Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie Review: Lone Survivor

As a war film, Lone Survivor is a wildly successful action piece designed to simultaneously horrify and titillate the masses. It's when the film tries to be something greater that it transforms into a ham-fisted melodrama. When the movie clicks, it's a dazzling dose of high octane film making with moments of genuine emotion and sincerity. However, there are some laughably juvenile sequences sprinkled throughout that dampen it's otherwise kinetic pacing. Fear not, director Peter Berg doesn't achieve Michael Bay/Zack Snyder levelness of cheesiness in Lone Survivor, but he gets close.

Lone Survivor is the story of four Navy SEALs conducting a reconnaissance mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. Some pesky locals discover their position and place the team in a less than ideal situation. Release the civilians and run the risk of them alerting the enemy of their location, or kill them and be war criminals, ruining the Navy SEALs honor and long standing reputation. The SEALs release their captives and sure enough, are ambushed by hostile forces in a fierce mountain side battle.

Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster play the members of the SEAL team and deliver great performances all around. Even though Wahlberg is about ten years older than the rest of the cast, and it was a bit weird watching him take orders from Taylor Kitsch, he's the bonafide "star" of the film and is *SPOILER* (not the title brah), the lone survivor. In my humble opinion, it's Ben Foster who steals the show here. He puts a Doc Holiday-ish spin on his character that transforms him from badass to ridiculously badass. The bond between these characters is not only believable, but during the insane gun fights it borders on heartbreaking. I attribute this to the tremendous talents of the cast (yes I just praised Taylor Kitsch's acting skills), using their onscreen chemistry to propel the film...because the script alone sure as hell couldn't.

Peter Berg is lucky he cast strong leads and knows how to channel America's love of 80's action films, because the script he wrote and some of the mind numbingly cliched directorial choices he made on Lone Survivor almost ruined his film. First gripe, we don't know or care about the characters. We get brief, almost empty glances into their lives before we are suddenly thrust into Call of Duty: Mountain Ambush. The relationship between the SEALs would have felt totally forced if it wasn't for the A+ performances selling each scene. Next, the film's tacked on political commentary would have been funny if it wasn't laughably one dimensional. One could imagine Berg listening to the Team America theme song while doing push ups in the editing room screaming "FUCK YEAH!" with every head shot. I understand this is an adaptation of a book, and the author (a real SEAL...that sounds weird) didn't have time to wax philosophical with the dudes shooting bullets at his face, but watching faceless villains getting annihilated starts to get stale after a while. The epic battle between the "good" Afghan villagers who save Wahlberg and the "terrorists" is compelling, although it starts to feel like "magical negro" syndrome by the end.

Perhaps Lone Survivor's worst offense is shielding itself behind the "based on a true story" defense. The film opens with footage of legit Navy SEALS training and ends with images of the actual personnel who died during the real Operation Red Wings. It has been shown that the events depicted in this film have been greatly exaggerated, or grossly inaccurate...depending on your view. When you take away the forced sentiment that comes with these "true story aka real hero" movies, you're left with the a flawed film that might not have been detected otherwise. Make no mistake, Lone Survivor is a thoroughly entertaining action film, with great performances and some stunning cinematography. Maybe a more skilled director could have successfully taken the film beyond the confines of "action flick" like Berg so desperately aspires to, unfortunately, he falls short. 

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

At this point in the game, it's become a universal fact that the Coen brothers are brilliant filmmakers. Anyone who's into film, from avid cinephiles to AMC gift card junkies, knows that a new Coen brothers release is tantamount to required viewing. At least this was my experience with their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. A film that left me feeling cold after first viewing the trailer, but I forced myself to watch simply because of the brilliant men behind the camera. Well, the verdict is in...

Inside Llewyn Davis is a massive bore. Yes, the film is rife with great performances, stunning cinematography and enough quirky dark humor to make Walter Sobchak proud but even these qualities couldn't save the film from being a snooze fest of epic proportions. The plot meanders along like the music it's protagonist plays, and while Llewyn Davis' songs are raw and heartfelt, the overall tone of the film is frigid and lifeless.

Best Supporting Actress: this cat
Oscar Issac stars as Llewyn Davis, an aspiring folk singer and all around asshole. Davis bums around the streets of New York during the winter of 1961, determined to make it big as a folk singer, find a new couch to sleep on and apparently, alienate every last friend and family member who tries helping him. Davis may be the ultimate schmuck, but Oscar Issac brings a human quality to this thoroughly unlikable character, delivering a truly standout performance that ultimately salvages the entire film. I mean, I'm no folk music enthusiast but even I managed to enjoy Issac's impassioned performances throughout the film. Too bad once Llewyn Davis stopped playing, Inside Llewyn Davis resumed it's uninspired march to the doldrums. Although I admire several technical aspects of this film, I cannot wholeheartedly endorse it which leaves me at an odd conundrum.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about a starving artist, a musician who struggles to achieve his creative vision without compromising his integrity for a quick buck. Throughout the film, Davis ignores just about every piece of advice/criticism thrown his way and views all interlopers with great contempt. He's the genius, their opinions are invalid and he will become famous on his own terms, or to quote the great Dirk Diggler-
I'm the star, it's my big dick and I say when we roll.
 Unfortunately, Llewyn's raw talent isn't enough. His bitter arrogance and unyielding personality negates his undeniable musical prowess and damns him to couch surfing for all eternity. In many ways, Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted a film eerily similar to it's protagonist. An aloof slab of celluloid that is technically brilliant but genuinely non-entertaining or compelling in anyway. Although a competent picture, I'm not convinced Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that absolutely needed to be made.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Top 5 films of 2013

 photo 12_years_a_slave_ensemble_cast_a_l_zps9a00ff0b.jpg12 Years A Slave- Directed by Steve McQueen.

In a year full of great films, 12 Years A Slave stood out amongst the rest as one of the most important movies in recent memory. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a brilliant cast, along with scene stealing turns from Paul Dano, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and a genuinely frightening performance from Michael Fassbender that will leave viewers squirming in their seats for generations to come. McQueen's visceral, no nonsense direction creates an intense and bleak atmosphere that reflects the grim stain in American history the film depicts. A truly powerful film that will resonate through the ages.

 photo Before-Midnight-cast_zpsc4e74b60.jpg Before Midnight- Directed by Richard Linklater

My most anticipated film of the year did not disappoint. If 12 Years A Slave hadn't brought the historical/social gravitas, Before Midnight would have reigned supreme as my favorite film of 2013. The latest in Richard Linklater's "Before" film series is a raw examination of adult relationships. Less romance, more melancholy and monotony but captivating all the same. The characters of Jesse and Celine have come along way from their starry-eyed first encounter in Before Sunrise. Unlike in previous chapters (of this... possibly the greatest trilogy ever?) it's not time that's their enemy, it's everyday life.

 photo MV5BMTU3NDg5NTA5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDAxNjM3MDE_V1_SX640_SY720__zps1334bcdf.jpgHer- Directed by Spike Jonze

I've always liked Spike Jonze. I grew up watching his music videos and commercials before I realized he was goofy Conrad from Three Kings. When I saw Adaptation, I was too young to fully understand his ingenious subtlety behind the camera but I knew something awesome was taking place onscreen. Well, Spike's latest film Her is nothing short of a masterpiece and I can say with confidence, Spike, I love you man. Joaquin Phoenix delivers another career defining performance as Theodore, a lovelorn writer who falls in love with his computer OS. This movie encapsulates the emotional weight of Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep's elevator scene in Adaptation, but takes it into the stratosphere. A truly beautiful film.

 photo PLACE-BEYOND-THE-PINES-03_zps41470040.jpgThe Place Beyond The Pines- Directed by Derek Cianfrance

The most overlooked film of the year? I think so. Derek Cianfrance's sprawling crime/family epic is one of the most emotionally jarring films of 2013. It's dark and morbid, but poetic and touching. Everyone in the large ensemble cast delivers great performances but Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper do the best work of their careers in this film. Say what you will about the plot or execution of this ambitious film, the acting, cinematography and musical score are untouchable and are all worth a viewing in their own right.

 photo dwayne-johnson-anthony-mackie-mark-wahlberg-pain-and-gain-600x400_zps07f9e638.jpgPain & Gain- Directed by Michael Bay

A Michael Bay film that I didn't hate, let alone standing tall in my top 5 list?! Well, Pain & Gain is that good (in a horribly callous, despicable way) folks. This thoroughly deplorable yet jaw-droppingly funny film follows the real life exploits of quite possibly, the dumbest criminals in recorded history. Bay grabs this project by the horns and turns what would otherwise be a dark and twisted film into a tongue and cheek self aware eye wink to all the haters (such as myself) who have chastised the man since Pearl Harbor. Let it be clear that no one does lowbrow entertainment (juvenile humor, explosions) like Michael Bay. Hail to the king.


2013 was an amazing year in cinema. I should have posted a top 10 list for all the great stuff I saw this year but for the sake of continuity, kept the top 5 tradition going. Anyways, here are the rest of my favorite films from last year:

Dark, Law & Order: SVU plot, with Jake Gyllenhaal's scene stealing performance/hair.

Pacific Rim
The most fun I had at the movies all year. In IMAX 3D or standard, Gypsy Danger rules in any format.

American Hustle
David O. Russel continues his streak of awesomeness. Enough said.

Spring Breakers
I will defend this film til my dying breath! James Franco and his neon lit femme fatales are amazing to watch.

Only God Forgives
Despite it's flaws, I simply could not stop thinking of Refn's latest film long after I left the theater. Don't agree with me? "Wanna fight?"

Check my Letterboxd profile for all things film related and reviews for my entire top 10:

Friday, January 3, 2014

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up once again for The Wolf of Wall Street. After this, their fifth paring, I'm starting to believe they really are "...duly appointed federal marshals." All jokes aside, you know Leo brings his A game whenever he's in a Scorsese picture and his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street is no different. Well actually, it is a bit different. Leo is renowned for his onscreen intensity (re: screaming a lot) but his turn as cocaine fueled stock broker Jordan Belfort takes DiCaprio to a new realm of insanity and goes straight to 11.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a wild and hilarious black comedy about the stock market robber barons of the 1980's. The film chronicles the drug fueled shenanigans of Jordan Belfort and his cadre of greed merchants who con hapless suckers from their hard earned cash, selling worthless stocks and making a killing in the process. For the con-artists turned stock brokers of the Stratton Oakmont firm, exploitation is their business and business is good. The shit these dudes get away with is ridiculous. The drugs, the sex, the debauchery, the numerous felonies, it would be obscene and downright unbelievable if this wasn't all based on real life events. By the end of this three hour film two things will be made painfully obvious. Wealth does not trickle down ( in fact it's snorted from the bottom) and truth is stranger than fiction.

The Wolf of Wall Street is anchored by Leo's strong willed performance. His character Jordan is like a human wrecking ball. He's at the forefront of everything and it's his frantic vision/greed quest that keeps the film's breakneck pace in motion. Jordan starts off as a naive young broker on Wall Street who transforms himself from an idealistic boyscout to a corrupt multimillionaire and Quaalude enthusiast within a few short years. The film follows Jordan's rise from poverty to "Bond villain" luxury, and indulges the dark capitalist power trip fantasy that exists within our collective consciousnesses. As entertaining as the film is, with it's wild parties, (excellent) nudity and record breaking profanity, it's far too long and repetitive. I know, the film is over indulgent and excessive because it mirrors these assholes lives but seriously, it could have been trimmed down twenty or thirty minutes easily. Also, most of the characters, including Leo as Jordan, are sort of wishy washy. One second they're scummy caricatures, the next they're trying, (trying being the key) to be real people. The only legit performance in the whole film belong to Jonah Hill, who plays Jordan's right hand man and steals every scene he's in.

The fact that Martin Scorsese is still turning out films like The Wolf of Wall Street at age 71 is amazing. Considering that most of his cohorts from the 1970's have languished in mediocrity during their senior years, it only makes Scorsese's talent and passion for film making that much more admirable. Scorsese is the real star of this film. It's his presence behind the camera that makes this 3 hour trip into asshole land not only worth while, but funny as hell. Is this as great a film as Goodfellas? No. But you have to remember, the murderous gangsters in that movie where characters with heart that you come to love, The Wolf of Wall of Street is about...bankers. Considering the source material, I'd say Scorsese did an amazing job.