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.

My Review: The Giver (2/10)

“Our community was built on rules. Differences weren’t allowed.”

It’s not an easy feat to make Meryl Streep look bad in a film, but The Giver manages to do so with this simplistic and dull film. Based on the best selling novel written by Lois Lowry, this adaptation is yet another film geared towards a young audience centering on a dystopian society. The plot centers on a community where everything is apparently perfect because since no one actually feels anything there is no pain. Everyone has a specific role in society and must do as they are told. The similarities with Divergent came up more than once while I was watching this and unfortunately The Giver makes Divergent seem like a masterpiece. I have never read the novel, but I doubt it is close to being anything like this film because it is very bland and predictable. For a film that is attacking sameness it really doesn’t do anything to try to stand out from other films in the YA department. The social critique seemed like it was written by a young teenager who was spelling out everything for the audience, and there really isn’t anything deep or thought-provoking about it either. These themes have been explored in the past in much better films. Perhaps I’m just tired of the teen dystopia genre, but this easily wins my vote for one of the worst films of the year. The only good thing I can say about this film directed by Phillip Noyce is that the cinematography is gorgeous so at least the movie looks good, but there really isn’t much going on story wise. There really isn’t much more I want to say about this film because I felt it was a complete waste of time, but I’m surprised it has worked for so many people. 

Despite how much I like Merly Streep and Jeff Bridges I didn’t really enjoy their performances here. Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes may not be considered amongst the best actors out there, but I usually enjoy their performances. It wasn’t the case in this film either and I don’t think they added anything to the film. Some actors can elevate the material at times, but there wasn’t anyone who could’ve done it here. Brenton Thwaites plays the lead character in this film and he doesn’t do a bad job. Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan’s characters aren’t really developed, but I guess it is sort of the point considering they live in a society where there is no feeling and everyone is expected to act in the same way. I never really got engaged with the film or the themes it was trying to explore.

My Review: Fading Gigolo (4/10)

"This could definitely be the beginning of a very beautiful relationship between the three of us."

Fading Gigolo is John Turturro's fifth turn at the director's chair for which he also starred and wrote the screenplay, although Woody Allen's participation in the film makes you wonder how much of a factor he was in the screenplay because there are several scenes that you know were influenced by him. Some of his classic trademarks are found in the script as he talks about death and sex in a quirky way. The plot is a bit ridiculous, especially when the subplots involving the Brooklyn Jewish community begin to take center stage midway through the film. As long as the story focused on the chemistry between Turturro and Allen the film seemed delightful and witty, but when the other characters began to get involved the film lost its focus and identity. It didn't work for me as neither a comedy nor a drama, but there are some solid scenes when the two lead actors are on screen together. 

I don't know how much influence Allen really had on Turturro's overall script, but unfortunately when the story centered on Turturro and the female characters it didn't really work well. The female characters seemed one dimensional and their dialogues were weak and awkward. It is a shame because Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara are great actresses who could have lifted this film with stronger material to work with. The entire concept of this film is absurd, but Turturro almost pulled it off when the screenplay centered on his chemistry with Woody Allen. If the two would have shared more scenes together I think this would've been much more enjoyable. It is a very uneven film and one that has divided audiences. It's success might depend on how much of a Woody Allen fan you are. 


My Review: Million Dollar Arm (6/10)

"We might have to tweak that a little."

It had been a while since Disney had produced a sports movie but if you sat for the opening 10 minutes of Million Dollar Arm you could tell that the formula hasn't changed much for the genre over time. Everything about this film is predictable as it follows pretty much every cliché possible. Director, Craig Gillespie doesn't bother to change the successful formula  here so you see pretty much everything coming, but somehow Million Dollar Arm is still an enjoyable film that manages to pull at your heartstrings thanks to a solid cast. Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl is perhaps still my favorite film of his and I wish he would have played a bit with the genre conventions like he did with the horror genre in Fright Night. I expected a lot more from the screenplay considering Thomas McCarthy's past works were superb (I am a huge fan of his previous screenplays for Win Win and The Visitor). Perhaps he didn't have the same creative liberties considering this was a Disney production and they are known for controlling various aspects of the process. The film was based on true events so the audience was already expecting an inspirational tale and it accomplishes it. There are several funny scenes that elevate the film and the scenes in Mumbai stand out as the movie shows the difference between both cultures. The portrayal of Indians is stereotypical but the humor works nonetheless and it's the highlight of the film. So despite being painfully predictable at times and a bit overlong, the scenes in India and the comedic performances were enough to turn this into an enjoyable experience. I may be a bit biased considering I love sports although I'm not a huge baseball fan, but it is nowhere near being this year's Moneyball. Disney's Remember the Titans continues to be their best sports drama. 

A lot of the success of the film relies on how much you like Jon Hamm, and I thought he gave a solid performance considering his character isn't entirely likable. He is very flawed as this sports agent who seems to be interested in looking out for his agency. Hamm pulls it off and I ended up routing for him. Hamm may not be the most engaging presence of the film, but he leaves that to the supporting cast who all give delightful performances. The Indians, Suraj Sharma (Pi from Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire), play the future baseball prospects who are recruited from the reality TV show that Hamm's character created in India. They are the people who we are routing for as an audience and they achieve the purpose. They bring the emotional aspect of the film. For the comedy, Gillespie recruited Alan Arkin and Bill Paxton who are always a sure bet. Without being exceptional they still managed to be funny. The funniest scenes however come from newcomer, Pitobash Tripathy, who was a fresh addition to an otherwise predictable film. Lake Bell is the only female character present in the film and she delivers a solid performance as well. Her chemistry with Jon Hamm also lifted this film from being a mediocre movie.


My Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (6/10)

"I do favors for people and in return they give me gifts."

If you go into this film without having seen the trailers you might expect another action vehicle from Liam Neeson, but as soon as this gritty film begins you know you aren't getting your average revenge flick. This is a much darker and gloomy film where the atmosphere and tone take a primary seat in this procedural detective tale. The story is secondary because what really is at the core of this film directed by Scott Frank (The Lookout) is the style. Frank succeeds at setting the eerie and uncomfortable atmosphere of this stylish thriller which will remind audiences of some of Fincher's earlier films. The dark atmosphere will turn off some audiences who were expecting another fun action film because the downbeat tone won't please mainstream audiences. At times the film is much more reminiscent to Neeson's work in The Grey than what he has done lately, but despite the strong performance, the main character of A Walk Among the Tombstones is the city which has been manipulated by Frank to appear gloomy and dark. This is what Frank manages to do best with his film, unfortunately he fails with the story and some of the subplots involved. The pacing begins to drag and the movie feels overlong because despite the somber atmosphere there is not much going on story wise when all the secondary characters and subplots begin to overpopulate the film. Neeson does what it takes to elevate the material when things begin to feel out of place and manages to make this film worth while and engaging. It's too bad Frank wasn't able to trim the subplots down a bit because he had a much better and promising film somewhere along the way. Tombstones does succeed in making the audience feel uncomfortable and it will make most feel a bit undecided as to how they feel about it long after it has ended. I find myself in-between, giving it a positive grade but not as entirely satisfied as I could have been after a promising opening sequence. 

I tend to enjoy Liam Neeson in all of his films so I really don't complain when I go see one of his mind numbing action flicks like Taken because I have a good time with it. In Tombstones he truly shows he has what it takes to undertake stronger and more complex roles. Neeson gives a solid performance once again and the film is worth checking out just for him. Despite being a very different film from his latest action films he does get a scene on the phone once again. No one knows how to threaten people over the phone like Neeson so of course producers couldn't miss the opportunity to have him do it. I don't get tired of it either. The rest of the characters in this film are forgettable considering it centers on Neeson's lonely character in the midst of a corrupted and dark New York City. Having the film set in 1999 along with the downbeat atmosphere constantly reminds the viewer of what is going to happen in the near future. We get a very ugly glimpse of humanity and that is where Frank succeeds because the film never tries to glamorize murders like so many modern films try to do. It doesn't even worry about explaining their motivations, it simply presents this dark atmosphere where there are no other interesting characters than Liam Neeson. The greatest failure of the film is the inclusion of a homeless kid who helps Neeson, but this subplot completely misfires and only makes the film feel more disconnected. Other than those few issues I had with Tombstones I think it is a strong adaptation of one of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels. It gets a lot of credit for being able to create such a dark atmosphere.