Year 3, Film #33 (Total #483)

THE PLOT: April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Out-numbered, out-gunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany. 

THE GOOD: The war genre, and World War II in particular, has a plethora of films populating the annals of film and each one always seems to bring something new to the table. With Fury the most obvious addition is that of the mighty tanks and the crews that man them, but Fury also takes an interesting look at how men change during war. How even though you might beg to die instead of killing the enemy soldiers, most people will transform into the soldier that shows no mercy. That’s what war does: it changes people, it changes ideals, and it changes morals. And while Fury might seem a bit bland in some places, it does have plenty packed in to its 134 minutes to keep you attentive throughout. 

The two major positives about this film are the acting, and the resulting sense of camaraderie and brotherhood. In terms of acting, there’s the big five who man the tank “Fury” — “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt), “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), “Gordo” (Michael Peña), “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal), and the newcomer Norman (Logan Lerman) who comes on board after the death of one of their gunners. Each of these characters is very distinct and even by the end of the first scene you start to get an idea as to what these people do. “Wardaddy” is the leader and Brad Pitt does a great job at corralling his troops and leading them into impossible situations. He works closely with the rookie Norman, who is scared out of his mind because he’s just a desk clerk who’s trained to “type 60 words per minute”. Pitt is brilliant as the father-figure so to speak, the man who keeps this family together, the one who helps their children get through difficult times and tough situations. 

But it’s the rest of the crew that brings life to the film and keeps the tank running. Everyone plays their part but the two I want to highlight are Norman and “Bible”. First, and most surprisingly, is “Bible” and the performance that Shia LaBeouf gives. For a long time LaBeouf has been on my list of least-favorite actors and is someone that’s almost ruined films for me because I just could not stand his “acting”. But in Fury, it’s like a miracle has taken place (maybe it’s not a coincidence his nickname is “Bible”). As for Norman, what’s so great about his character is the transformation you see take place. When he first shows up, he’s the scared-shitless kid who thinks this all must be a big mistake and by the end he just wants to kill the Nazis. This may seem like quite a major change that completely reverses his beliefs, but the transformation is a gentle one and one that seems believable. You can see Norman reach that breaking point, resisting all the way, until something finally snaps and he turns into a killing machine. 

Which leads into the sense of camaraderie. It’s not particularly unique to Fury (many war films have a close group of friends that have to stick it out through difficult times), but it’s effective nonetheless. The camaraderie between this crew helps bring us into the world of war and the life inside a tank. More importantly, it helps us come to an understanding of what war is and what it does to people. While you see that at an individual level through each character’s eyes, it’s also seeing war through the lens of the group that helps shape your perception of what it truly is.And the group of people in Fury brings us a clear picture of what that is. 

THE BAD: As I’ve sort of been alluding to throughout this review, while Fury delivers the goods for the most part and sets itself up as a good war film, it is competing against the countless war films that have come before it. Films like Saving Private RyanLone SurvivorWar Horse (man, Steven Spielberg has done a lot of war films), and to throw in at least one older classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. While I’m all for giving new films a chance to succeed and go into them with a clean slate, you can’t just forget films that have come before it. Fury (or any war film, or any film in general) is colored by what’s come before it and the memories that you’ve formed from those films. And so the question becomes, “Why watch this new one?” 

For Fury, there isn’t a real clear answer. Yes, this is a fantastic film and anyone who watches it won’t be disappointed. It’s filled with blood and guts (much more than many action films these days — you literally see heads torn from bodies and appendages blown up by heavy artillery) and has all the makings of a great war film. But if you sit down and watch the war film, a Spielberg-classic would probably be your film of choice. Fury just doesn’t have that piece of legacy, that thing which will make the film standout from all the others. And no matter how much you can disregard past experiences while watching the film and give it a fair chance, those memories of films past heavily influence your choosing to watch this film. And if a film can’t make that lasting impression over another, it doesn’t have what it takes to be considered one of the greats. 

THE TAKEAWAY: Fury is an amazing film that brings you deep into the lives of a tank crew and shows exactly how war can change a person. You get all the action, drama, and historical accuracy (at least it appears so, but what do I know, I’m no historian) you could ever want from a WWII film. The acting is great around the board, especially from Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, and surprisingly Shia LaBeouf. While this film may not make a lasting impression or be unique enough to become one of the classics, Fury is a guaranteed good time if you do happen to watch it. 

Fury opens in theaters today, Friday, October 17, 2014. 

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

St. Vincent


Year 3, Film #32 (Total #482)

THE PLOT: A young boy whose parents just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic, war veteran who lives next door. 

THE GOOD: Watching St. Vincent was a constant affirmation of some of the things I hold most dear in life: being able to laugh at pretty much anything and caring unconditionally for those you hold most dear. So it comes as no surprise that this is not only one of the funniest films of the year, but it also ranks pretty highly on the emotional and touching side too. 

Bill Murray, as one would expect, is the real star of this film playing the cranky old curmudgeon Vincent McKenna. He brings his A-game back to the big screen on the level of Stripes or Caddyshack levels of comedy. Not only does joke after joke come effortlessly, but it also comes spontaneously. I’m not sure how much, if any, of this film is improve, but it speaks to Murray’s talent that the line between the two is seemingly nonexistent. And that’s the brilliance that was so great about Murray back in the 1970s and 80s and what’s so great about his performance as Vincent in this film. He’s able to make anything funny and turn a joke about even the worst things that happen in the film. For an example, Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) receives a notice that her ex-husband is petitioning for full custody of their child, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Vincent’s response, as the neighbor/babysitter, is, “Well there goes my job security.” It’s a joke that works on many different levels and these can be found littered throughout the entire film. 

It’s more than just the Bill Murray show though which is what help elevates St. Vincent above the rest. Murray provides enough laughter himself to carry a movie but we’re blessed to have almost every actor be unbelievably hilarious. Melissa McCarthy provides a bit of fresh air from her typical type-cast role as the stupid, fat, who will do anything she wants. Being the mother in this film forces McCarthy to be more restricted and controlled, but she is still able to let out some jokes as Maggie. Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) also delivers big time with some spot-on remarks and reactions to the students in the Catholic school that Oliver attends. One of my favorite lines was his comment on why Roman Catholics are the best religion (answer: they have the most rules). 

Most surprising of all though was Oliver, a little 12-year-old kid played by a first-time actor. A good majority of the film was just Oliver and Vincent stuck together in a variety of locations and seeing what the result was. And the surprising part is that Lieberher was able to stand his ground against the veteran Murray. Yes, Murray had most of the punchlines but Lieberher was a fantastic setup man and is a big part of the success of the comedy. Without Oliver, Vincent’s yammering and politically-incorrect musings wouldn’t have had the same effect. They still would have warranted a chuckle, but Oliver as the setup and right-hand man to Vincent provided for a great relationship that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

THE BAD: My only complaint is about Naomi Watts’ character, Daka, or as Vincent refers to her, a “lady of the night”. Not so much the character or the role she plays in the story, but the decision to make her character Russian. Watts did a phenomenal job with the accent and was able to keep it consistent throughout the film, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still distracting. Every time Daka comes on means you need to pay extra attention, and you probably won’t laugh as much or as hard compared with some other characters. Daka does provide for some entertaining moments (the “lady of the night” remark and the baby-crib shopping are two notable ones), but overall she pales in comparison to the hilarity that ensues with Vincent and Oliver. 

THE TAKEAWAY: Laughing is all well and good and it’s always great when a film is loaded with terrific performances, but there’s something else that makes St. Vincent special. This is my favorite comedy so far this year, but what happens at the end caught me a bit off-guard. I won’t state explicitly what happens, but suffice to say that the title of the film is a big giveaway. Oliver gives a great speech at the end that was so heartfelt and powerful that it almost had me leave the theater in tears. It’s a message that I think we all should listen to closely: we all have people in our lives who have made an impact — tell them how much they mean to you and pass on the torch to someone else. Be a Saint and be there for someone; you may have flaws and imperfections, but so does everybody else. You can still do amazing things for other people. 

St. Vincent opened in limited release on October 10 and will expand nationwide on Friday, October 24, 2014. 

THE RATING: 5 out of 5

The Judge

Year 3, Film #31 (Total #481)

THE PLOT: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family. 

THE GOOD: Coming out of the theater I was a bit awestruck. There were a handful of flaws that, from an outside perspective, would make The Judge seem like a less than extraordinary film. But walking out into the hallway and getting onto the T home, it was like I was in a trance, as if I couldn’t tell what just happened. Granted, I’m exaggerating this story a bit — this film is not going to be the next Citizen Kane and I’ve seen better films this year — but the fact remains that The Judge got me to forget where I was for a couple hours and envelop me in Carlinville, Indiana with Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). 

Let’s start with the casting. If you’ve seen anything Robert Downey, Jr. has done you’ll know he has a very specific character he plays. It’s type-casting in the best-possible way and it almost always produces great results. In The Judge this casting is spot-on. Robert Downey, Jr. is Hank Palmer — an arrogant, full-of-himself, smart alec lawyer who seems to always be funny even when he’s tearing someone to shreds. As Samantha (Vera Farmiga) remarks in the film (and can be heard in the trailer), “You are simultaneously the most generous and the most selfish person I know.” 

The other character that needs to be cast exactly right is that of the Judge himself, Judge Joseph Palmer. Robert Duvall has always been a constant presence in Hollywood, and I won’t go so far as to say this is his best performance ever (he won an Academy Award for Tender Mercies which I’ve never seen, he was also great in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now and received nominations for both), but Duvall certainly brings his A-game for The Judge. No one could pull off the temperamental, stubborn, and righteous old Judge with such a high regard for justice as well as Duvall does. 

I’ve focused so much on the casting here, and with these two character in particular, because they are the core of this film. More than most films (which often have several things that can reel you in), The Judge relies heavily on Hank and Joseph. This is a father-and-son story, it’s an underdog story, it’s a story about right and wrong. It’s a story about Hank and Joseph affects and colors everything else. And without getting the perfect match for these characters, the whole film would crumble. But since we do get Downey, Jr. and Duvall things seem to just work. 

And there’s a lot of things going on in this film. They cover death and loss, divorce and betrayal, and most importantly justice and honesty. Parts of this film are extremely difficult to watch. Not because of gory violence or other forms of inflicted pain, but because of it’s brutally accurate look at life. Gone Girl is a film of extremes and what happens when love or hatred goes too far, The Judge takes a similar approach, but much more realistic — like something that would actually occur in your own life. There’s a funeral, a cancer diagnosis, divorce, a murder trial, and family turmoil stemming from Joseph’s disappointment in Hank as a child. All these things add up and force us to look at the big picture and sets us up for some heartfelt revelations at the end. 

THE BAD: I did mention this film has some flaws. Notably, they take advantage of the courtroom drama almost to the point of trivializing what goes on there. We get some moments of comedy (the selection of jurors, Hank kills this section — “Who has any bumper stickers?”) and some moments of pure drama (Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) presenting the prosecution’s case). But then we get this moment at the end when it becomes the father-and-son show where Hank tears up and Joseph opens up about feelings he’s never confessed before. This makes for great and entertaining film, and it’s certainly a moving and emotional time in the story, but it feels wholly out of place. 

For a film whose bread and butter is the court and the justice system, it feels odd to pull a scene out of Kramer vs. Kramer and devolve into something completely out of character. Dickham doesn’t object once during this moment between Hank and Joseph, nor does the presiding Judge Warren (Ken Howard) attempt to stop it. I’ve seen very little Law & Order and other “true” courtroom dramas, but I like to think I know enough that if the witness breaks into a long-winded story about his feelings for his son, who by the way is his defensive attorney, that is has to be the basis for a mistrial or some cause to get back to the “facts” and the “evidence” rather than conjecture. 

THE TAKEAWAY: I mentioned at the outset how this film leaves you in a bit of a trance when the credits start to roll. Despite the handful of flaws The Judge has (there’s some more minor ones in addition to the major one I noted above), I couldn’t help but just focus on the many positives this film has. Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall help make this film much more than a traditional father-and-son or underdog story about overcoming great obstacles. They help make this an incredibly emotional and powerful film that leaves you overwhelmed. 

When I looked down at my watch and saw that two-and-a-half hours had passed even though it felt like well under two hours, that was the icing on the cake that told me to do something Judge Palmer did. In the film Judge Palmer gives Mark Blackwell the minimum sentence of 30 days for shooting up a residential house because he saw good in the boy. I’m giving The Judge full marks here because I’m willing to overlook some negatives in order to fully embrace and appreciate its many positive qualities. 

The Judge opens in theaters this Friday, October 10, 2014. 

THE RATING: 5 out of 5

Gone Girl

Year 3, Film #30 (Total #480)

THE PLOT: With his wife’s disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it’s suspected that he may not be innocent. 

THE GOOD: Gone Girl is deeply nuanced and filled with many tiny details that make your head spin trying to sort it all out. It’s also very overt and in-your-face quite often, leading to some shocking and unexpected twists that will leave your jaw hanging, or more likely, cringing at the explicit violence and gore that David Fincher does best. 

I’m put in the interesting situation with Gone Girl because I’ve actually read the book by Gillian Flynn (who also adapted the screenplay) before I saw this film (something that usually never happens). Having read the book beforehand, you would assume that all the twists and revelations would be lost on me this time around in the film since I already know everything that happens; seeing it on film won’t be any different. The surprising thing is, I was still taken aback by the big moments and found myself not necessarily surprised, but certainly startled, at the twists which form the foundation for the story. 

And that’s what is so amazingly well-done by David Fincher in this adaptation. He gets the benefits of the higher-level, structural stuff which was all laid out by Gillian Flynn in the novel, but Fincher also does something that I’ve never seen done as well as in this film: the deeper-level stuff. One of the biggest elements often missing in a film adaptation is, when applicable, character’s thoughts from the first-person. In books, you can read the characters mind, know what they’re thinking, and why they react to something in a specific way. Being able to do that with writing is one of the things that makes that medium so special. With film, this is either overlooked (as in The Hunger Games and Divergent among others; Game of Thrones is a great example in television) or the filmmakers try to include these first-person additions, often in voice-over (Eat Pray Love and The Lovely Bones being two examples). The problem with voice-over is that it’s too straightforward and in your face. If literature is the medium for expressing first-person thoughts, film is the medium for showing them. And while show-don’t-tell is one of the main tenants of filmmaking you’re taught early on, it is a simple and easy way to convey some information that’s vital to character and story development. 

David Fincher accomplished something I thought to be impossible, or at least very near impossible, and that is to transfer the tone and style of the book (what is widely considered to be one of the best aspects of the novel) into the film. In other words, it’s a great adaptation. We get the same story, same characters, and same setting, but we also get a feel for all these in a truly filmic way. To give just one concrete example, here is one of my favorite lines from the novel, one of Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) thoughts: 

A lot of people lacked that gift: knowing when to fuck off. People love talking, and I have never been a huge talker. I carry on an inner monologue, but the words often don’t reach my lips. She looks nice today, I’d think, but somehow it wouldn’t occur to me to say it out loud. My mom talked, my sister talked. I’d been raised to listen. 

We don’t hear this line in the film, because to do so would require Ben Affleck to do a voice-over. There also really isn’t any explicit mention or reference to let us know that this is how Nick Dunne thinks and feels. But through a combination of David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s adaptation skills, and the wonderful and spot-on talent found throughout the cast, this thought is still conveyed to the audience. We never go explicitly into the minds of the characters, but we’re left with the impression that we do. To be able to convert what’s so often well-done in writing to something rarely done even half as well in film, to be able to transfer the DNA of what made Gone Girl so great as a novel, is outstanding and leads to a fantastic Gone Girl film. 

THE BAD: While Gone Girl was able to benefit from the best parts of the novel, it also fell into some of the same traps. My biggest complaint (only complaint?) with the novel is the ending. For so much build-up, suspense, and mystery early on in the novel, the ending is only about forty pages long and is written in short, quick vignettes almost; just brief glimpses of individual moments. The film improved on the novel a little bit, primarily by extending these snippets out and trying to make them more substantial and meaningful, but the end result was pretty much the same: there is no resolution. 

It’s been suggested to me that maybe the story was meant to have no resolution, that perhaps it’s up to you to decide what happens after the last page or the last frame of film.The more I think about this possibility, the more I’ve grown to accept it as the intention (of both Flynn, and in this case Fincher). However, the fact still remains that this intention is not clearly communicated. All throughout the film, we get these notions and ideas built up inside our heads, we’re swept through from scene to scene waiting to see what happens next. It’s a very energetic and aggressive film. Then you get to the end and it’s the polar opposite. It’s like slamming on the brakes to avoid crashing into the care in front of you but the air bag still manages to go off because you were still going too fast. It would be one thing to continue the break-neck highway speed of the first two-thirds of the film for the last third and end with things unresolved. It’s quite another to start going in the opposite direction and leave things up in the air. The idea might be the right one, but everything we see tells us it isn’t. 

THE TAKEAWAY: I spent a lot of this review going back-and-forth between talking about the novel by Gillian Flynn and the film by David Fincher. The reason for that is Gone Girl is such a great adaptation, I see the two as interchangeable; each as a companion to the other. The cast matches the characters across the board and everyone delivers solid performances that bring this story of conniving, deceit, love, infidelity, and a whole host of other treacherous adjectives, to life. All the twists and turns are there to make you constantly second-guess yourself and keep you invested to the end. Gone Girl may share the same pitfalls as the novel does, but these are nothing compared to the thrill you get climbing up to the top of the mountain. 

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Men, Women & Children

Year 3, Film #29 (Total #479)

THE PLOT: A group of high school teenagers and their parents attempt to navigate the many ways the Internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives. 

THE GOOD: There’s no easier way to sum up this film than by simply saying, this is a messed up film. Men, Women & Children is just all sorts of weird, awkward, and reality taken to extremes. The question to ask is: is this a good thing? For much of the film, I didn’t think so and I’ll get much deeper into why I thought so. But that being said, there’s something appealing about this film that hits you at a much broader level, abstracted in a way from what you see and only making an impact at the end after you see all the pieces fall into place. 

Jason Reitman (director of Up in the Air and Juno) is hardly the first to try and take a look at how the influx of technology (smartphones in particular) and social media has effected our lives, but his take in this film is definitely unique and all-encompassing. We’ve got kids, we’ve got parents, over-sharers, peer-pressure, sex, porn, online dating, privacy, invasion of privacy; pretty much any aspect of this topic you can think of, Men, Women & Children covers. And what this film does well is provide us with a sort of reference guide, a snapshot of what our society is like at this particular moment. While most films have acknowledged this change in some minor way (often a closeup of a cell phone when a text comes through) but none have ever made it the primary focus as this film does. 

That’s not to say it’s the only focus. While the technology-aspect may be a bit gimmicky at times, Reitman does a great job at trying to integrate it into a meaningful story and move away from the gimmick. It’s not just technology for technology’s sake, it’s technology serving the greater purpose of the story and film; it just happens to be in your face every two seconds. And that is the best part about this film: seeing the effects these devices and social networks have on our everyday lives. No other film has come anywhere near as close as Men, Women & Children does to bringing you such an accurate portrayal of reality mixed with a fictional story. 

THE BAD: Now, where do I begin with my annoyances. All the positive things I said above really only come at the end of the film when you see how things end and you realize that it’s more about the social commentary and creating a snapshot of our society than it is about entertainment or telling a compelling story. 

This film is messed up and extreme (which I think was intentional) but it was also awkward and odd (which I think was unintentional). People may interpret this film differently and I’m not sure what Jason Retiman’s goals and intentions were in making this film, but from my point-of-view (and supported ever-so-slightly by murmurings from the audience during the screening), this film missed it’s mark completely. It feels like the entire film should bask in the glory of all the positive traits I mentioned above, but instead it’s shrouded in confusion, annoyance, and craziness. 

A big issue is that of extremism. Something this film does a lot of is portray a bunch of different characters in the absolute extreme form, the best example being Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner). If you want to get a good idea of her character, just watch the trailer and you’ll get the idea. She reads over every interaction, every scrap of information, that her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) has because she demands all of her passwords to her accounts, tracks her phone religiously, and controls who she talks with and what she does. While my gut reaction was that this is a gross exaggeration and an unfathomable extreme, it actually isn’t too hard to picture happening in real life. Now I don’t think the vast majority of parents are, or will become, like Patricia, but to depict her character like the paranoid control-freak isn’t too unbelievable. 

My issue lies with with how unrelatable her character is. She may be annoying and totally unlikable (and Jennifer Garner does a fantastic job at play her character) but that doesn’t mean she still can’t be relatable. A perfect example of this is Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. She is one of the most annoying characters ever to grace the silver screen and every time I see her I want to punch her in the face (another great job by Imelda Staunton). But at least I get where her character is coming from and why she’s doing what she’s doing (it’s just following orders from the Ministry). With Patricia though, you don’t get that understanding. It’s like she’s just being mean and controlling just for the fun of it, with no real reason behind it, and no character justification for “no real reason behind it” being an acceptable reason. 

Another annoying part about the film was the completely unnecessary voice over. While the voice they chose (Emma Thompson — she would make a very nice Siri or GLaDOS) was spot on for what a narration for this film should be like, the narration itself served little-to-no purpose. Narration is one of those things that can make or break a film and this is a case where it just compounds the list of other mistakes that occur in the film. The two main things the narration does is introduce the history of Voyager 1 and Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” (more on those in a bit), and tell us how prevalent technology has become in our society. 

To narrate the latter is pointless because that’s the whole beauty of Men, Women & Children; it shows us that in ways much better than words could ever describe. The former however can be put up to debate. When I first saw Voyager 1 floating through space in the beginning of the film, my hopes and expectations instantly shot up. I’ve professed my interest for space and astronomy many times here before. Then there was mention of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” which I’ve also mentioned from time to time. But very quickly I realized these points were going nowhere and served no purpose. In the case of “Pale Blue Dot”, it actually served as a big negative impact and is where I’ll now direct most of my disgust. 

The “Pale Blue Dot” for anyone who doesn’t know is a picture Voyager 1 took as it reached the edge of our solar system. Carl Sagan then remarked at how tiny Earth was and how it was no more than just a little blue speck in “a vast cosmic arena”. The film, Tim Mooney’s (Ansel Elgort) character in particular, uses this to argue that nothing matters (football, in the case of Tim’s character) and that life is pointless. 

My initial reaction was one of bewilderment because I thought it was the complete opposite meaning of what Carl Sagan had implied. By the end, after the narrator recited Sagan’s words, I came to see how my initial binary reaction of “this is totally wrong” might have been off a little. It’s true, the beginning parts of Sagan’s words implies that life is pointless because, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” But his real message comes at the end when he says, “The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand… To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Earth is a miracle. That life exists, that we exist, on Earth and there is nowhere else we know of where that’s possible, is amazing. It means that we shouldn’t taken our lives for granted, that we should live them to the fullest and savor every moment. Our planet, our lives, may be infinitesimally small in the grand scheme of things, but that little speck is the most incredible thing we know to exist. It defies reason and logic that Earth, our home, is the only known place where life exists. 

THE TAKEAWAY: And it’s this idea that annoys me most about Men, Women & Children. Reitman does a really good job at realizing the importance of technology in our lives today and astutely brought that to the big screen. He also recognized the importance of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” could play in this film. But instead of bringing Sagan’s true message through to the film, Reitman misses the meaning entirely and the result is an empty, pointless film when it could have been a really poignant and sincere film. 

Men, Women & Children opens in limited release on October 1, an expanded release on October 10, and a wide release on October 17, 2014. 

THE RATING: 2 out of 5

The Equalizer

Year 3, Film #28 (Total #478)

THE PLOT: A man believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and has dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But when he meets a young girl under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters, he can’t stand idly by - he has to help her. 

THE GOOD: At the end of the film I had a thought that may seem kind of strange, but the more I think about it, it turns out to be quite apt. The Equalizer is like an adult version of Home Alone with violence, bigger stakes, and thought-provoking questions. In other words, remove most of the comedic parts, make Home Alone R-rated, and slap on some poetic musings, and you get The Equalizer.  

Set in Boston (woo! — there was a big audience reaction to the opening shot when you see the Boston skyline, as to be expected from a Boston audience), the film follows Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) in his late-night escapades of justice. All you need to know is that McCall is a badass; we don’t really know how or why, just that he’s lived a life full of combat and violence. 

Much of the film is hidden in secrecy and an ominous foreboding of things to come. Until about twenty or thirty minutes (possibly even longer) into the film all we get is character development. It’s very slow moving as we begin to learn who McCall is. He’s very meticulous and methodical. He has a routine that he follows everyday including very carefully wrapping up a tea bag in a napkin and taking it to a favorite diner at 2:00 in the morning along with a book to read. 

One of the only other things we know about McCall is that he’s very friendly. He befriends Teri/Alaina (Chloë Grace Moretz) at the diner and a lovable guy named Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) at work — an off-brand Home Depot. But even in the beginning where things are very slow moving, I never felt bored. Despite the slowness you can tell it’s building up to something. There’s a reason the film spends so long introducing these characters and that is to plant the idea although there is going to be wall-to-wall action, explosions, and chases coming up, they’re all going to serve a purpose, and that purpose is justice. 

In essence, that’s what makes The Equalizer so special. On the outside, this may seem like your typical, run-of-the-mill action film with a big star, and that may be true in some respects. You have the Russian mafia angle (which was also seen in the recent Let’s Be Cops) and themes of money and corruption that are so popular and rote in modern Hollywood fare. There’s the idea of sticking up for the little guy and protecting those who need help. Most of all, the film’s main theme of justice and doing what’s right is an idea seen in so many other films. 

But The Equalizer stands above all that. It takes ideas that we’ve all seen before and makes them its own. It strings you along during the quieter moments, priming you for what’s to come, and when the big moments do come, you’re yanked forward in your seat with bated breath to see how it ends. And the final scene will bring forth all the excitement and wonderment you remember when Kevin laid his booby traps in Home Alone mixed with a sense of gore and discomfort of home appliances and power tools entering human flesh. It’s an interesting mix of entertainment sources that will leave you feeling like you just got off a roller coaster: heart pumping, hair blown back, and a smile plastered across your face due to the sheer thrills and suspense you just experienced. 

THE TAKEAWAY: Despite some familiarity and feeling like this is just another action film, The Equalizer defies all expectations and blows you away with it’s unique, and mysterious, take on the very popular, and often very unoriginal, action genre. You may be left with questions at the end, but the film paints a very clear picture, and one that’s a pleasure to watch. 

The Equalizer opens in theaters tomorrow, Friday, September 26, 2014. 

THE RATING: 5 out of 5

The Maze Runner


Year 3, Film #27 (Total #477)

THE PLOT: Thomas is deposited in a community of boys after his memory is erased, soon learning they’re all trapped in a maze that will require him to join forces with fellow “runners” for a shot at escape. 

THE GOOD: The current trend/popular thing in Hollywood right now, as you can probably tell, is the big YA-craze that’s been sweeping the nation. It start with The Hunger Games in 2012 (and sequels since then) and since then we’ve seen DivergentThe Giver, and now The Maze Runner all follow suit. While the argument can be made that the idea is getting dry and overdone, I’m still finding these films to be extremely fun to watch and so engaging that I’ve even started reading their book counterparts (gasp!). 

The Maze Runner goes a bit deeper though than The Hunger Games and Divergent do. I would consider this film more of a mystery/thriller than a YA (young adult for the uninitiated) film which is significant. The Hunger Games really set the standard for the current YA-film and it’s more than just having kids be the main characters. No, I consider a YA-film to fall into a specific mold where it’s more about getting some action/adventure in along with some kind of dystopian setting where the government is evil with a backstory of how the people lost their freedom and strive to get it back. 

While I could compare The Maze Runner to a much older classic, Lord of the Flies, and do so quite easily (bunch of stranded kids, group splits in two-factions one following an evil leader who is out for blood, small fat kid who everyone loves — aww, Piggy — and a race for survival among others) The Maze Runner also has its own merits. For one, it’s much more modern than Lord of the Flies is and with that comes more possibilities, the biggest of which being the maze. As you know, I enjoy films set in one location, but this film bends those parameters a bit. You could consider the maze as one location (the Glade inside the surrounding maze certainly is and where the majority of the film takes place), but having the puzzling maze lie just outside their home provides endless possibilities and a world of unknowns. 

But what’s so great about The Maze Runner is that it is its own thing; it doesn’t rely on preconceived notions. Think of it like The Maze Runner : The Hunger Games : : Guardians of the Galaxy : The Avengers. It’s somehow familiar, yet entirely new and different at the same time. Combine this with the fact that it doesn’t fit the recent YA-mold, and you have a wholly original experience. I was shocked, scared, nervous, exhilarated, and captivated throughout this movie and there was never a dull moment (besides the ending which I’ll get into in a moment). Comparably, I think this stacks up more with a film like David Fincher’s Panic Room than it does The Hunger Games because you’re never sure what’s going to happen next. The question that’s constantly running through your mind is, “Why are they here?” and it’s a question that the film keeps the answer to skillfully under wraps giving you only scraps of information, enough to satiate that gnawing sensation bit-by-bit. 

THE BAD: My only real complaint about this film deals exclusively with the ending. Up until a certain twist (one which you can probably guess, but alas I’ll remain quiet because here be spoilers), everything is copacetic. Then you start getting answers to all the questions you’ve been having throughout the film, like the nagging “Why are they here?” question, and things start falling apart. Not plot holes or anything like that, but that dichotomy of saying, “Alright, the mystery is over now, here’s an explanation for everything that just happened.” I’m not saying leaving us with no answers would have been the right move, but to end the film with a much different setting and feeling than the rest of the film makes it feel out of place. 

And then you have the fact that The Maze Runner won’t hold as a standalone film because the setup for the impending sequel is ingrained in the ending. You expect sequels to big films nowadays, but it’s one thing to leave the audience with some burning questions that warrant a new film and another thing entirely to end the film just short of a “To Be Continued” title. It’s not that they insinuated that another film would follow, in fact quite the opposite. It was them explicitly saying, “Just wait to come back in another year to see how this story continues,” that bothers me, and it bothers me because that means The Maze Runner doesn’t have a firm ending. Leave as much open to the imagination as you want at the end of the film (like Inception — people still argue over that ending today), just don’t make it a requirement that we come back to see how it ends.  

THE TAKEAWAY: The Maze Runner is another entry into the YA-dystopian genre but brings with it some originality, energy, and a mystery element that’s lacking in the rest of the category. There’s never a dull moment and you’ll be at the edge of your seat for most of the film wanting to know why these kids are placed in a maze. At the end, a lot of mysteries are solve and questions answered (I argue too many), but many more arise as they set up the upcoming sequel, The Scorch Trials. While a bit presumptuous of them and taking away the appeal of a standalone movie, this film was so good there’s no way I couldn’t see the sequel, and you’ll probably feel the same way after watching this film. 

The Maze Runner opens in theaters tomorrow, Friday, September 19, 2014. 

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

All Is Lost

Year 3, Film #26 (Total #476)

THE PLOT: After a collision with a shipping container at sea, a resourceful sailor finds himself, despite all efforts to the contrary, staring his mortality in the face.

THE GOOD: One man, his boat, the open ocean. Disaster strikes. Multiple times. This, in essence, is All Is Lost.

This film has to be the epitome of a simplistic, or what I call restrictive, film. Films like Life of Pi (obvious similarities), Panic Room, and 12 Angry Men are all restrictive in terms of locations, people, and props. An easy way to think of it is the hypothetical problem you’re always asked as kids — if you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you bring with you? I find these types of films to be some of the most entertaining because most often, you truly don’t know what’s going to happen next.

All Is Lost, by its very nature, has to be creative. There’s only so many things that Our Man (Robert Redford) has to work with to repair his sinking boat stranded in the middle of the ocean. Not only that, but he has time restrictions, food restrictions, and energy restrictions as well. It’s an underdog story right from the get-go and throughout the whole film you are rooting for Our Man to persevere and get rescued and each time he’s confronted with another storm or some turn of bad luck, all you can think to yourself is, “Not again. Come on, give this guy a break!”

What makes this film so extraordinary and unlike some of the other “restrictive” films I mentioned is that it does with even less. All the films I mentioned above have more than one cast member (Robert Redford is the only person in this film; I don’t think there’s even pictures of other people) and some amount of dialogue (there’s a few spoken lines in All Is Lost but no conversations, just cries for help). Despite all these limitations, the film still keeps things interesting and constantly moving forward. There are no lulls or areas where you can drift off (pardon the pun) and not pay attention. Even moments where Our Man is hoisting a sail, pumping water out of the boat, or mixing some form of glue demand your full attention because each moment is a life or death situation for this guy. He flirts with death constantly whether it’s being flung off the boat during a storm hanging on for dear life by a rope or hitting his head against a pole and losing consciousness during a crucial time.

That a film like Life of Pi was able to be so entertaining with just a young boy and a lion stranded on a life boat or 12 Angry Men never missed a beat even though it’s just twelve jurors talking over a case is amazing. But in both of those cases you can see human relationships form and change. For Pi, he has the lion to keep him company and keep him active. For Juror #8, he has eleven other people he has to convince to rethink their position. In All Is Lost, there’s just Our Man. All we get are visuals and sounds of water, nature, and the occasional grunt or “Help!”. And the fact that the film is able to carry on like any other film without all the benefits is phenomenal.

THE BAD: My only complains about this film have to do with the boating aspects. I’ve never been on a sailboat before so I don’t have the first clue about how to operate one. I’ve also never been on the open ocean alone and had to worry about things like navigation or survival. So maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge in this area, or maybe the issues I have are actual problems.

The biggest thing for me isn’t that the film seems unrealistic — on the contrary, the film appears to have gone to great lengths to make it look as realistic as possible — but that the events that occur seem unlikely. How many times has a shipping container been dropped in the ocean, not retrieved, and while floating, rams into a passing boat causing it to fill with water? Why during a storm would you not only keep sails up, but put additional ones up too? (This one was answered in the plot summary on Wikipedia. Apparently there’s a thing called a storm jib so you can still maneuver the boat). What are the odds of not only seeing two shipping barges, but then being passed by them — literally feet away — without being noticed, even with flares?

Again, some of these might have easy answers (like the storm jib one) or turn out to be quite frequent occurrences on the open ocean. For having no knowledge though (and perhaps be given false assumptions by a film like Life of Pi where he was able to survive for over 100 days in a much smaller vessel), All Is Lost raises some questions to the accuracy of the events depicted. Not so much or so frequent as to disrupt the enjoyment of the film, but scattered enough to keep a feeling of doubt in the back of your mind.

THE TAKEAWAY: All Is Lost has all the drama, suspense, thrills, and emotions that you might expect in any other great film, but it does it all with only one character, one location, and no dialogue. To deliver the same level of excitement while using almost nothing, is absolutely astonishing and will blow you out of the water.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Ender’s Game

Year 3, Film #25 (Total #475)

THE PLOT: Young Ender Wiggin is recruited by the International Military to lead the fight against the Formics, a genocidal alien race which nearly annihilated the human race in a previous invasion.

THE GOOD: By far, the thing that surprised me the most about Ender’s Game was the film’s ability to show the strategy and thinking that goes through Ender Wiggin’s (Asa Butterfield) mind. The book (which I’ve actually read, surprise!) goes to great lengths to describe the setup of the Battle Room — a zero-gravity arena where trainees play war-games — among other places and the thought processes that go on in Wiggin’s mind. We not only get to see what’s happening, but why it’s happening as well, and the film does a tremendous job at portraying that.

Ender’s Game is a film that is all about strategy and thinking like the enemy. The film even opens with a quote from Wiggin saying, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” While there are plenty of areas that the film fails to address adequately, getting the most important one correct goes a long way. Getting a sense of the strategy and the thinking that goes on fills in some of those gaps and brings us to a deeper level that the rest of the film forgoes.

Much of the film seems to want to highlight their visual effects and CGI work, which while impressive, goes a bit over-the-top more than once. A lot of it is superficial and makes it seem like it wants to achieve what it means to be a “Transformers-blockbuster”. We get those big action scenes and large explosions, however, Ender’s Game has a deeper level to it. It has elements of ethical dilemmas, the difference between right and wrong, when that distinction is blurred, how far are people willing to go? These are all crucial in the book and are present in the film too, but obstructed by all the eye-candy. Seeing the strategy and the thinking of Ender is not only beneficial by itself, but it’s also in these moments that we get a glimpse of greatness that the film otherwise masks.

THE BAD: Any fans of the book will notice many differences with the film, the biggest of which being the elimination of Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine Wiggin’s (Abigail Breslin) entire subplot about a growing political movement back on Earth that causes an uprising against the current government. While these absences are noticeable, my complaints about the film adaptation aren’t about differences from the novel. In fact, I expected and assumed they would drop the Peter/Valentine story from the film since it seems so out of place even in the book.

My biggest complaint about the film is about the lack of background the film provides, or rather, an assumed level of knowledge that’s never explained. Ender’s Game does cover much of the background that’s provided in the novel — an alien race called the Formics (aka Buggers — I have no explanation for why the film doesn’t even mention this nickname) invades Earth and is almost successful in wiping out humankind before a lone pilot, Mazer Rackham, singlehandedly destroys the enemy fleet. Both the book and film pick up after that in a time where children are trained to be the next commanders in preparation for a preemptive attack.

This is all explained (in sometimes excruciating exposition) but you’re still left with a sense that something is missing. For example, when Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) are discussing Ender’s progress through Battle School, every time it seems like they know something we don’t. Some piece of context that would help ground the film or some piece of knowledge that answers a question that we don’t really ask, but is still in the back of our minds anyway. Small things like what exactly are these teams in Battle School, what’s the point of their simulations, how does the zero-gravity arena work?

Part of this may be just lack of time. The film seems to blow through each location (Earth, Battle School, Commander School) without stopping to rest in one for any extended period of time. We are rushed through them in the same way in the book, but at least there we get the benefit of reading a couple paragraphs of description to give us an idea of where we are and what we’re doing. The film takes these minor details (team colors, hierarchy of command, early hatred towards Ender) and shoves them in a corner. As someone who has read the book, this tidbits reminded me of the descriptions and explanations given in the book and allowed me to better understand what was going on. For people who haven’t, I can easily imagine getting lost in the specifics of this world and just paying attention to the visual effects because that’s all you can fully understand.

THE TAKEAWAY: For fans of the novel, Ender’s Game is a reimagining of the story you know and love. It has it’s differences and omissions, but the crux of the story is all there and Ender Wiggin, along with his brilliant mind and cunning strategies, are represented in a way that truly brings the book to life. However, other elements of the film are lacking this high level of detail and attention and can leave you scratching your head, wondering if you missed some crucial piece of information and the characters are all in on something you don’t know. The visual effects, while amazing eye-candy and fun to watch, can be a bit overdone at times and can provide another distraction to the viewer instead of clarifying what’s going on. It’s sort of a tossup between some parts that were perfectly adapted, and others that weren’t.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

20 Feet from Stardom

Year 3, Film #24 (Total #474)

THE PLOT: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

THE GOOD: The whole purpose of 20 Feet from Stardom is to try and give us a look into what it’s like to live the life of a backup singer. While I found many faults with this documentary, if you evaluate it on that purpose, you’ll find much that surprises you.

The biggest surprise for me came with a look into the recording of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, probably one of the most famous songs discussed in this film. Part of this recording was backup-vocalist Merry Clayton who sings a very emotional part towards the end, saying “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away,” repeatedly. Clayton gets so passionate while singing that her voice cracks a few times and makes that one of the most memorable parts of the song.

It’s moments and insights like this that make 20 Feet from Stardom sing (pardon the pun). The whole beauty about this film is seeing just how important these singers are. The whole point is that it’s showing some of the biggest moments in music history have been made possible due to these people we know almost nothing about. Backup singers have helped make some big stars famous with their voices and they get little to no credit in return. 20 Feet from Stardom is their chance to tell the world who they are and we get a fascinating, and extremely detailed look (there’s a lot of information covered here) into their lives.

THE BAD: Unfortunately, the entire documentary seems like one big oxymoron. Giving these singers the spotlight and showing their accomplishments seems to be saying, “It’s a shame they can’t be big stars.” They have the talent to succeed but instead they constantly take the back seat. As we find out though, many of these singers either don’t want to take on the big role of a lead singer, or if they do, they lack the ego, arrogance, and wherewithal to succeed in doing it. The film shows both sides of this coin but then pretend like the other side doesn’t exist.

Another oxymoronic thing the film does is talk about how important it was to have young singers because the youth really shone through in the voice and is what made the backup vocals so powerful and, in a way, overwhelming of the leads. But, pretty much the only people that are interviewed are older people who were singers in the 1950s-1970s. They do feature a new, young singer, Judith Hill, who was to sing with Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” tour before he passed away, but that’s pretty much it. A possible reason for this, as the film mentions, is that backup singers are becoming more rare in the modern day as recording studios are just using on artist to record the multiple harmonies in separate takes instead of having a group of singers sing it in one take.

THE TAKEAWAY: 20 Feet from Stardom is like a look back at the glory days and reminiscing on what it would have been like if these backup singers took the lead role. Part of this is interesting and surprising seeing just how vital a role some of these people played in some of the biggest recordings of all time. The other part is left hanging though waiting for answers or something to tie everything together. Because as things stand, it’s conflicting messages and at times, making us wonder why we’re watching this.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5