Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Film Tally 2013

Ah, another year has come and gone in an instant. Seems like it was January only yesterday. Anyway, my year had its ups (Toronto Film Festival!) and downs (the passing of my father), and I managed to get in a slew of good (and not-so-good) films. Going by month, they are as followed:

The Wolf of Wall Street

You gotta hand it to Martin Scorsese. Back in 2011, he finally does a film that's appropriate for the whole family. And what does he follow it up with? The bawdiest, foulest, absolutely insane piece of filmmaking of his extensive career: The Wolf of Wall Street.

Seriously, every single aspect of the film is through the fucking roof. (And don't think I'm fucking kidding either.) You know how Goodfellas showed the lust and greed of being on top of the world? Yeah, well, The Wolf of Wall Street is like that but completely amplified by, say, a thousand. (Again, I'm not fucking kidding.)

As expected from most Scorsese films, the roster of the many supporting actors of The Wolf of Wall Street is just as insane as the film itself. Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey (two scenes, steals the whole fucking show), Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley...everyone's at the top of their game here. (And that's only a few of the actors Scorsese enlisted.) But of the many supporting actors, the best of the bunch is definitely Jonah Hill. (Not sure why, but I got some serious John Turturro vibes from his performance. Maybe it was the accent.)

Which brings me to the main event: Leonardo DiCaprio. He unleashes fifty shades of batshit crazy here, even more than in Django Unchained last year. To hell with all of the heavy, angsty dramas; DiCaprio needs to do more roles like this. (Special mention must go to his manic expression and delivery of: "Get the LUDES.")

Long story short, The Wolf of Wall Street is the most insane film Scorsese's ever churned out. (Most directors over 70 usually tone it down.) Ah, debauchery never looked so appealing.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Alexander Payne's debut Citizen Ruth starred Laura Dern as someone who won't let life little inconveniences get in the way of their personal world. And in an ironic twist of fate, Payne has cast Laura's father Bruce Dern in a very similar role for his new film Nebraska.

When an actor is in their twilight years and they show they still have a good performance in them, that's always a good sign on the director's part for still having faith in said actor. (See also Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook and Robert Redford in All Is Lost.) In the case of Dern, an actor I'm not overly familiar with (outside of his Oscar-nominated work in Coming Home), I think it's suffice to say he gives his best work in Nebraska. (Boy, I sure hope he gets nominated.)

This is common amongst Payne's films actually. Usually whomever is playing the lead for one of his films, the actor(s) will end up giving the best work of their career. (See also Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth, Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and George Clooney in The Descendants.) So how does Dern join these other actors? He takes a role any actor could play and makes it his own.

And like Payne's other films, the supporting work is great as well. It's obvious that Dern will get most of the attention when it comes to awards, but I sure hope that Will Forte and June Squibb will be equally recognized. (One can dream, can't they?)

Everything about Nebraska is great. From Payne's direction to the performances to Phedon Paramichael's absolutely gorgeous cinematography, the film just works on so many levels. Easily, easily one of the best films of the year.

My Rating: *****

Saving Mr. Banks

Drama behind the scenes. It happens on practically every set for a film or a TV show. Disputes with the higher powers, romantic entanglements, chaos on the set...hey, there's no business like show business.

John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks depicts the (mostly fictionalized) troubled production of Mary Poppins. The film features the disputes between author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) throughout the production's stormy early stages. Even though a good chunk of Saving Mr. Banks is purely for drama, it's certainly an interesting story to be told.

It's a good film but I think what's mildly frustrating about Saving Mr. Banks is its portrayal of Travers. Maybe since it's a Disney film (and badmouthing the studio's founder wouldn't exactly be wise) they have to portray Walt Disney in a positive light. Therefore Travers must be depicted as a bitter shrew of a woman wrought with emotional problems. Come on, Disney. Weinstein has more dignity than that.

But I will say that Thompson makes the most of her thin role. (It's also nice to see her in general.) Hanks in turn displays his usual charisma, which is essentially required when playing Walt Disney. Though I would like to highlight Colin Farrell's supporting work as well.

It's not the best film from this year, but Saving Mr. Banks isn't a complete loss. It's mostly redeemed by the performances, but certain depictions might rub people the wrong way. (It certainly did for me.) But it's still worth a look though I'd wait until DVD.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, December 22, 2013

American Hustle

"Some of this actually happened." These words open David O. Russell's American Hustle. These words guarantee that the viewer will be in for a very wild ride. These words promise a very insane film.

And Russell certainly held up to that promise. It's a film that revolves around living the American dream of living a life of wealth and luxury. Simple, sure, but nobody stated you had to earn that wealth and luxury legally...

It's amusing because when I first saw the trailer, I thought it would just be an abundance of bad fashion and worse hairstyles. Granted, I did get just that but Russell also provides a partly factual story. (I wasn't well-read on the real life story beforehand, but I still enjoyed the film.)

Even though his reputation with actors is less than stellar, Russell always knows how to get top-notch work from his actors. And American Hustle is no exception. We have Christian Bale abusing his body once again, Amy Adams shying very much away from her usual goody two-shoes roles, Bradley Cooper proving he's more than just a pretty boy movie star, Jeremy Renner being the unwitting pawn of a grand scheme, and Jennifer Lawrence basically stealing every scene she's in. They're all great but my attention stuck solely on Cooper. (I must also mention Louis C.K.'s scene stealing part and Robert De Niro's lone scene.)

It gets a bit chaotic towards the end but American Hustle is overall a very solid film. It's certainly not everyone's cup of tea but it's one hell of a film. It'll also be stuck in your head for God knows how long.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Sequels aren't always desired by many. Sometimes it's because the first film wrapped up the storylines with no open ends. Other times the first film wasn't well received financially and/or critically. Either way, sequels will pop up sooner or later.

That said, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a welcoming entry. Now don't get me wrong, I very much enjoyed An Unexpected Journey (unlike some people I know of).It just left me wanting more. (Granted, the ending certainly whets one's appetite.)

And The Desolation of Smaug not only fills said appetite but also leaves the viewer very satisfied. (Well, I'm only speaking for myself.) An Unexpected Journey might not have satisfied some The Lord of the Rings fans, but The Desolation of Smaug certainly will.

I just need to take this time to mention the work from Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular dragon. Yes, Smaug doesn't show up until much later in the film but holy hell, it's so worth the wait. I mean, if you have a voice like that, you might as well use it for a role that's absolutely terrifying.

Long story short, I just loved The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. There were a few things that weren't really needed, but they didn't change my overall opinion of the film. Oh, and there's one more thing. Think An Unexpected Journey ended on a massive tease? It's got nothing on the ending for The Desolation of Smaug.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joan Fontaine: 1917-2013

The Academy Award-winning actress, best known for such films as Rebecca, Suspicion and Letter from an Unknown Woman, died today from natural causes. She was 96.
~ October 22, 1917 - December 15, 2013 ~

Peter O'Toole: 1932-2013

The eight-time Oscar nominee and star of such films as Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter and The Ruling Class, died yesterday following a long illness. He was 81.
~ August 2, 1932 - December 14, 2013 ~

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Petrified Forest

Every now and again, you come across a film where everything just works. The performances, the dialogue, everything. Most of the time they're films not many people have seen. Archie Mayo's The Petrified Forest is one such film, and the three major performances prove that.

The first performance comes from Leslie Howard, reprising the role he originated on stage. Like some of his other roles, Howard plays an intellectual that gets philosophical throughout the film. But what makes Alan Squier different from Philip Carey or Henry Higgins is that Alan is much more compassionate. This has probably become a favorite performance of Howard's.

The second performance comes from Bette Davis in a role that's noticeably lighter from some of her other works. As Gabrielle Maple, she plays a woman content with her life but longs to see the world. It's also nice to see her and Howard being civil to each other. (For those not getting the reference, go see Of Human Bondage.)

The third performance comes from Humphrey Bogart, also reprising his stage role and in one of his early film roles. As Duke Mantee, he makes his presence known whenever he's on screen. (No surprise as to why this role had him playing gangsters throughout his career.) Also doesn't hurt that said lasting presence is a trait that'll be forever present in his work.

Long story short, I loved the work from Howard, Davis and Bogart in The Petrified Forest. Hell, I loved everything about The Petrified Forest. It's a simple film that just works. Go seek it out and watch it.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Stephen Frears' films are often ones I'm bound to like. He always garners lasting performances from his actors, a scenario I've noticed from every film I've seen by him. (I hope that's common amongst all of his films. Well, most of them.)

That trend continues quite strongly with his new film Philomena. As well as showcasing the work of its two leads, the film also takes a relatively heavy subject and adds a few well-placed touches of humor. (Though considering who one of the writers is, it makes sense.)

As many would know by now, Judi Dench is one of the best actresses working today. Here in Philomena, she adds yet another great performance to her long career. She balances the film's dramatic material and the script's comedic touches with ease. (Not many actors are capable of that.) Although Notes on a Scandal is my personal favorite, her work here can easily change that.

But the performance I was most surprised by was the one from Steve Coogan. Only familiar with him from 24 Hour Party People, I was really impressed by his compassionate work. Holding his own against Dench is one thing; giving one of the best supporting performances of the year is certainly another.

Philomena is simply one of those films that in the wrong hands would fail miserably. But thanks to Frears, Dench and Coogan, the film is easily one of the best films released this year. Be sure to see it.

My Rating: *****

Out of the Furnace

When Scott Cooper released Crazy Heart back in 2009, some people became curious as to what future films he'll be offering. So when details for his new film Out of the Furnace started to come out, many were intrigued.

But with a number of films that have hype, it doesn't exactly deliver. Perhaps it was because of the roster of actors Cooper acquired for his film that caused the hype to go through the roof. (This is why I try not to get too excited for a film based solely on its cast.)

Speaking of the cast, it is a rather impressive one regardless of the film's strength. The actors include Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana and Sam Shepard. They all make the most out of the flimsy script, Bale especially.

Going back to the script for a moment. I could slightly see the point Cooper and Brad Ingelsby were trying to make but it was too all over the place for me to fully understand it. Maybe a bit more work on the script would have had me singing a different tune.

Anyway, Out of the Furnace isn't anything really special but it's also not a complete loss. There are good performances from the actors but in fairness, that's about it. I can already see this as one of those films played on TV on an infinite loop.

My Rating: ***1/2

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color

Behind every great film, there's controversy. In the case of Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, it was the behind the scenes drama between Kechiche and stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in regards with the equally controversial sex scenes. Overlooking these uproars, there is so much more to the film.

Blue is the Warmest Color revolves around confused teenager Adele (Exarchopoulos) as she tries to get control on her personal life. When she meets artist Emma (Seydoux) she thinks her life is now in order. (Note the word "thinks".) But does she really?

As with any other film revolving around a relationship, it all depends on the dynamic between the two lovers. It's not just about those scenes (which, save for one, feel rather unnecessary) but rather the emotional bond formed between them. And thanks to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, they bring the love affair between Adele and Emma to life.

Speaking of the two leading ladies, they're quite simply fantastic here. Seydoux displays both an aggressive and quiet side in her Emma. But it's Exarchopoulos that's the star of Blue is the Warmest Color. So many shots linger on Adele's conflicted face and they speak volumes.

Blue is the Warmest Color is one of those films where the subject matter is annoyingly undermined because the controversy it managed to stir up. (Brokeback Mountain, anyone?) Thankfully, there have been a majority of viewers who saw past the uproars and recognized what the film truly is: a portrait of conflicted love.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, December 1, 2013


I know I haven't been blogging as much lately. It's mostly because of lack of drive, and I apologize for it. But that doesn't mean Defiant Success is closing its doors. There is, however, something I want to say in regards with the blog.

As some of you may know, I do a book and movie comparison post at the beginning of every month. Well, I've decided to tone down the frequency of said feature. Instead of every month, it will now be whenever I feel like doing such a post. On a similar note, I intend to review more books for this blog.

Blogging shall resumed later this week.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Twentieth Century

Within the first few moments of Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, we see the beginning of the partnership of Broadway director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and acting hopeful Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). It's a rocky start to say the least, but their first play is a success.

Fast forward three years, and their partnership has become more bitter than an unripe lemon. She ditches him for Hollywood and her career thrives. (His in turn crumbles.) Then on a train from Chicago to New York, they meet after all these years, and...well, it's not a friendly reunion by any means.

As someone quite familiar with her work, it's clear to say that Lombard is very funny in this. But bear in mind that did this long before films like My Man Godfrey and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In other words, this is Lombard's first foray in screwball comedy. (Hawks actually complained that Lombard was too stiff early on in production.)

But the absolute scene stealer of Twentieth Century is definitely Barrymore. Again, bear in mind the actor's other roles, so seeing him do screwball comedy could be a bit of a shock. And yet, he is an absolute riot here. (I also love what Hawks said to Barrymore to convince him to take the part: "It's the story of the biggest ham on earth and you're the biggest ham I know.")

Twentieth Century is a very funny film. Thanks to the manic performances from Barrymore and Lombard as well as Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's script and Hawks' direction, this is the benchmark for the many screwball comedies in the years to come. Go see it.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The More the Merrier

There's something about comedies from the 1940s that makes them more lasting. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the jokes are actually funny unlike what we get nowadays. (Granted, some jokes are dated.)

George Stevens' The More the Merrier is one such film from that era that could fit the bill quite neatly. It has a nice balance of well-timed slapstick and jokes, but there are a couple of jokes that wouldn't exactly slide nowadays. Still, Stevens knows what he's doing for the most part.

And as with most comedies, it all relies on the right actors to get the job done. For The More the Merrier, Stevens enlists the likes of Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea (a vastly underrated leading man) and Charles Coburn (who got a well-earned Oscar for this). As I said, all it takes for a comedy to work is the right actors, and Arthur, McCrea and Coburn are just that.

I suppose what makes The More the Merrier stand out a bit is that Arthur's character is a working. Bear in mind, this was released in an era where women were either waiting for their men to come home or working in the factories. It wasn't that common to see a woman working a desk job (outside as a secretary, I suppose).

The More the Merrier is certainly amusing though it does get silly after a while. It mainly works because of the trio that is Arthur, McCrea and Coburn, but I'm mostly amused that this was made by the same man who would make A Place in the Sun. (Just saying.)

My Rating: ****

Monday, November 18, 2013

The General

When it comes to films of the silent era, that is something I'll openly admit to being a beginner to. The only titles to have been seen by me include the likes The Gold Rush, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Pandora's Box. Suffice to say I need to fix that.

One legend of the silent film era I so needed to catch up on was Buster Keaton. There are some disputes over whether he or Charlie Chaplin was the true master of the silent comedy. Those disputes alone convinced me I needed to see something of Keaton's.

So what better Keaton film to start with than The General? (Always start with the more prominent film, that's what I always follow.) And boy, it is funny. (Certainly not something you'd say about a film set during the Civil War.)

In my eyes, the best comedy can be found in the form of a reaction shot. With a number of silent films (particularly comedies), such shots are usually over-the-top. Thanks to Keaton being, well, himself, these shots are just gold. All it took was a very subtle change in his stoic expression to get a laugh.

Anyway, The General is proof on how to make a great comedy. (I was also very impressed by his stunt work throughout.) This just convinced me I need to see more of Keaton's work. (And I think I'm taking a shine to him more than Chaplin.)

My Rating: *****

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dirty Pretty Things

Early on in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, it's established that Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn't content with the life he's living. He studied to be a doctor but is currently working as a cab driver and a hotel receptionist. He's also an illegal immigrant from Nigeria living in London, so he has to keep his eyes open constantly.

Senay (Audrey Tatou) isn't exactly better off. She works at the same hotel as Okwe but she longs to live in New York City. And like Okwe, Senay is also an immigrant to London. (She's from Turkey.) But her hopes of going to the United States are appearing to become dashed because of the horrors she faces in London.

The performances Frears get out of Ejiofor and Tatou are quite mesmerizing. Take everything you know and love about Tatou in Amelie and throw them out the window. She's not a shy, lovelorn Frenchwoman here. She is instead a woman scared of the world she's a part of. It simply must be seen.

And even though Tatou got top billing (and her face on the poster), it's Ejiofor who's the star of Dirty Pretty Things. Like with many of his other roles, Ejiofor draws you in from the very moment he appears. (Not that many actors have that kind of charisma.) Again, it simply must be seen.

Although it's not the strongest of Frears' films, Dirty Pretty Things is still quite good. Thanks to the work from Ejiofor and Tatou (as well as a scene-stealing Sophie Okenedo), the film shows that the life you're living can become a dangerous one before you know it.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Swimmer

Frank Perry's The Swimmer is certainly not one of the more conventional films of the 1960s. (Or, for that matter, any decade.) It doesn't open (or end) on a standard Hollywood note, and yet it's a bizarrely transfixing film.

It's understandable to see why The Swimmer is not that well-known of a film. After all, it was released in the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bullitt and Rosemary's Baby. So that could mostly contribute to its obscurity. (Then again, there are a number of other less-than-famous films from that year.)

The story is also an unconventional one. Many films from this era would focus on a character trying to achieve the American dream. Here in The Swimmer, it's a complete deconstruction. Once one gets that dream, it can be hard to maintain it for those around you.

And I can't go on with this review without talking about Burt Lancaster's performance. Lancaster was one of those actors who was always good regardless of the film, and The Swimmer is no exception. With his quiet musings on life throughout the film, Lancaster's work in The Swimmer could easily rank as one of his best.

The Swimmer as a whole feels clunky in spots but is overall a solid piece of filmmaking. Perry, better known for the infamous Mommie Dearest, gives his audience an allegorial curio of a film that simply floats around in your mind long after the credits have rolled.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All Is Lost

When J.C. Chandor's first film Margin Call hit theaters, many people were intrigued by the work of this new director. Seeing as how it featured many prominent names (and garnered an Oscar nomination), there were some who wondered what his next film would be.

That film ended up being All Is Lost, which is minimalist in every sense of the word. With very little dialogue and (technically) set in one location, All Is Lost shows you don't need a great deal going into a film to make one that's great.

What I liked the most about All Is Lost is that Chandor could have easily gotten a young, robust actor for the film's lead (and lone) role, but he didn't. Instead, he got Hollywood veteran Robert Redford, and it's the best work Redford's done in his long career. Could he snag a second Best Actor nomination? God, I sure hope so.

It's not just Chandor's direction and Redford's performance that make All Is Lost great. The score by Alex Ebert and the cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco are just as stunning. And yet both are used in subtle but brilliant ways.

All Is Lost is quite simply one of those films that comes along every now and again to show that less is definitely more. Every small detail and action of Redford's performance and Chandor's direction prove that cinema isn't a dying art; it's one that's being re-invented.

My Rating: *****

About Time

A few days ago, Richard Curtis' Love Actually celebrated the tenth anniversary of its release. For those who haven't seen it yet (which is practically impossible by now), it's a multi-linking film about (quite simply) love. Many people have since fallen in love with it.

Curtis' new film About Time will probably have the same effect Love Actually had on its audiences a decade ago. (It certainly did for me.) Yes, there are themes of love throughout the film, but it all results into a film about life.

Admittedly, I liked About Time more than Love Actually. Why? Because there were several scenes that were very relateable to me, mainly those near the end. (It came as no surprise that they hit me in the right spot too.) When a film does that, I'm bound to love it.

I also liked the overall message of the film: appreciate the small things in life because they'll be gone before you even realize it. It also reminded me of a quote from the Curtis-penned Doctor Who episode "Vincent and the Doctor" (which is also one of my favorite episodes of the show): "The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don't soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant."

Long story short, About Time is a ridiculously charming film. It has the right balance of comedy and drama that's practically essential for any piece of fiction. When you have the chance, be sure to see this. (Preferably with someone you care about.)

My Rating: *****

Monday, November 11, 2013


It's not easy making a musical. Not only do you need actors who aren't tone deaf (though that could easily be remedied), you also need a relatively solid plot to fit in around the all of the musical numbers. And believe me, it's harder than it looks. (Not that I've tried, mind you.)

Fortunately Rob Marshall's Chicago hits the right notes. (Yes, that pun was intended.) As I've stated here numerous times before, I'm not that big on musicals. (I honestly thought I wouldn't like this because it because looked too lavish a la Moulin Rouge!) And yet I loved every moment of it.

Why? I'll tell you. There's the fact that Marshall clearly knows what he's doing in regards with directing a musical. (Then again, he was experienced with Broadway enough.) There's also the allusions to Bob Fosse throughout, most noticeably in the choreography for some of the musical numbers. (And Cabaret references!)

Speaking of the musical numbers, they certainly get stuck in your head, don't they? ("He had it comin'!") If I had to choose three numbers from Chicago as favorites, they'd be "When You're Good to Mama" and "We Both Reached for the Gun" because they're really catchy (courtesy of Queen Latifah and Richard Gere, respectively), and "Mister Cellophane" because John C. Reilly is just heartbreaking. (No wonder he got that nomination.)

Anyway, Chicago is just one of those films that dazzles. Thanks to the actors, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in particular, this is a film I can see myself watching again and again. Speaking of which, I sort of want to watch it now.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Blood Simple

Jean-Luc Godard once said, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." This is also the guide to make a film noir. (I mean, they're practically essential.)

This is also what Joel Coen followed when he made his debut Blood Simple. Made with a shoestring budget and a simple premise, the film takes the standard crime drama and is given a few twists courtesy of Coen and his brother Ethan.

As with any early film of a prominent director, you can pick up on certain trademarks throughout. In regards with Blood Simple, there are subtle additions that would be seen in later Coen Brothers films. It's small stuff like lighting or editing, but they're very Coen Brothers.

But the most telling Coen Brothers element in Blood Simple is the (excuse the slight pun) intolerable cruelty the characters inflict on each other. It's just a detail like that must have made some critics back in 1984 raise a few eyebrows. (It's more of a shrug nowadays due to films being excessively violent.)

Anyway, Blood Simple is noir at its finest. It's not very often that you see a film with a limited production that resulted in a satisfying way. This isn't a film often talked about, and I don't understand why that is.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Random Harvest

I usually don't care much for love stories. (I'm a cynic, so sue me.) If I do decide to watch one, it's usually one that's either doomed from the start or on its last legs. The best ones, however, are those that appear perfect but are anything but.

That can describe the relationship between Paula (Greer Garson) and "Smithy" (Ronald Colman) in Mervyn LeRoy's Random Harvest. Yes, they meet, fall in love and get married, but neither know of Smithy's past prior to their meeting. Then Smithy remembers who he is...but forgets his life with Paula.

Much like LeRoy's earlier film Waterloo Bridge, Random Harvest spends the first third revolving around the budding romance, the second third on their separation, and the final third on their possible reconciliation. (The endings for both films, however, are very different.) Even then the stories between the lovers bear striking resemblances.

And to make the story more potent, LeRoy enlisted the likes of Garson and Colman. Garson has a number of heartbreaking expressions throughout the final third which make the film have more of an impact. Colman in turn has a vulnerable look in his eyes that makes his work in the first third more lasting. The combination of these two looks during the final moments all the more enduring.

Random Harvest is a very lovely film. Thanks to the work from LeRoy, Garson and Colman, the film takes a simple plot (which in the wrong hands would be a melodramatic mess) and makes Random Harvest a romance for the ages.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


With certain directors, you can pick up on certain traits in their work as you watch their films. For some, it's noticeable after one film. For others, it takes a few viewings to notice them.

In regards with Bob Fosse, it depends on which films of his you see. Either way, one of the major characters will have a self-destructive lifestyle. (Lenny Bruce from Lenny and Fosse expy Joe Gideon from All That Jazz are prime examples.)

Sally Bowles from Cabaret is a milder version but a prominent one. She is by no means on the path of self-destruction but she certainly doesn't know when enough is enough. She's the kind of woman who likes the best of everything: alcohol, men and various small luxuries. But she longs for her name in lights more than anything else.

And Liza Minnelli makes Sally radiate. (Then again, whom else but the daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli would be ideal as a hopeful entertainer?) Her musical numbers throughout the film are very reminiscent of those of her mother's during her prime. No surprise on how she got that Oscar. (Likewise to Joel Grey.)

Cabaret is a very good film though I'm more fond of Fosse's two succeeding films. Thanks to Minnelli and Grey's vibrant screen presences (as well as Michael York's subtle work), the film depicts carefree lifestyles amid a changing society. On that note, now I want to see a stage production of Cabaret. Thankfully there'll be one on Broadway in a few months' time.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, November 1, 2013

BOOK VS MOVIE: House of Sand and Fog

For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. Not just a law in physics but it can be applied to life itself. (Admit it. You've been in such a situation.)

This is certainly the case with House of Sand and Fog. The story follows three people: former Iranian colonel Behrani, emotionally unstable Kathy and uncertain police officer Lester. All three are thrown together because of the titular house. The outcome is one tinged with tragedy.

Andre Dubus III's novel has the first person narrative split between Behrani and Kathy (with an additional third person narrative for Lester later on), which adds more depth into the characters' psyches. You have three different perspectives on one single event, and all of them become determined (read: obsessed) to get what's theirs. It's quite an unnerving thing to read.

Vadim Perelman's film noticeably condenses Dubus' novel by omitting a number of scenes. The film also alters a number of crucial moments throughout. (They're not too severe of changes, but they are noticeable if you've read the book.) Still, the performances from Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly (as well as Roger Deakins' cinematography) makes the film worthwhile.

Now which version of House of Sand and Fog is better? Dubus' novel is much darker than Perelman's film though the film has a nice, slow burn to it. But the film failed to fully capture the novel's sinister nature. After all, the novel proved that even good (well, mostly good) people can do bad things.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Enough Said

The reason I usually avoid comedies with romantic elements (not romantic comedies) is that the lead characters are always in their twenties or thirties. Maybe it's just a way to connect with the target audience (I myself am 20), but I find it annoying after a while.

That is why Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said stands out. Why? Because the lead characters are in their fifties when they're fully aware of life's hardships, not twentysomethings practically starting their lives. The leads in Enough Said are divorcees and have their kids heading off to college. How often do you see that in a film?

The female star of Enough Said is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a familiar face to regular TV viewers. Of course anyone who's seen Seinfeld or Veep knows that she can do comedy. (After all, she has four Emmys just for comedy.) But Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva in a different way than she does with Elaine Benes or Selina Meyer; she makes Eva human.

The male star of Enough Said is the late James Gandolfini, another familiar face to regular TV viewers. It sounds strange to see Tony Soprano in a much lighter role, but Gandolfini proves he's very much capable doing something outside of the gangster role. It's a shame he passed away earlier this year. This film showed he was just getting started.

If I couldn't make it any more clear, I just adored Enough Said. It feels like a very natural film, nothing about it felt artificial. Thanks to the performances from Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini, Enough Said is an endearing little film that I hope many people will seek out.

My Rating: *****

The Fifth Estate

It's always hard for a director to bounce back after a fall from grace whether it be in their professional or personal lives. Bill Condon, for instance, wowed audiences and critics with films like Gods and Monsters and Kinsey. Now that once-glowing resume is tarnished with him directing not one but two of the Twilight movies. Does he redeem himself with his new film The Fifth Estate?

Well, yes and no. Yes because the film proved he still had it in him. No because upon seeing it, I'm not sure if Condon was right for the film. I mean, on the one hand this isn't the first time Condon made a film about a controversial figure. But on the other hand, the mood of the film feels off throughout. (I would also make a few tweaks to Josh Singer's script.)

Though Condon did get a rather impressive roster of actors for his film. Among the supporting actors are David Thewlis, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Alicia Viklander, Carice van Houten, Peter Capaldi and Dan Stevens. They all make the most of their limited screentime, but they all pale in comparison to the two leading men.

Those two leading men are Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl, both of whom were recently recognized for their supporting work in Star Trek Into Darkness and Rush respectively. They don't play martyrs with a cause but rather men that think what they're doing is for the greater good. (Yes and no in that regard.) Suffice to say they're both very good in their roles, but Cumberbatch in particular deserves a mention.

The Fifth Estate is by no means a bad film as a majority of certain bloggers are making it to be. That said, however, it does have its flaws. All the pieces are there, just not put together properly. Though if I wanted a film about leaked secrets and it featured Cumberbatch, I'd just stick with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 21, 2013


It always seems risky to release a movie based on a TV show, especially if it's a show that wasn't on the air for very long. (Well, I suppose it's better than the other way around.)

Yet Joss Whedon's Serenity doesn't feel like any of those other movies. (Maybe because Whedon is behind it.) Following where Firefly left off, the movies shows what's going on with the crew of Serenity. (Hint: it's not very peaceful.)

I had only finished Firefly recently so I can safely say Whedon wrapped up what the unjustly cancelled TV show left hanging very neatly. (That's more than I can say for some shows in general.) Indeed there were many elements from Firefly passed into the movie, but I feel there were some aspects Whedon was clearly saving for when he had a bigger budget.

Of course the stars of Firefly reprise their roles for Serenity but the movie has an added bonus of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the main villain. Ejiofor, who's recently been earning deserved praises for 12 Years A Slave, plays cool and collected like nobody's business and it's awesome. (On a different note, how is Nathan Fillion not more popular?)

Anyway, I really enjoyed Serenity. I'm not sure if it's as accessible to non-Firefly viewers but knowing Whedon, I have a feeling it might be. (Though there are some moments that are pure Whedon. You know which ones if you've seen Serenity.) If you want to see this, I suggest checking out Firefly first.

My Rating: ****

Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors working today whose visions are truly one of a kind. None can compare to the fantastic creatures and world from del Toro's mind. (That, um, rhyme wasn't intentional, I swear.)

And what better film proves that than Pan's Labyrinth? Blending the horrors of reality with the fascination of fantasy, the film showcases the dream-like and nightmare-fueled perspective of a young child. (That aspect alone makes the film even more terrifying in parts.)

In a way, Pan's Labyrinth is del Toro's twisted variation of Alice in Wonderland. A girl falling into a world of make-believe which is almost as dangerous as the world she lives in? Yep, sounds like something from the mind of Lewis Carroll.

But it's not just del Toro's story that makes Pan's Labyrinth so mesmerizing. It's also the many visual accompaniments as well. There's David Marti and Montse Ribe's makeup which is solid proof as to why CGI is somewhat pointless (and also deservedly won an Oscar). There's also Guillermo Navarro's cinematography which embodies the difference between the two worlds (and also deservedly won an Oscar). And I also must mention Javier Navarrete's Oscar-nominated score, all the creepy gorgeousness of it.

You've probably heard enough people tell you to see this. Well, here's another person telling you to see Pan's Labyrinth. Seriously, what more do you need to prove you're missing out on one of the best films of the last decade? (Besides that, I mean.) Honestly, go!

My Rating: *****

Monday, October 7, 2013


"In space, no one can hear you scream." That's the famed tagline for Alien. It's also an apt tagline for Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. After all, it's about surviving in the unsurvivable.

Cuaron is no stranger to the sci-fi genre. His last film Children of Men featured an unbelievably bleak dystopia that would rival anything Orwell wrote. With Gravity, Cuaron (which he co-wrote with his son) condenses the scale to a much smaller degree and amps up the terror.

Remember when it was announced that Sandra Bullock would be in Gravity and the internet let out a collective "WHAT?!" I wonder if those same people ate their words when they actually saw Gravity. I myself am not very well versed with Bullock's work but I can safely assume that this is her best work.

Apparently it's now a trend to release a film you simply must see in 3D. (Not complaining, mind you. Just a small thing I noticed.) Like what Robert Richardson and Claudio Miranda did with Hugo and Life of Pi respectively, Emmanuel Lubezki takes a predominately CGI film and turns it into art. (Especially when coupled with Steven Price's chilling score.)

Gravity is honestly one of those films that gets into your mind and you can't stop thinking about it. Thanks to the glorious combination that is Cuaron, Bullock, Lubezki and Price, Gravity may very well be up there as one of the best science fiction films ever made.

My Rating: *****

Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is certainly one of the more popular young actors working today. Even though he's been a familiar face since his days on 3rd Rock from the Sun and has done a multitude of roles, it's what he's done in the last few years that garnered him recognition.

Now he's directed a film! With his directing debut Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt shows his audience what kind of society we're a part of whether you've noticed it before or not. (I'm aware of this society, and I'm not fond of it.)

What is Gordon-Levitt trying to show his audience with his film? The fact we are all a part of a society that believes out romantic and sex lives will be exactly like what you see in movies and even porn. Like the complete deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl character and the "boy meets girl" story in (500) Days of Summer, Don Jon shows don't believe everything you see when it comes to sex and love.

And Gordon-Levitt got some pretty good actors for his film. Along with himself as the title character, he also enlists the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza in supporting roles. And boy, they're all deliver top notch performances.

Don Jon is a good satire on what the media has us think love is supposed to be, but I came away a touch unsatisfied. Maybe I was expecting too much out of it (most likely), I don't know. Still, I enjoyed seeing Gordon-Levitt step behind the camera.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Captain Phillips

There must be nothing more terrifying than realizing your life is in great danger. That is when your survival instincts kick in, hoping that you'll see this terrible ordeal end without your life being taken away from you.

This is what Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) encounters throughout Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips. Based on real (and recent) events, it's a taut film that doesn't let go until the very end. Then again, when you have a film directed, written and shot by the men also responsible for United 93, Shattered Glass and The Hurt Locker respectively, what else would you expect?

It feels like such a sell-out when a front page story gets turned into a movie within five years of first hitting the press. (The events in Captain Phillips take place in April 2009.) But Greengrass pulls no punches with this. No Hollywood treatment, just the facts of the story. Again, this is the man who made United 93.

It also feels like a bit of a sell-out when you have an A-list actor like Hanks in the title role. (A stark contrast to the roster of unknowns in United 93.) But once the story begins, all doubts are cast aside. What Hanks does in his final scene has to be one of the most staggeringly brilliant pieces of acting I've ever seen.

Captain Phillips is quite simply put a transfixing film. Much like United 93, it will give you one hell of an emotional beating. Thanks to Hanks' performance, Greengrass' vision, Billy Ray's script and Barry Ackroyd's keen eye, they make Captain Phillips a film you simply must see.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Love Me or Leave Me

When Chicago gangster Martin "The Gimp" Snyder (James Cagney) first lays eyes on Ruth Etting (Doris Day) in Charles Vidor's Love Me or Leave Me, he's instantly drawn to her. And her initial attitude is a good match for his. She's not some airhead blonde; she's got determination coursing through her veins.

She longs to be a singer. Snyder gives her the opportunity for some small gigs, but that's simply not enough for Ruth. She wants the stage for herself. As time wears on, Ruth becomes famous not just on stage but on screen as well. But things get complicated between Snyder and Ruth. (Well, more complicated...)

Love Me or Leave Me features some amazing work from Cagney and Day. It's amusing to see Cagney do a film that managed to mesh the two genres he frequently did (the gangster picture and the musical). he again plays a gangster but not one with a hair-trigger temper like in The Public Enemy or White Heat. He plays a gangster that acts like a big shot but is anything but. (One character points out how Snyder's a force to be reckoned with in Chicago but a complete nobody anywhere else.)

Long before she made her famed romantic comedies with Rock Hudson, Day shows a brassy yet bold side to her acting. Her many musical numbers are mesmerizing, especially "Ten Cents a Dance". She most definitely holds her own against a screen presence like Cagney. (And this was a role considered for Ava Gardner or Jane Russell!) How she failed to snare an Oscar nomination is beyond me.

Love Me or Leave Me is certainly one of the lesser-known films of Hollywood's Golden Age and I don't understand why that is. It features one of Cagney's best performances and the performance of Day's career. And, quite simply, it's a fascinating story to watch.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Au revoir les enfants

Stories told through the eyes of a child are bound to be more heartbreaking. How so? This is because (at least most of the time) they are unaware of the world around them. (Don't believe me? Go read or watch To Kill a Mockingbird.)

And this is the viewpoint that Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants is told from. Semi-based on an event in Malle's own life, the film depicts a time of war through the eyes of innocents. (Many other films have tried to follow in Malle's footsteps but very few have succeeded.)

I think what makes Au revoir les enfants an interesting watch (the semi-autobiographical elements aside) is that the events of World War II are treated as simply a minor discussion starter. The film is mostly revolving around the personal dilemmas facing Julien (Gaspard Manesse): doing well in his classes, the occasional schoolboy crush, things of that nature.

What's also surprising about Au revoir les enfants is how bleak it is. But it's not the story that's bleak. It's how the film was shot. Renato Berta's cinematography shies away from vibrant colors and it always seems to be a cloudy day. It's a small detail that I simply love.

Au revoir les enfants is quiet and heartbreaking in every frame, especially in the cinematic beauty that is that final shot. Malle usually employs a sort of detached sympathy with some of his films (The Fire Within springs to mind), and Au revoir les enfants is an excellent exception. It's as fantastic as it is sorrowful.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

BOOK VS MOVIE: Of Human Bondage

People are complicated. Everyone knows this. No one on this planet knows what they want for certain whether it be making a name for themselves or simply having another person in their life. It's simple nature.

This is what Philip Carey realizes time and time again throughout Of Human Bondage. He thinks he has his life in order whenever he pursues a new passion but something always throws a wrench into his desires. Poverty, lack of inspiration or, the most devilish of them all, a waitress by the name of Mildred.

W. Somerset Maugham's novel goes into great detail as to what molded Philip into the man that he is. In the wrong hands, this could be viewed as a way to fill the pages. But Maugham makes it an art form, something I've only encountered with a few other authors. Nothing that Maugham writes sounds preachy nor desperate. (Perhaps because of the semi-autobiographical elements?)

John Cromwell's film noticeably condenses Maugham's novel into a manageable running time (83 minutes!) yet it keeps the disillusioned nature of the novel very much alive. This is thanks to the performances from Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as Philip and Mildred, and they show the contrast between their characters excellently. The dejected tone in his features and voice and the vulgar nature in hers simply says it all.

Does Maugham's novel reign supreme or does that honor go to Cromwell's film? Both are superior in their own rights and certainly have their charms. (If "charm" is an appropriate word to use for a story like this.) The novel shows how dreams can die cruel deaths whereas the film is bolstered by two fantastic performances, so I suppose there's only one way to dispute this.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

12 Years A Slave

There have been a number of films revolving around slavery and many of them have one thing in common, They're always told from a white man's perspective whether it be the film's protagonist, the film's director or both. There has yet to be a film about slavery told from the eyes of a black person.

Now we have Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, which tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. And boy, it's vastly different from any other slavery films. (And, while I'm at it, McQueen's other films.)

How so? Other films about slavery have an empathetic air to them. (This is where I more or less side eye Spielberg.) McQueen, however, forgoes all forms of empathy (as he did with Hunger and Shame) to further the story. (As if empathy would've made this story any rosier.)

And how is this different from McQueen's previous two films? Apart from a different leading man (regular Michael Fassbender got bumped down to supporting), 12 Years A Slave is more of an ensemble piece than a one-man film. I won't mention every actor that appeared, but I do want to highlight the supporting work from Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong'o. Along with Ejiofor, you won't forget their performances.

Though I adored Shame more, 12 Years A Slave is a very fine piece of filmmaking from McQueen. Thanks to a combination of McQueen's direction, the ensemble cast led by a brilliant Ejiofor, Sean Bobbitt's cinematography and Hans Zimmer's score, this is a film that will be talked about in the decades to come.

My Rating: *****

Labor Day

The lead characters in Jason Reitman's earlier films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) are outspoken people who usually go by their own rules. These films are also usually told from their point of view.

So that's what makes Reitman's new film Labor Day feel so different from his other four. The story is told through the eyes of Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) as he and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) hide escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) during the Labor Day weekend. A strange premise, sure, but Reitman knows how to keep it interesting.

There's something about the moroseness in Adele's face that has you hoping that something (or someone) will come along and take her sadness away. And whenever she looks happy, the world seems a bit brighter. That's something of Winslet's acting I've always admired. Dour one minute, radiant the next.

Like he did with the stars of his other films, Reitman gets great work out of his actors. Brolin shows a soft nature underneath his tough guy image. Winslet adds another layer to the unfulfilled stay-at-home mother role she's been playing for the past few years. (See also Little Children and Revolutionary Road.) But I feel it's Griffith who's the star of Labor Day. Apart from holding his own against Winslet and Brolin, he provides most of the emotional heft of the film.

Labor Day, although somewhat darker than Reitman's other films, is still a welcoming entry. Bolstered by the three leads' performances, the film provides a mature portrait of nostalgia. Mr. Reitman, I anticipate your next film.

My Rating: ****1/2

Dom Hemingway

In the very first scene of Richard Shepard's Dom Hemingway, it's very clear that this is a role like no other for leading man Jude Law. He's not the charming leading man that he usually plays nor is he the lighthearted comedic part. Here, he's a bawdy, foul-mouthed ex-convict who's not afraid to speak his mind. (And that's when he's sober.)

In a way, Dom Hemingway feels like the kind of film Guy Ritchie would normally make but better. (That says a lot right there.) It doesn't rely on crazy shoot outs or even crazier heists (though there is a sort of heist near the end). It focuses more on Dom's life once he gets out of prison.

Also different from the standard Guy Ritchie movie is the fact Shepard wants to show Dom is in fact a human being (albeit a very screwed up one) rather than just someone with absolutely no fucks to give. It's these quieter scenes that continue to make me realize that Law is one of the most underappreciated actors working today.

Dom Hemingway also has a few other notable actors amongst its cast. There's Richard E. Grant who most certainly has his fair share of one liners. There's also Demian Bichir who radiates smugness throughout his screentime. And then there's Emilia Clarke who captures anger and neglect perfectly. But this show is owned by Law.

Dom Hemingway is one hell of a riot. It has the right balance of inappropriate behavior without getting too crass. And even though he was the last person I'd imagine in a role like this, Law just nails it.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

It's easy awards bait, isn't it? Actor agrees to play a person whose name was splashed all over the headlines a number of years ago. (In fact, that could be applied to most of the Best Actor hopefuls for this year.) And many times, the film relies more on the strength of the performance more than the script's.

Thankfully, Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom strays from the expected biopic standards. It doesn't rely solely on Idris Elba's performance (or Naomie Harris') to make the film work. It's all thanks mainly to William Nicholson's script.

None of the facts shown are sensationalized for the sake of Hollywood nor does the film at any point feel like a history lesson. It's Chadwick's intention to make a film that told the whole story truthfully from beginning to end.

Chadwick also enlisted the right actors for his film as well. He chose Elba and Harris to play Nelson and Winnie Mandela. And man, they are just dynamic in this. I won't say that awards will be coming their way (though they might), but I think it's suffice to say they'll be actors nobody forgets.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is everything the standard biopic should be. Chadwick's direction, Nicholson's script, the performances from Elba and Harris, Ales Heffes' music, Lol Crawley's cinematography...everything about the film works beautifully. Safe to say you need to see it.

My Rating: *****


There is no worse feeling than losing a child. It doesn't matter whether death took them or a kidnapper, the loss of your own flesh and blood is devastating.

Just imagine the heartache the Dovers (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) feel throughout Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners. Both couples lost their daughters to the hands of a kidnapper, and they're frantic to find where they are. One of them is willing to break the law.

A film of this nature relies on the right actors to make the film. Villeneuve wisely chose the ideal actors for his film. (Other actors in the film include Jake Gyllenhaal, an unrecognizable Melissa Leo and Paul Dano.) They're all great, but the best work came from Jackman. Seeing the hope slowly drain out of him is heartbreaking. (And he gets to levels of intensity that Sean Penn didn't even reach in Mystic River.)

Oh, and that cinematography by Roger Deakins is gorgeous. (Seriously, he doesn't have an Oscar yet because...?) His work here is rather reminiscent of how Harris Savides shot Zodiac, all of the dark, mysterious shadows shown prominently throughout. (Honestly, can he get an Oscar soon or something?)

Prisoners is a very well-acted drama though it does meander a bit. Several scenes are hard to watch (if you've seen it, you'll know which ones) and I wasn't that fond of the ending. Still, it has a few clever twists here and there, so that alone (well, and the performances too) warrants praise out of me.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Love Punch

Comedy isn't usually targeted at an older audience. It's usually towards high school and college-aged people at best. It's not very often you see a comedy aimed at a much older audience.

That is what Joel Hopkins' The Love Punch is. Starring Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan, the film is a fun little romp for anyone looking for such a thing.

I was amused at the premise because it just sounded like all sorts of silly. But when you have charismatic actors like Thompson and Brosnan headlining it, you can't help but see it. And boy, was it worth it.

I think what also amused me was what Thompson and Brosnan's roles were like. After all, you have a serious actress doing comedy and a former James Bond being an uncool Agent 007. (Yes, the James Bond allusions throughout the film were intentional.) And it works. (I now want to see Thompson do more comedy now.)

Anyway, The Love Punch is a very charming and funny film. Thompson and Brosnan have great chemistry together as they do with co-stars Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie. If you're looking for a comedy with a balance of everything just right, then The Love Punch is for you.

My Rating: *****

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Promise

Patrice Leconte's A Promise boasts a cast featuring the likes of Rebecca Hall, Alan Rickman and Richard Madden, and chronicles a love story that spins over the years. And that is where all of the good points end.

Leconte tries too hard with his first film in the English language. It feels as if Leconte was trying to make something along the lines of Doctor Zhivago and ended up with one of those flimsy romance paperbacks you see at the airport gift shop. And boy, do I mean flimsy.

The whole focus of the film is the relationship between Friedrich (Madden) and Charlotte (Hall), and it falls flat on its face almost immediately. There isn't a proper build up between them and their supposed scenes of longing are laughable at best. For a romance film, it's pretty much dead in that department.

And there's the fact the film's set in Germany and you have English actors not even attempting the accent. (I mean, English actors have been cast as Germans before, but come on.) I kept forgetting the film was set there until someone mentioned Germany. (It felt more English than anything else.) Ugh, misusing good actors. I can't stand that.

If it wasn't clear enough, A Promise is just abysmal. Sure, the actors have a few good moments here and there but they weren't given a hell of a lot to do. I did, however, like the last shot of the film (not just because that meant the film was finally over) but it felt too little, too late. Suffice to say A Promise isn't very promising at all. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

My Rating: ***

The Stag

It's hard to do comedy with heart while still being funny. Most of the time it just gets soppy and stays that way. But every now and again, you stumble across one that hits the right notes.

This is what John Butler's The Stag is exactly. The premise for it is a simple one: a group of friends throw a stag party for their soon-to-be-married friend, but things don't go according to plan...

Yes, a premise like that makes it sounds like The Hangover if it was made in Ireland. (It sort of is to be honest.) But it's so much more than that. There's a certain element in the many male bonding scenes here that's lacking in other films of this nature, and it's that these scenes don't rely on lewd jokes. (Man, no wonder I like productions from across the pond. They're classier.)

I'll admit the main reason for wanting to see The Stag was because Andrew Scott (a recognizable name to anyone familiar with Sherlock) was in it. And he certainly left an impression on this viewer, though the absolute scene stealer of this film was Peter McDonald (who also co-wrote the film). Believe me, you won't forget any aspect of his performance once the credits start rolling.

Anyway, I was really surprised by The Stag. I went in expecting just a light comedy and instead got a very charming gem of a film. Be sure to seek this one out.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Railway Man

Physical wounds are temporary but emotional wounds are forever. This is what Patti Lomax (Nicole Kidman) learns after marrying Eric (Colin Firth) in Jonathan Leptizky's The Railway Man. She knows something in Eric's past changed who he is, but what exactly?

The Railway Man certainly isn't like any other film revolving around a character with post-traumatic stress disorder. Rather than have every scene feature said character and their anxieties, the film takes its time to focus on those around the affected character. (Also normally uncommon in films of this nature is they show what caused the trauma.)

Also worthy of a mention is David Hirschfelder's absolutely stunning cinematography. Take a single shot from the film and it's guaranteed that it's a piece of art in of itself. The framing for a majority of the shots are just gorgeous.

And the actors are just fantastic. Jeremy Irvine (he plays Eric in the flashbacks) forms the mold of whom Eric will become. Stellan Skarsgard (he plays a friend of Eric's) also holds his own amongst the likes of Kidman and Firth. Kidman in turn gives a strong performance. But, in my eyes, the best work came from Firth. Such a lost look on his face...

The Railway Man is a spectacular film. From the performances to the story to the direction, everything about it just worked. Whenever this gets a proper distribution, I hope you'll go and see it.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

This happens every now and again with actors. One gets recognized for a certain role and they spend a majority of their career trying to escape said role. (This is apparently more common amongst actors from the United Kingdom.)

One such actor is Daniel Radcliffe, who as of late is trying to shed his image of Harry Potter. (Well, it would be hard to get away from a role you did for ten years.) In John Krokidas' Kill Your Darlings, he's as far from Hogwarts that can be allowed. Here, Radcliffe plays Allen Ginsberg during the early days of the Beat Generation. And boy, is he great in the role.

What makes Kill Your Darlings so compelling is its depiction of society back in the early 1940s. This was an era where everyone was expected to behave exactly the same. (It's fascinating to see them when their "masks" fall off.) Breaking convention was a daring thing to do back then, and these young writers weren't afraid to do that.

Radcliffe isn't the only great actor in this film. His co-stars include the likes of Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster (whom I barely even recognized), Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyra Sedgwick. Radcliffe is clearly the star of the film, but DeHaan, Foster and Hall certainly hold their own when onscreen.

Kill Your Darlings is a really great film. There's great work from everyone involved, especially Radcliffe and Krokidas. Hopefully when a certain season rolls around, this is one film that will be remembered by then.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

August: Osage County

In the aftermath of a death, there are many questions and emotions swirling inside everyone close to the departed. Anger at the departed being gone, sadness over the sudden loss and fretting over what will happen now are common reactions to a passing.

This is what the Weston family feels following the death of patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) in John Wells' August: Osage County. In the days following his funeral, tensions and secrets boil over between the family, especially between his widow Violet (Meryl Streep) and daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts).

Being familiar with Tracy Letts' other work (Killer Joe, Bug), I was curious on whether he could do something with a domestic setting. Boy, could he ever. The dialogue itself is so many levels of uncomfortable hilarity that's practically worthy of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. (Fitting since Letts recently won a Tony for his work in Edward Albee's play.)

And with any good film (particularly an adaptation), you need the right actors. Sharing the screen alongside Streep, Roberts and Shepard are Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and Dermot Mulroney. Shepard, Nicholson, Martindale, Cooper and Cumberbatch gave the most lasting of the supporting performances, but this show is dominated by Streep and Roberts.

August: Osage County is a wickedly funny film interspersed with well-acted dramatic scenes. Wells, whose last film The Company Men was good but stiff in parts, certainly proves he's a director to keep an eye on. Hopefully people will be seeing and talking about this dynamic film.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer is one of those filmmakers whose work tends to grab a hold of its viewers and never lets go. His first two films Sexy Beast and Birth enthralled audiences during the last decade, and then Glazer just vanished following the release of the latter.

Now ten years after the release of Birth, Glazer returns with Under the Skin. Loosely based on Michel Faber's novel, the film is a surreal portrait in every sense of the term. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.)

Starring in Under the Skin is Scarlett Johansson, who is very much showcasing her abilities as an actress here. She barely speaks, her face rarely alters...and all of this has you wondering what makes her character tick. What is the story behind her? It's a performance that simply does not leave your memory.

Likewise with the other aspects of the film. Whether it be Dan Landin's cinematography or the unbelievably chilling score from Mica Levi, they're guaranteed to stay ingrained in your mind for better or for worse. It's certainly one of the most aesthetic films I've seen in recent memory.

Under the Skin is both extremely bizarre and absolutely hypnotic. You're not sure what's happening and yet you can't help but watch. Thanks to Glazer's keen eye and Johansson's transfixing performance, Under the Skin is one of those films that people will be talking about in the years to come.

My Rating: *****

The Invisible Woman

I admire Ralph Fiennes' work as an actor whether it be his sinister work in Schindler's List or something more charismatic like Quiz Show. His first directorial effort Coriolanus, although leaving me distant, had me curious as to what else Fiennes had to offer behind the camera.

His new film The Invisible Woman left me absolutely spellbound. Based on a novel by Claire Tomalin (and adapted by the brilliant Abi Morgan), it's a quiet film about the budding secret relationship between famed author Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).

It may feel as an odd film for Fiennes to be following Coriolanus with to some, but he makes a very beautiful film. It's also surprising to see Fiennes, usually in heavy dramas or more mainstream movies, in something relatively light.

And in many ways, The Invisible Woman is very reminiscent of Jane Campion's Bright Star. Not just because they revolve around a famed writer's love affair but also because of the restrained depictions of said affairs. No thrashing limbs, no bare flesh, just the physical and emotional closeness between the two lovers. It's something I think the truly skilled can depict, and Fiennes and Jones are two such people.

The Invisible Woman is a very gorgeous film. From Fiennes and Jones' performances to Morgan's script to Rob Hardy's cinematography, everything about it just equates to visual poetry. It's one of those films that I really hope people will seek out and watch.

My Rating: *****


Whenever Ron Howard makes a film based on real life events, the results can vary. Sometimes it's great (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon), sometimes it's mixed (A Beautiful Mind). So where does his new film Rush rank?

Yes, it is written by Peter Morgan and like the last film he wrote for Howard, it focuses on the lives of its two subjects. But the subjects this time around aren't a disgraced former US President and a British talk show host. No, this time it's about two Formula One drivers: one British (Chris Hemsworth), one Austrian (Daniel Bruhl). And like the leads of Frost/Nixon, they're very different people.

James Hunt (the Brit) is very much a reckless figure. He drinks and sleep around, but he's incredibly fast on the race track. Adopting a British accent for the role, Hemsworth displays an air of charisma throughout the film. It's also an ideal part to prove he's more than just the God of Thunder, don't you think?

Niki Lauda (the Austrian), meanwhile, is very much a determined figure when it comes to racing. (No surprise he makes a few enemies.) In a way reminiscent of Vincent Karthesier's work on Mad Men, Bruhl plays Lauda as someone you can't entirely hate (especially not after a crash that nearly kills him). It's a very distinct piece of acting.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, where Rush ranks among Howard's other "based on a true story" films. Well, the performances from Hemsworth and Bruhl were solid. If only I could say the same for most of Morgan's dialogue, which was flimsy for the most part. This is basically a film that's more "show, don't tell" than anything else though it has its moments.

My Rating: ****

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

When we first see Matthew McConaughey (and, to an extent, Jared Leto later on) in Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club, it comes as a shock to see what his condition is. This isn't a measly ten or fifteen pounds lost. I'm talking Christian Bale in The Machinist kind of material.

And this is before Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) finds out he has AIDS. Bear in mind this film is set during the 1980s, the height of the AIDS epidemic (and not long after Rock Hudson was diagnosed). Suffice to say that Ron (who in his first scene is having sex with two women) doesn't take his own diagnosis very well.

What makes Dallas Buyers Club so captivating is how McConaughey plays Ron. Ron is depicted initially as a man who drinks like a fish, abuses various drugs (even after his diagnosis), willing to fuck anyone with breasts, and isn't afraid to speak his mind. (Fortunately he wises up.) And yet McConaughey has us feel sorry for Ron as we watch the disease eat away at him. It's an absolutely transfixing performance from him.

Likewise with the work from Leto and Jennifer Garner. Leto is nearly unrecognizable in his role, both physically and emotionally. (Many of his later scenes are absolutely heartbreaking.) Meanwhile, Garner shows her depths as an actress, proving she's more than just the wife of an Oscar-winning director. (She also has the most perfectly timed F-strike I've heard in a long time.)

Dallas Buyers Club is, quite simply put, a brilliant film. Everything about it just flows wonderfully: the pacing, the performances, the music, everything. This is a film that won't be forgotten for a long time.

My Rating: *****