Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Our Idiot Brother" (2011), "Mud" (2012), "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" (2012)

I landed a new job with the Norman Transcript newspaper, recommending three films per month which are available on Netflix Instant Play. For my take on "Our Idiot Brother" (2011), "Mud" (2012), "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" (2012), check out the link below!


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

12 Years A Slave (2013)

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

12 Years A Slave is the true-life account of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well-respected family man and musician from upstate New York, who takes an offer to join a traveling circus for two weeks, only to be abducted by a group of outlaw slave traders. Northup is purchased by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a somewhat sympathetic plantation owner, and taken to his land in Louisiana.

Following a violent disagreement between Northup and one of Ford's hired hands, Ford is forced to sell Northup to fellow slaver Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) to protect Northup's life. Unlike Ford, Epps is a deeply harsh man who physically, emotionally and sexually abuses his slaves. Northup quickly finds himself caught in between the fight for freedom and the desperate struggle for mere survival.

Steve McQueen is fast establishing himself as one of the most talented, visionary directors active today. His first two features, the Fassbender vehicles Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), proved that McQueen is not afraid to tackle heavy subject matter, and in many ways he is the perfect director for a film like 12 Years A Slave. Part of this equation is that McQueen brings Fassbender with him and, as always, Fassbender steals the show.

McQueen and Fassbender find themselves in a unique position, occupied only by such elite director/actor duos as Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski -- or more contemporarily, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling -- who are reaching the top of their craft together, elevating each other's work to heights that would likely not be possible working separately.

The cast features solid supporting turns from Brad Pitt as a man sympathetic to Northup's cause, Paul Giamatti as the slave trader who sells Northup to Ford, Sarah Paulson ("American Horror Story") as Epps' scheming wife, the fine character actress Alfre Woodard as a clever slave-turned-mistress, and Scoot McNairy (Monsters) as the man who tricked Northup into a life of slavery.

The production design by regular Wes Anderson collaborator Adam Stockhausen does a fantastic job of highlighting the foreignness of the deep South compared to the relatively genteel society Northup comes from in New York, helping place the viewer in Northup's shoes. Director of photography Sean Bobbitt, who held the same position for McQueen on both his previous features, does a particularly fine job of capturing the essence of the swamplands in wide, long shots filled with mist and mystique.

Even while dealing with such a heinous act as slavery, 12 Years A Slave deals mostly in shades of grey -- even, to a certain extent, regarding Epps and his wife. Thus, the wholly altruistic nature of Pitt's character feels a bit disingenuous from the moment he appears onscreen, simply because he is a part that does not fit the whole. His appearance in the film feels more like a convenient plot device than a depiction of a real person, which absolutely detracts from the experience.

I hardly ever say this, especially for a film that already runs nearly 135 minutes, but 12 Years A Slave could have benefited greatly from an additional 15 minutes. The first two acts were tremendous, but the third act felt so extremely rushed that it removed me from the experience almost entirely, greatly lessening the impact of the climax. In the end, 12 Years A Slave is one of a great many films that falls just short of perfection, but in ways that detract more than the sum of their parts from the whole. A fascinating near-miss of a film.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Elysium (2013)

3 stars (out of 5)

In the 22nd century, Earth is so severely polluted and overpopulated that it becomes nearly uninhabitable. The wealthy have all relocated to a space station known as Elysium that approximates the beauty that Earth was once known for, leaving the poor behind to live out their days on a dying planet. Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is part of the former group, working as the defense secretary for Elysium, ruthlessly ordering the elimination and/or capture of all who try to illegally enter Elysium's sphere of privilege.

Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief, is one of the few people on Earth who has a job, working in a factory. One day at work, Max gets trapped inside a radioactive machine and is given five days to live before the radioactivity shuts down his organs. The only chance for his survival is to find a way to Elysium, where the "cure-all" machines that keep its elite residents young and healthy forever can heal him.

Max makes a deal with a smuggler to extract access codes to Elysium directly from the brain of Dr. Carlyle (William Fichtner), the head of the company that handles defense contracts for Elysium, in exchange for passage to the space station. When the mission goes awry, Max is forced to improvise to stay one step ahead of Delacourt's handpicked hit squad and make his way to Elysium.

The film's primary calling card is its visual effects, and Elysium does not disappoint in that department. Vancouver-based visual effects company Imagine Engine combines practical and digital effects to create jaw-dropping eye candy, most notably Elysium itself, a massive spherical luxury suburb in the sky. Additionally, the action sequences are flawlessly coordinated and frequently exciting.

Production designer Philip Ivey (the art director for all three Lord of the Rings films) flexes his creative muscle in the visual department, as the grim aesthetic of Earth provides a stark visual contrast to the shiny perfection of Elysium. On the other hand, Ryan Amon's nondescript soundtrack is pretty weak, combining standard orchestral action-movie score elements with bland dubstep-lite stylings, none of which is memorable or noteworthy.

All told, the second feature from District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp trades in his first film's ambitious, yet heavy-handed, political commentary for a safe, flashy pop-science fiction actioner. Here's hoping that Blomkamp can find some middle ground between the ham-fisted symbolism of District 9 and the splashy eye candy of Elysium. In the end, Elysium is a supremely well-crafted film to look at, with fine actors leading the way. It's just too bad that it's such an emotionless affair.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Told that he has just 30 days to live after contracting HIV, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) takes one look at his doctor and says, "Ain't nothing can kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days." A gaunt, emaciated McConaughey steals the show in "Dallas Buyers Club" as a redneck electrician who finds himself in a life-or-death battle with his own homophobia upon receiving his diagnosis. He strikes a deal with an orderly to sneak him an experimental test drug, and Woodroof sets out on a booze and coke-fueled road to recovery.

However, when the hospital starts putting the drugs under lock and key, Woodroof is forced to find his life-saving medication through alternate means. He develops connections with doctors in Mexico for a far more effective drug, not yet approved in America, and sets about starting his own black market in Dallas, with the help of his former hospital roommate, the transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto).

The film provides an interesting glimpse into the failure of the FDA and the American pharmaceutical industry to properly address the AIDS crisis, letting red tape and bureaucracy get in the way of treatment. However, I do feel like the pharmaceutical industry, in particular, gets let off easy for their role in forcing dangerous dosages of AZT on the public solely because the drug had been pushed through into trial phase. This is given lip service in the film, but was a much bigger factor in real life than is illustrated here.

Some of the film's more powerful moments revolve around Woodroof's treatment by his friends after they find out he has contracted a disease widely considered at the time to be exclusive to gay men, combined with his own realization that he would've acted the same way if the roles had been reversed. Again though, I felt that there should have been more of these scenes; the entire plot thread is abandoned very early in the film. Another mild criticism is that Woodroof's transformation from homophobic trailer trash to his friendship and business partnership with Rayon is handled a bit too quickly.

Acting is top-rate across the board, especially by McConaughey and Leto (Jennifer Garner turns in a solid, if unspectacular, supporting performance), and the production team does a great job of creating a mid-80s aesthetic that permeates every frame. Jean-Marc Vellee's direction is far from flashy, but there is some excellent shot construction, highlighted by an early sequence in which it first appears that Woodroof is praying in a church, only to reveal that he's having drinks in a strip club.

In the end, "Dallas Buyers Club" is an important movie, and also a good one that showcases two actors at the top of their craft. Ultimately, the film simply plays it safe far too frequently to cross the threshold into greatness.

Follow me on Twitter @scottstrandberg

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

4 stars (out of 5)

I'll admit right off the bat that I was not a big fan of the first "Hunger Games" film. I didn't see it as much more than a watered-down, Americanized version of the classic Japanese film "Battle Royale." Was it a bad movie? No, but it certainly lacked for originality. In the end, I found it to be just okay; worth watching once perhaps, but ultimately forgettable and not especially worth recommending.

I didn't take much notice when the sequel came out, partially because the director this time around is Francis Lawrence, auteur of such masterpieces as "Constantine" and "I Am Legend." However, I heard from many people that "Catching Fire" is actually a major improvement on its predecessor, so I decided to give it a shot. Did it live up to the hype and manage to satisfy even me, someone who didn't particularly like the movie it follows? Well...yes, actually.

The film's stakes are laid out quite effectively in an early dialogue between Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), in which Snow says in no unclear terms that Katniss' act of defiance at the end of the first film will not go unpunished. Katniss' use of poisoned berries to get both herself and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) out of the Games alive has gotten her in hot water with the powers-that-be, and Snow threatens Katniss into playing along with his plans on their promotional "Victor's Tour" of the districts.

Despite the suggestion from her fellow former Games-winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) to stick to the program and play along with the government's plans, it doesn't take long before Katniss' conscience leads her far away from the script given her by the authorities. With assistance from new head games-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow comes up with a plan to quell the rising rebellion, punishing Katniss and her fellow victors by forcing them to once again participate in the Games.

Once the Games are underway, Francis Lawrence's direction turns the film into a fine adventure with a breakneck pace. The lush jungle setting of the new arena provides ample opportunities for director of photography Jo Willems to flex his muscles, as he fills the screen with eye candy. Willems' work throughout the film is commendable; the contrast between the washed-out early scenes of the tour through the downtrodden districts and the rich, color-soaked opulence of the grand ball at the president's mansion is quite nice as well. Visual effects, makeup and costuming are all similarly top-notch. Simply put, "Catching Fire" is a very impressive film to look at.

For the most part, the performances are quite good. Jennifer Lawrence continues to show the talent and range that will keep her as a top player in Hollywood for a long time, and the supporting cast, consisting of Harrelson, Sutherland, Hoffman and veteran character actor Jeffrey Wright, is excellent.

On the negative side of things, I do not see the appeal of Hutcherson as an actor. His delivery is often stiff, and he lacks charisma. His performance can drag the film down at times, especially in its more serious moments. Liam Hemsworth is very bad in nearly all his scenes, but thankfully his screen time is quite limited. Also, there is an action scene involving an army of murderous computer-animated monkeys that comes off as just plain ridiculous, resulting in some big unintentional laughs. And by the way, what happened to that badass chick with the teeth fashioned into fangs? Talk about a missed opportunity! I understand that this is an adaptation of a book, but don't tease a cool concept like that only to do next-to-nothing with it.

Finally, the film's ending feels tremendously rushed, though Lawrence's performance saves it. I like the plot development that surfaces in the final scene of "Catching Fire," and it is an excellent teaser for what the third film in the series will entail, I just would have appreciated more time to let it sink in.

All told, "Catching Fire" is a big step forward in nearly every way from its predecessor. The scope is far greater and much more ambitious, and Francis Lawrence's direction manages to keep it all under control -- the plot of this film could have easily flown off the rails without a steady hand at the helm. It's not perfect, but "Catching Fire" feels much more like its own film, rather than a white-bread retread of "Battle Royale."

Follow me on Twitter @ScottStrandberg

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

5 stars (out of 5)

Safety Not Guaranteed is a star-making display of talent by two actors best known for their television work, Mark Duplass of “The League” and Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation”. It is also a truly unique genre meld of sci-fi, offbeat comedy and kindhearted drama that transcends any expectations you may have, given that the film starts with a classified ad seeking a time-travel partner.

Writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow do a tremendous job of avoiding the obvious pratfalls of such a goofy setup; it sounds more like the concept behind a major-release Hollywood comedy than one for a thoughtful, low-budget indie flick. It is very funny, but to simply call it a comedy does not do the film justice.

When Jeff (Jake Johnson), a writer for a Seattle-based magazine, sees the classified ad, he convinces his editor to give him the assignment and, with his interns Darius (Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) in tow, heads to a rural town to find the writer of the ad. That person turns out to be Kenneth (Duplass), a grocery store clerk who wholeheartedly believes that time travel is possible and insists he’s done it before.

Here’s the beauty of Duplass’ performance in Safety Not Guaranteed: This is a role that only a select few actors could even dream of pulling off. The entire film relies on Duplass to portray Kenneth as both a half-crazy, quirky loner and an intelligent, possibly even ingenious, dreamer. For the narrative to work, the audience has to believe there is a slight chance that this grocery store clerk who lives in a rundown house in the sticks may actually have a time machine, and is possibly even being tracked by government agents. That sounds like a serious stretch, and it is, but Duplass crafts a wonderfully layered character who seamlessly walks the line between crazy and genius.

Though overshadowed by Duplass, Plaza also gives a breakout performance as Darius, who basically starts off as a clone of Plaza’s amusing but one-note disaffected persona from “Parks and Recreation”. Once her strange friendship with Kenneth begins, however, Plaza drops this schtick and reveals Darius to be a sensitive, thoughtful person who intermittently struggles with the fact that she’s growing attached to a man who is most likely insane.

While Safety Not Guaranteed is certainly Duplass and Plaza’s film, the screenplay takes the time to develop the side characters and give them legitimate story arcs as well. Johnson and Soni earn some big laughs as Jeff and Arnau (when Darius asks Arnau why his laptop has flame decals on it, he replies, “It’s a gaming laptop. It’s really fast.”), and both go on life-changing journeys of their own in the film, which are tangentially tied into the story at large. Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) even shows up in a brief, but crucial role. Rarely does a cameo make such an impact on the plot as Bell’s does here.

The icing on the cake for Safety Not Guaranteed is the film’s tremendous ending. Throughout the film, the thought “There’s no way the ending will live up to the rest of this movie” crops up repeatedly in the viewer’s mind. After all, this is a low-budget indie movie, so if there really is time travel, it’s probably going to look either totally cheesy or completely underwhelming, and if there isn’t any time travel, well then you basically just spent 86 minutes watching a movie about an amusing crazy guy. Trust me when I say the filmmakers deliver a wholly satisfying and invigorating finale that manages to sidestep all of those problems.

Follow me on Twitter @ScottStrandberg

YellowBrickRoad (2010)

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

In 1940, the entire population of a small New Hampshire town wandered off into the wilderness together for no apparent reason. They were never heard from again. Authorities recovered about half of their dead bodies in the forest outside town, but the ensuing investigation failed to turn up any survivors or even a hint of why they left. This is the setup for writer/director team Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton’s debut feature, YellowBrickRoad.

From that fascinating premise, the film cuts forward 70 years to modern day. The town is mostly repopulated, but the surrounding woods have been off-limits and completely unexplored in decades. The documents revealing the coordinates of the trail walked by the doomed townsfolk have just recently been unsealed, and a documentary film crew travels to the town to try to solve the generations-old mystery.

The journey along the trail begins unassumingly enough; that is, until the music starts. Miles from anything resembling civilization, 1940’s ballads start playing with no apparent source. The further the team travels, the louder the music gets, occasionally intercut with disturbing bursts of blaring, unidentifiable noise. The sound design is where this film really shines, as the filmmakers do a fantastic job of illustrating the maddening effect the music has on the travelers without ever annoying the viewer. If you have a surround-sound system, you’ll want it cranked up for this one.

Slowly, characters start acting slightly strange; small things, like trailing off at the end of a sentence or wandering off alone for a bit. Then, a sudden and wholly unexpected act of violence shatters any sense of normalcy and sends the film into a wacky acid-trip of horrific mind-games. YellowBrickRoad isn’t a gore-fest by any means, which makes the few brief moments of violence deeply unnerving. There is one such moment in the final act of the film that is devoid of even a splash of blood, but the image will haunt you for days.

To say any more about the plot would give away far too many spoilers, but believe me, Holland and Mitton are extremely clever about putting their characters in very dark situations and exploring the ways each reacts to his/her peril. The only real drawback to the film is the ambiguous ending, which is more of an homage to a sequence in The Shining than it is an actual conclusion. It didn’t ruin YellowBrickRoad for me, but if you’re the kind of person that needs all the loose ends tied up, it very well could ruin it for you.

The cast includes absolutely no one you’ve ever heard of, but surprisingly for an indie horror flick produced for just $380,000, all of the actors are convincing in their roles and the characters are thoughtfully crafted and well-rounded. The cinematography makes wonderful use of the creepy setting and is even breathtaking at times. As mentioned previously, the sound design is exquisite. This little indie film went largely unnoticed, but I highly suggest you give it a shot.

Follow me on Twitter @ScottStrandberg