Cuban Fury

Year 2, Film #72 (Total #437)

THE PLOT: Beneath Bruce Garrett’s under-confident, overweight exterior, the passionate heart of a salsa king lies dormant. Now, one woman is about to reignite his Latin fire.

THE REVIEW: One kind of film that I will always be able to connect with and be entertained by is that which centers around a lovable yet nervous, shy, and introverted man who chases after something he cares for deeply. I’ve watched a handful of these films over the course of the marathon and I will continue to watch them becauseI find them so very poignant. Each film is a little reminder for me. A reminder not only to see how far I’ve come in life, but how far I’ve yet to go and how I should never give up, no matter how hard that may seem or how rarely I actually try. Cuban Fury may not be quite up to the caliber of some of the films I listed above, but it certainly did it’s job of providing a very solid hour and a half worth of laughs and entertainment.

Nick Frost is easily the star of this film and carries it from beginning to end. That’s not to say the other elements of the film (including the other actors) are bad in any way. Quite the contrary. The rest of the film supports Nick Frost as much as he supports the film. He is the linchpin; the glue that holds everything together. But with that same token, if there’s nothing else to the film, there’s nothing for the glue to hold together. Nick Frost, who came up with the idea for the story, plays the main character, 38-year-old Bruce Garrett. Starting in 1987, we see 13-year-old Bruce excel at his salsa dancing, winning competition after competition until a gang of bullies beats his love and passion for dancing out of him completely. Fast-forward to the present day and right away you can see the effect it’s had on Bruce. He’s afraid to speak his mind and stand up for himself. Even with his friends he exhibits hesitation and resistance to all that’s new. But Nick Frost makes Bruce instantly likable, and especially after your introduced to his cruel boss Drew (Chris O’Dowd), you want nothing but the best for Bruce.

The story that unfolds after that is pretty self-explanatory and nothing really special happens. Bruce and Drew get a new boss, Julia Matthews (Rashida Jones) who both of them are attracted to. Drew, being the bolder and more confident man seems to have the upper hand until we discover that, suprise surprise, Julia likes to salsa dance. Luckily for Bruce, he’s an old-pro. Unluckily for him, after twenty-five years, he needs to brush up on his moves. This leads him to find his old instructor, Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane), and try to convince him to coach him again. Pretty much as textbook romantic-comedy as they come. No big surprise twist ending, no big reveal or change. Simply a standard story, but one that you still have a lot of fun watching and makes up for predictability with hilarity and wonderful characters.

Entertainment — comedy especially — is extremely subjective. Everyone has a kind of film that they instantly like and even though objectively a film may have some flaws to it, like the over-used and unsurprising story in Cuban Fury, there’s something inherent to the film that makes it appealing to a select few. Given the 54% it currently has on [Rotten Tomatoes], it looks like one of those films that most people just overlook and ignore because to them, this style of comedy and genre of film has been way overdone. And I get that. But even to those people I say it’s a decent enough movie that if it ever comes across TV or you see it scrolling through Netflix one day, it’s a good way to procrastinate on that project that’s due tomorrow. If you’re like me however, seeing Nick Frost bring the character of Bruce Garrett to life will bring a smile to your face for ninety straight minutes because you can’t help but relating to everything that Bruce feels. Because while you may be sitting at your computer reading this thinking, “What in the world is this guy talking about? I don’t care about how he relates to this film”, I’ll point you in the direction of this spot-on piece from Louis C.K. about how, “It gets better.” Bruce Garrett is a perfect illustration of how things get better. (Even if it is just a film).

Cuban Fury opens in theaters this Friday, April 11, 2014.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Draft Day

Year 2, Film #71 (Total #436)

THE PLOT: At the NFL Draft, general manager Sonny Weaver has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he trades for the number one pick. He must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice on a life-changing day for a few hundred young men with NFL dreams.

THE REVIEW: I wouldn’t say I was excited going into this film but I must say that I thought it would be much better than how it turned out. For a Kevin Costner sports film that details the twelve hours before the NFL draft starts there’s a lot of potential. Even coming from someone who only watches the Superbowl every year (and no other football games), I was hooked by this premise. But Ivan Reitman, who directed such wonderful classics as MeatballsStripes, and Ghostbusters, decided to go the route of his last film and make a generally unfunny, uninteresting, and all-around poorly made film.

My biggest complaint, by far, has got to be with the visual style of the film. There are just some many ideas that I do not understand why they were made. Let’s start off with the split-screens. Generally, split-screens are used when there’s a phone call or equivalent situation where two characters, in two different locations, are interacting with each other and you want to show both at the same time. One character will take one half of the screen and the other will occupy the other half. It’s also not used that often; instead the editor will just cut back and forth between full shots of each character and you still get the same picture. Draft Day doesn’t just decide to test the waters here. No, it jumps into the deep end and then realizes it doesn’t know how to swim and has no life jacket. My best guess is that 50% of this film takes place in split-screens, and I’d consider that a very conservative estimate. Now, most of these split-screens are used for phone calls (which as you can imagine, there are a lot of on the NFL draft day) but the reason Draft Day is flailing in the deep end with no help in sight is because of two more things: wipes and unnecessary visual effects.

Having split-screens is one thing, but to have them be dynamic with characters crossing over the borders, entire sections wiping over each other to “hide” a cut, or worst of all when the characters swapped sides. It was disorienting, confusing, and downright silly. The only possible reason I can come up with for why the filmmakers would do this is because it gives the illusion of the two sides, separated by hundreds of miles, being connected as if everyone was in the same place. But it doesn’t. It creates more problems than it solves and it doesn’t solve any. By the end of the film I was shaking my head at how annoying this trick, effect — whatever you want to call it — actually is. All it is, is a good reminder for why certain filmmaking conventions exist and why they’re not broken too often. I applaud and welcome out-of-the-box thinking and trying to do something new by breaking conventions, but this is something the filmmakers should have known would fail after the first scene.

Story-wise, Draft Day doesn’t fare much better. The main premise is indeed handled quite well. A lot of tension and conflict is built up around Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner) and all the trades he makes to get the number one draft pick. Whenever there’s a time limit involved, suspense usually follows and in Draft Day, despite being upset by a lot of other elements, when it got down to the final seconds before the Cleveland Brown’s pick, I held my breath waiting to see what would happen. This doesn’t explain the countless extraneous plot-lines that were just thrown into the story however: Sonny’s relationship with co-worker Ali (Jennifer Garner) and their expected baby, Sonny’s relationship with his now deceased father, Sonny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn), and the new intern Rick (Griffin Newman) who’s flustered with everything going on. At least the intern subplot was a bit amusing, the others just seemed forced in because there needs to be a love interest and there needs to be some internal conflict with Sonny.

Draft Day delivered a meager amount of excitement at the end when everyone is rushing around the room trying to figure out who their next pick is. Besides those few minutes though, the film was a big disappointment. The unusual visual style completely failed and made the movie annoying to watch and the non-draft parts of the story felt forced and poorly integrated. Just to let you know, from the reactions I was hearing as other people were filing out of the theater, the film may be more enjoyable than I’ve made it out to be. All I can say is that I’m not upset that I saw it, but I definitely would not go voluntarily watch Draft Day. The redeeming qualities it does have are easily overshadowed by everything else this film has to offer.

Draft Day opens in theaters this Friday, April 11, 2014.

THE RATING: 2 out of 5

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Year 2, Film #70 (Total #435)

THE PLOT: Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.

THE REVIEW: Superhero movies have become a staple in cinemas today with a couple new films being produced by both Marvel and DC each year. Despite the large number of films that have been released over the past few years, I don’t feel fatigued by this genre yet. Marvel especially continues to deliver high-quality and entertaining films from a medium that I’ve never gotten into — comic books. What has made Marvel’s superhero films so great is their ability to tell the singular story in the film in addition to an overarching one that spans several films and ties in numerous characters. Captain America: The Winter Solider continues this pattern and is yet another great entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While the first Captain America film took place during World War II, The Winter Soldier takes place in the present day. Most of my complaints with the first film dealt with the disconnect between futuristic technology in the 1940s, all of which are alleviated now that things take place in 2014 (because somehow seeing a massive, aircraft carrier-sized vehicle flying in the air capable of killing thousands of people per second is much more plausible now than a few high-tech computers and gadgets were in the 1940s). Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the man who was turned into Captain America to serve as a super-soldier may have been designed and “created” in WWII, but he seems much more at home in The Winter Soldier. Part of the reason I think his character works so well in this film is because of the difference in values he displays. He comes from an era where we seemed to care more about our lives then we do today. Now privacy is just a running joke that we willfully give up all the time because all our friends join whatever the latest social-media craze is this week. While we may complain about a government that is taking over our lives and form protests to demonstrate our resolve, it’s nothing like what took place in the 60s when entire colleges would be overrun with students calling for an end to the Vietnam war. In Captain America: The First Avenger Steve Rogers character and the story that was told wasn’t all that interesting because the conflict was just between the bad guys and the good guys (and women). In The Winter Soldier the bad guys have grown to include some of us “good guys” (and women) and seeing Captain America have to deal with this much larger threat is much more interesting.

But more than that though, The Winter Soldier also has an amazing chemistry between the characters. What made The Avengers one of the best in the franchise was the incredible camaraderie between everyone. It was hilarious to watch Agent Coulson obsess over Captain America and the bromance between Tony Stark and Dr. Banner. The characters were much more than just their own characters coming together; the Avengers were a team that got along and fought at the same time. It was one story with a whole bunch of superheroes instead of an anthology of sorts. Captain America: The Winter Soldier feeds off of that chemistry to deliver a similar level of entertainment with just a fraction of the cast. Rogers, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) the same team vibe, and with a greater focus on each (given the fewer number of characters), they can explore their characters more and discover what makes each of them tick.

As I mentioned in my review for Thor: The Dark World (Marvel’s prior release)…

There is [a] sense of complacency. The real issue with these [superhero] films, and why I mention it here, is that there is a limit to the enjoyment whereas an equally entertaining yet original and groundbreaking film (like Gravity for example) can be so engrossing and so mind-blowing…

I repeat this more to clarify my rating system than to comment on The Winter Solider itself. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fantastic and entertaining film that’s better than its predecessor. Steve Rogers feels more at home despite the cultural and societal changes that occurred during his years in stasis and the result is one of my favorite Marvel films, on par with the level of The Avengers. And it’s a film you should definitely see, in theaters if you have the time and the money. Even with this glowing recommendation, I’m still giving the film four stars out of five because it’s missing that unspeakable quality; that thing you just know after watching a great film. As entertaining as The Winter Soldier is, it’s not a film I would include in a Best Picture list because it’s missing a certain level of originality, a certain insight that only a few films have. It’s entertaining, but not revolutionary.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

The Change-Up

Year 2, Film #69 (Total #434)

THE PLOT: Dave is a married man with two kids and a loving wife, and Mitch is a single man who is at the prime of his sexual life. One fateful night while Mitch and Dave are peeing in a fountain when lightning strikes and they switch bodies.

THE REVIEW: There is funny and entertaining, and then there is boring and unoriginal. The Change-Up falls under the latter category. Not only does this film take on the way overdone body-switching genre but it doesn’t even contribute anything new to the formula. It’s the same old garbage of two people with totally different lives having to take the place of the other. While having Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds play the two main characters has a lot of promise, especially in the role reversal, it ultimately fails to meet it’s potential.

I watch a lot of movies and write a lot about them, and most of the time I feel I get into a repetitive rut where I just repeat the same thing over and over but change the details to make it fit whatever new movie I’m talking about. One of these repetitious points is about originality and bringing something new to the table. A film should always deliver something unexpected, or if it has been done before and is expected, at least make it entertaining to watch. With The Change-Up, there are a lot of precedents such as BigFreaky Friday (both the 1976 original and the 2003 remake), and Trading Places (not really a body-switcher film, but still the same basic premise) that have come before it meaning the gimmick of switching bodies can’t serve as the sole entertainment value; there has to be something else.

And there really isn’t that much of substance in The Change-Up. David Lockwood (Jason Bateman) is the uptight, married guy who spends more time at his job than with his family while his best friend Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds) is the high school dropout who hasn’t done anything with his life yet. The best part about the film is the casting that was done. Bateman feels right at home as David and the same with Reynolds as Mitch. But the real test is how they work as the opposites because that’s what the majority of the film is like. There’s a lot of promise and it can be seen throughout the film. There are so many moments when it seems like it’s going to breakthrough and just work. For example, there’s David trying to pass the merger, the two describing what their lives entail (complete with montages), and even Mitch having a talk with David’s/his wife Jamie (Leslie Mann). All of these scenes almost pulls you into the film and gets you to let go and just enjoy what you’re watching. Seeing these two act so different from how they normally act is a great opportunity.

But these moments, which are already few and far between, are squandered for attempts to make jokes that are really just the wrong amount of vulgar and disgusting. A film like The Hangover is extremely vulgar and disgusting but that kind of comedy works there because they don’t hold back. The Hangover is one of the most vile films you’ll ever watch because they go for it full throttle. In The Change-Up, it’s that level of vulgarity they are aiming for but instead they reach a level just below that. As a result, a scene like the opening where one of David’s twin babies projectile-poops all over his face simply isn’t funny, it’s just gross.

The Change-Up doesn’t fail because it isn’t original. There have been many formulaic Hollywood-blockbusters that’s I’ve very much enjoyed despite a lack of originality. The Change-Up fails because it doesn’t even attempt to do anything remotely new or engaging. The only hope was in casting Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds as the two leads and seeing them play opposite each other. And despite a few hopeful moments scattered throughout the film where the actors are almost allowed to shine, there isn’t anything funny or interesting that happens in the film. Go watch another body-switching film like Big, or even a romantic comedy like 50 First Dates that at least tries to do something new, rather than The Change-Up.

THE RATING: 2 out of 5

50 First Dates

Year 2, Film #68 (Total #433)

THE PLOT: Henry Roth is a man afraid of commitment up until he meets the beautiful Lucy. They hit it off and Henry think he’s finally found the girl of his dreams, until he discovers she has short-term memory loss and forgets him the very next day.

THE REVIEW: Adam Sandler has never been one of my favorite comedians. In fact, except for one outlier, I’ve either hated his movies or just found them to be disappointing50 First Dates certainly puts up a good fight and its touching story and devotion do make it fun to watch, but in the end it’s still a pretty “meh” film.

For starters, there are many similarities than can be made with Groundhog Day and this is where the film both succeeds and fails. The success is due to the originality in the story. It may have been told before (like with Groundhog Day) but it isn’t seen to often to make it rote and monotonous. 50 First Dates is more about the love between the two main characters, Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) and Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore), than it is about a character trying to overcome his anger and hatred towards the world (as it is in Groundhog Day). Everyday, Henry has to start with a clean slate as Lucy forgets everything that happens due to the short term memory loss she developed after a car crash. It’s a much softer and caring side to Sandler than we’re usually accustomed to and it makes the film more engaging than just an average comedy. It actually makes you feel a bit rather than just laugh, which I find quite impressive for an Adam Sandler movie.

Not to worry though, he still delivers with some dirty humor and crude jokes, mostly made at the expense of his walrus at the marine park (think SeaWorld) or his high friend Ula (Rob Schneider). While it is important in a sense for Adam Sandler to be his usual disgusting self in order to come across and genuine to Lucy it does also create a dichotomy in the films appeal. Part of it is going after your emotions but an equal-sized part is competing for laughs. A film like Groundhog Day handled this well because the two sides worked together to tell the story. With 50 First Dates the laughs really don’t come as a result of the emotional side but in opposition to it. Both sides are OK in their own way and could make great movies by themselves, but to have them compete inside one film makes it lose the appeal of both.

Another big problem this film faces is the importance of the characters. Besides Henry and Lucy, there’s a whole bunch of other characters who range from important to merely extraneous. The problem in 50 First Dates though is that the extraneous characters tend to be the more likable and funny characters while many of the important characters are annoying or just unnecessary. A few of the best characters are Sue (Amy Hill) and Nick (Pomaika’i Brown) who work at the café Lucy always eats at and Dr. Keats (Dan Aykroyd) who runs the facility where Lucy was held for three months after the car crash. They have some of the best lines in the film but they’re only shown very briefly and sporadically. Characters like Doug Whitmore (Sean Astin), Lucy’s brother, and Ula meanwhile are present thoughout the film but serve little to no real purpose. Astin and Schneider do a fairly good job at portraying who their characters are supposed to be but the problem is that they’re annoying and useless. Doug’s role in the film could have been filled by an increased presence in Lucy’s father Marlin (Blake Clark) and Ula’s role was already partially filled by Sue and Nick at the cafe.

50 First Dates was an entertaining and surprisingly original film. While the story isn’t unique, it also isn’t a story that’s been told to death with romantic comedies and therefore still had some life to it. Adam Sandler brings his standard style of humor which does hurt the film, along with many unnecessary characters, but he also brings a lighthearted side as well. Barrymore also helps make this film engaging and fun to watch. And while it is no match for Groundhog Day, the bad parts aren’t too bad and it is worth giving a shot.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

Divergent

Year 2, Film #67 (Total #432)

THE PLOT: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

THE REVIEW: The basic premise of Divergent, and this is extremely simplified, is to take The Hunger Games and set it in a near-future Chicago where instead of Districts, there are factions, and unrest begins to build as a small handful of rebellious citizens fight the impending anarchy that is brought down upon their society. Grossly oversimplified but I do this for two reasons: (1) to provide a frame a reference for those newcomers who might not have read the book or are familiar with the setting; and (2) to set the stage for how well executed the story is down to every last detail. I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Divergent last week that came with the disclaimer that we were one of the first audiences to see the film and that it was in an unfinished state (some temp audio and some visual effects still not completed). Despite this state of the film, I came away knowing I’ll be seeing Divergent again, along with its two sequels Insurgent and Allegiant when they come out.

Manytimesbefore, I’ve explained why I enjoy incredibly detailed fantasy and science fiction stories so much. When done well, like Divergent is, you really are transported to another world and are swept away by what takes place, even when it’s just a futuristic version of Earth. Divergent takes place in Chicago but everything about the setting — near future, dystopian society — is different, but highly detailed giving the impression of reality. Everything down to how the government functions, what people wear, what people do, transportation, technology… everything. There’s even a history of how things became the way they are and a reasoning behind how the five faction system came about. Albeit, both the history and reasoning aren’t fully fleshed out in Divergent, but there’s a strong sense that we will find out why things are as we discover more of the story. The details weren’t left out because they don’t exist; the backstory is in place but we just need time to learn more about it (at least that’s what I got out of the film because as we all know, there’s no way I read the book beforehand).

It’s not just the small details that make Divergent so entertaining, it’s also how those details come together to form the bigger picture. And it is here, at the large story arcs, where the film appears very similar to The Hunger Games. Our main protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) takes her aptitude test and fails to be classified as one faction. Rather, her mind doesn’t conform to one group but is independent, or Divergent, and therefore hard to control. Erudite (the knowledgeable), led by Jeanine Matthew (Kate Winslet) are unhappy with the current ruling faction, Abnegation (the selfless), and plot to overthrow them and rid Chicago of all Divergents who threaten their system. It’s then up to Tris and other Divergents to fight against Erudite and preserve the peace. A very simple story, like The Hunger Games, of a tyrannical ruling class looking to quench the independent and rebellious people all in the name of preserving a peace that was so hard to obtain after certain unknown destruction caused Chicago to wall itself off from the rest of the world. But instead of having a set of games where kids kill each other, Divergent features mind simulations where people meet their worst fears, and more well-rounded groups (factions) that each have their own initiation rituals where new recruits are forced to go through a pledging process of sorts in order to join. “Faction before blood.”

Young adult novel-to-film adaptations may be quite commonplace nowadays and one could make the argument of how this is just another sign of Hollywood’s decreasing originality and reliance and big blockbusters to draw crowds. It’s true that Divergent is just another money-milking franchise that will gross billions off the series and it isn’t all too original per se. Divergent does have some bad moments in it. Some of the dialogue and character interactions are unnecessarily bad that it evokes laughter from the audience (some of this unintentional humor works, some doesn’t) and the film also heavily relies on the fact that there will be more films to come. If anything, my biggest complaint about Divergent is that it’s too much of a tease; let the ending finish one part of the story instead of act like the beginning of a new film. But I’ve always been an advocate for entertaining films and Divergent delivers just that. It may be yet another adaptation that will spawn sequel after sequel and appeal to it’s coveted teenage audience with lots of action and visual effects. But it’s fun. It creates a world of its own with a government and societal interactions that are futuristic, yet not farfetched, and detailed enough to convince you they’re real. I’m looking forward to the Divergent series and will be seeing them all when they hit theaters.

Divergent opens in theaters on Friday March 21, 2014.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

86th Academy Awards — Predictions

In just a few hours, the 86th Academy Awards will begin and another year in film will come to a close. Much like I did last year, this year I will also be predicting who will win the big prizes and walk away with the golden statue. Unlike last year where I was able to see all nine nominees before the ceremony, this year I’ve only managed to see eight of the nine nominees for Best Picture (Nebraska was the only one I missed). My predictions are two-fold: Most Deserving and Most Likely. Most Deserving is my personal choice for what I thought was the best nominee in a category. For a category where I haven’t seen any nominees (like Best Foreign Film or Best Documentary Short) I’ll list it as N/A. Most Likely are the choices I would put down on an official ballot if I’m trying to see how I compare to the actual winners. The reason I differentiate between the two is I know the way the Academy votes and what other people think was the best film (or the best performance, etc.) doesn’t always align with what I think is best.

Last year I predicted 17 out of 24 correct (71%) in terms of “Most Likely” and actually did better with my personal “Most Deserved” predictions (18 out of 24, or 75%). I’m curious to see how my predictions for this year turn out, especially in a race for Best Picture that is even closer than the battle between ArgoLife of Pi, and Lincoln was last year.

Read More

12 Years a Slave

Year 2, Film #66 (Total #431)

THE PLOT: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

THE REVIEW: There’s just one day left until the 86th Academy Awards takes place and two more Best Picture nominees for me to see. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to see Nebraska for the show but I was able to catch a screening of 12 Years a Slave, one of the two big frontrunners this year (the other being Gravity). Given all the hype and praise this film has gotten over the past few months, my expectations were extremely high going into it and I’m happy to report that the film lives up to those expectations.

The film is based off the memoir of Solomon Northup who was born a free man in New York but kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve years. It’s an incredible story and we see the immense amounts of pain and suffering mixed with dashes of hope. 12 Years a Slave is pretty much like any story you would expect about slavery: the conditions are cruel and inhumane and the white owners show no mercy in punishing the slaves for even the slightest error. Just this basic premise alone (and the fact that it’s well written and executed) is enough to make this a good film because there’s a certain impact it has. But what makes 12 Years a Slave so great is that Solomon starts as a free man. Most stories about slavery (or any other form of oppression or persecution for that matter) are stories of dreams. The slave wants to be free and we see all the hardships and agony they must go through to achieve that freedom they dream of. With Solomon’s story, he’s already been free so he knows what it’s like to not be a slave. He has lived in a society that was open and accepting and allowed him to live a normal life. So when he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery, his story — his journey — isn’t one of dreams but one of redemption, one of regaining what he once had.

As I briefly mentioned above though, a great story is always reliant on how well it’s executed. For 12 Years a Slave the execution was also extremely well done from Steve McQueen’s direction to the acting from the entire cast, specifically Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Solomon Northup. The acting is what really sells the sheer horror and abuse that Solomon went through for twelve years. Ejiofor exudes the strength of a man who know he is right and a man who is fighting for that right. More importantly though, he shows his weaknesses as well. As he says in the film, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” But there does come a point in the film where all he can do is survive and he needs to put all his energy into just getting to tomorrow so that maybe he can be free again and see his wife and kids. Ejiofor in particular does a brilliant job at showing this internal struggle and what exactly Solomon is going through as everything unfolds. He gives us an insight as to just how bad it would be if we were slaves and slavery still existed. And he also gives us an insight to the hope, however faint and distant, that one day he would be free again.

There are many more details about the film I could go into including some beautiful cinematography and wonderfully crafted long takes that draw out the tension in scenes and leave you on edge and uncomfortable for most of the film. What I’m going to focus on though is the film as a whole and why it does or does not deserve to win Best Picture. The answer to this isn’t that simple. Yes, 12 Years a Slave is easily one of the best films of the year and it absolutely deserves its nomination. Very few other films have the sheer emotional impact that 12 Years a Slave has along with such a gripping story and talented acting support it. And if I was going for the easy pick of Best Picture, this would be that choice. Compared with recent winners like The King’s SpeechSlumdog Millionaire, and to a lesser extent The Hurt Locker, it fits the mold of what the Academy looks for in Best Picture. Comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and action genres (among others) are rarely recognized because the people voting tend towards the safe, tried-and-true drama film like 12 Years a Slave. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this because these films are often deserving of the recognition they get.

However, always going the safe and easy route doesn’t always yield the most entertaining and exciting results. Sometimes you have to take risks and sometimes they pay off, like they did with Gravity and HerGravity through a whole bunch of filmmaking standards out the window and did something completely different and never before seen. The result was the most intense 90 minutes of cinema I’ve ever experienced. Her was a fresh and unique look on the classic love story and incorporated many futuristic, yet realistic, elements that grounds the story in our everyday lives. The result here is one of the most heartfelt love stories ever told despite it being between a man and machine. 12 Years a Slave is a brilliant look at what slavery was in pre-Civil War America and the determination and resolve of the slaves facing such brutality and cruelty at the hands of their masters, and at times how that resolve falters. The result is a fantastic drama that draws us in for an experience that is very active, an experience that makes you cringe in your seat as you watch Solomon being whipped into submission. But 12 Years a Slave isn’t as bold or daring as Gravity or Her are. It is a film you should definitely watch and is one that will certainly stand out from others you see, but I don’t think it stands out that much.

THE RATING: 5 out of 5

Philomena

Year 2, Film #65 (Total #430)

THE PLOT: A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

THE REVIEW: The Academy Awards are in just over a week and there’s still a handful of Best Picture nominees that I still have yet to see. One of them is Philomena which is also nominated for Best Actress (Judi Dench) and Best Adapted Screenplay. This is an incredible story — one that will certainly tug at your heartstrings — and also an extremely funny film. That being said, while Philomena deserves its Best Picture nomination, it isn’t a strong contender for the title.

For Best Actress though, it will be tough to beat Judi Dench. Of the other nominees, Cate Blanchett probably has the best chance of winning for her role in Blue Jasmine (she won the Screen Actors Guild award for it) but I haven’t seen that film yet. However, Dench’s portrayal of Philomena Lee is near-perfect. In her sixties, Philomena has a very distinct personality and one that is very endearing. She’s one of those people who loves to tell stories and gets along with everyone. Wherever she goes, whether it’s the cafe she meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) at, the convent where she gave birth to her son, or especially in Washington D.C. when Philomena and Martin expand their investigation for her son. A lot of the humor in the film comes through Philomena’s personality. It’s very cute to see this sixty year-old lady get so excited that there’s a chocolate on her pillow in the hotel room and that there’s a whole host of foods available for breakfast downstairs. But this does much more for the film than just provide a few laughs; it also heavily impacts the story.

Martin is the journalist who is approached by Philomena’s daughter to write her story. As Martin points out many times throughout the film, it is a human interest story which he says (and I’m paraphrasing here) are popular because the people who read them are easily influenced. I’ll get to the downside of a human interest story in a bit, but first the upside. The reason stories like these are so appealing is because they are. Philomena has kept her secret for fifty years. Her secret is that she had a son as a teenager and the nuns at the convent where she was living forced her to give it up for adoption and ever since she’s been trying to find him again. That’s the gist which you can get from the trailer and even a plot summary  like the one above. What you discover after watching the film (or reading the article on which it is based) is even more shocking and gripping than that. This isn’t a tear-jerker of a film; the emotions you’ll feel aren’t that extreme. But you do get a strong sense of what exactly Philomena, or any other mother who is possibly in this situation, went through. 

But again, this is a human interest story. An inherent problem in a film like this is that it relies too heavily on exposition and that’s exactly what Philomena does. Whereas another comedy or drama would leave things up to the viewer’s imagination, let them discover things on their own and make inferences as to what’s happening, Philomena does a lot of telling. In many ways the film feels like we’re listening to the article being read like a book-on-tape (an antiquated analogy, but quite apt I feel). As I mentioned, the story itself is wonderful and is interesting from start to finish, but being told every single detail along the way takes some of the fun and intrigue out of it. I’d much rather watch things unfold rather than hear them. A great example in the film where they did this well was in Washington D.C. when Martin receives a newspaper clipping that turns out to be a major clue. No talking during that scene, just reaction shots of Martin looking at a computer screen, Philomena coming over to the table, and her reactions to Martin. Beautifully constructed and a very powerful reveal, just not done enough throughout the film.

Philomena is a very appealing and entertaining film. While young kids might find it boring because they won’t appreciate the humor or really connect with the story, everyone else will enjoy it. Judi Dench does an absolutely phenomenal job at bringing the character of Philomena Lee to screen and helps us to connect with the events that unfold. Parts of the film feel too much like a direct reading of the article on which it is based, but as a whole, Philomena does a great job a telling such an incredible and, in many ways, shocking tale of a mother trying to find her son. Not quite good enough to win Best Picture, but certainly deserving of the nomination and well worth a watch at some point.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Need for Speed

Year 2, Film #64 (Total #429)

THE PLOT: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. His ex-partner, learning of the plan, places a massive bounty on his head as the race begins.

THE REVIEW: Like the time that I saw Battleship, my expectations going into Need for Speed weren’t that high. After both films however, I was pleasantly surprised with how entertained I was. Need for Speeddelivers high in the action and suspense departments and has a story that’s just interesting enough to keep you invested in the movie from start to finish. There are many questionable moments throughout the film and many that perpetuate bad film stereotypes, but a few instances aside, many of these problems can be lost in your suspension of disbelief if you let it. 

By all accounts the biggest draw for Need for Speed is the action and the car chases. It’s based off a car-racing video game and the two main characters in the film are car racers: Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) who’s a blue-collar worker and Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) who is a wealthier businessman-type. There are about four or five major chase scenes that involve multiple cars duking it out, some including police cars and helicopters. In addition, there are many smaller scenes (like a mobile refueling) scattered throughout as in the latter chunk of the film, Tobey needs to travel cross-country from New York to California in under 45 hours which of course involves lots of cars.

It’s hard to elaborate on what makes good action good because it doesn’t rely on nuance or subtlety like great acting or a great story does. But what I can talk about is how exhilarating it feels. The speed of the cars used in the film ranges anywhere from 180 mph up to 270 mph which is much faster than I could ever imagine driving a car. But what makes Need for Speed so exhilarating is the location they’re driving these cars. While Rush was more appealing from a story perspective, it also had its fair share of action. The difference between the two films though, in terms of the cars and racing, is that Need for Speed doesn’t take place on a Formula One track; it takes place on city streets and highways. While Rush delivered a high level of excitement, especially in rainy conditions and given the intense rivalry between the two competitors, Need for Speed has a much grittier feel to it. Here they have to deal with things like traffic, pedestrians, 90˚ turns, and countless other obstacles scattered about their “racetrack”.

But even a great action film needs a good story to hold everything together and make these amazing chases and crashes worth watching. Because without a story bringing everything together, the action is nothing more than eye candy that you can find countless hours of just browsing through YouTube. The story in Need for Speed has its fair share of ups and downs but overall, it’s good enough to maintain your interest throughout. It’s a simple good guy vs. bad guy story (Tobey vs. Dino) with a love element thrown in, Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), as well as a family element, Anita (Dakota Johnson) and her younger brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson). Basic setup is that Dino frames Tobey for a murder that he committed and after Tobey gets out on parole, he seeks revenge to both clear his name and make Dino pay for the death on his hands. The best part about the story is its simplicity. Easy to follow along with yet still has some major points scattered throughout. You’re also clearly rooting for Tobey and for good to prevail and to help him along are his fellow mechanics, some of the best being Benny (Kid Cudi) and Finn (Rami Malek). Dino is also setup in such a way that there is absolutely nothing to like about him. Not the best of villains, but definitely a good target to direct all of your anger.

That isn’t to say Need for Speed doesn’t have it’s fair share of questionable and poorly written moments. While I’m able to suspend my disbelief quite easily and go wherever the film takes me, several things took me out of the moment and had me second-guessing things. First, the involvement of police. For such elaborate and planned races, especially the Delon race at the end which the Monarch (Michael Keaton) has hosted for years now, how is it that the police seem surprised and unprepared to deal with the situation. With thousands, if not millions, of people following along on the internet, the race is a big deal and yet the police just randomly happen across six sports cars racing along the highway one morning. The amount of injuries, or rather the lack thereof, is also a bit unreasonable. The mayhem and destruction that the cars create in Need for Speed is quite substantial and yet the consequences of these crashes (the resulting injuries) seem nonexistent — that is until some more serious events during the final race.

Another point of contention for the film is its treatment of women. While it isn’t unsurprising (Need for Speed is by no means the only Hollywood film that looks down on women and treats them as sex objects) it is a little disheartening, especially because there’s several opportunities in the film to combat this behavior. In the first race in Tobey’s hometown, there is one female racer but she’s shown only once (at the starting line) for no more than a second or two. But by far the biggest example of this sexism is Julia. The first time we’re introduced to her is at the debut of the renovated Mustang and she’s made out to be a stupid woman who knows nothing about cars. Turns out, she’s a car dealer and knows quite a bit. Okay, that’s good, but she’s quickly demeaned and becomes Tobey’s attractive counterpart and is only useful as the passenger. And she’s not even good at that because, as Tobey mentions, she wears high-heels and talks too much. Yeah. She even demonstrates herself as a very skilled and intelligent driver a bit later on in the film, but this act of empowerment is once again looked down on and belittled.

Need for Speed was quite literally a whirlwind rind that keeps you entertained throughout. The cars, chases, action, and suspense are all top-notch and given the in-the-street location, feels much more dangerous and gritty than professional racing can. The simple good vs. evil story is solid in many respects and gives you something more to watching this film than simple action sequences. But there are parts of the story that raise questions and just straight-up perpetuate long-held stereotypes. It shouldn’t affect your viewing experience too much as the action overrides a lot of it, but it does hold the film back from being as good as it possible could be.

Need for Speed opens in theaters on March 14, 2014.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5