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Combining Laughs, Love & Creativity: ‘The Lobster’ Restores My Faith in Film

Combining Laughs, Love & Creativity: ‘The Lobster’ Restores My Faith in Film

Combining Laughs, Love & Creativity: ‘The Lobster’ Restores My Faith in Film

Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director of Dogtooth, makes his English language debut with The Lobster. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in this hilarious and heartfelt tale of what it means to love and the lengths people are willing to go to find and keep it.

In the film’s world, the City’s singles (those who are not married) are sent to a hotel/compound to find a compatible mate or be turned into an animal of their choosing to live out the rest of their lives. Colin Farrell stars as David, a man who is left by his companion, and sent to the compound with his dog to complete just this task. There are already hints that I am giving away in this ingenious tale that is a must see for fans of creative independent cinema.

David is greeted by the couple that runs the hotel and filled in on the ways of the world inside. He must find a mate in 45 days or become an animal. Farrell enters the compound choosing to become a lobster, largely because they can live a long time. He is applauded for his ingenuity, although other guests played by the limping Ben Whishaw and lisping John C. Reilly, have a different take on his choice.

Characters in 'The Lobster' prepare for a hunt.

Characters in ‘The Lobster’ prepare for a hunt.

The trio set about finding mates of similar defining traits, i.e. they seek a woman with a lisp, a limp, etc. Cheating the system comes with hilarious but deadly consequences. Members shoot to kill escapees in the nearby woods regularly, to increase their stays to find a mate. The best hunters then create more time for themselves by killing singles hiding between the hotel and City’s borders. To say too much more would be giving away some of the brilliance of Lanthimos’ work.

While Dogtooth was inventively creative in it’s own right, that film stopped at opening up a world of possibilities at its end and almost felt incomplete as a result. The Lobster feels more full and relatable, though the performances and English-language ease can’t help but support that notion. It’s almost two films in and of itself, with a clear line of demarcation separating what happens in the hotel and outside of it. Both are great fun, darkly humorous and help restore my faith in the revelry of creative storytelling. I saw the film twice in a span of three days and I still wanted more. In the world of sequels and over the top superheroes, this gorgeously shot and strongly acted tale resonates as one of the best films of the year, hands down.


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‘Spotlight’ Movie Review: “Early” Film of the Year Front-Runner

‘Spotlight’ Movie Review: “Early” Film of the Year Front-Runner

Spotlight Movie Review

Spotlight, which focuses on the Boston Globe’s efforts to uncover the Catholic Church’s wild web of molestation, subsequent cover-ups and corruption in 2002, immediately jumps to the top of the list for Best Picture nominees. A massive and talented cast brings director Tom McCarthy’s insightful and tension-filled drama to life on the big screen and open-minded audiences everywhere will delight in the results. Based on real events, the film becomes a groundbreaking picture in an era known for over the top green screen tomfoolery and barbarianism.

Spotlight is a team within the Globe known for their hard hitting and story breaking journalism. When a new editor (Liev Schreiber) Marty Barron comes on board to shake things up at the paper where layoffs loom, he pushes the team players (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo among them) to abandon their current projects and re-look at the Catholic institution in the most deep rooted faith-laden town in America, Boston. What the team uncovers is corruption bigger than one could ever imagine.

The 'Spotlight' crew figuring things out.

Ruffalo shines brightest as reporter Mike Rezendes. His hunched look and sometimes muffled speech hides a hidden talent, ferreting out information from the unlikeliest of sources. When lawyers, cops, a long line of molested children and their families all bow down to the Cardinal-led churches in the area, it takes Rezendes’ and his counterparts fortitudes best efforts to break the case as it were.

Spotlight is the best-written film I’ve seen in some time and one which restores faith in these smaller, story driven vehicles that seemingly have vanished from the marketplace. McCarthy paces the film perfectly and wrangles strong performances throughout. It would be a shock if this film doesn’t walk away with its share of hardware come awards season. Consider it essential viewing for those with minds out of the gutter or completely turned off in the age of fast, furious, superhero sequels that nobody over 25 ever wanted in the first place. A sterling effort.


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‘American Sniper’ Review: Cooper & Eastwood Team For Intense Tale

‘American Sniper’ Review: Cooper & Eastwood Team For Intense Tale

‘American Sniper’ Review: Bradley Cooper & Clint Eastwood Team For Intense Tale

The first trailers for American Sniper were effective at hooking audiences. That is not a new phenomenon. What is important is that the trailers give an effective glimpse into the actual film. There are few false notes and the film – based on the life of Chris Kyle, known as the most lethal sniper in US military history – reels you in from the first frame. While Kyle (Bradley Cooper) looms silently behind a rifle with targets in sight, captivation ensues. Sniper is an important comeback for Clint Eastwood and another benchmark performance for Cooper, who after earning his third straight acting nod at the Oscars has become a keystone star of the modern era. Sniper has already banked $200m in under two weeks at the domestic box office and each dollar is rightfully earned.

After a brief intro showing us how Kyle came to be and his desire to enter the armed forces, the bulk of the film is made up of Kyle’s forays into battle and his ensuing battles on trips home, where he struggles to leave the war behind. Raised to be a fighter, Kyle not only becomes a deadly sniper, he also enters into Call of Duty-style front lines combat. The amount of violence in Sniper is coming under fire by critics, but that is misguided, because what is war if not violence? The film also has been viewed by some to strike an anti-war tone, one that I won’t argue but ultimately fall in the middle of the debate. Cooper, who put on forty pounds to play Kyle works wonders under Eastwood’s guidance. His embodiment of Kyle’s violence internal and external is true to life.

Bradley Cooper targets the foe in the intense 'American Sniper'.

Bradley Cooper targets the foe in the intense ‘American Sniper’.

Director Clint Eastwood smartly never veers into the sentimentality that he can swerve into as shown by some of his recent past. This is a Hollywood sort of theme as well, but importantly Eastwood lets the action and Kyle’s actions speak for themselves. There is little score to speak of so we are not hammered with violin strings to tell us we are supposed to be moved or haunted by particular moments, though a patriotic drum beat can be heard during scenes leading up to battle. This is part intense video game and part heavy drama, where Kyle’s home life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids are affected by Kyle’s status as a Navy Seal “legend.” I can only imagine war at its most affecting being similar to what Eastwood and Cooper provide us. That is a testament to the powerful film that we are privy to in American Sniper. It may not be the best film of the year, but it is certainly in the top handful and one that deservedly should be talked about during this awards season.


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AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

If there’s one genre which stands above the rest as having the best chance to connect with me, it’s a thriller. It’s why Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most enduring cinematic figures in my life. The rules of the genre handed down by “The Master of Suspense” are still alive today. Hitchcock broke down his definition of the words “surprise” and “suspense” to Francois Truffaut in the book of interviews between the two directors, “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” “Surprise” is when two people are sitting at a table and a bomb underneath it blows up. “Suspense” is when the audience knows the bomb is there, but the characters don’t. Right now, no one is making thrillers as taut and gripping as the filmmakers of South Korea. They come in the form of the twisted and depraved, like Park Chan-wook’s seminal “Oldboy.” They can be more sick and more depraved, like Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil.” Or they can be comic-adapted sci-fi fantasies like Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.” Either way, they all seem to center around a flawed detective. You’d think this could get to be as tired and stale as a man continually put on a cape to save the world and you’d be right, unless excellent craftsmanship differentiates it from the others. Director Kim Seong-hun’s “A Hard Way” does just that.

Ko Gun-su (Lee Seon-gyun) is a detective whose mother has just died. He stops for a drink on the way to her funeral to try trapping some of his emotions inside. It seems to have impaired him in the desired way, but with that comes unintended effects, too (as Homer Simpson once told Marge, “remember when I took that home winemaking course and forgot how to drive?”). Detective Ko swerves out of the way of a stray dog in the middle of the street (that’s good!), but hits the dog’s owner, instead, killing him (that’s bad!). As if losing your mother isn’t hard enough to handle on a given day, imagine being the reason someone else will join her in the grave.

Ko is not a righteous character. From the outset, its’ extremely difficult to root for a guy who accidentally kills someone and mourns the loss of life by shoving the body into his trunk. He also happens to be a corrupt cop, responsible for distributing ill-gotten cash to his law enforcement cohorts. However, Lee plays Ko as if Pusha T from the Clipse went solo – no Malice. Lee is apparently a star known for his turns in romantic comedies. His natural likeability and his previous onscreen reputation (though likely unknown to American audiences) provide Ko with an endearing quality, regardless of whether or not the camera is following him around.

Detective Ko strikes his “deer-in-headlights” pose.

In addition to focusing his narrative around a character with which audiences may not identify, director and co-writer, Kim, pulls a trick even most Korean films of this type don’t truly manage. He imbues it with comedy.

The first third or so of the film is hilarious. Though it’s certainly not a comedy (in so much as you probably wouldn’t classify Quentin Tarantino’s films as “comedies” – although Q.T. himself would), the movie knows it’s funny. It just doesn’t reach for jokes. Everything is completely organic in that the humor never undercuts the suspense. Instead, it lightens the mood just enough to let the audience know it’s okay to root for Ko. Then, before the laugher fades and smiles wear off, it puts you right back on the edge of your seat.

Kim follows the Hitchcockian tenets of both surprise and suspense beautifully. The reason you, dear reader, are only getting one paragraph of plot from me is because I don’t want you to know where the bombs are hidden. Kim knows how to set them off just right. The structure of his script and placement of this camera are so finely tuned, you are fully prepared to give yourself over to his visual orchestra.

I mentioned earlier three films from Korean auteurs I happen to love. I also know those aren’t necessarily for all audiences. Though “Snowpiercer” is an English-language film and “Oldboy” was remade to the dismissal of American audiences (though I still loved the story) and “I Saw the Devil” is slated for remake, “A Hard Day” is almost certainly more accessible for a broader audience than any of the three. Hell, there was at least one child at the AFI screening I attended (whose parent I prejudicially loathe) and it didn’t seem to be an issue. Though a Hollywood reinterpretation may seem like a great compliment to the film, the best one I can give is, “A Hard Day” is a movie which anyone can watch and enjoy. It’s a complete crowd-pleaser, requiring zero pandering to get there. It can be the gateway to discovering more Korean gems. Might I suggest starting with thrillers?

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‘Birdman’ Movie Review: Michael Keaton, Director Inarritu Take Film To New Heights

‘Birdman’ Movie Review: Michael Keaton, Director Inarritu Take Film To New Heights

‘Birdman’ Review: Keaton, Director Inarritu Take Film To New Heights

Birdman is not a movie that will sit well with everyone. Few films do. What Birdman is, however, is a thought-provoking, superbly acted, well-written and expertly directed piece of independent cinema that is a shoo-in for multiple nominations come Oscar season. It is a potentially game changing work that demands to be seen.

Birdman stars Michael Keaton as a washed up former Hollywood star trying to re-ignite his past success in a more respected medium on the New York stage. He plays Riggan Thomson, a man who will star in a play he writes and directs. His attempt to capture glory at St.James Theater on Broadway will be met with incredible amounts of skepticism and criticism, both internal and external. Riggan battles personal and professional problems throughout – a pregnant girlfriend, a reformed druggie daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife and co-stars (including a return to form from Edward Norton) to name a few. How can Riggan pull it off?

The story serves only as a backdrop to several more thought provoking themes on celebrity, artistic criticism, social media, typecasting and the fickle changing of a public’s tastes, to name a mere few in truth. There are so many questions asked and observations made in the film, with plenty of name-dropping to go around, that one can’t help but delight in it all. The inner-workings of theater and play performance are on display as well as politics and relationships not seen while the “show must go on.” It’s remarkably heady stuff.

Birdman Movie Pic

Michael Keaton’s Riggan is hounded by his (alter) ego, Birdman.

The true groundbreaking portion of the film is laid out by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros). Known for his Spanish-language works with interweaving storylines, here he manages the same feat while providing the illusion of one single shot throughout. No scene cuts or jumps from inside a car to a restaurant. Ever. Birdman is presented as if it’s done in a single take and while the film can be claustrophobic at times, that’s partially the point. It’s a marvel that will undoubtedly reap the appropriate rewards and depending on the financial success of the film, raises the bar for directors everywhere.

Keaton is excellent, though the same can really be said about the entire cast. I can see up to 4 or 5 acting nominations coming in various slots here and would be shocked if there aren’t at least 2-3 with Norton, Keaton and one of the female so-stars (Naomi Watts or Stone). Top notch acting, writing and directing in a singular piece; it’s how movies should be far more often. This may be the film that started a revolution in filmmaking, though I somehow suspect that a paying public and conservative Hollywood will not take the bait over time. Still, it’s an achievement that will not go unnoticed by film aficionados and Birdman deserves all the props it is all but certain to receive. At one point, a foreign journalist lauds Riggan for possibly doing Birdman 4, after watching this, if it was based on this film, you may indeed want that to happen. Birdman is my film of the year to this point and I highly doubt it will come to the ground based on the level it is soaring at for me.

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Retrospective Look: Oscar-Winning ’12 Years A Slave’ Review

Retrospective Look: Oscar-Winning ’12 Years A Slave’ Review

Retrospective Look: ’12 Years A Slave’ Movie Review

Steve McQueen’s Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave is based on a book by former slave Solomon Northrup, which is based on events in his life. The piece takes place from 1841-53. Northrup is a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for, as the title suggests, 12 long and torturous years. The film is an unflinching piece of art sparing the audience of little notions of the grotesque nature of slavery in the time period, while amazingly only hinting at the despicable acts that were committed to slaves over time.

Solomon is captured by two travelling artists who use him for his considerable musical skills for a week, give him money, get him drunk and after nurturing him through throwing up say “there is nothing more we can do for him.” The multi-weighted meaning of this line suggests that he will soon become a slave, the captors having done their part to give him a good time, use him and provide comfort for him in his debauched state, meanwhile he leaves a family of three and life of freedom behind.

As Northrup, Chiwetel Ejiofor was certainly deserving of his nominations as he carries nearly every scene of the film. You can see his posture and demeanor change from tall standing free man to a slouching whipping boy for plantation owners. His resolve is reflected in his eyes, which McQueen fortunately captures often enough to stir us beyond the chilling events of the story.

12 years pics

There are no false notes from the Oscar-nominated Ejiofor. Great work.

Brad Pitt, smartly cast as a Canadian man rather than American, with different notions of what laws and being a man mean, offers a pivotal cog in Solomon’s life. Paul Giammatti (slave trader), Paul Dano (the pitch perfect slave runner – a man with a face born to do this type of piece sadly), Michael K. Williams (miniscule slave role for talented actor) and Michael Fassbender (as a drunk, maniacal plantation owner) all help round out the ensemble. That goes without mentioning Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a talented cotton picker who serves as a sexual haven and routine torture victim in the film. (Note: She was excellent though doesn’t have a huge role, but is given the type of character that awards voters love to root for). This is top-flight casting for a film of this caliber.

McQueen, who helmed the critical import darling Hunger and the top-notch sexual addiction piece Shame, departs a bit from his past efforts to make something oddly at once more commercially acceptable while still being within his zone of boundary pushing. It’s a worthy addition to his expanding oeuvre. 12 Years A Slave takes no prisoners and should be commended for showing us the wretched past of our history in America. It’s a maddening and challenging film and essentially a must-see.


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Spike Jonze’s Award Winning ‘Her’: 2013’s Best Film – A Retrospective Review

Spike Jonze’s Award Winning ‘Her’: 2013’s Best Film – A Retrospective Review

Her: 2013’s Best Film – A Retrospective Review

Ed. Note: Film was seen months ago so this is going based off of memory 

What will love look like in the future? How will human interactions change with the increasing emphasis on computer interfacing in the digital age? These are just some of the basic questions asked in Spike Jonze’s Her, which is my pick for the best film of 2013.

Her stars perhaps the best actor working today in Joaquin Phoenix, as Theodore, a man who works at an agency that scripts letters. Theodore’s thoughtful words for others; love letters, letters of sorrow, letters to express longing, all serve as a backdrop for his own desires. He is a top writer who receives praise for his skills at the company. In his private life, Theodore is coming off a marriage that didn’t work with his divorce (to wife played by Rooney Mara) being finalized. His spirit exudes loneliness and isolation, until he installs a new computer operating system.

His new OS, as it’s referred to, is capable of interacting on a very human level. Once installed, the OS, who’s voice is captured and rapturously portrayed by Scarlett Johannson, learns about Theodore through his computer files and soon becomes his best friend and more. Their relationship takes on great depths and levels of interactivity far beyond what one could ever expect. Or is that true?

Jo Pho in Her

Jonze’s foresight of the seemingly near future asks many questions about how people interact with technology. If you look closely enough, he also hints at some answers. Our increasing use of social media and decreasing interest in face to face contact is leading us down a potentially difficult, dire and challenging path. Jonze shows how technology and our use of it may change and affect us going forward from bizarre but hilarious video games to even love making. The growing power of Theodore’s OS and his reliance on and closeness of “their” relationship is so real and vivid, it can’t help but win audiences over.

Those in denial about the way technology shapes our lives both positively and negatively may have a harder time connecting with this deeply satisfying piece. Pitch perfect performances by Phoenix – and amazingly Johannson, who rightfully should have been considered for end of year awards – only deepen the connection. Jonze’s futuristic and beautiful vision of LA (the epicenter of filmmaking and place where I reside) excites and intrigues. Don’t miss Her, it’s a film that’s funny, moving and thought-proving – what more can one ask for in a film?

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 2009 vs. 2011 Movie Review and Comparison

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 2009 vs. 2011 Movie Review and Comparison

First off, if you have yet to read Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that’s fine, because I haven’t read the book either. That being said, obviously my lack of knowledge of the book plays a role in how I viewed the presentation of both David Fincher’s new movie and the original 2009 Swedish version of the film with the same name.

Both films plots center around a murder mystery that happened 40 years ago. One which has haunted Henrik Vanger, uncle of Harriet Vanger, who disappeared during a parade and was never to be seen again. So, Henrik hires the good but troubled journalist Mikael Blomkvist to assist with researching Harriet’s death, since he has not stopped thinking about it and looking into it for four decades.

dragon tat pic

Fincher's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" star Rooney Mara.

While there is obviously more to the plot – such as the titular girl with the dragon tattoo, a computer hacker who comes to aid Blomkvist in his unraveling of the mystery – and the large and powerful Vanger family, which is loaded with distrust and possibly tons of secrets, I’d rather focus on how the films are presented and compare them, versus what happens in the film. That being said, this will be a spoiler filled post I am sure.

Both film versions present the material similarly early on, however, Fincher’s version lends more depth to the character of Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and his sexual relationship with his editor (Robin Wright-Penn). The original version leaves this to be highly-implied and not nearly as easy to decipher.

Both films treat Blomkvist as a reporter scorned, but in the Swedish version, Blomkvist has a 6-month jail stint hanging over his head, which he eventually serves. This does not happen in Fincher’s film. Also, Lisbeth Salander, the afore-mentioned tattooed girl, has a troubled past in both. She is much more silent in the original film, with a bit more depth and expression of character in Fincher’s film. This is to be expected I think, due to audience discrepancies with the way we accept material.

The settings are similar, both snow-filled in northern Stockholm, but Fincher’s has the slick feel of modern money, IKEA smooth furniture, while the original film places a little more emphasis on old-school money. The cottage where Blomkvist stays is more in the open in the first film, where in Fincher’s the cottage is “guarded” in a sense by Henrik’s mansion.

The 2009 original Swedish version of "Dragon Tattoo."

The original 2009 Swedish version of "Dragon Tattoo".

Both films treat the violence appropriately, gruesome in some respects, perhaps a bit more gratuitous in Fincher’s film. Salander’s relationship with Blomkvist, a key component of the film, is where the films differ primarily, in my view. What made Fincher’s film so strong, is the change that Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth displayed and her desire to become close with Blomkvist. The ending in that film, though slightly predictable, is gut-wrenching. In the Swedish version, Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) desires Noomi Rapace’s Salander more, and she is more passive and distant with their interactions, despite the physical relationship. In essence, in Fincher’s film, she wanted him but couldn’t have him, and in the Swedish version, it was the opposite.

Both films end similarly in terms of other plot points, with Salander looting money, but in the Swedish version she is off on her own and in Fincher’s film, heartbreak prevails. Despite very similar run times, I felt the Fincher film had more characterization and depth overall. Both films are effective and well done, but in my mind, Fincher’s was the film of the year in 2011, from what I saw, while the Swedish film is essentially just a solid thriller.

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