Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best/Worst of 2014

Movies that were fun, exciting, challenging and most of all, entertaining-
Best of 2014
1 Whiplash- Old story told in a fresh and exciting way. Great acting and great music.
2 Guardians of the Galaxy- Pure fun start to finish
3 Boyhood- An incredible piece of art. A true original
4 Snowpiercer- Wild Sci-fi ride. Fun and thought provoking.
5 The Babadook- Scares the crap out of you without spilling a lot of blood.
6 The Imitation Game- Excellent acting. Fascinating story
7 The Grand Budapest Hotel- Another original. Very clever and fun.
8 Birdman- Great ensemble cast. Intense and intelligent. Unique direction.
9 Love is Strange- Terrific chemistry between Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. Smart, touching and affecting.
10 Into the Woods- Another great ensemble. Amazing Sondheim songs and a terrific story from James Lapine. Excellent movie adaptation.
Honorable Mention-
Selma- History comes alive.
We Are the Best- teenage girls form punk rock band. Anarchy in Norway.
Nightcrawler- Tied for creepiest movie of the year.
Foxcatcher- Tied for creepiest movie of the year.
American Sniper- Tremendous job by Bradley Cooper.
Force Majeure- Insightful family drama/comedy.
Worst of 2014
1 Sex Tape- Embarrassing for everyone involved.
2 Godzilla- Leave the old boy to rest.
3 Noah- What were they thinking?
4 The Equalizer- Too violent with no reason, even for me.
5 The Monuments Men- Nice idea. Boring outcome.
6 The Judge- Old story, old way. Boring and predictable.
7 Wish I Was Here- No I didn't.
8 This is where I Leave You- Imitation “August: Osage County”
9 Top Five- Self indulgent and not that funny
10 Lucy- violent with a ridiculous premise.


          Angelina Jolie directs the film adaptation of the best selling true story of Louis Zamperini. It is a remarkable tale of survival during World War II. The book by author Laura Hillenbrand was an amazing read and truly inspirational. The film version certainly captures the horrors of war and the exhilaration of triumph but somehow misses the soul and spirit of the story.

           Four screenwriters are credited with the story and I think it's a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the meal. Whether its the screenplay or Ms. Jolie's direction, the film covers the physical aspects very well but overshoots the metaphysical features so prominent in the book.

Visually the film is very striking, and Ms. Jolie doesn't shy away from Mr. Zamperini's brutal torture at the hands of the sadistic Japanese soldier that runs the POW camp. She also is intent on sharing every aspect of the 45 days adrift at sea after Mr. Zamperini's plane crashes. She shows us the worst in order to appreciate the endurance and survival even more.

           Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini and he endures every hardship admirably. He is joined by Domnhall Gleeson, Finn Whitrock and Garrett Hedlund as his fellow soldiers. Japanese rock star, Miyavi co-stars as the sadistic "Bird".

            "Unbroken" joins the long list of  "a true story" films this holiday season and it's a film worth seeing but if you want to really experience the true essence of the story, read the book.


     A remarkable time in America is well represented in this recreation of Dr. Martin Luther King's civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. Director Ava DuVernay does a great job, not only sending us back in time to the tumultuous '60's but her direction of star David Oyelowo, humanizes Dr. King and the script by Paul Webb, provides us a complete picture of the man.

       I can't say enough good things about Mr. Oyelowo. Not only is their a physical resemblance to Dr. King, but Mr. Oyelowo captures the speech patterns and body language perfectly. He honors the man with an outstanding performance. Carmen Ejogo co-stars at Coretta Scott King and also does an admirable job. For two very important roles, Ms. DuVernay makes an odd casting choice, picking two high caliber British actors, Tom Wilkinson to portray President Lyndon Baines  Johnson and Tim Roth to portray Alabama Governor, George Wallace. They don't quite disappear into their parts like Mr. Oyelowo but they do manage to convey their character's traits convincingly enough.

      There are a host of other great character actors, including Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding Jr., Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland and even Oprah Winfrey (also a producer), among others, that round out the cast. It's a wonderful ensemble behind Mr. Oyelowo.

      Weaving actual footage of the march towards the end really enhances the film. Art and life blend together to strengthen the impact. What could have easily been thought of as a Lifetime TV movie of the week becomes so much more.  It's such an important time in our history and it's clear Ms. DuVernay and her cast worked hard to get it right.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Ida (2013) Poster
         This new foreign film takes place in 1960's Poland and has a thin bare plot that is both unusual and very emotional. Anna is a orphan raised in a convent who is about to take her vows to become a nun when she learns of a living relative. Her Mother Superior sends her off to meet her aunt and it is then she learns her real name is Ida and that she was born Jewish.

          Anna/Ida and her aunt set off to learn the fate of her parents, killed in World War Two. The road trip taken by the two completely opposite women leads them down an emotional path that is both solemn and stark. The film is beautifully shot in black & white creating visual poetry in every frame.

          Agata Kulesza plays Anna/Ida and she conveys so much with very little dialog. Agata Trzebuchowska plays her aunt with heartbreaking resolve. It is a story of discovery and lost innocence, sad and humble yet somewhat remarkable in tender little moments.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Big Eyes

     Tis the season for films "based on a true story" and if you aren't old enough to remember the paintings of children with big soulful eyes, you may not be interested in this story. It is, however, a film worth seeing for the over the top performance by Christoph Waltz and the heart breaking performance by Amy Adams.

        Directed without his usual bombastic panache, Tim Burton offers up a very human story that covers many themes over the course of the 10 year marriage of Margaret and Walter Keane. The story takes place starting in the fifties. Margaret is a divorced artist with a young daughter. She is swept off her feet by the charismatic Walter who soon convinces her to let him take credit for her art. What starts out as an accident soon turns into a profit machine with the world convinced Walter is the artist behind the "Big Eyes" paintings. 

          Mr. Burton shoots the film in a bright colorful palette and has only one signature Burton moment but he captures Walter's blowhard charisma and Margaret's pathos perfectly.  Ms. Adams is always a delight to watch and Mr. Waltz makes a perfect villain as Walter, convinced to the end, he has done nothing wrong. The film co-stars Krysten Ritter as Deeann, Margaret's apparently only friend, Danny Houston as  Dick Nolan, a San Francisco gossip columnist who "discovers" the Keanes, and Jason Schwartzman as a snobby gallery owner.

            It's a fascinating story that makes for an entertaining film. Stay through the credits for photos of the real Walter and Margaret Keane along with a fitting coda.

American Sniper

       Director Clint Eastwood is in top form telling the true story of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American history and a Navy Seal war hero. After "Jersey Boys", I was afraid Mr. Eastwood had lost his touch but at age 82, he is still going strong and with material close to his heart, in a setting he knows well, his direction is smart, crisp and to the point.

        The film opens with a tension filled situation. With his eye on a potential threat, will Chief Kyle shoot or stand down? We will learn the answer eventually but in that moment, we flashback to the beginning of Chief Kyle's story and the introduction of Bradley Cooper as the adult Chris Kyle. Mr. Cooper has worked hard to hone his craft and this film is his best screen performance to date. He is mesmerizing as Kyle in a role that becomes increasingly more complex. As his worried wife at home, Sienna Miller is excellent, trying to keep her family and her sanity together with her husband fighting half a world away.

         Chief Kyle did four tours of duty during the second Iraq war. We watch as his personality changes with each return home. War is hell and I can't even imagine how it changes a a person, let alone a successful sniper. The battle scenes are very realistic and harrowing but it is the scenes back home that are truly heartbreaking. 

          While the film is based on the true story, I do take some exception to Mr. Eastwood's depiction of Chris Kyle as a "saint".  Everyone has their flaws but Mr. Eastwood's vision is narrow and Chief Kyle can do no wrong. "God, country and family" is his motto and he lives it without any blemish everyday. I am in awe of how this man lived his life and what he accomplished but watching his story, I couldn't help feeling he was too perfect. I would have appreciated the man more, flaws and all.

            That aside, it's an important and patriotic story that people should see and Mr. Cooper should be proud of the performance that honors the man as well as the rest of the men and women who defend this country.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Inherent Vice

        An extremely offbeat detective story based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, this film is both noir and stoner comedy rolled into one.  Many people said the book was too complex to work as a film but writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson has found a way to make it work. It reminded me a great deal of Robert Altman's version of "The Long Goodbye" starring Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe. It seems like a definite influence.

        On the surface, you have a stoned out private investigator, "Doc" Sportello, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix helping his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, played by Katherine Waterston but below the surface, there is much more. 

         The story takes place in 1970 in the fictitious coastal town of Gordita Beach Ca. It is still a time of hippies, free love and lots and lots of marijuana. Doc is frequently stoned and the deliberate pace of the film is seemingly stoned right along with him. During the course of his investigation, Doc encounters a host of crazy characters giving actors like Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Benico del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jenna Malone and Maya Rudolph lots of room to play in Mr. Pynchon's world as seen through the eyes of Mr. Anderson. The closest actor you would consider a true co-star is Josh Brolin, who plays a straight laced detective nicknamed "Bigfoot".  He is both a friend and nemesis for Doc and Mr. Brolin is terrific.

         The film runs well over two hours and concerns itself less about an actual plot and more about all of Doc's episodic encounters. Mr. Phoenix is in almost every scene and carries the film. The script is complex and the dialog very smart.  There are numerous funny lines and situations. It's a slow, fuzzy, fun ride but when the high wears off, you will ultimately ask yourself, what just happened?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Into The Woods

       "Be careful what you wish for".  If you are familiar with the Broadway show, this film is based on, then you know what to expect. If not, be warned, this is not your typical fairy tale. I don't particular like musical versions of Broadway shows. Singing a story works better live but in this case, as he did so well with Chicago, director Rob Marshall pulls it off.

          The real stars of the film are the the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and the screenplay by James Lapine. In a very smart script, they take well known fairy tales, mash them together in a connecting story but twist the outcome. The song lyrics are so smart and clever, as is much of the dialog that it is hard not to appreciate this adult reality check of a fairy tale.

           Bringing life to the songs and dialog is a wonderful cast. Meryl Streep is obviously having a blast hamming it up as the witch that sets things in motion. I completely forgive her for "Mamma Mia". Johnny Depp is terrific as the wolf in what amounts, unfortunately, to just a cameo. Emily Blunt and James Corden are very good as the baker and his wife. Anna Kendrick makes a wonderful Cinderella and Chris Pine spoofs his own image as a pompous Prince Charming. Even the kids,  Daniel Huddlestone and Lillia Crawford are perfect as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood. Tracy Ullman is fun as Jack's mother and Christine Baranski also hams it up as Cinderella's evil stepmother. I could go right down the line with the rest of the cast. Everyone fits their roles perfectly.

              The first half of the film is the lighter side and more traditional of a fairy tale but just when you think the you've seen the happy ending, things grow very grim indeed. It is here where the script throws our characters a reality curve ball. The film goes down a dark path where characters die and life is not all happily ever after. It's a daring move for any musical and it may very well turn off much of it's audience (especially released as a holiday film) but if you really think about the brilliance of the structure and message, you will be glad you went "into the woods".

Top Five

    This is Chris Rock's version of Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories". He asks the same question. "What happens when a comedian wants to be taken seriously?" Unfortunately this film comes off smug and self indulgent. You never get the sense there is any acting going on.

     Mr. Rock makes great use of New York City as a backdrop and has a fine time casting his famous friends in cameos but it all seems worthless. Just watching him go about his daily business, complaining to a NY Times reporter, "played" by Rosario Dawson isn't enough to be satisfying to the viewer. I enjoy Mr. Rock as a stand-up comedian but as a filmmaker, he has yet to really make an impact. I'm sure his real legion of fans will consider this film his "Citizen Kane", a great leap forward in his career but they will be blinded by their loyalty.

       All the good jokes are in the trailer and fall flat if you already know them.  The film is far from "hilarious" and only at times mildly amusing. Mr. Rock's outcome with Ms. Dawson is inevitable and even the twist is pretty obvious. I will admit his satirical portrait of reality stars does hit the mark and is the smartest thing about the film. Gabrielle Union is actually very good as the reality star fiancee to Mr. Rock's character and she nails her one scene of honest emotion.

          I give Mr. Rock credit for examining his life at this apparent crossroad of his career but I don't need to pay to watch him work out his therapy on screen. And what Top Five rap list is complete without KRS-One?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

          The title says it all, this is basically a two hour plus battle for "The Lonely Mountain". If you have no idea what I'm referring to, you have no business going to see this film. Otherwise, Peter Jackson has made pretty damn sure you are committed to seeing the climactic third film in "The Hobbit" film trilogy. The original story was a single book but Mr. Jackson has stretched the story into three films to appease the studio gods, reaping in the gold like Smaug basking in his treasure filled vaults.  

           The "big" names in the cast, including Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lily, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee are all back in smaller but still significant roles. Also returning are Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Richard Armitage, all the fine actors playing the band of dwarves and of course, Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, the heart and soul of the film.
            The earlier films have firmly established these characters so for this final outing, much of the character development has been sacrificed for the action. The two standouts, besides Mr. Freeman, are Luke Evans and Richard Armitage.  Mr. Evans gets a good amount of screen time as the heroic "Bard the Bowman" and is quite the dashing figure. But it is Mr. Armitage that steals the film with a wonderfully layered performance as Prince Thorin.
            The fight sequences themselves are once again wonderfully rendered in CGI by Mr. Jackson and his team but our heroes cut through the "powerful" orcs like a hot knife through butter and there is never any sense of danger in the large battle scenes. The small, more intimate fight scenes are more exciting and have a sense of dread that the outcome can go either way.

              The story picks up directly from the end of the previous one with Smaug destroying Lake Town. It's a terrific opening sequence that sets the stage for what's to come. The film itself is bloated and has its flaws but its still a thrill ride and a satisfying close to the story.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Imitation Game

       Based on a true story but taking cinematic license with some of the facts, "The Imitation Game" is still an absorbing untold story of World War Two. And while it is wartime, the story takes place entirely in England and is the story of Alan Turing, the man credited with breaking the German "Enigma" code.

        Enigma was the secret code used by Germany for all radio transmissions and was deemed unbreakable by all the allied forces. The British Secret Service recruited a small team of code breakers including Turing, who eventually did manage to break the code and turn the tide of war against Germany. How they break the code is the central plot but what really holds the audience enthralled is Turing himself. He was a brilliant mathematician with no social skills and a secret of his own. Bringing him to life is the remarkable performance of Benedict Cumberbatch.

         Mr. Cumberbatch's acting is flawless and easily the best role of his career to date. He is surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Kiera Knightly, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong. Allen Leetch and Rory Kinnear also co-star in small but significant roles.

           Screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum keep things interesting by moving around in multiple timelines, starting in the '50's when there is a break-in at Turing's house. When the detective in charge begins to probe deeper into Turning's life, things begin to unravel. We also see Turing at school as a awkward young man, on a path that will change his life forever. At the center is the team racing the clock to solve the Enigma puzzle.  

             The film is smart, exciting, dramatic, clever and heartbreaking as well. It may well be about breaking Enigma, but it's heart and soul is the story of a complicated man that deserved to be called a hero and instead ended up vilified by the very nation he helped save.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


  Based on the best selling true story of Cheryl Strayed, the film stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl, a self destructive woman who takes a 1000 mile walk of self discovery.

   The film moves back and forth between Cheryl's walk along the Pacific Coast Trail and flashbacks of her life and the events that led to her decision. Ms. Witherspoon is also the producer of the film and you can tell it's a labor of love. She easily does some of her best acting here as she painstakingly recreates Ms. Strayed's original walk.

     Seen in flashbacks, Laura Dern plays her mother, Gabby Hoffman, her best friend and Thomas Sadoski, her ex-husband. These scenes are very emotional and effective since they have a direct link to Cheryl's self destructive path. Once on the trail, Ms. Witherspoon is alone for most of the time but does have a variety of interactions with people both friendly and threatening.

      The cinematography beautifully captures the natural landscapes of California and Oregon. While an interesting story and well acted, it does tend to get repetitive at times. Credit Ms. Witherspoon's strong acting in driving the story forward, keeping the audience rooting for her to complete her journey, both physically and spiritually.

The Babadook

      Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent has made one of the best films of the year that you probably won't want to see. It is an old fashioned horror thriller that will scare the daylights out of you without excessive blood and gore. In fact, there is very little blood at all but the suspense factor is first rate.

      Amelia is a widow trying to raise her troubled young son on her own. The boy is fearful of almost everything and clings to his mother obsessively. While she loves her son dearly, Samuel often drives her close to a breaking point by his actions. At night she reads to him before bed to calm him down and on one particular night, he pulls "Mister Babadook" off the bookshelf.

       The book is a pop up book filled with progressively horrible images and Amelia quickly closes it and finds something else to read. However, the boy becomes obsessed with the Babadook and thinks its coming to kill them both. It is here that the slow build of terror starts to snowball. 

        Essie Davis stars as Amelia and it is a powerhouse performance. Is the Babadook real and has he possessed her or is she just losing her mind? Ms. Kent tosses us small tasty morsels of dread that get bigger and scarier as the film goes on. The horror of the Babadook starts slow with only a glimpse of what's to come.  As Samuel loses control, so does Amelia but the smart script never makes it clear if the Babadook is real or imagined. Either way, the danger is real and the audience is filled with unease and panic at every dark turn.

          The camerawork, music and the wonderful acting by both mother and son (Noah Wiseman is fantastic and I only hope the film has not scarred him for life) all combine to completely unnerve us by the film's climax. The ending is a little too neat but what leads up to it is a brilliantly scary thriller.