Saturday, November 30, 2013


My main problem with Rush that prevents me from really liking the movie as much as everyone else, is that I feel like the film is a character piece that doesn't dig all that much into its characters. 

The story chronicles the rivalry between formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Hunt is a muscular playboy who beds numerous women and parties hard, but he's not one-hundred percent at peace with what he does for a living. He's good at it and he isn't afraid, but he's troubled. His hands shake under the table at press conferences and he throws up in private just about every time before he gets into the car. Thankfully he can hide that all away behind his demeanor. Lauda has a face that is described to be "ratty". He is rude, condescending, and the only reason he probably doesn't get his ass kicked is because he is also incredibly talented. He is pragmatic, logical, and has an argumentative 'I'm-always-right' mentality about himself. If Hunt has internal problems hidden behind an impressive brawn than Lauda has external problems (especially after a grave injury that takes place later in the film) protected by his braininess. They are polar opposites; archetypes that simply exist and carry the characters to the end of the film. There is some growth in the third act, but ultimately it is choreographed early and partially ignored as the narrative just moves from race to race as if to almost keep up with the vast history the story wishes to portray.

That being said, the film is beautifully shot by Anthony Dodd Mantle (Danny Boyle's usual director of photography), has a profoundly moving score by Hans Zimmer, and director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (the two worked together previously on Frost/Nixon) are smart enough to never make the film feel that repetitive. The cinematography, editing, and sound design feels different for every race and has a fluidity that makes up for what I felt was a motionless plot. Daniel Bruhl's performance as Lauda is also exemplary. There really is no other word for it. Hemsworth, Olivia Wilde, and the rest of the cast are certainly good, but Bruhl seems to be at a whole other immersive level with his work here that his Lauda displaces the other characters. Howard is normally known for making crowd-pleasing movies that deal with more complex feelings and topics than most Hollywood films. Examples of this with Howard include Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon. Rush certainly isn't on par with those, but it is a very well-crafted attempt of bravado storytelling in that mold.


The script to Prisoners by Aaron Guzikowski is a fine script on its own. One can see why a movie studio would say yes to this project. This is also the kind of script that without a great director, it might just feel like another revenge tale. However, under the skilled attention of Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), an incredible cast, and high production values especially thanks to the work of legendary cinematography Roger Deakins (see most Coen brothers movies)- Prisoners was elevated to such a high level of storytelling that I can't help but find the film as deeply moving as I out it to be intricately dark and thrilling.

The film asks a basic question, how far would one go to save the ones we love? We've seen movies depict a government torturing a prisoner to gain information to save the lives of millions, but what about when it is your own family? The film introduces us to Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) when he is out hunting with his son (Dylan Minnette who was astounding on NBC's Awake). They shoot a deer and on the drive back home, Dover somehow steers the conversation to talk about how to be prepared for anything no matter how fearful you might be. As a man, Dover is the kind of guy who has a basement full of survival gear and is deeply religious (the film is full of heavy-handed but effective symbolism (i.e. the snakes, being unable to finish the lord's prayer, etc.). His family seems accustomed to his personality as do his friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). On Thanksgiving, Dover, his wife (Maria Bello), his son, and daughter all go over to the Birch's house for dinner. The two young daughters of both families go outside to play and head back to the Dover residence only for them to go missing. Matters escalate and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes the girls were abducted with his only suspect being Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a mentally challenged boy who is being cared for by his aunt (Melissa Leo). Now take a second and notice the talented names I've placed in parenthesis. The sheer acting prowess this film possesses, alongside a complex and twisty script, and beautifully dark and nuanced lighting elevates what sounds like a Law and Order episode and turns it into one of the most emotional experiences of the year.

This film is far from torture porn. Keller kidnaps Alex, tortures him and demands to know the location of the girls. There is seemingly just as much evidence and possibility that Alex knows something, as there is that he doesn't. If Keller is right about the boy, then he will get to see his daughter again who with every hour of each day is most likely crying to be with her family. If he is wrong, then he is committing a grave injustice and going against a set of morals that he feels strongly enough to break. Jackman and Gyllenhaal are like I've never seen them before. Jackman carries himself with such a rage and Gyllenhaal makes the case seem so personal in such a realistic manner that you forget the trope of the personally attached detective.  The film takes you inside the case with the pain faced by a grieving family and the constant struggles of the police to find a solution in a mountain of contradictions and crimes that pile on top of each other (just see the intense interrogation scene when a gun is taken off an officer by a suspect).

Villeneuve masterfully brings this all together and the final result is a film that I feel will leave audiences unsure of how the feel about the film's quality. I found it to be incredible, but maybe others will just be too turned off by a singular element that I see as part of a tapestry.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


I figured I'd catch up on some movies that I had wanted to see a year ago and Oliver Stone's latest was playing on HBO. Stone is the kind of director whose name immediately sparks an interest in my wish to see a film. Certainly if you look at his filmography, his films have dipped in quality since his heydey of the late 80s and through the 90s (Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fouth of July, The Doors, JFK, Heaven and Earth, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, U-Turn, and Any Given Sunday) and yet even with his later work (World Trade Center, Money Never Sleeps) he still has something to say. Kind of like the idea of how Woody Allen, who makes a film every year, has made so much that he can't help but waiver in quality and yet he is still patiently adding brick-by-brick to a wall of his work that will be looked back on with affinity for its breadth. Perhaps the best modern counter-part to Stone is Spike Lee whose masterpieces were early in his career like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X and yet he still has some unique stories to contribute like with 25th Hour or Inside Man.

Something else I admire about Stone is his ability to make his points bluntly and then beat those points to death and still have a meaningful moment. It doesn't always work, but when he makes it work, it absolutely becomes the most talked about moment of his film in question. A non-Stone example would be how at the end of Paul Greengrass's underrated thriller Green Zone, Matt Damon stands up and outright says "The reason we go to war matter!", thus forcing an overly blunt attempt at giving this story more meaning when the film was functioning so well as a crafty and thrilling experience in suspense. A case where being blunt can work for someone such as Stone would be how during JFK, Kevin Costner makes his closing arguments and reminds us of the trajectory of the bullet that killed the president. "Back and to the left." "Back and to the left." "Back and to the left." Each time the camera angle adjusts every so slightly with Costner saying it differently and getting a different and more intense reaction each time he says it.

With that in mind, I can see why so many enjoy Stone's Natural Born Killers. The film is everything one has come to expect from Stone but with added dose of adrenaline and steroids. Savages seems like an attempt to recapture that zaniness with the celebrity and examination of violence from Natural Born Killers being replaced with issues of cross-cultural communication and economics in Savages. The film got some great reviews. A lot of critics seemed to really dig it. I just didn't quite care for it as much as I was hoping. The film feels careless with its depiction of characters and events and I don't even mean that in a moral sense. The movie lets these characters wander into and out of extremely volatile and tense situations all in the name of two men's love for a single woman and yet then there is a sudden attempt at a sociological angle that I feel takes away from those stakes... a comment about immigration here or a statement about the devils of the United States government there. The film has such a talented cast that I'd much rather see an exploration of emotion instead of a descent into exploitation.

For a movie where much is at state, I'm just having trouble grasping at the suspense when I'm pretty sure the stakes warrant much more emotionally reliable characters who are instead treated as postmarks.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Had I seen this before the end of the year 2012, I would've certainly placed it among one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. I admire director Pete Travis' career so far (his work on Endgame more so than Vantage Point) and Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) has always been a buzz-worthy screenwriter, so I had high hopes for a more realistically down-and-dirty take on Judge Dredd whose characterization and world had previously been butchered in an overly commercial 1990s Sylvester Stallone incarnation. I saw the trailer for this new adaptation and it just didn't seem all that interesting. There was a bunch of slo-mo and a sense of gratuitous violence; I felt like I had seen fifty other trailers like this already. Then there were the rumors of the film's troubled production that were eventually confirmed. So at that point, I had written the movie off completely.

Then it came out and it started to get some decent write-ups. A few bloggers and members of various forums I frequent had given it some high praise. I started to see it pop-up on "Surprises of the Year" or "Movies You Thought Were Going to Suck But Didn't" lists. Fast track to a year later and my friends are telling me to give it a watch. I sat down and watched it and frankly, it should be the blueprint for an ideal action film.

Not to say the action genre is any lesser or greater than others, but it certainly has become a widely popularized, mainstream, and diluted style of filmmaking. For every Aliens or Die Hard there are five other rip-offs to be found at the box office. Thankfully, Dredd is so well-crafted that you can't help but admire how thrilling and fun the experience is. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I always say the mark of a good movie is if I'm moved or changed when I leave the theater. Whether I cried for a drama, laughed at a comedy, or cheered for an action hero, I would ultimately feel different. Then I can say I recommend the experience of a specific work. In this case, I felt fully enveloped into this world through it suspense.

The plot of Dredd is quite simple, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban, in a very Eastwood-esque manner) is stuck training a new rookie judge named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on her first outing. The city they work in is populated by rampant gang violence with gang leaders controlling their turf from tower blocks that resemble part-ghetto and part-gated community. Each tower-structure is its own world with its own rules. Dredd and Anderson soon find themselves tracing a drug to a block run by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who once the judges are inside, looks down the complex and puts a bounty on their heads. The only thing the judges can do... fight their way to the top and remove the cruel leader from her post. 

Cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle (like Garland, a collaborator of Danny Boyle's) stages the shots and set-ups so beautifully that the film looks like an almost steam-punk version of The Wire. The action is kinetic and constantly moving with the edits and the camera work. The quickest shootouts or shot of characters running is as thrilling and nerve-wracking as the next major set-piece. Travis and Garland are smart enough to include some character development. Dredd really only changes at the end while much of the arc is placed on Anderson and we end up learning about others through her. The gratuity that might've turned me off turns out to be a part of the darkly-cynical and sometimes humorous tone of the work and the slo-mo is actually a clever plot-device that showcases the effects of the drug use.

Visually stunning and a lot of fun, but at no point feels like it was part of some factory assembly line of mass produced movies. Argueably an underrated and undervalued example of how the action genre can be revived.