Top 5 Films of 2014

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This is the first time that I’m doing a Top 5 list for the year, but there shall be many more to come as the blog continues to exist. This was a great year for films and there are a lot of films I’m going to mention that didn’t make the list that I still think you should watch, again this was a great year for films. The films that made the list are ones that stand out to me though and are ones that I plan to own and would watch multiple times…these are the movies that stand on their own as a film and are the best of the best for this year. So, before I get into the list, here are the honorary mentions.

“Big Hero 6” Disney Studios did it again, it’s rich and deep and worth seeing. “X-Men Days of Future Past,” Bryan Singer is back and the X-Men series is great again. “Gone Girl” and “Interstellar” almost made the list but after re-reading my reviews I realized that the problems they have don’t elevate them to best of the best. Still worth seeing, “The Book of Life,” excellent animation and story, which “How to Train Your Dragon 2” also did and had loss, in a kids film just like “Big Hero 6.” This was a good year for animated stories. None of these are in the top 5 though, but you should still check them out. Also, “Mockingjay Part 1” is the best of that Franchise so far too.

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5) Guardians of the Galaxy

Director James Gunn

This script is hilarious, the characters are rich and you know what…you will care about what happens to a talking Racoon and a Tree Alien that can only say, “I am Groot.” That is the magic of this story as it shows just how expansive the marvel universe really is.  James Gunn is clearly the right guy to be put in charge of this franchise and I can’t wait to see how he expands the universe. These characters are broken and flawed and we love them because of it. They are forced to grow from the mistakes they make and they learn to care about each other. It also has a rocking soundtrack full of that 70’s rock n’ roll that adds humor to scenes and provides an epic feel in many scenes. My issue with why it isn’t higher on the list are two reasons…Thanos is just kind of hanging around, and Gamora’s development doesn’t really happen. The guys have great character arcs, but Gamora doesn’t get enough screen time for her character and and her character’s motivations to be developed. Still made the top 5 for a reason though. Definitely worth checking out and multiple watches. It truly is a masterpiece.

Score: 9.8 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/guardians-of-the-galaxy-2014-a-masterpiece-of-sci-fi-action-and-comedy-gold/

Captain America Winter Soldier

4) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Director Anthony and Joe Russo

I didn’t care about Captain America in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” after “Winter Soldier” he is my favorite member of the Avengers. This is a movie with consequences which “Guardians of the Galaxy” lacked in regards to the Marvel Continuity. One of the major parts of the world is destroyed and we learn that one of the enemies that was a nobody enemy before is like a virus in the world of Marvel. This is powerful as we finally have an enemy that feels like a threat, Captain America has to wrestle with being a moral hero in questionable situations where there isn’t a clear good or bad. Hell, the bad guy is sympathetic even though he only appears in this movie. We also realize just how complicated Black Widow is, it was this movie that made me want the Black Widow film…her story is rich and we get glimpses of this in this film. We are also introduced to Falcon who is one of my favorite characters now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He may someday be Captain America’s replacement too when Chris Evans leaves, at least the new comics leave that option open which makes me happy. Again, this is a movie with consequences in the world of Marvel as a whole and has so many rich characters who all receive development. The scenes at the end also set up “Age of Ultron” really well in regards to two characters who will be appearing in it. Only issue with the film is that the Winter Soldier doesn’t get enough of development. He is a force of nature more than anything else. Still worth checking out though. It’s my favorite of the Disney Marvel films so far and stands strong on it’s own as a part of the greater whole. Not only that the issue of freedom and security is addressed in an awesome matter. It answers the “So what?” in regards to it’s own existence better than any Marvel film prior.

Score: 10 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/captain-america-the-winter-soldier-an-amazing-spy-thriller-that-changes-the-marvel-universe/

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3) Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro truly created a masterpiece here. This movie critiques the culture of New York City, reveals the nature of lies (acting in a way is a lie, playing pretend and people want the lie for the story) and dealing with Ego and pride as Michael Keaton plays his greatest character so far in his best performance of all time. Not only does the film deal with issue that actually matter and how to grow beyond the ego and have an all star cast but it also has beautiful cinematography and the music which as a constant drum throughout is great at adding tension. This film was also filmed to look like a continuous shot so you feel like you are in a lived in world. The characters are all flawed and all of them are forced to grow from circumstances and situations. My only issue with this film is the ambiguous ending. So much of the film is about breaking out of ambiguity which is embraced at the end which sadly takes away from what could have been a perfect film. I put it above “Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” even though it has a lower score since it is an original film and not part of a franchise. In the era of franchises I greatly value the self-contained story.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/birdman-2014-a-surreal-exploration-of-meaning-and-ego/

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2) Noah

Director Darren Aronofsky

“Noah” is the best of Darren Aronofsky’s work in my opinion. It has a much better reason for it’s existence than “Black Swan” which is another favorite film and tackles if humanity is truly worth saving. It also has some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in any movie. What elevates this film above “Birdman” it isn’t ambiguous. “Noah” is mad clearly and God is an abstract. It’s such a beautiful take on a mythological tale that I can’t help but appreciate it simply for existing. It gives fallen angels the look of giant rock golems and we see just how dark humanity can become and just how flawed Noah and his family are. There are no heroes in this film which gives the dilemma of humanity being worth saving truly an issue. It’s dark which is what Aronofsky’s specializes in, though as far as the ending goes it is more bittersweet than some of his other films… which is saying something,  given the premise of Noah is mass genocide of the human race. Great performances from Connelly, Watson and Crowe as well. Some of the best work I’ve seen from all of them. Definitely check it out if you like dark films with a point.

Score: 10 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/noah-2014-the-meaning-of-humanity/

The Grand Budapest Hotel

1) The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director Wes Anderson

The greatest film of 2014 goes to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” This film tackles the very nature of story in that it is presented to us as the author talking about the book, which before is lead into with a child reading the book, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at his monument. From here the richness only goes deeper as we see a country torn apart by war and corruption that our heroes live in. From the refugee Zero finding love with Agatha as they are both poor people with nothing except each other and Gustave H. who lives only for them and The Grand Budapest Hotel which is his legacy and what he puts his lifeblood into. The film explores the nature of humanity and we see cowards, heroes, villains and people of all types living in a harsh world where the people who have the ability to push forth their will use it to supress others…from the outcast immigrants like Zero, to Gustave H. because he doesn’t come from money and was loved by an old woman who was old money. This film shows us that family is more than blood and that sorrow can be around any corner, just like the good moments and adventures we have will always be with us. This is the best Wes Anderson film and one of my favorite film of all times. If you are looking for a timeless film and the best film of 2014, check this one out. It is worth every bit of praise it has received and is one of the greatest films of all time.

Score: 10 / 10

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/edthe-grand-budapest-hotel-2014-of-story-the-nostalgia-from-loss-and-a-life-lived/

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Of Story The Nostalgia From Loss and a Life Lived

The Grand Budapest Hotel

      Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors and this is my favorite film he has done…it’s either this or the “Royal Tenenbaums.” both capture drama, are full or rich and real humor and have an element of tragedy pervading through them. Both are also stories being read too, which I think is Wes Anderson in his element. I’llAb get into more of what i mean in the assessment. This is also my second time watching the film, as I saw it when it came out in theatres before I started the blog.

    “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was written, directed and produced by Wes Anderson with the other producers being Jeremy Dawson, Steven M. Rales and Scott Rudin.

      The premise of the story begins with a girl at the monument of one of her nations heroes somewhere in Eastern Europe in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. The hero was the man who wrote the novel only known as the Author (Tom Wilkinson as old author, Jude Law as the young author) the Novel is “The Royal Budapest Hotel.” The story begins with how the author met Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham old Zero, Tony Revolori as young Zero), the owner of the The Grand Budapest who tells the story of how he began there as a Bell Boy the drama he and the Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) are pulled into when one of his clients is murdered and  Gustave is blamed for it after getting “Boy with Apple” from her inheritance. Gustave H and Zero steal the picture, the story unfolds from there.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of a story within a story and how it relates to the present is powerful…the fact that the story begins with a child reading the story and showing us that the author looking back on the past shows that things have changed over time, but the traditional music playing the cemetery shows an awareness of time too and how even as things change they stay the same.

The Cinematography – Wes Anderson uses a lot of physical sets and paintings and some actual beautiful locations. This gives the world a very lived in feel and Anderson’s masterful use of shooting a scene symmetrically gives so much charm as well as bringing about some great tension when it needs too.

The Script – The dialogue is witty, comedic and tragic, which is saying a lot since at time the Author is literally reading us what is happening. Though telling is going on it is shown in such a way that it doesn’t matter that we were told, it all fits into the overall narrative and lends weight to when the story stops and Mustafa shares where he is with the author and the losses he has experienced in his life.

The Characters – Wes Anderson has so many of his old crew in this film…from Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, as well as countless others who make small to large appearances as intriguing characters. I’ll get more into the details but this and the story are the strongest parts of the film.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – The Hotel is living history. We see when it has become more run down and modern with the usual clients who keep their solitude like “The Author” and the Hotel of the past where it was full of rich clients and tons of workers where legacy is huge and the Hotel is an institution. The Hotel itself is a living character in a film in a matter of speaking and a lot of the minor characters who don’t have names or have very small parts (Owen Wilson here during the military occupation when he is the Monsieur Chuck since Gustave is in hiding with Zero).

Madame D – Tilda Swinton plays the rich heiress who fears for her life for good reason and has a deep love for Gustave H. We learn she always loved him and The Grand Budapest Hotel and what scenes she is in she is amazing as she is the stress to Gustave’s calm. They also have great chemistry together. Her death sets everything in motion.

Dmitiri and Jopling – Dmitri (Adrien Brody) plays the son of Madame D (the one killed) who killed his mother in order to get her fortune. He is a fascist and has Gustave arrested and blamed for the murder of his mother. He is evil and goes to any means to get what he wants, largely using his enforcer Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Jopling is brutal, at one point killing the lawyer in charge of the will and killing the man who learned about the murder in order to keep it covered up. The two of them are also a sign of the encroaching war and fascism upon their nation that is going on too. They are priveldge with no awareness of people, the opposite of Gustave, Zero and Agatha.

The Prisoners – Gustave makes friends with the prisoners since through Zero he gets them cupcakes which later become their way to get tools from Agatha and Zero to break out. It’s a lot of fun and one of the prisoners dies in the escape before a taxi driver is killed the rest of the convicts showing how Gustave is not of that world…especially after he hurts Zero for being an immigrant and not doing everything perfect but apologizing when he’s so repulsed by his words and privilege. The scenes are so rich and the prison feels deadly and the escape means something and has a cost.

The Society of the Crossed Keys – The Society of the Crossed Keys is a group of Monsieurs  who help Gustave escape and find out where the butler of Madame D is hiding and help Zero and Mustafa get there. There is Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and others who play Monsiuers who have been in Anderson’s other work. It is a great scene and is callback to all the people who have made so many of Wes Anderson’s great movies possible.

The Chase – Zero and Gustave go undercover as monks to meet up with the Butler who confesses that Madame D was murdered and has the evidence but Jopling kills him. They chase Jopling which leads to Jopling falling to his death after Zero knocks him off the cliff. They than steal his motorcycle to get back to the Grand Budapest Hotel as Inspector Henckles pursues them.

Deputy Vilmos – Jeff Goldbloom does an awesome job as the Deputy who is in charge of the will and the finances from the Grand Budapest Hotel. He is taken out by Jopling when he refuses to submit to Dmitri. He has integrity and his resistance leads to Dmitri and Jopling eventually being defeated. He’s one of the good few.

Inspector Henckles – Edward Norton plays one of the good people. When some of his men are roughing up Gustave for defending Zero because he doesn’t have his paper he lets them go free and even later writes a card for Zero to travel freely through the country. He is one of the good ones just doing his job and he greatly admires Gustave which adds sadness that he has to hunt after the prison breakout. Luckily the document the butler hid leads to Gustave’s freedom and their relationship being good again.

Gustave H. – Ralph Fiennes plays one of my favorite characters  that Wes Anderson has done. He sleeps with old ladies, wears tons of perfume and has high standards for the Hotel. The Hotel is his life until he builds an actual brotherhood with Zero who all his money goes too since Gustave has no family and all we know was that he was at one point a Bell Boy like Zero and worked his way up. He is a major people person though and makes friends with prisoners, monks and is highly respected by the Society of the Crossed Keys. He is a great man who stands by Zero too against fascist thugs who oppress immigrants and in the end this costs him his life when he stands up for Zero after Zero and Agatha’s wedding. R.I.P. Gustave H. He even admits that when he was angry how horrible it was that he bashed Zero being an outsider and never does so again. Everything he has becomes Zero’s.

Agatha – Saoirse Ronan is the glue of the story and the person who keeps Zero going. They marry and both start out with having nothing but one another. This all changes when they support Gustave in his escape and help find out that Dmitri murdered his mother. After they marry and we see she is the clear headed one to Zero’s idealism. From this we get part of why Zero misses her so much. She died of an illness that was easily treated in the modern time of him telling his story and we learn Zero kept the Grand Budapest Hotel because he and Agatha had great memories there. She is also really smart as she hides tools in the cupcakes for Gustave’s prison break.

Zero Mustafa – Both Tony and Abraham do a great job as Zero in the different points in his life. Young Zero is idealistic and committed fully to the Hotel, while old Zero is lost in memories of his lost Agatha and that humanity is cruel and so many of the good people like Gustave H. are dead. His life is contrast. As Zero he had community, Agatha and Gustave but had lost his family in the war in his home country making him a refugee and outsider…and in the present he doesn’t have any of them but is one of the richest people in the country. His story is one of sadness but also human connection as he saw something in the Author. He is one of my favorite characters and I love his relationship with Gustave and Agatha.

The Message – The messages I found were that the past is always with us, and that as much as things change, elements stay the same. That you don’t need money to be happy and that there will be people who will stick with you through the toughest of times. Money as a corrupting influence was huge as so many people were wealthy while the nation was in extreme poverty both in the past and in the modern era.

The Ending – The Author relates how after the story was done that if the Hotel was kept for Gustave, and Zero says Gustave was a man outside of time but that he kept the hotel for Agatha, “We were happy here.” That’s why he sleeps in the servants quarter when he visits. It ends on a sad note where the story touches the heart of the little girl reading the book showing how even though this is all the past, it is still touching the present and is still relevant.

   I think this is my favorite Wes Anderson film. It has politics and war as well as family and human relationships and the sheer depths they can reach, as well as having a diverse, rich cast of characters and a point about how timeless stories are. As a writer this speaks directly to me. There are stories that are timeless whose themes stick with us for as long as we live and fully define what it means to be human. This movie is about our humanity and both the good and bad about what it means to be alive. Definitely my favorite movie of 2014.

Final Score: 10 / 10. The perfect Wes Anderson film.

The Lego Movie (2014): The Connection in Fun

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This movie was really good. I wouldn’t consider it a favorite, but as a story and comedy there was so much that is great here, this film would be impossible for me to dislike. There are lots of reasons for this but some of the major ones are the creativity of how it was done, the message and the fantastic cast of characters and the actors behind them. Which is saying a lot for a movie that arose out of a toy property.

“The Lego Movie,” was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who also wrote the screenplay and were two of the writers for the story. It was produced by Dan Lin and Roy Lee and the last two writers of the story were Kevin and Dan Hageman.

The premise begins with Lord Business (Will Ferrell) seeking the “Kragle” which is being protected by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). He is defeated by Lord Business but makes a prophecy that “the Special” will find the Piece of Resistance that can stop “the Kragle” and save the Lego Universe. From here we pick up with our everyday guy Emmet (Chris Pratt) who stumbles on the Piece of Resistance and finds Lord Business and his men hunting him down. It is up to Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and others to protect him and try to stop Lord Business from destroying them all by using the “Kragle.” From here the story unfolds.

SPOILERS ahead.

Here is the assessment of the story:

The Pros: The World – The world is wonderful and extremely meta. It is akin to the word of Toy Story where the legos exist in two worlds. The world where they were made by “The Man Upstairs” and the world where they move and interact and are much more than toys. It is here that the reality of “The Man” and his child that leads to what makes the world real. There is also a richness in the sheer variety of universes, from the main one, to Lord Businesses Tower, to the Old West and many more. What can you make with legos? That is the essence of this universe and “The Builders” are leaders within it because of their creativity.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack reminded me a lot of “Wreck-it-Ralph” in how it was a mixture of electronic and orchestra. The theme song “Everything is Awesome” is one of the best illustrations of this. It fits with the childish theme and epicness of creating your own adventure with toys. Mark Mothersbaugh did great.

The Characters – The main cast has some pretty interesting characters, some of whom have some great arcs. I’ll give them both an individual section why, at least the ones I consider pros.

Vitruvius – Morgan Freeman plays the lead wizard who sacrifices himself to try and stop Lord Business. He invents the prophecy to show that the power and being a “Special” is in everyone. He doesn’t really have an arc, but it’s Morgan Freeman and he clearly had a lot of fun playing this mentor role for Wyldstyle and Emmet.

Batman – Batman is Wyldstyle’s boyfriend and his arc is growing to respect Emmet who sees as boring and stupid. He’s an interesting character who is extremely self involved (goes to party during a crisis) but has a good heart as he supports Emmet and Wyldstyle and appreciates Emmet’s arc.

Good Cop/Bad Cop – Liam Neeson plays a cop with two personalities who serves Lord Business. At one point his good half is erased by Lord Business and he is nothing but a cruel weapon against the heroes…but he comes around after Lord Business turns on him and draws “Good Cop” back on his face so he is once more back to balance. His story is that quest for balance and I wish we’d had more character moments with him.

Lord Business – Lord Business is creative and an inventor who doesn’t feel appreciated so he wants everyone to be in order and keep things as they should be. This leads to him using the “Kragle” to freeze people in place and using his robots to set people up how he wants them. He is a clear bad guy but Emmet changes him when he recognizes him for his creativity in mirror of the son recognizing the dad’s creativity too. It’s a great scene and he becomes a good guy in the end. I didn’t mind this as he was cartoony so could go either way at the end. Will Ferrell does fantastic.

80’s Astronaut – Charlie Day is a wonderful actor! The first time I saw him was in “Pacific Rim” and in this his character brings the energy up to 11. He wants to build a spaceship and keeps getting shutdown but when he has the chance too he helps save the day and builds an awesome ship as well as hacking into Lord Businesses system since it’s 80’s technology.

Wyldstyle/Lucy – Elizabeth Banks plays a pretty cool character who is doing everything to be different but learns in the end that you don’t have to be different to be a hero. We see her recognize that after Emmet’s sacrifice and how she inspires the normal folks to rise up and fight against Lord Business. I liked her character except she never broke things off with Batman before almost sharing a moment with Emmet. That is one thing I would have changed. Though that defined their relationship pretty well, neither really listened to each other they just liked doing cool action adventures together.

Emmet – Emmet is the everyday guy who can build a Bunk-Couch for his friends. Chris Pratt was perfect for this role as he plays the overly excited nice guy really well. His arc is finding that who he is is okay and that he is special and everyone is special. This leads to his sacrifice, meeting the humans and saving their relationship in his action to save his world. It was done really well, though I wish his character had more depth. Lucy is probably the deepest character in the film. Emmet sort of becomes deep after but that is largely because he becomes active in his own life and no longer passive.

The Message – The message was great, there is beauty in chaos and sometimes it is important to follow directions…but most of all it’s in having fun with others that we make connections that count. Will Ferrell is a collector and businessman and when his son is playing with the toys he is the one using the “Kragle” to glue them into place. It is his son who is freeing them. In the end it is Emmet moving in reality that sparks the change and the father finally relates and begins to play with his son when he realizes how important imagination is and how distant he’s been. It’s a beautiful scene and great acting on Ferrell’s part.

Okay: Side characters – Most of the side characters are just gag characters. Whether it’s Metal Beard, the Green Lantern and Superman joke where Superman keeps trying to avoid Green Lantern while Lantern thinks he his best friend as well as the wizards like Dumbledore and Gandalf. They function more as pop culture references and in-jokes more than anything else.

The Cons: Nothing at Stake – My biggest issue is when it goes meta it feels like nothing is at stake. A father and son are playing with toys so in the end they can reset the world if they want too in the end making all of our characters’ sacrifices nothing. This is my biggest issue with the movie. The meta moments were sweet but they did cost the stakes.

Tone – The tone is kind of all over the place. At times it is funny and making fun of itself, other times it is serious and dramatic. This is another reason I can’t consider it a favorite film. It feels like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be beyond a child playing with toys.

This film is worth checking out! It isn’t a favorite film and it isn’t a “Wreck-it Ralph” or “How to Train Your Dragon,” but for the sheer fun of it all and the great message it brings…it’s something you don’t see everyday. I’d watch it again and I’m curious if that if a sequel is made if it will become a favorite. Until then, this is really good as it is.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Nightcrawler (2014): The Perfect Job for a Sociopath

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    “Nightcrawler” is a wonderfully disturbing film within the same vein as “American Psycho” and “The Good Shepard,” where we follow the rise of a broken person who is unable to relate to others and is a textbook sociopath. It really is fantastic and worth taking a look at. I’ll get into what made it so good in the assessment.

    “Nightcrawler” was directed and written by Dan Gilroy and produced by Jake Gyllenhaal, Tony Gilroy, Jennifer Fox, David Lancaster and Mitchel Litvak.

    The story revolves around Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an employed man who steals from a construction site and kills and steals the watch of the security guard who discovers him. He tries to get a job with the construction company he is selling to the stolen goods too but is unsuccessful but when he stumbles upon a crash and a nightcrawler recording the event for money for the local news, Lou sells his stolen goods to enter into the business. From here the story unfolds as he gets more obsessed in the creation of the narratives and is his disregard for life beyond a tool to climb the ladder is made more apparent. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography in this film is amazing! It keeps the dark feel and captures the world through Lou’s eyes. Events also feel raw too as we see what he sees through the eyes of a camera so the scenes create another form of tension that way. Robert Elwist did great.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack has a dark tone and feel to it and pervades a sense of danger. In that way it is almost a direct expression of Lou who we come to realize is pretty dangerous in how he knows how to push peoples’ buttons and manipulate them to his own ends and power. James Newton Howard was the right guy for this soundtrack.

Okay/Con: The Minor Characters – Because this movie is through Lou’s eyes we don’t really get to know the side characters that well. We only know them as much as they matter to Lou, which narratively makes sense but I think also shows how this was Gilroy’s first time writing as well as directing so characters like the first Nighcrawler Lou meets could have been explored or the guy on the news who works with Nina but never fully goes against her. They feel lost because they don’t matter to Lou. I also feel this applies to the detective as she only functions as an antagonizing force and not a character in her own right.

Nina – Nina is a cutthroat anchor on the vampire shift of the news and is willing to do anything to get ratings up. She’s a fascinating character as the only one we see push her buttons is Lou who at one point blackmails her into sex because he wants sex and feels set on money. It’s a creepy scene and she fights how she can but in the end he knows her too well. She’s older so we get that from experience she’s gotten cynical where she only wants stories that feed the narrative of “Crime is creeping into the suburbs.” When a home invasion happens she takes that story that Lou records and hides the truth showing in the end she’s as ruthless as Lou as she doesn’t morn Rick’s death except in how it tells a good story and feeds the narrative. Rene Russo is fantastic. Her base philosophy is, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Rick – Is a young man desperate for money who Lou preys on for most of the film. It isn’t until the end when Rick begins standing up for himself that it looks like things might change as he could tell the police everything. Sadly he never gets the chance as the story goes south and he gets shot down by one of the home invaders in the street. He was the only one holding Lou accountable and calling him out for his inhumanity…but he gets nothing for it. Riz Ahmed plays this role really well as a man who is at first desperate live and later desperate for respect and for his own morality.

Lou Bloom – This is one of the best roles I’ve seen Jake Gyllenhaal in. He plays the person who doesn’t understand emotions or empathy well and is always wearing a face. Desperation drives the character initially, but once he’s in control it becomes about keeping that control. From blackmailing Nina for sex, to blackmailing Rick for not resisting the job or hiding evidence from the cops so he can paint his own narrative and story that he knows he’ll profit from. He’s creepy and a clear sociopath but a fascinating character to watch. I kept waiting for the fall that never came, which would be the one thing I’d change. We never saw him with his back against the wall which I think hurt the script and knowing his character. Still a fantastic job on Gyllenhaal’s part.

The Ending – Lou is a successful businessman. I didn’t buy this given the detective suspected him and I fully expected the police to do more to stop him creating stories even if they didn’t have any proof. In this way the ending felt hollow. It wasn’t bad persay since it showed how empty the promises to his employees were given what happened with Rick getting killed but it served no purpose the way the ending to “American Psycho” did where we don’t know what’s real but we know what he’s capable of now.

    This was a really good film, but not a favorite. The tone, setting and music are all done really well…but I didn’t care about the minor characters and I wanted someone to fight and hold Lou accountable. He faced resistance at the beginning, but once he started to rise he never stopped, we never saw him fall. When every good protagonist needs a fall, especially one as despicable as Lou. I liked this movie and would recommend it though. It’s worth checking out and even though it’s not a favorite it is worth the time to see it.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10. Solidly good and a great first film for Dan Gilroy.

Interstellar (2014): Creating a Future

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      We complete the First Sci. Fi. Movie Week with “Interstellar.” “Interstellar” is by no means the greatest film of the year, or the greatest science film I have watched…but it is great and a favorite. The themes it explores with humanity at the edge as explorers and as a dying species speak volume to problems that exist or could arise and the possibility of something more. The folks in charge of this did their research as well, of course there are science fiction elements since this is a fictional film, but a lot of how they present ideas are solid. I’ll get into more of what I mean in the assessment.

    The film was directed by Christopher Nolan who was also one of the writers and producers. His brother Jonthan Nolan was the other writer and the other producers were Emma Thomas and Lynda Obst.

   The premise is the not so distant future where the death of crops has turned society into an agrarian society with limited means. This has lead to extreme environment devestation and dust storms are a usual occurrence. In this world former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is raising his children with their grandfather (), after tracking a strange occurrence he stumbles on the last of NASA who have a plan for discovering a new planet to settle since Earth is dying. He decides to take the mission, and the story unfolds from there.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – “interstellar” is a beautifully visual film. Be it the desolate wasteland Earth is becoming, or the Black Hole that they pass through or any of the different worlds…each feels large, unique and powerful. Hoyte van Hoytema really did an astounding job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful and great. It is Hans Zimmer so it makes sense. My one issue with it was sometimes it was difficult to hear the dialogue because of how loud the music could become. The techno rhyme throughout the film gave it a very real high science fiction feel though and Zimmer is once again amazing.

The World – The world is rich in this Universe. From Earth being a dying world where climate is making crops unsustainable, to a planet of Water, a planet of Ice and the planet Amelia settles and how Space is shown as well as Cooper’s Station at the end. It is a Sci. Fi. Universe that feels real and close enough to our own to inspire us to try and make that reality (the good parts anyway).

The Science – We are presented different scientific concepts that strengthen the film. From the bend of space and time in regards to Black Holes or theoretical wormholes would work, to planets with greater gravity where time is faster or slower than on Earth. These ideas haven’t really been tackled all that well in modern cinema (that I can think of) except this film.

The Main Cast – The main cast is fantastic. I’ll get into the details of the characters and their arcs next, but I found the drama rich and the dilemmas real.

Amelia – This is not Hathaway’s greatest role as her motivation is one of the simplest ones…to find her boyfriend. She has other aspects to like love of exploration but when it comes down to the final choice that is her focus and is part of what leads to her ending as she heads off to Edmund’s planet at the end. Hathaway does a good job with what she’s given though, and she does survive.

Tom Cooper – Is the son who becomes stuck in the mindset of the dying Earth as he has lost children but refuses to leave as his home is all he has left. When Murphy calls him out on it he asks he never come back again leading to her burning his crops and attempting to save his children. He is the one whose scars are the most blatant after Cooper left as he sends his father a video of him saying good-bye. He moves on and becomes a part of the world destroying himself and his family. Casey Affleck does great.

Doctor Mann – Matt Damon plays a character who has gone mad and sees the only end because of how Doctor Brand used him. He wants humanity to die because he’s stared into the abyss and seen only humanity’s destruction. He nearly succeeds too and it’s only due to TARS, Amelia and Cooper that he doesn’t. His story is a tragedy as he had to live alone with his fears on a strange world with no way of getting back and knowing he was sent to die…all he had was sorrow.

TARS – Is the Artificial Intelligence that travels with them. TARS is pretty cool as it has personality and wit and the ability to make choices and withhold information. It builds a relationship with Cooper by the end and saves Cooper and Amelia a few times. I like it’s design as it’s like dark metal Tetris cubes all put together, and the voice is human but alien sounding. Glad that it survives the film.

Professor John Brand – Michael Caine’s character is the one who sets everything in motion and who didn’t have all the answers. In this way he was sending the crew off on a suicide mission which Murph finds out later as he’s on his death bed. She takes up her father’s and Brand’s work and makes sure he doesn’t die in vain as all of his character drive is for the salvation of humankind. He’s idealistic, flawed and very human.

Donald – John Lithgow play’s Cooper’s Father-in-Law and is our glimpse into the past/our present as he talks about everyone owning electronics and devices and how people get anything. His view is a reaction to this as he is fine with the way things are and values being a farmer and having a family. He’s let go of the past and moved on.

Murphy Cooper – Murph is our main protagonist on Earth as she joins Brand’s team to try and find a way to get off of Earth or reach the team that went through the Black Hole. We see that even as a young child she is curious and really attached to her dad as she is unable to talk to him after he leaves and only talks to say that he isn’t there when he said he would be. Resolution is reached in this as she works with her dad to solve the equation that makes colonizing space possible and finding her Dad. In end they meet and she’s an old woman, but they are finally at peace. The Coopers saved the human race. I really liked her character.

Cooper – Cooper is the one who is reluctant, but goes when he learns how bad Earth is getting since it would be the last chance he has to save his kids. His story is sad as his actions destroy his relationship to his son and for his daughter for a lot of her life. In the end all he has is the mission until the Black Hole placed by the Future humans gives him a way to communicate the equation or Murph which leads to his eventual rescue and the colonizing of the Solar System. He is there as his daughter dies and in the end takes off to go and search for Amelia as he fixed TARS who he became friends with and the adventure is all he has left. It’s bittersweet but awesome as it captures the essence of his character and how living his dream…no matter how costly it was, shaped him to forever be that explorer.

The Messages – There are a few messages in this film, the greatest of which is our ability to create a future. The Black Hole that’s a Wormhole was created by us to make certain that we would have a future in the first place. We see this in how Murph working with her father through space and time is able to figure out the code which makes human colonization of space possible and we see it in how TARS, Amelia and Cooper work together to get the ship back and stabilize it after Mann attempts to destroy it and in the afterword where we see people worked together to create Cooper Station off of Murph’s vision.

Okay: Red Shirts – There are two crewmen who die, but they are so unmemorable that they aren’t really worth mentioning. There’s the one who knows the science and math who Mann kills and the other guy who dies on the water planet because Amelia tries to do the mission to the point of stupidity and puts them all at risk. Their deaths only exist to raise the stakes, so they are at least successful at that.

The Cons: The Beginning – I really didn’t like the beginning. It was showing interviews with old people who are implied to be the people we’ll be seeing (and we do) and this shows that everyone lives. We don’t know how the characters live, but they live. This takes away from what could have created good tension, since there already is so much tension in the film.

Doctor Mann’s Story – I wish we could have got more of his story…be it from Professor Brand, who was his friend…or more of his story when we meet him and find out he’s an antagonist. I get why he is mad but I still don’t fully get it…What was his life on Earth like? We know how Amelia’s and Cooper’s life was, why not Mann?

   This was a great film and a wonderful way to end the First Sci. Fi. Movie Week. I highly recommend this film if you like Nolan, High Concept Science Fiction and space travel as it executes all of these really well. The minor characters don’t get justice done to them, but the main is given good exploration in what motivates them and in how they relate to one another.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10. A few things could have got more exploration, and I would have cut out the spoiler beginning.

Birdman (2014): A Surreal Exploration of Meaning and Ego

birdman-movie-poster-1

      I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of good and okay movies over Thanksgiving Week. Out of all those movies, “Birdman” wins hands down. It will probably be in my end of year Top 5 list, but we’ll see. December still lies ahead and there were some films that I saw before reviewing the blog that will be major competitors.

   “Birdman” or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu who also was one of the producers and writers. The other writers were Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo and the other producers were John Lesher, Arnon Milchan and James W. Skotchdopole.

      The premise is Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an aging actor famous only for being Birdman trying to make it big on Broadway and be relevant again. From here the story unfolds as he wrestles with situations, his ego and characters and his possible magic powers as well as the character of Birdman who pressures him into actions. From here the story unfolds as things become undone. From here the story unfolds.

The review does contain SPOILERS.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack –  The music for this movie has a life of it’s own. There is a snare drum (and you see the drummer) at different points during the film and it does a good job of giving New York City life and creating tension. It makes everything organic and tense and draws you into the scene at hand.

Lesley – Naomi Watts plays Lesley, a character who has been working all her life to get on Broadway and is roommates with the selfish method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), when he attempts to rape her on stage she fights back and has her dreams come crashing down as the one who had helped her get to where she was betrayed her and didn’t own up to it. After she connects with Laura (Riggin’s girlfriend) and they share a kiss and appreciate each other as Laura reaches out on how Riggin had never showed the appreciation for her performances the way he did for Lesley. After she sets the boundaries with Mike she is a rock throughout the rest of the film and is able to comfort Riggin when he loses it after another bad Preview before opening night.

Jake – This is the best role I have seen Zach Galifianakis play. His character is driven and does all he can to pull the play together…from hiring Mike and doing what Mike wants no matter how outrageous and finding the money for different things the play needs…no matter how tight it gets. He comes through and his darker side is only revealed when he lies to Riggan to keep him afloat telling him they were sold out and that famous people showed up tonight to cast for movies and when he is celebrating the show’s success even though his best friend just shot off his nose and he hasn’t checked into his friend’s mental state. He was compelling to watch though.

Sylvia – Amy Ryan plays Sylvia…Riggan’s ex-Wife who he cheated on. Post divorce she is the only person he is honest with and opens up about Birdman being in his head pressuring him to do certain things. She listens to him but keeps him grounded and it looks like they are able to resolve things as he shows he cares and has learned and it happens organically too as she’s the adult in the room and he’s the one growing past his ego.

Sam – Sam is Riggan’ daughter and is played by Emma Stone. She plays a young woman out of rehab and she plays the part well. From the apathy and skeletalness, to using what she learned there (marking a napkin with dashes to represent time) she is there for her dad and admits he wasn’t a bad father after she talks to Mike about he was never there and realizes he wasn’t bad. She makes him relevant again and uses the popularity he receives on youtube after he gets caught outside the theatre in his underwear to boost him to relevant again as at the end she’s the one running his social media sites. They are friends at the end and she knows he found freedom as when she goes into the empty room and looks outside, she smiles.

Mike – Edward Norton plays a prick who is only real when he’s on stage and being someone else. We see this in how he plays a critic talking poetry and meaning…but than bashes everyone and during Truth or Dare has Sam spit on a bald guy’s head…as well as when he tries to rape his friend. I didn’t like this character. He was complex but he doesn’t even compare to Riggan in regards to how good he is. He is driven by ego, jealousy and want above all else. He only really cares about people after Riggan calls him out and fights him and after he loses Lesley. That is when he begins to learn and see beyond himself. He is devoted to the craft and that is part of what makes him interesting. If the script says his character is drunk, he was real liquor on stage, etc. I’m glad he grows but because of the scene with Lesley I could never like the guy.

Birdman – Birdman is Riggan’s ego and desire to matter. He is core Id and at one point during Birdman’s monologue near the end that gets Riggan to imagine he’s flying he’s describing that people want action, special affects and most of all him as Birdman taking the screen and soaring. He describes how they’ll make billions and outdo to “The Avengers.” It’s a messed up scene and you see just how twisted that part of Riggan is as it is the part where he believes he can move objects with his mind and where the show is just about him…not all those apart of it. Birdman is defeated though after Riggan faces death on the stage and shoots off his own nose leaving him in a Birdman mask of bandages that he takes off to reveal is bedraggled face but who is finally free of Birdman’s voice as Birdman sits silently on the toilet.

Riggan – Riggan drives the plot as he wrestling with his own self worth which gets shot down multiple times as the press only wants to talk about a possible “Birdman 4” or shoot him down for entering into their world (the critic who hates him for bringing Hollywood to Broadway). He is a flawed character and we see how his ego drives him as he dismisses those who try and help him like his girlfriend and how he isn’t able to connect to his daughter and ex-wife until he is at the bottom. Everything is about his popularity and power until he loses it all. It’s only after getting through losing it that he comes out flying and free from the voice of his ego and the outside pressures around him. It’s a powerful arc.

Messages – Riggan’s arc is growing past his ego and realizing it doesn’t matter. That he can be free if he chooses to be and what everyone wants to see is himself not the character as when he is truly himself on stage (he describes the play as a twisted version of himself but in the end accepts that darkness into himself) that he is able to survive and grow from it. He dies and is reborn without the beard and without Birdman’s voice in his head. We also see that art transcends all mediums as this film is a film and not a play so the critic’s point about Hollywood not being art is countered as the film represents the use of both mediums. Mike is also revealed to be a selfish hypocrite who can talk deep things but can’t live it in any meaningful way until the ones who have been through Hell (Sam and Riggan) pull him out of it. There are more as well, but these were the major ones.

Symbolism – Birdman is a dark bird representing the darker side of the ego I got from the film and the flight is only true flight when he lets go of that part of himself and is free. We also see the symbolism of the city which is loud, large and confining. Riggan and other character care trapped unless they are above it all from Sam, Mike to Riggan himself. These were some of major symbolic moments I caught.

Okay: Ambiguous Ending – The Ending is pretty ambiguous so I have mixed feelings about it. It implies he flies or is free after he blows off his nose based on his daughter’s reaction and the fact that Birdman is present but is not longer pressuring him to become Birdman again…but I would have liked it to be a little clearer. I get the symbolism of freedom and rebirth but when he had an imagination sequence where he was flying it was just that as the taxi driver is angry at not getting paid when he returns after getting drunk for opening night. This is my only issue, but it isn’t a con. It’s just not a pro.

     This film gets so much right that I can’t help but recommend it. It explores the ego, meaning and the different identity of individuals and groups and how they relate to each other…as well as that in relation to the art of the stage and life as a whole. It is powerful and one of the best movies of the year I’ve seen. If you have the chance to watch it, check it out. It is worth the money and time as it tells a story with a point and with amazingly compelling characters.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. The only thing keeping it from a perfect score is that ambiguous ending. I would have liked to get what Riggin was thinking but his silence may have lended for good acting…but no answers on what actually happened.

St. Vincent (2014): A Dark Comedy With a Good Heart

St. Vincent Poster

     “St. Vincent” pretty much shows that Bill Murray is still in great form and part of what makes a good comedy (or any story) is caring about the characters. Everyone in this is flawed but not to the point of likability which means the humor comes from who the people are. This is the key to good comedy. Suffice to say I did like a lot about this film, though I wouldn’t call it great or a favorite. I’ll explain why in the assessment.

     “St. Vincent” was directed by Theodore Melfi who was also the writer and one of the producers. The other producers were Fred Roos, Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin.

     The premise is Vincent (Bill Murray) is someone who is very down on his luck both literally (gambles and loses) and figurativly (in debt to everyone and something personal that is revealed later). Everything comes to a head and things change when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) break his fence and tree which later leads to Oliver being babysat by Vincent as his mom is working long hours. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Soundtrack – I really enjoyed the music in this film. It has an indie feel to it and Theodore Shapiro did a great job capturing the emotions. If you aren’t into comedies, definitely at least check out the soundtrack.

Daka – Naomi Watts plays a Russian stripper who sleeps for sex on the side but soon develops a relationship with Vincent over the course of the film, as well as Oliver and Maggie. She is the one who doesn’t put up with crap and speaks clearly to all of them. This gives her a breath of fresh air in a few situations where Maggie is dealing with crap from the courts and her ex-husband and Vincent refuses to deal with his problems and finds himself unable to speak or move that much after a stroke. She adds a great dimension to it as she doesn’t like people it appears at first but in fact does care about those she adopts as family and her baby.

Zucko – Terrance Howard plays a small but essential role in this. He’s the loan shark who in the end causes Vincent to get a hard attack after Vincent loses all his money and he comes to collect. He’s interesting in that he does keep giving Vincent chances and after never appears again. In that way he must have noticed that Vincent was already in a hell of his own creation and decided he should stay there.

Maggie – Melissa McCarthy is really good and playing the single mother on hard times is something she does really well in this. We see how overwhelmed she is just trying to make ends meet post divorce and how no one has her back. This remains the case until Daka (the stripper in a relationship with Vincent) and Vincent finally come through and she finds support and community. This is really the entire arc of the picture but it does it well.

Vincent – Vincent is a terrible human being in many ways, but you also get why he is that way at the start. His wife has Alzheimers and he goes to take care of her and reach out to her and puts most of his money towards giving her a comfortable life. This motivation is one reason he’s afraid to get close to people until others (Daka, Maggie and mostly Oliver) break through that as they accept him as he is and in the case of Oliver during his Saints Speech expresses how grateful he is that Vincent is a part of his life and recounts the life he lived and how he lived like a saint (leading to the movies title). Of course he still drinks, smokes…though probably doesn’t gamble anymore and is still a bit of a prick but he finds community and in it acceptance and love he hasn’t experienced since his wife lost her mind. Bill Murray did an amazing job in this, playing both the dark humor that makes up Vincent and the affection that shines through as he shares his world with Oliver.

The Comedy – There are some great comedic moments in this and the movie succeeds at being a comedy. One moment is when Oliver is reading “The Giving Tree” and how giving is the most important thing. Maggie expresses herself as the tree and the boy as her ex in how she gave everything and got nothing back. How McCarthy executes it is brilliant. Bill Murray does too in his monotone execution of scenes and when he and Oliver are in the bars, hanging out with Daka and when they go gambling at the races.

Okay: Oliver – The guys a child actor and the really great ones are few and far between, but he does alright. He starts out as the kid afraid to stand up for himself, but after Vincent teaches him how to fight he defeats the bully and becomes friends with him.

The Ending – Vincent finds acceptance from the community and keeps doing what he’s doing but with more awareness of others. The speech recounting his life was great but in the credits he’s just listening to music and not caring about anything…the two are pretty stark contrasts and that hurts the ending making it okay but not a pro.

The Cons: Where is Zuko? – Zucko disappears. I would have liked some sort of follow up since Vincent owed a lot of money.

The Catholic School – The teacher who does the Saints report is quite funny and an interesting guy…though we don’t get much of him beyond him being accepting of others and devoted to his faith. The school functions as an antagonist until the end when things are resolved with Vincent but that process is more sudden than anything else. I wish it had happened gradually as we saw more of their interactions with Maggie.

      This was a good but not great comedy. I would definitely recommend it nonetheless. If you are a fan of McCarthy or Murray they are in top form in this and Naomi Watts has some great joke moments too in relation to the two of them. The story is really good and cares about it’s characters. The characters have actual arcs and change over time and we see relationships form in realistic ways. If you like comedy, drama, Murray and McCarthy definitely check this out!

Final Score: 8.2 / 10. It was a good dark comedy.