I’m just going to be straight here. I enjoy this movie, but I have absolutely no idea what happens. Pretty much anyone who isn’t prepared for this movie going in, giving it their full attention from the word “go” onward (and even those who are paying full attention), this film will be extremely challenging to follow. Paul Thomas Anderson seems too fond of certain segments of the book by Thomas Pynchon to cut them out (and I hear it already made MAJOR cuts), leading to a convoluted script with numerous diversions, exposition dumps, and characters and subplots that have no need to be there. I get that Anderson was going for that intentionally to add to the insanity of the film, but a leaner script and a half hour of trimming would have made the film gain more impact than it already did.
Regardless, the film’s direction and technical eye are all exceptional, Robert Elswit shooting the film with gorgeous attention to detail, often using effective haze techniques and long takes to compliment the film’s wild tone. Paul Thomas Anderson (whose previous films include There Will be Blood and The Master) has a knack for hypnotic direction, and is excellent with using his actors. Joaquin Phoenix leads the pack, having a blast going between laid-back and completely bonkers, and the supporting cast (including Benecio Del Toro, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, and Martin Short) are all stellar. Standout notice goes to Josh Brolin as a cop Phoenix’s character frequently has conversations with, clearly having fun acting as irrepressibly violent as he can, and hilariously conveys an egotistical sense of superiority.
***1/2 / *****
Wiith The Judge, Director David Dobkin seems determined to break into more serious territory and away from the Wedding Crashers style humor he’s most well known for, and while I respect his intentions on paper, the idea doesn’t really pan out in execution. I’m not one to throw out the degrading term Oscar bait to just any movie, but that’s precisely what this feels like; a piece of sentimental, Academy luring subject matter with massive names attached that almost screams “For Your Consideration”. This is especially evident with Thomas Newman’s score, lovely to listen to by itself, but in the context of the film it overplays itself as if to tell the audience “It’s your cue to cry.”
That’s not to say that Dobkin doesn’t have the chops for it, because it’s evident by several sequences in this film that he does have a clear grasp of what makes these situations work. My problem is that, try as he might to shed his comedic skin, Dobkin still can’t resist throwing in gags for the sole sake of it. One sequence he skillfully establishes dramatic gravity and conflict, and the next, he chips in unnecessary snarky humor that upsets the tone previously set up. It’s fine if you want to include comedy in your drama, but there’s a time and place for it, and this movie can rarely figure out when that is.
Ultimately, what keeps The Judge afloat is the simple fact that it is, from head to toe, an actor’s movie. However, that’s both a good and bad thing, because if these weren’t already established veterans of their craft, the movie would be terrible. Somehow, this ensemble cast (including and especially Roberts Downey Jr. and Duvall) find something in these characters that simply isn’t there on paper. They’re given far more depth and strength than they deserve, and it actually makes the movie enjoyable solely because they’re so well chosen, a major saving grace for an otherwise dull flick.
A Most Violent Year:
JC Chandor’s ode to the crime saga is not always an easy sit, but is surely one of the most engrossing cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. Painting New York City in a very bleak light, Chandor likens the violent nature of the city to a snake pit where business competitors fight to the last man standing. It’s a dog eat dog world in this film, and despite that everlasting search for the American dream, even the best of men can easily stray from the path of honesty, using deception to cut corners and get ahead in life. It’s actually still as relevant an issue today as it is in this film’s setting of 1981, where honesty can sadly be ravaged, and only the vicious survive.
The film brims with slowly boiling tension, managing to keep our attention throughout these long stretches of the film, and much of this is because the cast is so great. Oscar Isaac plays the lead role of Abel Morales, pushed to his limits by trying to set an honest example, but finds himself often tempted to easy outs for a more fulfilling life. Abel sees himself as a good man pushed to do terrible things, and that conflict of which side he eventually sees himself landing on is given stellar vulnerability by Isaac. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, but through Anna Morales, played by Jessica Chastain, this pushes that statement to a disturbing new level. Often dressed in the most stylish and costly clothing, this all acts as a front to hide her truly violent and corruptive nature. She often looks and acts the part of supportive wife to Abel’s choices, but this eventually gives way to reveal her ultimate influence on the situation, that she feels like the one slyly pulling all of the strings. It’s no surprise then that this character commands every second that she is on screen, thanks mainly to Chastain’s reliably fiery presence.
****1/2 / *****
The latest film from British filmmaker Mike Leigh is an exquisite one, boasting gorgeous production values all across the board, especially cinematographer Dick Pope emulating JMW Turner’s own paintings, looking very much alike his use of striking water colors and diverse spectrums.
However, in the story department, it’s a bit stilted. Mike Leigh has always done an exceptional job at directing actors in his films, and here is no exception, but ultimately, the film simply has too much going on. Characters have always been a strong suit for Leigh, but here, it feels the need to unnecessarily pack in too many of them, taking plenty of attention away from the central character, played by a fine and staunch Timothy Spall. The film gets a bit too dry and stuffy (and long) for its own good. Still, Leigh’s professionalism as a filmmaker comes through to the tiniest detail, as always.
**** / *****
Incredibly on the nose writing and direction notwithstanding, this is still quite the touching movie. Largely steering clear of shameless exploitation, the film’s treatment of Alzheimer’s feels much more honest, and to a degree is also terrifying to experience the decaying mentality of the central character. Julianne Moore will receive a deserved Oscar for her performance in this film, tender and devastating while trying to keep herself together for the sake of her family, who all feel equally as helpless as her knowing that this is beyond their control. Special mention goes out to Kristen Stewart as one of her character’s daughters who chooses not to let the future best or worst case scenarios prevent her from living squarely in the moment.
***1/2 / *****
Two Days, One Night:
Two Days, One Night:
I might not have gotten around to this gem of a movie were it not for Marion Cotillard gaining a surprise Best Actress nomination at the Oscars. This film brought to us by the Dardenne Brothers is simply wonderful, a hard hitting examination of overcoming depression that speaks many truths about the subject, and while never shying away from the hard truths that things will not always work for the best, the will to overcome and accept it is necessary to truly be happy. The many characters that the lead character Sandra, a woman seeking the votes of other co-workers to be able to keep her job, comes in contact with want to provide for their families first, but still see the tragedy of the situation.
And that’s precisely what it is, a tragedy. This situation has no easy answer, and it’s beyond everyone’s control, but it’s ultimately something that needs to be confronted, and even accepted in the end. It certainly helps that the movie features a fantastic lead performance from Marion Cotillard in one of her best performances yet. Portraying a wholly realized and phenomenally accurate depiction of deep-rooted depression, while she has quite a number of crying scenes to chew on, it’s her more reserved and internal scenes that convey much of the film’s more potent and poignant sadness, but there’s also a subtle joy in those moments of genuine hope and enjoyment even in the worst case scenarios, topped off by a powerful final ten minutes. For my money, it’s the best ending of 2014.
****1/2 / *****
I can’t muster *quite* as much enthusiasm as many other audiences and critics to call it one of the year’s very best, but this debut from Damien Chazelle is still a very intense and surprisingly psychologically invasive film. The film’s central environment probably couldn’t be any more deceptively simple, but with how much adrenaline and ferocity it brings out, it hits you hard. Much of this is thanks to JK Simmons in (plain and simple) the best supporting performance of the year. The man has a relatable desire to unlock the fullest potential in his students, but his character always does so dripping with venom and abuse for those who refuse to push themselves, rarely violent in the way of physicality, but more with his psychologically damaging words that questions when the path to perfection has crossed a forbidden line.
****1/2 / *****
Wild is the latest film from director Jean-Marc Vallee, best known for his critically acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club from last year. It details the incredible true story of Cheryl Strayed, who made an agonizing 1,100 mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. This film adaptation of her memoir has generated much positive buzz, gaining critical acclaim left and right, earning two Academy Award nominations, and… I think the movie’s okay. Not great, but….
Okay, let me start with the positives. The film looks dazzling. Vallee clearly has a great understanding of the core mental instabilities that come from such a potentially perilous trek, and he isn’t afraid to let the audience feel every bit as much of the pain and weight of this long journey as Cheryl does. Reese Witherspoon is great in this film, pushing herself to her physical limits, letting the pain of the character build to a boiling bubble in a very subdued fashion, and commands every second of our attention throughout a mostly one woman show.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those two, but I only wish that the third key component, that being screenwriter Nick Hornby, were as good. While much of the direction and performances are very subdued and quietly devastating, the script tends to feel annoyingly on the nose (specifically during Cheryl’s frequent narration which could have been a great look into the character’s psyche, but this more often than not backfires), as well as the intentionally disjointed and vague backstory to Cheryl, much of which revolves around her late mother (Laura Dern), and try as Vallee might (also editing the film along with Martin Pensa) to elevate them, these tend to feel far more dull than compelling in comparison to the sequences along the trek. Wild may be a respectable film, but is unfortunately a step down from Vallee’s own Dallas Buyers Club.
*** / *****