REVIEW: The Judge

1 11 2014

The Judge” tries to be a lot of things, among them a courtroom drama, a family drama, an illness drama, and a relationship drama.  It’s a shame that amidst all that action, seldom does the film manage to be any good.

It’s certainly admirable that Robert Downey, Jr. wants to convert his mainstream credibility into something of greater cinematic value.  But the effort is in vain as “The Judge,” which he and his wife Susan produced, bites off more than it can chew in nearly every aspect.  Their one genius move was bringing Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer for Steven Spielberg’s last two decades of work, on board to give the film the sheen of prestige.  (Not as great a hire? Director David Dobkin, whose recent credits include “Fred Claus” and “The Change-Up.”)

Kaminski’s beautiful rays of ambient light flood every frame, but the beauty largely stops there.  “The Judge” meanders for the whole of its runtime – a bloated 140 minutes – without ultimately settling on any kind of identity.  Every time one of its subplots begins to pick up steam, the film inexplicably shifts gears to follow another one.  As such, momentum never builds, and “The Judge” just begins to feel like a life sentence.  One with lots of cloying montages set to Bon Iver.

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REVIEW: The Conjuring

28 09 2014

Mass-produced horror series like “Saw,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “Final Destination” (with “Insidious” rapidly approaching supersaturation) tend to give the genre a bad name.  It’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, a horror film like “The Exorcist” could get a Best Picture nomination.

I certainly do not mean to draw a parallel that implies “The Conjuring” is equal in stature to William Friedkin’s aforementioned terrifying masterwork, nor am I saying that James Wan’s film was robbed of Oscar glory at last year’s ceremony.  I merely aim to point out that when done well, horror films can really be exemplary pieces of filmmaking.

Wan expertly utilizes filmic tools like sound design and cinematography to cast quite the spell with “The Conjuring.”  He’s interested in more than the quick “gotcha” of a jump-out scene.  The scares those generate, after all, generally tend to dissipate within seconds.  Wan’s filmmaking lingers with its eeriness, leading you to wonder when all the tension floating around will materialize into a nightmare.

His mission is also aided by a more than passable script, based on a true incident from the call of duty of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Though hauntings, possessions, and exorcisms are old hat to most by now, “The Conjuring” never seems plagued by triteness.  If anything, the well-plotted and developed screenplay hampers Wan’s filmmaking through its sheer length and scope.

In the time between the film’s big scares, some of the tautness of the terror has a chance to loosen.  Taking ten to fifteen minutes out of the final edit might have made this one of the all-time greats.  Still, “The Conjuring” delivers where it needs to – and delivers big when the frights arrive.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Safe House

3 03 2012

We all know Denzel Washington is an outstanding actor.  Most of us know that the same could not be said for Ryan Reynolds.  (For those that refute this, ask yourselves whether you are in love with his physique or his performances.)  “Safe House” amounts to little more than a “Bourne”-lite adventure reaffirming these virtually self-evident conclusions.

The adventure takes us to South Africa, where the dullness of Matt Weston’s (Reynolds) humdrum job supervising a CIA safe house has begun to take a psychological toll as he feels stuck and unable to move up the institutional ladder.  This would be an Occupy-friendly film if only Reynolds were complaining about not having a job; later, the film delves into a new favorite action movie trope that would also have the vagrants of Zuccotti Park licking their chops: THE GOVERNMENT IS CORRUPT!  All of them!  Just working the government destroys your soul and taints your brain!  I get it, Hollywood, you love 1968 and want to keep the spirit of skepticism and distrust of institutions alive … but that was four decades ago and the schtick is getting a little old.  Maybe it’s time for a new target.

But the monotony of his vocation gets suddenly broken when a captured criminal is brought it – young Cornel West!  Just kidding, Denzel Washington’s rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost only looks like him.  The difference between the scholar and the character is that Frost is much better at getting people to see things his way.  As the latest Hannibal Lecter knock-off, Frost is hardly as frightening as might be expected, but Washington’s calm portrayal certainly makes him an eerie wild-card and a ticking time bomb.

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REVIEW: Higher Ground

4 10 2011

Anyone even willing to touch on the deep questions of religion that still loom large in life starts off a winner in my book.  The mere hint of discussing God on film sends people either hiding under a rock or complaining on the Internet, so it really takes someone with grace, eloquence, and poise to give their take in modern times.  Vera Farmiga, both acting on screen and directing behind the camera, lends a respectful voice to the conversation in “Higher Ground,” a movie about a woman truly wrestling with her faith.

As a first feature, it’s  impressive, yet there are some typical novice errors like uneven tone and inconsistent pacing that keep the film from being an impressive movie in its own right.  But Farmiga’s movie is still an effective in the sense that it asks – no, demands – its audience to ponder some incredibly deep questions.  She directs the film in such a way that it falls outside the normal pendulum of “religious” movies.  It definitely does not paint the best portrait of a Christian community, but it also doesn’t disparage them, either.  It doesn’t openly profess faith, but it doesn’t profess atheism.  Farmiga remains honest, neutral, and remarkably even-keeled so her movie can inspire conversation as opposed to complaints.

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REVIEW: Source Code

9 07 2011

Part “Inception” and part “Groundhog Day,” Duncan Jones’ sophomore directing effort “Source Code” is a fully engrossing thriller that blends the best aspects of both and reminds us how a good action movie should make us feel.  It’s cleverly written, masterfully directed, and potently acted.  It maintains an uncannily even keel while juggling action, mystery, and even some wit and heart.  Come December, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is still one of my favorites of the year.

The movie’s captivating sci-fi premise is executed admirably and with precision, largely thanks to how screenwriter Ben Ripley insists on making it so simple.  “Source Code” reminds us that original and complex aren’t necessarily synonyms on screen.  In about the time that it took “Inception” to lay out its exposition, Ripley gets us in and out of the source code, never making us feel lost or confused for a second.  Even at its short running time of under an hour and a half, we never feel like shorted in terms of story or entertainment.

The titular program allows Captain Colter Stevens, played with cunning and intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal, to relive the 8 minutes before a bomb explodes on a train outside of Chicago in the body of teacher Sean Fentress.  As he switches back and forth between finding the terrorist inside the source code and figuring out his own status outside, Stevens is putting together more than just an elaborate puzzle – he’s piecing together his life.  The stakes are high, and Gyllenhaal along with Vera Farmiga’s stone-faced – but not unemotionally robotic – webcam operator play them as such.  The result is that we don’t just want to sit back and watch the characters put the pieces together; we want to join in from the other side of the screen.

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Random Factoid #522

1 01 2011

Over the holiday break, I’ve had the time to watch a lot of movies that I’d probably put aside for quite some time in the rush of the normal year.  One of those was “Nothing But the Truth,” a 2008 loose adaptation of the Valerie Plame story that never got the real theatrical release it deserved thanks to its financier, Yari Film Group, going under.  It’s no “Fair Game,” but it’s not bad.

There was a great line in the movie delivered by Vera Farmiga that really struck me.  It wasn’t anything orignal, sure, but it was still powerful.  “How dare you,” she delivers with an icy precision.

It’s a great line to provide a perfect dramatic climax to a heated conversation.  I realized then that I’ve always wanted to say the line, but because it is so over-the-top with anger, I haven’t had the chance.  Granted I don’t want to get into a situation where I have to unleash that kind of anger, but I’m still waiting for the chance to whip out “how dare you” in a conversation.

There are also plenty of funny one-liners from movies that I want to use too if the time is right, so don’t get the idea that I’m just an angry person.  But are there any movie lines that YOU are eager to use?





Oscar Moment: “Winter’s Bone”

15 06 2010

All is looking good for Deborah Granik and Jennifer Lawrence, two people who you likely hadn’t heard of before this post and almost assuredly hadn’t heard of before this year.

Granik started off 2010 premiering her film, “Winter’s Bone,” at the Sundance Film Festival to massive acclaim.  It won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films, a very prestigious award, and was bought by Roadside Attractions for $500,000.  It was released last Friday, June 11, to outstanding critical reception – a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an outstanding 87 on Metacritic.

Looking at the last two winners of the dramatic Grand Jury Prize might show us some potential fates for “Winter’s Bone.”  2009’s recipient was “Precious” (then known by the name of its source material, “Push”), and the 2008 winner was “Frozen River.”

“Precious” had more than just the Grand Jury Prize going for it coming out of Sundance.  It won the Audience Award as well, showing how popular it was with everyone who attended the festival (Mo’Nique also won the first of many prizes for her role in the movie).  It also got the sizzle and added press from its support by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.  “Winter’s Bone,” on the other hand, has a release with as little grandeur as its setting in the Ozark Mountains.  “Precious” went on to make nearly $50 million and score a stunning 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and a very good 79 on Metacritic.  As we all know, it received Best Picture nominations from the Golden Globes and Oscars, winning 2 Academy Awards on Hollywood’s biggest night.

I see more parallels with “Frozen River,” the decidedly unglamorous and gritty tale of a desperate mother (Melissa Leo) who illegally smuggles people across the U.S border with Canada.  After winning the Grand Jury Prize, it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics (an expert in marketing independent movies) for $500,000.  They opened the movie in late August to tepid audience reaction, opening with a fairly weak $10,000 per theater average, a statistic that shows that theaters weren’t exactly packed.  Critical reception was much more positive, showed by its 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and 82 on Metacritic.  But at the end of the year, people remembered “Frozen River.”  It picked up momentum as the season dragged on, beginning with a surprising SAG nomination for Leo that eventually led to an Oscar nomination over the favored Sally Hawkins.  Leo’s strength undoubtedly helped Courtney Hunt’s screenplay get into the Best Original Screenplay fold as well.

I’m inclined to say “Winter’s Bone” will take the “Frozen River” path mainly because they have very similar, dark tones, a strong female performance, and a well-written script (“Winter’s Bone” picked up a screenwriting award at Sundance).  But the per theater average was nearly double that of “Frozen River,” so perhaps it will have a little bit more audience support to carry it through.  I’m just really not expecting it to receive a massive outpouring like “Precious” because it is “one of the unshowiest and most true-blooded epics of Americana you’re ever likely to see,” according to Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum (who gave it an A).

The movie’s leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, just screams “this year’s Carey Mulligan.”  Even younger than last year’s Best Actress nominee at 19, Lawrence has been a huge talking point of the movie.  Her breakout role has garnered her large attention from the media, leading to a spotlight from Esquire with a fairly steamy photo shoot.

Granik gave Vera Farmiga her big break with her debut feature, “Down to the Bone,” for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and won Best Actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  Don’t quote me on this, but I’m fairly certain that Jason Reitman has stated that seeing her in “Down to the Bone” led to her casting in “Up in the Air,” the movie that got her Golden Globe, SAG, and Oscar nominations.  So while it remains suspect how much love Lawrence will receive for this particular role, all signs point to a promising future for the young performer.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress (Lawrence), Best Adapted Screenplay

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director (Granik)