These characters are constantly afraid to let their guard down.  

The supporting characters, such as the brothers, the old flame, and the prosecuting attorney who's spearheading the case against Hank's father (Billy Bob Thornton) are all excellent, even if they never get to command the screen quite like the two leads do.  The movie does a great job of establishing the different people in Hank's life, their relationship with him, and then creating a realistic arc for that relationship to follow.  None of the side characters feel unnecessary, as they all play some part in the lives of the two main characters.  Vera Farmiga, in particular, gets to share some really nice moments with Downey, and I actually would have liked to have seen a few more between them.  They have an easy chemistry together, and do a good job of conveying the mixed emotions that surround their relationship.

The Judge is a quiet, unassuming yet entertaining film that never seems to wear out its welcome, despite running nearly two and a half hours.  If anything, it's an opportunity to see Duvall, who at 83 years old can still be a commanding presence on the screen.  Watching Downey and him play off and attack each other is so entertaining, it's almost worth seeing the movie alone for.  Fortunately, the movie itself is pretty interesting.

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