Friday, January 30, 2015

Tangerines (Mandariinid) (2013)

Director: Zaza Urushadze. Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Misha Meskhi. 87 min. Estonia/Georgia. Drama/War.

"The world would be a much more peaceful place if ordinary people simply got to know one another.

This was an IMDb quote I saw describing The Iran Job, but the concept is reflected much more strongly in this Oscar-nominated foreign film. During the 1990s Georgia-Apkhazeti War, an old man ends up taking care of two wounded soldiers from opposite sides of the war in his home. Will they see the good in each other and calm down? So now you already know the movie is preachy, and there are 'famous last words' where you know a character is going to die any second. But still, the simpleness in how the story unfolds makes this a pleasurable watch.

PS: Maryam ... thank you for the directions!

Mo says:

Pumping Iron (1977)

Director(s): George Butler, Robert Fiore. 85 min. Rated PG. Documentary.

The documentary that later put Arnold on the map (in lieu of a total talent void) as his era's most famous movie star. But the film has an additional interesting element in the form of Lou Ferrigno, also later renown as TV's Incredible Hulk, an underdog hoping to beat Arnold in his seventh and last bidding for Body Building Championship. Compared to nowadays, the documentary offers little introspection into the athletes' lives (some moments were later found to be staged), but it does picture Arnold as a shrewd businessman - as he proved in the 2000s to succeed as the Governator.

Mo says:

Monday, January 26, 2015

Everly (2014)

Director: Joe Lynch. Cast: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe. 92 min. Rated R. Action/Thriller.

The cover of a prostitute cooperating with the police to bring down a mob boss is blown, and she's attacked by numerous assassins in an apartment room. I have no problem with violence when there's a good story context, but a female grappling with rivers of blood and gore and an army of talking killers looks like a parody of Kill Bill (and Kill Bill was a parody itself). Still, give me a full-length movie happening in a single room any day, and funny/corny/cliche moments and all, I'll respect the effort.

Mo says:

Wolf Children (2012)

Director: Mamoru Hosoda. 117 min. Rated PG. Japan. Animation.

A cartoon about the love between a high school girl ... and a werewolf. It's rated PG, but as in innumerable other Japanese instances, it's actually a 2-hour adult-themed live-action film that is merely using animation as a conduit to tell its story. And indeed, some landscapes of the Japanese countryside pictured here are so advanced in detail, I could not discern if it was human/computer drawing, or live-action film. This is a fantasy for adults to relax, watch in awe, and enjoy.

PS: Thanks again, Ali S.!

Mo says:

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Director: Olivier Assayas. Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz. 124 min. France/Switzerland/Germany/USA/Belgium. Drama.

A veteran actress is offered to perform in the same play that made her famous twenty years ago, opposite the character that made her famous twenty years ago. Dilemma: if she outshines her younger self, is it out of profession, or just an ego trip to prove she's still relevant? Similar to Birdman, it portrays issues artists struggle with their entire life. Wise choice of Stewart as the actress' assistant who rehearses with her, as Stewart's ever-monotonous performance intentionally confuses us whether they're truly rehearsing, or is this a real relationship playing out? But boy, is she a bad actress.

Mo says:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

'71 (2014)

Director: Yann Demange. Cast: Jack O'Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris. 99 min. Rated R. UK. Action/Thriller.

During the chaos of a Belfast street riot, a young British soldier is separated from his unit, and hunted by the IRA through the night. If this is how Northern Ireland was in the 70s, then this is truly a shocking film, as the picture illustrated here is no different from an American soldier running for his life on the streets of Fallujah. Deservedly, there are a few breath-taking Bourne-type chase scenes, establishing the uncertainty of the soldier's chances making it alive till the morning. Even though I didn't understand half the Irish accent, this was well worth my time.

PS: Among more than 20 nominations and wins, the film is nominated this year for Best British Film and Outstanding Debut Director BAFTA Awards.

Mo says:

Time Lapse (2014)

Director: Bradley King. Cast: Danielle Panabaker, Matt O'Leary, George Finn. 104 min. Sci-Fi/Thriller. 

Three young people discover a huge camera next door to their apartment that has been taking daily pictures of them 24 hours into the future - so they plan to make monetary gain from their knowledge of the future. I found this very indie shoe-string budget film tense and engaging (and even a source of encouragement for people who want to crowd-fund their small projects), but the character decisions and motivations were quite questionable, and the story's time-travel logic was confusing to me long after the movie was done. Nice if you're looking for a "different" sci-fi.

Mo says:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Virunga (2014)

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel. 90 min. UK/Congo. Documentary.

Netflix's Leonardo DiCaprio-produced Oscar-nominated documentary takes a look at the Virunga National Park in Congo, home of the last surviving mountain gorillas, whose existence is threatened by a never-ending civil war and profit-hungry foreign oil investors. There are films (Blackfish, The Cove) that make you seriously care about wildlife; they make you react. With all of this film's journalistic merit (hidden cameras show actual bribes changing hands), it doesn't make a very strong case for the gorillas, as the investors promise universities, schools and roads for the destabilized, war-ravaged country. Curious how this ended up among the top five nominees.

Mo says:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Unbroken (2014)

Director: Angelina Jolie. Cast: Jack O'Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson. 137 min. Rated PG-13. Biography/War.

Coen Brothers-written WWII story of Olympian runner Louis Zamperini, who spent 47 days in a raft on the Pacific Ocean, and was caught and tortured by the Japanese army. Traces of other movies are numerous: from the Saving Private Ryan opening, to the Cast Away sea perils, to The Bridge on the River Kwai POW camp, to the Rescue Dawn fight for survival. Nothing's boring in this fascinating true story, but nothing's new in this formulaic movie either. Although a significant improvement compared to her first feature, it's safe to say Angelina Jolie doesn't want to take chances.

Mo says:

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour. Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh. 99 min. Unrated. Horror.

Iranian vampire Western. It's tough to imagine these three words in the same sentence - let alone to describe a movie. And add to the mix the mood of the sex-and-violence-filled black-and-white B-movies of the Shah's time, and you're surprised to even get a coherent story (which this film actually has). If a young American-raised Iranian film-maker, heavily inspired by David Lynch (and to a lesser extent Tarantino), was to picture how she sees her delusional past generation, her hypocritical religious upbringing, and her vision of her own generation's doomed future ... this is exactly the movie she would make.

PS: 95% on the Tomatometer. Your call.

Mo says:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Big Eyes (2014)

Director: Tim Burton. Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp. 106 min. Rated PG-13. USA/Canada. Biography.

In 1950s San Francisco, a swindler claims credit for the work of Margaret Keane, the now-famous artist of paintings picturing sad, big-eyed children. Burton's latest is quite successful in establishing why the male-dominated exploitation went as far as it did, but since a charade of such magnitude is difficult to imagine happening nowadays in a developed country, the director's interest in the subject (except for his eye fetish) was lost on me. Waltz's theatricals (which honestly, are getting a little repetitious) during the climactic trial were so extravagant, I had to do some fact-checking to see how much was dramatized.

Mo says:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Director: J.C. Chandor. Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandino Moreno. 125 min. Rated R. Crime/Drama.

In 1981, NYC's most violent year on record, a wanna-be Mafia boss is planning his last steps to become the biggest Mafia boss in the city, but hits major obstacles by rival groups. This is Michael Corleone, both in appearance and manner, trying not to step into the dark side - and the question till the very end, is whether he'll sell his soul to the devil like Michael did, or not. Although the high expectations from such an engaging context are unmet by the screenplay, both Isaac and Chastain glow with their overbearing presence in this otherwise darkly-lit, sobering movie.

PS: See? What did I tell you here about the young Pacino of our times? In addition to Chastain, add Isaac to the list of newcomers whose next movie I'm looking forward to. And I'm not just talking about the next Star Wars movie.

PPS: Margin Call, All is Lost, A Most Violent Year. Mojo scores on all of J.C. Chandor's first three features.

Mo says:

Still Alice (2014)

Director(s): Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, 101 min. Rated PG-13. Drama.

No doubt that Julianne Moore does a superb job at demonstrating the crushing fear and devastation of being afflicted by Alzheimer's Disease. But Julie Christie had already done this in 2006, in the similarly heartbreaking Away From Her, receiving an Oscar nomination and winning a Golden Globe for it. The real story is, after 4 failed nominations (two in 2002!), Hollywood is prepping Moore for her Oscar win, and this film will finally be the one.

Mo says:

Thursday, January 15, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller. 132 min. Rated R. Biography/War.

In a somewhat repetitious post-Hurt Locker mood, this is an American "good guy" in Iraq - and I'm not being sarcastic. A man who believes in a certain set of patriotic ideals, and is willing to sacrifice his family, and sell his soul, to uphold those ideals. So of course, the movie is made by the all-American hero, Clint Eastwood. It's possible that I'm reading too much into this, but after his bizarre empty-chair speech, maybe Eastwood is using this true life story to portray some sanity in America's gun-loving culture. If that's the case, he sure has my attention.

Mo says:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Top 10 Movies of 2014

As opposed to last year, 2014 was a much better movie year.

The numerous cinema talents we lost throughout the year notwithstanding, good films, starting from The Lego Movie in February all the way to last week's Selma, left room for a lot to cherish.

So to narrow down my top 10 list, I went for movies that provided a truly unique experience. That made a man in his car for the entire length of a film, a 3-hour visual experience of quantum physics, a better-than-the-book flashback flash-forward story about marriage, a 2-hour single-shot film about a superhero who wants to be super again, a sci-fi told in hand-held documentary format, and of course, a "hyper-realism" film made over 12 years, all inevitable choices for the list.

And as a result, I had to exclude a few MoMagic!s (The Fault in Our Stars, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Force Majeure), and even cheat, to appoint one slot to two great (but entirely different) documentaries.

By the way ... sorry: No animation, and no foreign movie made it to the final list.

Every year, I also try to find older goodies, and I thought it would be wrong to not make a special mention of the gems I've found among them. So from now on, in addition to my best and worst film of the year, I'll have a "Discovery of the Year", which may be a great film, director, actor, or movie concept I've run into from the past.

So here it goes, on the night before the Oscar nominations, my top 10 films of the year, in alphabetical order:

1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2. Boyhood

3. Citizenfour and Life Itself

4. Gone Girl

5. Interstellar

6. Locke

7. Selma

8. Snowpiercer

9. Under the Skin

10. Whiplash

Best Movie of the Year: Hands down, Interstellar. No one had the guts to attempt what Christopher Nolan succeeded at in a very, very long time.

Worst Movie of the Year: Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For. As one critic put it, this film disappointed at every level the original was good at. And to imagine I paid two dollars extra online to see this on opening night ...

Discovery of the Year: Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and this year's Palme d'Or winner Winter Sleep, has made slow every day life interesting again.

Waiting for your top 10 lists!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short. 148 min. Rated R. Comedy/Crime.

Semi-noir 70s mystery, about a hippie private investigator who gets involved in a convoluted case. I've seen quite a few movies, but it still took me awhile during this overlong movie to realize P.T. Anderson is doing something uniquely surreal: the detective is stoned. All he sees and hears are through the delusional perspective of a stoner. This adds a very rare comedic aspect to the film, and provides a playground for great performances. Similar to Anderson's Boogie Nights, I know this film will later grow on me; but for now, I need to be honest with my scoring.

Mo says:

Selma (2014)

Director: Ava DuVernay. Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Martin Sheen. 128 min. Rated PG-13. UK/USA. History/Biography.

A very short segment of Martin Luther King's life. The outlook of our times is so bleak, it amazes one that such people once existed. But then again, I guess Blacks saw the horizon even bleaker during the period of this movie's events - which makes MLK and his followers' crusade even more impossible to fathom. I really have nothing more to say, because any kind of praise for what oneself may not afford to perform, will sound hypocritical.

Mo says:

Mr. Turner (2014)

Director: Mike Leigh. Cast: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Lesley Manville. 150 min. Rated R. UK. Drama/Biography.

The life story of the British painter, J.M.W. Turner. At two hours and 30 minutes, Mike Leigh's latest period piece does not have enough material for a feature-length movie (and don't tell me it's supposed to be 'meditative'). Timothy Spall owns the film in its entirety with his embodiment of the grunting, overbearing Mr. Turner, and while he won the award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for Best Actor, there are some films out there that make me feel sorry for the grueling task of being a film festival juror. This film was one of them.

Mo says:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

Director: Rob Marshall. Cast: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp. 125 min. Rated PG. Musical/Fantasy.

In the first half, we have the bedtime stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, intertwined into one, for no apparent reason. In the second half, the sequels to the four stories (Cinderella's Prince commits adultery; the Giant's widow comes after Jack) are devoid of any charm. A musical coming from the seasoned director of Chicago, with characters dying for no reason. was another instance where I kept asking myself why this movie was made in the first place. Maybe to advertise Streep's acting skills - as though she needed any advertising. Bored to death.

Mo says:

Love Is Strange (2014)

Director: Ira Sachs. Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei. 94 min. Rated R. Drama.

An aging gay couple have a public marriage ceremony, and as a result, the partner supporting the union loses his job. After that ... nothing really happens - and I mean nothing significant happens that's specific to a gay couple. They lose their home and life like any other heterosexual couple who might lose their job. So I'm not even sure what was the point of having them be gay. And then there are subplots that entirely distract from the main story. Forget the 94% approval; for a tremendously better picture about the issues of homosexual couples, watch this.

Medical goof: A full-thickness rotator cuff tear and a complete rotator cuff tear are not the same.

Mo says:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

Director: Adam McKay. Cast: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Dylan Baker, James Marsden, Greg Kinnear, Kristen Wiig, Fred Willard, Harrison Ford. 119 min. Rated R. Comedy.

I had no intention of seeing this. The only element that made me laugh in the original, was Steve Carell in his very minor role. But that was 10 years ago, and Carell has come a long way since then. Gladly, he's in full-force action here, and understandably, is given a much more prominent role. His moments were the only ones that wholeheartedly laughed me to tears. And the number of cameos in that ending scene (which included a world-renowned French art-house movie actress!) blew me away.

Medical goof: There was no MRI used in practice in 1980.

PS: Thank you, Mohi. I owe my historically-rare comedy laughs here to your recommendation.

PPS: Will Ferrell has a "Ma, Meatloaf!"moment here: "I'M BA-LIND!!!"

Mo says:

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Book of Life (2014)

Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez. Cast (voices): Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Danny Trejo. 95 min. Rated PG. Animation.

I'm not a huge Guillermo Del Toro fan, but as producer, he's doing something extremely important here. First, he's introducing the Mexican culture (even the misconceived parts) in a fun, loving way - what foreign directors in Hollywood should be doing for their own cultures. Second, he's making the ominous concept of "death" something palpable and communicable for children - an almost impossible feat in the realm of kids movies. And third, he's created a brilliant CGI animation adapted from Mexican stick dolls. After Princess Kaguya, Boxtrolls and Big Hero 6. this has been the best animation of the year so far.

PS: Thank you, Maryam. Worthy recommendation.

Mo says:

The One I Love (2014)

Director: Charlie McDowell. Cast: Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson. 91 min. Rated R. 

movie about marriage! But in this one, the setting is completely different: a troubled couple consult a marriage counselor, who advises them to spend the weekend at a private country estate, to unwind. To write an iota about what happens next, would be a complete betrayal of the movie's numerous surprises - to the extent that I've omitted the film's genre in the description to prevent any spoilage! Watch this and surprise yourself, because at the end, you'll realize even the film's title somewhat spoils it. And to make it more confounding, there are some real messages about marriage here.

Mo says:

The Trip to Italy (2014)

Director: Michael Winterbottom. Cast: Stars: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon. 108 min. Not Rated. UK. Comedy/Drama.

I have nothing else to add about the sequel than what I already said about the original. Exact same review, except that this time they add some charming impersonations of the first five James Bond actors. A shocking 86% of critics liked it - which for me is a paradoxical new low of disrespect for critic opinion.

PS: Just look at Roger Ebert's website: they didn't even manage more than 3 paragraphs on their own supposed 3 and 1/2 star review. Embarrassing.

Mo says:

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (2014)

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Cast: Stars: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbag. 196 min. Turkey/France/Germany. Drama.

I've seen people like this. We've all seen them, and we (or ... I) might be one of them. People who use their education, their religion, their superior intellect, or their money, to hide who they are - by intellectualizing or spiritualizing their filth. Their education/religion/money/IQ has never changed who they really are. This year's Palm d'Or winner shows these characters in a far off Turkey village, where the criminal and the drunkard are the decent ones. Like the director's other great work, this long, slow, meditative and contemplating film is one of the most self-reflective I've ever seen.

Mo says:

September (1987)

Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Mia Farrow, Elaine Stritch, Denholm Elliott, Dianne Wiest, Sam Waterston, Jack Warden. 82 min. Rated PG. Drama.

Slight deviation from Allen's usual elements: Working like a play over a 24-hour period in a Vermont summer house, couples locked in from the storm bring up old repressed emotions, and soon you lose track who used to be in love with whom and who (regrettably) ended up with whom. Lots of closeups, lots of two-shots, lots of heartbreaks ... lots of tears. Nice to see Allen's dark emotional side every once in a while. One of those movies that'll remind the viewer of something in the past, making them ask themselves: "What if ..."

Mo says:

Roman Holiday (1953)

Director: William Wyler. Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert. 118 min. Not Rated. Comedy/Romance.

Why do we love classics? Let's be honest: it's not because their stories apply much to our lives today (as some plot twists here are somewhat ridiculous), and it's not because these black-and-white pieces a celluloid contain any eye-popping editing or effects. At least in this case, it's all about watching a God and a Goddess, inhabiting the bodies of a manly "hero", and an elegant "princess", charming us for two hours, in a European setting that is unimaginably simple and nostalgic - even though we weren't even born at the time. Seriously, was life on Earth once so simple?

Trivia: This is the movie for which Audrey Hepburn won her only Oscar, notoriously blacklisted Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo won one his two Oscars, and costume designer Edith Head won one of her 8 Oscars.

Mo says: