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The Walk

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The Walk is more than just an “only see it in theaters” event. Director Robert Zemeckis has made such a beautiful film, one that balances whip smart family-friendly storytelling with 3D thrills from above, and the end result is staggering. The best cinematic event since Gravity, The Walk is a story of human endeavor, made better with IMAX but still standing on its own merits.

Structure-wise, The Walk is a bit by-the-books, but that’s not a bad thing. Brimming with exposition, the filmmakers know we’re all waiting for the main event, that is, the titular walk. But The Walk takes its sweet time getting there, and the payoff is quite worth it. We see Philippe Petit’s humble beginnings in France, his obsession with tightrope-walking, and the seeds are planted in him to hang his wire across the newly-completed Twin Towers in New York City. This first hour is immediately approachable, but not very complex or stirring. Petit narrates the entire film, removing a layer of subtlety but making the film very accessible. After all, this is a movie about a man walking across a wire, so the complexity is a bit transparent.

This is a wise decision, and it works narratively. Joseph Gordon-Levitt sells Petit and his ambitions, silly accent and all. The film has an aura of playfulness, and Gordon-Levitt has the kind of charm and charisma that draws you in and lingers the entire two hours. Zemeckis favors close-ups, and we see every pore of Petit in IMAX 3D. It makes the whole thing very personal, and we’re with Petit 100% in his ridiculous plan to walk across the Twin Towers.

After the exposition, the film really gets rolling, as Petit and his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) assemble a crew to sneak into the towers and set up shop. It’s all very fun as the gang plans the math and plans the heist to help Petit achieve his death-defying goal. When Petit finally takes his first step on his wire, it feels like the culmination of a job well done, and the thrills only go up from here.

The Walk is a cinematic event, and a perfect family film. The climax is made better by the somber finale, with a brilliant final tag. Anchored by an impressive performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – one of his best – The Walk succeeds in wowing both the thrill seekers and the storytellers.

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Posted by on October 2, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Martian

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Like the astronaut the film is named for, The Martian is very focused and practical. It doesn’t match the ambition or spectacle of Gravity or Interstellar, but The Martian is a no-nonsense science fiction film that knows exactly what it needs to do. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard adapt Andy Weir’s fantastic book with the same grit and humor of the writing style and keep it close to earth, resulting in a satisfying film full of awe.

Survival stories are one in a million, yet what makes The Martian different is that Mark Watney is literally thousands of miles away on Mars. There’s little human drama, not many tears, despite the fact that this situation is life or death and couldn’t get much more dire. Matt Damon brings Watney to life with the same sarcastic wit of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Starlord but with the practicality of Macgyver. He’s a brilliant protagonist, never wasting any time as he awaits rescue on the red planet.

While reading “The Martian,” I was surprised to see that Mark wasn’t the only main character. The trailers gave that away, but the supporting characters in The Martian are doing just as much heavy lifting as Mark. It’s an ensemble piece with a stellar cast despite being about one man. The way everyone unites around bringing Mark home gives the film a sense of community. We have three main camps: Mark on Mars, the Hermes crew in space, and the NASA crew on earth. These three different perspectives make the film never feel repetitive, as I couldn’t imagine being stuck with Mark for 150 minutes.

The Martian is a love letter to space exploration, and it shows. The film is an impressive craft, with strict attention to detail and scientific accuracy. Every character gets to shine, whether its the devoted Hermes Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain, always magnetic), to the behind the scenes work of satellite specialist Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis). Apart from a miscast Donald Glover as the eccentric Rich Purnell, the supporting cast is terrific, especially Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also wanted to especially give a shoutout to the score from veteran Harry Gregson-Williams, which creates tension yet keeps the pace steady the entire way through; add The Martian to the list of sci-fi films with impressive scores.

Still what I love about The Martian is its ability to balance all of these elements without feeling overlong. It’s a long film, to be sure, but I never grew tired of any individual element. Sure, the script could use a few less sci-fi cliches – I can’t stand when a character says “in English, please” to any technological talk – but The Martian wisely avoids the pitfalls of other survival stories. I recently saw the film Everest, another survival film of a different nature, and it was a mess of a film. What sets these two films apart is that I actually cared for Mark Watney. He made the best of a bad situation, and its his engineering and botany skills but also his attitude that got him back home in one piece. The Martian is a smart film made for smart moviegoers with an impressive cast and awe-inspiring 3D moments, overflowing with character.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Ranking the Best Picture Nominees

Every year there are notable omissions, but this year’s Best Picture nominees are a pretty fair bunch. Predictably so, every film deserves to be there, but there can only be one winner. Without further ado, here’s my personal ranking of all eight Best Picture nominees.

8. The Theory of Everything

James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic is about as by-the-books as they come, but it’s still a great affecting look into one of the most influential men in the scientific world. Propelled by an outstanding performance by Eddie Redmayne, the film delves deep into his marriage with Jane, played by the excellent Felicity Jones, and how his disease affected their life. It’s your typical well-done British biopic, but don’t let the biopic cliches keep you away.

7. Selma

I’m shocked that David Oleyowo isn’t being recognized for his work as Martin Luther King Jr. This film couldn’t have come at a better time, too (and would’ve gained a lot more traction had screeners been sent out). It’s relevant, poignant, and resembles a time not so different from the one we are in now. Ava DuVernay handles the film with delicacy, but she isn’t afraid to pull back the curtain and show us the behind the scenes look at blacks’ fight for voting and equal rights. Her direction is impeccable, with great attention to detail and sweeping moments.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

While not as charming as his last feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel seems like the culmination of everything Wes Anderson has done thus far. With all of his signature quirks and quips, the film is a joyride from beginning to end. It’s a hilarious tale that never lets up, bolstered by Ralph Fiennes’s charismatic Gustave H. Beautiful cinematography and production design solidify Anderson as one of the finest indie directors of his time.

5. American Sniper

The biggest box office hit and most controversial film of the bunch, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is his best film since Unforgiven. A brutal look at the life of Chris Kyle, a sniper in the Iraq war with over 200 confirmed kills, American Sniper goes deep into Kyle’s psyche, showing the harrowing effects of war. It’s a moving yet tense film, with scenes back home juxtaposed with breathtaking war scenes. Bradley Cooper flexes his muscles as Kyle, offering a performance that asks so much of him and lets him deliver on every level.

4. Whiplash

The “little indie that could,” Whiplash is a treat. It’s a tense psychological glance into the pursuit of perfection, and what you sacrifice for it. What’s great about Whiplash is that it never succumbs to music indie drama cliches. This is a movie that is supposed to make you uncomfortable, and it sure does thanks to JK Simmons’s performance. The best villain of the year, his creative insults and brutality scare the viewer, but they don’t scare Andrew in his pursuit to be an excellent drummer, and he’s sure to gain the recognition he deserves come Oscars day.

3. The Imitation Game

The trailer for The Imitation Game makes it seem like this year’s The King’s Speech, and in many ways it is. It’s Weinstein’s darling, a British biopic about an influential man in history who overcame obstacles, but the similarities stop there. The Imitation Game avoids what made The Theory of Everything just okay by trusting its performers and interweaving plotline. There aren’t any wasted scenes, every scene is carefully calculated, like Turing himself. It’s very well-directed and scored, but would be nothing without Benedict Cumberbatch, who turns in a beautiful and remarkable performance that gives the film the emotion needed.

2. Birdman

Birdman is insane, and I love it. The film never misses a beat and is firing on all cylinders for its two hour run time. Innaritu gives the film such an infectious rhythm that you’ll be tapping your feet the whole time. Michael Keaton delivers the comeback of the year as Riggan, a washed up actor staging a Broadway play. It’s a reflection of Keaton’s career while also being something completely new. Supporting roles courtesy of Emma Stone and Edward Norton keep it afloat, and Birdman features my favorite sequence of the year: Riggan parading through Times Square in his underpants.

1. Boyhood

By now you’ve definitely heard of Boyhood’s 12-year shooting time span, and how Ellar Coltrane literally grew up on screen. While many are dismissing its gimmick, there’s no denying the beauty behind Boyhood’s simplicity. It’s such a low-key, unique film that is a wonder to watch unfold on screen. Boyhood stresses the importance of those moments that define us, that make us who we are, and it’s the best coming of age tale this century. Linklater’s attention to detail helps him nail those moments with little details, quirks, or a line of dialogue that we know is important. Boyhood will be different for everyone who watches it, but the universality is what unites every viewer. Whether you’re Mason, his sister Sam, or his mother (the amazing Patricia Arquette), everyone can relate in a different way. There’s such beauty in its universality that it almost transcends the limitations of film. We might even forget we’re watching a film and not a child’s home videos. What Linklater has done is fantastic, and it sounds impossible, yet the script allows the film to grow just as its protagonist does, delivering one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen.

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Posted by on January 25, 2015 in 2015 Academy Awards

 

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Still Alice

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“I wish I had cancer,” confesses Alice Howland, as she expresses her frustration with her growing Alzheimer’s. In Still Alice, the beautiful and affecting adaptation of the book by Lisa Genova, we experience Alice’s disease not as a handicap, but as a bold affirmer. It’s a daring and beautiful film, that is both delicate and genuine. A game-changing performance from Julianne Moore keeps the character Alice afloat, as we see the damage being done both physically and emotionally.

As the signs of Alzheimer’s disease continue to afflict Alice, we see the effects it has on both her and her loved ones. In one scene, she flubs up her words at a lecture. In another, she quizzes herself to remember a series of words after 10 minutes. But these don’t stop the disease from doing its worst. Director Richard Glatzer employs smart filmmaking to remind us how awful Alzheimer’s really can be. Some great allegories in the script and some excellent visual imagery paint us the scenario around Alice’s disease. It’s precise filmmaking with great attention to detail.

Some comparisons have been made to typical Nicholas Sparks novels, and while I think those comparisons are just, they don’t quite have the same layers of complexity that Still Alice does. We see what goes on in Alice’s head, as Julianne Moore’s outstanding performance keeps us engaged. The look of lostness on her face, the shaking of her hands, her verbal blunders are all on display here, highlighting the frustration that Alzheimer’s patients and their loved ones have. Moore is simply a revelation. I wasn’t sure about all the awards buzz she was receiving prior to seeing the film, but she deserves every last ounce of it. Moore deserves her (first!) Oscar for this role, one that solidifies her as a classical talent.

The rest of the supporting cast fares well. Kristin Stewart is a marvel as Alice’s daughter Lydia, who takes care of Alice the most. The two have a special bond, with scenes that are tough to watch but ones that I’m sure many will relate to. Lydia has been shaped by her mother, and I’m sure it is hard to watch that bond fade. Stewart is quickly growing into one of the finest actresses of her age, and she nails the role. A miscast Alec Baldwin, unfortunately, takes up a bit too much screen time as Alice’s wife. I have a hard time separating Baldwin from his work on 30 Rock, so he seems a bit too distracting amidst all of the genuine talent onscreen.

The best part about Still Alice, though, is its optimism. A great scene about two-thirds of the way through the film finds Alice giving a speech at an Alzheimer’s association. With brilliant camera work and a sweeping score, it’s a doozy of a scene. This is Moore’s Oscar reel right here. But this scene is beautiful. It handles Alzheimer’s with such delicacy and passion that you’ll walk away feeling simply inspired. A big theme throughout Still Alice is memory, as a few flashbacks to Alice’s youth remind us of that, and as Alice struggles to hold on to the memories it’s riveting to watch. Still Alice is a beautiful reminder that we should cherish every moment. Brilliant direction and great performances across the board result in a resounding win, a film that everyone should see, young or old.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Into the Woods

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Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods is perfect Disney holiday magic. With a brisk, enjoyable storyline interweaving everyone’s favorite fairy tales, Into the Woods is mostly a success, thanks to great performances and musical moments.

Into the Woods combines several different well-known fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood, and throws them into a pot to see what cooks. The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), are trying to start a family, and after learning of a curse put on their family by an evil witch (Meryl Streep), they set out to find magical items to restore the curse. This leads them into the woods where they encounter these different fairy tale heroes who all have dilemmas of their own.

If I told any more, it would give away significant plot points, but know that Into the Woods is exciting for its entire 2-hour run. Because we know how most of these fairy tales turn out, little moments have great significance as fans of these stories will catch these subtle winks. It’s a riveting mashup that will keep you excited every turn.

Director Rob Marshall keeps the pace going perfectly, and the first two-thirds of the film are remarkable. The opening prologue is excellent, setting the stage and introducing us to the (many!) characters. This could’ve been a hot mess, but Marshall keeps a tight grip on each character, giving them enough development to be interesting. About two-thirds of the way through the film, however, the tone shifts significantly, and it’s here where Marshall loses some footing as he scrambles to wrap up the intricate plot points. Characters drop off never to be seen again, and the ending is a bit rushed, but the great beginning makes up for it.

The musical numbers, while not as rousing or exciting as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, are also fun and enjoyable. Who knew so many of these performers could sing? Emily Blunt and Chris Pine especially shine in the singing numbers, with their respective songs “Moments in the Woods” and “Agony” being the highlights. “No One is Alone,” in particular, is an excellent ballad for a great finale. Meryl Streep, as well, delivers some exciting musical moments, once again giving us an awards-worthy performance that fits the Streep name.

Rob Marshall knows how to make a musical. Though it stumbles towards the end, Into the Woods is a rousing win. It’s exciting one turn, dramatic the next, and features musical moments that will be caught in your head all day. It’s a perfect holiday capper, brimming with the Disney magic we all know and love.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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Unbroken

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Unbroken is a tricky film to adapt. Based on the ambitious book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned WWII pilot who becomes interned in a Japanese POW camp. That right there is a lot already, and director Angelina Jolie and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen had to make plenty of cuts to make a film like this work. Luckily, she pulls it off, and the results are satisfying.

The book Unbroken had a lot of moving parts, and the film does as well. We begin with the plane crash that left Louis and two others stranded on a raft in the Pacific Ocean. Interspersed amidst the plane mission are flashbacks to Louis’s youth, when he got into trouble as a kid but was turned on to running by his brother Pete. Eventually Louis competed in the Olympics before joining the air force. The beginning of Unbroken is a bit messy; flashbacks are too intrusive, Louis’s family is underdeveloped, and the film never sets into a groove until the plane crash.

From here, though, Unbroken delves into some great stuff. Director Jolie was really fond of Zamprerini, and the two developed quite a relationship while making this film. Her dedication shows throughout the film, honoring him and doing his story justice. Excellent casting gives us Jack O’Connell as Zamperini, in what will hopefully be his breakout performance. It blows my mind that O’Connell isn’t in the awards conversation. He captures all of Louis’s nuances, his scraggly physical demeanor, and his witty defiant personality. It’s a great performance that has a lot of subtle moments.

The second half of the film deals with Louis in the Japanese internment camp, where he is frequently tormented by “The Bird,” a brutal prison guard. Played by Japanese pop star Miyavi, The Bird is a terrifying villain. I was worried about translating The Bird’s inhumane treatment of the prisoners into the film, worried that it would be too PG-13, but all of The Bird’s horrors are put on display here. The climax, in which The Bird forces Louis to hold a beam over his head and if he drops it he will be shot, is an outstanding sequence, one that really stands out.

The film ends after Louis returns from the camp, but you could fill three entire movies with epilogue material. Like I said, it’s a tough book to adapt, as it’s more of the story getting the film treatment, rather than the research book itself. A few “true story” slides round out the end, with the film of course being dedicated to Zamperini himself, who died this summer. It’s a tearjerking ending considering this fact, but Unbroken keeps his legacy alive.

In the hands of any other director, Unbroken could’ve been a disaster. But Jolie does the source material justice. It’s an incredible story, one for the ages, and the film adaptation is great. Fewer cliches would’ve been nice, but a WWII redemption story can only be so unique. But Louis Zamperini is a hero, one put on great display in Unbroken. It might not be a groundbreaking film by any means, but Zamperini definitely is a groundbreaking human.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Imitation Game

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On the surface, The Imitation Game might seem like your typical British biopic, but it’s much deeper than that. Mathematician Alan Turing was a fascinating man, and he is brought to life here brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s never a dull moment in The Imitation Game, and director Morten Tyldum keeps you on your toes as he flashes forward and back in Turing’s life. Unlike another British biopic this Oscar season, The Imitation Game is just the right amount of ambitious and involving, propelled by fantastic performances and a bolstering score.

The Imitation Game, adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, shows us the life of Turing as he was recruited to help crack the Nazi code during World War II. He helps lead a team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park and their goal is to break the Enigma, the Nazi encoding device, to intercept messages and win the war. It’s a really interesting true story, and it is estimated that Turing helped reduce the War by at least two years. We see a side of the war that we rarely see in The Imitation Game. Unlike Fury or Unbroken, two other WWII prestige pics this year, Imitation Game gives us the glimpse at the men and women behind the scenes.

Turing himself, though, had plenty of secrets. He doesn’t play well with others, leading to plenty of conflict as Turing is convinced that his computer “Christopher” will crack the code. Also, Alan was a homosexual, which at the time was illegal in Britain. The film plays subtly with this theme, never bringing it to the forefront, but keeping it in the back of our minds the entire time. In flash-forwards, we see Turing on trial for his crime, and some truly devastating scenes follow. On top of that, one of the codebreakers is a mole, and some thrilling scenes result from this. It’s a tragic tale, an important one, and Game deals with important themes throughout, as Alan himself was an ‘enigma’ of sorts. But Game is never bogged down by its heavy-dealing themes. Instead everything moves along at a smooth pace.

We also meet Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and through her the film deals with a duality as both her and Turing are outsiders during this time. They strike up a friendship that is truly something to behold on screen, and surprisingly Knightley has actual chemistry with Cumberbatch. Speaking of, Cumberbatch gives the performance of his career in The Imitation Game. I’ve never been a big Cumberbatch fan, but I’ve never not liked him, however this movie changed my mind. He brings all of Turing’s complexities to the stage, giving us a calculated, awkward, but still likable character that we root for. Some might say Imitation Game is an underdog story, and in some aspects it definitely is, but it’s more about recognizing that Turing, like everyone else, is only human. A quote repeated three too many times in the film paints this well.

Couple this with a score from my favorite composer, Alexandre Desplat, and The Imitation Game is the whole shebang. A complex, well-told story with a tight script from screenwriter Graham Moore and a flat-out terrific performance from Benedict Cumberbatch has Oscars written all over it. But awards aside, The Imitation Game deserves to be seen because it’s an important film, one about a great man whose legacy will be remembered for ages.

 

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

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