My Review: A Most Wanted Man (7/10)

“To make the world a safer place.”

Director Anton Corbijn followed up his slow paced thriller, The American, with this spy thriller which requires the audience’s full attention if they want to understand what is going on with the plot. It is a film driven by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lead performance (which also happened to be his last one) which makes up for some of the minor flaws of the film. Despite being a slow film, this character kept me engaged with the story. Comparisons with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came across my mind about fifteen minutes into the film due to the overall tone and pacing of the story along with the cynicism surrounding some of the characters and the double crossing that takes place between the different agencies. It’s a sort of cat and mouse tale that takes its time to establish itself. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, but A Most Wanted Man is a very solid thriller which could have benefited with a little more suspense and tension. I later discovered that the film is based on John le Carré’s novel, who also happened to write the novel for TTSS so I wasn’t entirely crazy when I was comparing the two films. John le Carré was a former British spy so he really knows what he is writing about and his novels have proven to be great source material for films. The characters and the spy stories have a genuine and authentic feel to them. It didn’t hurt either that Philip Seymour Hoffman was chosen for the lead role because he drives the entire film from the opening scene to the very end (and what a great scene that was). 

This isn’t your average procedural spy film, it is more interested in portraying how the system works. Each agency despite trying to work together seems to have different agendas. We also get a glimpse as to how the bureaucracy functions in these type of situations. Some are looking for quick fixes while other try to dig a little deeper and are more concerned with looking for the bigger fish and protecting the innocent. We see these differing view points through the main characters of the film who all do what they believe is right. So we get real characters who aren’t simply painted as good or bad people. Through the way they operate we discover their philosophy and the way they are thinking. As interesting as these characters are at times the film does lack to build more tension and tends to alienate the audience. 

As I mentioned above, Philip Seymour Hoffman drives this film with his powerful yet subtle performance as this German security agent who is trying to avoid another 9/11 disaster. It is a cynical world in which he lives in and his physical performance translates how exhausted he is feeling. It is such a genuine performance and he never misses a note. The cast is very strong as well, with solid supporting performances from Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Nina Hoss. I was disappointed that Daniel Bruhl was underused because he has proven to be a great actor and he should have been given a more substantial role in this film. Despite the strong cast no one seems to be at the same level as Philip Seymour Hoffman was in this film. His scene in the end was one of the best performed I've seen all year.

My only major complaint with A Most Wanted Man is the use of German accents. I understand that they would speak to American agents with these heavy accents, but it took me out of the movie when they would speak amongst themselves in English as well. I wonder why audiences seem to think it is more believable if they speak english in their german accents, when in reality it doesn’t make much sense, you might as well just let them speak plain english. But that is just a minor issue I had here because the film delivered strong performances and it was a solid and intelligent spy thriller. 


My Review: Annabelle (3/10)

“There are things happening that I can't explain.”

The Conjuring was one of my favorite horror films of the past decade and it even managed to make it into my list of the best films of 2013, which is a huge achievement considering I’m not a fan of the genre. Despite how much I enjoyed The Conjuring, I still had very little expectations for its prequel, Annabelle, because from the get go it seemed like the producers were simply trying to bank on the success of the first film. That is perhaps the reason why they rushed this film to theaters only an year after The Conjuring. The budget is surprisingly smaller and James Wan’s direction is missed here. I want to begin my criticism with the technical aspects of the film because The Conjuring was one of the better looking horror films I had seen, but from the opening scene in Annabelle the contrast is huge. The lighting and the eerie setting that was so effectively used in the original is lacking in this prequel. It’s strange considering that director John Leonetti was the cinematographer in The Conjuring, but here he fails to give the film a similar look. Instead of those amazing shots Wan delivered, we get several close ups of the doll’s face which never actually does anything. This film looks as ugly as the vintage Annabelle doll does and it lacked the eerie atmosphere that worked so well in The Conjuring.

If at least the story or characters would have been half as interesting as The Conjuring I would give Annabelle a chance, but nothing about it really worked for me. The story is predictable, the characters are uninteresting and boring, and there are very few scary moments. Leone should stick to his work as a cinematographer which is an area where he has proved to be talented, but as a director this is his third flop. If it weren’t for The Conjuring’s success this film would have been sent directly to DVD because even the performances were wooden. Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton fail to deliver compelling and interesting characters we would care for. That lack of sympathy for them hurts the film’s chances to scare us. The Conjuring had set up such an interesting premise that there were a lot of interesting things that could’ve been done with this prequel. Unfortunately here we discover that the doll that was the scariest thing in the paranormal investigator’s closet (enclosed in a glass shelf) actually isn’t all that eerie as it seemed thanks to Gary Dauberman’s uninspiring script.

Despite how much Annabelle disappointed me, I still have to admit there were two or three shocking moments that sort of worked for me. The film does become predictable and familiar at times relying on the sounds of rocking chairs and appliances going off on their own at night. After so many close-ups of the dolls face, it lost its eeriness. The three moments I will rescue from this film involve the opening scene where we see the neighbors get attacked by a cult from the window, then the scene we see from the trailer where the small girl runs towards the door turning into the adult Annabelle, and finally the elevator scene which was perhaps the scariest moment of the film. Other than those three moments I wasn’t really shocked by Annabelle. The characters and the story were so boring that at times I felt like snoozing for a few minutes. It was a huge disappointment.

My Review: The Judge (6/10)

“My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

The Judge may not be the highly effective powerhouse courtroom drama we were expecting when we first heard about the pairing of Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall, but it isn’t the terrible film some critics are describing it as either. Most of us had high expectations for The Judge but once the first reviews started coming in my expectations were lowered so I went into this with moderate expectations. It is a somewhat effective melodrama when it centers on the father and son family dynamics, but when it tries to include other subplots like the courtroom drama scenes and the relationship with a former lover, the film falls flat and feels overlong. 

Director David Dobkin succeeds when he gets Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in a room together. Those are the most effective scenes of the film and they standout because both actors are on the top of their game. Dobbin however fails when he tries to cram other dramatic elements into this film, and he does so way too often. At 144 minutes, The Judge could have been more effective if it were cut short and centered exclusively on the family dynamics rather than on the rest of the subplots that Dobbin is cramming into the film. The problem is that Dobbin is trying too hard to make a serious film since this is his first time directing a non-comedy. 

Audiences who were expecting a Grisham style courtroom drama will be disappointed because that aspect of the story falls flat, but as a film centering on a dysfunctional father and son relationship it succeeds thanks to the two lead actors. When the two Roberts get together The Judge pulls at your heart strings effectively, but the rest of the scenes do feel clichéd and manipulative (especially the scenes involving those home movie projections). I also enjoyed this as a character study of the different family dynamics and I appreciated the films intentions about giving an honest portrayal of aging through Duvall’s character. There are some powerful scenes, but they are ruined sometimes by the cliches the film follows.

Aside from Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall’s powerful performances (they are both at their best here), there is also a very interesting supporting performances from Vincent D’Onofrio. His scenes with Downey are relevant as well and he holds his own. Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t really get much character development considering the court case is simply included as an excuse to keep this family together. Farming is a wonderful actress and she gives a strong performance as well, but her scenes really don’t add anything to the film and their subplot could have been left out. 

The premise of the film isn’t anything we haven’t seen before either. The story centers on a hot shot lawyer from a big city who is returning to the small town he grew up and ran away from, for his mother’s funeral. He doesn’t want to stay long because his relationship with his father is a disaster and we get a glimpse of it early on. Those scenes are powerful but not entirely original. Downey plays the smart mouth witty son to perfection, while Duvall is the uptight and stern father who he can easily play in his sleep. The only moment where Duvall and Downey were on screen together that didn’t work for me was when they begin discussing their personal issues while his father stands on trial. That was just one example of a forced moment where melodrama seemed more important than authenticity. There are several moments like this that hurt this film, but the few authentic moments are powerful enough to recommend this it. The Judge isn’t a bad film, it’s just one that had the potential to be so much more.

My Review: Hercules (6/10)

“Are you only the legend, or are you truth behind the legend?”

Hercules was one of those rare cases where I was glad the film was nothing like the trailer was portraying it as. From the trailers I was expecting yet another Clash of the Titans sort of fiasco, but I was pleasantly surprised the film took an entirely different approach. Instead of portraying the Greek mythology as something completely accepted in this world, it actually is just a myth that some have more trouble than others in believing. 

Hercules is one of those silly action films that rarely work for me. I tend to find these sort of action packed movies where there is very little character development dull and boring. Surprisingly however, the action sequences looked impressive and somehow I was engaged by the characters. For the first two thirds of this 90 minute film I was on board with the breezy and light hearted action, but unfortunately the final act included an uninspired twist that didn’t work for me. I felt like the film rushed to the conclusion and tied things up too neatly. Hercules has many flaws and lacks depth but it makes up for all of this with some slick visuals, engaging action sequences, and an impressive lead performance from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Brett Ratner won a lot of enemies when he ruined the X-Men franchise for many fanboys, but he has also made some entertaining and decent films like Red Dragon and the first Rush Hour. Hercules may not be a great film, but it was much better than I anticipated and I had a decent time with it despite being predictable and pretty straightforward. 

Perhaps the best thing going for Hercules is the lead performance from The Rock who completely drives this film and engages us with the title character. He is an action star with a lot of charisma who happens to sell the funny moments as well. Ian McShane also deserves his share of credit for the comedic moments of this film. He is great in his secondary role as one of Hercules’s sidekicks who also seems to have the ability of foreseeing his own death. Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, and Reece Ritchie each deliver as part of Hercules’s faithful companions and despite not having any depth to them whatsoever I still managed to care for each one of them. The greatest weakness of the film might be the lack of a strong villain and a somewhat unbelievable twist. All in all, Hercules is decent enough to give a mild recommendation from my part.


My Review: Maps to the Stars (5/10)

“On the stairs of Death I write your name, Liberty.”

I don’t consider myself a David Cronenberg fan since some of his recent films didn’t appeal to me and I haven’t had the chance to see his earlier movies, but I do tend to appreciate his work more than I actually enjoy it. This was the case with the incredibly twisted and dark Hollywood satire, Maps to the Stars. It wasn’t a joyful or pleasurable experience for me, but I did admire some aspects of this film. I tend to go for more straightforward narratives than surreal films so that explains why I enjoyed A History of Violence and Eastern Promises much more than his other films. Those two films remain my favorite from Cronenberg. Maps to the Stars was a major improvement from Cosmopolis, but I still had a hard time accepting some of the dark humor and Cronenberg’s hyperrealistic style. I’m sure Cronenberg fans will love this film because he uses plenty of symbols and makes fun of the vein world of celebrities. Using Hollywood itself to establish his familiar dark backgrounds, Cronenberg goes full mode with these messed-up and unpredictable characters. The film has a Greek tragedy structure as well as incorporating familiar ghost story elements to the narrative. Maps to the Stars is as insane as the world of the celebrities it tries to portray. There is also a lot of industry talk going on in this film exploring the Hollywood dynasty and the obsession people have for celebrities. 

Like in most of Cronenberg’s films the characters are difficult to sympathize with and of course it is the case once again with these self centered celebrities who seem to be completely messed up. No one does a better job than Julianne Moore who plays a manic-depressive washed up movie star. She is amazing in this film, but completely annoying at the same time. I wasn’t a huge fan of Evan Bird and John Cusack’s performances. Cusack went over the top with his character and it didn’t really work for me. Mia Wasikowska on the other hand is very subtle in her performance. She seems to pick some strange roles, but she pulls them off. Her character has scars in her body from burns, but they aren’t nearly as disgusting as the souls of these celebrities. Cronenberg seems to be obsessed with disfigured women in his films, but he makes sure we notice that what really is disfigured in Hollywood are the souls of these celebrities. I can give Cronenberg credit for his style, but I can’t say I enjoyed this film. I still don’t understand what was going on with that fire sequence in the film. The CGI was terrible and the scene looked completely fake, but I’m not sure if Cronenberg was intentionally trying to make it so considering he has a twisted sense of humor. 

My Review: The Captive (5/10)

“You claim you didn’t see anything suspicious when you looked back to the truck.”

The Captive is the latest film directed by Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) which happened to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year where it was booed by the audience. I’d definitely not boo this film considering I didn’t think it was a complete disaster, but I didn’t really like it either. My reactions are mixed. On the one hand it tries to stand out from other kidnapping films by incorporating a non-linear structure, but unfortunately it doesn’t really help the narrative either. It doesn’t seem to have the character depth nor suspense that other successful movies dealing with kidnappings have. It is rather unfortunate as well that it was released one year after the highly praised Prisoners which was a much better film. There are some suspenseful moments in The Captive, but it is hard to care for these characters considering they weren’t developed at all. They all seem to be sort of emotionally disconnected and the captive girl never seemed to had suffered any side effects from her captivity at all.   

Despite all the misfires this film had there was a character that sort of managed to keep me interested, and I think it has to do in most part with Aaron Reynolds’s solid performance. He plays the father of the kidnapped girl and he is the only one who seems believable in this world. While the film focused on him, it kept me engaged and interested, but as soon as the focus shifted to the other characters the story suffered. On the one hand you have the procedural part of the film that is incredibly annoying due to the poor job the detectives are doing on the case. The film failed to give the audience any plausible reason as to why these detectives were so intent on blaming the father for the kidnapping of the girl when he didn’t actually do anything suspicious. Then on the other hand we get to see the kidnaper’s relationship with the kidnapped girl which is completely unrealistic. So when the film departs from the Reynolds character (and it does so way too often) it completely looses its appeal. Mireille Enos plays the mother, but she doesn’t add much to the film. When her initial reaction is to blame the father for the disappearance of the girl you kind of feel cheated because there is no rational explanation for these sort of behaviors. The entire reasoning behind this seemed to be to isolate the father and make us feel sympathetic towards him. There are some thrills in The Captive, but nothing really special to recommend.


My Review: The Two Faces of January (5/10)

“I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

The Two Faces of January opens with a striking beautiful photography that captures our attention immediately. From the very first scene where we meet the main characters while they are touring at the Parthenon in Greece we are drawn by the visuals, and we soon find out that it plays a huge contrast to the underlying darkness of the lead characters. This is a very stylized and gorgeous to look at film, but the characters are hiding several dark secrets under their exterior cool looks. This is a period piece that gets all the technical aspects of the film right, but the narrative lacks suspense. As complex as these characters may seem, there is very little that attracts us to them. Despite the fantastic interplay and chemistry between Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Issac, the narrative does little to raise our sympathy for these characters. If the screenplay could have been more engaging this could have been a fantastic film because it is aesthetically gorgeous. There are several twists and reveals along the way that are dark and mark a huge contrast to the breathtaking background. Unfortunately, The Two Faces of January is one of those films where the style seems to be more relevant than the story. 

This is Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, but considering he wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite recent films (Drive), I had high expectations for this film. I’m also a huge fan of Mortensen and Isaac’s work so I expected to have a great time, but despite their solid performances I never cared for the characters nor the suspense the film was trying to raise. As a thriller it never really works, but the cinematography makes up for most of the film’s flaws. I also enjoyed the costume design, because it was very stylized and it set the right mood giving it an authentic retro vibe. The score however did feel a bit manipulative and forceful at times. As much as it was pleasurable to look at this film I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing. A thriller without suspense doesn’t really work for me and that was my main issue with this film. There is also an underlying father and son relationship that the film sort of wants to explore, but never really does go beyond dealing with the beginning admirations and ultimate disappointments.


My Review: Begin Again (8/10)

“I just think you have let your troubles get in the way of your entire life.”

There is no doubt that music has a deep influence in our lives, and there is no one who expresses this better in movies than director John Carney, who has returned to the musical drama genre after his success in 2006 with Once. Begin Again is sort of a love letter for musicians and aspiring musicians as well, reminding them about the importance of not selling out and remaining authentic. This is a big part of the dramatic narrative and Carney, a former musician himself, reminds audiences that music is personal and has a different meaning for everyone. This isn’t your standard rom-com because the screenplay is written in such a way that you never can fully anticipate what direction it’s heading. Rather than centering on a love relationship it focuses on a work collaboration between people who are passionate for music. Somewhere along the way they got their hearts broken and lost their motivation, but a coincidental encounter brought these two characters together and set them in the right path once again. I fell in love with these characters and found it hard to resist this feel good film. The chemistry between Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley was special and charming. This film may have flown under many people’s radar, but it is one that is worth checking out. There are plenty of authentic and funny moments while the dramatic elements are also engaging. The cinematography might not be the best we’ve seen, but the rich characters and charming score make up for it. Begin Again is a joyful and genuine film that pulls at your heart strings without ever feeling manipulative or clichéd.    

The performances are a huge part of the success of this uplifting and cheerful musical film. Mark Ruffalo has been on quite a role lately and once again he plays a rather flawed character in such a way that he still manages to remain likable for the audience. This lost musical producer seems to find his way when he encounters Keria Knightley’s character in a bar one night. Knightley is fantastic as well and I felt her performance to be impressively genuine and authentic. Every scene she shared with Ruffalo felt real and the dialogue was never forced. The natural chemistry between these two is something you don’t run into very often. I would go as far as saying that Knightley’s performance is one of my favorite of the year. Adam Levine gives a solid performance playing this self absorbed rising star. He is a better singer, but that doesn’t mean he can’t act. Hailee Steinfeld has grown as a mature actress, but she has always been a force to reckon with ever since her outstanding performance in True Grit. Most Def and Catherine Keener also have solid supporting roles. Everything about this film is charming and hard to resist despite the fact that it remains small and unimportant. It’s simply a feel good movie that pays homage to the influence of music in our lives, and lets us in on the creative process while at it. 


My Review: The Equalizer (7/10)

"I am offering you a chance to do the right thing. Take it."

With the exception of Training Day, which I absolutely loved, Antoine Fuqua hadn't directed a film that merited much acknowledgement. Being able to team up with Denzel Washington once again definitely attracted many people's attention towards this project, but if they were expecting The Equalizer to replicate the success of Training Day then they'll be disappointed because what they get with this film is a standard, by the books action thriller. It plays out like most revenge thrillers do and it follows the standard formula of the genre in such a way that you can easily predict the outcome of most of the film. What The Equalizer does have going for it however is the presence of Denzel Washington in the titular role playing a character with a particular set of skills. Washington is solid and he elevates this generic film in such a way that he manages to keep us entertained. There is something cool about his character and he portrays that interior smoothness very well here. His character may seem calm and friendly in the surface, but when it comes to helping the weak there is no one who can serve them justice better than him. His character will easily remind people of Liam Neeson in Taken, or even Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher although Washington's character is much more likable. The film also takes its time to set things up and it works to the films advantage here; I would even say the buildup is much stronger than the execution. The stylized violence is also present in this Fuqua film and I enjoyed the overall look of the film with the underlying score setting the tone. The Equalizer reminded me a lot of Man on Fire, which was a film I really loved so if you were a fan of it as well you might want to check this out. It is very similar in structure and I would go as far as saying that it has a superhero movie feel to it as well. 

I have seen over 20 films starring Denzel Washington and I yet haven't seen one I disliked. Sure, there were some average films he made, but never have I been disappointed by his movies. I know The Equalizer isn't groundbreaking and I shouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did because it is full of cliches, but it was impossible for me to resist Washington's charm once again. He gives a solid performance in this action thriller and he carries the film. The female characters are all portrayed as victims here once again, but Chloe Grace Moretz sells her character very well. She has some solid scenes with Washington at the beginning of the film which help set the premise of the film. Melissa Leo could have been the strongest female character in the film, but she only has a brief appearance. This is basically a one man show with Washington personifying coolness. Marton Csokas is set up as a pretty strong villain during the first half of the film, but he could have been better used in the second half. Csokas is Washington's counterpart (kind of like what The Joker was to Batman) and the buildup to the face-off is what works best in this film. I had a great time with this action thriller despite all its flaws.


My Review: 22 Jump Street (6/10)

“Do the same thing as last time. Everyone's happy.”

After their early success this year with The Lego Movie, Phil Lord and Chris Miller are back in the director’s chair for the sequel to their 2012 hit comedy, 21 Jump Street. It is a difficult feat to pull off a comedy sequel considering the fans are expecting the same formula from the original film but at the same time they also want something fresh and unique. There isn’t really anything unique about this sequel considering it is basically the same movie as the original with a few exceptions. It continues to bank on the great chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum and that is basically what kept me engaged with this film because most of the jokes were kind of predictable and repetitive. The screenwriters are also having fun with the fact that they know sequels are usually unimaginative and they simply tend to get louder, so they included several self-referential jokes throughout the film. 22 Jump Street is basically a parody of most Hollywood sequels, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it is better than the original because several of the jokes felt forced and repetitive. I’ll give this film credit for the energy and the bromantic chemistry between the leads, but there isn’t much more to this sequel. It is better than most comedies that have come out this year, but I don’t think it lives up to the freshness of the original film. There are some sharp and witty jokes throughout the film, but there are also many awkward moments where the comedy really doesn’t work. 22 Jump Street succeeds because it sticks with the same formula as the original, but I was hoping it would at least feel fresh and inventive. The self-mockery works for a while, but it isn’t enough to give it a free pass for it.

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are the reason why these comedies have worked so well, and it is hard to find a comedic duo with so much chemistry as these two. The story however is rather weak, and you really don’t care much for the plot. The leads are basically the reason why you will have a good time with the comedy, but I wish they could’ve put a little more effort on the plot. Some of the secondary performances were weak and I really had a problem with Jillian Bell’s performance as Mercedes. She brought the film down for me and every time she spoke I felt like the scene was forced on us. Ice Cube has a fantastic scene alongside Jonah Hill which had me rolling on the floor. That scene was hilarious along with the final credit sequences which were also fantastic. I understand why some critics consider this to be funnier than the original, but I still prefer the freshness of 21 Jump Street over this recycled sequel.