Tag Archives: movie reviews

Reese Gone Wild

Wild

by Hope Madden

There may be no more personal, more individual an emotion or experience than grief. It is, by definition, a selfish act: just you and your loss. No one can determine for you the length, depth, duration or symptoms of your own pain. Cheryl Strayed is a case in point.

Wild tells the story of how Cheryl overcame the guilt, regret, shame and profound sense of loss that overcame her after her mother’s death. Cheryl’s is a unique tale, as she is a fascinatingly individual character, but the film mines for the universality in her pain and redemption.

Wild moves back and forth between Cheryl’s 1100 mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail and the memories that haunt her, past and present braiding together to form a clear picture of the woman emerging from her pain and the pretty jaw-droppingly dangerous behavior that pain wrought.

Though director Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club) film gets off to a slow start, Reese Witherspoon’s performance – aided by the sometimes terrifying, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny events of Strayed’s journey – compel rapt attention.

Witherspoon leaves her comfort zone, allowing Cheryl more vulnerability and ugliness than you might expect. Strayed is comfortable enough in her skin to examine and, eventually, accept all of her own failings, so presenting the character fully is a requirement for the film to work. Witherspoon understands this and gives easily the grittiest, most naturalistic performance of her career.

Witherspoon spends an awful lot of screen time alone, Strayed’s relationship with herself the larger conflict than her relationships with the inhospitable terrain, weather, circumstances and occasional creepy guy. Her pain and self loathing are impeccably drawn, never maudlin or false, and in Witherspoon’s scenes with the equally impressive Laura Dern she sews the seeds that bloom in her time alone onscreen.

The truth is that Strayed’s grief is not typical, and her behavior is certainly extreme, yet Vallee is content to create a somewhat safe structure for the adventure: the lengthy journey punctuated by nightmares and memories that give us a glimpse into the life Strayed was trying to shake off with her hike.

Still, the understated approach allows scenes to breathe, and Strayed’s true alone-ness seeps into certain frames in a way that is deeply unsettling and yet triumphant. And there are no two words better suited to Strayed’s experiences than unsettling and triumphant, so Vallee, Witherspoon and crew were certainly doing something right.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Freaky Twin Stuff for Your Queue

It can be said that we have a weak spot for twins. Nonetheless, a really excellent comedy/drama that happens to be about twins comes out today – The Skeleton Twins – and we recommend you take a look.

Estranged siblings Maggie and Milo (a great Kristin Wiig and a letter-perfect Bill Hader) reunite over tough circumstances and muddle sloppily through life as they’ve come to know it. Never tidy, often funny, surprisingly intimate and moving, the film looks a lot like life.

Pair it with an utterly brilliant film that looks nothing like life but represents the best Nicolas Cage ever had to offer – twice! Cage plays twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman in Spike Jonze’s twistedly brilliant look at writer’s block, Adaptation. It is a work of genius, co-starring Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, who won the Oscar for his work.

Countdown: Weird Trend of 2014

Weird theme for great 2014 movies: one word titles. The oddest trait we saw emerge in great films this war was the one-word title film. A full 15 of the best films of 2014 had single-word titles – who knows why? Whatever the reason, in no particular order, are the best of the one-word-title films (and some of the very, very best films of the year.

1. Wild: Reese Witherspoon will no doubt garner her second Oscar nomination and quite possibly her second Oscar starring as a woman who walks 1100 miles solo to get her head together.

2. Selma: Ave DuVernay’s powerful, painfully relevant biopic on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marches on Selma, Alabama delivers all the punch it needs with one word.

3. Unbroken: Angelina Jolie returns to a spot behind the camera for this true tale of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis Zamperini.

4. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will scoop up some Oscars this year.

5. Calvary: Woefully underseen, this wry, weary and brilliant look at the affects of Catholicism’s abuses boasts the great Brendan Gleeson’s best performance.

6. Whiplash: Holy shit! JK Simmons gets the role of a lifetime as an abusive music teacher who is either trying to push his students to greatness or is trying to get away with absolute sadism. This may be the most tense film of the year.

7. Nightcrawler: Another amazing film, this one positing a weirdly sometimes likeable sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal at his absolute best) in the context of local news – what better fit could there be?

8. Frank: Another underseen gem, this one has the great Michael Fassbender hiding inside a giant plastic head in an exploration of madness and music.

9. Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller returns with another masterpiece in understatement, a true crime tale of Olympic wrestlers and insane billionaires that could bring Oscar nominations to the unlikeliest of actors: Steve Carell and Channing Tatum.

10. Rosewater: Jon Stewart proved his mettle behind the camera with this touching, insightful and underseen true story of a journalist jailed during the Iranian elections of 2009.

11. Boyhood: The best film of 2014, Boyhood’s filming spanned 12 years and let us glimpse something no other film has ever captured.

12. Wetlands: Underneath the shock and body fluids is a deeply human story boasting a fearless and nuanced performance.

13. Snowpiercer: The best SciFi in a year of especially great SciFi, the film was sabotaged by its own studio and still wound up wowing audiences everywhere.

14. Interstellar: Not Christopher Nolan’s best, but when his intergalactic epic is working, it is a mind-bending ride.

15. Locke: A one man show that highlights the talents of perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, Tom Hardy. See it. Do it!

Oh, Can’t You See, You Belong to Me?

Comet

By Christie Robb

The extent to which you will enjoy Comet will probably depend on whether you are the type of person who thinks the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” is a good song to play at a wedding or not.

Romantic or stalkery?

Comet has a similar feel.

Neurotic Dell (Justin Long, who you might remember as the Mac guy from the commercials),relentlessly pursues Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) over a six year period during which he physically runs her down, declares his probable love for her on their first date, waylays her on a train, and shows up on her doorstep before her wedding.

Long and Rossum deliver stellar performances managing to effortlessly handle repartee of nearly Gilmore Girls proportions. Their chemistry is undeniable. However, it may be my inner cynic talking, but I found myself wanting to shake Kimberly by her slender little shoulders and point out all the red flags she seems unable to see.

Comet is a far more intellectual movie romance than is typical. It takes place in a parallel universe, which allows writer/director Sam Esmail to include some beautiful and trippy imagery. He also presents the story out of sequence, skipping around in the timeline of Dell and Kimberly’s relationship from a meeting during a meteor shower, to a snowy day in Paris, to a heart-to-heart on an LA rooftop at dusk (or is it sunrise?). Comet leaves the interpretation of what actually happens to the couple up to your careful scrutiny and interpretation.

Maybe not the movie to see on a first date, it nevertheless provides excellent fodder for discussion and perhaps a follow up movie marathon featuring 500 Days of Summer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Two of 2014’s Best For Your Queue

Let’s assume you saw Guardians of the Galaxy while it was in theaters. If you didn’t, you should probably not admit that out loud. So, seein’s as how you already saw the best, most fun intergalactic misadventure in years, you can look around for something you might have missed with this week’s Queue. We recommend two new releases: Frank and Calvary.

In Calvary, filmmaker John Michael McDonagh may have found his muse in the endlessly wonderful Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson plays Fr. Michael, a dry-witted but deeply decent priest who has a week to get his affairs in order while a parishoner plans to kill him. Sumptuously filmed and gorgeously written, boasting as much world-weary humor as genuine insight, it’s an amazing film and a performance that should not be missed.

And speaking of magnificent performances, please see Michael Fassbender’s tender, funny, beautiful turn in Frank. Inspired by an enigmatic musician who performed and lived wearing a giant, fake head, Frank is a wry yet intimate film that offers a thoroughly entertaining, wholly odd journey into relationships, fame, mental illness, and the mad magic of music.

Best First Features of 2014 Countdown

One of the most interesting themes you find when searching back over the best films of 2014 is the brilliance of films with one word titles (Birdman, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Boyhood, Rosewater – it’s a long list!). Another is the remarkable quality of feature directorial debuts. Many of the year’s most powerful, intriguing films came from first time filmmakers, though several of these are industry veterans. Here is a look at the most impressive feature directorial debuts of 2014.

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s been writing films – many of them mediocre at best – since 1992’s Freejack. It appears he saved his best script for his debut as a director. Nightcrawler is aided immeasurably by the best performance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, but Gilroy’s dark, creepy approach to unseemly but enormously relevant material proves his mettle behind the camera.

Rosewater

An industry veteran with a connection to the source material, Jon Stewart made his directorial debut this year with the tale of a journalist jailed in Iran partly because of an interview he did with The Daily Show. The story behind Rosewater is fascinating, and Stewart’s direction proves thoughtful, insightful and inventive.

The Babadook

Aussie Jennifer Kent’s spooky tale opens this week, offering perhaps the creepiest effort of the year. A cautionary tale about parenting, the movie introduces a filmmaker who grounds fantasy in an unnerving level of naturalism, who can draw deeply human performances, and who knows what scares you.

Dear White People

Justin Simien makes the leap from shorts to features with one of the smartest films of the year. Dear White People tackles racial issues with confidence and a mix of sarcasm, outrage, hilarity and disgust. Simien never abandons comedy for preaching, but there is not an issue he isn’t willing to spotlight, however uncomfortable. It’s an insightful, biting comedy too few people saw this year.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature is also the first Iranian vampire film, so extra points there. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.

Obvious Child

Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with Obvious Child. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.

Bad Words

We’re willing to give anything a shot if Jason Bateman is involved. Sure, it doesn’t always pay off, but his directorial debut Bad Words is as wry, dry and funny as you’d expect. No one has comic timing like Bateman, and it leads to a quickly paced, lean and hilariously mean effort.

Not So Happy Trails

The Homesman

by Hope Madden

In front of the camera, Tommy Lee Jones is a world-wearied, direct and laconic actor, but there’s a cowboy poetry about him. He’s no different behind the camera, as his second feature proves. The Homesman brims with the lonesome, brutal beauty of the frontier, but thanks to Jones’s capable storytelling, it offers more than that.

Jones plays George Briggs – if that is the real name of the claim jumping low life who finds himself at the end of a rope and the mercy of the upright Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). A prosperous but “uncommonly single” lady on the frontier, Ms. Cuddy has volunteered her services for a particular journey and will oblige Mr. Briggs to accompany her or remain in his predicament.

What unfolds is a wagon wheel Western of sorts, replete with stunning images of the prairie, beautifully framed by the director. Swank – who can be counted upon to create a vivid if one-dimensional character – can’t help but bring to mind the Mattie Ross role from True Grit. It appears Jones (and Swank) are intentional with this, as Hailee Steinfeld (of the Coen remake) has a late supporting role.

It suggests that Jones is retelling our sentimental Western favorites with a lonelier, harsher but hauntingly beautiful tone.

The journey meets expectations and then subverts them, filling the screen with surprises – some fun, some bitter, all a bit melancholy. And yet there’s a black but entertaining humor in many scenes. The swings in tone, on the whole, are capably handled by a director who mined somewhat similar styles in his underseen 2005 first feature as director, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Peppered with fascinating if jarringly brief cameos, Jones’s film keeps your attention as it journeys slowly East, making a statement about the hard realities of frontier life as well as the more universal ache to be loved.

The territories of the American West have filled our imaginations for more than two hundred years and it can be tough to find a new approach. Jones succeeds in using that same dusty path across the frontier we find so familiar, and even populating the trip with characters we almost remember, yet somehow he tells a truly new and memorable tale.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Queueful of Damn Dirty Apes

Generally speaking, we like to take the weekly Queue feature to draw your attention to a worthy film that may have flown under your radar while it was in theaters. But one of our favorite blockbusters of the year comes out this week with little real competition for attention, so may we instead recommend Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?

Equally successful as political allegory and popcorn muncher, the sequel takes the themes and emotional merit of its predecessor and turns them into something grander, more epic and even more amazing.

The obvious double bill is Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 Apes prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Heartbreaking because of green screen magician Andy Serkis’s magnificent performance as Caesar, the clever kick that restarted a franchise is not as smooth or as epic as its sequel, but there is an aching humanity in it that resonates.

File This One to Squee

Penguins of Madagascar

By Christie Robb

This movie may well provide the cure for seasonal affective disorder. What’s not to love? Adorable animated baby penguins? Check. John Malkovich playing a demented doctor octopus? Check. Nonstop action? Check. Ridiculous puns? Check. Werner Herzog and Benedict Cumberbatch? Check.

Penguins of Madagascar was an almost perfect hour and a half of zany fun.

(I say almost perfect only because Cumberbatch was drawn as a wolf and not, more appropriately, as an otter.)

The film follows the adventures of the four beloved penguins from the Madagascar franchise. Trapped inside a vending machine full of Cheezy Dibbles, they are kidnapped by Malkovich’s Dave the Octopus—a formerly adored aquatic attraction bumped from zoo to zoo in favor of the lovable antics of Antarctica’s flightless waddlers.

Rejection has taken its toll. Dave, now bent on revenge, has concocted a serum that will mutate the squee little penguins into monsters.

Joined by a secret interspecies task force, the North Wind (led by Cumberbatch’s Agent Classified); Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private take on Dave and his army of octopi henchmen and attempt to preserve cuteness as we know it.

If you are looking for a way to entertain the kiddos for 90 minutes this holiday weekend while avoiding a turkey-induced coma yourself, this is a fantastic option.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Rebel Rebel

The  Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

by Hope Madden

What makes the Hunger Games franchise so much stronger than the rest of the adolescent lit series out there? Perhaps more than anything – more than a compelling hero’s quest, more than the peril and drama, more than director Francis Lawrence’s eye for action and sense of pacing – it’s that each new film expands the profound talent in this pool of actors.

The great Julianne Moore joins ranks that include 2-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson, consummate bad guy Donald Sutherland, genius character actors Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci, and the greatest actor of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And who can forget the lead – a performer with an Oscar and two additional nominations under her belt at the ripe old age of 24? Let’s be honest, these humans could elevate any script that fell into their collective grasp. They could make a decent film out of Fifty Shades of Grey, for God’s sake.

Lucky for us, instead they collaborate on the third of four episodes in the program, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

Reluctant hero Katniss, having destroyed the games and been rescued by rebel forces, agrees to be the face of the rebellion in return for the rescue of her beloved friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Gone is the Battle Royale nightmare and excitement of the games themselves, replaced with the broiling drama of a budding revolution. Gone, too, are the writers that mined Suzanne Collins’s novel Catching Fire for its underlying political maneuverings. They are replaced by Collins herself, who adapts her novel, as well as Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (The Butler). Their treatment lacks much of the excitement of earlier installments, spending more time with the brooding, dramatic Katniss than with the arrow-wielding badass.

They don’t write down to their audience, though, touching upon the helplessness and compromise of political manipulations, finding similarities between the behavior of the rebellion and that of the dread Capitol.

Credit Lawrence (the director) for keeping a quick pace though saddled with more exposition and fewer action sequences, more heavy drama and less bloodshed. But honestly, the magic of the film is in Stanley Tucci’s disingenuous TV interviews, in Moore’s subtle evolution, in Hoffman’s every bemused chuckle, and in Jennifer Lawrence’s ability to transform into a skulking, unlikeable, single minded teen who happens to carry a revolution on her shoulders.

Verdict-3-5-Stars