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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook - Review (2012)

When it comes to romantic comedies you can usually predict the majority of the plot just by looking at the movie poster.   Full of complex, interesting characters, family drama, emotion and unique approach to storytelling, Silver Linings Playbook is a breath of fresh air in a stale genre.  A film that is much more than a movie poster.

The story centers around Pat (Bradley Cooper), a young man that has just finished an eight month treatment for a bi-polar disorder, that hopes improving himself will be enough to repair his damaged relationship with his wife.  His caring mother (Jacki Weaver) cautiously brings him home to get him back on his feet.  His father (Robert DeNiro), a die-hard Philadelphia sports fan with some OCD tendencies, seems more interested in having his good luck charm back to help ensure a Philly victory.  During a hilarious dinner with his friend he meets (Jennifer Lawrence) a widow with dealing with her own set of issue, namely depression.  From the minute they are on screen together the chemistry is undeniable.  From that point on the film focuses on their unorthodox relationships as they unknowingly lean on each other to work through their problems. 

And the film is full of problems, problems based in reality, which is part of its draw.  We are not given the typical rom-com full of perfectly colorful, quirky characters, in a mystical Hollywood made world where everything works out in the end and we all learn a wonderful lesson just before the latest Kenny Loggins tune plays over the credits.  Behind the walls of the home of this all-American home there is family that is dealing with adversity, one that fights, that has made mistakes and doesn't always have the answers.  Not only are none of the characters perfect, most are flawed and at first difficult to embrace.  Each one comes with their own list of shortcomings - they are not bad people, they just take patience to understand.  Instead of caricatures we get characters.  Pretty early on you get the feeling that no matter what the outcome of the film it is not going to be resolved perfectly with a bow on it.  David O. Russell exposes these less than attractive parts of family life and balances it with comedy and romance, the film's greatest feat.

As I mentioned there is magic on screen between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  They both provide award worthy performances, taking two characters I would hesitate about inviting into my home and turning them into two characters for with whom you empathize.  DeNiro has one of his best performances in years - not one of his typical straight off the rack characters.  Welcome back, Bobby.   Jacki Weaver, is not given as showy of a part, but delivers on what she has - there were a couple of times her acting with her eyes choked me up.  And the surprise statement of the young year, Chris Tucker even does well, delivering (for him) a restrained performance - not gunning for laughs, therefore he earning some.  This is one of the better ensambles casts of the year, helping me to connect to characters that could easily have been repellant.

At times, caught up in the whimsy of what is unfolding on screen I may have been a little to eager to overlook some flaws, including a predictable (but likable third act.)  The film, like its characters, has its flaws.  But, isn't that why we go to the movies, to escape the real world and for an hour or two, find the silver lining in life and embrace it?  I did just that, ran with it and had a great time doing so.

9 out of 10

Monday, January 28, 2013

Searching For Sugar Man - Review (2012)

Tells the true story of a mysterious musician from the several decades ago that put out music that was virtually unheard by American ears only to be adopted by the youth of South Africa as anthems for change.  When it is revealed that people know little about the artist and that he may have even committed suicide on stage, some fans go in search of the man behind the music.

It is an interesting tale, unfortunately one that I had already had revealed to me on a news magazine show.  With most the details already revealed this felt like a more detailed recap.  It was interesting, but I am sure much of the appeal of following the trail of the mysterious Sugar Man was lost for me.  If you are a fan of music, particularly Bob Dylan-esque music, then check it out.  It is an interesting tale and in the very least his music is actually quite good.

7.0  out of 10

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Looper - Review (2012)

Looper is a time travel story, starring Bruce Willis, set in the not so distant future.  

Let me guess, from that line alone you are imagining a film full of incredible futuristic devices, AI robots run amok, run-ins with historical figures or maybe a grim dystopian society where our every move is watched by an out of control, omnipotent government.  These are just a few of the film conventions that are commonly used during time travel movies, of which I am a big fan.  Although some of these conventions can be a great deal of fun they often draw the majority of the filmmaker’s focus, as an end result what’s sacrificed are intriguing characters.  

What if I told you Looper was a time travel film about regret, redemption, loss and what you will do for love?  Doesn't sound like the sci-fi the typical time travel film, does it?  And lucky for us it isn’t just another film about time travel, but rather, a film about people.  The story is complex, at times confusing but rewards you for sticking through it and applying a little extra brain power.
Looper is set in 2044, a time not much unlike our own.  Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a looper, whose job is killing people from the future, closing the loop. You see, thirty years into the future, 2074, time travel exists, but it is illegal.  The mob sends back those they need to dispose of and the looper takes them down - no questions, no talking, no chase - the target appears out of thin air, just shoot, kill and collect the bounty.  The catch, they eventually send back the older version of yourself in order to close your own loop.  This is what happens with Joe, his older self (Bruce Willis) appears but has other plans in mind.  Older Joe tries to escape, putting younger Joe’s life threatened by his bosses and the need to hunt down and kill older Joe.  The problem for younger Joe is older Joe came back with a purpose, he is not going down easily.

Director, Rian Johnson (Brick), does not get lost in the need to sell us his vision of the future.  He delivers a minimalistic version - no hi-tech futuristic skyline full of flying cars, no hoverboards or hologram assistants, there's not even a sunglass-wearing, trench coat sporting George Carlin.... instead we see a very identifiable America.  Sure, there are a few futuristic automobiles and weapons, they are countered with an almost rustic feeling version of middle America circa 1990s even though the film is set 5 years from then.  Our focus is not on gadgets and hi-tech mumble jumble, is it on allowing us to invest in the characters.  

An exclusive FilmSnork confession.  I HATE most films that use paper thin plots to string together chase/action scenes - they just aren't my thing.  There I said it.  My fear going into this film was just another exercise in just that -  action packed chase scenes, highly choreographed fights and gun battles.  That is why Looper is a breath of fresh air, the actions scenes are not the major draw of the film.  The action progresses logically from an engaging story - it is part of the story, not the other way around.

As usual, Joseph Gorden Levitt (the actor I STILL have trouble believing was the son on Third Rock from the Sun) delivers another impressive performance.  He has become one of the most reliable actors out there.  And Bruce Willis steps up his game with a couple of very emotional, gut wrenching scenes.   Round out the cast with Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt and you have a very solid cast whose performances lead to some real impactful scenes.

To get the most out of this film you cannot be a passive viewer.  You will need to be prepared not only twists, turns and mind-bending time travel concepts, but also ready to put yourself in the characters’ shoes, thinking through every ethical decision they must make.  This film does not provide all the answers, it proposes some great questions though.  And honestly, days later I am still thinking about it, flip-flopping on what I saw, what I believe and how I would handle that.  This is not your uncle’s mindless time travel film.  San Dimas High Schhool Football RULES!

8.5 out of 10 stars

Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty - Review (2012)

Every once in awhile when writing a review I find myself in this situation.  A film, that I enjoyed while watching defies a conventional rating and/or review.  This is the case with this film - a technically sound film, often intense film that lets us in on a previously undisclosed secret world of tracking down the most wanted man in the world (and not in a good way.)  

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA agent that has trailed Bin Ladin since the day she joined the CIA is an engaging character.  She is a driven woman with some spunk who will not let anything get in her way as she pushes forward on the hunt to capture bin Ladin.  Her story is the thread that holds the film together, the human element that makes this more than just a military procedural.  

Anyone that lived through those terrible events back in September of 2001 hoping that one day justice would be served, will want to see great effort put into making that wish come true.  This film delivers answers (accurate or not) that we yearned for.  I believe it fills a hole in our being left there by the uncontrollable, unthinkable tragedy.  In a way, this film completes us, relieving us of some of the emotional baggage we have lugged around for over a decade.  The last 30 minutes of the film lead to the obvious climax is the killing of Bin Laden, something we all know is coming (even I will reveal that “spoiler.”)  No more questions.  No more wondering.  

But, as a cinema piece it is much less successful.  The reason we become so involved with the film is due to our vested in the subject matter, not because of the characters on screen.  Maya serves, more or less, as a guide throughout this tale.  Her story and that of those around her does not provide cinematic weight needed to elevate the film much beyond the glorified reenactment that it is.  The emotional response to the film falls almost completely on our connection to the real events, not to the characters/story put on screen.  Although there are some displays of good and even great acting (Chastain being the great) the actors are never given much to do.  I am not saying the film is devoid of human emotion, there are a couple moments of humanity that salvage the film.

Although Bigelow crafts some intense scenes, they never reach the same level as the hold-your-breath moments of her Oscar winning “The Hurt Locker.”  There was never a moment during the film that I was restless or bored, it simply lacked the emotional connectivity, preventing it from grabbing hold of me and resonating that way I had hoped.  Who these people are and what happens after all this meant little to me, they were just cogs in the wheel of the master plan.   

The whole experience of seeing this film was like going to see a magician.  Instead of watching him perform an amazing trick, he shows you how he did an older trick you have seen before.  Sure, it is interesting to learn the secrets behind the magic, but it will never be as exhilarating as watching a new trick.  After the thrill of discovery is gone there is not much more to digest.  As I left the theater I had nothing left to think about, nothing left to discuss.  That was minutes after the film, how will the film hold up upon on a second viewing or, better yet, years down the line?  Should I rate the film based only on my actual time viewing?  Should I even ask myself these questions?

My rating for the film 7.5 out of 10.
(a margin of error of .5 depending on how I am feeling that minute.)

The following are a couple of thoughts I had while writing this review that in no way affected my rating, but are worth noting and can be discussed in the comments section.

The film has become controversial because of the graphic displays of torture.  It the film pro-torture, is it anti-torture?   Who cares???  I think that is a very subjective question.  I personally don’t like torture.  Do I condone the torturing of those that are looking to kill countless others to protect the innocent?  The answer to that is something I struggle to come up with a definitive answer for.  If this film accurately portrays what happened during the event preceding the death of Bin Ladin, then shouldn’t they be shown for what they are.  If you going so far as to make this film, then don’t sugar coat it.  

Which brings me to my next internal conflict.  I have to question the fact they made this film at all.  If anything, it seems kind of irresponsible.  Sure Americans are curious what exactly happened.   We are always curious.  That does not mean we deserve all the answer to our questions.  Look what happened when we wanted more answers to the mysteries of the Star Wars universe... we got the prequels, we learned about midi chlorians... we were introduced to Jar Jar.  Having your questions answered does not always end well.  Not only does this film reveal a lot of the techniques used by our government, it also can be used as a tool to breed hatred for our country.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed - review (2012)

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me.  
This is not a joke.
   P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. 
You'll get paid after we get back.  
Must bring your own weapons. 
Safety not guaranteed. 
I have only done this once before.

That curious want ads is what sends three magazine writers on a hunt to find the person behind the posting.  Along the way we meet some interesting, offbeat characters.  Sounds like a vehicle to put quirkiness on display - luckily it is more than that.  It is a clever, character-drive film about about mistakes, regret, loneliness and the dream of time travel.

What starts with the trio skeptical attempting to determine the legitimacy of the time traveler only leads us to the core of the film, the relationship on the doe-eyed, eye rolling Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the mystery man from the ad, Kenneth (Mark Duplass.)  We watch all characters reach into uncomfortable territory, connecting, reconnecting - finding friendship and solace in each other.  Unlike films that work hard to fill the ill conceived quirky mold some believe to be a requirement for "indie" film making (looking at you Napoleon Dynamite,) this film avoids the trend, offering characters that feel like real people (odd, but real) ones you can connect with.   It helps that the film, which takes place in Seattle, is not full of hi-tech contraptions or lingo - it takes place in easy to digest locales; restaurants, super markets, the woods, every day settings.

Although I may have lead you to believe otherwise, this film is not all sadness and longing, it offers many light, inventive, sweet and funny moments.  It is one part mystery, one part redemption story, one part romance.
(This is a good companion piece to Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, another high concept film, that finds its center with the people involved, not the situation.

8 out of 10

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Life of Pi - Review (2012)

I will admit, when I first heard of this film, I had little interest in it.  I could not see them keeping a film about a kid (Suraj Sharma) lost at sea on a boat interesting for more than half an hour or so.  Through some great old fashioned story telling they do, without a moment of boredom.  The boat scenes show moments of real emotion, regret, braveness, creativity, fear, doubt and tenderness.  We are not given a godlike hero with all the answers, we learn as he learns, we explore as he explores.

If you do not know, Life of Pi, tells the story of Pi as narrated by himself as an adult (Irfan Khan.)  It consists of two major parts, Pi’s life as a child in India and his 227 days on a boat with a Bengal tiger.

When it is working the film feels like sitting down with a master storyteller that is spinning a web of wonder while the listeners envision in their head the images of what he is saying.  Instead of making our minds provide the imagery, Ang Lee and company in a very picturesque fashion breaths life into each chapter of this tale.  The result is a beautifully shot film seamlessly combines old fashioned storytelling and the latest technology to bring the words of the novel to life.  Unlike so many films that try their hand a 3d the use here does not come across as a gimmick, but rather than a medium to craft a story.  Missing are the scenes that only exist to display the technical capabilities or use exaggerated 3D conventions to wow the audience.  The 3D is finally used solely to enhance the storytelling.   

The film is hampered down by the recurring scenes of the adult Pi as he tells his story to an author there to turn his tale into a book.  The scenes do provide a breather from the incredible scenes on the boat, but little else.  Pi has a great deal to say about spirituality that is supposed to tie together all of what we are seeing, it partially succeeds.  At the same time comes across as preachy like a friend that enjoys the smokeable offerings of the world (recently legalized in Colorado) a little too much and temporarily thinks everything he has to say is deep and important.  Combine that with the blank staring writer (Rafe Spall) that seems to serve little to no purpose and all the work put into telling a grand and beautiful fable loses a little bit of its luster.

8 out of 10

Monday, January 7, 2013

Django Unchained - Review (2012)

There are films that tell a story and there are filmmakers that sell you a story.  Quentin Tarantino is the Dr. Frankenstein of film combining elements of multiple genres to create a one-of-a-kind monster to sell you.  The latest monster is called “Django Unchained.”  And what a monster it is.  A mash-up of spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation, slavery, extreme violence, romance, black comedy and revenge flicks (and possibly more) that satisfyingly delivers one hell of a film that gains momentum, evolves and grows until the violent climax.  

For the last decade or so Tarantino’s films have been solely focused on revenge.  This time he tells the tale of a slave named Django (the D is silent) whom had been stripped away from his wife and forced to watch her be beat and branded after a failed attempt to escape.  Whom while in transport, a long, treacherous, painful walk chained to several other slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx) comes across a silver tongued dentist, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz.)  Dr. Schultz is not exactly what he first seems to be; his speech may be civil, but his actions are deadly - he is actually a bounty hunter in disguise.  They team up, working together to track down a group of loathsome men to kill and collect reward on.  While doing so the two bond, Schultz offers to teach Django the tricks of the deadly trade and offers to help reunite him with his wife.

The film is full of fine acting.  Jamie Foxx does quite a bit of acting with just the use of his eyes - you can feel the blood boiling under his skin and you do not to hear him say a word to prove it.  One issue I did have with Foxx’s performance was his accent, not only was it all over the place, when it was on it did not seem the proper accent for a slave of his position during that era.  Even with a solid performance he is outshined by both a charismatic Leonardo DiCaprio and an almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson.  There is one performance that stands out from the rest.  One of my single favorite pieces of acting this decade and possibly ever, Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schultz.  From the first few words he speaks in the opening scene I was captivated.  He is what separates this film from every other shoot-em-up film of the past, he offers a clever, eloquent speaking, intelligent character in a world full of savagery.  When he starts speaking it is like a snake charmer controlling both the other characters and the audience with his oh so polite use of the English language.  This performance is even better than his Academy Award winning role in “Inglorious Basterds.”

The film provides a unique experience, this is not just another slavery film that plays on the emotions of the viewers like some sort of made for TV movie of the week, nor is it a dry history lesson.  This an extremely difficult subject filmed under the helm of a master entertainer.  We are gifted with a thought provoking, unsettling, cringe inducing look at racism and at the same time an often hilarious, action packed buddy revenge film.  There is a massive amount of violence on screen, even for a QT film, but the violence often drives home the message.  I found myself affected on a much more visceral level by the violence and despicable treatment of the slaves than any previous film about the subject.  It clicked with me.  Maybe it was because it was delivered in a much easier to swallow form than the melodramatic or options of past.

As for the excessive use of the N word and the general discussion about men as property, at first it can be very unsettling, when said with malice it always is.  But somewhere along the way it loses its power because you realize that those who use it are ignorant fools and like your drunk uncle spewing advice after Thanksgiving dinner and dozen Jack and Cokes, their words carry little weight.  I am sure many people will disagree with me, which is your right to do so.  I found the usage to only create more hatred toward those that uttered it.  I did not walk out of the theater and start using the term.  If anything it made me question others’ nonchalant use of it in films, TV and in rap music.  Where they tend to disarm the word, this film gave it weight - made you hate it for the vile connotation behind it.

The cinematography is wonderful, capturing the vast American landscape scene by scene as if planning to paint them on a canvas.  There are scenes obviously inspired or maybe better yet borrowed from classic westerns.  It also provides the funniest Klan scene since “Blazing Saddles.”  Yes, that’s right, a hilarious Klan scene.

The film does so much right, that when QT does make a misstep or two they stand out.  It is also full of cameos and familiar faces - some that work, others not so much.  The film is pretty much smooth sailing until it reaches what should be its climax and mistakenly is extended, ending the nearly perfect pacing up until that point.  This is the biggest detriment to the the film.  It is not as if what is left there on screen is not entertaining, it just would have been a tighter picture with a more direct conclusion.  And for the first time QT failed on his music choices for the soundtrack, the modern music did not sit well with me - it felt off.  

How does this film compare to his previous work?  Does it really matter?  This is a great film that has much to explore, contemplate and discuss.  It will be difficult to consume for many because it is focused on one of the most vile times in American history.  Slavery is not fun.   And somehow this film is.  

8.5 out of 10

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World - Review (2012)

This film has either one of the best titles ever or one of the worst titles ever.  I am leaning toward best ever, the box office may have proved me wrong.  It is the story of two lonely people that meet as they deal with the imminent, upcoming end of the world.

Starring Steve Carrell as Dodge, a sad sack that is such a pushover he cannot even fire his maid even though there are only days left in the existence of mankind.  As he watches his (and everyone else's) world fall apart, a chance meeting with his neighbor Linda (Kira Knightly) leads to a sprinkle of hope for their remaining days.

For a comedy about the end of the world the film is surprisingly touching at times.  It accomplishes this by never becoming a a predictable comedy or sci-fi film even though the film is set in a near future where the world is set for destruction.  The focus is on the people and relationships.

It could have been a great film but the film moves away from the intimate feel for larger scale, less interesting moments.  One scene that stands out is a surreal visit to a T.G.I.Fridays style restaurant that has evolved into a drug fueled house of sex.  It may have worked in another film (or, most likely not) instead these bizarre shifts in tone completely detract from all the positive aspects.  I did love the ending, salvaging the film from the being a letdown. 

6.5 out of 10

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Dark Skies Trailer - Do You Think It Looks Scary?

Whenever people see Keri Russell people usually think two things, "I never watched an episode of Felicity, but she sure has nice hair." After watching the trailer for "Dark Skies" I wonder if people will forget the show and her cutting the incredibly appealing hair and focus on her work in what looks like what could be one of the scariest films in years. I know that there are dozens of trailers for horror films that look promising every year, but this looks particularly creepy. Check it out and let me know what you think. Or, if you would rather not talk film, tell me who had better hair in the history of TV.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows - Review (2011)

Robert Downey Jr. is great at one thing, one important thing, being watchable.  His performances draw and keep your attention.  It is this quality that prevents the audience from bailing early and allows us to stick through the drawn out, convoluted first half of this film.  He does gets some help from a surprisingly well cast Jude Law as Dr. Watson - their chemistry is the main draw of the film.  Unfortunately the typically reliable Noomi Rapace  and Jared Harris get swallowed up by their surrounding, given little to do or say that is memorable.

As for the plot, it is a bit of a mess.  You know who the good guy is, you know who the bad guy is all there is to do is watch them be clever and see how one of them wins.  I wonder whom that could be.

Although the film does not bring much new to the plate and in the end feels kind of empty, if you can make it to the rousing half it is not bad for a night's entertainment.

5.5 out of 10