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John Wick (2014)

13 Nov

He’s back and meaner than ever. Keanu Reeves stars as the titular character John Wick, a retired hitman hell-bent on avenging his dog by taking out a few members of a NYC mafia brotherhood. We don’t know much about Mr.Wick; we know he had a lover who recently passed away. We know he makes (or made) an insane amount of cash for his services, and we know he likes his guns.

Directors David Leitch,  and Chad Stahelski keep the action at a tight pace with John Wick, while providing us with just enough exposition to get us from scene to scene. The action is stylish and sequenced very well, complimented with feverish amounts of blood and gore. Keanu seems to fit right at home in his action environment. Though he shows no real character depth, he plays his role as hunter/executioner fearlessly and is a commanding presence while on screen.  The supporting cast is mostly composed of stock archetypes and flatter-than-pancake characters, the few notable standouts being played by Willem Dafoe and Michael Nyqvist

The script is pretty much B-movie type stuff, but the execution of certain sequences never quite reach the playfulness a script like this needs to be successful. John Wick takes itself way too serious to have much fun and instead of trying something original with the material, the directors simply copy and paste what successful genre films have done before. We get the same characters and scenarios we have seen countless times before from Taken to Die Hard to Transporter.

Overall, John Wick quickly becomes a fairly typical shoot-em-up thriller. Stylish yes, but not enough substance to warrant a second viewing.

 

Rating 5/10 

Similar to: Taken (2008), Mission Impossible (1996), The Transporter (2002) 

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Interstellar (2014)

8 Nov

Interstellar marks acclaimed director Christopher Nolan‘s 9th feature film, and the first after his hotly anticipated conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy in 2012. Over the course of his career, Nolan has made a reputation for delivering intellectually puzzling blockbuster pictures and Interstellar might be his brainiest and most puzzling film yet.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Coop, a rural corn farmer and father of two children. Corn is one of the few crops that can be grown because sometime in the near future, a global dust storm wipes out nearly all forms of agriculture. Coop is an incredibly scientific man, quick to disregard his daughters complaints of a paranormal presence because it offers no scientific explanation. A strange series of events – some in connection with this “ghost” and others pure happenstance – enables Coop and his daughter Murphy to stumble across an opportunity for space exploration as a last result attempt to save the human race from extinction.

If that description sounds a bit loaded, thats because it is. And we haven’t even finished the first act yet. Things quickly go from a family drama to a graduate metaphysics theory to Gravity-esc space survival to alternate dimension weirdness to time loops and then back to a family drama again. Nolan tries cramming in all sorts of ideas and concepts into a hefty 169 min runtime. Quantum physics, gravity pulls, beings from another galaxy, time anomalies, human evolution, singularities – it’s enough to make your head spin. Thankfully we have Anne Hathaway‘s character Amelia (in a similar fashion to Ellen Page‘s character from Inception) providing exposition to guide us through the this tangled mess of wormholes, black holes and plot holes.

The main problem with Interstellar is that Nolan assumes his audience is smart enough to grasp complex concepts about the nature of time and space, but somehow stupid enough not see bad writing when it stares us in the face.

The script is pretty much passable, and at sometimes, just outright bad. Same goes for many of the film’s performances. Nolan has never been a great dramatic director, but he gets the job done here with the help of an ensemble cast including Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn and an actor I won’t mention for sake of surprise.

However, the flaws of Interstellar are relatively minor compared to its epic aspirations or its technical brilliance. Beautifully shot in 70mm, Interstellar looks amazing, and is sure to deliver on terms of sheer spectacle. There is some jaw-dropping scenes of space/time travel and the score by Hans Zimmer and incredible sound design make viewing the film a pleasurable and visceral journey.

While the film certainly is too ambitious for it’s own good, I would rather see a film take gargantuan risks and (slightly) fail than I would see a film play it safe. Especially when it comes to the epic budget and scope of a canvas that Nolan was given to work with here.

What it really comes down to is this: Christopher Nolan’s dreams are as big as those portrayed in Inception, and seeing his vision unfold in such a grand manner is a delight.

Rating 7/10

Similar to: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Prometheus (2012), Gravity (2013) 

Gone Girl (2014)

3 Oct

Gone Girl is all about the art of deception, particularly the disguises we show to one another under the guise of romance.

In the film, the lives of bittersweet lovers Amy and Nick Dunne (played expertly by Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck) get turned upside down when Amy suddenly goes missing, on a day that also conveniently coincides with their 5th anniversary. Based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, the film closely follows the build-up and aftermath of Amy’s disappearance. Did she leave because she was increasingly feeling restricted by Nick’s controlling and authoritative personality? Did he hide her away so he could be closer with his family? Does he have the nerve to kill her? The film takes it time giving us answers, instead focusing on building a sinister atmosphere that culminates up until the disturbing moment of revelation. Along the way, veteran auteur David Fincher constantly plays his audience like a piano. Over the last decade or so, Fincher has made a name for himself by creating rich, textual story-driven film adaptations; he is at the top of his game here doing what he does best.

The mystery genre has become so conventionalized that audiences often find a predictable, safe-space. Here, Fincher intends to drag his audience out of that space, and he effectively does so through his pinpoint direction and storytelling skills. Gone Girl features some of the year’s best performances too. Rosamund Pike is by far the stand-out; her careful and meticulous acting gives us tremendous insight as her character evolves with each on-screen revelation.

It’s a fascinating, complex film that digs deep into the cynical truth of any relationship: the fact that we often hide things – from the world, our loved ones, and even ourselves – in order to save face and stay within our comfort zone. Despite a miscast Neil Patrick Harris, and ending that feels too hopeful to be satisfying, Gone Girl marks a high note in Fincher’s filmography, and will surely spark conversation long after the credits roll.

 

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Boyhood (2014)

23 Sep

Also known as “Richard Linklater‘s 12-year Project”, Boyhood follows a young boy through his childhood form ages 6-18. Linklater literally spent a few weeks every year shooting the film one scene at a time, using the same cast of actors. This incredible test of patience enables audiences to see characters literally mature and grow years before their eyes in a few hours.

The passage of time itself becomes a recurring theme in Boyhood. We see new friendships form, develop and dissolve; hair grows out and gets cut and dyed. Linklater pays particular attention to the little details which also clue us in as to what year the story takes place in (most notably, the clever use of soundtracks – featuring everyone from Soulja Boy to Arcade Fire). A child sitting at an older-model Mac playing oregon trail lets us know we are somewhere in the early 2000’s. Later, the same child is stealing a lawn sign that reads MCCAIN/PALIN in order to appease his liberal father. Ellar Coltrane plays our star boy Mason, and though his acting skills understandably are a bit rough at first, he quickly finds his unique voice and character. Mason’s sister Sam (played by here Lorelai Linklater) is also great, and Supporting work is provided by the always-excellent Ethan Hawke, and an Oscar-worthy performance by Patricia Arquette.

Rather than adding extra melodrama or building up to some heart-stopping climax, Linklater finds pleasure in the little things, and lets the simple beauty and heartbreak of life speak for itself. The result is a sort of memory montage of various defining moments experienced in the life of a child turning into a man.There is a pure truth-ness to the film that Linklater really expands upon. When viewed in it’s entirety, watching boyhood is an incredibly nostalgic, moving, and overall rewarding experience.

Rating – 10/10 

Similar films: Before Midnight, The Tree of Life, The Squid and the Whale

 

Generation Like (PBS Frontline 2014)

16 Jun

The PBS Frontline Special Generation Like takes a deep look into how an up-and-coming group of tech-savy kids are becoming both creators and consumers of a new digital culture.  Through popular social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook, YouTubeInstagram, and Tumblr, today’s teens are redefining traditional marketing and public relations techniques by identifying and expressing themselves in a digital settings. Likes. Views. Hits. Friends. Subscribers. Tweets. Favorites. The short documentary makes it clear we are living in an era where every move we make is projected into the public sphere and quantified by a certain set of numbers.

Narrated by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, the hour-long special interviews several well-known personalities who have struck it big through social media. Tyler Oakley is one such case. The 25 year-old blogger has over 4.5 million subscribers on his Youtube channel and 2.5 million twitter followers.  He started vlogging from his parent’s house back in 2007, back when Youtube was still in its infancy. Like a typical teenager, he talked about his favorite clothes, his favorite music (One Direction), favorite movies, food and products. As his online popularity increased, the major brands he was mentioning started paying attention. It wasn’t long before brands like Pepsi, People Magazine, Nike, and Taco Bell started sponsoring certain videos, setting up Tyler with exclusive gifts and parties, and creating an image and brand loyalty among some of Tyler’s fans.

It becomes apparent in the social media realm that one’s online presence means everything giving life to the phrase “you are what you like”. By the simple act of “liking” certain brands on Facebook, you are actually playing a part in a bigger community, as well as submitting your tastes to be analyzed by mega corporations. When brands figure out how to tap into your personal tastes, likes, and interests, the line between consumer, product, marketer and creator become blurred. The documentary gives several examples of how modern companies are utilizing fans as mini-employees – getting teens to promote their products among their peers in exchange for exclusive content.

The documentary keeps things at a pretty brisk pace, highlighting both the pros and cons that come with this unprecedented technology. Though the tone of the film as a whole leans towards the critical/cynical side of online commercialism, Generation Like is mostly an engaging and interesting watch for all ages, and should provide for some deep discussion about the role of digital media within corporate culture.

 

Rating 8/10

Similar to: ReGeneration, Consuming Kids 

22 Jump Street (2014)

15 Jun

Coming strong off their last collaboration The Lego Moviedirectors Phil Lord and Chris Miller usher in one of this summer’s most anticipated sequels. Thier first attempt at rebooting the cult 80’s TV show was a terrific success, and proved  smart enough to win over critics and silly enough to win over the masses.

It seems like Lord and Miller have somehow caught lightning in a bottle a second time with their followup 22 Jump StreetOur two undercover cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back, only this time – they are going to college.  Specifically, as undercover students on a mission to locate the dealer of a new synthetic drug that is connected to the deaths of several students. If this just sounds like a repeat of 21 Jump Streetit’s because it is. It reminds me a bit of Tod Phillip’s sequel The Hangover pt II, in that many of the same jokes and plot points from the first film are presented to us in the form of a sequel.

The second installment of Jump Street is clever enough however, in that it knows it’s repeating itself, and many of the best jokes are inside references to the film’s franchise, production, cast, and concept. Best of all, the film is genuinely hilarious; i don’t I have laughed harder in a theatre all year. Comedic elements aside, the film also contains a healthy dose of conflict, dressed up as a three-way bromance between Schmidt, Jenko, and Zook (Wyatt Russel), a football jock who is suspected of being the campus drug dealer. It’s great stuff to watch, and eventually it becomes hard to tell where the overtly homosexual farce ends and where it begins.

Watching the film is like watching your high school class clown in math class, while sitting with the wisecracking kids the back of the class making snide remarks at everybody. Somehow, the film pulls this feat off perfectly, and you end up laughing both at and with the film.

Rating: 7/10 

Similar to: 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, Anchorman 

Enemy (2014)

5 Jun

Filmed before but released after 2013’s breakout thriller Prisoners and also starring Jake Gyllenhaal, director Denis Villeneuve takes the road of the arthouse in his new film EnemyBased on a similar premise to this year’s fantastic comedy The Double, Enemy focuses on one man who comes across what appears to be his exact copy.  Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a university professor who spends his days teaching history and his nights with his lover Mary (Melanie Laurent).  His life is one of repetition; a cycle of rhythms  consisting of school, food and sex. His cyclical and comfortable lifestyle is interrupted when a coworker recommends a film that has an exact lookalike as Adam in the background. We soon find out this actor is named Anthony (who is also played by Gyllenhaal), and he curiously doesn’t live too far from where Adam works. The rest of the film becomes a hazy mess of events that spiral out through the interactions between Anthony the actor and Adam the spectator, and eventually concludes with a complex examination of the duality inherent in everyone.

Enemy is a dark, cryptic, and brooding film that relies heavily on atmosphere and tone. Lying somewhere in between the styles of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg, Villeneuve makes incredible use of lighting, music, and color to give us a mysterious and puzzling look into the lives of these duplicate characters.  The film becomes a sort of Freudian gaze into the subconscious when Gyllenhaal’s two characters each try to manipulate each other and each other’s woman. Wrought symbolism, tension, and the ongoing threat of violence, Enemy is not your everyday film, and many people will be frustrated by the film’s lack of focus on plot and character. I think the film has more to say that it initially lets on however, and multiple viewings and discussions will prove to be useful.  Enemy is an artful delight filled with various puzzles and meanings, and while it might prove to be too complex for some, it’s still provocatively thoughtful in its execution.

Rating 9/10 

Similar to: Mulholland Drive, Cosmopolis, Under The Skin

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