Sunday, December 28, 2014

Force Majeure (Turist) (2014)

Director: Ruben Östlund. Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju, Clara Wettergren. 118 min. Rated R. Sweden/France/Norway. Drama.

A Swedish family is vacationing at a ski resort when an avalanche occurs, and during the critical moment, the father acts in a manner that's quite ... disappointing. The crisis resolves, but now the stability of the marriage is severely questioned - and the entire movie revolves around that question. This is an incredible movie that keeps the discussion tense till the very last minute, and is guaranteed to have you debating it with your friends, and questioning your own marriage. Other than admiring the breathtaking cinematography, saying anything else will spoil it.

PS: With Gone Girl, The Theory of Everything, and now this one, 2014 sure was a rough year for marriage.

Mo says:

Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Director: Randa Haines. Cast: William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie. 119 min. Rated R. Drama/Romance.

Kind instructor (who can hear) falls in love with mysterious but angry hearing-school janitor (who cannot hear). He tells her 'I love you' a hundred times, but she cannot hear. Just kidding. This type of cliche romance story-telling must have been so recognized and commonplace in the 80s, it earned its female side, Marlee Matlin, an Oscar in a Leading Role - but romance movies have become so advanced today (here and here), watching such slow-paced films takes an effort. Still, it works if you're nostalgic for the 80s.

PS: Wow - three William Hurt movies in one week.

Mo says:

Alice (1990)

Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Mia Farrow, William Hurt, Joe Mantegna, Keye Luke, Cybill Shepherd, Alec Baldwin, Blythe Danner, Bernadette Peters, Elle Macpherson, Bob Balaban. 102 min. Rated PG-13. Comedy/Crama.

A year after the terrific Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen makes the lighter female counterpart of the story, about a high-end New York stay-home mother (Farrow) who suddenly has a midlife crisis and falls in love with a saxophone-player (Mantegna) who walks into her path. And like any Allen movie, has a ghost playing her conscience, giving her love and life advice. As though the repetitiveness wasn't enough, minor characters come and go without much of an impact on the end result. This is one Allen movie too many.

Mo says:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Citizenfour (2014)

Director: Laura Poitras. 114 min. Rated R. Germany/USA. Documentary.

The importance of this Edward Snowden documentary is two-fold: portraying a whistle-blower who decided to do what he believed was right, and threw his life away in the process, at the mere age of 29. More importantly, the film documents events ... as the whistle-blowing is in progress - as the film's director was the first person Snowden contacted to disclose his Earth-shattering truths. We're witnessing history unfold, as one of the most important people of the 21st century comes out, and right or wrong, tells his tale. That's a monumental event in film-making. Worth every positive review of its 97% score.

After-note: Maybe I should have left it to an expert like Godfrey Cheshire to comment on the film's significance. Make sure you read the entire review:

"... It is not an overstatement, I think, to call “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ film about Edward Snowden, the movie of the century (to date).  That statement is meant, first off, to suggest certain things about its relation to our collective past, present and future. No film so boldly X-rays certain crucial changes wrought upon the world, and especially America and its government, by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No film so demands to be seen by every sentient person who values his or her own freedom and privacy. No film so clearly implies actions that need to be taken to prevent the 21st century from turning into an Orwellian nightmare in which technologically-enabled tyranny is absolute and true political liberty, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent."

Mo says:

The Boxtrolls (2014)

Cast (voices): Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Elle Fanning, Tracy Morgan. 96 min. Rated PG. Animation.

Boxtrolls are little sewer-dwelling monsters rumored to eat babies, but an orphan who grows up among them mobilizes them to fight eradication. It's a claymation where the majority of the characters are so ugly and grotesque, I kept wondering who the animators had in mind as the audience - because I doubt it was kids. And the lack of an engaging story (the metaphor of who the boxtrolls represented was lost on me) left me just admiring the exquisitely detailed and absorbing imagery.

PS: Wait for a one-minute segment during the end-credits that suddenly turns the whole movie on its head.

Mo says:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014)

Director: Ned Benson. Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciarán Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt. 123 mi. Rated R. Drama.

A loving young intelligent couple lose their baby son. Their pain is so raw, they have no more tears to cry, and nothing else to say. They can no longer live with themselves - let alone live with each other. Rarely have I seen a film and its characters and all their discussions help the viewer feel a character's crude pain to such magnitude - by avoiding the discussion. Even tearjerkers like Rabbit Hole or The Fault in Our Stars have a glimmer of glamour to them. But not here. I would tell people in similar situations to avoid this film.

PS: Disclaimer from Roger Ebert's website:

"Writer-director Ned Benson originally conceived it two movies retelling the same story from the perspectives of the wife (Jessica Chastain) and the husband (James McAvoy). Chastain told Vulture that in the version focused on the title character, she's just playing the character, and in the version focusing on the husband, she's playing the husband's subjective perception of that same character. After its debut at the 2013 Toronto film festival, this diptych was purchased by the Weinstein company, whose boss Harvey Weinstein decided that a pair of films that ran four-plus hours and repeated key moments were a tough commercial sell; Benson was therefore ordered to re-edit both films into a combined version, subtitled "Them". "

I doubt I'll spend four more hours to watch Her and Him. Sounds very creative, but don't see the reason to experience all this sadness three times.

PPS: The Debt, Take ShelterCoriolanusTree of LifeThe HelpLawless, Zero Dark Thirty, Mama, and Interstellar. It's safe to say Jessica Chastain does not do bad movies. Amazing how she has exploded into our lives in the past four years.

Mo says:

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Imitation Game (2014)

Director: Morten Tyldum. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong. 114 min. Rated PG-13. UK/USA. Biography/Thriller.

Alan Turing, the mathematician assigned by the British to decode the impossible-to-decode Nazi "Enigma Machine" during WWII. The quandary is obvious from the onset: what if they do break the code? How could they use the data, but prevent the Nazis from knowing they've decoded it? Huge moral dilemmas on how to handle a war. Along with some too-modern-for-its-time discussions about Turing's struggle with his 'illegal' homosexuality, this film is both baffling and depressing, as the movie-end subtitles about his last days, the lives he saved, and the universally-known machine he created will make you wonder why he's remained obscure.

Mo says:

The Guest (2014)

Director: Adam Wingard. Cast: Dan Stevens, Sheila Kelley, Maika Monroe. 99 min. Rated R. Action/Thriller.

An ex-Iraq War soldier comes back home to offer condolences to the family of their recently-killed son ... but then people start dying when he's around. With an out-of-place 80's soundtrack and some fairly nonsensical story moments, similar to the director's horror movie You're Next, this bloody thriller's multiple twists keeps you engaged till the very end. As one of the films Dan Stevens (supposedly) left his career as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey to expand his horizons, I predict this movie will firmly establish him as a Hollywood player.

Mo says:

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari) (2013)

Director: Isao Takahata. 137 min. Rated PG. Japan. Animation.

One thing I've learned about the Japanese approach to fantasy, is that you're expected to suspend disbelief to the extent of welcoming fantasy as reality. The most recent Studio Ghibli production (from the director of the crushingly sad Grave of the Fireflies) takes the same approach, using a "less is more" technique on animation, telling an uplifting story by images that initially look very simple, but then materialize as exquisitely detailed upon closer review. Almost looks like contradictory styles in the same image. I'm no animation expert, but I had never seen anything like this before.

PS: Nicely done, Ali S. Nicely done.

Mo says:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Good Lie (2014)

Director: Philippe Falardeau. Cast: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll. 110 min. Rated PG-13. Drama.

Sudanese refugees end up in the US under a protection program. The story of the primitive foreigner saved by the great American has been told numerous times before (some quite convincing), but the script here is so sloppy, the character actions so suspicious, it makes you wonder how much the writers were "inspired" by the true story. The portrayed culture clash looks stupid (how would you trust a foreigner so unequipped to not do something crazy ... or dangerous?), and the haphazard direction is just not interesting. This is not how it feels to be a foreigner in the US.

Mo says:

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)

Director: Francis Lawrence. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer. 123 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Sci-fi.

The third "Hunger Games" book was already the weakest, and now they've prolonged it into two parts, reducing Part 1 to two hours of boredom. To commit this betrayal of a decent franchise, they've changed the story, added completely useless sequences, dumbed down some of the book's better characters (such as the menacing President Coin played by Moore), and generally made this a film solely about a revolution's political propaganda. I'm giving this a NoMo to encourage you to wait till next year, and watch this somewhere for free before the last movie of the series. Better continuity; less loss.

Mo says:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins, Jacki Weaver. 97 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK. Comedy/Drama.

Set in the 1920s, British atheist magician (of all occupations) runs into a young American psychic who may be "the real thing". This creates the context for numerous philosophical discussions about spirituality and the presence or absence of a God - the kinds of which may happen in any household. And although the film contains a few worthwhile moments, the solution to the mystery is predictable from a mile away. Like many Allen movies, it's good while it lasts.

Mo says:

Predestination (2014)

Director(s): Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig (as The Spierig Brothers). Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor. 97 min. Rated R. Australia. Sci-Fi/Thriller.

One of the most imaginative sci-fi story-lines I've ever experienced. The finished puzzle creates a picture so bizarre, it's almost as if the writers sacrificed the logical implications of the story just to get the "idea" of possible time-travel consequences out there. Writing anything about the story, starting from what happens at minute one, will spoil it. Let's just say we're dealing with multiple characters being one character, one character being multiple characters, one character switching genders, one character being both genders, ... you get the idea. With a surprising performance by newcomer Sarah Snook, this movie is one helluva discussion-maker.

Mo says:

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

Director: Craig Johnson. Cast: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Joanna Gleason. 93 min. Rated R. Drama/Comedy.

Twin brother who miraculously survives a suicide attempt is rejoined after ten years by a twin sister who is also contemplating suicide. Although this Saturday Night Live contributors' dark comedy has numerous funny but nonetheless morose moments, these twins are so messed up beyond repair, the obligatory happy Hollywood ending neutralizes whatever the movie had striven for before that. Or maybe it's just that SNL's TV-to-film migrations have almost never worked for me.

Mo says:

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dracula Untold (2014)

Director: Gary Shore. Cast: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance, Art Parkinson. 92 min. Rated PG-13. Fantasy.

Remember the Dracula origin story in the opening of Bram Stoker's Dracula? When I first saw the trailer for this Dracula story prequel, I was so much hoping it would be an elaboration of that. Well ... it's definitely not. And starting off with introducing Vlad the 'Impaler' (for crying out loud), the most vicious warrior ever, as a kind-hearted family-loving prince, makes no sense whatsoever. But a few memorable moments, such as the mere presence of Charles Dance as an ancient vampire, and some beautiful cinematography, even though it looks predominantly CGI, made me feel my time wasn't wasted.

PS; This film employed not only Charles Dance, but also another Game of Thrones actor: Art Parkinson, as Dracula's son, who plays the crippled Rickon Stark in the TV series. I guess the actors of the show will be stuck with medieval-looking stuff for the time being.

Mo says:

Wild (2014)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann, Michiel Huisman. 115 min. Rated R. Biography/Drama.

After her mother dies, a middle-aged woman goes down the heroin route, cheats on her husband, and essentially hits rock bottom. So she embarks on a 1,100 mile self-discovery hike through the Mojave desert. Based on a true story with Reese Witherspoon in another career-defining performance in the lines of 127 Hours, Into the Wild and her own 1993 movie, A Far Off Place, the film displays the hardships of the girl's journey, but isn't very clear why the trek transforms her - let alone convince us this was a good move. The release timing merely makes this Oscar fodder.

Mo says:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Foxcatcher (2014)

Director: Bennett Miller. Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall. 134 min. Rated R. Biography/Sport.

Inspired by the true story of a wrestling trainer/trainee triangle in the 80s that ended in tragedy. But the tragedy is not in the ending, but in the entire story, as almost nothing positive happens throughout, and the acting, lighting, camera angles, editing, ... make this slow, grinding film the darkest sports movie I've seen since One Day in September (which was actually a documentary). With no take-home message and even confusing character motivations, this is planned as a showcase for the skills of director Miller (Moneyball, Capote), and the entirely unexpected and towering talents of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo.

Mo says:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) (2014)

Directors(s): Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne. Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione. 95 mi. Rated PG-13. Belgium/France/Italy. Drama.

A family-supporting young lady who has already had a nervous breakdown, goes door to door on a weekend, asking her 12 co-workers to forego a huge salary bonus and vote for her to keep her job instead. The moral dilemma is immense and very real: Would you make a sacrifice and vote for her? Cotillard, having repeated anxiety attacks at the drop of a hat, demonstrates a powerfully heartbreaking performance, and her slightly varying presentation at the door of each co-worker is proof of her skills. I wasn't a big Dardennes Brothers' fan before this, but now, I'm completely sold.

Mo says:

St. Vincent (2014)

Director: Theodore Melfi. Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd, Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher. 102 min. Rated PG-13. Comedy/Drama.

I see Bill Murray as this huge reservoir of dark, cynical satire that almost always goes untapped (major exception being Jim Jarmuch's Broken Flowers), and Melissa McCarthy as a comedienne who paradoxically has a decent chance at dramatic roles. Murray's talents are somewhat employed but then utterly ruined here by the teary-eyed feel-good themes, and McCarthy shows some skill at handling serious issues. Then again, similar to Bad Words, the anti-social adult/bright kid relationship here has no chance in hell of happening. Other than Watts' unexpected display of a Russian accent, I'm not sure why this movie was made.

Mo says:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Director: James Marsh. Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson. 123 min. Rated PG-13. UK. Biography/Drama.

When I first heard about this Stephen Hawking biopic, I figured it would be a heartbreaking picture of his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ... and nothing more. The filmmakers recognized this pitfall, and overcame it by making this not a Hawking biography, but about his relationship with his wife - to the point that the second half becomes Jane's dominating story. All "diseased genius and his enduring wife" stories pale in comparison to A Beautiful Mind, but still, even with its somewhat ambiguous character motivations, this is worthy of your time. Expecting Leading Oscar nomination for Redmayne, Supporting win for Jones.

PS: Similar to Interstellar, watching the Errol Morris' documentary on Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, will make this movie more enjoyable.

Mo says:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Housebound (2014)

Director: Gerard Johnstone. Cast: Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru. 107 min. Not Rated. New Zealand. Horror/Comedy.

After a hilariously botched burglary attempt, a twenty-something girl is confined to detention at her Mom's house ... which is haunted. Following the over-hyped Babadook, this other horror movie from Oceania (what's up with them and horror lately?) with a 95% score on the Tomatometer is a breath of fresh air: full of cliches, full of cheesy shock shots, and full of surprises - to the extant that you're not sure whether the next shock is going to be scary or funny. I hadn't enjoyed a horror-comedy this much since watching Evil Dead II a few years ago.

Mo says:

Days of Heaven (1978)

Director: Terrence Malick. Cast: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard. Cast: 94 min. Rated PG. Drama/Romance.

Turn-of-the-century laborer accidentally kills his employer, and flees with girlfriend (pretending to be his sister) to a rural agricultural community. But then, the new master falls for his "sister". Ebert reviewed this as one of his "Great Movies", and Malick's distinct style full of lingering moments (voices obliterated by roars of machines, distant lone mansion in the wheat farm horizon, fat black man dancing on a wooden board) is hard not to fall in love with. If I had seen this before Malick had perfected his technique (Tree of Life, To The Wonder), I would've given it a higher score.

Mo says:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Heartburn (1986)

Director: Mike Nichols. Cast: Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Stockard Channing, Richard Masur, Catherine O'Hara, Milos Forman. Kevin Spacey, Mercedes Ruehl. 108 min. Rated R. Drama/Comedy.

Marriage, from the first cute meeting, to the wedding, to building a home, to having kids, ... all the way to getting on each other's nerves, to the infidelities, to the breakups, to the reconciliations, and so on. Written by the late Nora Ephron who defined comedy in cinema relationships, marriage is shown not only through the strange-by-today's 80s perspective (instead of leaving the adulterous man, women hope he would die), but also carries certain equations that are fresh even today (a broken bond can never be fixed). Mike Nichols' poignant comedy pacing is perfect, and the heartbreaking ending is inevitable.

PS: Watch for a young Kevin Spacey in a very small but pivotal role as a subway thief.

Mo says:

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Brief History of Time (1991)

Director: Errol Morris. 88 min. Rated G. UK/Japan/USA. Documentary.

Amazing how whenever I think "this is why movies are made", it's on the occasion of a film that materializes on-screen the wildest fantasy, scientific or sci-fi phenomenon. Here we have a film about a man, our greatest living mind, interspersed with schematics and animations about his far-reaching theories about the universe, while family and friends offer perspectives on what a 'normal' guy he is. And of all genres ... it's a documentary! The result, combined with Philip Glass' ever-haunting music, is a picture of fascination and awe, of this disfigured, disabled man. Errol Morris has done it again.

PS: Thank you, Ali S. - if you hadn't pushed me to read the book ... I would have never seen the film!

PPS: Mohi and JZ - you need to see this film.

Mo says:

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Director(s): John Maloof, Charlie Siskel. 83 min. Not Rated. Documentary.

A portion of more than 150,000 negatives of a late 'nanny photographer' are accidentally found in an auction. The photos (which are truly beautiful) are developed, and no one knows why such a talented photographer went intentionally unknown her entire life. This film shows the process of one man to find the mystery behind Vivian Maier, but I'm not sure there's enough engaging material here for a feature documentary (or a 94% Rotten Tomatoes score). Of course, everybody has a story - but if we had some answers, this might have been a story to tell.

Mo says:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Whiplash (2014)

Director: Damien Chazelle. Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser. 107 min. Rated R. Drama/Musical.

Young drummer attending a music academy is 'tortured' by his mentor (a music world's R. Lee Ermey) to become the greatest. There's two perspectives: 1) Drummer's side: will you sacrifice everything (and I mean everything) to become the greatest in your field? 2) Mentor's side: How far do you push your prodigy to become the greatest? How far is too far? The uniquely absorbing film leaves these questions unanswered (because they're probably unanswerable), and assigns the task to you. It's the movie that will shoot Miles Teller to stardom, and likely earn J.K. Simmons a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'."

Mo says:

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Rosewater (2014)

Director: Jon Stewart. Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani. 103 min. Rated R. Biography/Drama.

A chronicle of Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari's 4-month confinement in Tehran's Evin Prison, after reporting on Iran's disputed 2009 election. But that's all it is - a chronicle. Other than the flawless depiction of Iran during the election days, and some powerful moments between Bahari and the ghosts of his late father and sister, there's no sign of cinematic flare: neither Stewart's direction nor his screenplay add anything to the repetitive imprisonment scenes. Bahari's fear here is nowhere close to what he describes in his book, and his interrogator ('Rosewater') is definitely not as ominous. Sorry, but Stewart is off target.

Mo says:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ouija (2014)

Director: Stiles White. Cast: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Lin Shaye. 89 min. Rated PG-13. Horror.

Another movie based on a board game (good God ...) aims for a Ring-like structure, opening with two teenage girls fooling around with a mysterious object and one of them ending up dead, and even a climax scene where a long-dead girl comes out of an opening to freak us out. Nevertheless, the dialogue and character decisions make this piece of celluloid more laughable than scary. The film's 7% on the Tomatometer (and the fact that it's PG-13!) should've been sufficient warning, but I can't help my addiction for the horror genre.

Mo says:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The White Diamond (2004)

Director: Werner Herzog. 90 min. Not Rated. Germany/Japan/UK. Documentary.

Werner Herzog's repeating theme of a lone man against nature ... this time falls flat on its face. A British adventurer has this dream to pass over an insanely treacherous waterfall in Guyana, Latin America, riding a helium-filled airship. The man is clearly an idiot. He doesn't follow safety measures, has already gotten a friend killed, and almost gets Herzog killed on camera. Herzog's superb Grizzly Man was a retrospective on a crazy man who was killed for his dream. The after-death tense made the film mesmerizing. Watching a crazy man do his crazy stuff before he's killed: not so fun.

Mo says:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, William Devane. 169 min. Rated PG-13. USA/UK. Sci-fi.

To summarize what one sees in Nolan's recent film in 100 words, is utterly impossible. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Contact to this film (with McConaughey in two of them), the story of interstellar travel has been so ingrained with quantum physics, captivating audiences is the job of a miracle-worker - as people left the theater on Kubrick's premiere screening. But with all its narrative flaws, Nolan's sheer audacity to create a 3-hour spectacle of pure imagination, is what defines the joy of watching movies. Similar to Gravity, if people criticize this film, it means they're unable to love cinema.

Mo says:

Friday, November 7, 2014

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Director(s): Don Hall, Chris Williams. 108 min. Rated PG. Animation.

I know I'm supposed to love this spectacular new Disney animation, but ... I don't know. It's full of great ideas, but not any new ideas. It's The Incredibles updated with Iron Man glamour, and even though picturing "science nerds" as superheroes is very noble, it's still an animated superhero movie, with another origin story, another dazzling climactic battle, and another obligatory scene to shed a tear for a hero. I also found the idea of projecting white people as society's villains or idiots, slightly racist. But then again, that goes along with setting the story in a futuristic 'San Fransokyo'.

PS: I didn't stay for the post-credits scene, but as explained here, apparently Disney is starting a Marvel-like superhero universe. God help us all.

Mo says:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure) (2013)

Director: Roman Polanski. Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric. 96 min. Not Rated. France/Poland. Drama.

Polanski had already performed the "minimal characters in single location" act in Death and the Maiden (1994), and performed it very well. This time he creates a similar opportunity for Amalric, as a playwright who adapts an old sadomasochistic story, and his real-life wife Seigner, as the actress who auditions for the role, in a theater, told in real-time. The dialogue is smart, subtle and engaging, but 20 years from her Bitter Moon days, Seigner looks too old for a femme fatale role, and the bizarre climactic payoff, far from fulfilling, borders on creepy. Better luck next time.

Mo says:

The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)

Director: Bill Siegel. 86 min. Documentary.

Opening scene, TV broadcast, 1968: "This man is a disgrace to his country, his race, and to what he laughingly describes as his profession. He's a simplistic fool, and a pawn." Then the same man is shown receiving the Medal of Freedom from the President of the United States in 2005. That sums up the entire film. It's neither about Mohammad Ali's affiliation with Islam, nor about his dodging the Vietnam draft as a "conscientious objector". It's about a man standing up for what he believes in against all crushing odds, and standing up proud in the end. Very inspiring.

PS: This is available for streaming on Netflix.

Mo says:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

John Wick (2014)

Director(s): David Leitch, Chad Stahelski. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Alfie Allen, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane. 101 min. Rated R. China/Canada/USA. Action/Thriller.

Russian mob kills the dog of an ex-hitman that was a gift from his recently deceased wife, and he ventures to take revenge. That's all folks! The rest is just numerous highly-stylized action sequences with very loud music. Keanu Reeves continues on his quest to remain "The One", but the result is similar to the action movies Arnold, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson used to do in the 80s and 90s. And Alfie Allen (the guy who lost his you-know-what in Game of Thrones) continues to play the greatest loser of all time.

PS: The font style of the Russian subtitles switched mid-movie, making me feel the film was directed by two directors. Lo and behold! I later discovered the film truly had two directors.

Mo says:

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed. 117 min. Rated R. Crime/Thriller.

I don't know if it was the movie's annoying trailer (which spoiled more than three quarters of the film), or the notion of media "creating" negative news to attract viewers, already dramatized on film as far back as the Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, that significantly smothered the chances of enjoying this tightly-directed movie. Still, even in lieu of his "shattering-your-image-in-the-mirror" cliche, Jake Gyllenhaal's turn as the creepy manipulative video-reporter crawls under your skin, and creates one of the most memorable movie psychos. If you lose faith in humanity as a result of watching this film, it's credited to Gyllenhaal.

PS: End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, and now Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal is on fire.

Mo says:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

Director: Jennifer Kent. Cast: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall. 93 min. Australia. Horror.

A horror movie of all places ... from Australia! And a very decent one at that. Seven-year-old whose father died in a crash taking the pregnant mom to the hospital, and his mother stumble upon a monster storybook, 'Mister Babadook' - and then realize the monster has entered their lives. Well-acted and well-directed, with a grim production design that upgrades the horror level; but tries to hurt the viewer (including suggestions of child harm and lots of screaming in our face). I have problems with movies that try to hurt me. When I watch a horror movie, I want to have fun.

PS: So far, 96% on the Tomatometer. Again, not a bad movie - just that I wouldn't recommend it.

Mo says:

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Director: Dean DeBlois. Cast (voices): Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hil, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington. 102 min. Rated PG. Animation.

Another case of not letting originals live in peace. Four years ago, How to Train Your Dragon was full of charm, boasted brilliant animation, and had a story that was both uplifting and had a good point or two for kids. The sequel is not even a rehash of the original. It's just a cartoon full of action, with an artificial story that's parasiting off the success of the previous film. If it wasn't for the eye-candy animation, this would've gotten a No-Mo.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cast: Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Andrea Riseborough. 119 min. Rated R. Drama/Comedy.

We've all heard this is an ironic movie, because of all actors, Michael Keaton plays a stage actor who used to be famous for a superhero role he once played (Batman, anyone?). But this movie is far beyond that. By upgrading to Earth-shattering levels Hitchcock's technique of filming an entire movie in a single shot (contains flashbacks, and happens over several days!), Iñárritu tells the enchanting story of a man who's ready to die to fulfill a dream. It doesn't matter what others think; it only matters if he thinks he accomplished that dream. Trust me, you'll remember this one.

Mo says:

The Judge (2014)

Director: David Dobkin. Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Leighton Meester. 141 min. Rated R. Drama.

Hotshot city lawyer's father, the presiding judge of his small hometown for 42 years, is accused of DUI-related manslaughter. The son goes to defend him in court; the father despises his antics. This courtroom drama makes beautiful use of two great movie personas we've come to know: the arrogant egotistical presence Downey Jr. created in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, and the grandfather-like figure Duvall has lived for decades. But the movie goes on for too long, with subplots and characters (the daughter, the high school sweetheart) reiterating what we already know. And Billy Bob could've been so much better.

Mo says:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Begin Again (2013)

Director: John Carney. Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, Catherine Keener. 104 min. Rated R. Drama/Musical.

I guess if I hadn't already known this was from the writer/director of the beautiful film Once, I would've enjoyed it more. But this is the New York City version of Once, without that film's sense of mystery rooted in the couple's Irish/Czech cultural differences. Carney tries to fill that gap by adding charming locales of that most wonderful of all cities to the background of his songs (sung by Knightley!) and benefitting from Adam Levine's star power - but still, I couldn't help but remember this is a rehash of his 2006 movie.

Mo says:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Annabelle (2014)

Director: John R. Leonetti. Cast: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard. 99 min. Rated R. Horror.

A terrible prequel to James Wan's truly scary movie, The Conjuring. The horror cliches are overflowing, the acting is simply annoying, and the Child's Play possessed doll plot is so stupid, at one point I was laughing wholeheartedly (I'm referring to an elevator scene where Satan, yes, Satan, growls like he's burping). There's even a Paranormal Activity leg-pulling scene in there. Yeah, that cliche.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Camp X-Ray (2014)

Director: Peter Sattler. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi. 117 min. Rated R. Drama.

A new female sergeant at Guantanamo in charge of suspected terrorist "detainees" (not prisoners - otherwise they'd be covered by the Geneva Convention) slowly becomes acquainted with a Pakistani inmate, and becomes disillusioned by his imprisonment. To my knowledge, this is the first feature film on the subject of Gitmo detainees, and as such, the story doesn't take any huge risks. But it does at least make an attempt to bridge the huge ethical gaps, and both Stewart and Moaadi are perfect for their roles. A very borderline Mojo.

Mo says:

Ilo Ilo (2013)

Director: Anthony Chen. Cast: Yann Yann Yeo, Tian Wen Chen, Angeli Bayani. 99 min. Not Rated. Singapore. Drama.

During a 1990s recession, a middle-class Singapore couple hires a twenty-something Filipino girl to take care of their spoiled brat son, and as the pregnant mom and depressed dad make risky financial moves, the relationship between the maid and boy grows. This is a very honest movie that doesn't shy away from tough story situations. Other than that, the reason it won more than 20 international awards, including the coveted Golden Camera (given to first-time directors) at last year's Cannes Film Festival, was lost on me.

Mo says:

Fury (2014)

Director: David Ayer. Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jim Parrack. 134 min. Rated R. UK/China/USA. War.

Similar to Saving Private Ryan, this WWII movie leaves no stone unturned in the violence department, but tries to deliver a different message that makes more sense: there is no heroism or bravery in war - you either kill, or get killed. The only motivating factor for victory is survival, not bravery. But then the ending climactic battle of red and green laser-like gunfire (?) goes on for too long and the body count of this "5-man army in a tank" goes unimaginably high, edging the movie into boredom. Still, the main message (and Brad Pitt's strong presence) makes this worthwhile.

Mo says:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel. 157 min. Not Rated. Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina. Crime/Drama.

At dusk, government officials take a murderer to the outskirts of Anatolia, Turkey, to find where he buried his victim. He's not cooperating, so the story drags on through the night. And I mean drags on. But it's a two-and-a-half hour story that needs to be told slowly, because as in real life, the characters realize truths about themselves and each other ... gradually. Which means there was no other way to tell this story, and you'll find yourself mesmerized along with the characters. This won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, for very good reason.

Mo says:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Audrey Rose (1977)

Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Marsha Mason, John Beck, Susan Swift. 113 min. Rated PG. Drama/Horror.

I watched this film made in the great movie year of 1977, for two reasons: it's director, who made The Sound of Music, The West Side Story, I Want to Live!, ...; and because I remember the novel's very cool cover since childhood. What a mistake, on both ends. Wise's direction is a laughable ripoff of The Exorcist (with the India flashbacks reminiscent of an Airplane!-like Zucker Brothers spoof), and the film isn't even as scary as the book cover. Or not scary at all! Anthony Hopkins' presence doesn't help, and the ending is terrible. Just terrible. What a mess.

Mo says:

Fireworks Wednesday (2006) (چهارشنبه سوری)

Director: Asghar Farhadi. Cast: Hamid Farokhnezhad, Hediyeh Tehrani, Taraneh Alidoosti. 102 min. Iran. Drama.

Before About Elly, and before A Separation, Farhadi made this little film - and his common theme of lies acting as the plague of the society, is as prominent as his other works. In a plot heavy on both dialogue and point-of-views, a domestic dispute is seen from a house worker's perspective, as the wife accuses her husband of infidelity. Dishonesty and paranoia in the setting of Iran's annual Fireworks Wednesday explosions, spiced with a few story surprises, create the context for a very combustible (and tragic) marital crisis. If you enjoyed Farhadi's other films, definitely go for it.

PS: Thank you, Maryam, for sending the movie a very long time ago!

Mo says:

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bad Words (2013)

Director: Jason Bateman. Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall. 89 min. Rated R. Comedy.

A 40-year-old antisocial and (admirably) politically-incorrect loser finds a way around the rules and participates in the National Spelling Bee - to the annoyance of everybody on the planet. As though that wasn't enough, he befriends a young Indian contestant à la Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. Jason Bateman shines in the starring role of his very amusing directorial debut, but in the end, the plot is so preposterous, the entire event loses its charm. Nevertheless, this should serve Bateman the way Limitless served Bradley Cooper: placing him on the map as a multi-talented artist that can take charge of major future projects.

Mo says:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pride (2014)

Director: Matthew Warchus. Cast: Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Jessica Gunning. 120 min. Rated R. UK. Comedy/History.

This movie contains an extraordinary concept. It's the real-life story of gays and lesbians in 1980s UK, who fight for the rights of miners on strike under Thatcher's reign. In lieu of their astronomical differences, the gays feel a sense of sovereignty with the miners, because both groups have been disenfranchised. The film shouldn't have been titled "Pride", because it's not about gay pride - it's about fighting for other people's rights regardless of the risks involved; because you believe in their rights, and not because you calculate whether they'll win or lose their struggle. This movie will make you think.

Mo says:

The Best Offer (2013)

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore. Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks, Donald Sutherland. 131 Rated R. Italy. Crime/Drama/Mystery.

Suave old antique-dealer falls for a severely agoraphobic young woman, who has hired him to catalog her vast collection; but not everyone is as sincere as they seem. Years after Cinema Paradiso and Malena, Tornatore's voyeuristic quest to understand the female nature continues, but his efforts at metaphors (a subplot involving an automaton, constructed as the dealer gradually learns about the woman) are so obvious and open-handed, the enchanting power of his prior films are somewhat absent. Rush's acting and the skillful direction make the repetitive screenplay interesting, but I was still left asking: Why did Tornatore make this movie?

Mo says: