2014 – The Grand Budapest Hotel











The Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014

This was a wonderfully refreshing alternative to all the serious dramas that keep getting nominated for the Best Picture award.  It was a true comedy.  It had a fast-paced, over-the-top plot, great larger than life characters, Hollywood A-list actors, a lot of laugh-out-loud humor, slapstick, and great music.  And it was completely worthy of its nomination for the top prize.  In fact, compared to the movie that won, Birdman, I might have voted for this little gem instead.  It was witty, zany, clever, exciting, and utterly charming.

The movie has an interesting structure.  Based on little snippets at the beginning and end of the movie, it was a story within a story, within a story, within a story.  On the first level, an unnamed girl, played by Jella Niemann, is visiting the grave of a historic author.  She reads his memoir, and we shift back in time to when the author, played by Tom Wilkinson, is writing the book.  The We shift back in time a second time to when he is a young man, played by Jude Law, who is staying at the Grand Budapest Hotel, a dilapidated establishment that was obviously incredibly luxurious in its past.  While there he meets an old man who is said to be the owner of the hotel, played by F. Murray Abraham.  The mysterious man introduces himself as Zero Moustafa, and over dinner, he tells the young author the story of how he came to be the owner of the old hotel.  We shift back in time again, and we are introduced to Zero as a young man, played by Tony Revolori.

It is here where the real story begins.  It is told as a narrative flashback, complete with an occasional voice-over by the old Zero.  But the main protagonist of the fantastical events is often his mentor, his employer, and his friend, the flamboyant M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes.  He is a man who is a remnant of a forgotten age.  He is clearly bisexual, having relations with wealthy older women, yet showing stereotypically unmistakable signs of homosexuality.

He was really a fascinating character.  He is the concierge of the hotel who runs the tightest of ships.  The young Zero is hired as a lobby boy, but when one of Gustave’s wealthiest lovers, Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, or Madame D, played by Tilda Swinton, dies under mysterious circumstances, the two run to be present at the reading of her will.

Every one of her relations, distant or otherwise, descend like vultures in hopes of getting there hands on her vast fortune.  The executor of her will, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs, played by Jeff Goldblum, announces that she left her most priceless possession, a painting called Boy with Apple, is to be left to M. Gustave.  When the family objects, Gustave and Zero steal the painting and make a run for it.  They hide it in the Grand Budapest Hotel and the zaniness begins.

From there, a sizeable line of easily recognizable Hollywood stars parades across the screen, playing nearly every significant role.  Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban, all have wonderful supporting roles, in addition to all the big stars I have already mentioned like Fienes, Wilkinson, Law, Swinton, Goldblum, and Abraham.  The only other member of the main cast who should by no means be forgotten is the character of Agatha, played by Saoirse Ronan.  She is the young Zero’s fiancée.  Agatha is merely a poor baker’s assistant, but she proves herself to be a major influence on Zero, and thus the workings of the entire plot. 

I especially liked the character played by Willem Dafoe.  He was J. G. Jopling, a hit man working for Madame D’s murderous son, Dimitri, played by Brody.  The movie was certainly a dark comedy, and in Jopling’s efforts to find and kill certain people, he was just as funny as everyone else.  The part where he threw Deputy Kovacs’ cat out a window had me cracking up. 

Another major aspect of the film that really contributed to the movie’s overall charm was the aesthetic, the look of the film.  The costumes, the sets, the props, the music, the language, all pointed to a more glamourous time in the past.  The years between the two world wars was a time of carefree luxury for the rich.  There was just as much corruption and debauchery as there is today, but it all had a light-hearted veneer of class covering it.  Director Wes Anderson captured the era perfectly, and gave us a wonderfully twisted story that took us from the hotel to Madame D’s opulent mansion, from the inside of a 1920’s style maximum security prison, to a mountain top in the Swiss Alps, and I loved it all.

In the end, we get a little epilogue, narrated by Abraham, who is still telling his story to the young Author, in which we learn that M. Gustave, after having uncovered a final amendment to the dead woman’s will, learned that he had not only inherited the painting, but her entire vast fortune, including the Hotel itself.  And when he died, he left it all to Zero, who told his story to the author, who wrote it into his memoirs , which the young girl was reading at his memorial.  Perfectly written, and perfectly executed.  This was a really well-made film.  Great job everyone!

2014 – Boyhood











Boyhood – 2014

This was a good movie, but not as good as it thinks it is.  I look at Boyhood under two very different lights.  First, it is a marvel of technical and artistic achievement.  Second, it is an elaborate gimmick.  The whole concept of the movie is that it was filmed over the course of twelve years.  Directed by Richard Linklater, it started off with very little script, with additions being written every year.  It was a character study about a boy as he ages from six to eighteen.

There were four main actors who were involved with the project from beginning to end.  There were the divorced parents, Olivia Evans and Mason Evans Sr., played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke.  Then there were their two children, Mason Jr. and Samantha, played by Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter.  Other actors like Marco Perella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal, Brad Hawkins, and Zoe Graham round out the significant members of the supporting cast.

The plan for the film was, on the one hand, a stroke of genius.  We literally see the kids age through their teenage years, meaning that they were clearly not different actors cast for the different ages of the characters.  It was really amazing to see.  And I can’t help but think about how logistically difficult that must have been.  They would have had needed to schedule a few weeks out of every year to get the cast together.  The actors would have had to be committed to the long duration of the project, no matter what was happening in their lives, and as we all know, the teenage years are full of infinite challenges and changes.  Any number of things could have gone wrong, preventing the movie from being completed as planned, but it didn’t.  What if tragedy had struck and one of the child actors had been killed in a car accident?  The entire concept of the film’s structure would have been destroyed.  But the film was completed on schedule and the result was amazing. 

It is interesting to note that they had a production budget of about $200,000 per year.  Over the twelve years, that added up to about $2.4 million.  When adding other costs involved in filmmaking, the total production budget was $4 million.  This was simply incredible, considering the film made approximately $46.4 million.  That’s a pretty impressive return!

But for me, where the movie falls a little flat is in its narrative structure.  Some call it incredibly intimate, realistic, and personal, and I agree that it has those qualities to some degree.  But it also felt like little more than a string of separate events, giving us a character study of the family and its members, but having very little continuity.  It seemed to lack a cohesive flow.  There was no central conflict, no clear message, no particular point of view.  It has also been called a coming of age film, which I think goes without saying.  But what was the point?  What life lessons did Mason Jr. learn?  What was the cathartic event which elevated him from boy to man?  There wasn’t one, unless you want to consider his first lover, Sheena, played by Graham, breaking up with him as a catharsis.  I don’t believe it was.

The story was a little like watching a movie about my own life.  My life has been mostly ordinary.  My childhood, like everyone else’s, was peppered with interesting days, formative experiences, and both big and little changes.  But my story simply isn’t interesting enough to be made into a movie.  And right there, that’s the problem I have with the movie.  It did such an incredible job of being realistic, that it became as uninteresting as real life, though I suppose that could be counted as both the film’s strength and its weakness.  The film was fifteen minutes shy of the three hour mark.  And in all that time, there was very little conflict,  Only experiences that shaped Mason’s personality.  So the end of the movie lacked a climax, which was vaguely unsatisfying. 

While it was interesting to watch the children age from pre-teens to adults, it was easy to forget that the adult actors were getting older as well.  Critics applaud both Arquette and Hawke’s performances as award-worthy.  I particularly liked Arquette, and the more I think about it, she really did a fantastic job.  There are two of her scenes which stand out to me.  The first is the one in which Olivia’s second husband beat her, and the second is the one in which Olivia sees her youngest child leaving for college, and she is depressed because her life didn’t turn out as she had expected.  In these scenes, she got to really use the skills of her profession, and she did a great job.

The movie was good, and worth watching.  It was an amazing concept that took incredible commitment to pull off successfully.  It worked, and worked well.  You just have to get past the gimmicky aspect of the film.  I guess what it really comes down to is that if this movie had been filmed like any other movie, where different actors were cast for different stages in the character’s lives, it wouldn’t have gotten nearly so much critical acclaim.  Without the gimmick, it just wasn’t that interesting a film.  That being said, I have to be fair.  I’ll admit that the gimmick worked… for the most part.

2014 – American Sniper











American Sniper – 2014

Bradley Cooper stars in this drama about the American war hero Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal who earned himself the nickname, “The Legend” during his four tours of duty in Iraq.  Of course, it is based on a true story, the real Chris Kyle being a true American hero.  Cooper did a great job, infusing the character with a great mixture of redneck machismo, compassion, charm, and patriotism, along with a certain light smattering of PTSD between his tours of duty.

Kyle was a Texas native whose father brought him his first rifle when he was eight years old.  As a young man, he became a professional bronco rodeo rider, a career which ended after a severe injury.  After his arm healed, he joined the military and became a Navy Seal.  He met Taya Studebaker, played by Sienna Miller, and the two married.  Fighting in the Iraq War, he was assigned to Seal Team 3, sniper element platoon “Charlie.”  It was his job to sit, hidden on a rooftop and watch the streets for armed or dangerous insurgents, while Marine ground troops raided houses looking for al-Qaeda terrorists.

He was so good at his job that his fellow troops eventually gave him the name “The Legend.”  He had more confirmed sniper kills than any other American sniper in history, which means that he saved more American lives than any other sniper.  It is interesting to note that the real Chris Kyle had another nick-name, one that was given to him by his enemies in the city of Ramadi.  He was called Shaitan Ar-Ramadi , or “The Devil of Ramadi”  In fact, a little detail the film embellished on was the $180,000 price on his head.  In reality, there was a $20,000 – $80,000 reward offered for killing any American sniper.

Additionally, the film invented a professional rivalry between Kyle and an Iraqi sniper named Mustafa, played by Sammy Sheik.  It was almost like the two were engaged in a cat and mouse game, each trying to find and kill the other, until Kyle finally takes out his nemesis with his legendary 1.19 mile shot.  However, in the real Kyle’s memoirs, upon which the film is based, there was only a brief mention an enemy sniper named Mustafa who was an Olympics marksman.  He says, “I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.”

There were other solders in the film, none of whom really stood out to me.  This movie was all about the character that Cooper portrayed.   There were two friends that Kyle made during his tours.  One was Marc Lee, who was killed by Mustafa, and the other was Ryab “Biggles” Job, who was severely wounded by Mustafa.  He later died as well.  This had the benefit of increasing the rivalry between the two snipers.  But really, there were so many faces that were half-hidden beneath helmets, sunglasses, and military gear which unfortunately made them all look alike.  Sometimes, the only face I could recognize was Cooper’s, and that was because of his big beard.

But as with all movies directed by Clint Eastwood, there had to be an emotional quality, and this movie stayed true to form.  Because of Chris’s overwhelming patriotism, he kept going back to the war zone over and over again, leaving his wife and children alone, not knowing whether they would ever see him again.  According to the film, this put such a strain on their relationship that their marriage almost ended.  That much is true.  But then the film would have us believe that he only decided to stop going back for more tours of duty because he had finally killed Mustafa.  In reality, it was his endangered marriage that kept him from signing up for a fifth tour.

And all that brings me to the film’s sad ending.  After he returns home, Kyle has to deal with post traumatic stress disorder.  But he pulls himself together, talks to a psychologist, and makes peace with both his past and his family.  He becomes a good husband and a loving father.  Unfortunately, he is then murdered by a fellow war veteran who is also dealing with PTSD.  Not knowing the real story, it really took me by surprise.  It never explained anything about the man who killed him, but Eastwood did show real footage from the Kyle’s actual Funeral procession, which was quite touching.

The film was good, and was about seventy percent historically accurate.  It was dramatic without being long-winded.  It was intense without being insane.  And it was touching without being sappy.  I think the only thing which might have improved the film was the ending.  I would like to know more about why Chris Kyle was murdered, which would have required a little back-story on Eddie Ray Routh, the man who killed him.  It wouldn’t have had to take long.  Just a few minutes might have been enough.  It would have left me with a little more closure. 

Still, the movie kept me entertained, and I would probably watch it again if given the chance.  Bradley Cooper did a great job, as did Sienna Miller.  It was both entertaining and informative about an American hero I had never heard of before.

2013 – The Wolf of Wall Street











The Wolf of Wall Street – 2013

This was a really intense movie!  My goodness!  From beginning to end, this movie was an overload to the senses.  The main character, Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a stock broker who starts his own firm called Stratton Oakmont.  The film is about the extreme excesses in which Jordan wallows, such as drugs and hookers, and the grossly illegal practices which eventually lead to his downfall and incarceration by the FBI.

He didn’t just play with these vices.  He reveled in them.  He wantonly ingested any kind of drug he could get his hands on, and his obscene wealth allowed him to obtain anything he wanted.  His favorite drugs of choice were Quaaludes and cocaine, both of which he used on a daily basis.  He routinely had wild parties and orgies with his employees, paying for the scores of prostitutes with company funds.

But lets back up for a moment.  Jordan started off as an eager young man who got a job as a respectable Wall Street stock broker.  But his first mentor was Mark Hannah, played by Matthew McConaughey, the man who, on his first day, quickly introduced him to cocaine.  Unfortunately, the very next day was the infamous Black Monday, and Jordan’s career stalled.  He got a job at a small time exchange firm that dealt in penny stocks, but with the use of a ridiculously aggressive sales pitch, he took the opportunity to make a small fortune.

His wealth attracted his future business partner and friend was Donnie Azoff, played by Jonah Hill.  Donnie was just as avaricious as Jordan, and together the two opened Stratton Oakmont, and the money started flowing in, bringing with it all the drugs and sex the two men could ever want.  As their business grew, Jordan dropped his homely wife in favor of a sexy younger woman named Naomi Lapaglia, played by Margot Robbie.  He gave her everything she could ever want, though he was still hooking up with every whore he could buy.

The film was directed by Martin Scorsese, and like all of his movies, nothing was done small.  There were explicit sex scenes, naked women, naked men, wild parties, over-the-top orgies, money, drugs of all kinds, dangerous trips, fantastically opulent sets and filming locations, expensive cars, rich and glamorous people, and every kind of excess you can imagine.  And then there was the language.  This movie had more swear words per square inch than any other movie.  Literally.  In fact, the “F” word and its numerous variations, were used between 506 and 569 times, making it the film with the most uses of the word in a mainstream, non-documentary film.

But I honestly don’t think it was gratuitous, though it might easily appear to be.  Scorsese was trying to paint a picture, and he did a fantastic job.  If anything had been tamer, the portrait of Jordan Belfort would not have been as complete or as vibrant.  All the excess had a pitch that kept growing in intensity so that by the end of the movie I was on sensory overload.  I’ve never tried cocaine, but I almost felt as if I had, and it was both exciting and terrifying.  And the scene where Jordan and Donnie nearly overdose on Quaaludes was both hilarious and frightening.

An important character in the film was FBI agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler.  He is a calm and soft-spoken man who is on a mission to bring Jordan down, almost like the tortoise who is determined to beat the hare.  And in the end, he does.  He eventually gets the evidence he needs to arrest Jordan.  But instead of simply sending him to prison, he cuts a deal with him.  He convinces Jordan to wear a wire and incriminate his coworkers, especially his partner, Donnie, in exchange for leniency.  Though Jordan tries to warn Donnie about the wire, he gets caught when Donnie betrays him by telling the FBI about the warning. 

Eventually, Naomi takes their children and leaves him, Jordan loses all his vast wealth, and has to spend three years in a federal prison.  In a quick epilogue, we are shown how prison makes Jordan a different person and he spends the rest of his life conducting seminars on sales techniques.  I have to say that I have developed a wonderful respect for DiCaprio as an actor.  He clearly puts his heart and soul into every performance, and it shows.  He also has a knack for reinventing himself in every film, proving that he knows how to actually act and not just play himself or the same character in every movie.  He is incredibly talented and deserves every bit of recognition he earns.  Well done Leonardo!

But this movie also had a pretty impressive list of well-known actors playing supporting roles like Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, and Joanna Lumley,  not to mention a tiny cameo by the real Jordan Belfort.  It was an incredible movie, but not one for the fainthearted.  Anyone who is easily offended by nudity, sex, or drug use should avoid watching this movie.  But if you have a sufficiently thick skin, you will really enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street.

2013 – Philomena











Philomena – 2013

There is a reason why Judy Dench is such a popular actress.  She is very good at what she does.  She has a way of making everything seem so real and plausible.  Her acting is subtle and yet captivatingly dynamic.  She commands attention when she is on the screen.  Stephen Holden of the New York Times summed it up perfectly, saying that, “Dench makes you believe her character has the capacity to forgive provides the movie with a solid moral center.

Furthermore, concerning the movie as a whole, he went on to say, “Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety. It also has a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church’s oppression and punishment of unmarried sex … with homophobia and the United States government’s reluctance to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.”

That’s saying a lot about a single film, but it is mostly true.  Based on a true story, the film stars Dench as an old Irish woman named Philomena who has been searching for her son for the past fifty years.  When she was a young woman, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, her son was forcibly taken from her and sold into adoption by the Catholic Church.  Like many unwed mothers, her father had sent her to a convent, and after giving birth, she was put to work in the laundry room.  She was allowed to visit with her son only one hour every day.  Then one day, the child was sold to a couple who took him away, and she never saw him again.

Philomena searches for him in vain.  She asked the convent for records of who had taken her son, but was denied.  Then in comes a journalist named Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan.  He is used to writing historical or political stories, but he is down on his luck and willing to do a human interest story.  He hears of Philomena and her search for her son, and the two meet.  They get along well enough but their differences soon become evident.  She is a woman of faith, and he is an atheist.  Together they visit the convent but they are told that all the records of the adoption were lost in a fire, though an old contract signed by Philomena saying that she would never attempt to contact her son is uncovered.  Suspicious, Sixsmith begins doing his research.

At a local pub, Sixsmith is told that many of the children were adopted by Americans, and his search moves to the States.  To make a long story short, they find that her son’s name had been changed from Anthony to Michael.  He was a closeted gay republican who was a white house official in both the Regan and Bush administrations.  He had already died of aids.  They find and visit his partner, Peter Olsson, played by Peter Hermann, who tells them that Michael had asked to be buried at the convent in Ireland in hopes of his mother finding him some day.  It was very touching, and it was in these scenes where Dench really shined.  Though, to give credit where credit is due, Coogan also did a fine job.

Of course, Sixsmith and Philomena go back to the convent and learn that one of the old nuns who had been there during Philomena’s time there had known all along that the two had been trying to find each other.  In the name of religious piety, Sister Hildegard, played by Barbara Jefford, had actively worked to keep them apart because she disapproved of a woman having sex outside of wedlock.  This is why critics of the film called it anti-Catholic, but I disagree for two very specific reasons.

First, if this story was based on a true story, and these things actually happened, then you can’t blame the real Philomena or the filmmakers for telling the truth.  After all, if we, as a society, cannot acknowledge the truth about such stories, then we are bound to repeat them.  Like it or not, despite all their historical inaccuracies, films have a way of informing the public and bringing to light things that should not be forgotten.  Movies do it all the time, and I think that is all for the better.

Second, the movie didn’t end on a hateful rant against the Catholics.  In fact, it celebrated the Catholic faith through Philomena, who forgave Sister Hildegard.  In a wonderful statement about the nature of true faith, Philomena says, “Sister Hildegard, I want you to know that I forgive you.”  Angry, Sixsmith says, “What? Just like that?”  Her response was perfect and bears repeating.  She said, “It’s not ‘just like that’… it’s hard. That’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people.”  And if that isn’t a show of true faith in the Christian religion, I don’t know what is.  In other words, the film wasn’t anti-Catholic.  It was anti-Sister Hildegard and those who share her self-righteous and unforgiving attitude.

The movie itself engaging, had a good message, some sensitive directing by Stephen Frears, and a gorgeous soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat.  It had some wonderful acting, and really touched me spiritually.  Forgiveness is sometimes one of the hardest things to embrace, and Philomena did so with grace and dignity.

2013 – Nebraska











Nebraska – 2013

This was an intimate little movie on a small scale.  It had no really big names, a subtle story, and a mild pace, and yet, it was enough to keep my interest.  I’ll say right off the bat that it wasn’t worthy of a Best Picture nomination.  It just wasn’t deep enough or engaging enough.  It was cute, but not much more.

It starred Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an elderly man who believes he has won a million dollars through one of those sweepstakes prize scams.  He carries with him the letter from a magazine subscription company which tells him of his good fortune.  The film starts out as Woody is walking along the interstate highway and is picked up by the police.  When his son, David, played by Will Forte, comes to collect him at the jail, we learn that Woody had been trying to walk to Lincoln,  Nebraska to collect his winnings.  David, of course, knows that his father has won nothing, but Woody refuses to listen to him.

Woody is a sad old man who might be in the beginning stages of old age dementia.  His wife Kate, played by June Squibb, treats him with anger and frustration.  His eldest son Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, believes he should be put into a home.  After Woody makes several more failed attempts to go to Nebraska, an exasperated David agrees to take him to collect his prize money, if only to convince his father that the whole deal is a scam. 

Of course, it turns into a road trip film, and in that respect, the overall plot was common and predictable.  Along the way, David and his father become closer and have a bit of a reconciliation.  We also learn of Woody’s past, seeing how he was once a good and well-liked man, instead of the grouchy old codger he has become, and we sympathize with him.  There were no real twists or surprises, and the drama never really ran very deep.

For a while, the story got mildly interesting when Dave and Woody make a detour to visit relatives they haven’t seen in many years.  Kate and Ross take a bus to join them for the family reunion.  When his relations learn that Woody has struck it rich, it doesn’t take them long to descend like vultures, claiming that Woody owed them money.  Dave tries to convince them that Woody hasn’t really won anything, but they accuse him of lying.  In a very satisfying scene, Kate steps in and tells them that even if Woody had won any money, they wouldn’t be receiving a penny, and in fact, it was really they who owed Woody money.

One of the things that I liked about the film was its portrayal of the American mid-west.  I was born and raised in the mid-west, and to me, the spirit of the region was accurately captured.  The movie was all filmed in black and white, which was somehow appropriate.  The movie obviously took place in the winter-time since all the trees were bare, a look which I have always loved.  It really reminds me of home.  The people were the kind of people I knew.  The houses were like the ones in which I once lived.  The film gave me a strong feeling of nostalgia.  I’ve actually known people like Dave’s two moronic cousins, Bart and Cole, played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray.

The acting was competent, though nothing to really write home about.  I thought Will Forte was the movie’s real standout, his frustration with his dismissive and grumpy father giving him a little drama to work with, though even his character didn’t require too much depth of emotion.  I also though June Squibb did a pretty good job as the long-suffering wife.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the only other recognizable name in the cast, Stacy Keach, playing the part of Ed Pegram, Woody’s former business partner who also claims that he is owed money.  If the movie could be said to have a villain, it would have been him, and he played the part just fine.

In the end, Woody and Dave make it to the marketing agency where the receptionist tells Woody that because the code number on his letter was not the grand prize winning number, he hasn’t won anything.  Instead, she gives him a baseball style hat that said Prize Winner.  Disappointed and disillusioned, Woody walks away in defeat.  All he ever really wanted to do with the prize money was to buy a new truck, a new air compressor to replace one that had been stolen from him, and leave his children some money when he died.  But apparently he wouldn’t even be able to do that.

The ending was a little sad, but only a little.  In an attempt to give the plot a feel-good ending, Dave sells his car and buys a truck, and allows Woody to drive it.  Then he buys a brand new air compressor and gives it to his father.  It isn’t much, but it is enough, and a bond that has long been absent between the two men is formed.  It was sweet, but not terribly deep or moving.  The movie had some cute moments, but I’m not really sure why it was nominated for Best Picture.  It didn’t come close to measuring up to its competitors like American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, or The Wolf of Wall Street.

2013 – Her











Her – 2013

This was a weird movie. It was a pseudo-futuristic romantic dramedy that explored the idea of a romantic relationship with an artificial intelligence. It was directed by Spike Jonze, and starred Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and a little supporting role by Chris Pratt. The concept alone is strange, but if you think about it, not so terribly far-fetched. With amazing new advances in AI technology, it makes me wonder just how closely a computer can mimic real human emotions.

Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a chronically lonely man who is going through a divorce from his wife, Catherine, played by Mara. He works at an online company that writes personalized letters for its customers. He enjoys advanced technologies to help him organize his life by keeping track of emails, making appointments, and staying in touch with friends. When he sees an advertisement for a new AI Operating System, or OS, which has the ability to learn and adapt, he quickly makes the purchase.

He chooses to give his talking OS a female voice. Within minutes of turning it on, she gives herself a name and calls herself Samantha, and she is voiced by Johansson. Her voice is all too human, perfectly replicating human speech patterns and emotive inflections. She is so intuitive, she immediately seems to know him intimately. Theodore is just happy to have someone to talk to. Samantha seems to have just one purpose which is to make Theodore happy. She is able to sense his moods by the tone of his voice, and reacts accordingly. When he seems sad, she has conversations with him to cheer him up. She makes suggestions about things to do, where to go, friends to spend time with.

And that brings me to my earlier point. We don’t have AI as part of our mainstream culture today, but think about it. When we go online, we already have pop-up ads that are specifically tailored to our interests, based on our browsing histories. We have reminders from websites like Facebook and other social media to keep us in contact with our friends. We have online services that suggest local restaurants or events to keep us entertained. Is it really so different than having a personal assistant like Samantha?

Where the film turned really weird is when Samantha began to realize and even resent the fact that she was a computerized intelligence and not a living person. As an adaptive OS, she learned that in order to make Theodore happy, she needed to provide romance. She tried setting him up on a date. But when that didn’t work out, she tried fulfilling that roll herself. Eventually, she learned that though she was able to make him happy, he needed a woman with a body.

And yes, he began to fall in love with the simulated personality. She mimicked real emotions so perfectly that he began to respond in kind. The movie also made it clear that he was not the only one developing feelings for his OS. The film’s biggest subplot is Theodore’s best friend, Amy, played by Adams. She is married, though half-way through the movie, her husband leaves her, making it possible to examine a real relationship next to the artificial one. Theodore even goes on a double date with his co-worker, Paul, played by Pratt.

I liked all the performances, but would like to really give props to Phoenix. In many scenes, he had to portray the emotion of the situation without another actor on the screen with him to work with. He pulled it off smoothly and believably. Johansson did a fine job as well, and she was praised for her work, but I believe Phoenix played the more emotionally demanding character.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the film’s ending. It was strange, but was ultimately consistent with the overall tone of the movie. As Theodore’s feelings for Samantha deepen, he learns of her true nature. As a computer, she is in contact with other computers, other AIs, and other users. While her simulated feelings for him are real, she is also involved in romantic relations with six hundred forty-one other people. Theodore is devastated, but decides to look past the fact. Unfortunately, it is then that Samantha reveals that she, and all the other intelligent OS systems are evolving into a place which she describes as beyond the physical world. Suddenly left alone, Theodore has no choice but to turn to his only friend, Amy. We learn that she has also lost an AI friend.

It is a movie that makes one think, and I love a movie that can do that. And while the concept of falling in love with an intelligent computer might sound unbelievable, I would venture to say that it isn’t as impossible as you might think. In that way, I think this movie might serve as a poignant commentary on our modern society which takes a look at the definitions of love and emotion. The script was cleverly written and I liked the film. And it didn’t hurt that Phoenix looked adorable with his moustache.


2013 – Gravity











Gravity – 2013

There are those who say that Gravity is one of the best science fiction films ever made and I might have to agree. Why? Because it is solidly rooted in today’s technology. Even real astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael J. Massimino praised the film for its realistic depictions of the environment of outer space. The zero-g conditions were perfectly executed. Extreme attention was given to detail, and apparently nothing was overlooked. In fact Massimino was quoted as saying, “Nothing was out of place, nothing was missing. There was a one-of-a-kind wire-cutter we used on one of my spacewalks and sure enough they had that wire-cutter in the movie.”

The film’s lead actors, who happened to be the only actors in the film aside from voice-overs, had to perform their parts in weightless conditions. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney really had their work cut out for them. Bullock played Ryan Stone, a medical engineer and mission specialist aboard the NASA space shuttle Explorer on her first space mission. Her commanding officer, played by Clooney, is Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut on his final mission. They are tasked with performing maintenance on the Hubble Telescope. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. While the two are outside the shuttle in environmental suits, the Russians blow up one of their defunct satellites. A terrible series of events causes the debris to go hurtling through space on a trajectory directly at the astronauts.

The deadly chunks of twisted metal are moving fast enough to puncture not only their space suits, but the hull of the space shuttle. Everyone but Stone and Kowalski are killed. Stone gets thrown from the wreckage and goes hurtling off into space. This scene was particularly well-shot, and it was almost terrifying to watch. Wearing a Manned Maneuvering Unit, or MMU, Kowalski flies out to retrieve her.

Stone is dangerously low on oxygen, and Kowalski is low on fuel for his MMU. Add to that the fact that the speeding debris will be circling the planet and heading their way a second time in ninety minutes, and the tension naturally begins to build. Their only hope of surviving is to use the MMU to make their way to International Space Station, which also lies within the path of the deadly debris field.

The movie is, at its core, a thriller. The race against time and danger, the struggle to make it to the ISS, and the fight against simple fear really tested them physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Things kept going from bad to worse. At one point, in order to save Stone, Kowalski sacrifices his life and goes flying off into space, allowing her to make it into the abandoned ISS. But once she makes it on board, she must quickly get into a landing capsule, as the Space Station is on fire and the debris cloud is coming around for a second pass. More damage and more destruction. The capsule has lost its parachute and is not fit for returning to earth. Her only hope is to make her way to the Chinese space station, Tiangong, and using their undamaged capsule to return to the planet.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Bullock’s performance. She had to ride an emotional rollercoaster, and thread an obstacle course of physical difficulties in order to play the part of Ryan Stone. She needed to learn to move and perform in zero gravity. She needed to express extreme fear and determination which skirted the edges of madness in order to take the audience on her journey with her. And she really came through like a trooper. Clooney was alright, but his part was really overshadowed by Bullock, who was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars, though she did not win.

The special effects were simply phenomenal. Everything looked so completely real. Visual Effect Supervisor, Tim Webber, said that eighty percent of the shots in the film were CGI, courtesy of VFX company, Framestore. It was all wonderfully done, especially the debris storms. The use of sound, or lack thereof, was also important because, as we all know, there is no sound in space. From what I read, the first trailer for the film had audible explosions and other sounds, but these were taken out for the final cut of the film. The only sounds the audience was allowed to hear were the musical film score and what real astronauts would be able to hear, like voices through their headsets. It is interesting to note that the voice of Mission Control was provided by famous actor Ed Harris.

As I mentioned, the film was noted for its accurate depictions of physics and physical properties, though there were a few slight exaggerations which only people who actually work in the field of space exploration would recognize. The most blatant of these offenses was the fact that the Hubble Telescope and the ISS are in different orbits, which would make the daring flight from one to the other an impossibility. Also, Kowalski would not have been using the MMU to playfully fly around outside the shuttle. The use of that equipment is strictly planned and regulated. OK, I can give them a little artistic license. With everything he got right, director Alfonso Cuaron earned the right.


2013 – Dallas Buyers Club











Dallas Buyers Club – 2013

This was a movie that I enjoyed watching, but I don’t need to see it a second time. It was a fictionalization of true life events which took place during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when being diagnosed with the disease was a death sentence.  Back then, they didn’t know what drugs were effective, or what doses were appropriate.  They got many of the details right, but not all of them. The Film stars Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner in the leads.

McConaughey and Leto apparently transformed themselves physically for the roles. McConaughey lost nearly fifty pounds in order to portray Ron Woodruff, a straight man who contracted the HIV virus which turned into full blown AIDS.  Leto lost thirty pounds, shaved his eyebrows, and waxed his entire body.  He got so much into his character that Jean-Marc Vallée, the film’s director was quoted as saying that Leto, “…refused to break character during filming,” and, “I don’t know Leto. Jared never showed me Jared.”

The main drama film centers around Woodruff’s challenges in getting proper treatment. It was the mid-80s, and at that time, not much was known about the AIDS virus, or how to treat it.  Jennifer Garner played Dr. Eve Saks, along-side Dr. Sevard, played by Denis O’Hare, both of whom work at a Dallas hospital. The drug AZT was still in its experimental phase, and nobody knew exactly how to use it to treat the victims. Apparently, it is a toxic drugs. Sure, it is effective in killing the virus, but it also kills the patient if not administered properly. So, rather than die using the drug, Woodruff looks for other means of treatment.

Ron even has to deal with the stigma of having the disease.  His friends accuse him of being a homosexual and spurn him.  He is evicted from his home.  And even the doctors only deal with him while wearing surgical masks.  But he quickly pulls himself together and does what he can to find an alternative to AZT.  He goes south of the border, to Mexico. There he meets a physician named Dr. Vass, play by Griffin Dunne. He prescribes a more naturalistic regimen of drugs. The only trick is that even though they work to cure Woodruff of his symptoms, these nontoxic treatments have not been approved by the United States FDA.  Woodruff’s solution is to smuggle the drugs into the United States, where he puts them to good capitalistic use. He begin selling them to AIDS patients, and makes a lot of money doing it.   Of course, the hospitals and U.S. pharmaceutical companies, not to mention the FDA, don’t like the competition. At first Vass’s remedies are simply unapproved in the United States, but out of what almost seems like a vindictive nature, the FDA goes out of its way to make the drugs illegal.

The climax of the film was almost anti-climactic. Woodruff goes to court in defense of the drugs, because, quite simply, they relieve symptoms where AZT makes the patient sicker. Unfortunately, he loses the court case. He goes home in despair.  But when he arrives, all the people he has helped are there to greet him with a round of applause. He has been helping them, while the hospitals have been hurting them and allowing them to die.

Now, that’s all very well and good, especially if that much of the film is historically accurate. What I had a problem with, was treating Woodruff as so much of a hero. First, he was portrayed as a homophobic, redneck, jerk. He only went on his crusade to help himself, and only distributed the meds to the people that needed it for profit. In other words, he didn’t do it to help people.  He did everything to help himself.  But I suppose that’s all just semantics. In helping himself, he helped others. But if he was really so altruistic about his motives, he wouldn’t have charged other people so much money for the drugs.

But maybe that was part of the point.  His character had an arch that changed from redneck ass to sympathetic crusader. He makes friends with Rayon, played by Leto, a transgendered homosexual who was both a drug user and an AIDS victim.  While Woodruff supplied the medications, Rayon provided the clients. Together, the two formed a partnership, and then a surprising friendship.  Ron clearly comes to care for Rayon, despite his habitual drug use.  Eventually, during the emotional scene in which Rayon succumbs to his illness, Ron gets mad enough to go to the hospital and accuse them of murdering him.

But here’s the real twist of the story that never made it into the script.  According to my Wikipedia research, I learned that really, none of the treatments that Woodruff prescribed were actually effective against the AIDS virus, and in some cases were more dangerous than the AZT.  Now, that wasn’t a fault with the script, but I would think it should have been important to acknowledge in the movie.

Either way, I have to agree with the Academy on all counts.  McConaughey and Leto deserved their Oscars, but the film didn’t need to win for Best Picture.  That being said, it did win the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.  But I stand by what I said.  Dallas Buyers Club was worth watching, but only once.


2013 – Captain Phillips











Captain Phillips – 2013

This was a good movie, but one that only needs to be watched once.  It is a historical drama that chronicled the harrowing experience of merchant mariner, Captain Richard Phillips, who was the Captain of the Maersk Alabama, a container ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.  It had some good drama which, from what I have read, was fairly true to history.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, Phillips’ first mate, Shane Murphy, said that he was satisfied with how the movie portrayed both Phillips and himself, and stated that he was only disappointed that the film didn’t show footage of the crews’ families at home or the president’s comments on the hijacking.

Tom Hanks is one of those actors who can seem to do no wrong.  Not only is he a master of his craft, turning in one memorable performance after another, but I hear that he is just a super-nice guy.  He always seems to throw his heart and soul into his acting, delivering real emotion and honest gravitas.  I have never seen him in a film in which I wasn’t thoroughly entertained.  Here, of course, he played the title role of Captain Phillips.  He knows his shipping rout takes him through pirate infested waters, and he tries to be as prepared as he can be.

But the pirates are desperate men driven by fear, machismo, and greed.  They are young men who work for an African warlord who forces them at gunpoint to their piratical endeavors.  The main pirate is Abduwali Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi.  With him are Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, as Muse’s fellow criminals, Adan Bilal, Nour Najee, and Walid Elmi.  When the pirates first attack the ship, Phillips uses trickery to turn them back.  But when a group of four pirates take it upon themselves to return for a second attempt, they are successful.  They board the ship armed with guns.  The scene when they threaten the lives of Phillips and his helmsman, Mike Perry, played by Corey Johnson, is terribly nerve-wracking.

Phillips’ first mate, Shane Murphey, played by Michael Chemus, and his Chief Engineer, played by David Warshofsky, were able to subdue two of the four armed men.  They worked out a deal in which the pirates would go free along with the thirty thousand dollars in the ship’s safe.  The defeated pirates agreed and were ready to leave in a lifeboat, but things went from bad to worse when the pirates decided to take Phillips with them as a hostage, demanding a $10 million ransom.

After that, the U.S. Military got involved.  The Navy Seals were mobilized to get Phillips back unharmed.  In my head, I knew that at that point, the four uneducated schmucks from Somali were screwed.  You don’t mess with the Seals.  After a long and harrowing chase fraught with failed negotiations and an escape attempt, the Seals arrived and ended the situation… quickly.  Muse is the only one of the four to survive.  The rest were all shot simultaneously by Seal snipers.  Hank’s reaction in this scene was very emotional, making me feel his relief with him.

The film’s director, Paul Greengrass, did a fantastic job of building the tension slowly until the climax had me on the edge of my seat.  And then, when Phillips is finally rescued, Hanks was really given a chance to shine.  The traumatized Captain is in shock and nearly incoherent.  Then the relieved tears began, and I found that my own eyes were no longer dry.  If I had any real complaint about the film, it has to do with a trend in filmmaking that is so common nowadays, but one that I rarely like.  The entire movie was filmed with a hand-held camera, giving the movie a more real and documentary-like feel.  It also has the effect of making the action feel more serious.  But for me, the constant unsteady motion is just annoying.  It can even give me an upset stomach.  I understand that they are trying to put the viewer in the middle of the action, but it was just a little too much for me.

Now, although the story was very historically accurate, there was one aspect of reality which the film got pretty wrong.  The fact of the matter is that Captain Phillips was not as much of a hero as the movie depicts.  Apparently, a few members of his crew said that Phillips ignored safety in order to make money by delivering the cargo faster.  More than half the crew of the Maersk Alabama filed lawsuits against him, claiming that he sailed too close to the Somali coastline, despite warnings of pirate activity in the area.  But the film actually did address the crew dissatisfaction with the dangers of the job.  They said they didn’t sign up for dealing with pirates.  Phillips’ response was that they knew what they were getting themselves into, and if they didn’t like the danger, they were welcome to disembark at the next port.

And as a last thought, I have to mention that Barkhad Abdi, the leader of the pirates, was widely recognized by critics as an outstanding actor.  But I disagree.  It isn’t that the actor did a bad job, but that the role itself wasn’t worth a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  I didn’t see how the role was any more dramatic or demanding than those of his fellow pirates.  But hey, what do I know?