“Socially Acceptable Insanity”: The Top 20 Films of 2013

Hello, readers and fellow movie goers! It’s been a long year and even a longer break since I wrote on the good ol’ movie blog. This time we’re coming at you with our picks for the Top 20 films of 2013. Would love to hear your thoughts, rants,  or opinions about anything included, or even anything we forgot. Hope you enjoy!

Honorable Mentions (11-20)

20. Side-Effects- According to Steven Soderbergh, this is the last feature length film he will ever direct. Let’s hope that isn’t the case because the man has a distinct style and flair completely his own. ‘Side-Effects’ is no exception, as a modern master takes us through a world of controlled substances, depression, insanity, and betrayal. Like other great thrillers, this one keeps you constantly guessing, wondering who is the real victim in the tale. All in all, solid film. Pick it up at your RedBox.

19. Blackfish- Snubbed snubbed snubbed snubbed snubbed by the Academy. This amazing documentary about the skeletons in Seaworld’s closet, specifically the treatment of orcas in captivity. It is shocking to see the lengths that Seaworld will go to protect the business that makes millions. It’s always about the money. Now on Netflix, I encourage you to check it out.

18. Room 237- This one was a surprise for me. Netflix convinced me to watch it, and for movie dorks like myself, it was intriguing to say the least. ‘Room 237′ is a documentary feature about the various meanings and messages behind Stanley Kubrick’s  ‘The Shining.’ Ranging from ancient greek myth, to the Holocaust, all the way to claiming that Kubrick was the one that faked the Apollo 11 moon landing, each theory becomes more outrageous than the rest, but there seems to be subtle truth found in the absurd.

17. Star Trek: Into Darkness- JJ Abrams delivers another haymaker punch of a movie with ‘Into Darkness.’ Part of me wanted to go total fanboy, put this at #1 and shout “KHAAAAAAAAAAN” on top of my roof, but my better angels suppressed those lesser demons. Look, if you want the coolest, most exciting action film of the year, it’s this one. Easily the best movie of the summer, and Abrams looks to me like the perfect man to take over ‘Star Wars.’ Just make sure they don’t suck.

16. The Wolf of Wall Street- Wanted soooooooooooo badly for this movie to be incredible, and at moments, it is. At a few brief periods of time, it’s the best thing I saw all year. Scorsese is a master. DiCaprio is amazing.  Jonah Hill? Hysterical. Margot Robbie? A revelation. However, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,” I’m sorry to say it, is just too much. This thing makes ‘Django Unchained’ look like ‘Frozen.’ After the fourth on-screen orgy, is it okay to say that I’ve had enough? Did we need to see Belfort getting a lit candle in the anus? Forgive the imagery, dear readers, but its important to remember these things before we name it one of the best of the year. Cut out Jonah Hill masturbating, smoking a crack-pipe, just 50 F—s, one orgy, spare me the scene of comparing prostitutes and the Leo/Hill combo double-teaming a co-worker, and this would’ve been in my Top 5. Thought about giving it a pass, but no dice. If you have qualms with me about this, let me know. The Academy apparently loved it, so if you did as well, you’re in solid company.

15. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire- Get used to it people. I love the Girl on Fire, so does the rest of the world, and she’s not going anywhere, except to District 13 that is. We rejoin Katniss after the last “Hunger Games” as a champion living in a superficial reality created by herself and arena mate Peeta. There are rumblings to revolt in the air, but Katniss is not half as concerned about that when she is called back into the ring for the Quarter Quell. Gotta love these movies, they’re just so damn entertaining, and you get more Donald Sutherland and a dash of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Even better than the first, perfect set-up for what is sure to be a disappointing third installment. You heard it here first; the curse of the trilogies’ third installment be upon this one.

14. Mud- I was graced by this film from my local RedBox, months after it had hit and ran out of the theaters. There’s no doubt about it; 2013 was the year of the McConaughey. Arguably delivering a performance even better than Dallas Buyers’ Club, Matt practically bleeds off the screen in ‘Mud’, giving us a mysterious wheeler-dealer with love in his heart. A modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn, what makes this one so special is not only McConaughey and Witherspoon, who are wonderful in their own right, but it’s also the performances  of the two young boys of the story (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland). The film is about so much; trust, hope, innocence, unrequited love, and the relationship of father and son (I’m a sucker for the latter.)

13. Rush- Talk about a shot of adrenaline the rib cage, ‘Rush’ delivers on everything that it promised. Exciting, compelling, emotional, well-acted, and well-executed. Daniel Bruhl is nothing short of masterful, giving us his most complex performance to date, and Chris Hemsworth is incredibly entertaining, giving us his first bearable performance to date (nice, bro.) The Academy sorely snubbed this film in several categories (especially for Bruhl in Supporting Actor), but we still get to enjoy the best film Ron Howard has made since ‘Frost/Nixon’, that is, until we get the ‘Arrested Development’ movie.

12. Before Midnight- It’s difficult to make a film that so perfectly creates a picture of reality, especially when that subject is love and marriage. Too often we receive these romanticized honeymooners, caught in a daze of compassion that waters down all sense of dysfunction and heartache that comes with love. For a third time, Linklater disposes of these love story stereotypes by reintroducing us to Jesse and Celine years down the road after their original encounter. The message this movie sends is clear; love is beautiful, but it is also hard work. It’s about making decisions to be committed rather than just “falling in.” How great is that?

11. The Conjuring- Easily the most pleasant surprise of 2013, ‘The Conjuring’ takes pages out of the books of horror greats like Friedkin, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Craven. What I wholeheartedly expected to be another pandering gore fest centered around demonic possession (thank you, ‘Paranormal’ for driving that once terrifying concept into the ground,) ends up being a master’s class in suspense. Director James Wan seems to understand what few directors do: The scariest thing on the screen is what is unseen, and the tension is everything. Barely misses the top 10, but it will go down as one of the best horror films of the decade.

Top 10 of 2013

Pines

10. The Place Beyond the Pines- Seeing this early in the year was a game-changer for 2013. I usually wait until October to expect something to be really great. Of course there will always be exciting summer flicks, but usually there is nothing that carries the emotion and drama I’ve come to respond to. Then I see ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’? In April? What? Surely an omen of good things to come in 2013, this film goes to the very heart of childhood circumstance, how the sins of the father fall upon the son, and what it takes to forgive. Starring Bradley Cooper (who also had a great year) and the beautifully mumbling Ryan Gosling, this is a film that I would guess not many have seen, so I will choose not to spoil it any further. RedBox, please.

Frozen

9. Frozen- Disney is back with its best film since The Lion King! Yes, I stole that from a commercial, but this time I tend to agree. ‘Frozen’ is wonderfully animated, carefully scored, and is better than any musical you’re going to see on Broadway. Where the film really succeeds is in abandoning cliches that a woman must be saved by a man rather than allowing women to save one another. It is funny, but the humor does not overshadow the beauty on screen. How many different ways can these guys animate ice? The answer is about 1000, as the visuals stun, transporting us back to a time of childhood wonder when snowflakes are the closest thing to magic. The original music is unmatched by any animated film of the past 15 years. If you’re on the fence about seeing it, Spotify the soundtrack, which topped iTunes Charts for a few weeks. I saw ‘Frozen’ three times, one of those was just to listen to the music again, and another was to share it with my family who didn’t quite believe my enthusiasm. If you have kids, you gotta take ‘em to see it, and I promise you will enjoy it just as much as they do.

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8. Inside Llewyn Davis- The life of a musician is not all it’s cracked up to be. If you have yet to break through the show-business wall, it’s a life of hitchhiking, couch jumping, jealous friendship, moments of hope followed by moments of heartbreak. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ shows us that life, and it does exactly what the title claims. It takes us inside the life of a struggling folk singer in 1960s New York, and although he carries beautiful songs in his repertoire, songs that nearly bring the audience to tears, at every turn there is someone with the keys saying , “I don’t see any money in this.” The film ends on a philosophical note, showing us that making it is more about luck than it is about talent, and why so many artists are forced to give up the dream. Oscar Isaac is breathtaking as Llewyn; a performance of subtle emotion. Easily the biggest omission by the Academy this year, plagued by a crowded lineup in the awards season releases. This is my favorite Coen brothers film since ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, maybe even since ‘Fargo,’ and they will receive almost no recognition for it. It feels as though they themselves are Llewyn with the talent in their gig bag, but no one heard the song.

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7. Dallas Buyers’ Club- Talk about actors that will make your jaw drop, and the movie is carried by them. McConaughey is thriving in disease, angry, bigoted, but strong as the bull he rides. ‘Dallas Buyers’ Club’ is a chapter out of the 1980s AIDS crisis, the story of a homophobic rodeo gambler who is diagnosed with HIV. Through seeking alternative treatment out of Mexico, Ron Woodruff starts providing treatment for others suffering from the disease (for a fee of course), mostly men of the gay community. I know, it sounds like high-end Oscar bait, bought and paid for, but what I loved so much about ‘Dallas Buyers’ Club’ is how it says ‘to hell with’ all the painted up and glittered treatments of reality and sticks to the hard truths. They keep Woodruff abrasive and disgusting, they don’t act like Rayon (played by an incredible Jared Leto) will go out in a blaze of glory. The film-makers understand what many don’t about AIDS; it’s ugly and horrific, as debilitating as any plague. This film hits us where it hurts, and it should. So glad it is receiving the recognition it deserves and I’m excited to watch both Leto and McConaghey take home gold this awards season.

NEBRASKA

6. Nebraska- From this moment on in the list, all of the films are some of best I’ve ever seen. That is not meant to be hyperbole, on the contrary, it is as sincere as I can be, only hoping to give the proper respect to each of these works. ‘Nebraska’ is a perfect example of this. Probably any other year, this would be #1 on the list. I was born and raised in Lincoln, currently where I reside, so it was a such a joy for me to witness a fellow Nebraskan in Alexander Payne create such a perfect snap shot of Midwestern family and our inexplicable devotion to one another. ‘Nebraska’ follows Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte) Grant, an elderly father and his middle aged son, as they travel to Lincoln to collect a Publisher’s-Clearance-House-like sweepstakes prize, a million dollar amount that everyone but Woody realizes is fictional. Most of the film takes place in small Hawthorne, Nebraska, where David learns more about his brooding father than ever before. The end result is powerful, and maybe because I saw this with my father, it strikes a chord for sons everywhere. Shot in gorgeous black and white, Nebraska is Payne’s greatest achievement to date, directing the best performance of the year out of Bruce Dern. If you are a son with any sort of relationship with your father, take him to see this film. It could be therapeutic.

Tom Hanks

5. Captain Phillips- I will make the statement that Paul Greengrass is the best director of action films that I have ever seen, and in ‘Captain Phillips’, he wowed me with his discipline by orchestrating the events of the Somalian pirate hijacking of Maersk Alabama so effortlessly. And, as my fellow film fanatic cousin Kent puts it, there’s nothing better than watching “Hanks being Hanks.” His portrayal of Phillips is heartbreaking to witness, as this man pleads over and over again to his captors to just give up, to put down their weapons, because he’s seen this story and he already knows the ending. I expected to be thrilled by ‘Captain Phillips’ (which I was), but I what I didn’t expect what stays with me the most; I was deeply moved. The final fifteen minutes is a powerhouse of emotion, from its shocking climax to the tear-jerking epilogue. Although Hanks is the star in the screen, Greengrass is the master behind the lens, and a few decisions he made ring out the loudest to me. The first is the decision to cast Somalian actors as his band of pirates. This was a subtle, but brave decision to pursue a truthful interpretation, and without that decision we would have never been able to shudder with amazement at Barkhad Abdi as the desperate Muse. Another Greengrass decision that may go unnoticed was his choice to cast an actual Navy EMT to act opposite of Hanks in the film’s conclusion. I’m telling all who have yet to see it that this movie oozes authenticity because of decisions like this, and it continues to wow thinking about ‘Captain Phillips.’

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4. American Hustle- The first time I watched ‘American Hustle’, I thought it was a great piece of work with great acting, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it. It seemed messy at moments, difficult to pin down the story, with an uncomfortable amount of emotion flying around the screen. But there’s sneaky thing about this one, that is, it stays with you, at least it did with me. I couldn’t forget Bradley Cooper’s giddy celebration with the other FBI agents, or Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn justify putting metal in the “science oven.” The style of it all is intoxicating, and it is visceral in its execution, making me laugh and cry in alternating cycles for two full hours. When I walked in a second time, I went by myself, wanting to soak it up like a sponge. It blew me away, and I’ll tell you why. Maybe I am reading too much into the themes of ‘Hustle,’ but like the con-men of the story, this is a movie that happens “from the feet up.” It leaves nothing to chance, and it is constantly trying to pull one over on you. Amy Adams character Sydney is the best testament to this. The entire time this thing is playing out, you have no clue where her loyalties lie. Had she been broken? Can she still really love Irving? Is she looking out for anyone but herself? In the end you realize she had you fooled all along. I find this to be true of all the lead characters. Rosalyn, who seems completely out of control, is the most powerful person in the room at all times, and it is actually Richie, the apparent leader of the operation, who has no control of what’s happening. Irving can fool everyone into believing what they want to believe, except the women he loves; they see right through it. Talking with a friend who also loves movies and who had also seen ‘Hustle’, he told me that the weakest thing about this movie was O. Russell’s direction. At first, I could agree, but now I’m starting to think otherwise. ‘American Hustle’ actually might be best directed film of the year, or perhaps I’m just being conned. Perhaps the reason I think this film is so great is because I’m just believing what I want to believe. Either way, it’s fun to be fooled.

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3. 12 Years A Slave - Everyone, meet your Best Picture winner. Accept it. Embrace it. There’s nothing you can do about it. I knew from the moment the credits rolled back in November. This story of Solomon Northup being kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years is the most emotional film-going experience I’ve had since seeing ‘Schindler’s List’ when I was in high school, but I’m not going to say what others have said, that this is the ‘Schindler’s List’ of slavery, because this film is one-hundred percent it’s own work of art all its own. If not the best film of the year, which it very well may be, it is certainly the most important. It is the story of slavery told by a black filmmaker through amazing black performers. I must say, I will probably never watch it again, but scenes from this film will stay with me forever. Scenes like Solomon hanging from a tree with just enough footing to stay alive, or our hero being forced to punish his friend Patsy at the whipping post. It’s one of those that I recommend with hesitation, knowing the ride you are in store for. But see it. Please see it.

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2. Gravity- Imagine holding your breath for 90 minutes. Now imagine doing it floating in the black night of space, alone in the expanse. Do you feel the fear? The desperation of Earth seeming so close to your fingertips, yet impossibly far away? ‘Gravity’ is as close as I ever hope to be to that experience, but how incredible it is! From the first jaw-dropping, no cuts, close to 15 minute shot of the Explorer crew working on the Hubble telescope until the dramatic re-entry into our atmosphere, this film is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Bullock is fearless as Dr. Ryan Stone and Cuaron reveals himself as one of the greatest film makers working today. In scale, there are moments of beauty that can only be likened to Kubrick’s ’2001: A Space Odyssey’, but in total craftsmanship, it is incomparable to anything in modern memory. I walked out of it saying “Best Film of the Year.” Yes, I did speak too soon, but I wasn’t too far off, and for a film to merit that kind of reaction from so many, you know it has the chops.

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1. Her- This is Spike Jonze’s masterpiece. A parable of the times we are soon to live in, a philosophical discussion of what it really means to be human, and a love story with more depth and power than I’ve ever seen, ‘Her’ is the finest and most brilliant film of 2013. The story of a not-too-distant future where Theodore Twombly meets and falls in love with Samantha. They connect, develop relationship, and eventually are head over heels for each other. Theodore makes Samantha laugh and Theodore loves the way the world looks through Samantha’s eyes. Here’s the catch; Samantha is Theodore’s computer, an Operating System of artificial intelligence that learns as it grows. Her written purpose is to meet all of Theodore’s needs, which becomes a task of love more than factory function, and the newly divorced Theodore struggles with what is real and what isn’t, finding that perhaps learning to love again is stranger than talking to a voice in your phone. The script is perfect, as are Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams (who had a fantastic year of her own), and Scarlett Johansson who voices the endearing AI Samantha. This is one of those movies that may not win a thing, but it’s so good that I could honestly care less. Watching ‘Her’ on its own is better than any statue. Resisting spoilers, I recommend it higher than any movie in theaters now. Go see ‘Her’ before it disappears into those spaces between the words.

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‘See It’ and ‘Skip It’: Film Reviews from the Holiday Season

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Well, dear readers, it has been a long time since I last posted on the ever-so popular Sorkin Notes. Due to my work schedule, homework, final exams, and the overall business of the Holidays, I haven’t had the opportunity to write about movies in my free time. This is disappointing for two reasons: The first being that the end of the year is nearly upon us and I’ve barely reviewed any of this year’s Oscar contenders (probably the only films reviewed that I would consider to be “contenders” are ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, ‘The Master’, and ‘Argo’), and the second being that since our last post, I’ve seen some really fantastic movies. So, instead of racking my brain, trying to write almost 10 in-depth of reviews of different movies in the next week. I’ve decided to knock it all out at once and give you a slew of reviews.

Each movie discussed has been given the decree of “See It’ or ‘Skip It’, so you can go to the cinema the next few weeks knowing which movies you need to catch and which ones are better left alone. Again, some of these movies might be long gone from your theaters, but even so, hold our suggestions in your heart until they come out on DVD.

Daniel Day Lincoln

See It: ‘Lincoln’

Steven Spielberg’s American epic ‘Lincoln’ is not only a must-see for the holiday season, but it is also one of the best, if not the best, of the entire year. Set in the closing months of the Civil War, the film centers around the sixteenth president and the passing of the 13th Amendment, forever abolishing slavery in the United States. Dealing with themes of unity and human dignity, this drama packs a punch and reminds us of a time when our nation, in the face of great division, accomplished something honorable.I have a great deal of confidence in saying that this is the best acted movie of 2012, with Lincoln being portrayed by Daniel-Day Lewis, who lights up every scene with hunched shoulders and a searing glare, and the always amazing Sally Field as the paranoid Mary Todd. However, the show is stolen by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, who plays his part with an intense passion and gives the best performance of his career.

Although the performances are all near-perfect, Spielberg’s expert direction and Tony Kushner’s intelligent dialogue are what makes this film truly spectacular. Not since ‘Schindler’s List’ has Spielberg made a movie like this; a true character piece that captures the audience, not with onscreen wizardry, but with truly human interactions between characters. Also, something must be said about the director’s ability to create the world that the audience inhabits, and in the scenes within the Congressional Chambers, Mr. Spielberg seamlessly transports us into the heated deliberations.

I could not give this movie a higher recommendation. For everyone that loves film, you should feel compelled to buy a ticket. The Oscar nominations that you should expect Lincoln to receive: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Costume Design.

My Grade: A+

Wreck-It Ralph

See It: ‘Wreck-It Ralph’

There is nothing more endearing than a lovable bad-guy that wants to change. Ralph (John C. Reilly)  is a warm-hearted, video game villain, who has a ‘Donkey-Kong-esque’ lot in life. Every day, Ralph gets up and destroys the 8-bit building that the tiny avatars live in, until the hero, Fix-It Felix, shows up and puts it back together again. Sleeping in a garbage dump every night, Ralph feels under-appreciated, and  looks for a change of scenery where, for once, he could be a hero.

When I saw the trailer for ‘Wreck-It Ralph’, I was immediately excited. It looked to have fun-loving excitement and a witty sense of humor. Being able to poke fun at the classic games of old is nostalgia at its finest, and the characters are so likable that you can’t help but root for them.  The movie did not disappoint in these categories, but where it also hit on a place that I did not expect; the heartstrings. Yes, not only is ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ the most original kid-friendly film of 2012, it is also the most heart-warming as well.

In my mind, this is far and away the Best Animated Film of 2012, and is 5 times the movie that ‘Brave’ was. Granted, it has ‘Paranorman’, ‘Rise of the Guardians’, and ‘Frankenweenie’ to compete with, so Oscar gold is far from a certainty. But, one thing is for certain; ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a fun-sized movie with a big heart that children and adults alike can enjoy.

My Grade: B+

Daniel Craig

See It: ‘Skyfall’ 

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is back in a big way in his latest adventure, ‘Skyfall’, where 007 must go toe-to-toe with the baddest baddie in the history of Bond baddies, played wonderfully by Javier Bardem. Like James Bond films of the past, this film takes you all over the world, but in a refreshing turn-of-events, spends most of its time in the United Kingdom. This gives the film a more close-to-home feel, even though it is an ocean away from where I viewed it. In ‘Skyfall’, Bond seemingly comes ‘back from the dead’ to defend MI6 Chief ‘M’, played by Dame Judi Dench, who is being targeted by cyber terrorist Silva (Bardem.) With action and excitement that has no equal, ‘Skyfall’ has so much going for it, and it really is a great movie, but I have two major qualms with it. Warning: There are spoilers in the rest of this segment. 

The first issue that I have with ‘Skyfall’ is not so much an issue as it is a personal preference. I am really growing tired of the generic plot twist where the bad-guy gets caught in the middle of the movie, followed by a dramatic scene of dialogue while he is in custody, only to find out that *SURPRISE* he wanted to get caught all along, and then escapes as his master plan begins to unfold. ‘The Dark Knight’ did it first, and best, then ‘The Avengers’ ripped it off, and finally ‘Skyfall’. So unoriginal. We need to get more creative with our blockbusters.

Stop reading if you do not want to know the end of the movie!

My second problem is this, and I think it is a pretty glaring flaw; the whole movie, Silva wants to kill ‘M’, and at the end tries to force ‘M’ to shoot herself while Silva’s head is right next to hers, which would have killed both of them. Bond comes in, obviously, and kills Silva before he gets the chance to do this. Then, ‘M’ dies from wounds that she suffered from the final conflict. So, in the end, our villain wins, getting what he wanted all along. So all of this conflict, everything the audience just endured, ends up being pretty unfulfilling.

Regardless, ‘Skyfall’ is a well-made and splendidly performed action flick, and one of the best Bond’s ever, but it is far from perfect.

My Grade: B+

Cloud-Atlas-Movie

Skip It: ‘Cloud Atlas’

This review is not going to make me very popular with some people, because many people loved this movie. It would have been very easy for me to walk out of that theater, pretending that I loved ‘Cloud Atlas’, spending time unraveling all the complexities and calling it a work of genius. But, alas, I could not lie to myself. I did not like this movie. But, I don’t want anyone to think that I disliked this movie because I was unwilling or unable to understand it. ‘He didn’t get it, so he didn’t like it.’ No, I get it, condescending reader. It was not a lack of understanding that turned me off, but it was because of what I had to go through to see this movie that left me going “What the heck did I just watch?”

Taking place in six different periods of time, where six separate but intersecting lines of story are taking place, ‘Cloud Atlas’ follows the adventures, trials, victories, and defeats of many different characters. Although we are seeing half-a-dozen different character arcs (who are all being played by a small cast of actors, all of whom have multiple roles), there is a common theme in all the stories; there is the dreamer, one who aspires to accomplish great things, the oppressor, who wants to stop the dreamer from reaching their aspirations, and a savior, who saves the dreamer from the oppressor. Good concept, very ambitious, but in ‘Cloud Atlas’, the idea is stretched way too thin.

This movie really does buckle under the weight of its own ambition. The audience does not feel lost as much as they feel overwhelmed, wondering why all of these stories are necessary. Because of the great number of protagonists, we really don’t care very much for any of them and are altogether detached. In reality, this is just 3 pretty good films and 3 not very good films, all blended together into one very ‘meh’ experience.

Out of all of this though, the thing that bothers me the most about this film is its piety, its attitude that it is the source of understanding for all of man’s struggles. It tries to dupe the audience into buying into this premise that it hasn’t even proven to us, while also trying to sell every line like it is soon to be a “quote for the ages”. It ends up being preachy, and in the process of trying to be a movie about everything, it ends up being a movie about absolutely nothing.

So, if you see an advertisement claiming that ‘Cloud Atlas’ is one of the great films of our time, I have two words for you: False advertising.

My Grade: D+

perks

See It: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’

I’ve really grown weary of the  heart-felt teen drama over the years, because lately there have been very few good ones. Not since ‘Juno’ (which was actually much more comedy than drama) has a really well-made high school movie been put out there, and after ‘Juno’ came a bunch of ‘Juno’ posers (did anyone see ‘Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist’? What a tragedy…) So, going to ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’, I really felt like it was a coin-flip’s chance that it was going to be an above average movie. I was more than pleasantly surprised, and although ‘Perks’ has a few moments that might be difficult to swallow, it is an emotional journey that discusses so many themes and subjects that the teen drama would usually sweep under the rug.

Written and Directed by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote novel of the same title, ‘Perks’ centers around Charlie (Logan Lerman), a young high schooler who starts the year feeling alone and estranged. Dealing with past trauma and the loss of a friend, Charlie has all but given up on trying to belong. That is until he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who soon connect him to a group of friends that becomes a second family to Charlie.

I would rather not reveal too much about all the directions that this movie goes, as to not repel anyone from giving it a chance, but I will say that this movie is not for the faint of heart, and it is often painful to see what these young people have to go through in order to feel accepted. But, the payoff is worth it. We can all relate to what it was like to be a teenager, hence the pull towards the teen movie, but the nostalgia becomes vivid , and it is clear that ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is much more about the reality than the fantasy.

My Grade: B

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

See It: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

I posted this thought on my Facebook earlier this week (I know, probably a mistake), but the critical backlash for ‘The Hobbit’ has been more than outrageous. The same people who were calling Peter Jackson a filmmaking genius during the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy are now calling for the New Zealand director’s head. And why? ‘It’s too long.’ ‘It’s seems like it’s for kids.’ ‘Some scenes are just unnecessary.’ People, welcome to the world of Middle Earth, where everything is very long, detailed, and where silly dwarves do silly things. Why are you acting so surprised? Are you trying to tell me that ‘Return of the King’ wasn’t too long? It had 15 endings, for goodness sake. Just sit down, and enjoy the movie, because ‘The Hobbit’ is an amazing cinematic experience.

One thing that I loved about Jackson’s newest adaptation of the classic Tolkien novels is that it has a very different style and feel to it than the past trilogy. This was very intentional; in the same way that Tolkien’s LOTR series is more about the battle of good and evil, aimed more towards adults, ‘The Hobbit’ is more about the odyssey, the magical journey, and was written more to be read to children. As a prequel, ‘The Hobbit’ was meant to further color-in the world that Tolkien had already set in motion. I really believe that ‘An Unexpected Journey’ accomplishes that very thing. Jackson, however, does something really special with the material and pulls out subtle themes that might otherwise be overlooked.

This movie is about the concept of home, and how if you want a place to belong in this world, you must be willing to fight for it. The story opens with Bilbo Baggins, snug in his cozy hole at Bag End, until Gandalf comes to town and turns the hobbit’s world upside-down. Gandalf brings a company of dwarves to Bilbo’s door, and the merry bunch looks to set out on a quest to reclaim Erebor, the lost Dwarven kingdom, from the dragon Smaug. Although reluctant at first, Bilbo takes the courage to step out of the door, and thus begins a journey that will change his life forever.

Starring Martin Freeman and Sir Ian McKellan, this film isn’t exactly what you would expect, but ends up being more than you bargained for. Although it is long, I loved every one of its 175 minutes. Full of action and wonder, I highly recommend that you take the time to see ‘the master’ Peter Jackson at work yet again.

My Grade: A

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Skip It: ‘Paranormal Activity 4′

This is a message to all movie makers around the world: I am sick of your ‘found footage’, shaky hand-cam, home video style movies. Enough is enough. It is lacking in creativity and makes the story of your film totally irrelevant. To say ‘Skip It’ to ‘Paranormal Activity 4′ is really not enough; I should say that there is no reason that this movie should have been made, period. Aren’t you sick of Katie’s dysfunctional demon family? Pretty soon its going to be like a reality show (probably titled ‘Here Comes Scary Boo-Boo’), and America will probably still go and watch it.

In this installment of the ‘Paranormal’ drama, Katie and Damian from ‘The Omen’ move in across the street from a seemingly normal family, and through the technological magic of Skype, we are able to watch all of the creepy, crawly, spooky, scary things that ensue when Katie’s ‘son’ comes to over to stay. Spoiler Alert: A bunch of stuff moves unexpectedly.

The first one was good. The second one was bad. The third one was totally irrelevant. Now it’s getting pathetic. But, if you stay after the credits, you’ll clearly see that they are definitely going to make another one of these things, probably in Mexico, and probably titled ‘Paranormal Activity: Cancun Vacation!’ I know this review is late, but if it keeps at least one person from renting this movie, then I’ve done my job.

My Grade: F

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See It on DVD: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

In ve’Beasts of the Southern Wild’, we are able to view disaster and poverty  through the eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a fierce young girl who lives in a flooded community called the Bathtub with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry). When her home is flooded and her father falls ill, Hushpuppy must do what she can to save her father and her home. Floating in and out of fantasy and reality, this is a tale of family, community, and finding the beast within your own soul. I would try to explain the plot more, but I believe that this story is told best through the sights and sounds that it provides it’s viewer. It is better for you to discover it for yourself then have me try and explain it until it makes sense.

Beautiful and poetic, this is a movie that is real artistry, and one thing that I love about it is that the director Benh Zeitlin really leaves the purpose open for interpretation, and creates a fantasy that isn’t set worlds away, but seems like it is in our own back yard. Many might say that this movie is really about Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of that tragedy, but the way that I viewed it led me to believe that ‘Beasts’ is about the trials of all homeless people around the world, and how through the eyes of a child, not having a home can seem like a magical adventure.

This is one of those that demands a second viewing, and I suggest going to your local RedBox and picking up a copy of  ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ I promise you that it will be 100% different from anything else that you’ve watched this year. It really is true inspiration. Okay, enough of the love fest; let’s wrap this thing up.

My Grade: A

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Top Ten Movies of the Nineties

Thanks to my friend Jason, I came up with my own rankings for what I believe to be the best movies of the 90′s. Tell us what you think about our choices, and I understand the fact that it’s probably a cardinal sin to put ‘Schindler’s List’ anywhere but number 1. What can I say, I cannot deny my love for Fincher and Tarantino! In all seriousness, the 90′s was a great decade for film, probably the second best behind the 70′s. Give us feedback, let us know what you think should be number 1.

Carson’s Top Ten Movies of the 90′s 

1. Pulp Fiction

2. Fight Club

3. Schindler’s List

4. Goodfellas

5. The Truman Show

6. Saving Private Ryan

7. The Shawshank Redemption

8. Groundhog Day

9. Fargo

10. A Few Good Men

Honorable Mention

11. Toy Story

12. Beauty and the Beast

13. Forrest Gump

14. Apollo 13

15. Se7en

15. L.A. Confidential

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‘Argo’: Saved by the Beard of Ben Affleck!

What makes us proud to be Americans? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, and to be quite honest, I really don’t know how excited I should be to belong to the US of A. The economic woes of the past 4 years has really led us to be pretty ho-hum on patriotism and national pride. There seems to be this prevailing idea that our glory days are behind us, that the empire is now on the downward slide, and many of us have even resigned ourselves to the evidence that soon China is going to be the big kid on the block. This terrifies some of us, reigniting feelings of fear that we haven’t felt since the Commie-hunting days of McCarthyism.

Then there was the election (thank goodness it’s over!), in which both sides of the aisle did their part to even further the apparent gaps that exist in the politics of America. There was a time where democracy was meant to unite the people, and be a joy to participate in, because we were the one’s deciding our future; we were given a voice. But it has become a nasty affair that does not promote unity, but causes people of differing views and opinions to go at each other’s throats. When did Facebook become the megaphone for dissent? Who came up with the idea to flood the internet with hate and ignorance?

Okay… Getting off my soap box now…

What I’m saying is this; sometimes when the chips are down, and people have trouble finding a common identity, we need a hero to rally around to give us something that we all can root for. We need a story that we can all be proud of, something that makes us want to stand up in our seats and cheer loudly for freedom, like Uncle Sam taught us to! (drumroll……)

Enter stage left, Ben Affleck and his gnarly beard.

In November of 1979, the United States Embassy in Tehran was invaded by militant Iranian revolutionaries, where they quickly took control of the facility and captured 56 American citizens as hostages. Angered by the decision of President Carter to grant asylum to the former Shah of Iran, who was thrown from power by means of revolution, the revolutionaries made the promise that until the Shah was given back to the Iranians to face trial and execution, the Americans would remain prisoners of the Iranian people. The whole world was watching, and tensions built on both sides as attempts of diplomacy failed over and over agin.

But, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, six American citizens escaped from the embassy during the raid, and found refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. This handful of people were now stranded in Tehran, a city that was becoming a powder keg of violence, living in constant fear that if they were to be found out, they would be killed in the streets.

‘Argo’ is the true life story of CIA officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), and how by impersonating a film crew for a B-rate Sci-Fi film, he led a mission to extract these six Americans safely out of Tehran. Written by Chris Terrio and brilliantly directed Ben Affleck, ‘Argo’ is not only intriguing and engrossing, but it is also the best two hours of entertainment that you will be able to find in a movie theater. Edge of your seat suspense, coupled with moments that will make you grin from ear to ear, make this one a Hollywood gem; an instant classic.

In my mind, ‘Argo’ really does something amazing. Right from the word ‘go’ it captures us with the raid on the embassy in Tehran, which I am willing to say in November, is the most compelling scene of film that was released this year. It keeps the audience engaged in the excitement, gripping at the conclusion of the film, and it does this without the bullets and bombs that are usually necessary to keep people interested. The climax is done the old fashioned way, by setting the stage of danger in Iran, creating characters that we share common ground with, and forces them to accomplish a feat that is, to both the viewer and the characters, seemingly impossible. Who would have thought that real espionage could be this wonderful?

The strengths of this movie are everywhere, but it starts with a great script by Terrio, who is able to take this big event from our history, and give an adaptation that makes us feel as though we are right back in the middle of the crisis itself. The dialogue is snappy and fresh, filled with purpose, and is all about the storyline, getting us from point A to point B with style and ferocity. But it’s not only the story that makes the writing marvelous, but it is also Terrio’s attention to creating great characters, how through moments of revealing dialogue, the audience begins to like these people more and more with every passing frame.

But we can’t give Terrio all the credit for creating great characters; you have to throw praise in the direction of the actors, and ‘Argo’ showcases performances in both lead and supporting roles, making this is very strong ensemble cast. I’ve seen bits and pieces of criticism of Affleck’s performance in ‘Argo’, and after seeing it twice, it’s obvious to me that they were not watching the same movie that I was. Affleck is a spot on lead, giving us a hero we believe in, an underdog of a spie. What’s not to like? And positive reviews have been falling from the sky for these two actors, but not enough can be said about John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who play Hollywood big-wigs John Chambers and Lester Siegal. Goodman is witty with pitch perfect delivery, understanding the importance of adding levity to a very intense film, and Arkin just steals the show through his attitude, showing that age doesn’t slow down a great actor. Arkin is a shoe-in for another Oscar nomination, and rightfully so, although the Supporting Actor field is going to be jam-packed this year.

But it’s not just Affleck, Arkin, and Goodman that give memorable roles in ‘Argo’; the whole movie hinges on the actors and actresses playing the American refugees, who are given a very tricky task. By giving to much visible emotion, the characters would seem cowardly and exaggerated, and by not giving enough, the film would ring false, but these six actors and actresses strike the chord between fearful and courageous. Specifically, Scoot McNairy gives a dynamite performance as the cynical Joe Stafford. Although the audience is at first resistant to Stafford, there are some very powerful moments where we realize that this is a man that wants to protect his wife, as well as someone who feels an intense amount of guilt for putting her in this situation. This can all be attributed to the subtleties of McNairy (who I’m excited to see in ‘Killing Them Softly’ next week).

However, the one prevailing thought that I had after seeing ‘Argo’ was ‘Wow, that Ben Affleck guy sure can make a good movie.’ After seeing ‘Gone Baby Gone’, ‘The Town’, and ‘Argo’, it is pretty obvious to me that the guy has an immense amount of talent, and I’m so happy that he has finally found his place behind the camera, where I think he is best suited. For a while, the joke of the day was always how Matt Damon was probably the real mastermind behind ‘Good Will Hunting’, and Affleck really just put his name on the thing, alluding that Damon was obviously the better actor. But, in the end, Damon might be the better actor, but Affleck is the better movie maker. Now that we’ve seen his expert understanding of character, story, theme, and entertainment, are we so sure that Damon wasn’t the one mooching all along?

What I really love about ‘Argo’ is that it showed us something that we did right; how we were able to save lives without violence, and how we were able to use our creativity to solve the problems that the world throws our way. I love how no matter what you believe about today’s America, we can agree that what was accomplished by Tony Mendez in Tehran was nothing short of miraculous, and it’s something that should make us proud to be Americans… and Canadians.

My Note: ‘Argo’ is simply a Hollywood gem; an instant classic!

My Grade: A+

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Stuck In The ‘Looper’ With You

In 1985, Robert Zemeckis became the “talk of the town” when he, along with Universal Studios, released a mainstream summer flick that was simply titled ‘Back to the Future.’ It had teen heart-throb Michael J. Fox, a catchy song by Huey Lewis and The News, and special-effects that were totally ahead of its time. What people expected to be a fun, “popcorn” movie, ended up becoming a fully fledged pop-culture phenomena. And sure, I am a little biased; ‘Back to the Future’ is one of my favorite movies of all time (check out our ‘Top 10 Lists’ link at the top of your page), but I really do think that when it comes to science fiction, humor, excitement, entertainment, and making the perfect ‘time-travel’ movie, ‘Back to the Future’ nails it.

I only write the above paragraph of geeky fan-boy praise to bring this up; in my mind, ever since the ‘Back to the Future’ franchise was wrapped up, the ‘time travel’ movie has really been done to death, often producing less than stellar results. I always hope that I’ll walk out with the same magic that Zemeckis gave me, but I usually end up burying my head in my hands, asking ‘Hello? McFly?’

Every once in awhile, you’ll get a ‘Groundhog Day’ or ’12 Monkeys’, which give you hope that a good time jumper movie is still possible; but for every good one, there is about 10 bad ones out there; ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, ‘Terminator’ 3 and 4, ‘The Time Machine (2002)’, ‘The Butterfly Effect’, ‘Clockstoppers’ (I must abandon my nostalgia and be objective on this one), ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (don’t try to prove to me that this is a good movie. It’s garbage. Watch it again, I promise it doesn’t hold up over time), and I could go on… for a while. I get it, I understand that there is the difference between a time travel movie that is serious and one that is a comedy, but goodness, why does your time travel movie have to be eulogy or completely idiotic? ‘Donnie Darko’ makes you want to jump off your own roof, and ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ makes you want to flee from the theater.

It’s the list of sub-par movies above that make you want to look up to the heavens and thank somebody when a movie like ‘Looper’ comes around. Not only is it a great work of sci-fi, taking a totally different angle on an overdone concept, but ‘Looper’ is also one of the most wildly entertaining, thought provoking, unique, and thrilling movies you can spend your money on. And when I say thrilling, I mean the ‘adrenaline shot to your aortic valve’ kind of thrilling.

The film is titled ‘Looper,’ but it is also the profession of our central character. The year is 2044, and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper; and what does that mean? Well, here’s where it starts to get complicated. You see, in 2044, time travel has yet to be invented, but in thirty years time travel does exist, and although it is illegal, the mob uses this technology to send their enemies back in time. When their targets arrive, a looper is already waiting for them with a loaded gun, and kills the hooded victims on sight.

This is how the racket works if you’re a looper; you kill the victims that are sent from future, receiving payment in bars of silver for every kill, until one day your future-self appears in front of you. Doing what you’re trained to do, you kill the target on sight, effectively killing your future-self. “This is called ‘closing your loop’.” This is how these future mobsters end your contract, making it as though you never existed in the first place. When you ‘close your loop’, you’re given a lottery-sized pay day and an early retirement. You also get 30 more years to live until, of course, you are sent back in time to be killed, by yourself.

Our story really gets rolling when our “hero,” Joe, lets his target get away. Normally, this would just be a minor problem, except the man that escaped is Joe, from the future (played wonderfully by Bruce Willis). Now, present Joe is trying to hunt and kill his future self, future Joe is trying to change the future, and Joe’s employers are trying to wipe the both of them, present and future, off the map.

Watch future Joe escape! Click here!

Sadly, this is really all that I want to summarize about the plot of ‘Looper’. So much of this movie really depends on the element of surprise and experiencing all of the mind-bending twists and turns, and as always, I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone.

Now, don’t let the schematics of ‘Looper’ scare you off. Although it takes a few moments to get into it, the action quickly gets rolling and the logic of it all begins to make sense, and the pay-off for this one is huge. It is clear that storytelling is the primary objective for up-and-coming director Rian Johnson, and this objective was reached and then some. I haven’t read the screenplay first hand, but I’m sure that ‘Looper’ is nothing short of a writing gem (Johnson also being the writer of the script.)

Another decision that I think really set this movie apart was the choice to have two separate actors play the same character, the present and future Joe. Although criticized by some, I one-hundred percent support Johnson’s decision to rely on the acting abilities of Gordon-Levitt and Willis to bring this character to life.

Using a very clever make-up job, JGL takes on an entirely different face, and an entirely different persona for that matter. In ‘Looper’, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really pushed to go beyond his usual character and create a frustratingly neutral, and often unlikable young man. The more I think about it, the character of young Joe really establishes the reality of ‘Looper’; the reality that there are no good guys, and there are no bad guys. Every person in this story has their own motives, their own desires that they are desperate to defend. Maybe that’s what makes this film so flippin’ exciting.

On the flip-side, Willis’ take on Joe is nothing short of marvelous. He takes the groundwork that his younger co-star has given him, and builds a character that is both determined and sorrowful. In one particular scene, where the two Joeys sit down to chat for the first time, Willis brings the movie to a total halt by being the energy behind a commanding bit of dialogue. In all seriousness, this scene, which take place in a vacant country diner, may be the best thing you watch on a screen this year. Don’t miss it.

The best advice I can give you; Go to your local RedBox, Blockbuster, Netflix, or On-Demand provider and check out ‘Looper’ on December 31, when its released on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you hate it, I’ll refund your money myself. Just call my secretary, and they’ll iron out the details.

My Note: Looper is as unique as it is entertaining. You’ll want to go back in time just to see it again.

My Grade: A

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‘The Master’ Of The House

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a young World War II Navy man, returns from sea to a changing America, a world that is very different than the place he had called home. Like most men who returned from “over there,” Freddie tries to “fit in” the post-war society by finding a job. He becomes a photographer in a department store, and although he enjoys the company of one particular sales girl, he gets fired for drunkenly assaulting a customer. After his disappointing change in employment, Freddie finds work on a cabbage farm, until his own alcoholic concoction of paint thinner and jet fuel poisons an elderly co-worker. Freddie is then ran out of town.

Quite simply, Freddie Quell is a mess. Violent, sexually obsessed, and an alcoholic in the most extreme sense (the guy drinks straight Drain-O for goodness sakes,) for the prologue scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’, Freddie is as aimless as a ship without a sail, an automobile without a steering wheel.

However, one night during his drunken wandering, this walking disaster finds his way onto the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a writer, doctor, theoretical philosopher, nuclear physicist, and a ‘hopelessly inquisitive man.’ But more importantly, Dodd is a leader of an American spiritual movement known as ‘The Cause,’ which seeks to abandon the trauma and pain of past lives in order to find happiness, meaning, fulfillment, love, etc. In short, you take one part L. Ron Hubbard, one part Philip Seymour Hoffman, you end up getting Lancaster Dodd, and also a pretty convincing 20th century cult. Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid of Jonestown, the followers of The Cause drink in the words of their Master, who is as eccentric as he is charismatic. Hoffman exudes the righteous confidence that not only brings this character to life, but makes Dodd seem as realistic as any religious figure that there ever has been.

‘The Master’ centers around the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. The man who seemingly has all the answers, and another that seems to be the human incarnation of a giant question mark. Dodd becomes fascinated with Freddie, convinced that he knows him from some sort of past existence, that somehow Freddie had known the Master long before he had stowed away on his ship. The Master puts Freddie through a period of intense psychological analysis, what Dodd calls ‘Processing’, in which he asks Freddie questions of his life’s previous experiences. Through this interrogation, we find out that Freddie is even more troubled than we had originally thought; a dead father, an institutionalized mother, a shameful sexual encounter with his aunt, and a love that he abandoned when he left for the war. We discover this past trauma, and lost love, and the root of most of Freddie’s dysfunction.

Dodd decides that Freddie must join The Cause in their travels, even though Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) and other disciples remain skeptical of this unstable outsider. Freddie continues a pattern of boozing and violence, assaulting a man who debates with the Master at a dinner party, as well as getting arrested while trying to defend Dodd against a group of policeman. It becomes apparent to the following and to the audience that, despite the ‘treatment’ and attention he is receiving from this pseudo-spiritual guru, Freddie is not getting better. He remains an incredibly flawed, broken person.

As the story continues, it is also revealed to us that Dodd, this so-called Master, is also plagued with ethical shortcomings and a great many moral contradictions. His own son claims that he is a fraud, simply improvising his spiritual revelations, and when his latest book is published, Dodd is criticized by both his close friends and his followers. As the audience, Anderson clearly reveals to us that the Master is a slave to his own moral piety; seemingly a prisoner to his own philosophies.

But make no mistake; through all the complexity and thematic symbolism, ‘The Master’ truly is about the relationship between Mentor and Disciple; The Master and the Student. But it really is more than this. There is authentic friendship, and even deep love between Freddie and Dodd. Not only was Freddie lost before meeting Dodd, we come to believe that Dodd himself wasn’t fulfilled until encountering Freddie as well. It’s as if Freddie represents everything that the Master is seeking to do away with, but he simply cannot leave it behind. He is still attached to his vices, and the relationship with Freddie, although fulfilling, seems to be destroying him.

Anderson is truly a craftsman when it comes to filmmaking; an in-depth artist and director in equal parts. The way the film is shot, acted, and written truly is mesmerizing. As a viewer, I was enthralled by ‘The Master,’ and as much as I explained above about the actual plot and my own interpretation of the meaning, it is obvious to me that I have merely scratched the surface when it comes to fully understanding it entirely. It really is a movie that is so dense and complex, you truly could write a novel discussing everything that puts it together. Like Anderson’s 2008 film ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ‘The Master’ not only demands a second viewing; your brain is already shouting to see it again as you walk out of the theater.

That being said, with all the praise that I give this film, and as amazing as much of it is, ‘The Master’ is not without its own moral ambiguity on top muddled sexual imagery. I feel that there are a few scenes where the audience is truly lost, wondering of the purpose behind certain storytelling decisions. While Freddie is obviously a sexually driven person, Anderson plunges us head-first into his depravity, leaving us covered in his perverse ugliness. Also, the ending of the film leaves us asking, “What was it all about?” Perhaps this was Anderson’s intent. We, like Freddie Quell, find that the more we are immersed in this cult culture, the less that we truly understand, and we, also like Freddie, end up coming out of the experience more confused than changed. However, this ambiguity is really my own qualm with what is otherwise an incredible movie.

One last note on ‘The Master’: I truly believe that in this movie, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have given performances that may be the best of their career, and also will end up being the best two performances you will see this year. They own the screen with such ferocity, at times leaving us awestruck. Too bad for both of them though, because Phoenix openly hates AMPAS and everything connected to the Oscars, so I feel that neither of them will truly get the recognition that they deserve.

“It’s total, utter bulls***, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot. It’s totally subjective. Pitting people against each other … It’s the stupidest thing in the whole world.” -Joaquin Phoenix on the Oscars

Sometimes, bro, you just gotta keep your mouth shut.

My Note: Despite it’s moral ambiguity and complexity, ‘The Master’ is nothing short of brilliant.

My Grade: A- (This grade will most likely change over time. I need a second viewing, and I feel as I grow in understanding, this movie will just get better to me. Putting a grade on this thing is like grading a Picasso painting; it wasn’t meant to be done.”

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‘Lawless’: Bloodiest County on Earth, and it’s a Bore

It is always interesting to find an independent film that has a knockout cast.

Actors and actresses are usually prima-donnas when it comes to their paycheck, and when they’re not, then their agents will try to find as many high-paying, studio projects as they can. It’s the reason that Chris Hemsworth is able to pay his rent; he looks great on a lunch box. Studio movies want good faces, well known rising stars  to front their future franchises.

So when you get Shia LeBeouf, everyone’s favorite “Bane” Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain (perhaps the most successful actress of 2011), and seasoned veterans such as Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce, everyone is ready to buckle down and start watching for Oscar potential. A cast like that in an indie this usually means one of two things: 1) There is a great, young director that everyone is wanting to work with, or 2) The story and script are dynamite.

After watching the film, I realize that it was neither of these things that got this super-troop together. There is nothing special about how this movie was made, nor was the script anything brilliant or groundbreaking. It was the gritty nature of the violence, combined with the subject matter of a Southern bootleggers’ paradise that really gets one drawn into the story, but as a viewer, once you move passed the venir of these two elements, ‘Lawless’ is fairly empty, and honestly, a bit boring.

Like the non-fiction novel ‘The Wettest County in the World’, this film centers around the Bondurant family, a rag tag group of brothers who ran moonshine during Prohibition in Virginia. The film takes the audience to a world of organized crime that exists outside of the city, but in the backwoods country of the United States. Jack Bondurant (LeBeouf), is the narrator and central character to the film, but let me tell you right now, he is not the hero of this deep-South mythology. No, Jack is only the catalyst for conflict, the ingredient that causes everything to go awry. Even when Jack tries to help, he makes things worse, and even when he makes things better, it is eventually him that takes the family down an even worse road. Jack plays the damsel in distress, the younger brother that is constantly being bailed out. He is our protagonist, but he is not our hero.

The real Achilles of this Illiad is Forrest Bondurant (played wonderfully by Tom Hardy), who is simultaneously the the matriarch and patriarch of this little domestic disaster. He is the problem solver, the provider, the house keeper, as well as the seemingly invincible older brother. Big and brass-knuckled, the only thing more intimidating about Forrest’s stature is his stubborn demeanor. Although Jack is the man that we follow through this story, most of the conflict must be endured and resolved by the older Forrest. It is the relationship of these two brothers that makes our story tick.

Oh, and then there’s Howard Bondurant, but like Jack, he is either not where he needs to be, which once almost costs Forrest his neck (literally), or he is where he shouldn’t be. I almost forgot about Howard; this is most likely due to the fact that he is totally irrelevant, but we’ll get to that later.

The moonshine business is treating the Bondurants well, until we meet our obvious villain. Just taking one look at Guy Pearce’s haircut in this film, we realize that he is going to be trouble. Deputy Charlie Rakes (Pearce) rolls into town, and tells everyone who is running liquor that they need to pay up, or Rakes will shut them down one by one. Driven by pride, big, muscular, macho pride, Forrest refuses, saying that no one will push the Bondurants around.

After this decision is made, what ensues are dozens of instances of violent torture and acts of intimidation on both sides.

I have to level with you, the movie critic in me can’t let this slip by. What I think is incredibly interesting about the characters in this film is the writer and director are trying to convince us that Pearce is a bad man, and the Bondurants are good men. But this is the reality; Rakes is corrupt, but the Bondurants are criminals, and they have their own fair share of moral lapses as well. I just don’t feel that even as much as director John Hillcoat is trying to convince me of it, I don’t see some of the Bondurants’ acts of malicious violence as justifiable.

Also, if you are going to skew it to convince me that these men are good in nature, then you must show me real acts of humanity where I can decide whether or not I want to stick it out with these guys.The truth is that Forrest never really shows that he loves his family, and neither does Jack or Howard. Everyone is really out for themselves, and it leads the viewer to not have much stake in any of them at all. Even when Chastain’s character becomes vulnerable and loving in gratitude for Forrest, Forrest doesn’t know how to respond. He is seemingly heartless as a character, and only his actions of vengeance and anger are supposed to prove otherwise? I’m not buying it.

Like most of my reviews, I don’t want to give anything that will stop you from seeing the movie, but I do want to give you a clear picture of why I feel the way I do about this movie. I was really trying to stick with this one, very willing to grind it out until the very end, but I must tell you, the final climax of ‘Lawless’ is just dreadful. A shootout scene that is two parts frustrating and one part unbelievable. All I’m going to say is this; if you are going to bring out every character in the film for one final showdown, you need to make it worth, and you need to make these characters active participants in the conflict, not simply observers who are there to provide setting and symbolically historical context. Also, if you’re going to prove to me that this group of brothers is really in this together, then show me that they will at least defend each other, rather than just watch as their world falls apart.

I must say, though, that the performances are very good, and there are many things about ‘Lawless’ that are done well. There are great moments of dialogue and also very intimiate moments of honesty within certain characters. But as a director, Hillcoat chooses to ignore the best performances of the film and the most complex characters, and instead decides to focus on throat slitting, strangulation, and the dismemberment of humanity, and this is the fatal flaw of ‘Lawless.’

Also… Give me more Gary Oldman! His character was by far the most interesting in the entire movie, and we barely see him. I want a sequel to be titled ‘Lawless 2: The Story of Floyd Banner’ just so I can get more of his sinister gangster smirk.

My Note: ‘Lawless’ is all about the violence and not about much else.

My Grade: C

Our Summer Awards: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ Wins Big

It’s hard to believe that the Summer is already over. It seems like only yesterday that I sat in a theater for ‘The Avengers’, and now I’m wrapping up the movies that I saw in August. Oscar season is just around the corner and I’m already geeking out for the great movies soon to come! But before we do that, I have some awards we wish to give out to the courageous summer films that both inspired us and made us shake our heads.

Each category will have 5 nominees and the winner will be highlighted in bold. Let us know what you think of our decisions, and remember, this is only 3 months of movies that we’re picking from (in a relatively week Summer for great movies), so don’t be upset if our winner is less than stellar.

Best Film of the Summer

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Dark Knight Rises

Moonrise Kingdom (Easily the best film of the year so far, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece deserves the #1 spot. Sorry, Batman.)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Best Director of the Summer

Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom)

John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises)

Joss Whedon (The Avengers)

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Best Actor of the Summer

Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises)

Steve Carrell (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World)

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man)

Jared Gilman (Moonrise Kingdom)

Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs)

Best Actress of the Summer

Judi Dench (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Keira Knightly (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World)

Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom)

Meryl Streep (Hope Springs)

Quvenzhane’ Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Best Supporting Actor of the Summer

Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises)

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus)

Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom)

Bruce Willis (Moonrise Kingdom)

Best Supporting Actress of the Summer

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) 

Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers)

Frances McDormand (Moonrise Kingdom)

Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man)

Worst Movie of the Summer (that we saw…)

The Campaign

Prometheus

Ted

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Summer Movie Slam: ‘Brave’

Tuttle: For this particular review, me and my co-writer, Rebecca Agler, decided to tag team the duties of writing about ‘Brave’. It seems like a movie that most of the general public went to see, and it was also a film that both Agler and I were particularly disappointed with.

I know what you are thinking. “I thought ‘Brave’ was a pretty good movie.” Well, it very well might have been, but a ‘pretty good’ Pixar movie, in my mind, is a HUGE step backwards for a great production company. This is the same studio that gave us ‘Toy Story’, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘WALL-E’, and my personal favorite ‘Up’. I mean think about it, can you think of many movies that tell a story better than ‘Up’? That montage that made all of America weep and weep again? Pure movie magic. Agler, why do you think we are so attached to these older Pixar movies?

Agler: It’s because they’re stories  that are so easy for us to relate to. Just think of ‘Toy Story’. Now, where do I begin with why I love ‘Toy Story’? A common part of childhood we all had when we were little tykes, whether it was playing with a dolled-up Barbie or macho (insert male toy), was making our toys talk and have human tendencies. The idea that our toys were more than toys was what every kid dreamed of. That’s why we can all relate to growing up but refusing to give our toys away despite our mother’s nagging wishes. We formed an unbreakable allegiance to our plastic friends. These friends didn’t tire of hours upon hours of play time, didn’t care how lame our imaginative scenarios were, were often chosen instead of other activities, and were our companions when the real people around us were not.

This storyline is there in all three ‘Toy Story’ movies; they’re not so much about toys as much as they’re about growing up. You could say the same thing about ‘Monsters Inc.’ and ‘The Incredibles’. These movies, although some might call them ‘kids’ movies’, are about very real things.

Tuttle: And this brings us to ‘Brave’. Obviously, I went in with high expectations, given how great the Pixar movies of the past have been (sure ‘Cars 2′ was awful, but no one really liked ‘Cars’ that much in the first place). I think the biggest reason that I was let down with ‘Brave’ was the fact that the story was not unique in any way. In reality, you could take the characters of ‘Brave’, and the storyline of ‘Mulan’, and end up getting the same exact movie. Woman must marry man, but woman wants independence. Woman makes statement about independence and must endure conflict. Women overcomes conflict when society makes compromises. Cue credits. It’s all seems very formulaic and unoriginal to me, a story that we’ve all heard a million times.

Agler: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Brave, but it didn’t hit me until the end that this movie was not what I expected it to be, so it fell below my expectations. I have to say it kept my attention, and I wasn’t always sure what would happen next. But I was left thinking “what a letdown” because there were really no endearing characters. Yes, the connection between mother and daughter brought tears to my eyes while watching with my own mother, and yes, the change of a girl choosing singlehood over marriage is rare and possibly a first for childhood memories (hooray!) , but other than that, there was really nothing all that great as far as the characters go. The animation was of a higher quality and inspiring, but the story, the story was lacking. I honestly don’t know if they could’ve made it any better. It seems to be a stinker from the beginning.

Tuttle: I think the script could really be to blame. I mean, other Pixar movies had the creative genius of Brad Bird, Pete Docter, among others. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman headed this one up, and in my mind, just really fell short.

I know of a lot of people that were really excited to see, for the first time, a female lead character in a Pixar movie. Especially in a year that gave us strong women like Katniss Everdeen, Suzy Bishop, Selina Kyle, and Black Widow, how do you think Merida measured up to the rest?

Agler: Merida was stubbornly independent, willful, and determined. But her actions and decisions didn’t scream “remember me, I’m different.” She missed the boat on that certain character trait, that spark, found in classic female characters in animated movies. Let’s take her and compare her to Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Belle was stubbornly independent when ignoring her town and loving her father anyway, was willful when refusing to settle and marry a jerk, and determined to see the good in the Beast. But we got to know Belle while witnessing her deep compassion for those around her, her numerous encounters with the Beast, her simplicity when it came to life and how she didn’t need her every move catered to, and her fierce determination to seek justice and equality.

Merida had potential to be a strong female character, she was in scenarios where she could have stood out, but it’s almost like she didn’t cross over the finish line. He started to be great but stopped half way. For example, Merida was the reason her mother turned into a bear. She would’ve stood out as a true heroine if she would’ve, let’s say, traded her humanity with her mother so her mother could become human again. Instead, the way her mother transformed was really no burden on Merida: all she had to do was sew a canvas together. There were simply no heroic acts that made Merida worthy to be called a classic heroine.

Tuttle: Agler, I think with what you just said, you revealed a key point to how ‘Brave’ really missed the boat, and it’s the fact that out main character didn’t have to sacrifice anything but a kooky evening of shenanigans in order to solve the conflict. In reality, it was the mother that was forced to be the hero, to suffer trials and achieve resolution. As an audience member, I felt no connection to Merida, and therefore didn’t feel any connection with this movie. Also, that old witch? Worthless character, through and through. Absolutely no purpose. She didn’t even show up after the spell was broken to offer an answers. I would’ve rather had Billy Crystal as Miracle Max than that irrelevant hag.

So where does Pixar go from here? I mean, with ‘Cars 2′ and now ‘Brave’, they’ve made two pretty mediocre movies in a row. Should they keep going for sequels, or do they try to write another unique story? They’ve now struck out in both categories.

Agler: I’d definitely say new, original stories. With Pixar, it’s almost too risky to have a sequel. Toy Story was lucky, but the rest should be left alone due to their finality in ending and overall creativity. Some stones are better left unturned. It seems like there is a repeat in movies these days: new characters and settings, same ideas. Fresh, new ideas are hard to come by, so Pixar landing one will be a great success and something worth working towards. Brave was a new idea, but the execution was horrible.

Tuttle: If they just keep re-releasing they’re good movies in 3D, they should do just fine. *cue ominous music here*.

Agler: I think its understandable that our expectations are high after the stellar movies Pixar has made. But the last two are causing me at least to be cautious in my excitement. Pixar is simply struggling like all other production companies with the need for originality, but I would say they of all companies should be able to come up with something due to their unique perspective in movies.

Our Note: ‘Brave’ falls short, but remains to be at least a decent movie for the whole family. Pixar: We want better than decent.

Our Grade: C

Summer Movie Slam: ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

Can this really be the best and most exotic?

“I have a dream to create a home for the elderly so wonderful that they will simply refuse to die”

What if we lived in a world where every man had a British accent? How absolutely wonderful would that be…..if only it were true. I mean come on. The female population would be more inclined to settle down with a dreamy man who could woo them with that bloody brilliant speech. Besides being incredibly attractive speakers, the World of Brits seems more at large as of late. Maybe it’s due to the Olympics taking place in London. Not only are they hits with their cunning speech and location, but they’ve also found a place in the spotlight on television screens. It seems like the Brits are coming out on top in captivating series. Specifically on the BBC channel we encounter hit shows like Sherlock (4 nominations beating out AMC’s The Walking Dead) and Downton Abbey (16 Emmy nominations). Since I have yet to watch Sherlock, I can only speak for Downton Abbey. It is a remarkable series built with a solid cast which, in my opinion, is the reason for its popularity. I ask again, what’s not to love about these British characters? With this in mind, a movie has come along that contains some of the brilliant actors found in these series. It probably won’t stand the test of time like most, but it deserves praise none the less. If you classify yourself as having a passing fancy for some enchanting British television, I encourage you to read on.

The movie is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the location is India. The plot concerns the lives of seven elderly chaps and dames coming together to a place that is supposedly built for them from the ploy to “Come and spend your olden years in an Indian palace.” To some folks from different walks of life whilst in the same age group, this slogan seems overly enticing. The elderly are viewed as a bunch of old farts about to croak. Retirement is the life, children see them as a burden, their agility has significantly lessened, and luxury is a dream that doesn’t fit into their present conditions. They don’t see a purpose in life anymore. Or perhaps they’ve lost something or someone so significant in life that moving forward or starting over seems utterly impossible. What if they can find a new purpose, a new perspective? What if they can change and affect others in ways they never dreamed possible, especially at this point in their lives. The possibility of fulfilling dreams by a refusal to accept the norm for people their age is what drives them to uproot and move to place foreign and completely opposite of what they’ve always known.

What do they have to lose? Not much, according to society’s standards. Hence, all of them end up at said hotel. The “what if” is more than tantalizing in place of a dull existence. “It’s a luxury development where all the residents are in their golden years” says one of our adventurous friends. And an adventure it certainly becomes. Things are definitely not what they seem upon arrival. The culture is nothing less than an absolute shock, and the state of the luxurious motel is the complete opposite of “luxury.” Luckily, at the end of it all, they discover that “The light, colors, smiles, it teaches [them] something.” Let’s take a look at our lead characters and the qualities that make them unforgettable.

First, we have our leading lady, Evelyn Greenslade played by the talented Judi Dench (M in the latest Bond films, and also seen in Ladies in Lavender and the BBC series Cranford). Evelyn is the one who has lost her partner in life. The death of her husband has left her with a complete void in her little life that seems ever looming and encompassing. In addition to the void, he’s left her in a similar fashion with debt, causing Evelyn to sell her house. For her, a new start is all she can hope for. Naturally, she jumps on board to take off to start afresh. Despite the twist on what she expected, she indeed finds purpose in a job with a voice she can project for the first time in her life. All around her are glimpses of a simplistic life she never dreamed possible, and more importantly, people that can fill her life with depth and meaning. She finds that “India, like life itself I suppose, is about what you bring to it.”

Our next fellow is the leading man, Graham Dashwood, played by brilliant actor Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone in the new Batman trio, also seen as Arthur Edens in Michael Clayton). This is a man whose success has been grounded in the high courts as a prestigious judge. He is finally done after a split second decision, and the move to India is all he cares about. We come to learn that this is not his first time to see the sights of India, for he lived there for a time as a boy. Every day he sets out to find someone whom he loved as a youth, but parted with disgrace and in prejudiced times. This man is the only love Graham has ever known, and to simply know he is alive and well is what drives him each and every day. Discovering that the guilt he carried his entire life was of his own creation frees him to accept redemption and complete happiness. To laugh and learn about the man before him with a family of his own connects Graham to the life he wished he would have been allowed to have, and the perspective makes his glass no longer half empty, but finally half full.

The couple in this film is Douglas (Bill Nighy also known as Davy Jones in the Pirates movies) and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton as seen as Isobel Crawley from Downton). Doug and Jean seek a new life after losing most of the money they’d acquired for retirement after investing in their daughter’s frugal business. Jean is evidently repulsed by the opposite of what they expected, so she refuses to conform or accept the fact that she can start afresh. Doug has suffered years of abundant negativity and lack of respect from Jean, and he luckily discovers contentment and peace alongside a newly discovered connection with Evelyn. We find out whether or not this couple can put aside built up grudges and start a new chapter in their lives in this foreign place.

Feisty Muriel played by the wondrous Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley in Downton and Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter) finds herself in need of a hip replacement in a place where she’s promised a quick and inexpensive procedure. She holds her own with racist tendencies after a life of devotion to an adopted family who replace her with someone younger. Along the way, she fights to apply the idea that “If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat [or have anything to do with] it.” Muriel unknowingly bestows acceptance on a young girl accustomed to having no status or recognition in life. She finds new ways to implement her acquired skills including a head for figures in a new life which she thought was unattainable with her background. Ironically, it is Maggie who changes the course of the hotel.

Our final duo are the well endowed Madge (Celia Imrie) who is hunting for her next husband alongside Norman (Ronald Pickup), a man who is trying to remain youthful and vigorous by pursuing reckless short term encounters with younger women as a matured Lothario. Both go to great lengths of fitting in with the high society by pretending to be a sort of royalty from England. The acceptance of how old they really are is difficult to accept while desiring to feel needed and loved by someone truly worthy. Their efforts are highly entertaining and happily resolved.

The glue that holds all these characters together is the fisher who lured them in, Sonny Kapoor played by the up and coming Dev Patel (Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire and Prince Zuko in The Last Airbender). Sonny is the dreamer and part owner of the hotel, and his optimism despite the somewhat false advertising is evident in the idea that “In India we have a saying. Everything will be alright in the end. So if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.” He deals with an overbearing mother trying to douse his dreams by orchestrating an arranged marriage, and keeping the woman he loves (Sunaina played by Tena Desae) despite his mother’s evident objection. Sonny sees things as they can be, and he refuses to conform to the standards of his family. He too receives perspective from the occupants who inspire him to fight for all he envisions.

India is a world of poverty, but simplicity. To have the ability to adjust to a foreign world at such a ripened age is understandable far out. But our friends thrive in a new place that is surprisingly fitting for what they need. Seeing past the face value of an alien land is what marks them as trail blazers. One of them admits that “Nothing here has worked out quite as I expected” to which Muriel replies “Most things don’t. But sometimes what happens instead is the good stuff.” Innovative beginnings and friendships are the key to overcoming age, and they all have the chance to embrace or reject this once in a lifetime opportunity. For The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel offers “a new and different world. The challenge is to cope with it. And not just cope, but thrive.”

My Note: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is brimming with revolutionary cures, vices, and opportunities for the overlooked elderly.

My Grade: B

 

 

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