From Marvel Studios, a production company who in seven years time has transformed from a middling presence to a unstoppable behemoth, comes the follow-up to their 2012 mega-hit The Avengers. In true sequel fashion, Marvel ups the ante this time with more superheroes, more action, more subplots…more of just about everything. Avengers: Age of Ultron does suffer in comparison to its predecessor, mainly due to the lack of surprise factor that comes along with seeing these characters together for the first time, but it also brings enough of the original film’s frenetic energy and self-aware humor to make it worth recommending.
The story hinges on Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) discovery of a new form of artificial intelligence within one of the coveted Infinity Stones, which he secretly utilizes to advance his Ultron defense program. Because he has apparently never seen a science fiction movie, he is surprised when the newly born technology becomes sentient and threatens to eliminate the human race from the planet. The Avengers must once again overcome their personal differences to defeat Ultron’s massive robot army along with the new mutant villains Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
Inevitably, this conflict leads up to a gigantic setpiece that overtakes the final 45 minutes of the movie in similar fashion to the first film but in total, the action comes across as more frenzied and sometimes confused in Age of Ultron. Both clearly make ample use of computer generated effects but something about this outing feels a bit more artificial. Still, there’s no lack of crowd pleasing fight scenes here, the most memorable including an extended showdown between a mind-altered Hulk and a heavily armored Iron Man that should prove to be immensely satisfying for comic book fans and casual fans alike.
The Evil Plot is not terribly original here but as the primary villain, James Spader does bring a great deal of gleeful menace to Ultron. Most specifically, I was especially impressed with the facial detail that was implemented for his character. Hallmarks of Spader’s past performances, like the intimidating stare and even the pursing of the lips, are somehow translated on the face of this hulking automaton. While it might not make much logical sense that Ultron would have such a killer sense of humor, it does stay consistent with the witty atmosphere that director Joss Whedon has established in his Avengers universe.
The humor and personality that Whedon has brought to these movies remain their most worthy attributes. We can watch cars explode and civilians scream in just about any superhero movie but the interplay between these legendary characters is bracingly unique to this series. Whether its a running joke about Captain America’s distaste for profanity or Robert Downey Jr.’s hilarious line reading during the discovery of a secret passageway, Age of Ultron has no shortage of unexpected laughs. Here’s hoping that the Russo Brothers can stay on the right track when they take over the Avengers series in 2018.
The remarkably consistent Noah Baumbach returns with While We’re Young, a sharply well-observed and thoughtful comedy filled to the brim with life-affirming wit and wisdom. It feels like his most empathetic and personal film to date, which draws on the themes of adulthood and nostalgia with a sort of infectious vigor that kept me charmed the entire time. While its depiction of generational division is inherently timeless, the movie also has an uncanny sense of time and place that constantly keeps things relevant and relatable to adults of any age.
The story centers around middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), who feel increasingly alienated from friends who insist that having a baby will change their lives for the better. Fortunately, their social anxieties about aging and impending irrelevance begin to subside when they strike up a friendship with hipster (yes, I said it) twentysomething couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Their carefree attitude and effortless zeal begin to rub off on Josh and Cornelia, until Jamie’s work on a new documentary feature begins to call the motives of the young couple into question.
Authenticity then becomes a more prevalent theme throughout the film, as Josh and Cornelia begin to strip away the layers of ironic detachment that cover their new young friends. There’s an element of presentation with Jamie and Darby that is immediately attractive to the older couple; Josh borrows an affinity for pork pie hats while Cornelia even attends a hip-hop dance class with Darby. But the question always lingers: how much of this is a show? What are Jamie and Darby getting out of this? The movie does a very good job of providing open-ended answers to those questions, leaving us with enough to go on but also enough to speculate on their true nature.
Of all of the film’s brilliant cross-generational examinations, the most rewarding is its depiction of the relationship that the two groups have with technology. Most movies would take the easy route, having the youngsters doing technological laps around the old folks for laughs, but it’s the twentysomethings here that have a more old-fashioned way of living. A mid-way montage highlights this juxtaposition beautifully, cutting together shots of Ben and Cornelia clutching their iPhones and Kindles with Jamie and Darby loading up a VHS copy of The Howling or selecting from a vast collection of vinyl records. Cornelia even remarks “It’s like their apartment is filled with things we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it!”
That quote also implies a type of bittersweet resentment that almost seems inevitable as one ages. No matter how old you are, there is always someone younger that you can choose to begrudge. What While We’re Young demonstrates in its closing line is a type of acceptance of this, followed by a final moment of levity that nicely ties all of the film’s themes together. Whether you’re old, not yet old or somewhere in between, this movie is well worthy of your time.
The wonderfully weird but not entirely successful Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter begins with the title character, played by Rinko Kikuchi, finding an abandoned VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ classic Fargo buried in the sand on a beach. Curious, she takes the tape back to her apartment and studies the film with quiet intensity, taking scrupulous notes and even taking sketch paper to the screen to complete a drawing. Kumiko takes the “true story” disclaimer at the beginning of the film seriously and treats it like a documentary, although the entirety of Fargo is completely fictional and the note was intended as a small bit of stylistic satire from the Coens.
This is lost on the troubled and lonesome Kumiko, who increasingly grows weary of her meaningless desk job and the impending pangs of adulthood. When she sees Steve Buscemi’s character bury a satchel of money in the middle of a snowy Fargo field, she almost can’t believe her good fortune. After relinquishing her adorable bunny companion Bunzo, Kumiko journeys from Tokyo to Minnesota with only a stolen company credit card and a hand stitched map that she believes will lead her to the unclaimed treasure.
To make matters more confusing, Kumiko is itself based partially on the real events surrounding Takako Konishi, whose story is told in depth in the film This Is a True Story. What director David Zellner and his brother Nathan have done is taken the elements of truth and fiction from all of these idiosyncratic narrative strands and created a sort of off-kilter urban legend of their own. Fittingly, they create an unusual tone throughout the story, with a mix of introspective character studyand fish-out-of-water comedy that’s sure to throw audiences off.
Despite this, the film’s most obvious flaw is that the Zellners really have no idea how we should perceive Kumiko. She’s our heroine and we want to see her succeed but ultimately, we know that she’s running a fool’s errand. How hard can we root for someone who travels across the world expecting a stolen credit card to provide ample funding for her trip? Even the gracious strangers that she meets on the way who try to aid her in her quest are eventually jettisoned by Kumiko. By the end, my sympathy and patience was running thin for her, which is a problem for a movie that focuses so solely on its main character.
Don’t get me wrong: I would much rather the Zellners go this route instead of trying to make Kumiko a “quirky” and “lovable” stereotype who is set up to be the butt of the movie’s jokes. Despite the main character’s struggles, Kumiko is never a mean-spirited work but instead, it is a much more thoughtful film with a peculiar edge and a memorably bizarre setup. Unfortunately, the journey ultimately does not pay off.
It Follows is a refreshing and engrossing new entry into the modern horror genre, centering around scenes that patiently built up dread as opposed to going for easy, knee-jerk scares. It has an intentional and almost disorienting throwback sensibility to it, recalling the chills of genre classics like Jaws and Halloween while still blazing a unique stylistic path of its own. Frankly, I wouldn’t classify it as an especially “scary” movie in the traditional sense, but rather a supremely creepy film that takes a relatively simple conceit and wrings it dry for maximum suspense.
The story centers around a young girl named Jay (Maika Monroe, who also starred in last year’s The Guest) and a curse that she contracts after having sex with the mysterious new guy in town (Jake Weary). After their encounter, he explains that she will now be stalked on foot relentlessly by a shape-shifting entity that is only visible to her until she “passes it on” to her next sexual partner. With the help of her friends, including her long time childhood crush Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Jay must find a way to counter the unstoppable force as it pursues her at walking speed with a zombie-like level of persistence.
David Robert Mitchell, who previously wrote and directed the sweetly nostalgic Myth of the American Sleepover, recontextualizes his earlier film’s themes of sexual anxiety and adolescent metamorphosis within the framework of a chilling campfire tale. Once again, he proves that he has a knack for writing believable dialogue for teenagers and also displays an uncommon level of empathy for his characters, which is crucial for any horror movie to be a true success. These kids are thankfully much smarter than they’re typically allowed to be in movies like this, which allows us to root for them instead of shouting at them on the screen.
Mitchell, along with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, also inject It Follows with visual flare that is subtle but incredibly effective. The camerawork often mirrors the patient efforts of the film’s antagonist, using slow and measured movements to sneak up on characters or draw our attention to apparitions that may or may not be lurking in the distance. I was particularly fond of a scene where the gang goes to a high school and instead of the following them each step, the camera stops at a center point and slowly rotates fully around multiple times to give us brief glimpses of the entity (or is it?) in the background.
Another huge asset to the film’s success is the memorable score by Rich Vreeland, which nicely amplifies the tension with its jolting synthesizer stabs that favorably recall Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho. Somehow, this movie is even able to include passages from T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky in a way that’s not nearly as pretentious as it could have been. Bold choices and details like these make It Follows one of the most richly inspired and downright fun horror movies that’s come out it quite a while.
Set in the brutal winter of 1981 in New York City, the terrific new film A Most Violent Year covers a troubled time in the city’s history which saw record numbers for murders and violent crimes citywide. Fittingly, it maintains a chillingly tense atmosphere where the threat of violence is always high and the sense of desperation and danger is overwhelming. In his third and best effort as a director, J.C. Chandor uses this setting to tell a gripping morality tale about hardships of honest ambition and the overwhelming temptation to give into corruption.
In yet another impressive leading role, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the struggling owner of a heating oil company on the verge of collapse due to his truck drivers routinely getting ambushed by an unknown band of assailants. In a last ditch effort to save the business, he attempts to secure a sought-after waterfront property through a 1.5 million dollar down payment but due to his company’s complicated legal history, he finds that there isn’t a bank in town who will loan the necessary funds. To add to Abel’s surmounting stress, his wife Anna, played with ruthless vigor by Jessica Chastain, threatens to get her infamous mobster father involved with their affairs if Abel is unable to sort things out himself.
The chemistry between Isaac and Chastain is outstanding and gives the movie a tempestuous core on which the rest of the story hinges. Their power dynamic constants fluctuates but in small and subtle ways. Abel is an honorable businessman who knows how to fight fair but is woefully unprepared to retaliate against the criminals who threaten his well-being. Anna respects her husband but grows unwilling to tolerate his seeming lack of commitment to do all that is necessary to protect their way of life. Naturally, confrontations arise between the two and their struggle to simultaneously understand and push one another leads to dialogue that reveals depths of disparity between their characters.
Despite its title, A Most Violent Year is not an especially violent film but that aspect lends itself to part of its brilliance: it’s the constant, impending threat of violence around every corner that is much more captivating than endless shootouts or bloody showdowns. It doesn’t fetishize violence in the way that some action movies can but instead, it treats it as an inevitable force capable of reshaping the mindsets of even the most principled and respectable of men. Its corrupting presence looms over every frame and almost feels like a main character in the movie itself.
Cinematographer Bradford Young, who also shot the sublime Selma last year, contributes to this air of menace with wide shots of snowy landscapes that have characters frequently guarding themselves against the elements. The music by Alex Ebert also fills things out nicely as well, with ominous organ and synth tones that are reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning Interstellar score from last year. Everything comes together to make A Most Violent Year a most compelling tale of ambition and survival amongst the most strenuous of circumstances.
Based on the bestselling E.L. James novel that has somehow sold over 100 million (!) copies worldwide, Fifty Shades of Grey proves itself shockingly inept at being either a convincing romance tale or a tantalizing erotic thriller. It’s an oppressively dull and obnoxiously moody affair, one whose source material apparently originated as Twilight fan fiction and doesn’t seem to have improved much on the formula of its predecessor. I can’t speak for fans of the book, as I have not read it myself, but those who come into the movie uninitiated will no doubt leave the theater in confusion as to what the fuss was all about.
The story revolves around the chance meeting of journalism student Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, and billionaire businessman Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan. The two have an instant and inexplicable connection, one that slowly leads to an obsessive sexual relationship revolving around bondage and sadomasochism. As their relationship progresses, Christian asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement that negotiates the terms of their relationship as a romantic couple and as BDSM partners. The latter half of the film alternates between softcore, Cinemax-level sex scenes and Christian doting on Ana to sign the aforementioned contract.
If it sounds boring, that’s because it is. There are many problems with Fifty Shades as a movie but at the foundational level, this story simply does not work. It’s phony and unconvincing every step of the way, led by two main characters who are one-dimensional and altogether uncompelling. Any attempts that there are of character development are sophomoric at best and laughable at worst, especially when it involves any of the secondary or tertiary characters. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue is as stilted and implausible as the film’s central relationship, with lines like “I’m incapable of leaving you alone” that will no doubt inspire torrents of giggles theater-wide.
This puts Johnson and Dornan in an unfavorable position, to say the least, and it’s clear that they’re doing the best that they can with the material. Unfortunately, it’s still not good enough. Johnson does bring some grace and intelligence to her role but Dornan gives a performance that seems like the result of director Sam Taylor-Johnson whispering “dark and mysterious” into his ear over and over again. Whether he’s sullenly draped over a grand piano or glumly jogging through busy Seattle streets, his Christian Grey ultimately proves to be a colossal bore who lacks the charm or charisma necessary for any level of engagement.
The highlights are few and far between. I did enjoy a playful negotiation scene between Ana and Christian that incorporated much needed moments of levity and self-awareness to the otherwise stifling proceedings. The handsome, if one-note, production design is also first-rate, though its only true goal is to make audiences drool over wide shots of Grey’s luxury high-rise penthouse. It could be argued that the film’s exaltation of wealth is more pornographic than any of its sex scenes. Regardless, Fifty Shades of Grey is nothing more than a transparent tease of a film.
It’s fair to say that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master) has one of the most stellar track records of any director working today but with the number of superb films under his belt, it feels slightly disheartening when he releases a film that is merely good instead of great. That’s the feeling that I was left with during the conclusion of Inherent Vice, his brazenly bizarre adaptation of the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon. While it seems to be the most studiously faithful adaptation that Anderson has done so far, it has a peculiar energy and enough spontaneous moments to allow it to stand on its own as a creative work.
The full story is intentionally indecipherable, so detailing it feels like a bit of a fool’s errand. We open in 1970 on the fictional Gordita Beach, when hippie private investigator Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is visited by his ex-flame Shasta Fey, played by Katherine Waterston. She clues him in on a plot to kidnap her current lover, the wealthy real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman, played by Eric Roberts. Doc’s ensuing investigation spawns a host of idiosyncratic characters who guide us through a plot that almost feels like it’s being made up as it goes along.
There’s no doubt that this willful lack of narrative clarity will frustrate viewers and there were times when I felt out of step as well. More often than not, characters come and go with little introduction and talk about places or people that haven’t been established yet. After a certain amount of time, I generally stopped trying to follow the plot and just enjoyed each scene individually for what it was. Clearly, Anderson is going for more of a vibe than a precisely told story and as a hazy, rose-colored evocation of an era, it rarely misses a beat.
The tone that he creates throughout is a peculiar amalgam of broad slapstick comedy and post-noir mystery, with a touch of nostalgic romance thrown in for good measure. There’s also an unmistakable feeling of paranoia present in the film, most likely an attempt to bring the main character’s drugged-out perspective to the forefront. The stirring score by Jonny Greenwood and the washed out look of Robert Elswit’s cinematography both contribute heavily to Inherent Vice‘s unique sense of style of vision.
It also helps that Anderson has put together a terrific ensemble cast, which also includes Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and a hilariously deadpan Josh Brolin. Amongst all the performances, Phoenix’s is still the standout to me: he brings all the intensity that he normally would for a dramatic role and instead translates it into an energy of endearing goofiness. There’s no doubt that Inherent Vice is a one-of-a-kind trip but I can’t help but feeling that Paul Thomas Anderson is much better suited to direct an original story as opposed to an adaptation, especially one as challenging and singular as this.
Led by a trio of meticulously crafted performances, Foxcatcher is an oppressively bleak and occasionally brilliant wrestling tale that’s based on the true story of Olympic gold medalists Dave and Mark Schultz. Without saying too much, its fair to say that the film’s ending is shocking and I would suggest that those unfamiliar with the real life events should avoid reading up on them before watching the movie. The strange and seemingly impenetrable story is director Bennett Miller’s third attempt at translating real accounts into cinema and while it may not have quite as much insight as it would like, it does tackle themes of wealth and ambition with a piercing and unrelenting focus.
We meet Mark, played by Channing Tatum, after he wins a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics with his brother Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo. He is eating alone in his apartment when he gets a call from multimillionaire John du Pont, played by Steve Carell, who wants to help train him to win the Wresting World Championships and win the gold medal again at the 1988 Olympics. Mark, and eventually Dave, accept duPont’s offer to train privately on Team Foxcatcher and the film examines the would-be familial relationship between the three men.
Tatum gives his finest performance here as the younger brother Mark, who looks up to his big brother Dave but also harbors feelings of inadequacy and resentment towards him. His withdrawn and moody nature is implied to be the result of living in Dave’s shadow but Tatum does a great job of finding notes of compassion and empathy under Mark’s hulking exterior. The bond between Dave and Mark is arguably the most perceptive aspect of Foxcatcher, in particular an early sparring scene between the brothers that showcases depths of their disparate personalities.
As du Pont, Carrell is almost entirely of a different element. Strapped with facial prosthetics and a distracting amount of makeup, he abandons his comedic chops and brings forth a creepy and compelling portrayal of a man who has almost entirely lost his way in life. As an only child, du Pont comes off as desperately lonely and continues to seek the attention of his disapproving mother. He finds temporary solace in becoming a father-like figure to Mark but it doesn’t take much time for their tenuous connection to fester, especially when Dave comes back into the picture.
Unfortunately, the downward spiral that Foxcatcher depicts in its third act is arguably the weakest portion of the movie. It would seem that Miller has a psychologically sound explanation for the tragic incident that occurs, given that it’s such a predominant factor in the story that he’s telling, but it seems that he is just as dumbfounded by it as we are. On that basis, it doesn’t work for me as a true crime story but as a study of three broken men attempting to find meaning within one another, I found it engrossing and eerily effective.
After a season filled with underwhelming and overpraised biopics, we’ve finally struck gold: the new Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma is a note perfect historical drama. It deftly sidesteps the Important Historical Figure movie cliches to create an inspiring piece of filmmaking that’s filled with rich authenticity and detail. Ava DuVernay has directed other smaller independent films in the past but here, she proves that she is even more effective with a larger budget, a sound script and an ensemble cast of incredibly gifted actors and actresses. Her talent is undeniable and I hope this movie leads DuVernay to other avenues of success in the future.
Instead of trying to condense King’s entire life into one film, Duvernay smartly chooses to focus on the six month period from Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. We start in 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that banned segregation in the South. After seeing the systematic discrimination that remained in tact, King comes to President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) with a plan to push his Movement forward, specifically by protecting voting rights for African-Americans. When Johnson deems the move politically unfavorably, King takes to the street and leads a trio of peaceful protests in Alabama that would capture the nation’s attention.
There’s something so incredibly human about Selma and it starts with the compassionate and commanding lead performance by Oyelowo as King. He effectively strikes a remarkable balance between the fiery vigor of King’s public persona and the quiet humility behind King’s personal life. There’s nothing showy about this performance: Oyelowo chooses wisely not to do an imitation of one of the 20th century’s most memorable historical figures but instead, he captures his essence with a level of intimacy that I could not have expected.
Selma also has a crisp and distinguished look to it without feeling too polished or overproduced. The accomplished cinematographer Bradford Young uses unconventional framing and unique camera angles to add a visual flair that doesn’t distract from the captivating true story that’s being told. The lighting is the film is also top notch: I was taken especially with the Selma prison scenes that find the perfect amount of moonlight to cast on the prisoners faces as they speak to each other in the night.
In addition to the technical aspects, the writing is also consistently brilliant. Given that the filmmakers couldn’t reach an agreement with King’s estate to utilize the words from his speeches, the screenplay, written by Paul Webb and co-written by DuVernay, deserves even more credit for devising new passages of public speaking that use King’s cadence and rhythm without using the words that he actually spoke. The risk for failure is inherently high when capturing a historical figure on film, especially one as widely known and influential as Martin Luther King Jr., but Selma stands as a towering achievement of dignity and humanity.
Based on the autobiography of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, American Sniper is a confident and convincing account of the most lethal sniper in American military history. Taken just as a war movie, it certainly has its issues but as biopics go, it has much more personality and perspective than other films in the genre that I’ve seen this season. The film is also aided greatly by a superb, understated performance by Bradley Cooper, who was just recently nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor.
We follow Kyle in flashbacks through his life, starting out with his first hunting trip and his father’s early implementation of a strict code of right and wrong. After seeing footage of a terrorist attack on television, he feels compelled to enlist as a Navy SEAL and protect the country that he loves more than anything. After meeting and eventually marrying his wife Taya, played by Sienna Miller, the two struggle to keep their family together during Kyle’s four voluntary tours of duty in Iraq. While these home-front scenes are crucial to the film’s story, the majority of the movie depicts Kyle’s time in Iraq as a successful rooftop sniper.
The most effective combat scene appears at the film’s opening, which retells Kyle’s first sniper kill in Iraq. It starts quietly on a rooftop, with Kyle following a US convoy through his scope when as woman and her child appear from a seemingly abandoned building. When the woman hands off an explosive to her son, it’s made clear that the decision for Kyle to intervene is one that’s left up almost entirely to him. It’s a gripping opening sequence and director Clint Eastwood is able to present this moral dilemma with a masterful amount of dramatic tension and visual finesse.
Unfortunately, the subsequent depictions of the war in Iraq are generic and one-dimensional, especially in comparison to this scene. The main storyline in Iraq, which pits Kyle against a rival Syrian sniper who is set up like the Lex Luthor to Kyle’s Superman, is very hokey and diminishes any sense of realism that the film attempts to establish. Fortunately, the scenes at home with Cooper and Miller are handled with much more tact and tenderness and the two are able to build up a very palpable chemistry throughout the movie.
Cooper has excelled most recently in extroverted roles that make use of his motormouth persona but here, he is able to focus that energy inward while still maintaining a steady balance of humble virtue and self-deprecating charm. American Sniper will no doubt be compared to other contemporary war films like the masterpiece The Hurt Locker, which took home the Oscar for Best Picture in 2009. While Sniper is admittedly not of that caliber, it’s a bold piece of filmmaking that adds a new perspective on the psychological effects of prolonged warfare.