Thursday, November 13, 2014

Faults (AFI Fest 2014)

Not too long ago, a handful of films about cults were released within the span of about a year. Martha Marcy May MarleneSound of My VoiceThe East, and The Master were four of the biggest, and though these films all dealt with portraying cults in slightly different ways, it felt as if there was something in the air; it seemed as if suddenly all of these filmmakers were making small, independent films about cults. If you pay attention to this kind of stuff, it might strike you that Riley Stearns' freshman feature, Faults, is a couple of years late to the party - after all, the plot revolves around a man hired to pull a girl out of a cult lifestyle and "deprogram" her. But this movie is an assured directorial debut that clearly stands on its own. A taut, hypnotizing thriller with dynamic performances all around, Faults is a terrific example of the power of low budget filmmaking.

Faults
Writer/Director: Riley Stearns

Starring: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lance Reddick



Friday, October 24, 2014

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy's film depicting the subculture of videographers who sell sensationalist footage of crimes and crashes, could have been set in any city with a major news market. But it's no accident the film is set in Los Angeles. Though the movie doesn't lean too heavily on Hollywood's iconography, the idea of using Tinseltown as a backdrop is perfect for a film that concentrates on a man willing to twist (and sometimes create) narratives for his own benefit. It's a meta-commentary about storytelling itself, and anchored by strong performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, Nightcrawler provides a dark, ugly look at the line between news and sensationalism.

Nightcrawler
Writer/Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton




Friday, October 17, 2014

Birdman

Bursting at the seams with metaphors, themes, and symbolism, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman teeters on the brink of becoming too busy for its own good. This is a film with a lot on its mind, and while it never delivers anything breathtakingly original, it explores interesting thematic material in mesmerizing fashion: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) shoots the film in a series of long continuous shots stitched together to give the effect that the movie is essentially one long take.

Birdman
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts




Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gone Girl

One of the highest compliments I can pay David Fincher's Gone Girl is that I could have watched it for at least another hour. It's a fast-paced nail biter, full of outstanding performances and shocking twists. Not only that, it's a thought-provoking film with a bit of a sleazy streak that's obviously made for adults, something that may as well be a unicorn in the current film landscape. The film, based on Gillian Flynn's popular novel, was actually written by Flynn herself, and Fincher's realization of her script results in a surprising, chilling, captivating, dark, and occasionally humorous take on marriage, betrayal, and manipulation. Gone Girl is one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris



Friday, August 29, 2014

As Above/So Below

What's scarier than being trapped underground? For the claustrophobic among you, probably not much, but being trapped in catacombs, surrounded by the bones of millions of dead people, and entering the actual gates of hell just might top it. So it goes in As Above/So Below, a found footage horror film that plays like The Descent meets Event Horizon, with a bit of National Treasure mixed in and viewed through Cloverfield lens. I actually like all of those films far more than this one; As Above/So Below is a passable thriller with a few good jump scares and a handful of creepy moments.

As Above/So Below
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge



Friday, August 22, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

When the first Sin City arrived in 2005, it carried with it a sense of true innovation and the promise of a visual style audiences had never seen before. The story wasn't particularly original, but no one could deny its had jaw-dropping special effects and gorgeous cinematography, taking a black and white color palette from the film noir movies it was so clearly paying homage to and adding vibrant splashes of color. But that was nine years ago, and where the first film's flair was cool and surprising, this time it feels like a gimmick dragged out for far too long. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For was not worth the wait.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Starring: Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba



Saturday, July 19, 2014

Frank (LA Film Fest 2014)


Yes, Frank is a movie in which Michael Fassbender spends about 95% of the runtime wearing a huge paper mache mask over his head. That’s the film’s hook, and though it does eventually explore its enigmatic title character, Frank is primarily the story of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young musician who works in an office but spends most of his time trying (and failing) to write compelling songs. When he sees a keyboard player trying to drown himself in the ocean, he happens into becoming the new keyboardist for the unpronouncable “Soronprbs,” an experimental rock band led by Frank (Fassbender), who – yep – wears that mask even when he showers and sleeps.

Frank
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal


Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy

Frank Grillo is already a part of the Marvel cinematic universe - he played Crossbones in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and has a contract with the studio to reprise his role in a few more movies - but his performance in The Purge: Anarchy could also serve as a roundabout audition for another Marvel character: The Punisher. While there isn't any official discussion about Grillo taking on that role (yet), his trenchcoat-wearing, brooding badass in this film is a dead ringer for Frank Castle. They're both out to avenge fallen family members, but lucky for Grillo's Sergeant (who never gets a name in Anarchy), it's Purge night - so that makes his vengeance legal.

The Purge: Anarchy
Writer/Director: James DeMonaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zoe Soul, Kiele Sanchez, Zach Gilford



Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

After a brief credits sequence explaining how the virus from the last film wiped out most of the human population, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with an extreme closeup of Caesar's eyes. The camera slowly pulls back, revealing every tiny detail of his face. Even though I know intellectually that actor Andy Serkis is providing performance capture work to play this character, the movie doesn't even give you a split second to think about that: there is no Serkis, there is only Caesar. It's a ballsy move on director Matt Reeves' part, too, because if the graphics aren't quite up to snuff, you'll instantly be able to tell. He's essentially daring you to find a flaw, but in this shot - and in fact, in every shot involving apes in this movie - there are none to find. The visual effects team at WETA has outdone themselves once again, giving us a movie in which the apes look completely and totally real.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell



Thursday, June 26, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

There's no need for us to denounce Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction as the downfall of modern cinema, because one of his characters essentially does it for us. Early on, as Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) rummages through a run-down old theater, the theater owner makes a comment about how sequels are the reason why it failed. Bay knows that the films of this franchise are constantly crapped on, but he clearly doesn't care. This is the most excessive movie he's ever made, and it's also one of his worst.

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Stanley Tucci



Friday, June 13, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

The first How To Train Your Dragon was an incredible surprise for two reasons: it was a DreamWorks Animation film that was actually good after a long stretch of questionable films (save Kung Fu Panda), and it out-Avatared James Cameron's Avatar with its depiction of immersive and jaw-dropping 3D flight sequences. The story and voice work were stellar, and the film's visual flair produced some of the most impressive action sequences that graced a movie screen that year. It's been four years since the first film was released, and now writer/director Dean DeBlois (co-writer and co-director of the original) is back to continue the story with How To Train Your Dragon 2.

How To Train Your Dragon 2
Writer/Director: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett



Thursday, May 22, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The third entry in the X-Men film series, 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, was so reviled by critics and audiences that it nearly killed the entire franchise. It took 20th Century Fox five years to get things back on the right track with X-Men: First Class, an energetic prequel that creatively reignited the mutant saga, and now the studio is back with X-Men: Days of Future Past, an ambitious sequel that combines two generations of cast members into one film. Bryan Singer - largely responsible for sparking the current wave of superhero films thanks to his work on the first two X films - is back in the director's chair here, and though some have questioned whether he still has an eye for action after after the disappointing Jack the Giant Slayer, Singer uses this film to reestablish himself as one of the best comic book movie directors working today. X-Men: Days of Future Past is not only an outstanding science fiction/action film, it's also the best X-Men movie yet.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage


Monday, May 5, 2014

Neighbors

I've always thought that writer/director Nicholas Stoller works best with his frequent collaborator Jason Segel. Their first feature collaboration may have been their best: Stoller directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Segel wrote and starred in, and the duo co-wrote The Muppets reboot (which I enjoyed) and The Five-Year Engagement (which I also enjoyed). It's when Stoller sets out on his own without Segel - as he did with Get Him to the GreekGulliver's Travels, and a couple other projects - that I feel the quality of his films tends to slip a little bit. Segel had nothing to do with Neighbors, so how does this film hold up with Stoller at the helm?

Neighbors
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco



Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Enemy

Strange, beautiful, terrifying, and stunning, Denis Villeneuve's Enemy is one of the most enigmatic films of the year.

Enemy
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Non-Stop

Over the past decade, Liam Neeson has experienced a career resurgence as an action movie star: he trained the Dark Knight in Batman Begins, tracked down his daughter in Taken, released the Kraken in Clash of the Titans, battled the elements in The Grey, and barked orders in Battleship. Now Neeson is taking to the skies in Non-Stop, in which he plays an alcoholic Federal Air Marshal who receives a series of texts from a mysterious passenger threatening to kill one person every twenty minutes.

Non-Stop
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore




Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a formulaic, spiritless attempt to resurrect an iconic cinematic character, and if this film is any indication of how this franchise will look moving forward, I'd prefer if it stayed buried. Chris Pine stars as the title character, an analyst-turned-operational CIA agent who discovers an international conspiracy to crash the US stock exchange and plunge America into a second Great Depression. A paint-by-numbers screenplay and questionable direction from co-star Kenneth Branagh results in a film so lifeless and uninspired I could barely muster enough effort to roll my eyes at it.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley