Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top 10: Favorite Films of 2014 (Part 2)

5. John Wick
One of the biggest compliments you can pay a movie is to say that it knows what it is and John 
Wick suffers no identity crisis. It's a slick, stylish action thriller that delivers exactly what its initial trailers promised: loads of gun-toting, blood-spattering retribution and a ridiculous sense of humor-- nothing more and nothing less.

Michael Nyqvist is in on the joke, hamming up his role as the Russian mob leader, Viggo Tarasov, who's dim-witted son mistakenly murders John Wick's (played ever so coolly by Keanu Reeves) dog and steals his car. As it turns out, John Wick used to be the Russian mob's go-to contracted killer whenever they had a job too big to handle themselves. Ouch.

John Wick smartly abides by the Law of Keanu, which states that less is more. True, Reeves is no Robert Downey Jr, but in the right role and with little to say, Reeves can be a reliable option. John Wick is such a role and definitely the best fit for Reeves since Neo in The Matrix. With Keanu Reeves as its sturdy center, John Wick relies on one heck of a supporting cast to smooth out the edges. Talented actors such as Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, as well as the aforementioned Nvqvist, all lend a hand in giving a sense of identity and history to the world of John Wick; a rich world that I personally would love to see explored further in any future installments.

Like I said, it isn't anything fancy. There is no profound, life-changing view to walk away from this movie with. It's a well-choreographed, well-shot popcorn flick packed to the brim with action and bursting with cheeky flair.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Speaking of which, perhaps no film last year unabashedly expressed cheeky flair as much as James Gunn's The Guardians of the Galaxy. From the talking raccoon and the walking tree, to the prominent protrusion of its 70's pop playlist, Marvel's latest is about as subtle as a David Bautista punch to the face. In lesser hands, the joke would have been on the filmmaker, but James Gunn has a real knack for pastiche and thus 'Guardians' serves as an amusing send-up of the superhero genre, something Hollywood was in real need for, too.

Of course, Writer-Director James Gunn's unique ability to fascinatingly fuse comedy with earnestness would only get him so far without the right cast. With such a stubborn squad, it could have been a nightmare to strike the perfect balance, but they nailed it. Special recognition goes to Chris Pratt for being the consummate Star-Lord for Gunn's interpretation of the material and the glue who convincingly holds the group together, and Bradley Cooper for packing so much sympathy into such a small window of his character's back story and giving credence to Rocket as a character rather than caricature.

Over all of it, 'Guradians' is stuffed with action and brimming with laugh-out-loud dialogue, as well as rewarding references and on-going gags. This film has definitely earned its spot among Marvel's best film adaptations and superhero films in general.

3. Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal's news footage gatherer Lou Bloom ranks towards the top of cinema's all-time great sociopaths and his performance is on par with the likes of Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Everything Gyllenhaal does in front of the camera illustrates a complete character: the slouching, the almost anorexic shape of his body, and even the perpetual, nervous blinking. It's a devoted performance. Now, it's definitely not new territory for Gyllenhaal, having made a name for himself in Donnie Darko, but that doesn't make his performance here any less special and it's a shame, albeit not a surprise, that he wasn't nominated.

Nightcrawler also impresses from a technical standpoint. The cinematography is gorgeous. if a tad bit simple; the sound design truly captures horrific atmospheres of each crime scene Bloom investigates; and the musical score captures the emotions going on inside Bloom's head rather than what the audience is seeing on screen. Everything about this movie is designed to take the audience inside the character of Bloom and it works as a fascinating and captivating character study. It's a sickening delight watching this seemingly soulless individual take advantage of everyone and everything around him in order to achieve maximum success.

I walked away from this film disgusted with Bloom, our media, and myself for enjoying every last minute.

2. Birdman
There are a lot of things you could say about Birdman, and indeed a lot of things have been said. What I'll say about Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is that it's special. It's special in the way that it stars Michael Keaton, who played Batman, as a fallen Hollywood star who yearns for his glory days as a blockbuster superhero icon. It's also special in the way that it's made to look like one shot within the claustrophobic confines of an off-Broadway music hall.

Keaton's darkly quirky performance as the self-deprecating, guilt-ridden Riggan serves as the centerpiece of the film and indeed it's a career highlighter for sure. However, Keaton isn't the only actor who's earned an Oscar nomination for Birdman. Both Emma Stone and Edward Norton give electrifying performances as Riggan's daughter and Broadway co-star, respectively.

What's also special about Birdman is its kinetic, almost infectious energy. Everything keeps moving so new information is constantly being revealed and nothing feels stale. Despite its star's obvious age, Birdman has an abundance of fresh, young supporting talent that aid the film's continuous flow of fast, witty dialogue; intimate development; and even a fistful superhero-esque special effects. The upbeat, up-tempo score also invigorate a number of its scenes, specifically where Riggan envisions himself once again dawning the now-famous Birdman getup. It's a bizarre experience for sure, but a lot of fun. This film almost seems to dare its audiences to fall asleep.

1. The Babadook
After I saw directorial newcomer Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, there was no doubt in my mind what my favorite film of the year was. She's crafted a brilliant slow burn with two of the most impressive but overlooked performances of the year, from veteran actress Essie Davis and first-timer Noah Wiseman.

Davis plays Amelia, a single mother still haunted by the death of her husband and the seemingly unfortunate birth of her son, Samuel (if you've seen the film, you'll know what I'm talking about). One night before bedtime, Amelia finds a mysterious red velvet book on Sam's shelf titled "Mr. Babadook" and mistakenly reads it out loud to him. It doesn't take long for the shadowy, titular beast to make its presence known. At first it's a couple of knocks and then it's glass shards in Amelia's soup. Before long, Amelia is receiving late-night bedroom visits from The Babadook himself. It's some truly disturbing stuff.

What's more impressive about Kent's feature debut is that it transcends its genre in a way that very few horror films from recent memory have been able to do. The Babadook's not just scary as hell, it's also an expressive allegory for grief and the destructive aftermath of loss. From the seemingly inexpressive set decoration and wardrobe to the mostly immobile but chillingly refreshing cinematography, everything about Kent's film is designed to give the viewer an overwhelming sense of oppressiveness and hopelessness.

Not only is The Babadook my favorite film of 2014, but it's one of the best movies of the year as well as one of the best horror films of the past decade. You should definitely let this one in.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Top 10: Favorite Films of 2014 (Part 1)

10. Life Itself

Ironically enough, we kick off this list with the critically acclaimed documentary about the critically crucial critic, Roger Ebert. Roger is probably best known to the masses for his discussion-based television show, At the Movies, in which he and fellow film critic Gene Siskel (later it was Richard Roeper) passionately debated (and that's putting it tenderly) their thoughts on the new releases that week. Among his many other accomplishments for the medium, Roger Ebert helped make film criticism sexy and helped stir the dialogue between filmmakers and film-goers.

With this profound documentary, Director Steve James focuses on the man behind the myth. We see Roger at his most vulnerable, all the while still perusing his passion as a writer and film enthusiast. It's an emotional and inspiring piece about one of cinema's most overlooked champions.

9. The Muppets Most Wanted

Movin' right along, this Disney sequel picks up, quite literally, right where the delightful 2011 hit left off. Now that Walter's officially been dubbed an honorary Muppet, Kermit and the gang decide to take their show on the road and embark on a world tour. What follows is a more than satisfying entry for the long-running, long-beloved felt franchise.

Although this follow-up seems to lack the child-like wonder that Jason Segel seemed to bring to the original reboot, almost everything else that made it so special remains intact: from the abundance of cheery cameos to yet another seductively catchy soundtrack from the Academy Award-winning Bret McKenzie ('I'll Get You What You Want' was snubbed!). Muppets Most Wanted also benefits from the addition of the cold-blooded, charismatic Constantine.

8. Begin Again

From one charming soundtrack to another, Director John Carney strikes all the right chords with this infectious musical drama. Mark Ruffalo's empathetic performance as a down-on-his-luck music producer plays perfectly off Keira Knightley's heart-aching portrayal of a heart-broken, small town girl looking to form some sort of identity for herself in the otherwise unforgiving landscape of the music industry.

These two leads have undeniably compelling chemistry and they're reason enough to see this film. But what takes Begin Again above and beyond other cookie cutter copycats, other than the brilliant playlist of course, are the solid performances from the colorful supporting cast, largely made up of real-life professionals from the industry, as well as its refusal to give into banality and its insistence on making an identity for its own self.

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Another sequel to a 2011 entry of a long-running franchise swings onto my list with this follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A decade after the simian flu supposedly obliterated the human race, the world has gone ape as Cesar and his brethren are living in peace as the new heirs to the Earth. However, that peace is threatened after the discovery that humans still linger on in refugee colonies just across the San Francisco Bay.

The 'Apes' franchise finds new life with this surprisingly human tale of loyalty, co-operation, and the devastating effects of war on all parties. Andy Serkis, who is famous for his terrific motion-capture work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, gives arguably his best performance to date as the seemingly incorruptible ape leader who refuses to believe that humans are all bad. All supporting performances are great as well, but what makes this sequel stand out is the polarizing development of Cesar as he continues to evaluate what's important to him and his flourishing planet of apes.

6. Beyond the Lights

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees) examines the musical drama genre through the lens of an endearing romance, featuring the powerful acting chops of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who also gave another outstanding performance this year in Belle. Noni is a young talent who has, for years, been scrupulously sculpted into an up-and-coming pop star by her demanding mother. One night, this suffocating lifestyle leads Noni to a lonely hotel balcony in a last-ditch cry for help. As fate would have it, she is, at the last minute, snatched from the cold, concrete jaws of death by her studly soul-mate and pulled to safety.

The slow-burning romance between Noni and Kaz (she had a hard time believing that was his real name, too), is such a delight to watch unfold. From the awkward first meetings; to the more intimate exchanges; to the guy defending the woman's honor by physically assaulting her rapper ex-boyfriend on stage; to a tender moment that had me in tears, involving Noni removing her weave; all the mushy, familiar touchstones of a budding life-long partnership are expounded and thanks to the kinetic chemistry and heartwarming performances from its two leads, Beyond the Lights is a wonderful examination of the effect of celebrity on personal identity.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: The Boy Next Door

It's difficult to believe, but we've reached the point where Jennifer Lopez is now a mom in her mid-forties. As such, it makes sense that Ms. Lopez's would seek out for roles that reflect this aspect of her life and she's found one in her new thriller The Boy Next Door.

By her own standards, Lopez gives a solid performance as Claire Peterson (a solid name, I might add). She's a high school English teacher who specializes in the Classics as well as a devoted mother who just can't seem to seal the deal with a good guy. Her son, Kevin, played by Ian Nelson, is your typical high school door mat who gets pushed around by cookie cutter bullies and is too shy to even be in the same hardware store as his crush. Claire and Kevin have been abandoned by Kevin's deadbeat, cheat of a father, portrayed by John Corbett, who spends the entirety of the film trying to make it up to his family. Enter Noah Sandborn.

Noah is a hunky, young heart-throb with a mysterious past who quickly cozies up to the Petersons. He befriends Kevin and before anyone can ask "Who is this guy?", Noah is repairing their garage, their car, and even Kevin's self-esteem, giving him the confidence to ask out the girl of his dreams and stand up to those high school jerks. Behind the scenes, Noah is putting the moves on Kevin's mom and Director Rob Cohen, of Alex Cross fame, wastes no time digging into the meat of Claire and Noah's new-found sexual tension.

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart mentioned how the audience at an early screening of the film clapped after Claire and Noah's steamy love scene. Lopez affirmed that that meant the audience was at that point emotionally invested in the characters and that they believed this was the point of no return for everyone involved. After seeing the film for myself, I am convinced that the audience in question must have been clapping purely because that scene was so steamy and not because they legitimately cared about these people.

As is the general complaint with these types of films, it's difficult to become emotionally invested in hollow shells of people who seem to lack basic common sense. As an example, the aforementioned love scene ensues as a result of Noah asking Claire to walk over to his house, in the rain, to show him how to correctly cook a chicken in the oven, which Claire must do in order to propel the plot forward. Ridiculous situations that are promoted through the sheer dim wits of dull characters, like these folks, are laughable but in fact could have worked had the filmmakers involved focused more on the camp of it all, which its trailer and even sections of the film suggests.

Instead, the focus of the film seems to be muddled between said camp and making a serious stalker thriller, which makes the few scares the film does have seem like a bad joke. In other words: this film is too campy to be taken seriously but does not commit enough to camp to be forgiven for its wavering.

What makes things worse is an ending that solidifies for the audience that not even the filmmakers care what happens to these characters.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Oscars Gripes... *Sigh*

Just a few quick thoughts on the 2015 Academy Award nominations...

First off, how was LEGO Movie not even nominated for Best Animated Feature?

Second, I am not entirely shocked but completely disappointed that Gugu Mbatha-Raw was overlooked. She gave terrific performances in multiple films. She's quickly turning into one of my favorite young actors.

Third, the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among the nominees this year is disgusting.

Fourth, how can you nominate Foxcatcher for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, but NOT Best Picture?

Lastly, Jake Gyllenhaal gets a Best Actor nod in my book.

More on the Oscars to come.