Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Capsules (Reviews)

Things are probably going to get a bit quiet on this blog (and other award news outlets) over the next couple of weeks. All the Academy shortlists have been unveiled for applicable categories, top ten lists from most critics have been published, and at this point there's not much left to do but wait for the guilds to start piping up in the New Year.

Me, I'll be catching up with all sorts of early releases from this year as well as new ones as they open up in their plush holiday time slots. As I do, I'll keep adding my brief capsule reactions to this space, which you can check up on from time to time (I'll make an effort to tweet new entries). Consider it my Non-Denominational Mid-December Holiday Special to you, whose readership I appreciate all year round!

So have a merry Christmas, a happy Chanukah, a kwazy Kwanza, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn yet dignified Ramadan.

Under the Skin
I wanted to like this highly touted, art house sci-fi from Jonathan Glazer (back in the game almost ten years after Birth) much more than I ultimately did. Some things are just too obtuse and glacially paced even for me. But while this oblique tale of an otherworldly succubus (Scarlett Johansson) is not really my cuppa tea, there are aspects of it I do admire. The minimalism of its screenplay, for instance, makes great use of purely visual storytelling for much of the film. And it's hard not to respond to Mica Levi's eerily dissonant music, or the sleek chic of its sparse but über-cool special effects.
**1/2 out of ****

A hot mess to be sure, but with a guy like Aronofsky at the helm at least it's a hot mess with some thematic substance and an eye for character to help mitigate the over-the-top and outright weird stuff he decided to stick in there. The production is impressive though, shot on a mammoth set constructed in New York and embellished by some remarkably credible effects from ILM (how they missed the Academy's vfx shortlist is beyond me).
**1/2 out of ****

The LEGO Movie
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's imaginative premise may impress with its wonderful weirdness, but this film is so insistently manic that it becomes exhausting. Sure, a lot of jokes land well, but just as many feel forced. It expends so much effort trying to elicit a laugh every five seconds that it's tough to take the sentiment-reaching climax seriously. Not saying it isn't fun, but after a while it grows tiresome. Some of it is awesome. Not everything.
**1/2 out of ****

A Most Wanted Man
Anton Corbijn's calculatory spy thriller provides doesn't provide its intrigue in the form of undercover life-and-death situations (or any other type of fabricated espionage tropes), but by exploring the ethical/moral boundaries that get breached in the interest of a greater good. Andrew Bovell's superb adaptation of the John Le Carre novel on which it's based seamlessly intertwines its parallel plot threads and makes smart use of dialogue to deliver narrative points and character details simultaneously, keeping the whole film story driven but not at the expense of human accessibility. Playing a huge part in that “human” factor is the work from a terrific cast, centred about a final great performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
*** out of ****

Pawel Pawlikowski tells this story of a novice nun in postwar Poland discovering her past and questioning her place in the world with great economy and understatement. Its brisk 80-minutes is a refreshing example of 'less is more'. Although its soft-spoken tone make it difficult to really get into at first, it rewards the patience invested in it. Pawlikowski prefers lets the images tell the story over reams of dialogue. The stunning black and white compositions of Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski help communicate the meek subservience of our heroine by dwarfing her with the space she inhabits. The nearly square aspect ratio plays a big part in this, allowing them to expand vertical space and isolate in the bottom corner of the frame. A delicate, artful, and quietly (extremely quietly) devastating film.
***1/2 out of ****

The Babadook
Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent has earned a lot of critical congratulations for her creepy debut feature about a widow (the excellent Essie Davis) slowly going mad under the influence of a malevolent demon from a childrens book. Anyone hankering for dozens of jump scares and monster mayhem may find themselves disappointed by the film's more artful, character-oriented style. Kent massages psychological scares out of the audience through the power of suggestion, a technique that almost always proves more effective than explicit sights. Of particular use to her is Simon Njoo's deliberately arrhythmic editing and Frank Libsen's deeply unsettling 'things-that-go-bump-in-the-night' sound design (“Baba-dook-doook-dooook”... It's true, you can't get rid of it!). Dramatically, it works well as a freaky metaphor for allowing grief to govern your life, at least until the end when things become more literal and a bit derivative. Still, this is an impressive first feature.
*** out of ****

The Homesman
Tommy Lee Jones' staunch classicism is a good fit for much of the picture, but the story takes a turn at the end of the second act that isn't exactly beseeming (the novel's fault, not the filmmakers). The shift in protagonist is jarring and makes it difficult to reengage with the story, which proceeds to peter out with nothing to act as a climax. A few of the scenes from the last forty could have been cut out completely. But the film is never less than marvelous to look at. Rodrigo Prieto's widescreen compositions capture the stark beauty of the desolate Nebraskan wilderness. Marco Beltrami's music successfully mixes traditional Western motifs with more modern, atmospheric scoring techniques.
**1/2 out of ****

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Hard to believe that at nearly 2.5 hours, Battle of the Five Armies is considered the short Hobbit movie! True, it's the most action-heavy of the three, but much of it boils down to a chaotic war scene that just keeps going and going and going. Much like The Desolation of Smaug, the result is tiring. Why Jackson feels that every single moment needs to be the badass hero moment, I'm not sure. Even Weta's reliably proficient effects begin to look obvious and diluted by their own ubiquity. There are also a few too many subplots vying for our attention, and not all of them necessary. But then again, this entire trilogy was unnecessary.
The highest compliment I can think to pay Jackson & co. is that when the time finally does arrive for this sucker to end, he's able to wrap it up in under fifteen minutes with an emotionally satisfying bow. I guess the trilogy taken as a whole is probably worthy of a slightly higher rating, but the last two movies really felt like they were going through the motions. They also didn't make enough use of their best asset: Martin Freeman. There's relatively little of the hobbit in The Hobbit, and never is that case more so than in this concluding chapter.
** out of ****

Beyond the Lights
The message behind writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood's showbiz saga is a clear and pertinent one: The modern entertainment industry and the tabloid media surrounding it is incredibly hostile towards women, and that needs to stop. But as praise-worthy as its intentions are, I found Beyond the Lights often played like a TV melodrama, leaning a few too many cliché emotional ploys. It is, however, elevated by Gugu Mbatha-Raw's insightful and empowering performance. This lady is the real deal, undergoing such a radical transformation from R&B sex object to liberated artist that it would be hard for anyone who hadn't actually watched the film to guess it's the same actress at the beginning as it is at the end.
**1/2 out of ****

Mr. Turner
Mike Leigh has long earned critical respect for his observant, actor-driven character studies, and often rightly so. Alas, his biopic of J.M.W. Turner (played with growling dedication by Timothy Spall) – one of Britain's most important Romantic painters – is impregnably dry. Leigh's fondness for steady, uncut vignettes – often a virtue in his other films – simply desiccates this piece. It's not the stillness that's the problem, but that his subjects aren't interesting enough to fill it. If there's any benefit to Leigh's tableau-like staging, it's that it does give us an opportunity to appreciate the sumptuous photography of his longtime collaborator Dick Pope, who litters the film throughout with landscapes and sunsets that look like could have been painted by Turner himself.
**1/2 out of ****

Two Days, One Night
The Belgian filmmaking brothers Dardenne tell the story of a working mother, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), whose colleagues must vote between their yearly bonus or keeping her from being laid off. Also an examination of decent people forced into untenable moral decisions, it is as bleak as an Italian neo-realist drama, albeit with a more hopeful conclusion. The hand-held camera often follows Sandra around without an editor's interruption, as she goes door to door beseeching her coworkers to let her keep her job. This unfussy (and somewhat repetitive) style might have become a slog if the cameras were focused on anyone besides Cotillard, whose natural talent is more than enough to hold our gaze, let alone her international star magnetism. She paints an aching portrait of a woman drowning in depression, forced to swallow a little bit more of her pride and self-esteem with every anxiety med she pops.
*** out of ****

Still Alice
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's drama about a vivacious linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's gets by on some quietly observed performances (especially from Julianne Moore), but is a slog to watch nevertheless. Heavy, and yet also thin. There's nothing formally wrong with Glatzer and Westmoreland's screenplay or direction, though you could argue that their use of blurred focus to evoke Alice's increasing disorientation and confusion is not consistently successful.
But the real struggle of the film is with its pacing. While past films – such as Away From Her and Amour – have managed to deal with this subject matter more poetically, Still Alice opts for a basic vignette-driven structure, each more depressing than the last, that's somehow elegant but blunt at the same time. If you can get by the stifling misery that hangs over every single scene, this is a perfectly fine tragedy, but the rest of us may find it overwhelmingly dour.
Fortunately, those scenes in and of themselves are elevated by some beautifully introspective acting. Julianne Moore seems bound for Oscar glory with her heartbreaking portrayal of a woman slowly losing everything she values about herself. But we should take care not to forget the smart and naturalistic supporting turns from Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart as Alice's husband and daughter, each of whom react to her illness in complex, interesting ways.
**1/2 out of ****

A Most Violent Year
J.C. Chandor finds a nice balance between the soft-spoken verbosity of his debut feature Margin Call and the stately mood-building of his followup All Is Lost in this New York crime saga. Oscar Isaac is excellent as a honest man trying to make it in the dishonest business selling heating oil, all while fending off robberies by his competitors, a nettlesome government lawsuit, and mounting pressure from his wife (Jessica Chastain, also outstanding). While the film certainly takes the long way around making its point about the easy corruption of the American Dream, it's a point made memorably enough to justify the slow pacing. Bradford Young's silhouette-laden photography makes it feel like we're watching a Godfather movie set in the 80s.
*** out of ****


  1. I agree, I wasn't a big fan of Under the Skin. Hated Noah, it was too much of a mess for me. The LEGO Movie was a lot of fun and reminded me a lot of Toy Story. Ida I have yet to see. Neighbours was hilarious, and The Babadook was appropriately creepy. Great reviews!

  2. I kinda doubt it, but will you be doing a review of "The Interview"?

  3. Still waiting (and dying) to see Mr. Turner...

    On that note, it seems to be garnering a lot of attention for Production and Costume design. Thoughts?

    1. All beautiful from start to finish.

    2. Glad to hear it, and can't wait to check it out for myself (I'll be sure to let you know what I think).

      Also, on the note of costumes, I didn't think The Battle of Five Armies was the best, but with this third one, I was really taken with the costumes; the armors for each army and whatnot. Hope you at least enjoyed them to a degree...

  4. It's so weird to hear GOOD things about Kristen Stewart performance in any movie...