2014, Eric Rochant

It’s always interesting to see where an actor’s career goes after an Oscar win, particularly when they aren’t already a member of the Hollywood club with a set routine that isn’t likely to change after they receive their first trophy. Jean Dujardin had been acting in his native France for a decade, even having his own small franchise of light spy films, but he was a relative unknown overseas until The Artist put his name out there for everyone. We’ve seen a few foreign actors win Oscars in the past decade, but Dujardin was a bit of a unique case and seeing what road he would follow in the wake of that success was always going to be interesting. The reason he was largely unknown before The Artist was because despite appearing in plenty of films in France, none of them garnered the kind of hype and critical acclaim that would lead to crossover success in the United States and elsewhere. 

Dujardin has begun to vary his output a little bit, showing up in memorable supporting roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men for Martin Scorsese and George Clooney, but his leading roles have remained in films that don’t offer much to be applauded. Mobius, a half-baked espionage thriller from writer/director Eric Rochant, certainly falls into that unimpressive arena. Dujardin stars as an FSB officer who quickly falls for his new agent Alice (Cecile De France who is apparently supposed to be an American which is one of the few nationalities she can’t pass for), while several different agencies conspire for and against them. The twist is that Alice doesn’t know Dujardin’s Moise is the man she’s working for, instead believing him to be an ordinary man she met while out with her target, the financial criminal Ivan (Tim Roth). 

Mobius sets itself up as a relatively bland, vague and derivative espionage thriller in the international financial world but once Dujardin and De France meet it tailspins to become all about their relationship and the lengths they’ll go for each other after one night of passion. The chemistry between these two stars is without a doubt the best thing that Mobius has going for it, but unfortunately their heat in the bedroom doesn’t translate anywhere else in the film, even when they’re together and clothed. There’s not a lot on the page for them to work with in general, but the messy plotting takes them down further and further absurd directions while the supporting cast is loaded with flat performances who don’t provide any help in making this feel less like a sub-par straight-to-video (which it was in the U.S.) bit of kitsch. For two characters who work in their field it is bizarre how many poor decisions they make over the course of the film. 

Rochant’s direction is pedestrian at best with a visual aesthetic that is uninteresting and vanilla, never allowing any part of Mobius to leap off the screen nor boil with the type of European slow-burn that it seems to be trying to achieve. They just throw these two characters together without any buildup and expect the audience to immediately believe that they would destroy their entire lives for each other but as strong as Dujardin and De France burn in the bedroom there’s not nearly enough work in the writing to appropriately convey any of this devotion. Tim Roth’s performance comes off as if he rolled out of bed in the morning and they started filming him without him even knowing he was doing a movie and that’s all the effort that seemed to be put into most of Mobius. Hopefully Dujardin’s got some more moves up his sleeve that can get him away from material like this because if not he’s likely to fade as quickly back into obscurity as he rocketed out of it. 

D

2010, Daniel Monzon

Cell 211 gets a lot of mileage out of its minimal, intense prison setting and the very simple premise of a guard on his first day being locked inside with the prisoners when a riot ensues. It gets a bit bogged down when it tries to stretch outside of the prison walls to try and show the guard’s wife’s and the public’s response to the situation, but when focused solely inside the prison this is a gripping thriller that raises the stakes at every turn. You can respect it for wanting to survey a more panoramic view of the lives affected by the riot, but there’s not enough meat there beyond the basic social commentary. 

Alberto Ammann delivers solid work in the leading role of Juan, but the real star is Luis Tosar as Malamadre, the head of the prisoners who makes the rules and orchestrated the riot. A few years after Cell 211, Tosar would give a weasely, cunning and utterly disturbing performance in the superb thriller Sleep Tight (which coincidentally co-starred Marta Etura, who plays Juan’s wife here) and that performance in comparison to his work here only goes to demonstrate what a versatile and magnetic actor he is. Tosar’s Malamadre is a terrifying man with a great deal of violent, intimidating presence and right off the bat he’s someone who you can understand why everyone would fear and fall in line with him. 

Running almost two hours long, director Daniel Monzon never lets the momentum slow down, almost to a fault given the somewhat underdeveloped turns that occur in the final act. Still, despite a few hitches in its step here and there, Cell 211 is a remarkably intense thriller that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. It doesn’t have the kind of epic saga quality that a truly great, lasting work like A Prophet has but it is certainly at least a few notches above the kind of mid-level thrillers the U.S. produces these days. There aren’t a lot of strong prison movies out there but this is one that shows what you can do with a setting ripe for good material. 

B

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

image

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