1993, Joel Schumacher

A decent premise but it’s not enough to sustain an entire picture on that alone and so instead they fill it with the rote, conventional “detective on his last day” plotline with Robert Duvall’s character and about five too many scenes with Barbara Hershey who is required to do the exact same thing on repeat the entire movie. Michael Douglas is fine, there are some pretty amusing scenes every so often and it does say some mildly interesting things about the way we treat one another as human beings (albeit in very broad, archaic stereotypes) but more often than not it’s a dull, trying affair and the attempt at sympathy in the eleventh hour doesn’t do it any favors.

D+

2014, Anthony and Joe Russo

Looks like I’m the odd man out on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, unfortunately. I wanted to like it so bad but it wasn’t happening at all for me. Part of me admires it for doing some things mildly different but most of me is mad at it for offering up the potential of originality before backing away from any of that completely. Its vague plotting and non-confrontational politics is just another sign of what a safe and dull franchise this is and how even when it makes moves towards “change” it’s never really going to do anything different. The fact that we’ve seen practically no ramification from the events of The Avengers is silly enough and now as they expand their universe further and further its becoming more clear that they really have just overstuffed themselves and oversaturated the market to a nauseating degree. Maybe I would have liked this if it had come out in 2009 but in 2014 after one repetitious exercise after the next it just bored me to tears. 

Winter Soldier is riddled with so many of the problems that the majority of these movies have and they only become more distracting over time. As much as it wants to pretend that it plays in moral grey areas it’s straight down the line black-and-white, never possessing any kind of edge or fear as to who are the bad guys and who are the good ones. Even before the boring, predictable and eye-rolling Fury fakeout happens with the cliched “don’t trust anyone”, you know who the bad guys and who the good guys are because it’s painted on their dumb faces. The villains in this series have always been weak, but this one takes it to a whole new level with a titular figure who is basically (and infuriatingly) a non-presence whose entire role in this could have been removed and virtually nothing would have changed and an evil organization that is plotting world domination because that works out always so let’s give it a go. This had the potential to be so much more interesting and topical if it actually were S.H.I.E.L.D. doing the things that were revealed to not be S.H.I.E.L.D. but nope, bad guys lose and good guys win and I really just don’t care. 

For now I’ll say that I like that this one actually has some potential of a lasting impact on the world at large but given how these things have gone before I highly doubt that it will do anything significant in the long run. All the same, it’s nice that at least one of these Phase 2 movies doesn’t feel entirely like filler and for that reason alone I’d put it a notch above Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World but it’s not that much higher in my eyes. This is stuffed to the gills with action in exchange for any genuine character depth beyond the bare minimum and Marvel’s penchant for hiring directors who aren’t capable of making blockbuster films is rarely more prominent than it is here with the Russo brothers (groomed on TV comedies and You, Me and Dupree) jamming in one incoherent, sloppy and over-edited sequence after another. I got next to nothing from this movie. No excitement, no emotion, no fun. 

There are some things that I genuinely did like, most of them coming from the cast who don’t get a lot of rich material but do what they can in terms of general screen presence. I thought Anthony Mackie did some fine work and I like the way his character was portrayed, drawing a parallel between his survivor’s guilt and Captain America’s and them losing their best friends side-by-side in battle making a natural transition into their partnership and how they end the movie together. For an actor who I’ve almost always found very forced and artificial, Scarlett Johansson has really impressed me with how believable a badass she is and she continues that here. All the same though, this was just another messy, over-plotted, shallow and predictable confection from the Marvel factory line of fill in the blanks filmmaking that I’m so sick of seeing. I’m trying desperately to hold onto the hope that Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man will provide some fresh energy but that hope is slipping further and further away, almost as quickly as my interest in this movie did.

D

2010, Joon-ho Bong

Not many directors are capable of mastering as wide an array of genres as Joon-ho Bong; even fewer have managed to do them all over the course of one film. Without missing a step in pacing or narrative momentum, Mother is a riveting mystery thriller, a layered character drama, a stunning exploration on the lengths a mother will go in order to protect her son, a grim, disturbing work of horror and a ririotousutterly insane dark comedy as only Bong can make them. It’s all led by a revelatory performance from Hye-ja Kim who captures every beat of this wildly complex, emotional and dramatically rich character from beginning to end. Just comparing the opening and closing scenes alone demonstrates what a rich tapestry Bong is working within here, and that’s without seeing the many treasures that are unfolded in between them.

A-

2014, David Gordon Green

A lot of the talk on David Gordon Green’s new film Joe has centered on Nicolas Cage’s performance, a rare piece of quality work from an actor who has spent the last decade in a realm of absurd parody and paycheck embarrassments. While Joe does remind audiences of his potential as an actor, his performance is merely one piece of a gripping, visceral work from one of our finest filmmakers. After too many years spent delivering mainstream comedic duds like Your Highness and The Sitter, Green built a sort of bridge to return to his former self with last year’s Prince Avalanche. That minimalist two-hander with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch brought Green back into the backwoods Americana aesthetic that he groomed himself in while also applying small doses of his sense of humor to keep it light on its feet. A little taste of the old life was apparently all he needed to dive full on back into dramatic territory, as Joe is easily his darkest and most disturbing work to date. 

Cage’s titular figure is an ex-con trying to keep his violent rage at bay in a small Southern town who has to confront his demons once he becomes the unlikely role model to a 15-year-old boy named Gary, played here by the great young actor Tye Sheridan. Gary is stuck living in the imposing, alcoholic grip of his father Wade (Gary Poulter), but he remains stalwart in his attempts to help provide a living for his mother and mute sister. When Gary happens upon Joe’s group of workers who make their living by killing trees so that lumber companies can chop them down and replace them with stronger ones (not the most legal of jobs), so begins a relationship that puts all of these figures on a path towards an aggressive climax. 

It’s impossible not to see the similarities between Joe and Jeff Nichols’ film Mud, though most of them are superficial at best. Nichols rose up in the school of David Gordon Green and that influence has been seen in all of his work to date, with the fable-esque Mud tapping into the kind of magical realism that Green has employed in a lot of his work. There’s also the Southern backwoods setting for a story of a young man (played by Sheridan both times) falling under the wing of a dangerous, violent man with a heart of gold and good intentions (played by an actor who has spent the better part of the last decade toiling in garbage finally reminding people how good they can really be) all leading to a violent confrontation. However, while Mud's final act felt like a random genre intervention totally unrelated to the remainder of the film, Joe's narrative builds itself in a meticulous way that feels organic straight through to the end. 

Anyone watching Green’s film can see the climax coming from a mile away, but the way Gary Hawkins’ screenplay (based on a novel by Larry Brown) builds everything together creates a story that feels like pieces of all these different events converging in a way that is natural, logical and ominously inevitable. There’s a brooding, calculated atmosphere that Green creates from the very start that gives a sweaty, palpable air of danger to Joe and the way Cage plays the character gives off the impression that this guy truly is living in that world at all times. It’s a fascinating character for the actor to portray and the way that him and Green collaborate to restrain and internalize the character’s emotions and violent temper, as opposed to Cage’s usual tendency to fly off the handle ridiculously which could have happened many times here, keeps the actor and the character in check and makes him all the more intriguing for it. Joe, the character, is the kind of man you could have seen them writing folk songs about; a bad man trying to find his way down the right path. 

Above all else, there’s a naturalism to Green’s direction that is always present in his work and especially comes through here in aiding to build a unique and gripping neo-noir tale. His traditional casting of actors with non-actors brings a sincere authenticity that really elevates Joe from others of its kind. The casting of Poulter in particular, a homeless man who sadly died on the streets of Austin a few months after filming was completed, was an absolute revelation and gave us a stunning, tragic performance of a man so overcome by his own demons that his goal in life seems to be to bring down those around him. In Wade you can see the potential future waiting for Joe if he chooses one of the two paths laid out before him, and in Gary there’s a hope for possible redemption — the chance for Joe to make good on a life spent with a misplaced rage that has gotten him into trouble more times than he can count. Joe stands tall as the full return to form I’ve been desperately craving to see from David Gordon Green and I surely hope that he continues in its path and resurrects his stature as one of the best American filmmakers in the business. 

B+

2014, Mike Flanagan

Great horror films are pretty rare to come by these days, so as a huge fan of the genre I stand to attention whenever one of them gets some positive hype building in its corner. Mike Flanagan’s haunted mirror story Oculus premiered to great word at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and while its larger critical reception hasn’t been as luminous (as is expected with this genre), it’s gotten stronger recognition than most and certainly has some championing it with great applause. Unfortunately I’m not one of them. 

Taking the somewhat unique approach of telling the story of a tortured family through two timelines, our present day narrative sees Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) trying to create documented proof that an antique mirror was responsible for the deaths of their mother (Katee Sackhoff) and father (Rory Cochrane) a decade prior. While we see the grown children embarking on their quest despite Tim’s objections, we are also given a glimpse into the days leading up to their parents’ deaths which resulted in the condemnation of their father Alan as a psychopathic murderer and had Tim placed in a mental care facility for the murder of Alan, which Tim begins the movie having just been released from. I liked the idea of splitting this movie into the parallel stories of the two time periods, with each one having the traditional horror build to a dramatic third act. 

One of the most interesting things about Oculus in conception is the way that the mirror distorts reality and fantasy for Kaylie and Tim, eventually leading to a manic climax where the past collides with the present and events transpire in a more singular fashion, with neither the characters or the audience being able to discern truth from fiction. It was a risky move that could have made the movie stand out were it successful but for me the end result was something far too incoherent for praise; a move so messy and unfocused that it drew me out of the already unengaging storyline. The biggest problem with Oculus is that it wants to be the kind of great horror movie that wisely builds a sense of dread throughout with smaller moments rather than cheap jump scares before lifting off into that epic finale, but that eerie ambiance is never created. There are certainly plenty of moments in the conception and execution of the story that I would point out as being shockingly dumb, but the even bigger complaint I’d have is that it was just plain boring for a large portion of its running time. 

So much of Oculus feels like its cobbled together directly from its influences, which range from The Shining to Nightmare on Elm Street to the more recent Mirrors. A piece of furniture possessing characters, dementing their psyche and turning them against each other is inherently a silly concept and while Mirrors took that and ran with it to create a slice of wild camp entertainment, Oculus has no sense of humor about the absurdity of its premise and it only makes those dumb moments come off even worse. What’s more is that for a film that relies on keeping you guessing there’s too much of it that feels incredibly telegraphed to a point where even the dullest audience member should be able to figure out how certain things will come back into play, like the oh so obvious mistake of Kaylie creating a killswitch pendulum in a house where they are willingly being taken over by this demonic mirror. 

I will say that I appreciated how it built the present day relationship between Kaylie and Tim at first, with the two of them taking radically divergent paths in the years since their traumatic experience as children. Through his therapy Tim has accepted responsibility for the murder of his father, fully believing that nothing paranormal was at work and his father had brutally murdered his mother whereas Kaylie remains stalwart in her belief that the mirror was responsible and their only way out of this hell was to prove its true nature and destroy it once and for all. This conflict between the two is played out well through the characters despite Brenton Thwaites’ dire, wooden performance but disappointingly its vanquished relatively early on when all of Tim’s beliefs are proven wrong. 

That being said, I think the best thing about Oculus in general is the portrayal of Kaylie who is a kind of character we don’t often see in the horror genre. She makes a lot of idiotic moves throughout the film but they aren’t out of ignorance or narrow-mindedness, they’re due to her resilience and arrogance. The writing sets the stage for a kind of battle between Kaylie and the mirror and it’s an interesting take on the female leading part of a horror movie, one which is handled quite ably by Karen Gillan. It’s a shame, however, that the rest of the film couldn’t have had that kind of originality and the fascinating quality her character possesses. 

D+

2013, Brian Percival

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I’d say the biggest thing working against The Book Thief is how harmless it all feels. It’s not an offensively bad movie, but it’s safe to a fault which robs it of any of the emotional impact it desperately craves many times throughout. The final act tries to hit the audience hard with one scene after another that could have been devastating but instead come disappointingly flat and are sometimes even unintentionally comical. It’s directed by Brian Percival who has spent most of his career working in television and there’s a distinct TV-movie feel to the whole endeavor. I liked the tone and like I said it’s a harmless little movie with a somewhat charming fairy-tale feel to it, but the only memories of it that last are negative ones. 

Sophie Nelisse is a great young actress (she was amazing a few years ago in Monsieur Lazhar, which you should see if you haven’t) and she’s perfectly suited for this kind of role, but the writing seems more enamored with the cliched types that it pigeonholes all of these characters into and refuses to let them step away from. Emily Watson is the hardass mother with a secret heart of gold, Geoffrey Rush is the fanciful adoptive father who wears his heart on his sleeve, etc. Add onto that the fact that the movie is narrated by the literal Death and the characters live on Heaven Street and there’s definitely some eye-rolling that can occur every now and again. The Book Thief was never a movie that I had a difficult time watching, but it’s not one that I can say I remember too fondly either. 

C-

2014, Babak Najafi

The first Easy Money was a thrilling crime drama that created a thorough understanding of its characters by developing them through their relationships outside of the criminal world. The follow-up, Easy Money: Hard to Kill, abandons that unique setup and instead presents itself as a straight thriller with very little meat on its bones. Reprising their roles from the first film, Joel Kinnaman, Matias Varela and Dragomir Mrsic are all tuned into their characters well enough to bring a certain level of emotional strength to the picture but without those deeper relationships there isn’t enough to separate this sequel from its many contemporaries. 

The character Mahmoud, played incredibly well by Fares Fares, gets a big bonus in significance here and he really manages to create a lasting impression and a deeper understanding of his character than the bare minimum that exists in the script. Kinnaman does fine work as well, as expected, though I was very disappointed by how little Mrsic had to do in the film since he was my favorite part of the first movie. Director Babak Najafi took over the reins from Daniel Espinosa and while there isn’t a lot directly wrong with his work he also doesn’t create the kind of visceral thrills that Espinosa was able to juice into the action sequences in the first movie. 

Hard to Kill isn’t really a bad movie, just a relatively forgettable one which is a shame considering how strong its predecessor was in setting itself apart in a crowded market. Coming as the second part of a trilogy, Hard to Kill definitely has middle child syndrome and doesn’t feel like it exists in its own right which every part of a franchise should be able to efficiently accomplish. The big finale feels so abrupt and not an appropriate way to finish this story for the time being. This one comes in at nearly 30 minutes shorter than the first picture and maybe if they had given themselves more time they could have created something as thoughtful and resonant as the first picture. 

C

2007, Joon-ho Bong

Can’t believe Hershel from Walking Dead hates Koreans so much. This wasn’t as good as Snowpiercer or Memories of Murder but was still a lot of fun. Has the combination of badass action sequences and hilariously insane dark humor that Bong’s a master of just without having the emotional power and intricate design of Snowpiercer or the resonance of Memories. Total blast to watch though. Loved Doona Bae with the fire arrow, and the scene with the whole family breaking down dramatically over the picture of the daughter had me in a fit of laughter. The residual anti-American anger over the McFarland case was a nice touch as well. 

B

1984, Jim Jarmusch

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Stranger Than Paradise was only Jim Jarmusch’s second film, but already he was very much in control of the kind of ambiance and style that would define his work for decades to come. Utilizing a three-act structure that could almost exist as a series of short films, Paradise is interestingly made up of a series of one-shot scenes that open and close with cuts to black and are then pieced together in the editing room. Detailing the wayfare adventures of Willie, Eva and Eddie (played by John Lurie, Eszter Balint and Richard Edson, respectively), the film has a comfortably loose form and a narrative that could be described as minimal at best. These are three distinctly Jarmuschian characters, coming off like remnants of the French New Wave who grew up idolizing a type of attitude and behavior that was no longer fitting in the ’80s New York scene. 

They exist almost as if in a bubble removed from the rest of the world, with Eddie making the astute observation that no matter where you go things always seem to be just the same. The actors all have great chemistry together and I immediately took to Balint’s debut performance (it was Edson’s as well) as the Hungarian Eva who came to New York to crash at Willie’s place before making her trip to Cleveland. There’s a way to her delivery that makes every one of her lines something that stands out in some way, and the rhythm that her and Lurie build in particular is one of the many great little things that makes Stranger Than Paradise such a joy to watch. This is a movie made of small moments, a lot of them observational strictly from viewing the interaction of the characters, including an excellent recurring use of Jarmusch favorite Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ belter “I Put a Spell on You” which Eva adorably obsesses over. 

Those three acts each take place in a different location — New York, Cleveland, then Florida — but in each one Jarmusch makes things feel distinctly familiar while making sure to change the environment around them. New York is very urban and minimal, while Cleveland is in the midst of a blistering winter and Florida is characteristically sunny but it all has a lackadaisical form to it that I responded to immediately. The settings change but the characters keep doing the same things and having the same conversations, yet it never overstays its welcome.Stranger Than Paradise doesn’t reach the resonating heights and exuberant form of the string of movies that Jarmusch would release after this one, but it establishes a lot of the things that would come to define him. It’s equivalent to the feeling of watching an egg right as it’s on the cusp of hatching. 

B

2014, Richard Shepard

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I’m not sure what’s in the water that’s making these pretty boy actors suddenly decide to go full-tilt against type and get down in the mud with utter depravity, but I’m absolutely loving it. We’ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio’s electric Jordan Belfort and James McAvoy’s detestable Bruce Robertson, and now Jude Law’s making it a trio with his new role as the bigoted, narcissistic and grimy Dom Hemingway. Back in 2005, writer/director Richard Shepard took Pierce Brosnan and pulled apart the prestige of James Bond to portray the actor as a large-bellied retiring hitman in The Matador and now he’s gone even further by taking Law and turning him into something so far removed from anything he has ever played up until now. In recent years the actor has thankfully begun to accept his growing age by departing from the kind of philandering playboy roles he had frequented a decade ago and doing more of the complex character work he is incredibly equipped for, but even still his work in Dom Hemingway is a brazen and unexpected turn that fully embraces a sinister quality he’s rarely tapped into before and never quite to this extreme. 

Getting out of prison after 12 years, Hemingway is ready to make up for lost time with all the drugs, sex and boozing he has missed out on. His first action after stepping out of the gates is to go and beat the living hell out of the man who married his ex-wife (who has been dead from cancer for some time) while he was inside, and after that he heads to a bar and meets up with his best friend Dickie Black (such a perfect British gangster name), played by the great Richard E. Grant. After a few nights of fornication with some prostitutes, Dom and Dickie head up to the luxurious mansion of Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), the man Dom worked for who he refused to give up when he was arrested even though it meant spending considerable more time in prison. For all of his character flaws, Dom has a code and he sticks to it, a code that he thinks and expects everyone in his line of work to live by. 

The sad thing is they don’t all believe the same way and over the course of the film Dom is constantly confronted with the fact that when you’re a criminal there are no rules and sticking with a code is what led to him being locked away for over a decade and stranded from his wife and daughter (played by Emilia Clarke). This is a bad guy who constantly has bad things happening to him, yet Law is able to portray him in a way that makes Dom somewhat charming through all of his ugliness. Law fully commits to this role in every which way, altering his stunning looks to get filthy with this character and never wavering in his believability through all of his many vulgar, expletive-laden monologues. When the film opens with Law staring in the camera saying the line “my cock is exquisite” before launching into a full monologue about the many ways that his member should be worshiped, you know this is a different side of the man than we’ve ever seen before. 

Existing somewhere between the sheen and extravagance of The Wolf of Wall Street and the bleak, dirty grime of Filth, Shepard balances a tone in Dom Hemingway that keeps things dark but also incredibly fun. Law and Grant have a tremendous chemistry with one another and the film has a great deal of entertainment value simply in watching the two of them muck about. Yet through all of the first section’s raunchy kicks, there are little moments that show a heart beating somewhere in there so when the emotion of this character takes over it feels like a natural transition as opposed to something incredibly jarring. Hemingway launches into his insane monologues that must have been an absolute blast to perform, but there’s such an anger and bitterness in the way Law delivers them that hides a deep pain underneath the fun of watching an actor such as him behaving so badly. 

Hemingway isn’t a great guy, but you can actually see that there’s a possibility of redemption for him and Law plays it in such a remarkable way that makes him fully convincing when he’s in the gutter just as well as when we’re supposed to be hoping for this guy to pull it together. For all of those hilarious rants of insults to everyone around him, when his final monologue comes it’s an absolutely heartbreaking moment of genuine emotion and it actually feels real. Dom Hemingway isn’t an easy kind of film to pull off at the end of all things, but through the great work of Shepard and especially Law it really succeeds in balancing the many areas of its tones (there’s even an existential element with Kerry Condon’s character that could have gone so wrong but I thought added something great and unique to the film) while keeping everything darkly amusing and surprisingly emotional. 

B