Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Short Takes: Finishing Up 2014 with "The Hunger Games," "The Theory of Everything," and more

Begin Again (dir. John Carney, 2014)

Eight years after making the magically-delightful Once, writer/director John Carney - formerly the bassist for The Frames - returns to musical filmmaking with Begin Again. The film follows disheveled record producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who's been edged out of the label that he helped start. He has a chance encounter with Gretta (Keira Knightley), a struggling singer/songwriter who's just broken up with her pop-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). Dan offers Gretta the opportunity to record an album with him, giving him a chance to re-establish himself as an artist and Gretta exposure as an exciting new musician. It also allows Dan to try to mend his relationship with his daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld).

Truth be told, there are a lot of cliches in this plot, from Dan's inevitable salvation to Dave's arrogance-turned-appreciation toward Gretta's talent. Yet, like Once, the film imbues those cliches with such vibrant life that they feel not only fresh, but also completely earned. It helps that the performances are all-around excellent. Ruffalo can play hang-dog shagginess better than just about anyone, but he manages to still make Dan a unique creation, a man who's downfall is no one's fault but his own, making his quest for redemption much more earned. Knightley, too, is wholly remarkable, delivering a beautiful, natural performance that serves as a terrific reminder of how good she can be when given the right material. Even Levine, best known as the lead singer for Maroon 5, feels right at home within this world.

What Carney succeeds at the most, though, and what makes Begin Again such an amazing gem of a film like Once before it, is the music. Songs like "Lost Stars," "A Step You Can't Take Back," and "Coming Up Roses" are beautiful compositions in their own right, enhanced by the vocals from the actors themselves. But Carney, better than any other director of movie-musicals right now, excels in capturing the energy, excitement, and magic of the creative process and live performance. The film is never better than in the performance scenes, which crackle with sonic electricity in such a way that you can tell it was performed live (even if the scenes have obvious studio overdubs). The best example is "Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home," which not only has a great song but also connects some of the narrative's emotional and character beats. It's a miracle of a scene in one of the year's most miraculous films. A

Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman, 2014)

It's okay to admit that you don't remember this one. Despite being a big-budget would-be blockbuster starring bankable movie star Tom Cruise with a primo June release date, Warner Brothers more or less bungled the promotion of this movie. Audiences failed to show up, the film just barely scraped back its costs worldwide, and when it came time for the home release it was confusingly re-titled Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. How was anyone expected to really discover this movie when even the studio wasn't sure what to do with it?

Truth be told, Live. Die. Repeat. actually makes a better title, if only because it's more descriptive.
Based on a Japanese novel and manga All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film follows William Cage (Cruise), a military spin doctor who finds himself fighting on the beaches of Normandy during one of the humans' major battles against the invading alien force, referred to as Mimics. During the battle, Cage gets sprayed with Mimic blood, trapping him in a time loop that allows him to die repeatedly (get it?) and try again over and over like a video-game character. He meets Rita (Emily Blunt), who also ended up stuck in a time-loop once. Together they take advantage of Cage's unusual circumstances to develop a plan that will defeat the Mimics once and for all.

The film is a lot more clever than it initially seems, using it's premise to revisit events from different angles and explore some rather dark humor. Director Doug Liman - perhaps best known for The Bourne Identity (2002) - puts together a morbidly funny montage of Cage dying on the battlefield over and over in one of the film's best moments, and the screenplay pulls some clever twists by subverting the audience's expectations. But the twin lead performances are what really set the film apart. Blunt is terrific as a battle-hardened super-soldier, giving her an opportunity to flex her physicality without sacrificing the character. And Cruise gets to poke fun at his own indestructible-action-hero image, playing Cage as a fast-talking coward who gets extraordinarily lucky. The result is a summer action movie that should have been disposable but ends up being an underrated gem. B+

More after the jump.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2014)

The third installment in this trilogy-turned-quadrilogy begins almost immediately were The Hunger Games: Catching Fire left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been taken to the headquarters of Panem's underground insurgency, District 13, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore). Her stunt at the end of the Quarter Quell has led the country to all-out war, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) authorizing lethal force against anyone who could be against him and his government. Katniss is encouraged to become the face of the resistance, with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pairing her with filmmaker Cressida (Natalie Dormer) to film a series of propaganda pieces. But Katniss' main concern is saving Peeta (Josh Hutchinson), who was captured by Snow's forces and taken to the Capital, where he now appears to be on Snow's side.

Despite the immediacy of the timeline between this film and it's predecessor, the gap in quality could not be greater. Most of this stems from the fact that Mockingjay, originally a single book, has needlessly been divided into two films, for no reason other than Lionsgate's hopes to milk beaucoup dollars from their cash cow franchise. What's lost is any sense of urgency or importance. The film's surprisingly-few action scenes seem to lurch by when they should be intense, while the political maneuvering too often feels like rehashes of previous scenes than forward momentum. It's telling that the shortest film in the series so far feels like the longest.

Yet this isn't to say that the film is a complete wash. Lawrence continues to give a performance that outshines the material she's given here, deepening Katniss' interior conflicts and finding new shades of this character to play. Similarly, Woody Harrelson continues to shine as Katniss' newly-sober mentor Haymitch, twisting each of his lines with a brutal mix of cynicism and sarcasm that makes him one of the film's most interesting side characters. And director Lawrence (no relation to his star) hits upon some interesting ideas with the propaganda plot, toying with the notion of war being fought by media and celebrity as much as it is by weapons.

But for all of this, the film never feels like anything more than a prologue to the next film. It's only half of a movie. C+

Like Father, Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2014)

What would you do if you discovered that your child wasn't actually yours? This is the dilemma facing Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori Nonomiya (Machiko Ono), a well-off Tokyo family who receive a call from the hospital saying that their six-year-old son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), is not biologically theirs. They agree to meet the couple whose child was switched at the hospital, Yudai (Riri Furanki) and Yukari Saiki (Yoko Maki), only to discover that the free-spirited, working-class Saikis are vastly different from their uptight, upper-class world. This leads the Nonomiyas to wonder: is Keita their child because they raised him, or does blood trump the love they have for him?

It's a fantastically probing question to build a film around, and Kore-eda is a master at teasing out the drama through long shots and quiet contemplation. The actors, including the children, are all terrific, especially Fukuyama as winning-is-everything Ryota and Ono as the maternal, torn Midori. Both actors expressively tease out their characters' inner turmoil, saying more with a few glances than any dialogue ever could. If there is a fault in the film, it's perhaps that Kore-eda doesn't do enough to deepen the Saikis, as they come off a little too much like caricatures than human beings. Nonetheless, this is a wonderfully affecting, empathetic film. B+

Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre, 2014)

Donna (Jenny Slate) is a struggling stand-up comic working the club scene in New York. She's aimless, essentially waiting for her life to begin. Then a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) results in pregnancy, leading Donna to contemplate how to manage this sudden change. She chooses to have an abortion, but must face the difficult choice of what that means for her career and her burgeoning relationship with Max.

The most brilliant aspect of Robespierre's film is how it treats Donna's decision as just that: her decision and her's alone. But the film is more than just Donna's choice. It makes the decision a natural extension of who Donna is as a character, giving her real dimensions and allowing the audience to empathize and understand why she took this path. This succeeds in no small part to Slate's performance, a masterful work that feels completely lived-in and understood. It's thanks to her that the film's stand-up portions work so wonderfully well, simultaneously awkward and confident in a way that's always funny. Lacy makes a terrific foil for Slate, as does Gaby Hoffmann as Donna's best friend Nellie. But ultimately, this is Slate's show, and the announcement of Robespierre as a genuinely great filmmaker to watch. A-

The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh, 2014)

Based on Jane Hawking's memoir, The Theory of Everything paints a portrait of Jane's (Felicity Jones) marriage to Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), the renowned theoretical physicist who was struck with motor neuron disease in his twenties. Stephen is an awkward, brilliant physics student at Cambridge who doesn't believe in a higher power, while Jane is a devout Christian studying medieval Spanish poetry. Jane supports Stephen through the difficulties of his disease, as he far outlives his original diagnosis and goes on to become one of the most celebrated scientists in the world. However, it doesn't come easy for Jane, who must do most of the work of maintaining the family and his health.

Despite the source material, the film is far more interested in Stephen than it is in Jane, often marginalizing her to "scolding wife" while exploring his personal challenges. Jones delivers a fine performance given the material, but she's outshone by Redmayne, who gives a completely transformative performance as Hawking. The actors easily carry the film through the standard "greatest-hits" biopic structure, making the film a pleasant, if not revelatory, way to spend two hours. It's a shame that it loses focus on their relationship to revere the more-famous half of it. B

A Most Wanted Man (dir. Anton Corbijn, 2014)

A half-Chechen, half-Russian man, Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), illegally immigrates to Germany, showing up in Hamburg's Muslim community to claim a family fortune. Both German and American security agencies take interest in this man, with both sides trying to figure if he is a victim of government-sponsered torture or a radical, dangerous extremist. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is wary of him, but wants to prevent the Americans from making any rash moves before they are certain. Meanwhile, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) is working to provide Issa with asylum as a political refugee, a struggle that's complicated by the investigation.

Like many films based on John le Carre novels, the espionage in this film is less of the explosive James Bond type and more of a cold, calculated build based on secrecy and duplicity. Corbijn does an admirable job of drawing out the tension, particularly in the film's high-wire third act. However, the film isn't always able to maintain that tension, and McAdams never really masters her character in a way that makes her feel essential. Hoffman, however, is a reliable marvel. In his last completed role, he brings a much-needed humanity to the film, placing Gunther as the cool head amongst the irrational fearmongering. It's thanks to his performance that the film's allegory for the destructive nature of the international war on terror works so well. B+

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Expectations could not have been higher for Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan's first film since wrapping his widely-acclaimed Batman trilogy. His last original film, Inception, was a mammoth blockbuster that was as cerebral as it was entertaining, earning the admiration of fans and a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Interstellar promised to be an epic tale: the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Coop, an ex-astronaut corn farmer in the near future. Coop is offered the opportunity to join an expedition to search for life elsewhere in the universe, now that the Earth is gasping its final breath. To do so, though, means leaving his children behind, with no guarantee that he will ever see them again.

The good news is that the film lives up to and exceeds its expectations. As a work of science-fiction, Nolan (co-writing with his brother, Jonathan, and basing the story on physicist Kip Thorne's theories on wormholes) crafts a tale that's heavy on science but never sacrifices thrills or accessibility. There are some truly awe-inspiring setpieces, including a gonzo third act that owes a great deal to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moreover, there's plenty of memorable imagery, courtesy of cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema (regular Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister was busy with his directorial debut, Transcendence). The film is so much fun and engaging that it makes science seem like the noblest pursuit.

All of that, though, is typical for a Nolan film. The biggest knock against his films is that they're emotionally cold, tickling the brain but missing the heart. That's certainly not the case here, as Interstellar is by far the director's most emotionally-driven film yet. Much of this is thanks to actors, particularly McConaughey, who delivers one of the best performances of his career here, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway. There's no missing heart in this film. It's as expansive, beautiful, thrilling, and unfathomably incredible as the universe itself. A+

*I am preparing a much more in-depth piece on Interstellar for January, so keep an eye out for it.

Chef (dir. Jon Favreau, 2014)

After finding remarkable financial success helming the Iron Man franchise - as well as would-be blockbusters such as Zathura (2005) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011) - it's refreshing to see writer/director Jon Favreau return to his indie roots. Chef follows Carl Casper (Favreau), a world-class chef at a five-star restaurant. Carl has a very public meltdown over a poor review, costing him his job. He decides to start a food truck business, which proves not only to reinvigorate his creativity, but also gives him an opportunity to bond with his estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony).

Favreau assembled a rather impressive cast for the film, including a memorable supporting performance from John Leguizamo and brief appearances from Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Sofia Vergara, and Dustin Hoffman. However, the film doesn't quite have the same zip as Favreau's breakthrough, Swingers, relying a little too heavily on sentimentalism and not enough on well-earned characterization. That being said, there are enough sumptuous images of food to whet anyone's appetite. It's just too bad that the film itself is more of a snack than a satisfying meal. B-

The Immigrant (dir. James Gray, 2014)

James Gray is perhaps one of the most underrated American filmmakers working today. His films are always taut, captivating dramas simmering at a slow burn, which may be why they never quite catch on with wide audiences. His latest, The Immigrant, premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, then vanished for nearly a year before getting a small release in the summer of 2014. The film stars Marion Cotillard as Ewa, a Polish immigrant having recently arrived at Ellis Island with her sister in the 1920s. When her sister is quarantined, Ewa is threatened with being sent back to Poland, only allowed to remain in the country thanks to the benevolence of a stranger, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). Bruno, however, is a pimp who brings Ewa into his employ, and she must navigate the difficult new world and a love triangle between Bruno and his magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka Orlando.

This is a classic melodrama setup, and the film plays like an opera-sans-music (Gray was inspired by Puccini's Il Trittico). Like many of his films, the narrative moves at a contemplative pace, allowing the audience to see the effect that the "American dream" is having on Ewa. It's also interesting how Gray places Ewa in the hands of two other immigrants who have established a life in America, though neither seems to be particularly stable. It's a subtle commentary on the myth of the American dream, supported by Darius Khondji's sepia-toned cinematography that gives the film a glossy, nostalgic sheen.

The film best succeeds, though, on the backs of the three actors at the center. Renner is terrifically understated as Emil, a man who loves showmanship but hides some of the darker aspects of his past. Phoenix, a frequent Gray collaborator, teeters on the edge of danger throughout the film, playing Bruno as a "gentleman" who can barely contain his more violent impulses (it's easy to imagine Bruno as a relative of his Freddie Quill from The Master (2012)). But it's Cotillard who shines the brightest. She's always possessed a wonderfully expressive face, and here that countenance is a canvas for all of Ewa's pain, despair, and determination. It's a masterful performance from one of today's best working actresses. Thanks to all three performers, the film is a quiet stunner. A-

The One I Love (dir. Charlie McDowell, 2014)

The One I Love begins fairly innocuously: Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are in counseling, their once-blissful marriage now on the brink of falling apart. Their therapist (Ted Danson) recommends that they take a vacation to a couples' retreat that several of his other clients have rekindled their spark. And so Ethan and Sophie are off, settling into their cabin and checking out the guest house out back. Only there's something very strange about the guest house...

Anyone familiar with The Twilight Zone will likely see the twist that's coming, and for at least it's first two-thirds the film takes a fascinating route with it, using this central conceit to explore the way that people in a marriage (or any long-term relationship) change over time. Both Duplass and Moss give committed performances, with Moss especially shining as a woman torn with a very difficult choice. It's just a shame that the film's third act almost completely unravels everything it was doing well by becoming bogged-down in the least interesting aspects of its premise. That being said, the film certainly establishes first-time feature director Charlie McDowell as a promising talent to watch. B-

Maleficent (dir. Robert Stromberg, 2014)

Disney has been in the business of reinventing itself for a little more than a half-decade at this point, taking its films in new, unexpected directions while still delivering a product that will make beaucoup dollars and sell tons of merchandise. As far as live-action films go, Maleficent works almost as a follow-up to 2010's Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland, as the Mouse House tweaks one of its older stories - in this case Sleeping Beauty (1959) - into an effects-heavy "reimagining." And it's hard not to compare those two films: the film's director, Robert Stromberg, worked as a production designer on Alice in Wonderland, and both films have an over-CGIed look that makes it look both unrealistic and somewhat ugly.

But what Maleficent has in favor over that earlier film is a fantastic lead performance from Angelina Jolie. She stars as Maleficent, a fairy who seeks revenge on the human king Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a man she loved but who had betrayed her. She places a curse on his daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), that will send her into a permanent slumber when she turns sixteen. Over the years, however, Maleficent becomes a quiet guardian for the girl, leading her to question her curse and her motivations.

It's an interesting twist on the story, especially in the way that it transforms Maleficent from being an all-out villain to be a wounded victim (Stromberg stages Stefan's betrayal in way that could metaphorically imply rape). Jolie is marvelous in the role, almost single-handedly carrying the film through her wicked glances, dry humor, and inner warmth. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't rise to her level. Copley is woefully miscast as Stefan, making no effort to disguise his accent and failing to make a compelling antagonist. The three fairies charged with protecting Aurora - played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple - are more annoying distractions than the comic relief they're meant to be. And the film's action sequences are overdone and underwhelming, barely raising the pulse. Still, it's worth checking out for its subversive storytelling and Jolie's strong work. B-

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