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)

2009: Best Supporting Actress

2 03 2010

It’s here.

By this point, the ballots are in, and all the campaigning is over. The politics of the Oscars are over, and now we are just left with the scripts, the performances, and the movies.  Rather than do one big post discussing and analyzing all of the categories, I want to use this week to honor the films and performances themselves.

Penelope Cruz in “Nine”

IN MY OWN WORDS: “Cruz is absolutely mesmerizing from the first instant we see her traipsing around on some pink fabric.”

She’s here because … she was the highlight of a pretty disastrous movie, pulling off one of the year’s sexiest performances.

Vera Farmiga in “Up in the Air”

IN MY OWN WORDS: “Vera Farmiga walks a very thin line between “feminine and agressive,” according to Reitman, and she never gives us any hint that she will lose her balance.”

She’s here because … she is a delightful female counterpart to George Clooney, and her performance illuminates Clooney’s character as a whole.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart”

IN MY OWN WORDS: “It’s a performance very much in Gyllehaal’s comfort zone, and she’s pleasant to watch.”

She’s here because … she holds her own against the renowned Jeff Bridges, and she has a lot of respect amongst actors (not unlike her co-star).

Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air”

IN MY OWN WORDS: [Kendrick] doesn’t show promise as a star; Natalie Keener has made her one.

She’s here because … she is a brilliant discovery, making uptight lovable and reminding us of the happiness and pain that comes with having real human relationships.

Mo’Nique in “Precious”

IN MY OWN WORDS: “Mo’Nique delivers a performance that is absolutely harrowing.”

She’s here because … this is the most emotionally gripping performance of 2009, and it’s equally shocking to think that it comes from the actress who headlined “Phat Girlz” three years ago.

Marshall’s “Oscars”

The Academy did a pretty good job this year. My top five match 4/5 with their list.

I would replace Maggie Gyllenhaal with Rosamund Pike for “An Education.”  Both played relatively simple characters: Gyllenhaal the devoted single mother and Pike the dumb blonde.  But the distinction arises from what they do with it.  Gyllenhaal seems complacent with sticking to the stock character; on the other hand, Pike does fascinating things with Helen.  I didn’t feel like I was watching the ten millionth air-headed rich blonde because Pike made it feel refreshing and new.

In my review, I said about Pike:

“The performance that will probably go criminally unheralded is Rosamund Pike as one of David’s companions.  She is the typical ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype, but she brings her own flair to it in a way that makes the tired stock character seem brand new.  When she is on screen, you can’t help but grin.”

So, at Marshall’s Oscars, the nominees are…

Penelope Cruz, “Nine”
Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”
Mo’Nique, “Precious”
Rosamund Pike, “An Education”

In case you don’t realize this, my favorite is revealed in the “should win” listed below.


Should win: Mo’Nique, “Precious”
Could win: Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”
Will win: Mo’Nique, “Precious”

No way in hell anyone other than Mo’Nique wins. She’s just too good.

REVIEW: Orphan

22 02 2010

So this is what Vera Farmiga does when she doesn’t want to work with A-list directors like Martin Scorsese and Jason Reitman!

Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard headline “Orphan,” a prototypical horror film.  It’s a movie that knows it’s limits, an admirable and rare quality in cinema today.  The filmmakers recognize that they are not abounding in originality or imagination, yet somehow they manage to create a movie that is very thoroughly engrossing.  Although it is horror, almost as notoriously predictable as romantic comedy, we still anticipate with trepidation each event that gets our heart racing a little faster.

Chalk up most of the nail-biting tension that makes the movie so scary to a chilling performance by the young Isabelle Fuhrman, who plays the demonic 9-year-old titular character.  She is scary good, making each violent deed committed more and more shocking.  Making a character that an audience can unequivocally detest is tricky, and Fuhrman makes you hate her Esther practically from the outset.  I felt like jumping into the movie and killing her evil creation.

Farmiga and Sarsgaard get the distinct pleasure to bear their fine acting chops as background music to the diabolical rampage of their adopted daughter.  They play a pretty subplot of marital strife caused by drinking and the death of a child with passion and believability, but no one watches “Orphan” because it is a gripping domestic drama.  It is a terrifying escalation of horror committed by a nefarious young perpetrator, and it succeeds in rattling the audience’s cage.  B+ /

Random Factoid #160

4 01 2010

While browsing the Entertainment Weekly website yesterday, I came across a picture (above) from a photoshoot with “Up in the Air” stars George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga.

The caption of the photo reads:

What do the jet-setting cast members of Up in the Air do first when they check into a hotel room? ”I look at the view,” says Vera Farmiga. Adds George Clooney: ”I check out the channels on the TV.” As for Anna Kendrick? ”I’m probably a bed-tester. I want to know if it’s going to be a good bed. That’s the only thing that matters in a hotel.”

This inspired a factoid!  So, what do I do whenever I check into a hotel room?

I instantly run to the TV and check what in-room movies are available.

REVIEW: Up in the Air

20 12 2009

I’ve never been much of a person for philosophy.  However, I do love the story about the philosophy professor who teaches a whole class and then concludes with an exam that has one word written on it: Why?

The other day, I decided to give myself the same exam.  Why?  Why do I spend so much of my life obsessing over movies?  What are movies other than a bunch of moving images?  What does my life amount to if I spend the entirety of it staring at a screen?

A few hours later, I sat down in a theater and watched Jason Reitman’s latest feature, and every doubt or qualm I had about the time I devote to cinema went away.  “Up in the Air” is a movie that reminds you why you love the movies, and I would be willing to throw away days of my life to find two hours of cinema as perfect as these.

Here, Reitman adapts a novel by Walter Kirn but does not merely transpose page to screen.  He takes Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the man who becomes fascinated with grabbing frequent flyer miles while traveling around the country firing people, and sends him on a different route.  Reitman’s trajectory goes straight through a chilly air current of recession and job loss affecting millions of Americans at this very moment, but at no point does “Up in the Air” hit turbulence.  Reitman remains in complete control of his vessel at all times, guiding with a firm and confident hand.

Everything in Ryan Bingham’s life involves reducing commitment.  His job is fueled not just by bad economy but also by people who want an orderly, unemotional way to let employees go.  His life consists of routine and self-sufficiency, all the while proving to himself that he can feel surrounded when others insist him to be isolated.  He preaches his lifestyle without attachment to those willing to listen as the only way to a life completely free of burden.  Where others fill their lives with relationships and family for satisfaction, Bingham turns to elite rewards programs and a lofty goal of earning ten million frequent flyer miles.

But two forces begin to disrupt Bingham’s smooth sailing.  The first is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), the callow new employee fresh out of Cornell who proposes a new system that threatens the high-flying lifestyle that he has turned into an art.  In order to reduce travel budgets and keep employees at home, she allows for the further desensitization of their terminations by simply informing those out of a job through a computer.  Bingham objects not just because of the obvious hazard it poses to his way of life but because he sees himself as more than just a messenger boy.  He is a voice of reassurance and a reminder that greater things lie in store; losing your job isn’t the end, it’s the beginning if you allow it to be.  To give her a taste of what it feels like to drop the ax on unsuspecting Americans, the boss (Jason Bateman) sends Natalie on the road with Bingham, who is less than willing to sacrifice for her to gain some insight.  The second force is Alex (Vera Farmiga), the female counterpart and kindred spirit of Bingham.  They instantly connect over the joys of traveling, and passionate feelings emerge.  But due to the nature of the lives they lead, neither is looking for any sort of commitment.  Yet as chance encounters become planned encounters, Bingham begins to wonder if his firm resolution to a life without connections is really one without burden. Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar Moment: “Up In The Air”

4 10 2009

You’ve already heard me say my fair share about “Up in the Air,” but a new trailer was released and I couldn’t help myself.  This trailer gives us more information about the plot, yet it still leaves us with curiosity and excitement.

Most pundits are now calling “Up in the Air” the frontrunner for many Oscars including Best Picture.  They say this with confidence after the movie opened to unanimous critical acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival last month.  As I stated in a post a few weeks ago, I am really pumped for this to open.  If only George Clooney didn’t have two other movies opening in November, I could be seeing the movie a month earlier than I am forced to now.

I have already made a point to highlight Clooney and Reitman, so I will take this “Oscar Moment” to focus on the supporting cast.  Of these, the most prominently featured in the trailer is Anna Kendrick, who plays Natalie, the naive Cornell graduate assigned to shadow Ryan Bingham (Clooney).  I have not seen any of Kendrick’s previous work; some girls might recognize her from a certain movie that I refuse to mention (if forced to reference it, I will simply call it “the T-word”).  But Reitman wrote the part of Natalie specifically for Kendrick, so clearly she has chops.

Another supporting actress worth noting is Vera Farmiga, who plays Alex Goran, the frequent traveler of Bingham’s dreams.  Unlike Kendrick, I have seen one of Farmiga’s performances as the spellbinding lone female presence in “The Departed.” Like Kendrick, Reitman wrote the role especially for her.  From my limited vantage point, it would appear that Farmiga has the more daunting character to tackle because Alex seems to illuminate a sensitive side of Bingham through their encounters.

While having a great supporting cast makes for an outstanding movie, it can often prove troublesome around awards season.  In supporting categories, it is not unheard of to have two nominated performances from the same film.  But the supporting actress category is teeming with talent this year.  Mo’Nique is a virtual lock, and, barring a complete meltdown, “Nine” will most assuredly have one actress in the category (my money is on Marion Cotillard).  I see three possible scenarios for Farmiga and Kendrick, sorted below in order of probability:

  1. One of the women will emerge an audience favorite and will be nominated.
  2. The movie proves so unstoppable that both are nominated.
  3. Voters are split between the two and neither receives a significant enough showing to receive a nomination.

Most experts seem to be leaning towards the first scenario, and they think it will be to Kendrick’s benefit.  I have to say I agree because the Best Supporting Actress category has traditionally been one to reward young talent.  The second scenario seems more likely to play out in favor of “Nine” just because the actresses are already so established and loved (Winners Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz; nominee Kate Hudson).  I just love thinking about these types of situations because it means a lot of great performances and movies – who doesn’t want that?

BEST BET FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director (Jason Reitman), Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Kendrick and/or Vera Farmiga), Best Adapted Screenplay