Tag Archives: Drama

99 Homes (2015)

16 Oct

The year is 2008. Facebook is slowly starting to overtake Myspace, Obama and McCain are contesting for president, and the nation’s housing market has flipped upside down. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a loving single father trying to make ends meet as a construction worker. He has been served an eviction notice for an overdue mortgage and will soon be evicted by the infamous real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) if he can’t front enough cash to retain the property’s title. Desperate to keep his family home, Dennis and Rick begin to forge an atypical work relationship, although Dennis has so clue just how far he will have to go in order to keep his dream of being a property owner.

99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani, takes the American Dream and presents it to us in such a rich and complex way.  An interesting spin on the rags-to-riches cinderella story, the film focuses more on the moral dilemmas that arise when people are confronted with compromising their values for a few extra bucks.

It’s an intimate and personal story, one the follows Dennis and Nash’s relationship wax and wane with each new scene. Andrew Garfield is great as the leading man, and he brings much authenticity to his role, but the real scene stealer is the fierce and questionable Michael Shannon as the ruthless and captivating Rick Carver. Always a great performance actor, Shannon is mesmerizing in 99 Homes; it’s hard to imagine the role being played by anyone else.  Supporting work by Laura Dern is also very good, adding a welcome emotional layer to the film. Bahrani shows off plenty of directorial skill and creates a space for the real tension of the on screen situations to shine though. Weather we are watching a family get evicted, or a police standoff, the film is powerful and gripping, but still loaded with warmth and humanity.

Bottom Line: 99 Homes is an excellent, tightly crafted drama that is fuelled by outstanding performances and richly complex, pertinent subject matter. 

Rating: 7/10 

Film recipe: Citizen Kane + Nightcrawler + 21st century realism 

True Story (2015 Sundance)

11 Feb

Longtime comedy duo James Franco and Jonah Hill bust out their dramatic skills in the Brad Pitt-produced True Story, a film about the grey areas between truth, journalism and fiction writing. Loosely based off the real-life events of American journalist Michael Finkel (played here by Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter who comes accross the story of his life when confronted with Christian Longo (James Franco), a man accused of killing his wife and children and then using Michael’s identity while in custody. Michael, who is under his own charges of falsifying a recent story, becomes amused at why an alleged murderer would use his name, decides to investigate the story and ends up writing a book about the case in order to build credibility back to his journalistic name.

True Story documents Michael and Christian’s odd relationship as they get to know each other over a series of face-to-face interviews. What follows is a series of interactions that sets up a psychological game of cat-and-mouse for our two protagonists. While Michael strives to get to the Truth of what really happened, Christian is always one step ahead of the game, paying his own set of cards from inside his jail cell. Weather or not Christian actually killed his family or weather he was framed becomes the focal point of the film, and the main mystery which propels the drama forward. Felicity Jones plays Jill, Michael’s wife, and her involvement in the case, and in the life of Christian, intensifies as the film progresses.

What would be great material for someone like David Fincher or Roman Polanski to direct tragically falls short under the hands of director Rupert Goold. Mostly known for his theatre work, True Story is Goold’s first feature and it shows. The moments of possible tension in the story are tragically played down which all  adds up to a series of missed opportunities. The film is also much tamer that I would have guessed (I wouldn’t be surprised if it received a PG-13) and its tendency to play things safe and lean towards a minimalistic adaptation of a crime backfires.  The interactions and performances of Hill, Jones, and Franco however, are superb and True Story proves that the comedic duo can hold their own dramatically.

Bottom Line: Despite its missteps, True Story is definitely worth a watch as it greatly showcases Hill and Franco’s versatile talent.

Rating 6/10

Similar to: The Ghost Writer (2010), State of Play (2009), A Most Wanted Man (2014) 

Birdman (2014)

28 Nov

“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige” remarks Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a method actor recently hired to play a key part in Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Directed by veteran dramatic director Alejandro Inarritu (21 Grams, Amos Perros, Biutiful), Birdman follows a Broadway stage production over the course of several days, capturing the cynical characters of it’s production. The film’s titular character is actually the superhero alter ego of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up, aging actor set on reclaiming his past glory by directing and starring in his own play called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Riggan has faded from glory since his role in the blockbuster Birdman films, and though his influence in the artistic community is waning, Riggan is committed to becoming the Next Big Thing. Living partly in his fame-seeking fantasy world guided by the Birdman character from his films, Riggan’s desperate attempts at producing an authentic work of art collides with disillusionment with reality and increasing disconnect with those around him.

Despite Inarritu’s affinity for the bleak and somber, Birdman is incredibly upbeat and vibrant. Keaton is fantastic as the leading role, and gives a performance that is both inspiring, bizarre and desperately meta (Keaton himself was the star of Tim Burton‘s successful Batman films from the early 90’s). Norton’s performance of Mike Shiner is also fantastic as he is essentially playing a younger, more successful version of Riggan. The rest of the all-star cast is composed of Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer/agent Jake, Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter Sam, and the always-excellent Naomi Watts as Lesley, the actress and former lover of Mike.

Birdman is entirely shot in one simulated take, giving the audience a feel that we are watching a play-within-a-play unfold as characters come and go on set and in between acts. The camera acts as a sort of character itself, swooping in and out of scenes at will, sometimes tracking characters for 20 minutes or more. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch, and should make for a shoe-in Best Cinematography nominee come Oscar time.

Though Birdman makes a point to capture various points of view, most of the drama revolves around Riggan’s denial of reality and constant distance from those closest to him – namely, his daughter and ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Though I was expecting a bit more laughs in something billed as a “Dramedy Satire”, Birdman provides some incredibly thought-provoking commentary about fame, relationships, and staying relevant in an increasingly disconnected world.

Rarely is the existential crisis this cool.

Similar to: Adaptation (2002), Magnolia (1999), Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Rating: 8/10 

Disconnect (2012)

5 Jan

In a society growing more and more reliant on digital technology,  does such technology fundamentally the way in which we are communicating and connecting with one another? This is the questions Disconnect asks the audience, and through s series of interconnecting stories we see the multiple effects the digital age has created for its users.

Structurally similar to the 2006 Best Picture Award Winner Crash,  Disconnect strings together a series of characters and incidents surrounding the use and abuse of digital media. A lonely housewife flirts with an online stranger.. a highschool boy starts a fake Facebook profile as a joke… someone’s digital identity is stolen, someone’s daughter receives a sexually explicit text… you get the idea.  The film’s message is obvious right from the title screen.

What makes the film work is its use of editing back and forth between the stories to keep the film moving forward at a brisk pace.  Despite an overbearing amount of melodrama, the narrative is engaging, and the film paints an effective portrait of 21st-century life. Things get bugged down during the third act where a predictable finish is delivered to us in a painful slow-motion.  By this time, the audience is so numb from the film shouting in our faces about the evils of the digital world, this final sequence is simply an anti-climatic way of wrapping things up.

Directed by Oscar-nominee Henry-Alex Rubin, the film stars Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton, and Alexander Skarsgaard, who all give good-enough performances to make up for some of the less-than-enthusiastic child acting.

Rating: 7/10

Similar to: Crash, Babel, 21 Grams

The Way Way Back (2013)

7 Jul

Water parks and fireworks have long been staple of every American kid’s typical summertime, and these two elements provide the background for this rather typical indie drama. The Way Way Back tells the story of one introverted boy named Duncan and his eventual coming to terms with others around him, especially his mother’s divorce.

The film marks the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writing duo known for their Oscar-winning screenplay to 2012’s The Descendants, and the similarities are evident between the two films. Both are character-driven dramas about parental figures who are out-of-touch with their children, both films display instances of awkward youth romances, both films are shot on these exotic sea-side locations that upper-class white families can afford.  Overall, it seemed to me that this was just a copy+paste of the exact formula that won these directors an Academy Award. Which is all fine and dandy, except I didn’t really enjoy The Descendants that much in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, The Way Way Back is a very enjoyable, family-friendly movie.  The ensemble cast, (featuring Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janey, and the ever-entertaining Sam Rockwell) is great and the story, while predictable and irrational, is fast-paced and heartfelt. Most impressively, the film wraps things up at a neat and clean 103 minutes. It’s even got a good amount of smart, witty humor.

The main issue here is that the characters (with the exception of Rockwell’s and Rudolph’s) felt fake and overused, playing off of cliche’s we have all seen a billion times before. The film was made by two amateur directors, and boy – it shows, especially with the children.  Acting heavyweights like Carrell and Janey can hold their own and create bearable chemistry, but the scenes featuring two children flirting with each other (and there was by far too much of that) felt so awkward and forced into a trope that I literally had to close my eyes.

The one bright beam of light here that makes the film enjoyable was Sam Rockwell, who delivers his lines so well that even at their cheesiest (“You need to learn how to create your own path”) are a welcoming relief to the lackluster script.

What Faxon and Rash need to realize is that in a character-driven film like this, characters must take priority over everything else and should be developed into authentic and memorable individuals (think Little Miss Sunshine, The Squid and the Whale, The Ice Storm, or any David O. Russel or P.T. Anderson film) and not simply used as cookie-cutter plot devices.

 

Rating 5/10

Similar to: The Descendants, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Moneyball

 

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

8 May

If you are wondering what the best movie in theaters is right now, I would recommend Place Beyond the Pines. The film is really a compilation of three mini-stories that cover over 15 years of father-son relationships. Bradley Cooper is great. Ryan Gosling might be even better. Sometimes the movie’s ending feels like it’s never going to come, but I was so absorbed in the story I didn’t want it it to. When the credits finally do roll up, I felt like I had taken an emotional roller coaster ride that lasts over 2 hours. This film is epic.

8/10 stars

Similar to: Traffic, Heat, Lord of War

End of Watch (2012)

2 Oct

Adding to the already monstrous pile of found footage films, End of Watch gives us an inside look of the infamous Los Angeles Police Department.  Brian Taylor (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two L.A.P.D. partners who get involved with a conspiring drug cartel.

Gyllenhaal and Pena are both great together on-screen and they each drive the film with humor and sincere emotion. You really become attached to these two leads and the film cleverly shows us what is going on in their lives, both on and off the streets.

Though the shaky-cam was extremely annoying at first, you get adjusted to it after a while and instead focus on the film’s story.

And for a found-footage film, End of Watch has an extremely good story. David Ayer, who is no stranger to crime movies (he also wrote Training Day and The Fast And The Furious), directs the action and performances with perfection.  I wasn’t expecting too much from  End of Watch, but it really blew me away with it’s emotion and many clever plot twists.

End of Watch is far from perfect (the horribly over-used shaky cam is one of the obvious flaws), but the film is very well done and I was much more emotional than I thought I would be when the film finished.

Which is always a good sign.

rating  7/10