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: