Sean K. Cureton

Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews: 2013’ Category

Alienation and Love in the 21st Century

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on January 18, 2014 at 5:32 pm
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Directed by Spike Jonze
4 out of 4 stars

Her is the fourth feature film from acclaimed American director Spike Jonze, whose last film, the irresistibly idiosyncratic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, was released back in 2009. His first film, Being John Malkovich, was released in 1999 and was also marked by an offbeat and whimsical view of the world that allowed for a unique cinematic perspective. In addition, Malkovich also allowed for an intense gaze into the mind of Jonze’s former creative collaborator and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Malkovich was followed in 2002 by Adaptation, another creative partnership with Kaufman, and was by turns more unforgiving and colder in tone than their previous film, but ultimately greater in terms of its engagement with post-modern, meta-fictional, surrealism, marking it as the better film of the two that Jonze and Kaufman produced together. After Adaptation, Jonze and Kaufman went their separate ways, each of them finding their own voice and producing films that reflected themselves more clearly and accurately than anything that they had previously produced together; for Kaufman, that film was Synecdoche, New York; for Jonze, that film is Her.

Where his collaborators have always defined Jonze’s previous work, with Malkovich and Adaptation being decidedly marked by Kaufman’s psychological hang ups, and Where the Wild Things Are being an adaptation of another author’s story with the help of contemporary American novelist Dave Eggers, Her is definitively, magnificently, and undeniably the most personal film that Jonze has made to date. Set around the contemporary fascination with and fear of our growing dependence on technology and artificial intelligence, Her is a love story like no other. Much like Jonze himself, the film’s protagonist Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a single man in the midst of a turbulent divorce from his wife. To make matters worse, Twombly feels painfully alienated and alone at his job where he writes deeply personal and intimate love letters for strangers, serving as a constant reminder of his own failings to produce real intimacy in his own life, without falling prey to the idealized love that he has projected onto his comfortably impersonal clients. When Twombly downloads a new operating system onto his phone, however, and Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, enters his life, offering him a form of love and intimacy entirely divorced from the volatility and unpredictable nature of real life relationships, Twombly falls head over heels for someone both real and unreal, tailored to respond and engage with his own subjective conceptualization of what a relationship should be.

While Theodore is certainly not an exact stand in for Jonze, his creativity and romantic engagement with the world around him reflects the impish and quirky character of Jonze as an artist. Likewise, while it would not be entirely accurate, or fair, to assume that Twombly’s relationship with his wife is meant mirror the dissolution of Jonze’s marriage with director Sofia Coppola, it is also undeniable that Jonze’s relationship with his own ex-wife is reflected in Twombly’s inability to sustain intimacy with another living person. When Twombly decides to date an operating system, or a “computer” as his wife derisively refers to it, Twombly reaches out for the comfort of something that won’t, or shouldn’t, hurt him, but instead will feed his own romanticized desires, taking him further and further into the prison that is the self. While the film engages with the concept of what defines personhood, flirting with the possibility of artificial intelligences being capable of desires, interests, and intelligences such as ours, the film’s ultimate conclusion is more realistic and outwardly therapeutic. By the film’s end, Samantha, as well as all of the other operating systems, metaphorically shed the mortal coil, leaving our world for another, forcing Twombly and those around him to begin to live life outside of the self, and seek the solace afforded by other people.

In Her, Jonze offers one of the greatest examinations of modern love in the 21st century, internalized and subjective to an expedited extent due to our dependence on technology to simulate love and intimacy, without deserting or forcing us to deal with ourselves outside of our own subjectivity. The sci-fi elements of the film are wickedly intelligent and imaginative, predicting a future that might as well be our own, entirely plausible in its projections and diagnostic criticisms of the digital age. The film is also one of the greatest love stories of our time, reflecting on the inability to connect with those around us, enabled by modern technology that allows for a semblance of interpersonal connectivity without the trouble of direct engagement. Her is achingly beautiful, poetically tragic, and thoroughly contemporary, unique and inimitably original in every way. Spike Jonze has truly left his mark on American cinema with this film, and has firmly established himself as a truly remarkable auteur.


The Odyssey of a Cat

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on December 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm
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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
4 out of 4 stars

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from the Coen Brothers, explores some familiar territory while simultaneously expanding upon and enriching a cinematic worldview that has become so familiar to anyone acquainted with the Coens’ iconic body of work. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Llewyn is equal parts historical and mythological, documenting the emergence of rock and roll music from the Americana folk tradition, as sung by another nomadic wanderer reminiscent of the Homeric Odyssey. In Inside, Llewyn is a struggling folk singer in 1960’s Greenwich Village, scraping by on the skin of his teeth, taking the odd job here and there, all without the acclaim and success lauded onto some of his contemporaries for whom he feels a growing sense of self-loathing resentment. Like any other notable film from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis is full to the brim with a certain nihilistic cynicism that threatens to boil over and spoil even its more redeeming characters and narrative devices. However, like the majority of the Coens’ body of work, the film never loses sight of its hero, and aims to save him from complete existential annihilation, even if such a rescue is sustained only through the underlying desire to survive and exist despite the overwhelming odds of life itself.

One of the many aspects of the Coens’ film that makes it as vibrant and heart-wrenchingly beautiful as it is comes with the Coens’ thoughtful and microscopically detailed rendering of New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960’s. Where other films that have attempted to transport a narrative into the past, whether it be 50 or even just 10 years ago, often feel overtly fabricated and cringingly nostalgic, Inside Llewyn Davis’ Greenwich Village feels contemporary, as if you might be able to walk out of the very theatre in which you are viewing the film and end up on the very same streets that Llewyn woefully traverses on screen. From the cars on the street, down to the lonely little coffee shops and diners that Llewyn temporarily occupies to escape from the cold of the dead of winter, the Coens’ Greenwich Village feels antiquated, but not to an exaggerated extent. In establishing the film’s historied setting in such detail and authenticity, the Coens’ examination of the folk music scene of the era is allowed room to breathe and grow out from its established environment. Where a Wes Anderson type might have imbued 1960’s Manhattan with whimsy and a subdued saturation of color in the cinematic image, the Coens present the same setting as it would have looked at the time, and in effect what it still looks like in the ever tenuous now.

With such an expertly realized setting in place, the performances and music fall right into place, serving to populate the Coens’ Greenwich Village, making it a believably livable space. Oscar Isaac turns in a career defining performance, breathing a troubled and wounded humanity into that character of Llewyn Davis, caustic, hostile, sentimental, and redeemably sympathetic. Playing off of Isaac’s energy, the performances from such notable stars as Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham purr with the electricity and power of the film’s star. Even Garrett Hedlund, an otherwise unremarkable American actor, fits right in with his more experienced co-stars, lending the film a surprising layer of subtlety and nuance. On top of all that, T-Bone Burnett’s musical direction is sublime, crafting musical productions that feel utterly authentic and just plain nice to listen to, with the help of such notable singers and performers as Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, and Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford.

The Coen Brothers most recent film just might be the best film of the year, as it exemplifies a subtlety and maturity that has been earned and perfected over the course of the Coens’ near 30 years of filmmaking. Inside Llewyn Davis is remarkable, not for any departure from an established form, but for its consistency within a larger body of work that has come to be defined by an inherent genius. A genius, moreover, that has shown itself to be malleable, well suited to comedy, crime, drama, neo-noir, history, western, and musical film genres, without ever compromising its remarkably unique cinematic perspective. The Coens are two of the greatest auteurs in the relatively short history of film, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of their best films to date. Harking after the tradition established in Homer’s epic poem, Inside Llewyn Davis is an Odyssey all its own, playfully lending the title of Ulysses to a wayward cat.                           

An Unnecessary Remake that Surpasses the Original

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on December 9, 2013 at 3:38 pm

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Directed by Spike Lee
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Oldboy, the new Spike Lee Joint, is film that has been grossly disparaged and derided before it was even seen by a mass audience. Inspired by the 2003 cult-classic South Korean film of the same name directed by Chan-wook Park, and based on the original Japanese Manga written by Garon Tsuchiya, Lee’s Oldboy is the most recent re-make of a still contemporaneous cinema classic that Hollywood has produced of late. The original 2003 film is a new-classic revenge thriller, as startling in its liberal use of violence as it is inspiring in its singularly expert level craft in cinematography and editing. Park’s Oldboy is one of the best films of the past ten years, which is why there has been such an uproar over Lee’s new adaptation of the same story, made only ten years after the original was released. However, Lee’s Oldboy is not Park’s; Lee’s remake serves to clarify and expound certain points and over-arching themes of the story for an American audience that might have been unclear in the South Korean version, and in the process makes a film that might just be capable of surpassing the original.

Where the original film engaged in a certain surreal-mysticism that lent the film much of its originality and humor, Lee’s remake is much more hard-boiled, offering scenes that are far more gritty and immediately violent than anything offered up in the original. While many of the film’s shots and sequences are lifted directly from Park’s adaptation, Lee’s reinterpretations of these scenes feel more horrifying and intense than viewers might expect. Where Park’s film was more human, concerned with the film’s protagonist from a perspective of empathetic identification, Lee’s film creates a certain distance between the viewer and the film’s hero, allowing for the scenes of torture and violence to occur more forcefully and without restraint. However, the scenes of violence in Lee’s Oldboy never feel gratuitous or exploitative, as they might under the hands of a less capable director. Where the film might have been grossly sadistic had it been directed by, say, Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino, Lee is able to strike a balance between the narrative and the on-screen violence, never filming a scene that falls into unwarranted excess.

Lee’s Oldboy is also headed by one of the most well conceived casts imaginable for this particular film, starring Josh Brolin as the hero, and Elizabeth Olsen as sidekick. While Min-sik Choi’s stirring portrayal of Dae-su Oh in Park’s film will never be overshadowed by any other performer’s interpretation of the same character, Josh Brolin brings a certain gruff manor and apathetic amorality to the role. Instead of playing his Joe Doucett as a mere drunken buffoon, Brolin’s Wall Street executive is much more aware of his short comings, which makes his initial imprisonment and penultimate punishment all the more justified and deserved. Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is sublime in her role as Marie Sebastian, distancing herself from Hye-jeong Kang’s performance in the original film, with a character that is effectively unique to Lee’s film, a little wiser and more cunning than Park’s Mi-do. Other notables include Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Imperioli, playing the hotel manager and the old friend respectively, and whose performances turn out to be even better than the ones offered up the first time around.

As Spike Lee’s Oldboy has been released for the first time over the past few weeks to a nationwide audience of viewers, the question that has plagued Spike Lee ever since he announced his plans for remaking Chan-Wook Park’s classic has reemerged with even greater force: why remake the film at all? For many fans of the original cult classic, that question will create a bias within them, predetermining a negative reaction to Lee’s film before they even see it, if they even allow Lee’s film that much attention. The advance critical reaction to the film has proven this bias to be abundantly present, with critics tearing Lee’s work apart, seemingly for no purpose other than to complain that it was made at all. Commercially, the film is already a failure, and probably won’t rake in much more money than it already has. Such a fact is unfortunate, as Spike Lee’s Oldboy is one of the most invigorating and exciting films to come out this year, even if it was an unnecessary exercise in re-adaptation.   

Slavery in the American South, as an Eerily Realistic and Surreal Nightmare

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on November 24, 2013 at 6:41 pm
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12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
4 out of 4 stars

Based on the historical slave narrative written by Solomon Nothup in the mid-nineteenth century, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave tells the story of the American South in the midst of its most debauched era. Where other films about slavery in the American South have always felt overly clinical and too ostentatiously self-effacing, McQueen’s examination of the same subject feels eerily realistic to the point of surrealistic nightmare. The lurid objectivity with which McQueen examines Solomon’s initial kidnapping and subsequent enslavement is fascinating in its accuracy, and horrifying in its accusatory representations. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is at the top of his game as Solomon, delivering a career defining performance that is supremely effective in its subtleties; wounded, defeated, searching, and hopeful, all at the same time. Never has a film represented the experience of the American slave this truthfully without sacrificing honesty for showmanship; luckily for the viewer, McQueen is modest in his presence as spectator, allowing the performances from his characters to speak for him, delivering a cinematic story that is worthy of the man that inspired it.

Starting with the opening sequence of the film, McQueen takes the viewer directly into the mind of his protagonist, wrongfully imprisoned and slowly losing the will to live. McQueen’s Solomon is, in this way, heartfelt and tenderly wrought as a cinematic figure, able to stand in for the numerously varied experiences of those around him. Ejiofor as Solomon is forceful in his striving towards life, intelligent in his deceptively hidden depths of humanity, and tender in his state as the downtrodden man. When watching Ejiofor’s performance on screen, it’s hard to believe that any one man could manipulate his own emotional condition so drastically at will, hinting at the true and horrible nature of slavery as an act of aggressive and violent coercion. When the lashes of the master’s whip cracks towards the end of the film, Eijiofor’s horror is palpable, merging with the psychological state of the viewer, and granting the film the illusion of reality that all films attempt to capture, but so rarely do.

Beyond the masterful performance from lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and not to mention the equally stunning turns from supporting actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, Steve McQueen as director makes his own presence felt definitively as author of this great modern masterpiece. Shot for shot, and sequence for sequence, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an intense portrait of the endurance of the human soul, magnificently captured through extended shots of such interminable length that might make the likes of Stanley Kubrick jealous. Instead of moving from location to location with the rapidity of someone afraid of the wretched nature of his subject, McQueen lingers over each scene and landscape, rendering the duration of the twelve years of the title viscerally realized through the cinematic image. Whether it’s a shot of ten’s of workers in a cotton field, or one single gaze into the face and soul of Solomon, McQueen’s camera doesn’t miss one moment offered up by his actors and locations. In this way McQueen essentially documents every piece of cinematic artifice as if it was fact, and deceives the viewer into accepting such a fanciful philosophy in the process.

In what is only his third feature film, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave may very well be not only the greatest film from a singular director, but the greatest film about slavery in the American South ever made. Taking its place beside such important slave narrative films as Roots, McQueen’s film about the life of the wrongfully enslaved Solomon Northup is masterfully conceived, acting as a vehicle for historical discussion and interpretation, as opposed to the type of advantageous mythologizing that is more typical from such cinematic adaptations. Led by a stellar cast of leading actors, McQueen’s film is powerfully interpreted, leaving nothing unarticulated or left to the imagination of the viewers. Through its brutal honesty, 12 Years a Slave serves as an unflinching reminder of an American past rooted in prejudicial amorality, and reminds us of how far we’ve come since, and how much father we have yet to go. Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor have made the most important film of the year, and now it’s up to the viewer to see and champion their picture as the masterwork that it is.

Allegorical Thrills and Socially Conscious Action, or The Hollywood Action-Thriller by Paul Greengrass

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on November 3, 2013 at 6:08 pm

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Captain Phillips
Directed by Paul Greengrass
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Inspired by the events surrounding the infamous hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somalian pirates in 2009, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a viscerally stunning thriller, cinematically impressive in terms of the approach it takes towards its material. Without over-stimulating the senses of the audience, Greengrass’ new film is able to tell a potentially polarizing story in a way that feels nuanced and complicated, rather than simplistic and manipulative. Through the use of the now ubiquitous filmmaking technique of the hand-held “shaky cam,” Greengrass’ film gains a sense of realism and immediacy, even if the now popularized method used to achieve such an effect still feels too much like a gimmick, out of place in an otherwise near immaculate film. While it might have been easy to turn the pirates into pure bred, vilified antagonists, Greengrass transforms his Somalian pirates into a metaphor for the economic disparity between third and first world countries, providing social commentary to an already well known story in order to complicate and challenge the viewer’s preconceptions about the events that unfold. When Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) asks Muse (Barkhad Abdi) whether there isn’t some other line of work he could take up besides being a euphemistic “fisherman,” Muse replies “Maybe in America,” which serves to set the tone for the entire film, laying bare a carefully composed social critique that makes Greengrass’ picture so memorable.

From the very beginning of the film, and up until the very last shot before the closing credits, Captain Phillips is a film that doesn’t let go of the hold that it has on the viewer’s attentions and sympathies. By starting the film slow, with scenes that allow the viewer to become intimately acquainted with both Richard Phillips and Muse on a personal level, and then gradually increasing the amount of action and tension allowed to be seen on screen, Greengrass is able to produce a film that feels personal and heartfelt, reaching beyond the confines of its source material and genre. The fact that the viewer is not simply able to build a connection to the Somalian pirates, but is expected to do so, points to the intelligence and empathy of Greengrass as a singularly talented director within the action-thriller genre. Again and again, Greengrass’ camera stops and meditates on a particular scene, character, or action, forcing the viewer to come to terms with how he feels about the situations depicted, rather than offering the quick release of pervasive action sequences more common in the typical Hollywood action-thriller. Captain Phillips is a slow moving, brooding monster of a movie, offering thrills that leave you on the edge of your seat days and weeks after having actually seen the film.

Taking on the leading role of the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks has never delivered a performance quiet this emotionally affecting and revelatory. While Hanks may have received an Oscar for his performance as the mentally challenged hero of Robert Zemeckis’ over praised Forrest Gump, it is this film that feels more career defining and expertly articulated. Hanks as Phillips is the epitome of the everyman, humbly working for the benefit of his wife and son at home, and forced to take on the unexpected and dangerous adventure of defending the lives of his crew from armed Somalian pirates. Supported by the phenomenal performances from a crew of first-time actors portraying the pirates, led by the sublime actor Barkhad Abdi, Greengrass’ film is raised to unimaginable heights. The choice of hiring a crew of untrained actors for the role of the Somalian pirates was a risky move on Greengrass’ part, but one that paid off in spades, and serves to vastly improve the film’s theatricality.

While Greengrass’ new film feels a little too slap dash at times, owing to his aforementioned use and affinity for the “shaky cam” technique, Captain Phillips is so well executed and performed that any of the more worrisome aesthetic flourishes of Greengrass as auteur can be quiet neatly swept under the rug. Borrowing from his work on the Jason Bourne films, Captain Phillips is appropriately action packed, while leaving room for its talented actors to augment and perfect Greengrass’ style with an extra dollop of humanity and pathos. Tom Hanks and first time actor Barkhad Abdi are phenomenal, delivering performances that intensify the action on screen, rendering the tension of the overall cinematic experience palpable. The force with which Greengrass tells this now familiar story is unrelentingly exciting, leaving viewers in a state of shock not far from that experienced by Phillips in the film’s final and intimately immersive final sequence. Captain Phillips is an expertly achieved action-thriller, providing subtle commentary throughout, without overwhelming the film with politics or a more overt ulterior agenda, which would otherwise render such a film too plodding or distastefully premeditated.

The Cinematic Majesty of Outer Space, Beautiful and Terrifying

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on October 20, 2013 at 12:21 pm

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Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
3 out of 4 stars

Gravity is a science-fiction thriller from acclaimed Spanish director Alfonso Cuaron, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as an astronaut and a medical engineer stranded in outer space after an accident leaves their space shuttle damaged beyond immediate repair. Backed by a script which is filled with scientific factoids about the science behind space travel, Cuaron’s new film is an air tight thrill ride that is reminiscent of such sci-fi epics as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Alien, blending the cinematic majesty of Kubrick’s film with the tension and excitement of Scott’s. Using earth’s orbit as his canvas, Cuaron’s film is breathtakingly beautiful and a technological masterpiece, using state of the art 3D technology to add depth to the protagonists’ plight. Seen in IMAX, the film becomes even more impressive, replicating the experience of being in outer space better than any other sci-fi picture to date. Bottom line, Gravity is one of the best films of the year, and more than deservedly so.

Over the course of the film, the viewer is allowed to follow the experience of medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) from an almost entirely first-person point of view, which is really quiet something to behold from a visual standpoint. Time and time again, Cuaron’s camera follows the point of view of Stone as she hurtles through space, often tumbling a full 360 degrees again and again. While such a choice in cinematic point of view might feel like a gimmick in another director’s hands, Cuaron uses this visual effect with subtlety and an intricate understanding of visual aestheticism. In being able to view much of the film’s more action packed sequences from Stone’s point of view, Cuaron rattles the viewer’s sense of direction, causing them to become as disoriented as his protagonist. While the film might feel like an amusement park ride at times, Cuaron’s presence is nevertheless a palpable element of the film’s fabric, keeping even the most intense shots of space tumbling tethered to the larger cinematic experience.

Beyond the breathtaking cinematography and dizzying first person action sequences, Cuaron’s film is also dramatically affecting, allowing the viewer to become involved with its characters on a personal level, without falling prey to melodramatic characterization or stereotypical archetypes. While only a very little is revealed about Stone as an individual, the film sheds light on just enough of her back story as a grieving single mother to allow her character to develop a connection with the film’s viewers over the course of the film, making the film’s climactic conclusion all the more satisfying. Instead of focusing on the main plot of finding a way back to earth from earth’s orbit, Cuaron allows for multiple scenes where Sandra Bullock is able to find the character that she is portraying beyond the conventions of the thriller genre. In allowing these scenes to occur, Cuaron’s film feels more dramatic than many other Hollywood thrillers, as the protagonists become every bit as important as the action depicted. In this way, Cuaron’s film is much more interesting than the average action thriller, as its purpose becomes much broader than simply stimulating the viewer’s more instinctual reactions towards action centered theatrics.

Alfonso Cuaron’s new film might just be the most cinematically impressive film of the entire year. While working within an already established film genre, Cuaron’s Gravity explores new possibilities in film narrative, using IMAX 3D technology as a means to further cinematic expression. Where other more commercialized Hollywood films employ IMAX 3D as a gimmick, used strategically to generate a larger profit, Gravity uses the same technology to new and greater ends, at times creating sequences that are so minutely orchestrated that the use of the technology is forgotten entirely, allowing the film to be seen outside of the spectacle that is IMAX 3D. Gravity gives new meaning to the term thriller as film genre, invigorating the often laborious and top-heavy cinematic tradition with artistic integrity and thrilling vibrancy. Gravity is a marvel to behold, and might just go down as Alfonso Cuaron’s masterwork.

The Contemporary Thriller as a Study in Silence

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on September 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm
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Directed by Denis Villeneuve
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Prisoners is the most recent film to be released from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose previous films include 2010’s Incendies, a foreign language Oscar nominated drama set in the Middle East, and 2009’s Polytechnique, which was inspired by the events surrounding the Montreal Massacre of 1989. While Villeneuve’s new film is by no means a change in tone or subject matter, it is the first film of his to boast an all-star cast of top Hollywood players. Ranging from the formidable presence of Hugh Jackman, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s disarming charm, Prisoners solidifies itself as a major motion picture that is sure to turn the larger mainstream movie going audience onto the work of this singular director. Villeneuve’s new film is a shocking take on the contemporary thriller, telling a story about child abduction, which is both satisfyingly exciting as well as cinematically challenging. With Prisoners, Villeneuve has established himself as a director to watch more closely, and with mounting anticipation.

Unlike many contemporary Hollywood thrillers having to do with the case of child abduction, Prisoners is relieving in the honesty it takes with its subject and the sincerity it displays towards its characters. Instead of treating its volatile subject as fodder for an outright emotional manipulation of the viewer’s instincts and feelings, the film instead chooses to examine the feelings of the characters, thereby focusing on atmosphere and mood rather than plot and action centered theatrics. Such a choice in terms of focus lends the film much of its cinematic vibrancy and effectiveness, in turn allowing for some of the best career performances from its leading actors. Hugh Jackman is finally able to bear some of the feral menace which his recent turns as the Marvel comic book character Wolverine have only ever hinted at, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in one of his most mature and varied performances of his entire career, and Terrance Howard displays a sense of fragile humanity as the quietly grieving father not seen since his turn in the Oscar winning 2004 drama Crash. The performances given from the actors cast in Villeneuve’s film alone raise Prisoners above the level of the average child abduction thriller, but it is due to the intelligence and sentimentality of Villeneuve’s direction by which their performances are lead and inspired to such stunning heights.

In addition to the subtle directing choices of Villeneuve, and without which the film would not be nearly as gripping and terrifying, Prisoners is also shot to cinematic perfection by the inestimable cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins, already a household name attached to such contemporary film staples as The Shawshank Redemption as well as a large portion of the Coen Brothers’ films, takes in the subject and atmosphere of Villeneuve’s film, and interprets its said vision into a visual reality which is claustrophobic in its use of shadows and slate grey skies, and unrelenting in its consistent beauty and foreboding terror. In watching Deakins’ work, it feels almost as if the camera were another way inside the characters’ heads, visually representing their inner turmoil and despair in a way which is almost more accurate than the performances given by the actors themselves. When the more trying scenes of the film unfold, which depict such morally depraved or emotionally vacant occurrences as torture and mental instability, Deakins’ camera watches over with a persistent steadiness without ever sacrificing the film’s sentimental tone and human approach. Rather than continuing in the line of such hard-to-watch films as David Fincher’s Seven, with which Prisoners shares a lot in common with in terms of aesthetic approach, Deakins’ cinematography dispels any of the coldness of Fincher’s work, and distinguishes Prisoners as importantly and fundamentally different in its representation of the macabre and the depraved.

With the release of Prisoners, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has delivered his first major motion picture sure to reach a wide audience. Where his previous films might not have had as wide an appeal to mainstream American audiences due to their being foreign language pictures, Prisoners is the first film in Villeneuve’s career to utilize recognizable Hollywood actors, thereby enhancing the accessibility of his work. What’s more, Prisoners is a breathtaking study in silence, examining the impotent rage and horror of its characters as they attempt to reclaim what has been lost. Villeneuve abandons the use of sudden jolts of adrenaline more commonly seen in other mainstream thrillers, and instead allows the plot, setting, and characters to be divulged over the course of a stunningly bold 2 1/2 hours. Every minute of Prisoners’ lengthy run time increases the viewers own anxiety and anticipation, ensuring their rapt and sympathetic attention to what might otherwise have been an obvious and clichéd resolution, making Villeneuve’s new feature a powerful film that begs to be seen.

Quiet Humanity and Private Intimacy in Contemporary Romantic Drama

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on September 6, 2013 at 4:50 pm

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The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt
3 ½ out of 4 stars

The Spectacular Now is the new feature film from (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and directed by James Ponsoldt. Based on the YA novel by Tim Tharp, Ponsoldt’s film is a tour de force drama about young love, won and lost, and the dysfunctional individuals who fall in love with one another. Rather than verging into the realm of witless adolescent rebellion, or the superficiality and shallowness of young lust, Ponsoldt’s young lovers are fantastically realized miniatures of all of the pain and heartbreak of love as it appears in its most romanticized form. After honing their talents with the now classic indie-drama (500) Days of Summer, screenwriters Neustadter and Weber have now proven themselves to be a creative force to be reckoned with this new film about the fragility of intimate, human relationships. What’s more, Ponsoldt was another perfect match for filming a Neustadter and Weber script, offering up a film that is supremely brilliant, matching the subtlety of the script with carefully filmed shots of understated humanity and appropriately dramatic tableaux.

Set around the relationship of and between life-of-the-party Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and honors student Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), Ponsoldt’s film goes about discovering its two lovers through quiet observation, rather than intrusive ogling or the use of a deus ex machina. As Sutter and Aimee reveal things about themselves to one another, the audience is also allowed access into the characters’ interior lives, becoming more involved with the film’s characters at the same pace that Sutter and Aimee begin to fall in love with each other more deeply. Where many films about the same subject would take a more direct approach at depicting young love as it starts to blossom, Ponsoldt holds back, allowing a sort of sanctity and privacy to Sutter and Aimee’s relationship, without outright abandoning his position as a cinematic voyeur. It’s hard to film a sex scene that doesn’t feel exploitative or pornographic, and yet the sex in The Sectacular Now doesn’t feel like either, retaining a kind of grace awarded to the privacy of a more natural physical intimacy. Ponsoldt’s young lovers appear to be actually in love, which is something of a rarity in contemporary films about such a subject, where explicitness is preferred over a more human somberness and conservative behavior.

Beyond the finely crafted script and thoughtful direction, The Spectacular Now is also bolstered by two of the best performances from two actors under the age of 30. Miles Teller is in top form as Sutter, balancing the act of being the class clown who deep down simply wants to love and be loved, in a performance that is reminiscent of a young Vince Vaughn in Swingers. Likewise, Shaileen Woodley, fresh off her successful turn as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants, plays the girl next door better than anyone, exuding kindness, honesty, and prettiness, all without the help of makeup or a ravishing wardrobe. Instead of coming off as well to do Hollywood stars pretending to be your average, troubled teenager, Teller and Woodley ooze a sincerity which is quiet simply too real to be an entirely fictive pretention. Teller and Woodley are stunning, and the film is exponentially aided by their inspired performances.

The Spectacular Now is one of the most accurate cinematic portrayals of young love, being neither too romanticized nor an outright dismissal of young love as a notion founded on lust rather than a mutual intimacy and human understanding. Neustadter and Weber have written yet another fantastic screenplay together, which has been made into another excellent film by the more than capable director James Ponsoldt. Instead of offering up another cookie-cutter, John Hughes-esque copy of the young adult film, Ponsoldt has gone against the mold, challenging his audience with a portrayal of teenagers which is just as fraught with jealousy and misunderstanding as any portrayal of two adults would be. The Spectacular Now is an expertly directed drama, filled with emotional vibrancy and a thrilling amount of dramatic tension, building up to some truly inspired cinematic moments. Romantic drama and comedy is a hard film genre to get quiet right, but screenwriters Neustadter and Weber have got the formula down pat, and their new film is further proof of that fact.

Sci-Fi Ribbing, Without a Lack of Substance

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on August 30, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Theatrical Poster

The World’s End
Directed by Edgar Wright
3 ½ out of 4 stars

The World’s End is the third film to be released in what has come to be known as the “Cornetto Trilogy,” a series of comedic genre films created collaboratively between director Edgar Wright, actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and British television and film producer Nira Park. What began in 2004 with the now seminal classic romantic comedy/zombie picture Shaun of the Dead, and continued in the 2007 action spoof Hot Fuzz, is now concluded with this summer’s The World’s End, which pays tribute to the legacy of science-fiction motion pictures, most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers, á la the 1978 release starring Donald Sutherland. What’s more though, and keeping in line with the intelligence and range of the previous films in the series, Wright’s new film is not only a tongue-in-cheek ribbing of sci-fi, pop cultural references, but is also a wonderful portraiture of contemporary consciousness, informed, and at times stunted, by the very same sort of self-aware satire which the film itself is an example of. Where Shaun of the Dead was a critique of the malaise and apathetic resignation of young adulthood, The World’s End is an approach at understanding nostalgia for one’s youth, something which is both intimately human and necessary, as well as potentially dangerous and encumbering. The World’s End is hysterically brilliant, pointedly satirical, and heartwarming, making it one of the best films to come out so far this year, as well as a more than worthy conclusion to the now much beloved “Cornetto Trilogy.”

Much of the brilliance of Wright’s new film centers upon the humanity and charming appeal of the film’s protagonist, Gary King (Simon Pegg). In the film, Gary is an alcoholic who we meet in an AA meeting at the beginning of the film, where he is seen regaling an audience of not-so-eager listeners to a tale of his exploits as a youth, when he and his four best friends attempted the “Golden Mile,” wherein one drinks twelve pints of beer in one night, one coming from each of the twelve pubs located in Gary’s hometown. After engaging in this reminiscence of what to Gary was the best time of his life, Gary decides to harangue his old school friends, all of them married and settled down at this point, into attempting the “Golden Mile” once again. What becomes increasingly clear though, if it weren’t already from the shock of seeing the stark juxtaposition of a young and vibrant Gary of yesteryear with the grimy and defeated looking Gary of today, is the fact that Gary’s idealized youth was not quiet as cheery as he has remembered. Where Gary’s old friends are constantly reminded of the ways in which Gary used and abused each of them for his own gains, Gary willfully chooses to paint a romanticized picture of the actual nature of their long history together, in order to prolong his own recklessness and selfish hedonism.

In wrapping a story of moral platitudes and perennial life lessons into a big budget comedic genre film, Wright and company have made their mark as truly gifted filmmakers. Instead of sticking to the more obvious pop cultural references, which abound in each of the installments in their “Cornetto Trilogy,” as be-all, end-all aesthetic flourishes, all sound and fury while signifying nothing, Wright, Pegg, and Frost aim higher. Whether it’s over the top, George A. Romero zombie gore, Bad Boys style action-comedy, or over the top sci-fi theatrics, each of the films in the “Cornetto Trilogy” utilize film genre elements as a means by which the film’s characters may become more relatable and fallibly human. In The World’s End, the audience gets a kick out of seeing an entire town turn into pod people, and witnessing a large scale alien invasion generated by a contemporary dependence upon the clean efficiency of digital technology, but the film’s focus and drawing power resides principally in Gary King’s engagement with an infantilizing obsession over a nostalgia for one’s youth. While you might be able to get by watching The World’s End based purely on its elements of superficial genre ribbing, it would ultimately leave you feeling empty, and you wouldn’t have engaged the film to its full psychologically human capacity.

Edgar Wright’s The World’s End just might be one of the best movies of the year, and deservedly so. Supported by a brilliantly witty and clever script, an exemplary cast, and filmed by one of the best directors currently working, Wright’s final film in the “Cornetto Trilogy” boasts all of the humor and humanity of its predecessors, while upping the ante a little in terms of blockbuster level theatricality. Not only is the film an expert level satire of science fiction genre fare, but it also keeps its pop cultural references in check, using them as aesthetic flourishes rater than substitutes for actual dramatic substance. After the tepid offering of Pegg and Frost’s co-written sci-fi romp Paul, The World’s End will allow Pegg and Frost fans a sigh of relief, offering proof that the duo still has it in them to make a quality comedic genre picture. The “Cornetto Trilogy” may have come to end, but here’s to hoping that Wright, Pegg, and Frost still have a few more tricks up their sleeves, collaboratively or not.

A Saturday Morning Cartoon for Adults, Without the Guilt of Intellectual Pretention

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on July 27, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Theatrical Poster

Pacific Rim
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
3 out of 4 stars

Pacific Rim follows in the tradition of the Japanese Kaiju film genre, wherein a large creature of supernatural powers and origins decimates a highly populated city, or engages in battle with other monsters of proportionate size and fantastic grandiosity. The most well known Kaiju film series is undoubtedly the Godzilla franchise, which is also unquestionably one of the core inspirations for Pacific Rim’s creation, with the other being any giant robot Saturday Morning Cartoon you may or may not remember fondly from your own childhood. It is upon such comparably simple genre premises from which Guillermo del Toro’s film takes inspiration, and thankfully so. Pacific Rim is uncompromisingly indulgent in premise, with all of the focus of the film being placed on the sheer spectacle of giant monsters, organic and synthetic alike, taking part in the sorts of epic battles that are sure to leave any young child in a catatonic stupor of excitement and awe; such a stupor should, ideally, carry over into adulthood for the mature audience for which this film has been carefully crafted and designed, as del Toro’s new film finally offers the sort of giant monster movie that Michael Bay’s Transformers is only a poor attempt at being. Pacific Rim is like being able to watch those aforementioned Saturday Morning Cartoons once again as an adult, but without compromising one’s since acquired refined tastes and intellect, as del Toro’s monsters are delightfully self-aware and, dare it be said, smart.

One of the sources of contention for which several critics have already insulted the integrity of Pacific Rim is for the simplistic, yet simultaneously incoherent, nature of its plot. According to the screenplay co-written by del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham, much of the circumstantial narrative drive for Rim’s plot derives from a strange, portal-like connection between the world of the Kaiju creatures and earth, unleashing the Kaiju monsters upon mankind, and subsequently resulting in a years long battle intent on quelling the Kaiju onslaught. In order to subdue the Kaiju monsters, mankind has developed giant robot suits, called Jaeger’s, manned by two human pilots who operate the suit through a connection of the mind, body, and soul called “drifting.” Eventually, “drifting” is achieved between the Kaiju and a human scientist, which allows for the know-how to defeat the Kaiju in the final action driven climactic sequence of the film. While the specifics of such a plot are admittedly excessively unclear and unintelligent, the surrounding human versus monster story remains engaging and fantastically creative. The types of critics who find trouble finding any intelligent subtlety in the film’s plot suffer from an inability to take the leap from their own stuffy intellectualized pretentions to an understanding of the film’s actual intentions based on the unpretentious fascination that arises from sheer and unadulterated enjoyment; Pacific Rim doesn’t try to be intelligent or subversive, but achieves both accolades through its honesty and lack of pretention.

Pacific Rim is also one of the only films in recent memory to actually warrant the inclusion of the third dimension as a part of its filmic fabric. The grandiosity of the Kaiju/Jaeger battles are made only more fantastic through del Toro’s use of 3D filmmaking, which embellishes where it could just as easily distract. Seen in Imax, Pacific Rim’s impact is increased even further; with the addition of a larger screen, earth-shattering surround sound, and crisp high definition picture quality, supplemented by state of the art 3D, Pacific Rim is a spectacle that needs to be seen to be believed. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is thusly, in more ways than one, a direct response to James Cameron’s Avatar, except del Toro had the artistic mastery and insight to see beyond the use of simple sensory overload in order to placate his viewers. Pacific Rim palpably understands the importance of honesty in its narrative approach, while Avatar tries so hard to win over the affections of its viewers with borrowed dramatics without offering any acknowledgement of its admitted dependence upon special effects. Pacific Rim knows that its drawing power comes from its stunning technical achievements, and invites its viewers to revel in the afterglow without worrying too much about any imagined self-congratulating egotism.

Pacific Rim might just be the best summer blockbuster to come out this summer. Instead of aiming beyond the confines of its genre, Rim knows where it stands within the traditions and history of filmmaking, aiming to achieve what it sets out to do without making any concessions to attempt to appeal to viewers outside of its immediate demographic. Guillermo del Toro’s direction is epic in every clichéd sense of the word, offering the kinds of grand monster movie battle sequences sure to leave even the most mature adult in a state of child-like catatonic bliss. While Rim might not appeal to everyone, it knows where it stands, and is aware of its more indulgent nature and un-intellectual status as a monster movie picture. Nevertheless, del Toro’s film will take anyone willing to pay the price of admission on a wild ride, letting them get in touch with their inner child without sacrificing their more mature intellectual engagements. Pacific Rim is a film about giant monsters fighting giant robots, and a damn good one too.