Friday, February 20, 2015


The Oscars are just around the corner, so I knew I had to talk about one of the front runners for most of the major categories, Boyhood. Critically, this film has been one of the most unanimously praised of the year, with 98% approval on Rotten Tomatoes and numerous Academy Award nominations. On the other hand, quite a few fans and YouTube personalities have had divergent reactions, dinging the film for its languid pacing and disjointed story structure. Truly, this is a movie that's production background is more interesting than the actual film. It's almost redundant to say, as it's been the focus of its entire promotional campaign, but Boyhood was shot across a twelve year period, tracking the growth of a fictional family using the same actors throughout the shoot. For that reason alone this film is worth checking out, but if you're a little impatient I think there are some things to be aware of.

There's no way I can really do a plot summary of this film... as that would require this film to have a plot. What's truly unique and memorable about Boyhood is that, like its main character who becomes an aspiring photographer, it's all a series of snapshots that give the audience glimpses into a boy's life. As such, it all comes down to the collection of moments that director Richard Linklater decided to include in order to give us the overall impression of growing up. Like many have already observed, this film does a fantastic job of portraying the mundane normality of life as we recognize it. Some would actually say that it does so to a fault, as it portrays things that aren't necessarily theatrical in nature. While I certainly see their point, I found most of the scenes pretty compelling despite their lack of intensity or dramatic weight.

Not all of this can be credited to the director, even taking into account his revolutionary and gutsy approach to filming Boyhood. None of this would work if he didn't get such a charismatic and natural actor as Ethan Hawke to play Mason Sr., the titular boy's father. He does a great job of evolving his performance to reflect the different stages of life his character finds himself, providing ironic and slightly tragic insights into his relationship with his ex-wife, played by Patricia Arquette. While I definitely think Hawke's performance was worthy of the nomination he received, I was actually underwhelmed by Patrica Arquette in this film. She's easily the front-runner for Best Supporting Actress, but I can't think of a moment where I was genuinely impressed by what she was doing on screen. Mostly I found her character to be kind of bland, without much personality or relatability until the very last scene. I'm sure many will be impressed with what she brought to the part, but I thought another actress could have made her character a more meaty, and interesting part of the film.

Technically this film is well made, but nothing called my attention more than the editing. It would have been easy for the movie to call attention to the times that it switches from one year to the next with subtitles, but instead it lets the audience piece these fragments together and work out where Mason Jr. is in his development. Linklater recreates the major events of each year depicted with uncanny precision, even if some moments are a bit heavy-handed. He uses these moments to not only capture a period of time, but also to allow the viewer to put themselves in the situations these characters find themselves. I think your enjoyment of this film will directly correlate to the strength of your memory over the past twelve years, as it uses the cultural milestones to not only set the stage, but occasionally to develop character as well.

Despite some of the criticism, I don't think I was ever bored during this film - even if it was a little longer than I would have liked. In fact, I honestly don't feel passionately about this film one way or the other. There were parts that were a little pretentious, as well as moments that I found just plain ridiculous, but overall it was a very enjoyable film that was well-acted and brilliantly conceived. It's definitely a landmark for its ambition more so than what it actually says about boyhood, and the final lines of dialogue are so clunky and obvious that it almost turned me against the film entirely. Having said that, it probably deserves most of the Oscar nominations it received, and after reflecting on this film and remembering all of the things I liked about it, I've decided to give this a solid three stars.

BOYHOOD is rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use

** What did you think of Boyhood? Was it an overrated snoozefest, or an "epic masterpiece"? Let me know in the comments below, and don't forget to like us on Facebook! **

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I figured I better review this film now that it's been nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It's actually been a few months since I've seen this film, and I always intended to finish my review for it by the year's end. However, life intervened and I never had time to get it written. As you'll see in the paragraphs to follow, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit... but I was floored when I saw all the recognition that was showered on Wes Anderson's latest picture. My overall opinion for the film is still generally positive, but consider this a somewhat skeptical reaction to the insane amount of praise The Grand Budapest Hotel is receiving, which will hopefully fall on open ears and minds.

The film is told in multiple flashbacks as an elderly hotel owner named Zero Moustafa shares the history of his tenure with the Grand Budapest to a young author who is spending the night. He tells of the eccentric but devoted hotel concierge, Gustave H., who was well known for the exquisite service he would provide to all guests, though particularly to elderly women. One such woman had died under mysterious circumstances, and her descendants are in uproar when a priceless painting has been left to Gustave instead of them. Things get a bit messy when a lawyer gets involved, noting the suspicious manner of his client's death and eliciting a homicidal reaction from one sinister family member. However, Gustave won't let his inheritance slip away, and he steals the painting after the controversial will is read. This puts a target on his head for not only the police as they try to apprehend the thief, but also the old woman's violently jealous family members.

I missed this film when it was released in theaters (as I think most people did, given its lackluster box-office receipts), but with favorable reviews and a general taste for Wes Anderson's aesthetic, I thought I would give it a try on Blu-ray. For the most part, this film is highly enjoyable to watch, save for a few uncomfortable innuendos between Gustave and the elderly women he serves. There are also a few jarring moments of violence that might shock some viewers, as it comes completely out of left field. While that can enhance the element of surprise for these moments, it can also color the rest of the film a bit darker than I think it should have gone.

This movie is flowing with energetic performances from everyone in this star-studded cast, but no one is as revelatory as Ralph Fiennes. Known by most for his villainous performances in the Harry Potter films and Schindler's List, Fiennes is not only whimsically polite as the hotel concierge, but he also brings an unexpected humor to the part that I've never seen from him before. He's easily one of the five best performances I've seen this year, and I'm sure in any other year he would have garnered at least a nomination from the Academy.

Along with the performances, some of the best elements of The Grand Budapest Hotel are the technical achievements, namely the cinematography. Wes Anderson has a very distinct style when it comes to his camera work (see my review of Moonrise Kingdom for more on that), and Budapest might be his best visual work yet. However, with such a recognizable fingerprint, it becomes difficult to distinguish one Wes Anderson film from another at times. Even the posters for this and Moonrise Kingdom have very similar layouts, and if you've seen that or any other of his films I doubt you'll find anything truly original here. The quirky sense of humor, the fast-paced editing and clever camera angles are staples in an Anderson movie, and though I found myself laughing a lot here, aesthetically it wound up being exactly what I expected it to be.

Probably the main reason I'm surprised by the overwhelming praise The Grand Budapest Hotel is receiving is that it really ends up being about nothing. I feel like the artsyness of the story structure was meant to bring a deeper meaning of some kind, but it ultimately gets away from Anderson by the time the film comes to a conclusion. Whatever point there was to telling Gustave's story becomes fuzzy once credits roll, but the most critical thing I can say about this film is that the message is either under-developed or just unmemorable. I think technically this is a beautiful film, and if you like other Wes Anderson movies then you'll know exactly what you're getting, but this is hardly Best Picture material in my mind. I can think of a handful of un-nominated films that are more deserving of the honor, but perhaps this is one of those instances where the Academy recognizes an artist for a body of work rather than the movie on its own (like Martin Scorsese with The Departed).

I actually enjoyed this film quite a bit, but for me it wasn't Wes Anderson's strongest work. This may be Ralph Fienne's strongest work, and were it not for him I don't know if I would have liked this movie nearly as much. The rest of the cast also put out impressive performances, but it was more enjoyable to see all the movie stars making cameos than it was to try to follow the story. Overall it's a pretty solid effort, and I give The Grand Budapest Hotel a slightly generous three stars.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is rated R for language, some sexual content, and violence

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

American Sniper

In the teaser trailer for American Sniper, Chris Kyle is shown peering through his scope at a street somewhere in Iraq, looking for potential threats. When a woman and a young boy emerge from the bottom floor carrying what appears to be a pipe bomb, however, Kyle is faced with a terribly difficult decision. That scene alone was enough to get me into the theaters to see this movie, and apparently everybody else in the country as well. It was one of the highest opening weekends at the box office of the last year with $89.5 million, and blew away the previous record for the month of January ($41.5 million). However, there has been a lot of controversy over this film in recent weeks, particularly over the subject of this biopic, Chris Kyle. I'm not really going to touch on that in my review - partially because I think most of the complaints are bogus - but also because I'm a movie reviewer, not a political debater. All of my thoughts regarding American Sniper are relating to the film itself, and are unrelated to my personal feelings on the late U.S. war hero.

This review is going to deviate slightly from the structure of my former posts, as I think will be the case for a lot of my Oscar series where I review all the films that were nominated for Best Picture (and Best Director, if I ever get around to seeing Foxcatcher). Films like American Sniper are difficult to summarize, in that they aren't necessarily plot-motivated, but rather tend to focus on a particular character. Besides, most people probably already know the major points of what this movie will cover, though it's the details that make it truly worthwhile. It's really an excellent window into what most service men and women must feel, both on the battle field and when trying to adjust to normal life once their tour is complete. Director Clint Eastwood really balances the themes of the films with a subtle touch, even when the scenarios played out on screen are horrifying to witness.

Even with the most skilled auteur in the director's chair, the film would utterly fail if we didn't connect with the title character. That's why a ton of credit given to Bradley Cooper for this film's success, as not only did he do an uncanny job of portraying Chris Kyle, but as a producer he was also instrumental in bringing this film to life behind the scenes. For all of you Bradley Cooper fans out there, yes, he did put on about 50 lbs or muscle for this role. What you may be disappointed by, however, is that he isn't really Bradley Cooper in this movie. He's become Chris Kyle, from the flawless Texan accent to the bushy beard and somewhat awkward interpersonal encounters.

Eastwood is also at the top of his directorial game, bringing so much emotion to moments that would be plenty intense on their own that it elevates it to another level entirely. Not only are you worried that someone will attack Kyle's platoon at any moment, but you're also horrified at the thought of him potentially having to pull the trigger on a boy who picks up a grenade launcher from the attacker he'd just shot. Add to that the struggle of leaving behind the villainous people responsible for the deaths of many of his friends, and it actually gives me a glimpse into the struggle that many veterans must face when returning home.

There is one disclaimer that I'd like to throw out there. Unlike some of the films I review where the rating is undeserved or ambiguous, there is a definite reason that American Sniper is rated R. To those who are uncomfortable with foul language, this movie is not for you. The script is written to show what is probably very authentic dialogue between soldiers in the heat of battle, and the harsh language certainly is evidence of that. I was able to get past the language for the most part, as my older brother has confirmed that life in the military (at least in regards to language) is very similar to what is portrayed on screen. Those who aren't offended by F-bombs probably won't blink an eye, but all others should either approach with caution or skip this one entirely.

What sticks with you most after seeing this film is the realistic portrayal of the horrors of war juxtaposed with the simple, relatively care-free life that most of us enjoy here in the U.S. I know I definitely found my gratitude for this country renewed after seeing an Al Qaeda war lord using an electric drill to torture and kill those who talked to the American soldiers. There are things going on overseas that most of us can't even imagine, and it really brings the price of the freedoms we enjoy (and take for granted) into greater perspective. Not only that, but the film does a great job showing the trials that military men and women go through to serve their country, often to the detriment of their own physical and mental health. Some of the moral quandaries in which Chris Kyle finds himself are almost impossible to fathom, and regardless of your personal view of his actions, it takes a unique person to be able to make those decisions and live with them afterwords.

When it comes down to it, this isn't a perfect film. There are some pacing problems here and there, and even on a technical level it seems that a few scenes actually went without sound editing. But regardless of its flaws, this is a haunting look at one of the most well-known soldiers in U.S. history, and the tragic ending makes it even more so. The performances across the board are terrific, the action scenes are gripping, and the emotion is subtle yet omnipresent throughout the film. It definitely would have made my top ten films of the year had I seen it before 2014 expired, and I'm going to give it a solid three and a half stars.

AMERICAN SNIPER is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references

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