Adapted from the novel by Tom Wolfe, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff presents an intricately detailed depiction of the training and camaraderie that existed between the U.S. Mercury 7 astronauts, the first American men who went into outer space. Although it reportedly doesn’t put nearly enough detail into the rivalries that existed between the men, most of the time on the film is spent getting to know these guys and demonstrating what they endured on their way through the program and into space. For a film that runs over three hours there surprisingly isn’t a lot of drama here, with much of it actually going the opposite way and being quite a light, humorous endeavor.
My one complaint, and it’s a big one, is that the film spends a lot of its time focused on Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), an Air Force pilot who isn’t one of those seven astronauts. You really feel the weight of the extensive running time here, and a lot of that is due to how superfluous Yeager’s story feels in the context of the whole thing. They could have made an interesting film about Yeager himself, but instead they tried to cram his story in with that of the Mercury 7 and it doesn’t feel like it belongs at all. A good hour of screentime is dedicated to Yeager, most of it in the first act, and it makes that first hour drag painfully before we jarringly shift focus to the seven and spend the large majority of the rest of the film with them. I can’t say I really understand why they included Yeager’s story in the film at all, especially not with how much time they gave him and took away from some of the members of the seven who didn’t get any development at all.
Still, once the focus changes gears it becomes a very fun picture to watch, especially in that middle hour before they go into space where we get to see all of their training. Most of the focus on the seven goes into the men played by Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward and each actor brings their own unique persona to the table, establishing themselves at an early point in their careers. A couple members of the cast struggle with some scenes and I felt that Quaid’s performance was far too smug for a man who we were ultimately supposed to be able to root for, but the majority of the cast do solid work throughout the picture, including Shepard despite my complaints about his character’s involvement.
The Right Stuff is ultimately a director’s picture though, and Kaufman does a superb job of adding the tension when he needs to and bringing the beauty of the mission to the audience. In a time where the science-fiction genre brings us into space every other week, it’s hard to craft a film that really gives you the awe that comes with being a human being who goes out there. We see it all the time, particularly upon the 1983 release of The Right Stuff, the same year that Return of the Jedi made its way into theaters. Kaufman and the cast are able to bring out the human element of these men’s journey, the wonderment that they experienced and the friendships that they built together along that ride.
Moonstruck was a charming little viewing for the most part, though its legacy is definitely lost on me. Perhaps it would have stood out more if I had seen it upon its release, but watching it now for me was a cute but relatively unmemorable experience.
Cher provided a solid lead, though I think I prefer her in Mermaids, and Nicolas Cage felt like he was trying some weird rom-com version of Brando that only worked about half the time. My favorite aspect of the film was definitely the subplot involving Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney; their scenes together had a sincere sweetness that I thought was missing from the rest of the picture.
The primary cast all do a fine job of making the picture flow smoothly and the script from John Patrick Shanley provides plenty of laughs, but ultimately there just wasn’t anything here that I’m going to find much reason to think back on ever again. It also has this lackadaisical approach to infidelity that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth at the end, which hurt my opinion of it a little bit. A cute movie for the majority, though.
I’m not sure why it took me this long to get around to watching this (I guess since I couldn’t see it in theaters that by the time it became available to me I had other priorities), but I finally got around to watching Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows today and felt similar towards it as I did the first. This one was slightly less exciting than the original because it didn’t have that freshness that came with Guy Ritchie’s unique take on the material, but it was still an enjoyable experience. At times, A Game of Shadows felt like it lacked some of the wit and energy of its predecessor (perhaps due to the change in setting) but overall it was a similarly enjoyable experience, albeit with its share of faults.
My main problem with both films is that, while the two stars have an endlessly entertaining chemistry together, neither so far has had a villain or central plot that can measure up to the pleasure of these two characters. The series is really built on the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, who are so intensely watchable whenever they’re together, but it honestly feels like the writing relies too much on their natural charm and forgets to give them a compelling narrative to go with it.
With both Mark Strong in the first and Jared Harris as the infamous Moriarty in Game of Shadows, I felt like they were strong actors saddled with thin, uninteresting characters and the actual plots of the films don’t hold a candle to how much fun it is just watching Downey and Law on screen together in these roles. Harris crafted an intimidating presence that I think put his Moriarty a step above Strong’s Lord Blackwood but I still couldn’t help but feel disappointed when watching the material he was given with; this is really supposed to be Holmes’ mortal enemy? He just didn’t leave nearly enough of an impact to warrant the legacy of the name, within the context of the Holmes legacy or within the universe of this particular interpretation.
Along with the tepid antagonist, Game of Shadows suffers from not really having the kind of appeal that Rachel McAdams brought to the first film. It’s true that the series thrives on the chemistry of Downey and Law, so her removal from the majority of this picture allows for more screentime with the two of them and that’s certainly welcome, but the introduction of Noomi Rapace’s gypsy Simza leaves something to be desired. Rapace is a great actress, but the character simply doesn’t compare to the compelling allure of Irene Adler and I found myself missing her whenever Simza was put on screen.
Game of Shadows also overdoes that editing technique that Ritchie introduced with the first one; it’s effective at first but after a while gets more annoying than anything else. Some of the action scenes felt a bit long-winded as a result, where things got a little too reminiscent of Zack Snyder slowing things down every few seconds. It was an interesting approach that helped these big action pieces feel more coherent than they could have otherwise, but I still thought it was done a bit too much.
As with the first one, the production details here were gorgeous and really helped sell the world and create a pleasurable viewing. Jenny Beavan’s costume design, Sarah Greenwood’s production design and the wickedly energetic score from Hans Zimmer were just as impressive as they were the first go around. Overall, I liked Game of Shadows slightly less than the first of Ritchie’s Holmes films but I still found it an easy, enjoyable way to spend a few hours, primarily thanks to the appeal of Downey and Law together.
I’m not sure why it’s so hard for American horror cinema to get it right these days, but Sinister started off in the right direction. Directed by Scott Derrickson, this haunted house tale of a true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) moving his family into a crime scene begins by building a solid atmosphere that builds its suspense organically and establishing its lead character. Hawke does compelling work as the audience surrogate, and the nature of his profession allows for a believable excuse as to why he continues to prod into the mysterious events surrounding multiple deaths that he discovers recorded on a box of Super 8 films in the attic of his home.
The first act has Sinister displaying a lot of potential, which makes it even more disappointing when things really get going and it takes a swift nosedive into the kind of generic spook show endeavor that we see churned out every other week by the Hollywood machine. In that opening act, Derrickson shows that he has what it takes to be a genuine director of a solid horror movie, but for whatever reason he just gives up once the plot really gets going, betraying the atmosphere he was carefully building and instead relying far too heavily on cheap scare tactics to get the audience to jump in their seat. With routine horror editing and “everything is quiet — LOUD NOISE” techniques, Sinister becomes yet another recycled piece of garbage where you can spot every move coming from a mile away.
I’ve said before that I’ve always found Hawke underrated as an actor, and that I particularly appreciate watching him unravel in a role and that holds true here as he gives a solid performance that I wish were in a better film — or at least a film that remained true to the one we saw this open as. Featuring a far too convenient police character that supplies our protagonist with all the necessary information, a hopelessly thin domestic angle with the family and the most banal, conventional modern horror techniques that you can find, Sinister quickly turns itself into a massive disappointment after a really promising first half-hour. I guess I just have to keep holding onto Ti West for now.
Sure to be one of the biggest surprises of the year for me, David Frankel’s Hope Springs had all of the humor I was hoping for (and more), but balanced it out with an impressive amount of emotion that hit me harder than I could have possibly expected. Giving two later-aged stars a welcome opportunity for leading roles, Springs stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a couple who after 31 years of marriage take a trip for an intense week-long marriage counseling session to try and fix their relationship. Not a particularly groundbreaking setup, and while the casting of these two provides ample opportunity for Streep to be lively and Jones to be a curmudgeon, the surprise is Vanessa Taylor’s script, which dissects this marriage in a shockingly open and at times difficult fashion.
While there are plenty of great comedic scenes from the design that revolve around the couple trying to re-energize their sex life or just allowing Jones to be dismissive of basically everything happening around them, Taylor’s script doesn’t back down from taking a hard look at the state of their marriage and the idea that maybe they can’t be fixed. Frankel’s direction does slightly slip into his routine, fluffier ways at times (my one big complaint here being the distracting, inappropriate soundtrack that sounds like it came out of a Sandra Bullock movie), he mostly makes the wise decision to step back and allow Taylor and the two leads to guide the picture in the natural direction that it takes.
Steve Carell portrays the counselor that the two involve themselves in sessions with and there is the occasional supporting character introduced for a moment or two (oh Elisabeth Shue), I was impressed with the intimate focus on the two main characters, with a good 90% of the film featuring just them and no one else on the page. Through Taylor’s script, Hope Springs doesn’t forget to have fun with her characters but it pays much more attention to the honest emotions here, as she writes these well-rounded characters who have left themselves drift apart. Their marriage has never been one for explosive fights or betrayals, but it presents a relationship that is perhaps much more wounded by the slow way they have separated from one another over the years, maybe fracturing themselves beyond repair.
We see two people who will do anything to fix what was once the most important thing in the world to them, but Taylor presents the question of whether love is enough to sustain a bond that has been so quietly damaged over the years and the reaction these characters have to the mere notion of that question was devastating to me. Streep and Jones flesh out these roles so well, taking their guidance from Taylor’s script and adding their own personal touches that allow them to form two honest human beings who are struggling with themselves as much as anything else.
Hope Springs is a refreshingly honest look at the later stages of the modern marriage, a film that left me in absolute stitches at times but more surprisingly managed to bring several tears out of me as well. This definitely hit me harder than I could have expected it to, and is a film that really stands out for me among the crop of recent releases. Guided by a massively honest script and two charming performances from its lead actors, this was a success on every level as far as I’m concerned.
After the great achievements of The Proposition and The Road, John Hillcoat returns (working again with screenwriter Nick Cave) with the decidedly more entertaining crime drama of Lawless. While it never reaches the visceral highs of Proposition or the emotional highs of Road, Lawless has plenty of merit on its own as the kind of pulpy thrill ride that Hillcoat wants it to be. Cave’s script gives it an interesting structure that caught me off guard at first, but once I got used to the way the narrative played out I found that it worked quite well for the characters presented here.
Telling the story of the Bondurant brothers, three men who worked as bootleggers during the Prohibition era, the film never feels like its really building on or towards anything else that occurs within it. Rather, it’s more a collection of events that happen one on top of another and while this took some getting used to, by the end of the final act I had settled with it and began to really enjoy the ride that Hillcoat and Cave take the audience on with it. As he’s done before, Hillcoat utilizes a great ensemble here, led by a strong performance from the growing presence of Shia LaBeouf, who is really starting to come into his own as an actor.
Treading the line between cocksure boy and determined man, LaBeouf handles every stroke of the character as convincing as the one before it. His brothers, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, bring a contrast of internal and external explosiveness that suits the violence of the film well. Stealing the show, however, is the malicious work of the great Guy Pearce, who creates one of the more memorable screen villains of recent years. Gary Oldman shows up for a disappointingly brief amount of time, but Pearce makes up for that by turning in a performance that feels like it comes straight out of the canon of Oldman’s ’90s roster of iconic antagonists. A larger than life bastard who goes straight for the bones, its hard to come out of Lawless with anything but Pearce taking the centerpiece in your recollection of it. The whole cast does fine work, but this is one of those rare supporting portrayals that takes a movie and runs away with it.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lawless for me was the way that Hillcoat and Cave approached the violence in the world of these men. While often films of the modern era are prone to either exaggerating the blood and guts of it, or going the opposite way and shying away from the nastier facets of violence, Hillcoat here presents it all in a way that leaves an impact with its bluntness. He doesn’t ratchet it up further than appropriate, but he never backs down from making sure the audience knows just what that violence means to these characters. As a result, the impact of a throat-cutting or a tar-and-feathering is palpable and leaves a resounding impression, rather than fading in the mind quickly.
Lawless is a great picture in its own right, but I also admire the basic alternative that it gives to the general output of modern cinema, particularly within the timing of its release. Coming after a summer built on the backs of sequels, reboots and hopeful franchise-starters and right before the fall of heavy dramatic Oscar contenders, its nice to have an adult-minded affair that is built for simple, bloody entertainment. The somewhat tepid reviews allowed me to lower my expectations on the film from the masterpiece that I was initially hoping it would be (given the caliber of those involved), and as a result it surprised me by being a surprisingly brutal and effective tale of violence and familial bond.
Following the massive success of The Dark Knight was never going to be an easy task, with critics and audiences alike having practically insurmountable expectations for The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s final film in his Batman trilogy. For me, there was about as much that I liked about Dark Knight as there was that I disliked, so thankfully my expectations weren’t nearly as high as most going into this one. Still, I can’t help but feeling a little…disappointed by the way things were resolved by the end of this trilogy. Actually, maybe scratch that a little bit, I think the final resolution was handled well but the way we got there wasn’t so much. The Dark Knight Rises was, similar to its predecessor, a film with a lot of things that I liked but an equal or perhaps slightly larger amount of things that I wasn’t fond of.
I’ll start with the positives. This series of films has always been primarily about the characters for me, about the relationships between Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and those closest to him and in that respect I think Dark Knight Rises really excelled. Despite the fact that Alfred (Michael Caine) is frustratingly absent for a majority of the picture (which is a complaint I have), the film hits its emotional peak whenever he is on screen and he presents that human core which he always has been used as to center this saga around. The relationship between Alfred and Wayne is my favorite thing about this series and this conclusion builds so well upon what Nolan had established with these two characters in the first two films, aided by very strong performances from Caine and Bale.
Along with that relationship, the other one that holds the most significance for me is that between Wayne and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), which likewise was able to grow so well in this film. Gordon is a vital part of Nolan’s trilogy and here he becomes even more important, as a symbol for what the lies that new Gotham had been built upon meant for its people and for Wayne himself. With the best of intentions, Gordon and Wayne comprised a strategy to erect a false idol in the form of the deceased Harvey Dent after the events of The Dark Knight, but being able to see the personal torture that wreaked upon both men was a painful experience, again made all the more effective by the actors portraying them.
The Dark Knight Rises does its best work in building on the relationships that have been evolving throughout the saga, but it also introduces plenty (too many) new characters to the fold which ended up bringing with it some positives and some negatives. The ones I liked come in the form of Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake. I have a couple complaints about each character, particularly the way that Kyle’s allure, intrigue and personal vendettas are all but abandoned after the first act, but both actors bring a lot of skill to their roles and make the characters two bright points in the overall picture.
When Hathaway was first cast as Kyle I have to admit that I was one of those who thought she was all wrong for the part, fully believing that she wouldn’t be able to bring the sexuality and mystery of the character to a believable level. Thankfully, I was proven wrong within her first few scenes, with Hathaway bringing a playfulness to the character that presented a welcome contrast to the grim setting that Gotham found itself in here. The direction the character eventually went wasn’t something I was too fond of, but Hathaway was believable all the way through and I wasn’t expecting that at all.
Gordon-Levitt’s Blake was one of my favorite aspects of the film, and without spoiling anything (though I’m admittedly about the last person in the world to see this film), the way that they utilize him as a symbol for what Batman means to the average person was brilliantly handled. Levitt brought a maturity to the role that he hasn’t been able to do in his career so far, and this was a guy I was constantly rooting for and wanting to stand behind. Whereas Bruce Wayne falsely thought Harvey Dent was the one who could bring a human face to the things his Batman symbolized for Gotham, The Dark Knight Rises presents a new hero who could represent those things, and that hero is John Blake.
Now onto those new characters I wasn’t a fan of, starting with the supposed big villain of the piece, Tom Hardy’s Bane. It’s not fair to compare anyone to the iconic status of Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight, which already put Bane’s arrival at a disadvantage over just how staggering an impression he made, but even without taking that into consideration this is a character who felt considerably less memorable out of the gate. Bane is a hulking figure, but the way that Nolan wrote him felt too much like a repetition of many of the ideas that we had already seen used in this series multiple times, with a lot of his big schemes feeling like ones that would have come from anyone else in the series. Nolan didn’t give Bane enough of a distinct figure, despite Hardy giving the physicality of the role his best effort. The first big confrontation between Bane and Batman is one of the highlights of the film, an absolutely grueling beatdown of the hero we all idolized, but after that the character becomes considerably less impressive all the way to the final act which betrays practically everything they had established him as up until the point.
The other new character who fell considerably short of their esteem for me was Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, someone who right away never felt quite right fitting into Nolan’s Gotham or among these characters. The relationship that develops between her and Bruce is so thin and abrupt it borders on parody, and the final act reveals with Tate are laughable to say the least. This was just a poorly handled character from premise all the way through to execution, and Cotillard’s performance is a major weak point in a relatively sterling cast.
I’ve spent this review so far talking about the characters themselves, which makes sense since that’s a lot of what Nolan’s trilogy held in significance for me, but a lot of the other aspects of this film hold some major complaints for me as well. For starters, this is probably the first time in a Nolan film where I thought the sound design was distractingly bad. Usually his action sequences floor me, but here they mostly felt grating and overbearing, making the dialogue often incoherent as a result. I personally couldn’t understand what Bane was saying through his mask a good 80% of the time, but even beyond that there were plenty of times where I couldn’t hear what other characters were saying just because the resounding sound was far too overbearing. The film is also quite oddly paced, with awkward jumps through time, a first act that takes way too much time to establish the new state of Gotham and a final act that feels too rushed. The way that Nolan once again uses the villain’s time-based plot honestly felt incredibly lazy, given that he used that exact same strategy to heighten the tension in the previous film.
The Dark Knight felt like there was too much going on for one film to really properly contain, and while The Dark Knight Rises shows some of those same symptoms once again, it more accurately just feels like something that is broken into too many different pieces and not properly placed together. I liked plenty of things about it, particularly the emotional strength that the recurring characters held for me, but there are so many complaints that bring my opinion of it down considerably. Inconsistencies in character, pacing troubles, repetition on a writing level and a really staggering amount of plot holes that make no sense at all — The Dark Knight Rises certainly had itself stuck in a place where the expectations were going to be near impossible to overcome, but I was still hoping that I could have gotten so much more out of it.
Looper is writer/director Rian Johnson’s third feature film and by my account it’s his third straight to hit or nearly hit masterwork status. I’d probably rank it last out of his three pictures so far, but that’s more a compliment to his overall filmography than it is a knock against his most recent effort. Time travel movies are notoriously hard to pull off from a writing standpoint, but Johnson hits an almost perfect blend of intelligence, character-driven plotting and remarkable directorial orchestry that makes it all come together in a manner that appropriately blows the mind and swells the heart.
In the world of time travel, past examples have deemed that you take one of two courses. In the first, time is cyclical — anything that has happened already happened, so going back in time to change the future won’t actually change anything because it already happened and it’s all one big loop that is constantly repeating itself. In the other, changing the events of the past drastically alters the course of the future — going back in time gives you the power to alter the future by changing events and thus creating new timelines for mankind to head towards.
Johnson places Looper in a unique playground that exists somewhere between the two, where the events of the future can be altered by those in the present but also some things seem to be inevitable as to whether or not they will occur. I have to admit that I myself have had some trouble with a few narrative inconsistencies within the world of Looper, where Johnson breaks his own established rules or presents paradoxes that seem to betray the nature of time travel in this universe. Here’s the thing that I’ve come to accept, though; none of it matters. As the character Abe (Jeff Daniels) tells the young looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), “this time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg,” and that is certainly true for those who want to spend their time harping on the logistical study of time travel and how it exists within the context of this world.
At the beginning of Looper, through an effective use of narration to introduce us to the world, we are told by Joe about his job as one of the men the title derives from; in 2074, where disposing a body has become difficult, the mob sends their targets back 30 years into the past, where a “looper” like Joe takes care of that business for them. One day Joe is forced to “close his loop”, which occurs when a looper’s future self is sent back to be eliminated by his past incarnation. The Old Joe (played by Bruce Willis) knows this is about to happen and orchestrates his escape from Young Joe, now existing in the past on a mission to try and correct a mistake that happens in the time period he arrives from.
When the two Joes sit across from one another at a small diner, one of the first things that Old Joe mentions is that he doesn’t want to waste his time talking about time travel because they’ll be there forever. This could seem like a lazy, dismissive piece of dialogue for Johnson to excuse any potential contradictions in his film, but it’s actually one of the smartest lines in the picture and represents the stupidity of my own initial reaction to it; time travel is fiction, it doesn’t make sense, and to spend hours trying to dissect it is pointless. Rather, you accept the events happening for what they are and move on from there.
One of the greatest ironies of Looper is that Young Joe doesn’t take this realization enough to heart, and the two men both try their best efforts to alter the timeline in order to save those they care about. For Old Joe, it’s his eventual wife; for Young Joe, it’s a beautiful mother played by Emily Blunt who has set herself off from the world and is taking care of her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon).Looper is an intricately plotted story with plenty of portals that could, as Abe said, fry your brain like that egg, but what Johnson does most effectively is center his piece around the characters and that’s where the film shines brightest.
Gordon-Levitt, Blunt and especially Willis are great at bringing a poignancy to their characters that gives Looper a powerful emotional core which brings more suspense to all of the action and genuine drama to the quieter moments and the heavy final act of the picture. The supporting actors also do fine work across the board, Daniels in particular, but this film ultimately belongs to Johnson and with it he has created his third distinctive world unlike anything else I’ve seen before. This is perhaps Johnson’s most resounding talent as a filmmaker, the fact that no one, not even he, has created something like either of his three films before them.
Working in familiar worlds of noir mystery, con men and time travel, Johnson takes the established tropes of each subgenre and makes them uniquely his own with pictures that feel somewhat familiar but are made completely new by his remarkable approach. I thinkLooper, like his other two efforts before it, is something that will only grow more impressive with me on further watches; for now though it already stands strong with Brick and The Brothers Bloom as another masterful work from one of the most exciting modern filmmakers.
Neil Jordan has long been a very underrated director, a man who is able to traverse many genres with great ease and present character-driven films that tap into emotion and sensory appeal in appropriate measure. Further demonstrating his versatility, the man behind modern crime classics like Mona Lisa and The Crying Game brought forth his adaptation of Graham Greene’s period romance The End of the Affair in 1999. Set during World War II, Affair tells of the tryst between Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) and Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), the wife of a friend of Maurice’s (Stephen Rea).
The story tracks the affair through several different time periods, once at the genesis of their romance, once when they see each other again after two years apart and once during the present day of 1946 where Bendrix types his story out and narrates to the audience, yet Jordan handles it all with a fluidity that dismisses any potential jarring time shifts that could occur. It also makes the odd use of shifting perspectives, spending most of our time seeing the world through Bendrix’s eyes but occasionally putting us into Sarah’s point of view and giving narration over to her. These are both tricky structuring devices that plenty of lesser filmmakers would have collapsed under the difficulty of, yet Jordan makes it all flow so naturally without ever over-indulging in any grand techniques that would betray the emotional strength of the romance itself.
There’s not a lot going on in The End of the Affair on a narrative sense, with the script (adapted solely by Jordan from Greene’s novel) focusing almost entirely on the conversations between the three primary figures, yet Jordan makes it all beat with a passion that doesn’t allow the events to drag for a moment. Utilizing gorgeous cinematography by Roger Pratt and a rapturous score from the great Michael Nyman, Jordan’s film appeals to all senses but most of all it presents a gut punch to the heart through the turbulent affair of the main characters.
Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore (donning an impressive English accent) bring such genuine emotion to their roles, with Fiennes in particular hitting such primal levels of pain and frustration between the love that they share for one another. There’s a lot of muted emotion as well, but even when it’s hidden beneath the surface for the characters the actors are able to rip it all out of the audience as if they were experiencing it all first hand. Neil Jordan has been responsible for several great films over his decades in the business, and this is one of his finest.
Written and directed by Chris Butler (co-directed by Sam Fell), ParaNorman brings a welcome breathe of fresh air that has been missing for the past few years in mainstream American animated cinema. A throwback to the horror serials that a lot of people in my generation grew up on, ParaNorman centers on a young boy who is isolated from his family and schoolmates due to his unique ability to communicate with the dead. He can see ghosts as regular as we see any living person, but a society that doesn’t understand those who are different from themselves shuns him rather than embracing these gifts.
The town comes under turmoil when a centuries-dead girl, persecuted as a witch, awakens on one fateful eve and the dead rise from the grave. It’s up to Norman and his band of friends, enemies and his sister Courtney, to save the town from supernatural doom.ParaNorman is a classic tale of adversity and the triumph of the little guy, with the young and reclusive Norman being quite easy to relate to for anyone who has ever been bullied or put down. While on the surface this film is charming, different and simple there is actually a lot going on underneath that makes it particularly rewarding for those who want to find more in it than just a pleasant experience.
If you don’t want to look into it, that’s your right as well and you can still get an entertaining 90 minutes of the film, but for me there was a lot of intelligence in its themes that Butler subtly throws in and makes it an even greater experience to have. The conventional character-types of the outcast and the bully are subverted well, but more importantly there’s a smart commentary on themes relating to the persecution of those we don’t understand that reverberates through a lot of ParaNorman.
The town forces Norman to exist in his own world because of his strangeness, but even beyond that there are other characters who are thrown aside due to not meeting the societal norm. Norman’s best friend Neil is put down because of his weight, the deceased Aggie who threatens to bring down the town was destroyed due to her unique ability, but these themes key into a facet of society that anyone who has ever been made to feel shame or persecution can relate to.
Whether its due to your race, class or sexuality, all of us at one point or another have felt like we don’t belong and ParaNorman is written in a way that demonstrates a need for understanding within society that is unfortunately still not adapted on a wide enough scale. Butler’s film is a blast all the way through, particularly in the wonderfully orchestrated final act, but it’s also a lot smarter than it could appear to be at first.
David Ayer’s most recent cop movie (I like the guy, but he should really try to branch out), End of Watch is the first of its kind to utilize the handled/self-shot footage angle that has become popular mostly in the horror genre as of late. This unique idea for this type of film could have really set it apart from others of its type, but the problem with it is that Ayer doesn’t commit to the execution of it at all. We’re told by Officer Brian Taylor, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, that he is shooting his daily life on the force as part of a school project that he’s working on.
Okay, that’s established and we do see plenty of shots from his point of view or from the perspective of his partner, Officer Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), who helps him out with the project. Ayer also makes sure to introduce other characters on the opposite side of the law who are using handheld cameras to record their experience, so plenty of the film is a mixing of these varying types of self-shot footage that is all blended together into a whole. I can’t say I’ve ever really understood that angle for filmmaking, but the idea of bringing it into the world of a police drama certainly brought a lot of potential to ratchet up the tension in a big way.
Unfortunately, Ayer doesn’t stick with this routine at all and uses plenty of shots that are obviously created from an outside source separate from any of the characters in the film, a technique which is plenty distracting to say the least. End of Watch could have taken the conventional route and still ended up being a gritty, explosive drama or it could have committed all the way to the self-shot approach and been a step in a new direction for the genre, but it’s biggest problem is that Ayer can’t make up his mind with where he wants to go and the end result takes a while to get used to.
Once I got past that grievance though, there’s a lot to admire about the way that End of Watch unfolds. While the narrative itself doesn’t do anything beyond following the daily routines of Taylor and Zavala, primarily focused on their work life with the occasional dip into their romantic relationships, it’s the chemistry that Gyllenhaal and Pena bring to their roles which really sets the film apart from others of its type. When these two are in their squad car together, you can really feel all of the years that they’ve been standing by each other and the bond that has grown between them. It’s interesting that the two had some initial trouble getting along off-screen, because the end result is an infectious kind of camaraderie that doesn’t come along very often. They both bring a lot of humor to their parts, keeping me laughing quite often despite the sometimes grueling nature of their work.
End of Watch unfolds in an almost episodic structure, bringing with each new scene a mostly new experience for the two men on their patrol and several of these are hard to watch with Ayer not backing down from the kind of grotesque discoveries officers have to face in their day-to-day. The supporting characters don’t get a lot of attention, which wouldn’t be a complaint if it weren’t for one awkward scene where Frank Grillo’s sergeant is given a lot of focus out of nowhere for two minutes and then fades back into the background. Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez provide nice relief as the spouses to the two men, but this film is really all about Gyllenhaal and Pena, and they both make it work so well.
Despite Ayer’s inconsistency with the filming techniques, I grew to care deeply about both of these guys and it made every intense situation more suspenseful than the last. Both actors bring their natural charisma and humor to the role, but they have an underlying intensity and explosiveness that is very appropriate for their parts. It’s hard to compliment one without mentioning the other, a reflection of just how well they make End of Watch work together. Plenty of cop films come and go without making a lasting impression every year, but this one stands out among the crowd thanks to the heart and fullness that the two leads bring to this central relationship.
It’s strange how a director like E. Elias Merhige, who was responsible for the grotesque, surreal and very un-Hollywood Begotten and the grotesque, conventional and very Hollywood Suspect Zero, could make a much more traditional film somewhere in the middle like Shadow of the Vampire. One of those “movies about movies” with a bit of a supernatural twist, Vampire tells of the making of F.W. Murnau’sNosferatu, with John Malkovich taking on the Murnau role and Willem Dafoe cast as the star, Max Schreck.
The little turn here is that Steven Katz’s script presents the idea that maybe Schreck wasn’t acting his part at all, and perhaps he was a true vampire who Murnau persuaded to star in his picture. This twist in the plot could have made Vampire a more interesting behind-the-scenes Hollywood picture, but the script can’t seem to ever find the proper balance between fiction and non-fiction to make it work. Shadow of the Vampire starts off engaging enough, but it has no momentum and the rather tepid back half really starts to drag as a result.
Dafoe gives a unique, fully embodied portrayal of Schreck but Malkovich is unfortunately made to shout and holler half of his dialogue, which gets old after the first few scenes. Shadow of the Vampire was a nice idea that could have presented something unique and compelling, but it just isn’t taken in a remotely interesting direction by the writer or director.
Stephen Daldry can at times be the worst kind of director, one who strives more for manipulative technical flourishes than he does for genuine emotions drawn out of the characters and their situations. Recent films of his like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Reader have shown him getting weaker with each new project, and even The Hours (a film which I actually liked) is another example that if there’s one director out there who screams “awards bait” it’s Daldry — I hate that phrase, but if you need an example of it there isn’t really a better place to look.
Billy Elliot was Daldry’s first feature, and in many ways it is responsible for what became of the director. It took the world by storm on its release, resulting in a hit musical (which at this point has surpassed the film in terms of popularity) and garnering plenty of awards attention, including Daldry’s first Academy Award nomination for Best Director. He has since been nominated two more times and his only film to not get him a Director nomination, Extremely Loud… ended up being his third in a row to get nominated for Best Picture.
The guy has big prestige written all over him, so it’s particularly interesting to look back at Billy Elliot now and see how quaint and intimate his beginnings were. In fact, if anything Billy Elliot could have benefited from a little more of the visual flourishes and charged emotions that he overdoes in most of his work. Written by Lee Hall, this is a cute, conventional story with solid acting but it doesn’t have enough of a spark anywhere to leave an impression. It’s a pleasant enough viewing, but is ultimately quite forgettable.
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is ultimately the kind of film that I admire more than I can say I actively appreciate on any level. Functioning primarily as a meditation on themes of identity and performance, Carax does some interesting work with his protagonist, played with utter dedication by Denis Lavant, but the character is used so distinctly as a symbol of these themes that he’s never able to have any kind of a genuine soul. Holy Motors leaves plenty to reflect on, but there’s a coldness to it that I felt shut me out and never allowed me to get fully invested in any aspect of it.
As Lavant’s character goes through his day he transforms himself physically and mentally into many different forms, be it an assassin, a beggar, a flower-eating lunatic, or more and these transformations are interesting individually but they never felt like they equaled out to any kind of larger picture. After the first two or three of these sequences I understood what Carax was going for and then I spent the rest of the film waiting for him to evolve beyond that, but it never happened. One scene in particular, where one of Lavant’s forms picks up his daughter from a party, stands out as being impressive in the way it explores that core theme but this happens relatively early on and I never felt like anything else in the film tapped into it as strongly as that one moment.
It feels like Carax wants to say some interesting things in regards to his themes, but for whatever reason stops halfway through and instead decides to have Kylie Minogue sing a song for five minutes. I was quite fond of several of the individual sequences, but I never cared enough about this character or was stimulated enough by the slightly thin thematic exploration for Holy Motors to move me on any lasting level. With how cold a response I had to the protagonist, none of the more emotionally aimed sequences were able to work for me, but the sensory-based ones such as the motion capture “appointment” were pretty breathtaking at times.
Carax spends his time saying some interesting things about the nature of the performer, how one can lose their identity as a result and how that can be the ultimate punishment for all man, but I felt that message came out relatively quick and he never probed much deeper. It was impressive for a while, but it never went anywhere for me, or maybe I’m just not intelligent enough for what he was striving to bring out of the viewer. Either way, Holy Motors is something that worked for me on a few levels but I ultimately found to have missed the landing. A great idea with a somewhat faulty execution.
In what will more than likely go down as the biggest disappointment of the year in film for me, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone isn’t something that I would label as bad but I certainly couldn’t call it very good either. After three straight works of brilliance, this is definitely a step back for him as a filmmaker, though more than anything else that’s due to his screenplay (he co-wrote again with Thomas Bidegain, his collaborator on A Prophet). There isn’t much to fault here when it comes to Audiard’s direction; Rust and Bone is a visceral punch to the gut at times, and there’s a palpable physicality in the lives of these two characters which he is able to capture with a strength that few others would be able to succeed at on this level.
No, the problem here is in the writing, which is all over the place in terms of its narrative, its characters and its authenticity. Rust and Bone centers on the relationship between the brutish Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and the recently crippled Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), the two coming together early on after a horrific accident that leaves her without her legs. Whenever the film is focusing on the relationship between these two, it is absolutely on point. The contrast between the incredibly physical presence of Ali and the emotional struggles that Stephanie faces when her physicality is taken away from her is poignant, and both actors deliver phenomenal performances.
Schoenaerts, who exploded onto the scene with his powerful work in Bullhead, has an immediately intimidating approach that makes you fear him but he fuses this character with so much heart that it’s hard not to root for him, even when he’s making mistakes when it comes to his career or parenting his young son. Cotillard provides the perfect contrast, matching that physical, internal approach with a devastating rawness that is absolutely heartbreaking. Audiard manages his leads well and has two actors who deliver in every moment, shining individually but even brighter when they are able to share the screen. It’s when the two are split up that the script begins to fall apart, with subplots that don’t add much of anything, thin supporting characters and glaring narrative contrivances.
Even with the extensive 155-minute running time of the much more subtle A Prophet, Audiard created a pace that move it along so well that it never dragged for a moment, but running at a brisker 120-minute duration this one feels like it runs at least an hour longer. Rust and Bone ratchets the drama up to a level that is strangely aggressive for Audiard, hitting the audience far too loud at times without ever achieving the kind of emotional strength that Read My Lips or The Beat That My Heart Skipped were able to. For the first time, Audiard lets the melodrama control his picture more, presenting it in a way that embraces that as opposed to presenting the more gritty, authentic approach that he has shown such skill within.
This becomes especially troublesome in the film’s final act, where the contrivances are taken to an eye-rolling extreme that actively works against that raw emotional anguish Cotillard and Schoenaerts bring to their roles.Rust and Bone probably has a little more going for it than it does against, but with Audiard’s magnificent track record going into it, the inconsistencies in the writing are surprising and very disappointing. The two leads deliver incredible work, but this is a prime example of how much a bad script can impact an overall picture.