Monday, June 30, 2014

The Best Movies of 2014...So Far

With June finally and its end, we're just about to reach the halfway point of the year. And while the studios love to save most of their major awards contenders for the September-December window, 2014 has already gotten off to a stellar start, despite a few horrendous blunders. Last year, I broke down my "best of the first 6 months" post by various Oscar categories. After trying to make those lists for 2014, I wound up with enough entries to fill up multiple long posts. Instead, I'll be doing quick rundowns of 15-20 standout films from the year thus far (by US release date, no matter how small), and then do quick bullet points for specific categories, such as noteworthy Direction, Scores, Cinematography, etc...

Without further adeiu, here's my increasingly crowded list of favorites from 2014 as of today, June 30th. If the rest of the year keeps going at the same pace, then creating a definitive "Best of 2014" list is going to be even more challenging than it was to do so for 2013, and that's saying quite a bit.

Jordan's Top 15 Films of 2014

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel: 

Though Wes Anderson's previous film, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, has a bit more emotional weight, the director's latest is still superbly accomplished on its own terms. Deftly adapting his hyper-deadpan style to the world of zany farces, Anderson turns in a thoroughly delightful film that also boasts an uncommonly complex narrative structure. The fairy tale visuals are sublime, as are the performances from the vast ensemble. Ralph Fiennes is absolutely dynamite in his first Anderson film. His Gustave is fussy professionally, yet quite wild personally (let's just say he likes his women older). And even amid all the wackiness and clockwork-like plotting, Anderson manages to beautifully capture a tiny slice of the world doing its best to maintain old standards, even as the horrors of modern warfare and genocide loom just out of the frame. The old hotel Gustave loves so much is indeed grand, as is the film.

2. Under the Skin: 
Chilly, eerie, and distant, Jonathan Glazer's third feature film still possess a surprising amount of humanity, despite its alien protagonist. Channeling Kubrick even with a miniscule budget, this contemplative sci-fi psychological drama boasts a haunting atmosphere (Mica Levi's freaky score still lingers) and a beautifully nuanced performance from star Scarlett Johansson. As distant and blank as the character initially is, Johansson is able to gently push beyond the surface and tap into a fascinating cross section of power and sex. The budget may have been small, but that didn't stop Glazer and co. from fully realizing some big ideas.

3. Night Moves: 

If you thought that Jesse Eisenberg was a one-hit wonder and would never do anything worthwhile after The Social Network, Night Moves is here to say otherwise. The second half of a one-two punch for the young actor, Night Moves is a steadily paced, yet nerve-wracking thriller that avoids simplification. Instead, director Kelly Reichardt works with all sorts of shades of grey in this eco-terrorist thriller, which is beautifully acted by Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. The conclusion risks muddling the message, but it's ultimately a drop in an otherwise gripping ocean of a story.

4. The Rover: 

Though it's easy to see why David Michod's second film has been so divisive, I can't fight it any longer. I'm a fan, and my appreciation for the film has only grown in the weeks since I first saw it. Loaded with minimalist world-building, and rich with character development, The Rover is a powerful journey that has some clear influences, yet avoids easy categorization. Michod's handling of violence is tightly wound, with every gunshot loaded with dread as to what will follow. Guy Pearce owns the film in front of the camera, creating a rich character whose final revelation feels like legitimate development, rather than an easy cop-out to give meaning to a bunch of nothing. 

5. Snowpiercer: 

While The Rover's post-apocalyptic future is set in the blazing heat of the Outback, Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer goes in the opposite direction, throwing us into a future where Earth has been frozen over. Set entirely aboard a globe-spanning train, this sci-fi adventure feels much grander than the overly-pixelated destruction porn that Hollywood often mistakes as "epic."Filled with juicy performances, strong storytelling, and just the right dose of black humor, Snowpiercer is a reminder of what summer action spectacles can be when they put storytelling first.

6. Joe: 
David Gordon Green hit a bit of a rough patch when Hollywood came knocking at his door, but his return to his indie roots couldn't have been more of a knockout. The director's ability to capture rural American life has remained firmly intact, and his gradual pacing is a perfect fit for this makeshift father-son story. Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan turn in excellent performances. The former reasserts himself as a legitimately compelling presence, while the later proves why he's suddenly shooting up the ladder to indie stardom. 

7. The Double: 

The shades of Brazil and The Trial are certainly noticeable, yet Richard Ayoade's second film still feels very much like its own entity. The 80s-version-of-the-future sets are shrouded in shadows, which only enhances the bubbling undercurrent of darkly comedic energy. Ayoade's writing and directing are fast and charming in their straightforward oddness, which makes the heavily stylized world feel almost instantly easy to engage with. Jesse Eisenberg, pulling double duty, delivers a pair of striking performances as he wanders, mumbles, sulks, and struts his way through Ayoade's unnerving, yet oddly charming dystopia.

8. A Field in England: 

I saw Ben Wheatley's latest last summer, and it refuses to get out of my head. Though I've never been able to quite connect with his previous two films, A Field in England, with its smorgasbord of stylistic and thematic influences, left me dumbstruck in the best sense of the word. I'm still not sure if I've been able to extract a great profound message from its endless rabbit hole of freakiness, but Wheatley's execution ensures that the unanswered questions remain fascinating, even if it's hard to ever come close to an answer. Even if it was all just a hallucinogenic battle between murky forces neither entirely good nor evil, A Field in England feels as rich as its setting is empty.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive: 

I have a confession to make. Only Lovers Left Alive is, in fact, the first Jim Jarmusch film I've ever seen. So I can't really make comparisons about how it stacks up to his other films, or how similar or different it is from the rest of his work. What I can say is that, despite an occasionally sluggish first act, Lovers' hazy atmosphere really got to me, even though I've become increasingly convinced that it hasn't really got much of anything on its mind. Led by a beautiful performance from Tilda Swinton, and featuring some seductively atmospheric filmmaking, Only Lovers Left Alive shows that, even after all of ths time, there are still new ways to twist the vampire genre, even if it's mostly left to the style, and not the substance. As Swinton's Eve remarks after a rather vivid encounter, "Well, that certainly was visual."

10. Enemy: 

The other movie about doppelgängers from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, Denis Villeneuve's Enemy sits in stark contrast with The Double. The Double, despite its quirks, is rather accessible. Enemy, meanwhile, makes no effort to be commercial or enjoyable. The atmosphere, right down to the sickly yellow color palette, is intentionally oppressive, and the first half of the film sometimes drags. Yet the deeper one goes into Enemy's web, the more intriguing its head-scratching mysteries become. Though he has fewer opportunities to play off of himself than Eisenberg, Jake Gyllenhaal still does a fine job of distinguishing between both of his characters, while Sarah Gadon turns in a surprisingly compelling performance as the arrogant Gyllenhaal's confused fiance. And, despite the slow pacing, there's no doubt you'll at least leave Enemy with your pulse racing (and possibly, a newly developed sense of arachnophobia).

11. Obvious Child: 

Put simply, we desperately need more comedies and romantic comedies like Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child. It is fast, funny, moving, and topical, all without being heavy handed. It also features a breakthrough performance for comedian and actress Jenny Slate, who proves that she's capable of far more than the broad supporting roles she's played on TV. Like the film, Slate knows how to make you laugh hysterically but then genuinely move you with refreshing frankness. Robespierre is just starting to write her next film (which will also star slate). If Obvious Child is any indication, we've just stumbled upon a truly exciting comedic voice. 

12. Belle: 

One could easily dismiss Belle as having received attention simply for its radical (albeit based in fact) story. It's not every day (or any day) that you see a British period romance that centers on a black woman. Yet rather than set the film up as empty progressiveness, director Amma Asante has delivered. Though sporadically overwrought, Belle is a heartfelt and intelligent look as class and race that smartly pairs its radical traits with more traditional, Austen-esque narrative tropes. The cast (with the exception of a love interest) is exceptional, but the movie ultimately belongs to break-out star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who carries the film on her shoulders with effortless grace.

13. X-Men: Days of Future Past: 

The X-Men franchise has been through plenty of rough times, but it has redeemed itself quite spectacularly with its latest entry. Though it seems overly complicated and overcrowded on paper, director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg (who somehow also wrote the awful X-Men: The Last Stand) elegantly move between past and future, wisely using the latter setting as more of a framing device so that the more compelling past section can dominate the story. James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult all play off of each other with thrilling results, with McAvoy emerging as the film's troubled heart and soul. Of course, special mention should go to Evan Peters' brief, yet critical, turn as Quicksilver, who steals the movie during an exhilarating and hilarious prison-break sequence. Some franchises beg to be buried after only a few films. Somehow, in their seventh film, the X-Men feel fresher than ever, making 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse that much more tantalizing.

14. Ernest and Celestine: 

Simple without being simplistic, and cute without being saccharine, this slice of French animation remains one of the year's most delightful films. With its beautiful pencil and water color paint visuals, and a disarmingly sweet story about acceptance and prejudice, the film resonates deeply even though it's largely predictable fare. While it's easy to see why something like Frozen took the box office by storm, Ernest and Celestine shows that small-scale animation is still a worthy endeavor.

15. The Nymphomaniac: 

Though Lars von Trier is known as a provocateur, the most shocking thing about The Nyphomaniac is how mature it is regarding issues of sex, social mores, and gender-based double standards. Despite a rocky first half (or Part 1) that sidelines Charlotte Gainsbourg for far too long, the film builds quite nicely as it goes on and the protagonist's sexual journey becomes a traumatic downward spiral. Gainsbourg takes total command of the second half, and paints a riveting portrait of woman allows sex to dominate her life out of her own pursuits, rather than out of a desire to be "wanted" or objectified. And von Trier, while still occasionally winking naughtily at the audience, puts his rough-around-the-edges visual aesthetic to smart use. I'm not sure The Nymphomaniac is quite the opus the director was striving for, but what progress he made towards his goal is admirable all the same.

Honorable Mention - Tom at the Farm: 

Though I would happily place Xavier Dolan's fourth film close to the top of the list, it has, sadly, yet to set an actual US release date for 2014. Hopefully the young director's captivating psycho-sexual finds its way out of distribution limbo sooner, rather than later.

And as for the rest....

  • Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Bong Joon Ho - Snowpiercer
  • Jonathan Glazer - Under the Skin
  • Kelly Reichardt - Night Moves
  • David Michod - The Rover
  • Xavier Dolan - Tom at the Farm
  • Jim Jarmusch - Only Lovers Left Alive
  • David Gordon Green - Joe
  • Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
  • Tilda Swinton - Only Lovers Left Alive and Snowpiercer
  • Guy Pearce - The Rover
  • Paulina Garcia - Gloria
  • Nicolas Cage - Joe
  • Tye Sheridan - Joe
  • Jenny Slate - Obvious Child
  • Marine Vacth - Young and Beautiful
  • Pierre Yves Cardinal - Tom at the Farm
  • Lise Roy - Tom at the Farm
  • James McAvoy - Filth
  • Jesse Eisenberg - The Double and Night Moves
  • Dakota Fanning - Night Moves
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw - Belle
  • Jake Gyllenhaal - Enemy
  • Chris Evans - Snowpiercer
  • Sarah Gadon - Belle and Enemy
  • Uma Thurman - The Nymphomaniac (Part 1)
  • The Double
  • Obvious Child
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Le Week-End
  • Tom at the Farm
  • Night Moves
  • Joe
  • A Field in England
  • Snowpiercer
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Rover
  • Under the Skin
  • Enemy
  • Tom at the Farm
  • The Double
  • Night Moves
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Grand Piano
Art Direction and Costume Design:
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Snowpiercer
  • The Double
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Belle
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
Original Score:
  • Under the Skin
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • The Rover
  • The Double
  • Tom at the Farm
  • Enemy
Visual Effects:
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Godzilla
Hair and Make Up:
  • Snowpiercer
  • The Rover
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: "Grace of Monaco"

Director: Olivier Dahan
Runtime: 103 minutes

Certain cinematic failures can inspire sympathy. There are those noble misfires, films with a few worthwhile aspect drowned in a sea of well-intentioned decisions that simply didn't pan out. And then, there are flat out disasters. After the first five minutes of Olivier Dahan's Grace of Monaco, you'll realize that you're about to sit through a film that belongs in the latter category. Not content to simply be an uneven bio-drama, this behind-the-scenes look at actress Grace Kelly's life in Monaco lacks even a single convincing moment. Mr. Dahan, who directed Marion Cotillard to an Oscar in La Vie En Rose, seems to have already peaked. Sadly, the high point of his career seems to be nowhere as extreme as the lows in which Grace of Monaco finds him. 

Even in bad films of the train wreck variety there can be small pieces worth salvaging (a strong scene, a good performance, a stirring scores). Sadly, that's not the case here. When the film opened the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, it was widely considered one of the worst Opening Night selections in the festival's history. Assuming the Weinstein Company decides to still give the film a mercifully small US release, it will soon also go down as one of the year's worst films as well (and remain a frontrunner for the same honor for the whole decade). 

But, oh, where to begin? In a film like Grace of Monaco, it's often hard to find an entry point into what went wrong, or where the blame should lie, because every piece of the puzzle is a catastrophic failure (if there has to be a saving grace - ha - it's some of the costumes). 

Perhaps it's best to start at the top of the food chain. Dahan's directing style has never been the most elegant, but here he seems to be playing with any number of aesthetics and emotional tones all at once. The handful of editing styles used throughout the film only make this tonal issue more glaring. The earliest "drama" that occurs is that, GASP, someone in the palace of Monaco has told the press that Grace Kelly (Nicole Kidman) might return to Hollywood to star in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie. None of the actors ever seem able to ground themselves in the material, with Dahan's direction resulting in a bunch of weightless, shrill performances that waste a talented ensemble. Most laughable are the extreme close-ups he uses during "important" one-on-one convos between Grace and her mentor Father Tuck (Frank Langella, hopefully being paid decently for his time). 

Visually, Dahan and his team can't seem to accomplish anything either. In striving to make the film appear lush, Dahan and cinematographer Eric Gautier somehow wound up making the film look like a Lifetime movie. Interior scenes are blasted with soft light, and at times the amount of vaseline smeared on the lens borders on parody. Whatever faults Luca Guadagnino's I am Love had (there are many), it at least knew how to make this visual style look appropriately lush and opulent. 

The film fares no better when it comes to its story or its writing. Arash Amel's screenplay, which was somehow on the Blacklist a few years ago, is meant to focus on Kelly's identity crisis as a wife, mother, former actress, and head of state. But any dramatic tension is quickly sapped when it becomes clear where the story is headed. In the early 60s, Charles De Gaulle threatened to invade Monaco over issues involving tax loopholes that Monaco's Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth). As tensions between France and military-less Monaco mount, Kelly does her best to use her former movie star status to navigate the political minefield she has married into. 

Yet where the political intrigue fails is in the very history it seeks to depict. Monaco's tax loopholes, exploited by French businesses, were essentially a way for very rich people to prevent themselves from becoming slightly less rich. With this in mind, it would have been more satisfying for Amel to go the Inglourious Basterds route, and rewrite history to include French forces storming the palace where many so many of the characters run around in a huff over nothing. Instead, we get a laughable conclusion in the form of Kelly's speech at the Red Cross Gala. Meant to be the big dramatic moment that turns the tide in Monaco's favor, the scene suffers from all of the inanity that precedes it. Individual lines in the film ("Oh, but isn't colonialism SO last century?") elicit unintentional laughter, but the final speech practically dares you not to fall out of your seat in a fit of hysterical disbelief.

More sobering is how bad each and every performance is. The extreme close-ups may emphasize how much Kidman doesn't really look like Grace Kelly, but that would be forgivable if she had found a single convincing moment. Some of it may come down to being miscast, but some of the actress' choices here are just embarrassing. If this was the first performance of hers you had ever seen, you'd wonder how she had ever landed any major roles before, let alone won an Oscar. 

Then there's Tim Roth as Kelly's domineering husband, sniveling through each scene without an ounce of actual humanity behind his stern demeanor. Langella, meanwhile, sleepwalks through his elderly mentor role, and Derek Jacobi turns in a laughably prissy performance as an etiquette coach (he literally holds up emotion cards for Grace, and then judges her ability to convey said emotions). Jacobi's pet parrot, who appears only briefly, deserves special mention for never going over-the-top, despite the work of his cast mates. The actor playing Alfred Hitchcock gets stuck with the worst cliches screenwriters come up with whenever he's used as a character. Every line he has either works in a reference to filmmaking or references one of the famed director's own movies. Lastly, poor Parker Posey is stuck in a Mrs. Danvers-type role so cartoonish that everyone else almost seems convincing for a moment. 

Though Hollywood's obsession with biographical dramas about its own members is tiresome, rarely has the genre sunk so low. It lacks a single moment where it is convincing or compelling as a behind-the-scenes story, as a character study, or as a politically-tinged drama. The dreadful filmmaking is so completely off-base from the start that it almost demands to be seen (almost). Grace Kelly's legacy deserves to shine on forever. Grace of Monaco, however, deserves to be forgotten in a matter of weeks after its release, which is about how long it should take for the DVD to wind up in the bargain bin at Walmart. 

Grade: D-/F

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review: "Snowpiercer"

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 126 minutes

It's somehow fitting that a film like Snowpiercer opens on the same weekend as the latest Transformers product. Together, the pair represent opposite ends of a spectrum of would-be summer blockbusters, even if Snowpiercer's background and limited release dooms it to be confined mostly to art houses. Yet even though Transformers will rake in obscene amounts of money, it's Snowpiercer that really deserves to pack in the crowds at the theater. Chameleonic South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's English language debut is a resounding success, one that blends pulpy genre tropes with first class filmmaking. Transformers is what Hollywood thinks its blockbusters should be. Snowpiercer is what they should actually strive towards.

Though post-apocalyptic settings are hardly new by this point, Snowpiercer's main set-up certainly moves it far ahead of the pack. The year is 2031, and after a disastrous attempt to counter climate change, Earth has been completely frozen over. Humanity's last few remainders are stranded not in the icy wasteland, but on an advanced train designed to circle the globe in perpetual motion. 

Life on the train is good. That is, if you entered it as a member of the wealthy elite. While the 1% still live lives of comfort and luxury in their numerous train cars, everyone else is crammed into the slum-like tail end. For the downtrodden masses, including Curtis (Chris Evans), the gross inequality needs to be overturned. Unfortunately, that involves finding a way to break through the security forces and steel gates that prevent them from accessing the train's middle and front sections. 

English-language debuts can prove troublesome for foreign-born directors. For Snowpiercer, the results were almost disastrous. Harvey Weinstein fought with Joon-ho over a specific American cut that would be 20 minutes shorter, and include heavy voice-over work to fill in the plot gaps. Thankfully after plenty of sensationalized exchanges between director and distributor/producer, Joon-ho emerged victorious. Whether you take to it or not, it feels instantly like it belongs along side the director's Korean-set films, which run the gamut from police procedural to monster movie. 

Of course, when foreign sensibilities collide with the English language, there can be some bumpiness along the way. The current South Korean New Wave cinema is known not only for mashing genres together, but also tones. Gruesome violence and chaos is often puntuated by humor that ranges from darkly satirical to broad and slapstick. It's an easy thing to lose in translation (despite being a South Korean-American co-production, 95% of the film is in English). 

Yet Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson, in adapting the acclaimed French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige," have retained the former's sense of humor, while still making the whole enterprise quite accessible to average audience members. Joon-ho's style and vision may have been translated, but the finished product shows that such translation can occur without any watering down. 

This becomes apparent the moment Minister Mason (a thoroughly hagged-up Tilda Swinton) first enters the scene. While punishing a disruptive passenger, Mason delivers a monologue about the train's pre-ordained order that is both terrifying in its implications and rich with black humor. Swinton, decked out in fake teeth and ugly prosthetics, has an absolute bawl with the role. The actress turns her native Scottish accent up to 11, not so much chewing the scenery as swallowing it in a single lascivious gulp. It's smartly over-the-top work that inspires just the right amount of laughter and nervous familiarity. Whatever fantastical pseudo-science has been worked into Snowpiercer's world, the echoes of truth presented remain unnerving. 

The rest of the cast are, in their own ways, perfectly in tune with Joon-ho's vision. Yet rather than keep everyone entirely on the same wavelength, the director makes some go broader, while others stay more grounded. Evans trades in his optimisitic, clean-cut Captain America look for a grizzled, haunted stoicism, and proves he's up to the task of carrying more than just super-hero fare. While cast members like Swinton, Bremmer, and Octavia Spencer go bigger, Evans holds the film together without being left as a boring audience cipher. As the casualties mount and the scenario grows grimmer, the actor's more genuine acting style helps Snowpiercer stay firmly on the rails. His interactions with John Hurt and Joon-ho regular Song Kang-ho are a nice counterweight for the film's bigger, flashier moments. 

Yet when Snowpiercer gets to its claustrophobically entertaining stretches, Joon-ho  and his technical collaborators keep everything flowing along beautifully. Hong Kyung-po's cinematography and camera-work creates plenty of space within the various train cars, all of which are brilliantly conceived by Ondrej Nekvasil and Stefan Kovacik. The variation of the train cars, especially as the rebel masses push forward, is not only beautifully varied, but it plays nicely into the film's visual representation of how much the 1% have, while the rest are confined to cramped squalor. 

And when the action sequences arrive, Joon-ho ensures that they pop. His use of slow-motion, particularly in one tableau-like shot of Evans wielding an axe, is put to smart effect. Some action beats are more frenetically shot, and the director knows when to slow things down to really let the viewer drink in everything that's happening in the frame. Marco Beltrami's score, though it lacks any distinctive themes, is a perfect compliment to everything going around, enhancing the atmosphere without drawing too much attention to itself. 

In Snowpiercer, Joon-ho and company have walked on quite the filmmaking tightrope, making the film's success that much more impressive. Snowpiercer provides the sci-fi thrills and bloody violence, yet it also has quite a bit on its mind regarding distribution of wealth, resources, and our treatment of the environment. Films like Memories of Murder and The Host (the monster movie, not the dreadful teen sci-fi romance) have some pointed commentary about South Korean officials. Snowpiercer's target is bigger, and smartly amplified by the occasional glimpses of the outside world; the failure at the top of the food chain to respond to climate change won't be selective in its victims. It may not be subtle, but that doesn't mean the handling of the execution here lacks elegance. 

And with a runtime just over two hours, it's hard to find a moment worth jettisoning. Snowpiercer is a film that knows how to use its time well to truly build up characters and tension, as brief as certain performances are. Editing ensures that the film's set pieces and contemplative moments are carefully paced, allowing neither to drag or throw things out of balance. One could have easily trimmed down a scene involving an elementary school for the wealthy, and their eerily enthusiastic teacher (Alison Pill), but the scene's inclusion only enriches the rest of the story. 

Despite the bleakness of Snowpiercer's message, however, the film never sinks into full blown misery. Joon-ho and Masterson have beautifully merged entertainment and message so that each compliments the other. In a way, Swinton's Mason character is onto something. Balance is key to success. Yet where Mason's idea of balance stems from nonsensical notions of a pre-ordained hierarchy, Bong Joon-ho's idea of balance involves actively working to achieve a much more equitable sense of harmony. Blockbusters don't need to be all razzle dazzle or all overly serious brooding. They can, in fact, take the best of both sides of the coin and merge them into something singular and spectacular. 

Grade: B+/A-

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: "The Rover"

Director: David Michod
Runtime: 102 minutes

With its minimalist narrative and sparse characterization, The Rover could have easily been as emotionally and thematically barren as the dusty Outback setting. "Nothing means anything any more," intones a rough and ragged Guy Pearce. That line is either an unintentionally funny statement about The Rover's emptiness, or a careful piece of a subtlety that illustrates how the film finds meaning in a ruthless, topsy turvy world.

 Writer/director David Michod's debut, Animal Kingdom, received near-unanimous praise. His sophomore effort, fresh off of a bow at Cannes, has proven more divisive, and not without reason. Animal Kingdom stayed mostly within the lines of a true crime family saga, even as it showcased some of Michod's visual tics. The Rover blends elements from multiple genres, and defies obvious categorization, despite some obvious major influences. And, while it's not the resounding success that Animal Kingdom was, The Rover still demonstrates Michod's gifts as a stylist and storyteller, even if the results are less traditionally satisfying this time around. 

Set 10 years after a vaguely defined "collapse," The Rover wastes no time introducing its slim set up. Haggard wanderer Eric (Pearce) loses his car to a trio of men fleeing a shootout (ambush? robbery?), and becomes hell bent on getting it back. Eventually he realizes that his only hope is Rey (Robert Pattinson), the simple-minded brother left for dead by the three thieves. 

Guy loses car and wants it back doesn't exactly leap off of the page as a compelling set up. And, in the opening sequences, The Rover doesn't seem like it will be able to do much with the title character's simple quest. Subverting expectation, what starts off as a car chase turns into a dryly funny back and forth between two vehicles. Guns are drawn, but never fired, and rather than build to a shoot out, the scene ends with both parties coming to a stop to talk things over in person (that is, until tensions boil over). 

As in Animal Kingdom, violence erupts in carefully timed bursts. For all of the shots fired off in The Rover, it has no actions scenes, nor is it an action movie. The bloodshed is chilling in its efficiency, perfectly reflecting a world where survival at any cost is one's first (and only) priority. This kill-or-be-killed notion is echoed in the film's depiction of the post-collapse economy. Eric repeatedly asks a shop keeper where his car has gone, but eventually the man refuses to answer any questions unless Eric buys something (his gun remains out and ready during the whole exchange). Later on, Eric and Rey stop to watch a passing cargo train. 

Marked with Chinese characters, yet guarded by American military (or paramilitary) personnel, the train cargo is a perfect encapsulation of Michod's vision of his all-too-plausible setting. Though never explicitly stated or discussed, wealth seems to have fallen into the hands of a select few. Meanwhile, everyone else has been left to fend for themselves, as military forces are put to use guarding sources of corporate profit, rather than people.  

Michod, rather admirably, refrains from easy answers. In some cases, he hardly provides any clues at all. It's a careful balancing act to pull off, and it explains why some find the film empty and monotonous, and others (like yours truly) find it rich with mostly successful minimalist storytelling and subtle world-building. There's so little that's concretely known about the world at large in The Rover, and the same goes for the characters. Australia has become a sort of dystopic Wild West, attracting all sorts of folks to its unforgiving landscape.

Against the odds, the vagueness of the characters eventually pays off for Michod, especially when it comes to Pearce's character. Eric mostly alternates between stoicism and anger, yet Pearce and Michod find surprising ways to peel back the character's emotional layers. More impressively, they do so without having to spell out everything in Eric's past for it to matter. A scene near the end explains Eric's overzealous attachment to his car, yet feels earned because Pearce does more than just stare off into space the way Ryan Gosling did in Only God Forgives

In Eric, Michod is able to create the perfect encapsulation of a wanderer who, despite his perseverance, struggles to cope with a world where foul deeds no longer carry any weight. Pearce is exceptional in the role, allowing Eric's facade to crack in just the right ways. An early highlight arrives when he confronts an eerily calm old woman (Gillian Jones), who unknowingly gets under Eric's skin, even as he holds her at gunpoint.  

Pattinson, on the other hand, is less consistent. At times, the actor's twitchy movements and slack-jawed expressions are too much, even though Rey is more or less the Lennie to Eric's George (minus the actual friendship). However, Pattinson's effort with the role is commendable, and on more than a few occasions he sticks the landing quite nicely. David Cronenberg has largely used Pattinson for his blankness. Michod, however, has forced the actor to really stretch himself when it comes to emotion and physicality. Some of Pattinson's efforts may go to far, but his work here does suggest that he's capable of more than what he's previously demonstrated.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Michod and his team have done a beautiful job of creating a world that feels unique, despite the obvious influences. Working with cinematographer Natasha Braier, Michod captures the rugged beauty of the Outback with a rough-around-the-edges elegance that perfectly suits the story. Even more impressive is the work with sound, which balances natural tones along with Antony Partos' eclectic, nervy score to often haunting (if a touch overbearing) effect. 

What Michod, thankfully, understands, is that stories this simple require a complex undercurrent to make them worthwhile. Had efforts to subtly fill in gaps in the world and the characters been left by the wayside, The Rover would have been a laughably pointless exercise in faux-macho posturing. Instead, Michod's second film takes the broad and simple set up, and uses it as a vehicle to explore the thorny ins and outs of its frightening world, and the equally frightening folks who inhabit it. The Rover may not surpass Animal Kingdom, and it certainly takes its time to get going, but what Michod has pulled off is still impressive. If his first two features are any indication, his future will be as bright as the future of The Rover is bleak. 

Grade: B+

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Review: "22 Jump Street"

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Runtime: 112 minutes

Though it's possible that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller will eventually make a misstep, it's difficult to ignore what the pair have accomplished over just four feature films. In both live action and animation, Lord and Miller have become Hollywood's go-to team for a bizarre category of projects: those that, on paper, should be absolute disasters. Earlier this year, they gave us the zippy, delightful The Lego Movie, and now they're back with, of all things a live action comedy sequel. 

Sequels can go any which way, but comedy sequels are notoriously difficult to pull off. In short, most are rather terrible (look at the diminishing returns on those Hangover sequels). And yet, through whatever magical chemistry Lord and Miller have, they have once again defied conventional wisdom. 22 Jump Street, a sequel to the 2012 surprise hit adaptation of the late 80s TV show, isn't just a passable comedy sequel. It is, for the most part, even funnier than the original. 

And this is before one even digs into the film's very meta take on what it means to be a comedy sequel. Whether or not 22 Jump Street is basically doing the exact thing as its predecessor but with double the budget (as Nick Offerman's police captain tells us), it's perfectly hilarious when taken on its own terms. 

This is largely due to how well the screenplay, from three writers, is able to mix broader jokes with the quick visual jokes and carefully buried references. This is a film that includes Jonah Hill screaming like a loon as he's attacked by an octopus, then later throws out a reference to Benny Hill-esque chase scenes and rolls out a spot-on parody of college slam poetry shows. Even 22 Jump Street's dumbest moments somehow seem smart when one takes into account the level of self awareness from everyone involved. 

Also noteworthy is the directing duo's ability to direct comedy from a visual and narrative standpoints. Setpieces are cleanly staged, and the film never strains to be more than a fun, goofy comedy. Lord and Miller ensure that the film is as easy to watch as it is to laugh at. Though I'd label something like Bridesmaids as being a much funnier film, Jump Street is easily the better directed and edited effort. Editing duo Keith Brachmann and David Rennie are astute at cutting both small, awkward moments, as well as the handful of fights, shootouts, and chases. They know how to move from shot to shot without getting in the way of the flow of the joke-a-minute humor.  

The work in front of the camera is also hugely enjoyable. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are even more comfortable in their roles as before, and handle the actual jokes as well as the winks to the audience with equal skill. New cast members, like Amber Stevens' art student love interest and Jillian Bell as her no-nonsense room mate prove to be valuable female additions, which Ice Cube earns some of the biggest laugh as Hill and Tatum's direct supervisor. Bell deserves special mention among the supporting cast, namely for a ridiculous fist fight she has with Hill's character. Meanwhile, comedy duo The Lucas Brothers (Keith and Kenny Yang) are scene stealers in their handful of scenes as the protagonist's fast-talking dorm neighbors. 

On the whole, 22 Jump Street is so enjoyably silly and funny that it's hard to nitpick without feeling like a Debbie Downer. Yet there are two small issues to take note of. The first is that, after a certain point, the references to the film's status as a sequel feel forced compared to the jokes that are coming out of actual situations. The second is that, as fast as the pacing is, the film feels just a hair too long. It builds to what seems like a climax only to take a breath and then rev its engine up again for the real finale. 

There. That's it. That's all that's really, noticeably wrong. Otherwise, this is a rare comedy sequel that surpasses the original. Not only that, but it packs in so many jokes and references that it's practically required that you watch it multiple times to see what you missed while you were laughing at the bigger jokes. The end credits of 22 Jump Street do a great job of poking fun at Hollywood's over reliance on sequels and franchises, yet, in the hands of Lord and Miller, it's hard to see this franchise outstaying its welcome. At least for one more movie. 

Grade: B/B+

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon 2"

Director: Dean DeBlois
Runtime: 102 minutes

After the major critical and commercial success of How to Train Your Dragon (2010), no one was surprised when Dreamworks Animation immediately green-lit (at least) two sequels. Yet instead of rushing the first follow-up, the studio has taken a healthy amount of time to allow for story planning and development. How to Train Your Dragon 2, directed by Dean DeBlois (half of the duo that co-directed the first film), is a sequel that has been crafted, rather than churned out on an assembly line. Some issues with pacing undercut the film's emotional arc, but Dragon 2 is ultimately a worthy sequel, even though it never quite soars as high as the original. 

Set five years after the events of the first film, Dragon 2 reintroduces us to the secluded isle of Berk. Humans and dragons now exist in harmony, and both species are better off for it. That's more than enough for Chief Stoick (Gerard Butler) and most others, who have spent their lives living in fear of the winged creatures. But Stoick's son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has become restless, and longs to explore the vast world at large. Unfortunately, not every expedition ends peacefully. When Hiccup, Astrid (America Ferrera) and their friends run afoul of a dragon trapper named Eret (Kit Harington), they stumble upon a plot that threatens to undo the years of peace between man and dragon.

The incorporation of exploration is among one of the aspects that Dragon 2 excels at. It's an obvious continuation of the first film's plot that creates a natural reason to explore more of Hiccup's world. Returning elements, like the relationship between Hiccup and his cat/lizard-esque dragon Toothless, compliment the new story elements well. With the thrill of the initial discovery gone (like Hiccup and Toothless' stunning first flight together), DeBlois has found new ways to open up a previously established setting. Some of the supporting roster remain one note, but DeBlois continues to show an obvious care for the characters and their world. 

Yet for all of the compelling choices that DeBlois has made, Dragon 2's pacing doesn't quite click like it did last time. The initial world-building is handled quite well, but the film's second half suffers from a few too many major developments that don't have enough breathing room to really register. In trying to make the Dragon universe significantly bigger, DeBlois has jammed in so much that the film struggles to give it all the proper weight in its 102 minute running time. The first film had one major instance of a plot development occurring far too quickly. The sequel, for all of its merits, has allowed this issue to become more noticeable, rather than less. For all of the good things about this sequel, the pacing of the second half makes it clear that Dragon 1 is still the superior film. 

However, despite the frustrations with some of the storytelling, there are quite a few strong elements that act as effective counterweights. The voice cast, whether in major roles or simple comedic relief, remain exception. Baruchel's nasally delivery, through some sort of magic, is endearing, rather than grating. His work as Hiccup is just as strong as last time, creating an enjoyably layered, yet accessible hero. Gerard Butler's work as Stoick is also noteworthy for its winning mix of fierce pride and gruff compassion. New additions to the cast, including Cate Blanchett, acquit themselves quite nicely as well. 

The lone disappointment is Djimon Honsou as the film's chief villain. The actor's work is solid, but Honsou is given a rather narrow role to play. His character's motivation and background are rushed out in a few lines of dialogue, only adding to the issues with story development as the plot builds to its climax. 

On the technical front, the film easily matches, and possibly exceeds, the previous entry. Again, no moment stands out quite the way Hiccup and Toothless' first flight did, but it's hard to find fault with what DeBlois and his animators have conjured up this time around. The creature design is stunning in its scale and variety, as is the work on the locations. Though not striving for photo-realism, the various dragons, clothes, and locales have such texture that you can imagine exactly what it would feel like to touch them. On the sound front, the whole mess of dragon roars (as well as quite a bit else) is first rate, and John Powell's work as composer continues to thrill. 

And, even when the pacing gets in the way, it's never enough to make Dragon 2 fall flat on its face. Though some moments don't hit as hard as they could, Dragon 2 is still genuinely moving. Amid all of the business in the story, DeBlois and his collaborators still know how to find the heart of the narrative. How to Train Your Dragon 2 may not fly higher than the first film, but the altitude it reaches is impressive all the same, even with the increase in turbulence along the way.

Grade: B 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review: "Obvious Child"

Director: Gillian Robespierre
Runtime: 83 minutes

Despite an ending that involves two young singles getting together on Valentine's Day, Obvious Child is as far from the average rom-com as one can get. In fact, the "romantic" part of this would-be romantic comedy is hardly a factor. And this, among many other reasons, is part of what makes writer/director Gillian Robespierre's feature debut such a winning success. Unlike so many films and TV shows that strain to depict the struggles of "modern" romance, Obvious Child captures modernity with a laid-back, gently subversive ease, all while being consistently hilarious. 

Adapted from Robespierre's short film of the same title, Obvious Child kicks off with aspiring stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) getting hit with a truckload of bad news. Her boyfriend leaves her for a close friend, and the book store she works at is going out of business in a matter of weeks. Donna's puppet-designing father Jacob (Richard Kind) tells her that creativity can flourish under dismal circumstances. Sadly, that doesn't appear to be true for Donna. Things only get messier when a one night stand with a kind, straight-laced stranger named Max (Jake Lacy) results in a pregnancy. 

Pregnancy has played a role in any number of romantic comedies in recent years (2007 alone had: Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno), but those all led to one safe destination: carrying it to term. Obvious Child, however, happily marches to the beat of its own low-budget drum. The tension doesn't revolve around whether or not Donna will get an abortion, but rather how said procedure will impact her relationships with everyone around her. 

This places Donna so completely in the spotlight that she's in every scene of the film. That level of pressure, even for a project of such modest means, is a lot to place on any actor. Yet Robespierre has found an inspired collaborator in Slate, who turns in the sort of effortless comedic leading performance that grabs your attention from the get go. Better yet, Robespierre's screenplay has made Donna much more than a discombobulated mouthpiece to spit out funny lines. Though Slate has played her share of broad supporting characters, Donna feels like a beautifully rounded-out creation. Slate's delivery and timing are excellent, but her handling of the film's vulnerable moments is equally convincing. 

The sharp attention to Donna, thankfully, proves to be more than enough to balance the occasionally one-note supporting players. Robespierre and her casting director have assembled a great ensemble, and every major part is handled well. Some may get fewer dimensions to work with (Gaby Hoffmann and Gabe Liedman as her close friends), but they are wisely incorporated to inform Donna's emotional journey. The most effective is easily Donna's touch-and-go relationship with her mother (Polly Draper), which starts out uncomfortably, yet builds to the film's most touching scene. 

What has stuck me since seeing Obvious Child, aside from its many funny lines, it just how well Robespierre captures so many bits and pieces of life's messiness without getting lost. At barely 83 minutes, the film is full of fast and funny forward momentum, even in the most awkward scenes. Robespierre's storytelling is light on its feet, yet not without smart attention to detail and genuine emotion. Throw in the casual feminist bent it lends the typical rom-com, and you have one of the breeziest, yet also most honest comedies in quite a while. Obvious Child doesn't make you think that "they don't make 'em like this anymore." Instead, you'll wonder why they haven't been making so many more like Obvious Child all along. 

Grade: B+

Friday, June 6, 2014

Review: "Edge of Tomorrow"

Director: Doug Liman
Runtime: 113 minutes

Throughout the course of Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise's William Cage relives the same few hours an exhausting number of times. The character's physical and emotional exhaustion, however, likely won't be mirrored by audiences. Though perhaps not quite the standout of the summer it's been hailed as, Edge of Tomorrow takes its Groundhog Day-meets-any-alien-invasion-movie-ever premise and turns it into a dynamic adventure that places just enough emphasis on character while never going overboard with the VFX-driven spectacle. 

If, after seeing the trailer(s), you've been wondering why someone of Tom Cruise's age is being shipped off to war with an alien force along with the young recruits, Edge of Tomorrow (thankfully) has an answer. As we learn in an early scene, William Cage is a media personality for the global forces that have united to wipe out the invading Mimics. He has no combat training, at least at the start of the whole mess. This makes his position - on the front lines of an assault that makes D-Day look like a cake walk - especially nerve wracking. Yet after an encounter with a rare form of Mimic soldier, Cage meets certain death...only to wake up again on the afternoon before the battle. 

Rather than milk the time-loop scenario for attempts at tension, Edge of Tomorrow smoothly moves along to its next stage. Enter blade-wielding badass Rita (Emily Blunt), who, in one of Cage's episodes, reveals that she may know the key to breaking out of the loop.

From this point, the plot takes on a 50 First Dates sort of structure, albeit from a platonic standpoint. Rather than waste time constantly reestablishing the same details, director Doug Liman and editor James Herbert have a great deal of fun jumping forward through time. Once it becomes known that the only way for Cage's time loop to reset is for him to die, the film even works in some comedy that adds a welcome dose of levity to the convoluted sci-fi set-up. 

And, by making the character a reluctant soldier, the film outfits Cruise with a role that suits him rather perfectly. No one is going to mistake this for career-best work, but the 51-year-old actor proves he can still carry this sort of high-concept, big-budget tentpole on his relatively small frame. Matching him move for move is Blunt. Thankfully refraining from a romantic subplot (what with the age difference....not to mention the aliens), Edge of Tomorrow allows its female lead to take charge. She may be subject to Cage's ability to rewind time, but Rita is not without her own agency. On paper, pairing Cruise and Blunt together seems like head-scratching casting, but the two actually have a genuinely interesting student/teacher dynamic that serves the film well.

In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Edge of Tomorrow is just how much time it devotes to Rita training Cage, rather than indulging in the flashy action. Many of the repeated action scenes, which involve our heroes figuring out movements on a step-by-step basis, are skillfully strung together as montages. For all of the visual chaos happening on the main battlefield, the camera remains focused more on human faces and bodies, rather than on explosions and wild stunts (that said, watching Rita spin through the air with her massive blade is pretty cool). 

With so much of the story focused directly on two people, Edge of Tomorrow makes up for the ways in which its own structure occasionally undermines narrative suspense. Cage's ability to reset time gives the story flow a bit of a video-game feel, where surprises can happen, yet not with actual or immediate consequences. Yet even as Cage and Rita inch forward into the future to wipe out the Mimic menace, the film peels back emotional layers in a surprisingly effective way, without getting bogged down in the drama. By keeping one character's memory aware of every time reset, Edge of Tomorrow ensures that there's a legitimate investment in both the central relationship, as well as the eventual epic quest to end the war. 

The film is also a technical triumph, albeit in a less obvious way than many similar sci-fi adventures. The color palette is limited, yet never dull, and the visual effects are slickly integrated. Especially impressive are the Mimics, which move in freakishly fast leaps and bounds, their metallic bodies constantly shifting in proportion. 

Yet even in the more effects-heavy finale, Edge of Tomorrow never shifts focus away from its characters. Though the sense of permanent consequences may never quite settle, the attention to Cage and Rita's relationship anchors the film in an unexpectedly touching way. Limon and co. obviously understand this quite well. Rather than get lost in the spectacle, Edge of Tomorrow stays grounded in the intimate side of its epic story. It's a testament to how a summer tentpole can succeed when it knows what aspects of the story to emphasize.

Grade: B/B-