16 de dic. de 2014

Frances Ha (8/10): Greta Gerwig charms and dances her way through Frances Ha

“I'm so embarrassed. I'm not a real person yet.”

I found Frances Ha completely irritating and the black and white cinematography pretentious, but that was only for the first five minutes of the film because once I was submerged into the world of this character I was captivated by it. I don’t think I have experienced a change of heart so quick while I was watching a film as I did here because soon I was in love with this character. Greta Gerwig’s performance as Frances Ha went from irritating and phony to charming and sweet in a matter of a few minutes. The black and white cinematography had the feel of a French New Wave arthouse film, but to my surprise it ended up being much more than an imitation or a simple homage. Noah Baumbach is aware with the fact that many people have trouble identifying with these quirky NY East Side characters and he deviates the plot from what we are expecting it to be very quickly. If this year Richard Linklater delivered the ultimate slice of life film on the transition from boyhood to teenager, then Frances Ha could be considered as Baumbach’s slice of life film about adulthood and finding a place in this world. It isn’t a perfect film, but it does explore the issues of self-discovery and learning who we are in life. Frances Ha is a very subjective film considering its enjoyment may be connected with how much you identify with Frances’s situation. All her friends are moving on with their lives and she seems to be stuck in the same place dealing with the uncertainty of her life. Her friends seem to have their lives resolved, but she doesn’t know what direction she is heading. Audiences who have experienced or are experiencing this same uncertainty might find it easier to relate with the film and enjoy it more for capturing the truth of their lives in some way. I connected with the film and wouldn’t mind rewatching it again, but I can see how it isn’t a film everyone will enjoy. 

Greta Gerwig delivers a solid performance and gives this nostalgic film an upbeat feel to it. She drew me in with her uplifting performance and I found it impossible to resist her charm despite her flaws. She balances the charm with the quirkiness of her character. You can hate her for being so possessive, but at the same time you can fall for her optimism and contagious joy. You forgive her for the bad decisions she makes and route for her nonetheless. This is Gerwig’s best performance to date. She had already caught my attention in Baumbach’s earlier film, Greenberg, playing opposite Ben Stiller, but this is a much better film. Despite enjoying The Squid and The Whale and Greenberg quite a bit, this is Baumbach’s best film. It may have to do with the fact that Gerwig herself contributed with the screenplay and that she is in every single scene of this movie. This is absolutely her movie and she delivers. Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, and Michael Zegen give solid performances as well as they all interact in some way with Frances, but she is the heart and soul of this film. I also enjoyed the soundtrack of this film and there is a scene where Frances is walking through the streets of New York with David Bowie's "Modern Love" playing the background which will leave a smile on the audiences’s faces. 

13 de dic. de 2014

Horrible Bosses 2 (5/10): Some laughs, but you can't help but feel it's a waste of a strong cast

“I hate to break it to you, but the American dream is in China.”

I was a huge fan of the first film so I had some expectations for this sequel considering Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine were the new additions to an already impressive cast. What could go wrong with a comedy I had already enjoyed starring three Oscar winners? A lot when you bring in a new director whose most popular film up to now was That’s My Boy. The sequel tries to bank off the success from the strong chemistry between the three lead actors (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day), but unfortunately the formula felt repetitive and excessive at times. As much as I enjoyed their chemistry there were some moments that felt forced this time around. I am glad they didn’t repeat the same scenario from the first film and tried to change the structure of the comedy by centering on a kidnap attempt, but despite some funny scenes the sequel still falls flat by repeating some of the jokes from the first movie. Chris Pine was an excellent addition and once again the cameos from Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston, and Kevin Spacey are the highlight of the film, but I was expecting a lot more from Christoph Waltz, who’s an actor I highly admire. I think he could be great in this sort of comical villainous role, but he was underused here. All in all, Horrible Bosses 2 fails to deliver the same amount of laughs as the original but it still remains as a watchable and entertaining comedy. 2014 has yet to deliver a satisfying comedy, but if you’re bored this is a sequel that will keep you entertained for a while. 

I actually found the first half of this film a bit stronger than the second half. It begins with a lot of promise introducing some of the new characters while centering on the relationship between the three amigos. Chris Pine is hilarious as well and he plays off the leads very well. There are several funny moments including the cameos with Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, and Jennifer Aniston who you can tell is very uncomfortable with the dialogue she has to say but pulls it off nonetheless. The weakest part of the film is the resolution which in my opinion was a bit exaggerated, and many people might find the jokes offensive. It doesn’t come close to matching the potential of the original film, but I didn’t hate it either. The film is silly, but the cast makes it a worthwhile experience elevating the dull material and making it a little more fun than it had the right to be.

Mr. Turner (5/10): Gorgeous cinematography, solid acting, but tedious pacing

“The sun is God! Ha ha ha!”

Shamefully I have to admit that this was the first time I watched a Mike Leigh film despite all the critically acclaimed films he has directed in the past. Neither did I know anything about the life of British painter, JMW Turner, whom this film was based upon, so I actually went into this movie with no prior knowledge of anything about Mr. Turner. I can’t say the film was an illuminating experience either because the biopic doesn’t really introduce us to the character of Turner. The film takes off during the painter’s late years when he was an already established painter in 1800’s Victorian society. Leigh focuses on the character of Turner and how contradictory his own life seemed to be. This isn’t your average biopic, which is a good thing because it avoids all the typical clichés of the genre, but rather more of a character study of a brilliant painter who seemed to struggle with his relationships and his role in society. My major complain with Mr. Turner revolves around the tedious and slow pacing of the film. The film never justifies its 150 minute screen time and I know I would’ve enjoyed this a lot more if it were cut around the 100 minute mark. What Mr. Turner does achieve extremely well is capturing the period beautifully with gorgeous set designs and breath taking cinematography. Not only did Leigh have to recreate the artwork in the film, but also capture the landscape in the same way that it inspired Turner’s paintings, and he does so masterfully. That along with the spot on Victorian dialogue and strong performances are the highlight of a film that left me wishing the pacing hadn’t been so tedious. Mr. Turner is a film much easier to respect than to actually enjoy, but if you are a fan of period pieces you will appreciate it. 

Timothy Spall is without a doubt the highlight of the film. His performance as Mr. Turner is solid and well deserving of his Cannes win. He should be nominated for the Oscars. As strong as his performance was, I still found if very difficult to understand what he was saying. His character grunts throughout the entire film, kind of like the way I was grunting during the tedious and slow pacing of the film. Mr. Turner isn’t a character we can engage with because despite of his artistic craft he was a deeply flawed person who refused to recognize his wife and daughters, had a strange relationship with his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and another more approachable relationship with a widow named Booth (played by Marion Bailey). Both Atkinson and Bailey give strong secondary performances, but it is Atkinson who has the most demanding scenes. She deserves as much recognition as Spall is receiving for Mr. Turner. As strong as the performances are, I had a hard time understanding some of the dialogue in this film. Going into it without any prior knowledge of who Turner was probably affected my viewing experience as well because it took me awhile to understand what was happening. Mr. Turner is worth the watch for the gorgeous cinematography, but I find it hard to recommend due to the pacing. There are a few scenes that did work for me like the one where Turner is introduced to how the camera works. It is an important scene because it reflected the change that was to come and Turner realized how it could become a new art form able to reproduce the landscape better than his own paintings. The highlight of the film however is seeing how Leigh manages to recreate the scenery of Turner’s painting and the way he is able to gorgeously capture the landscape through his lens. Unfortunately the film was long and tedious so I can’t really recommend it despite everything that it has going for it.

Still Alice (7/10): Moore's powerful portrayal of a woman suffering from mental illness elevates this film

“So live in the moment I tell myself, it really is all I can do, live in the moment.”

Still Alice is a film that touches delicate subject matters, which sometimes don’t make for a compelling watch. It’s hard to sit down and watch someone suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and witness their slow deterioration as they gradually lose their mind. Somehow, Julianne Moore gives such a powerful performance that makes this delicate theme worth your while. She carries this film, and elevates it from your standard mental illness movie. Julianne Moore is on the top of her game and following her strong performance in Maps to the Stars, she delivers an authentic portrayal of a woman trying to come to grips with her terrible diagnosis. The film intelligently centers on her in a very authentic way instead of focusing on the rest of her family, like so many films tend to do when the character has hit rock bottom with their mental disease. As the title suggests, the focus is on Alice and her character is fully developed even when she is at her lowest. As an audience we sometimes tend to look away or find ways to ignore people with mental illness, and many films do so by focusing on the reaction of the rest of the family or on the loved ones as if the main character has lost his or her personality. But we are reminded in this film that Alice is still Alice, and Julianne Moore makes sure we come to grips with this. Julianne Moore will probably be nominated for her lead performance here and it wouldn’t surprise me if she wins her first Oscar after her fifth nomination. She is long overdue.

It’s no surprise that this film was delivered in such an authentic way when you take into consideration that the co-director, Richard Glatzer, suffers from ASL and can’t speak himself. If a film wants to deliver a powerful and empathetic film about mental illness, then there is no better way to do so than having someone who is experiencing this first hand. Glatzer, who has co-directed his previous films with Wash Westmoreland, reunites with him once again co-writing the adapted screenplay from Lisa Genova’s novel. I know the issue has been explored many times before and one could assume it enters familiar territory, but Moore’s portrayal of the character makes this film stand out from others. For people who have gone through similar issues with a family member or close friend, Still Alice hits home, but it does so in a compassionate way. It reminds us how fragile our minds and life can be. Having Moore play a highly intelligent linguistic professor makes this all the more shocking as we see how she struggles with the disease. The most emotional moment of the film comes when Moore’s character is giving a touching speech about how she is dealing with the disease. It was a powerful moment in the movie and Moore deserves all the recognition she’s been getting for her performance. Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart both give strong supporting performances as well. The entire film rings true in its exploration of mental illness, and the performances never go over the top. Everything about this film rings true despite the delicate themes that are touched. The subject matter might not be appealing for most audiences and they may find the film tedious, but for me it hits home and I found it to be a compelling drama.

12 de dic. de 2014

Annie (5/10): Uninspired musical, but entertaining thanks to Wallis and Byrne's performance

“It’s the hard-knock life for us.”

I have very fond memories from my childhood of watching John Huston’s musical, Annie, and singing along to the lyrics of “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard-Knock Life”. It was one of the films I rewatched the most as a child along with The Goonies and the Disney cartoons. So despite hearing some negative reviews, I still was excited about getting to watch the Annie remake for nostalgic reasons. One of my favorite films of 2012 was Beasts of the Southern Wild, so my expectations were even higher when I heard Quvenzhane Wallis was going to play Annie. Wallis is a force to reckon with and the perfect choice for Annie. This remake (which actually turned out to be more of a modern re-imagining) was directed by Will Gluck, whose latest films (Easy A, Friends with Benefits) I actually enjoyed. So all these elements combined, drew me into wanting to see it despite the very negative word of mouth. My expectations weren’t matched of course because Annie turned out to be a very flawed film, but I didn’t hate this musical either. Wallis’s performance was strong enough to keep me engaged with the story despite all the cheesy dialogues. The biggest disappointment for me however, were the musicals which felt too produced and at times those scenes felt more like a music video clip from MTV than anything else. The story is cliche and familiar, but at the same time it remains family friendly and it has a few emotional moments thrown in as well. For a flawed film, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, but that was probably due to the nostalgic factor and my love for Wallis. 

The cast of Annie is pretty solid, although there were some performances that didn’t work at all. Cameron Diaz is miscast in the film, playing Miss Hannigan, the guardian of the orphan girls. She goes completely over the top and got on my nerves almost in every scene she was in. She is a great actress, but this sort of cartoonish role which she’s played many times in the past, never works for her. I find her obnoxious every time she plays these exaggerated parts. The same could be said about Bobby Cannavale who never sells his role. I know that the weak screenplay was responsible for this, but the rest of the cast didn’t turn out that bad. David Mayas, Adele Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Jamie Foxx are solid, but the standouts in this film were Wallis and Rose Byrne. They both bring a unique sweetness and charm to their role necessary for a musical like this. Byrne is a talented actress, and she is one of the best things about Annie. Unfortunately, the music never works and the screenplay is uninspired, but I still found most of the film entertaining and tolerable. I’ve seen a lot worse this year.

The Skeleton Twins (8/10): Bill Hader delivers one of the best performances of the year.

“I see you're getting your sense of humor back.”

The Skeleton Twins was a pleasant surprise which surpassed all my expectations. I wasn’t familiar with director Craig Johnson’s previos film (True Adolescents), and despite having seen Kristen Wiig in some strong dramatic roles before, I didn’t expect Bill Hader to be able to deliver one. I’m glad I finally got around watching this small indie drama because it is one of the best of the year. Despite covering some familiar territory, the chemistry between the two leads is what makes this film stand out. We’ve seen films focus on sibling relationships in the past, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one that felt so authentic as The Skeleton Twins. Their relationship is the core of the film and without strong performances from Hader and Wiig this could have been a disaster considering the material covers some dark subject matters (suicide, adultery, pedophilia) and the characters are flawed. It is hard to pull off an engaging performance when you are given a  flawed character, but both Hader and Wiig deliver solid roles. Their off screen friendship was probably one of the reasons why these two hit it off so well in the film and you actually believed they were siblings. I usually tend to dislike depressive films, but The Skeleton Twins balances these depressing subject matters with some effective comedic moments. There is a perfect balance between the drama and the comedy which feels authentic and never manipulative. Without being overly explicit, the audience can assume that despite the fact that these two siblings have been estranged from each other, they are still very much connected. Their past continues to haunt them, but at the same time you know they belong with each other, and the only possible way to begin a healing process is by sticking together.

The dramatic scenes hit hard, but so does the comedy with some very memorable moments. There is a scene between the twins where the two lip-sync to an 80’s song that stands out. It is perhaps the greatest lip-syncing scene I’ve seen in the history of cinema. There are also many other memorable scenes, and the film is at its peak when it centers on the twins. All the highlights for me involved Wiig and Hader’s characters together: the dentist scene, the lip-synch scene, and the Halloween dress up scene. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like the subplots and supporting characters, but it just proves who strong Wiig and Hader were together. Haider gives the best performance of his career, and so far one of my favorites of the year. Luke Wilson and Ty Burell also deliver solid performances. Wilson’s character plays Wiig’s wife and he is perhaps the most likable character in the film. He may not be the perfect fit for Wiig, but the film never tries to portray him in a negative light in order for the audience to sympathize more with Wiig’s character. That is what made this film feel authentic, the lead characters are broken and damaged people who are trying to heal as they reconnect with each other. This isn’t a feel good comedy, it goes to dark places at times so some audiences might be put off by the depressive tone of the film, but I found it perfectly balanced with some great comedic moments which helped me enjoy the film. Fans of the Sons of Anarchy series might also enjoy Robert Boyd Holbrook’s secondary role in this film. He doesn’t get much screen time, but he does play a key role which helps us understand some of Wiig’s conflicts. The Skeleton Twins might be too honest for some, but I did enjoy this film quite a bit, which was wonderfully written by Johnson and Mark Heyman (Black Swan). The film does have some unnecessary scenes (like the flashbacks and the forced ending), but it is still a solid film where Bill Hader gets to shine and prove he can play dramatic roles as well. 

8 de dic. de 2014

Wild Tales (8/10): A Carefully Structured Black Comedy

“If poison reaches its expiration date, does that mean that it is more or less effective?”

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvages), written and directed by Damian Szifron, is Argentina’s official submission in the category of best foreign language film for next year’s Academy Awards. I find it hard to review these anthology films at times considering some of the short stories work really well while others don’t. In Wild Tales, Szifron manages to structure the film beautifully into six stories with a great sense of pacing and storytelling. The two hours flew by and I never found any of the stories tedious or boring. When making an anthology it is important that you establish an important connection between each story, and Szifron manages to do just that. Each story focuses on characters who in some way seem to lose control and act out on impulse or revenge. It’s a film about our reactions and how we can behave as animals at times. Szifron manages to set a dark tone in each of his stories while keeping the audience in suspense during some scenes and exploding in laughter during others. It is a perfect example of a dark comedy that manages to maintain the thrills throughout the narrative. Szifron plays with the genre conventions and balances the different tones of the film very well. It’s hard to point out a weak link because each story brings something different to the film, but at the same time they all feel connected. Szifron cleverly satirizes different institutions in each of his six segments including marriage, justice, bureaucracy, and social classes. Wild Tales is a well executed and entertaining film, and one that might turn out to be a contender at next year’s Oscars. 

One major issue with anthology films is that since they are separate short stories we get little time to invest in each of the characters, but somehow Szifron manages to establish each character in each scenario so well that we end up caring for them. The performances are all solid. The only familiar face in the cast is Ricardo Darin who delivers his segment extremely well. He plays a disillusioned character who is tired of the bureaucracy in his country. It doesn’t take much to see him explode and we see how one small incident escalates into an overblown reaction. As much as I enjoyed that segment, it wasn’t the most memorable one. I was a huge fan of the road rage segment, which in my opinion was the highlight of this film. Juan Pablo Colombo and Walter Donado give terrific performances as they are placed on an everyday scenario in the road which very quickly escalates into cartoonish violence. I could go on mentioning the rest of the segments, but they are all worthwhile. This was a perfectly executed black comedy and one worth checking out. 

Dolphin Tale 2 (4/10) Worthy of a Direct to DVD status

“You can't just throw two dolphins in the water together.”

And that’s basically the only conflict driving the plot for this sequel. I was a huge fan of Charles Martin Smith’s first film starring Winter, the dolphin with the prosthetic tail, but there isn’t anything appealing about this sequel which barely has a plot. I felt that there was never really much at stake here and many of the emotional moments felt forced, unlike in the first film where there was a lot at stake. There were a lot of fillings and subplots that never did anything to help build the pacing, and despite remaining family friendly, most children will probably be bored by this sequel. I never got engaged with it and perhaps much of that had to do with the weak script and the lack of conflict. The characters which I really liked the first time around didn’t do anything for me in this sequel and I didn’t feel that same connection they had with Winter this time around. Dolphin Tale 2 has all the right ingredients for a direct to DVD movie, but somehow it has been released in the big screen and received some positive reviews from the critics (only 4% lower than Interstellar according to Rottentomatoes). It astonishes me considering this film is formulaic and predictable with very little going for it. A week from now everyone will forget about it. 

The true star of the franchise is Winter, but in this sequel we really don’t get to see the dolphin all that much. There really isn’t much at stake either, and we know how everything is going to play out. The cast is back again, which means we get some cameos from Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and Kris Kristofferson, but they aren’t given any substantial role this time around. The film centers once again on the child actors, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who deliver solid performances but don’t add much to the story. From the first scene you can tell that the producers were simply trying to cash in after the success of the first film because there is not much going for it story wise. The true story is inspirational and the original film has touched many people’s lives, but there wasn’t any need for a sequel. 

4 de dic. de 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (6/10): More of Woody Allen's recycled characters, but still a charming film

“She won’t fool me.”

Woody Allen is a talented writer who simply never stops working. Every year we get a new film from him and of course that means that his films are not all going to be Award worthy. In that sense Magic in the Moonlight might be disappointing because it’s not going to win any award, but I still found it to be a charming and light hearted film. I’ve actually enjoyed all of his recent films although they really never blow me away (with the exception of Midnight in Paris which is my all time favorite Woody Allen film). I have a fun time with the dialogue and the characters he creates, although I know most of them are recycled and tend to appear over and over again in his films. The characters in Magic in the Moonlight are characters we’ve seen before in his previous work and there isn’t anything fresh or inventive about this movie, but I am sure Woody Allen fans will appreciate his work. This time Allen takes us to the gorgeous French riviera setting the film in the 20’s. The cinematography by Darius Khondji is gorgeous and the lighting is perfect, giving the film an almost fairytale look to it. The score is also very playful, similar to what Allen does in all his films. Magic in the Moonlight is beautiful to look at, it has the familiar comedic pacing from Allen, and of course he includes some of his personal philosophy and ramblings through his characters. The romance might feel a bit forced, but the performances elevate the material and make this an enjoyable experience. Of course the dialogue feels very theatrical and explanatory at times as Allen tries to set things up and introduce every character in the narrative, but that first act is probably the one I enjoyed the most. Allen’s films are recognizable and familiar, but I’d still prefer this over most other romantic comedies released these days.

The cast in this film is wonderful. Colin Firth is given the rather difficult task of making his narcissistic character likable and he pulls it off really well. I usually tend to dislike these characters, which make me feel disengaged, but Firth’s natural charm managed to keep me interested. Emma Stone is also sweet and delightful in this film. The romance might not be memorable, but the way these two actors played off each other was remarkable. The tone of this film might be light, but it is still charming thanks to these two actors who keep us engaged and entertained. I can see how some audiences might feel disappointed considering this is a Woody Allen film and it doesn’t live up to his best work, but I still found it to be a quite pleasing and fun film. Marcia Gay Harden, Simon McBurney, and Jacki Weaver are charming as well in their secondary roles and add to the overall light and entertaining mood of the film. There are some funny moments and the film does get off to a strong start, but unfortunately it begins to drag as we approach the end. It’s far from being memorable, but it still manages to be an entertaining watch.

3 de dic. de 2014

Serena (3/10): Course 101 on how execution and post production can ruin a film

“I think you’ve taken nine months to do about six months work.”

It’s funny that Jennifer Lawrence was given this line in a film that took over 18 months to make during post-production because for what it is, this could have been edited much better in two or three months. The narrative feels choppy and instead of focusing on the characters in this period piece they move the narrative from one act to the next without ever giving the audience anything to chew on. This is simply a flat period romance with very little chemistry that misfires on all cylinders (editing, casting, and screenplay). You can’t help but feel that there is another film in here somewhere that got lost in the editing room. Serena seemed to be a film aiming for Oscar gold because it had everything going for beginning from the romantic pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper after their incredible success in Silver Linings Playbook. Add the solid Danish director, Susanne Bier (In a Better World), and a script based on Ron Rash’s 2008 novel to the mix and Serena seemed to be a sure bet. I had high expectations for it and many were already including it as a contender for next year’s Academy Award even before it finished being produced. How could a film like this end up being so forgettable and predictable at the same time? I’d guess the blame relies on the producers who tried to cash in on Lawrence and Cooper’s success by centering the film on the romance instead of focusing on the other interesting cast members. The romance never works here because the characters are never fully developed so there is no way we can invest in their relationship. The amazing chemistry these two actors had in their previous film is completely wasted here. Everything about this film seemed disconnected and I am sure it won’t live up to the aspirations the producers and critics had for Serena. 

I have genuinely enjoyed all of Jennifer Lawrence’s performances up to this film. The setting in the woods reminded me of the first time I saw J-Law in Winter’s Bone, a film so richly invested in character development that I was expecting her to deliver another outstanding performance. That comparison to Winter’s Bone only ended up disappointing me. She is extremely over the top in this film and the emotional scenes she gets are never believable. The scenes where she breaks down and cries were painful to watch. Bradley Cooper loses his charm as well, but I guess the blame relies on the script. If you are trying to deliver a strong romantic period piece you have the right actors to do so, but the script doesn’t help build the romance. Bradley Cooper’s character catches up to J-Law on a horse and asks her to marry him and then they are married. The entire film felt sort of chopped up and fast forwarded to the key parts of the story without taking time to give the characters any depth. About 15 minutes into the movie I knew where everything was heading and it was a huge disappointment for me because I expected a lot more from this film. The secondary cast is interesting, but unfortunately very little time is given to these characters. Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, and David Dencik are extremely talented actors and I wish the script would’ve given them more time. Unfortunately Christopher Kyle’s script misses the mark at every turn. The only positive thing about Serena was Morten Søborg's beautiful cinematography.