All Is Lost by J. C. Chandor

All Is Lost by J. C. Chandor

 

All Is Lost involves a man (Robert Redford), whose name is never mentioned, is lost at sea. His ship is damaged and he goes through a series of obstacles trying to survive.

Following up on his debut Margin Call, director J.C. Chandor achieves a poetry and spirituality with barebones simplicity. The serene oceans are beautifully photographed and there is an impressive use of tranquility in its storytelling. Whether it’s an impending storm or a school of fish swimming by the ocean, Chandor crafts genuine moments of awe in the truest sense of man versus nature.

Robert Redford carries the entire movie on his shoulders, and it’s a testament to his onscreen charm and persona. With almost next to no dialogue, character backstory or another actor to play off of, the film’s visceral experience completely hinges on Robert Redford’s every facial expression, delivering joyful relief with a sigh or with a frown evoking disappointment. It is a natural and honest performance, as Redford never once preens for the camera but rather simply plays the truth of the situation.

Comparative to his competitors for the best leading actor award, Redford’s performance, while artful and impressive, is not Oscar worthy. It hits a deeper reflective note that is more difficult to quantify as the experience rewards as much as the viewer wants to invest in it.

Even in terms of Oscar politics, weighed against slavery, AIDS and degenerate stockbrokers, a man trying to survive in nature perversely seems opaque right now. Perhaps it’s just not where the social unconscious wants to be focused on. That might be too bad, but I wager the film will have longer shelf life than some of the films that are nominated right now. All things considered, All Is Lost fares like the underdog film of this year, even though there is nothing underdog about it.

 

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese

 

Martin Scorsese’s latest is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker and founder of Stratton Oakmont, a company which engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street during the nineties. 


First off, the performances are top-notch. Leonardo DiCaprio has managed to find new depths by playing a character that is even debatably worse than the racist plantation owner in Django Unchained. DiCaprio has done more than enough to win his Oscar, and winning for The Wolf of Wall Street is as good any of his other roles. My favorite DiCaprio performance is still Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Though my vote goes to McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club this year. Speaking of which, McConaughey has a great cameo as Jordan’s mentor, who gives Belfort the inspirational push. However, Jonah Hill is the standout as Belfort’s psychotic sidekick Donnie Azoff, delivering an even more impressive performance than in Moneyball.

At a 3-hour running time, the film is too long and it easily could have been shorter with less party scenes and throwing midgets into giant dartboards at the office. As a rise-and-fall story, it has too much ‘rise’ and not enough ‘fall’. I wanted the story to move on and inform us about the financial damage this all caused and all the lives it hurt in the process, but Scorsese does not seem interested in the forensics. Overall there are some very good party set pieces and funny scenes, but after a while, I was just numb.

The story is essentially told from the villain’s point of view. Extending this idea to the classic children’s storybook The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is told from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective. The Wolf retells the Three Little Pigs story and asks the reader to consider his side of the story. The Wolf was simply trying to bake a cake for his grandmother’s birthday while nursing a bad cold, and things got out of hand. Therein lies my criticism: there is nothing redeemable from the Jordan Belfort character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Or at the very least, the filmmakers do not seem interested in showing anything beyond the surface. 

The breaking-the-4th-wall story device of having the villain narrate his story to the audience is raunchy and creative, but Scorsese totally forgets that it is supposed to be ironical. The premise of the black comedy is that we’re supposed to laugh at how vile and putrid these people are. But by the nth orgy scene, the characters are matted into two dimensions and we never get beneath the surface. The morality play tips over to the other side and it mistakenly justifies itself. Just because this a tale about self-indulgent shallow people doesn’t mean we have to tell their story in a self-indulgent shallow fashion.

The bad taste left in my mouth at the end is not the film’s self-indulgence, but out of worry that The Wolf of Wall Street is so unclear about its cautionary message, that there are certain viewers that will admire this lifestyle and become inspired to become a stock broker. For the rest of that find the Belfort character repugnant will feel empty wondering what justified the three-hour running time.

Related Links
Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino
Hugo by Martin Scorsese

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

 

Walter Mitty is a daydreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. But when his job is threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

I am typically not a fan of Ben Stiller’s comedy – whenever he dons a wig and plays a crazy character, it is one-note and awkward. Stiller fares best when he is a normal person reacting to an awkward situation, instead of being the source of awkwardness and the nebbish Walter Mitty character certainly plays to those strengths. Stiller’s other brand of ‘costume play’ comedy in the fantasy sequences is fortunately reduced to a minimal. Here he is at his most naturally charming and while Zoolander fans may disagree, but this is now officially my favorite thing Ben Stiller has directed and acted in.

Kristin Wiig is also naturally charming as Mitty’s love interest and gets to shine in a musical sequence where she does a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Sean Penn has a funny supporting role as artsy photographer Sean O’Connell, a role that smartly sources Penn’s trademark intensity for laughs.

The production design is impressive, with its visual compositions practically lifted from hardcover graphic design books and nifty editing transitions accompanied by cool looking fonts, which to some extent owes itself to Stranger Than Fiction. Stuart Dryburgh’s photography delivers a true sense of awe for New York’s urban cityscape and Greenland’s natural landscapes. The story reason is to make Walter Mitty look like an ant in a big world, but that overwhelming sense of the environment towering over man seeps over onto the audience.

The reality of the film’s own world is suspect, like the logistics of how an employee is able to leave work and fly off to a foreign country, or how big of a jerk the new corporate supervisor played by Adam Scott is being. None of this matters because the story is a fable after all. The viewer may feel in moments that they need to give the story the benefit of the doubt, and if that moment should occur, go along with it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is imaginative and humorously made, and even in its weaker illogical moments is ultimately compensated by its charm. The lesson of someone who realizes he is missing out on life by daydreaming is just darn compelling, and it is emotionally cathartic watching Mitty wake up.

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach


Frances Ha
is a character study of its lead character, Frances Halladay, a dancer in her late twenties trying to find herself career wise and work through with her friends and surrounding community.

The title character Frances and her friends, notably New York hipsters, are not particularly interesting company. Having seen Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg, what is Noah Baumbach’s fascination with these hipster generation-Z characters that have an aversion for employment? Is Baumbach critiquing them, implying they should better people? No, Baumbach just navel gazes at the New York hipster sheik. Did I learn anything new about this generation’s youth? No, because I already know people like this and generally avoid them.

For instance, Frances seems to be afraid of the typical career ladder and desires something more. Dancing, what’s she’s established as her job, doesn’t seem fulfilling. But being a waitress is out of the question because her privileged upbringing makes it humiliating. Meanwhile, things start to become financially difficult. She then starts to lie pathologically to keep up with her friends who have gone ahead in life. Is she active in discovering her passion? No, she just mopes around, hoping it’ll hit her one day.

And like that, the movie goes on and on. Even at 89 minutes, it felt long watching these characters mope along talking about nothing. Greta Gerwig is very good in the lead part and displays a considerable amount of depth playing a quarter life crisis. She captured that boomerang generation mentality to a tee. It succeeds at what it does as a character portrait, but it’s truly interesting only when her character gets active. I just wished more things, whether comic, dramatic or tragic, happened so that she can be more compelling. For me, only the last 15 minutes were interesting. After all, there’s only so much quirkiness one can take.

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

A re-imagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White, a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother, who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.

First off, it’s going to be very hard not to compare this remake to the original. Not because of the original’s success or how revered it was, but because of how similar both films are. This new remake of Carrie from director Kimberly Peirce, unfortunately, doesn’t do enough to justify its retelling.

The original Carrie explored the theme of power and control between adults and teenagers. Carrie’s mother Margaret hits her when Carrie doesn’t listen to her. And in another scene, a teacher cusses at a group of students and smacks one of them in the face in front of the entire class.

What works against the remake is today’s current standards of parenting.  In today’s age, hitting a child is much more frowned upon than it was in the seventies. If a kid is cussed or smacked by a teacher in school nowadays, they can legitimately fight back by bringing it to the school board or by calling the police. These politics ends up watering down the film’s themes, removing a lot of the edges off of the story. The threat of violence, whether it’s coming from adult onto the teenager or vice versa, is dampened. The state of today’s politics is not something I hold against the film, but the film doesn’t seem to want to challenge current social taboos and play in the politically incorrect. The entire effect of the horror is watered down as a result.

Director Kimberly Peirce makes up for this by adding modern horror movie aesthetics onto the story. There are loud jump scares, sharp objects are held closely into people’s faces making frantic expressions and people creepily walk by in the background undetected. The major difference between the original and the remake lies in the way that it scares its audience. In the original, the horror was a looming creepiness that stayed with me after the film ended. I reflected upon the inevitable tragedy of Carrie being an unfortunate outcast being pushed to the point of no return. In the remake, the horror is emphasized in the immediate present of the physical violence that’s about to be unleashed.

Everybody looks attractive and for a story about a social outcast in an image-conscious high school environment, that is a problem. In the novel, Carrie is described as a plump girl. Chloe Grace-Moretz is pretty regardless of how much the filmmakers try to dress her down. This works against her, but other than that, Chloe Grace-Moretz does a good job with what’s she’s given.

Julianne Moore is scary as Margaret White. It’s much more over-the-top than Piper Laurie’s version. I would argue Moore’s performance is scarier, if only because it was more psychotic and violent by comparison. The most engaging scenes are between Margaret and Carrie. The supporting characters end up becoming more black-and-white and it comes off bland. If you ask me, what makes the story so tragic are the grey areas, the edges and how it was hard to imagine how things could have ended otherwise.

Carrie is an okay adaptation that doesn’t completely honor the mechanics of its tragic story and deters from challenging the political correctness of today. It comes off more like a fairy tale than a tragedy. What the remake ends up proving is how tight the original movie was and how things are much scarier when the horror stays with you long after the story has ended. I can only say this because I seen the original film. So overall, people who haven’t seen Brian DePalma’s Carrie will probably like this version more by default.

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

When a veteran 911 operator takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

The Call is a tense thriller that fully explores and delivers on its premise. Everything feels like it’s happening before us. Solving one problem creates another and time always seems to be running out. I watched this with my family and it was so gripping that they became totally responsive to it. They were covering their eyes, flinching and screaming at the television at different points.

Thriller movie elements aside, director Brad Anderson brings the audience inside the world of police procedures and emergency call centers. It is well researched and minute with its real world details. The things that we don’t like to know or look at in real life crimes and murders are drawn as a source of tension. The stress and emotional detachment that is required in being an emergency operator is incorporated dramatically into the story. Together this washes away the genre conventions of a typical cop film and instead feels like we are looking into the lives of real-life police officers handling crime.

This is not Halle Berry’s most demanding performance but she does effectively transport the audience into her plight. Berry plays a lot of emotions despite being confined at a desk for a majority of the film. It’s a very pronounced performance. Morris Chestnut seems too aware of himself to really convince me of his character. It seems like he’s always detached from his own environment. There’s a bit of a sick pleasure in watching Abigail Breslin being kidnapped because she was so profoundly annoying in Definitely Maybe. That’s probably me being mean. But here, Breslin plays the situation very real. Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy as the scene-stealing villain. The scariest thing about serial killers or murderers in real life is that nobody ever looks like a serial killer. They all appear as normal people and are protected by the benefit of the doubt. Eklund’s character practically shifts the film into horror film territory.

As it moved toward to the finale, even on the very edge of my seat, I was still secretly wishing for something to really wow me at the end. I don’t know if it was because I liked The Machinist and developed an expectation from Brad Anderson. There were about two three ways the story could have finished that would have been fine, but nothing mind-bending. But it did deliver. My secret wish was fulfilled. The finale to The Call is a gutsy, left-turn ending that pulled the rug right under me. As it went to black, my mouth went agape pondering about what the fates of all the characters.

With the current trend of long running two-hour films, any film that has the discipline to wrap up around 90 minutes is praiseworthy. There is no fat to be trimmed here. The Call might be a film that goes unnoticed under the radar with its lower budget and hype. I saw it on DVD myself. It is the tensest movie I’ve seen this year. Hopefully there’s less lag time from now till Brad Anderson’s next project.

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister.

To start off, Blue Jasmine has a tremendous cast. A lot of unsung credit belongs to Allen’s long time casting director Juliet Taylor, who’s assembled a cast that aptly plays the social distinction between the lower and upper class. Each character, whether it’s a glass-clinking socialite or a muscled tough guy builder, says the pitch perfect thing in the exact way they would say it. They all felt like real people.

As of right now, Cate Blanchett should win the Oscar for Best Actress.  She is the film’s main event. There’s no sense of where Cate Blanchett starts and Jasmine French begins, she simply was just the character. Her character, Jasmine French, is not a likable character in any traditional sense. But she in such immense physical stress and on the brink of complete mental breakdown, it is an awesome spectacle to be marveled. It was like Blanchett was suffering in front of me for the entire 98 minutes.
Sally Hawkins is a great partner to Blanchett as her onscreen sister Ginger. Hawkins provides the necessary counter balance for the audience to gain true insight into Jasmine. It is like watching a master class in acting watching them. Alec Baldwin makes a great slime ball. I couldn’t help laughing when Louis C.K. showed up as a sleazy boyfriend. His character reminded me how some of my male friends are with women. The real surprise was Andrew Dice Clay, who gives a heartfelt performance as Ginger’s husband Augie. I hope he gets a nomination.

Blue Jasmine is by no means the most audience friendly of Allen’s works. Actually, it may be the most uncomfortable film Allen has made. For some audiences, this might be too akin to real life to be truly entertaining. There are many laughs, however most of it is nervous laughter from witnessing an oncoming train wreck situation perpetually worsening. Woody Allen’s sense of irony and truth is so strong, even when he tries to be dramatic it still comes off funny.

Allen has masterfully written the script in such a way that it was hard to see where the story was heading. It was not traditionally written where one scene set up the next. Instead, it was more like I was looking into these characters’ lives. Whether you like Woody Allen or not, it doesn’t matter. Blue Jasmine fires completely on another level and it’s really something to behold.

Related Links
Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen
Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide
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This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

This is the End by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

While attending a party at James Franco’s house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

First off, I want to say I am a fan of the Judd Apatow team. Before Judd Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, I wasn’t really into the American comedies that were dominated by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrel and Vince Vaughn. The improvisational nature of Apatow’s comedy and the crude sophomoric jokes infused with a heartfelt message hit me on a deeper level. As a lover of buddy cop movies, I’m also generally a sucker for bromance movies, of which I would argue is a close relative. Most of all, I like Apatow’s cast of actors. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, James Franco… they’re all funny in their own idiosyncratic way and seem to have free reign over their own personas.

This brings me to my first critique of This is the End. The central gag of having the actors play themselves isn’t as funny as the film thinks it is. For example, This is the End‘s version of Michael Cera is a foul-mouthed cocaine addict. Why? Because the filmmakers thought it’d be funny to do a total reversal on Cera’s real life persona. That gag is only truly funny if we know what Michael Cera is like in real life. Most of us, unlike the filmmakers, can only drawn upon Michael Cera’s timid onscreen persona. That creates enough of a contrast to elicit laughs and it does. However, the filmmakers are ultimately more connected to the joke than the audience can ever be, and that is problematic on some level. I get the feeling I should be laughing harder than the film is making me.

Just to reiterate, I did laugh. There were times when the celebrity gag won me over. I liked how the character relationships were set up and they all have great chemistry. Jay Baruchel plays the audience’s avatar and reacts to all colors of obnoxious behavior exhibited by the other actors. Actually, the film even takes it one comedic step further. When Danny McBride enters the film, he does his brand of obnoxious behavior that happens to be so overwhelming, the other annoying actors call him on it and ask him to stop.

When the film doesn’t rely on the celebrity gag and gives something for the characters to do to survive the Apocalypse, it’s much more creative and funnier. I liked the graphic novel-like style that went into the world creation of the apocalypse. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliver some surprises to what’s going on outside James Franco’s house. The parts in between that didn’t pertain to surviving the Apocalypse are strung by improvisational dialogue scenes and they stick out as the weaker moments. I recognize the ability to improvise scenes and be funny on camera, but watching the cast react to the fantastical elements was more interesting than watching the celebrities react to each other. As the audience’s avatar, Jay Baruchel ends up being outnumbered as he is the only genuine likable character in a cast of six. So for somebody isn’t already warm to these actors, they easily come off as very unlikable. And that can get taxing rather quickly. The writing isn’t doing enough to build enough character for the cast and the film is completely reliant on what we know of these actors and their past works.

Due to its leaning towards it’s own self-referential quality than being a apocalyptic survival film, This is the End is ultimately a fan film for the Judd Apatow audience. (Think Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for Kevin Smith’s Viewaskew Universe) If you never liked any of the comedies from the Judd Apatow team, this movie isn’t going to convert you. If you don’t like none of these actors, I’d tell you to just skip it altogether. I am part of the Apatow audience and like these actors, and even with that, it felt like watching one gigantic inside joke.