Month O' Movies Review: January

Once upon a time I made it my goal to write a review for every movie I saw each year. Then I moved over to this site, welcomed a child into the world, and found myself with far less time to write and far fewer people interested in my writing that did not include pictures of said child. Regardless, I like writing the reviews and having something to schedule and work toward gets the ink flowing, as it were, and helps motivate me to write other pieces along the way. So this is sort of a compromise. Every month, I’ll put together a collection of smaller reviews for each of the films I saw in the previous month and save the longer reviews for only the most significant films that come along. This way, those of you who don’t care at all about such things can bypass them more easily and hopefully it’ll spur me on to put out more non-movie content through the year. Slema

Selma (David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson) One Line Synopsis: Martin Luther King Jr. leads a march on Selma, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for African Americans. Ava DuVeray’s MLK drama came awfully late in a jam-packed award season. So late, in fact, that Selma’s Oscar chances were drastically affected by the poor release strategy. Even so, this is an outstanding, powerful film that features one of the strongest performances of the year. Oyelowo embodies Dr. King perfectly, carrying the film through its weaker moments and driving it to excellence at its best. When he is on the screen you cannot take your eyes off of him, which is precisely what Selma requires of him. Grade: A (Still in theaters)

A Most Violent Year (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo) One Line Synopsis: During New York City’s most violent year on record, an honest business man attempts to keep him life’s work afloat in the face of rampant corruption. This is a hard film to dissect. It is well-made and features a fantastic cast delivering superb performances. And yet, at the end of the day, I’m not completely sure the movie actually amounts to much. A Most Violent Year is a slow-burn of the highest order and while I was far from bored, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never really did. When the movie came to an end, I was left feeling like I’d just seen a very well-made film that didn’t have much to say. I can definitely see why critics have embraced A Most Violent Year but I can’t imagine the average moviegoer finding much to grab on to beyond the strong performances. Grade: B+ (Expanded into theaters nationwide this week)

Paddington (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw) One Line Synopsis: A young talking bear from Darkest Peru journeys to London in search of a new family to take care of him. I expected nothing from Paddington, dear readers. No, that’s not true. I expected less than nothing from Paddington. I expected that if I ever saw Paddington, I would have to do some serious soul searching to determine what exactly put me on such a terrible path. But I took Cooper to see “Paddy Bear” (as he puts it), thinking he might only make it through the first 45 minutes and then we’d be able to leave. Instead, we both had an absolute blast. Paddington is fun, it’s lively, it’s far more intelligent than the trailer would ever have you guess, and it’s positively full of heart. It reminded me of a Muppet movie. Cooper loved and I both loved it. Grade: A (Still in theaters)

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Whiplash (Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Reiser) One Line Synopsis: A talented jazz drummer butts heads with a fiery music instructor who might drive him to excellence or an early death. One of the bigger surprises of 2014, Whiplash built from its roots as a short film to a Sundance film festival darling all the way into a Best Picture contender. Simmons is almost a lock to win Best Supporting Actor, and rightly so, as his turn as the furious perfectionist hell bent on driving his students to the brink of insanity pushes the film to its greatest heights. But I’m almost more in awe of the precision with which first time writer-director Damien Chazelle brings his feature together. Whiplash is not an easy watch by any means but it’s a tremendous achievement and one that features the best scene of the entire year (the final 20 minutes is one long drum sequence and it is MESMERIZING). Grade: A (In select theaters)

The Railway Man (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine) One Line Synopsis: Decades after his horrible experiences in a POW camp, Eric Lomax travels back to Japan to exact revenge on his tormenter. If, like me, you were left unsatisfied with the uneven, stunted experience of Unbroken, then this is the movie for you. The Railway Man is basically the British Unbroken except it actually delivers on the promise of its story. Firth is excellent as the older Lomax whose life has been crippled by his inability to overcome the harm done to his younger self (Irvine) and the crossover between the two time periods is near seamless. This is a much smaller film than its American counterpart but it packs quite a punch and its emotional impact rings true. Grade: A- (Available on DVD/Blu-Ray)

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American Sniper (Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller) One Line Synopsis: Based on the true story of Chris Kyle, the most decorated sniper in US Military history. Chances are you’ve already seen American Sniper since it has broken all kinds of records at the box office and will likely go down as the biggest January release in the history of the world. It matter not, then, that I think this movie stinks. That might be a little strong. American Sniper has some tremendous moments and features a fantastic lead performance. Moreover, Chris Kyle’s story is inherently cinematic and worthy of telling. It just needed to be told by someone who actually knows how to tell a story and unfortunately, Clint Eastwood isn’t capable of doing that anymore. Many of the war scenes are well-shot and there’s a tense atmosphere through much of it that works in American Sniper’s favor. But the scripting for this movie is ATROCIOUS and Eastwood doesn’t do anything to pull the script out of the muck. Over and over, he takes the time to beat the viewer over the head with visual and auditory cues for exactly how you SHOULD feel and react to each turn in Kyle’s story. It’s not that American Sniper takes a stand on whether this man was a hero or a psychopath that bothers me (for the record, I believe he was the former); it’s that I felt like Clint Eastwood was standing over me as I watched demanding that I agree with him and that I have the appropriate emotional reaction at the appropriate times. In the process of all this, I lost the actual emotional connection that I would’ve felt naturally if I just would’ve been allowed to think for myself. I get why audiences are responding to this film and I fully admit I am perhaps overly sensitive to and frustrated by the sort of heavy-handed storytelling Eastwood utilizes here. But through the entirety of American Sniper all I kept thinking was how much better it could’ve been if it was handled appropriately. Grade: B- (In literally every theater)

Mini-Movie Reviews Catchup

So it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to write anything in this space. I had shoulder surgery in November and it turned out to be more serious than I might have hoped. I was rendered a one-armed man for a while and typing with only left hand was just silly. My injury didn’t keep me from seeing movies, of course, and thus, today’s collection of mini-movie reviews to help you make good movie decisions this holiday season. I’ll be back tomorrow with a Cooper-centric post so fret not, those of you who only come here for tales of my ridiculous child. BigHero6

Big Hero 6 – Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, James Cromwell Rated PG for thematic elements and comic book violence One sentence synopsis: A teenage genius teams up with some fellow genius and a robot to take on a mysterious villain in San Fransokyo. The first combination of Marvel and Disney animation, Big Hero 6 comes off as a smashing success both financially and creatively. This has the look and feel of a Pixar movie but with a superhero origin story mixed in for good measure. The visuals are lavish and beautiful and while the story isn’t all that original, the characters are strong to say the least. I think Disney has a certifiable star on their hands in the form of the robot Baymax, an iconic character that could likely carry a successful sequel on his own. Big Hero 6 should be a winner for kids and grownups alike and the obligatory short before the movie will likely force any pet owner to become a puddle of tears. Grade: A- (Podcast here)

Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton Rated R for language and violence One sentence synopsis: A nut job discovers the high paced world of new stringing in L.A. and takes his new found occupation to psychotic levels. Serious question: does anybody like Jake Gyllenhaal? I don’t mean, “Does anybody think Jake Gyllenhaal is a good actor?” He’s clearly extremely talented. I’m just wondering if anyone gets excited about a Jake Gyllenhaal movie because I find him nearly unbearable and it seems like most of my friends agree. That said, his performance in Nightcrawler is superb and will likely earn him a very well deserved Oscar nomination. His character is thoroughly unlikable but just as thoroughly compelling and that’s due entirely to Gyllenhaal. I found the film as a whole to be only alright but it is shot wonderfully in a style reminiscent of Michael Mann, Grade: B+ (Podcast, sans my involvement thanks to a sick child, here)

Wish I Was Here – Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad Rated R for language and thematic elements One sentence synopsis: A struggling actor tries to keep his family together in the midst of his father’s terminal illness. Remember Zach Braff? Once upon a time he was one of the hotter up-and-coming names in the industry who probably stayed with Scrubs too long and missed his big break, then kind of disappeared for a while. Wish I Was Here is his third directorial effort and it is both pleasurable and frustrating. On the one hand, Braff knows what he is good at: the movie is dark and melancholy at times but always hinges on light humor, the soundtrack plays a big role, and the cast is solid. On the other, in the 10 years since Garden State, Braff hasn’t grown much as a filmmaker and still allows his movies to drift in and out of competence. When he’s good, he’s VERY good but when he’s not, his movies come off as film school-level. This movie is likable enough but not loveable and that’s a bit disappointing. Grade: B-

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I – Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences One sentence synopsis: Fresh out of the Hunger Games arena, Katniss becomes the face of the rebellion in Panem while struggling with the loss of Peeta, held captive in the Capital. I’m a much bigger fan of this film series than I am the books and this entry definitely has its merits but falls short of the high standard set by the previous films. Mockingjay simultaneously improves upon the source material while being hamstrung a bit by the lack of literary foundation (straight up: the “Mockingjay” novel is bad, let’s be honest). The movie drags a bit in parts and I think that illustrates why it shouldn’t have been split into two parts. But that said, the elongated runtime allows for more opportunities for its stars to actually acts and all of them, particularly Lawrence who is truly a movie star at this point, perform quite well. Grade: A- (Podcast here)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman – Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter Rated PG for mildly intense themes I guess? Do G-rated movies even exist anymore? One sentence synopsis: A genius dog and his adopted human son travel through time in the Wayback Machine. The two important questions I ask myself when grading most non-Pixar animated features (and the very best of Disney and Dreamworks, too) are: 1.) Is it harmless/appropriate for kiddos? and 2.) Is it tolerable for adults? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then great, the movie gets a “B.” Mr. Peabody and Sherman hits both marks but succeeds so well on both counts that I think it actually deserves some extra attention. This was a pretty stinking fun little movie and one that even my five-second-attention-span kiddo locked in on for a solid 30 to 40 minutes. It helps that it draws from some great source material but the visuals are good, the cast is strong, and there’s some fun moments that kept my attention as well as my kiddo’s. It’s been a strong year for animated films so this one is going to get left behind but for those of you with kids at home, it’s worth your time. Grade: B+

Exodus

Exodus: Gods and Kings – Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley Rated PG-13 for violence and intense images One sentence synopsis: Moses clashes against the Pharaoh Ramses in order to free the Hebrews from slavery. The most frustrating part about Exodus is that it SHOULD be a good movie. Unlike Noah, which has a lackluster source material to pull from (89 verses in the Bible and a LOT left to the imagination), the story of Exodus is detailed and incredibly interesting (even if you’re not a believer) and moreover, there are so many theatrical elements within in. Unfortunately the movie just misses on so many levels. The casting is bad (Bale is alright but not great and most of the other actors feels extremely out of place), the script is messy, and about half the time I found myself wondering if Ridley Scott was even awake during production. Once upon a time Mr. Scott was a great director and maybe one day he’ll regain that form but too much of Exodus just felt like an exercise in lazy, voiceless directing. Moreover, the film dances around the subject of God and Moses’ struggle as a man without ever really picking a track to travel down. For all of its faults, at least Noah had the guts and ambition that Exodus lacks. Grade: C+

Dumb and Dumber To – Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner Rated PG-13 for language, gross-out humor, and general awfulness One sentence synopsis: 20 years after the events of Dumb and Dumber, Harry and Lloyd reunite to track down Harry’s daughter. Ooh boy. Like all American males from my generation, I love the original Dumb and Dumber. It’s stupid and juvenile but it’s also insanely quotable and stands as one of the few comedies that holds up from an era that doesn’t look so good in hindsight. What it NEVER needed and what it DEFINITELY doesn’t need 20 years down the road is a sequel. Dumb and Dumber To is a painful and at times desperate attempt to regain the magic from a long-gone era during which all parties involved enjoyed much greater success (with the possible exception of Daniels though The Newsroom might suggest otherwise). It comes off as a cheap knock-off that cheapens the original. Grade: F (Podcast, sans my involvement thanks to the aforementioned surgery, here)

The Signal – Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne Rated PG-13 for some language and sci-fi freakiness One sentence synopsis: After tracking a rival hacker to Nevada, three college friends encounter a power that may not be of this world. I’m a big fan of good sci-fi done on a low budget and The Signal fits the bill. It straddles the line between horror and sci-fi quite well and manages to keep the audience on their toes without falling into the trap of opening up a thousand questions that can’t all be answered. I’m not sure that everything within this movie makes sense and it definitely jumps around a bit toward the conclusion but still, it’s a solid little movie that will make for an enjoyable Netflix viewing at some point. Grade: B

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St. Vincent – Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher Rated PG-13 for language and dramatic elements One sentence synopsis: A grumpy old man with a complicated past becomes friends with his new neighbor, a pre-teen boy. I saved the best for last so we can end on a high. I’ve been looking forward to this one for months and not only did it not disappoint, it blew my expectations away. There is so much more to the story within St. Vincent than you would guess from the trailer, which is kind of frustrating because in a down year for awards contenders, this film could’ve had a shot at some consideration with a better marketing campaign. Regardless, St. Vincent is wholly charming and emotionally impactful and I loved it. Murray gives his best performance in a decade and the chemistry he develops with newcomer Lieberher is superb. Lots of laughs, plenty of tears, and an all-around, highly enjoyable movie. Grade: A

Movie Review: Interstellar

interstellar_banner In the future, a blight has run rampant across the world, killing off a large portion of the population and much of our food supply. Once an engineer and an astronaut, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), like many other former professionals, has been relegated to life as a farmer, a life that doesn’t suit him well. When an astronomical anomaly attracts the attention of his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain), Cooper follows a set of coordinates and discovers a hidden NASA compound. Here he is reunited with an old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who asks him to pilot an interstellar space flight into another galaxy in search of a new home for the human race. But as the state of earth worsens, Cooper’s task proves even more difficult than he might have imagined and as he wrestles with massive decisions in life-threatening circumstances, his ultimate goal of reuniting with his kids becomes his driving force.

I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar with great vigor for a very long time now and it was easily my most anticipated film of the year. I love Christopher Nolan, I love Matthew McConaughey (I’m still not used to saying/writing that without doing a double take), and I love space. Bringing all of those things together is like Hollywood coming directly to me and asking me what I would wish for in a movie then granting that wish. Thanks, Hollywood! I won’t tell you that all of those aspects came together to create a perfect film, much less the masterpiece that I might have quietly hoped for, but a great deal of this movie worked very, very well for me overall.

Interstellar borrows elements from a wide variety of sources, from films as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey to Field of Dreams to M. Night Shyamalan’s criminally underrated Signs as well as any number of science fiction novels, most notably (in my mind) The Forever War. As such, you can’t call this film all that unique on its surface. But the ambitions of Interstellar, and ultimately that of Nolan and his writing partner/brother Jonathan, lie in the task of bringing all of these ideas, concepts, and plot points together into a cohesive and, dare I say, staggeringly beautiful whole. It is by far Nolan’s most sentimental film and while that may come across as heavy-handed to some, I found it to be a very personal narrative and a much more earth-bound point of focus than what the director usually goes for. The sentiment and the emotion of this film, while not overpowering, hit the mark for me and brought a sense of purpose that I think often times gets lost in a piece of science-fiction, especially one of this magnitude. And make no mistake, Interstellar is a HUGE movie with fantastic cinematography that puts on full display just how wonderfully real a film can be. The space sequences in particular are dizzying, powerful and gloriously loud. It’s intense and at times heart-stopping and left me completely riveted to the screen.

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The performances take a back seat to the scope of the visuals and the complexity of the narrative, but at one time or another, virtually every major cast member within Interstellar is called upon to carry and scene or two and I can’t say I was ever disappointed. McConaughey does more serious work on the non-verbal side of things than he usually does and in the film’s most vulnerable moments when he has to bring the emotion home, he does his job quite well. Chastain, another favorite around here, is as majestic as ever. Even Anne Hathaway who always seems to aggravate me (and, it seems, much of America agrees) gives a solid performance, albeit in a role that could’ve been played by two dozen actresses. It’s unlikely that any of the talent cast members will receive award attention but each of them holds their own.

There are certainly flaws to be dealt with within Interstellar. As mentioned previously, much of the story is borrowed from a variety of sources which tempts the viewer to disengage and write off a plot point as a knock-off. That didn’t happen for me but I understand the potential for derailment is there. The dialogue at times is iffy and there’s a ton of exposition to be dealt with, though I felt like Nolan did an excellent job of navigating through those exposition-y spots with as much momentum as possible. And, without spoilers, almost all of the plotting hinges on a moment in the third act that is designed, quite pointedly I think, to force the viewer to buy in or get out. That great scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Red finds Andy’s map and Andy implores him to, “Come a little further” comes to mind in the final act of Interstellar. The relationship between science and theory is certainly tested in Interstellar but I took it as an invitation from Nolan to come a little further and fully invest in his vision. Some won’t be able to do that. As a result, this is bound to be a divisive film and one that will inspire outright love and total hate. So be it.

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All told, I think Interstellar is worth the price of admission based solely on the stunning visuals and its substantial ambition even if, in the end, you can’t get on board for the full ride. In the end, though, this is not a movie that you see so much as it is a movie that you feel and whether or not you can find its rhythms and share in its emotionalism will dictate how well it works for you. I went in for the full Interstellar experience and I loved it. I hope you will too.

Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some language and many intense sequences)

NOTE: A film of this scope deserves to be seen in the setting it is meant to be seen in. Much like Gravity last year, I fear if you see this on DVD, you will not be seeing the same movie. Get to the theater and moreover, get to an IMAX screen or a theater showing the film in 35mm. This is the rare film that's worth the added expense or inconvenience.

Movie Review: Fury

Fury Synopsis: In the waning days of World War II, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is assigned a seat on Fury, a Sherman tank under the command of Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). Don's crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, and John Bernthal) are hardened soldiers who've fought and killed Nazis together across three years and numerous countries while Norman is new to the horrors of war. They're forced to bond quickly, however, as Fury is put through a series of difficult missions, culminating in a final stand that finds the tanks and its crew the only barrier between the Allied supply train and an army of zealous SS soldiers.

What I Liked: I'm a big fan of writer/director David Ayer and his unflinching, committed style of film making. His stuff isn't always great but he's very persistent (maybe even stubborn) when it comes to identifying what his story is all about and sticking to it completely. With Fury, he's attempting to show the ways in which a horrible war takes its toll on the humanity of those involved. Using a tank crew to tell this story is an interesting and somewhat unique concept and one that, at least on the surface, allows for some separation between this film and its war-related contemporaries. No one wants to make a movie that sits in the shadow of Saving Private Ryan and I think Ayer does his best to keep Fury from falling into that comparison.

For his part, Pitt turned in a quality performance, though one that borrowed more than a little from his turn in Inglourious Basterds. I quite like Pitt but he's not a limitless actor and he sometimes struggles in a leading role trying to do too much. Here, though, he stays within his range and it works. He is outclassed, however, by LaBeouf who absolutely shines in a smaller role that I desperately wanted more of. There are small moments in which LaBeouf absolutely makes the film and I left wondering if this might be the turning of a page for him.

And while some of the action sequences are only mediocre, there is a pivotal scene in which Fury takes on a German Tiger tank that had me on the edge of my proverbial seat. It's an extremely tense sequence that reminded me of something you might see in an old submarine movie. Really great work.

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What I Didn't Like: As I said above, Ayer is completely committed to whatever road he sets out on and I think that got the best of him this time around. Fury is a bleak affair and one that almost drowns in its own grimness. I don't need my World War II movies to be happy-fun-time but this one could've used a touch of light here or there just to break up the monotony of dark and depressing. You rarely sympathize with Fury's crew, mostly because they're all already so broken that they've lost their humanity. To be a true study in the horrors of war, Fury needed to take place a little further back up the road before all the characters had been completely changed. As it is, it just becomes exhausting, especially in scenes that drastically needed to be edited down. One scene in particular, set inside an apartment post-liberation, is excruciatingly uncomfortable and threatened to make me check out altogether.

Some of the effects are a bit firework-y which seems out of place in a realistic war film and Fury doesn't always avoid the classic beats of the genre, resulting in a story that feels a little paint-by-numbers at times. And almost all of the characters are one-note cliches, leaving their success or failure completely in the hands of the actors. Pitt and LaBeouf succeed, Bernthal and Pena fail, and Lerman bounces back and forth on the pass/fail line. I think we might need to be done with the Bernthal experience and I've yet to be impressed by Pena. Everyone tells me he's a good actor and I'm not saying he's not, I'm just saying I still haven't seen him do anything that made him click for me.

Conclusion: Fury has some excellent moments but ultimately, it's a disappointment. It lingers too long in the wrong places and skips around those that might lead to a little more depth of story, character, and even tone. It isn't a total waste or even a complete misfire, it just doesn't reach the goal it sets out for itself.

Grade: B- (Rated R for war violence, language, sexual references and overall grimness)

Many Mini Movie Reviews

It’s been a long time since I wrote a movie review. I know most of you don’t really care about this as you’re only here to see pictures of my cute kid. But I tend to write less about all subjects when I don’t have movies to write about to get the blood flowing, as it were. Frankly, though, there just haven’t been any films I’ve really wanted to see let alone write about over the last six weeks. Even for the podcast, we’ve had to resort to reviews of films from years past because, I mean, what are we going to do, spend an hour on Let’s Be Cops? Come on. But finally there were movies out this week that I wanted to see and so I saw all of them. ALL OF THE MOVIES! So here’s a quick recap of these films that ranged from “pretty stinkin’ good” to “one of the worst movies ever.” thedrop

The Drop – Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace Rated R for language and violence Dennis Lehane (whose books have inspired films like Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River) wrote the script for The Drop based on one of his short stories and boy, does it feel like a Dennis Lehane film! The Drop is grim and gritty and features characters that thrive in the dark even as they attempt to make a go of it in sunnier pastures. The story here is thin (maybe there’s a reason it was a short story) but it is held together quite nicely through some terrific performances. This film will go down as James Gandolfini’s last, which is fitting since his character operates somewhere in the same realm as Tony Soprano might. The whole movie, however, belongs to Hardy and his portrayal of Bob Saginowski, the mysterious barkeep whose quiet demeanor just barely keeps his truths at bay. You know throughout The Drop that something is coming, that something is going to break, but the film plays it slow and lets that feeling sink in before allowing the movie itself to fully engage the elephant in the room. Grade: B+ Lesser performances would have left this movie to become a middling affair but Hardy is worth the price of admission by himself. It’s the sort of solid, adult-oriented drama that is often lacking from the theatrical release calendar.

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Lucy – Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked Rated R for violence that could’ve easily been toned down to PG-13 level I’m not a very good artist; otherwise, I might just skip the writing part of this review and just draw a picture of me setting myself on fire. That might be less painful than digging through this colossal mess again. I have one simple rule when it comes to science fiction: Create rules that work within your world and then stick to them. Well, according to Lucy, if humans could somehow learn to use 100% of their brains, they would be able to exercise mind control on other humans, travel through digital wavelengths, and spread across the world like a computer virus. I think. Nothing, NOTHING, within this movie makes an ounce of sense even in a crazy sci-fi universe and while I’m usually okay with, “Leave your brain at the door” entertainment, Lucy felt like an assault on my brain on every single level. If I could use 100% of my brain, I would just strike the memory of this film entirely. Grade: F Somehow this movie is fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and has made over $300 million worldwide. I don’t understand how either of those things are possible.

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The One I Love – Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss Rated R for absolutely no reason, seriously, there’s like two curse words in the whole movie To accurately describe The One I Love would be to ruin it completely. It’s sci-fi…sort of…with some…comedy-ish moments…with an edge of…horror that’s not actually scary but you feel like it might get scary at some point… I don’t know. A couple on the verge of divorce heads to an out of town retreat to reinvigorate their marriage and weird things happen. That’s all I can say about the plot. It’s a quirky, off-putting little film produced on a shoestring budget and featuring two actors who both commit completely to a bonkers storyline. I’m thoroughly impressed with all involved. Grade: A- The One I Love isn’t going to be for everyone but I found it to be extremely charming even in its stranger, borderline creepy moments.

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A Walk Among the Tombstones – Liam Neeson, David Harbour, Brian Bradley Rated R for language, violence, and general horrific imagery I wonder how many people went into this movie thinking, “Oh it’s about Liam Neeson taking down kidnappers. This’ll be a riot!” and came out a bit shaken. Yes, while A Walk Among the Tombstones does involve Liam Neeson tracking down a pair of kidnappers, it is a far cry from the ridiculousness of Taken, Taken 2, Taken on a Plane, and the other films he’s starred in over the last few years. This is a grim affair and while it pulls a few punches in terms of the on-screen violence, it’s certainly not, shall we say, an enjoyable film. Neeson, though, is good at this sort of thing and plays his role well even if most of the surrounding work is average at best. The plot, too, requires the surrounding characters to make too many dumb choices in order to work and thus leaves the whole film feeling somewhat hollow. Grade: B A Walk Among the Tombstones is dark and dreary and while it gets its job done effectively enough, it’s not a film that you’re going to remember in a month.

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This is Where I Leave You – Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver Rated R for language and sexual situations Oh man. This one is tough to review. I have very rarely wanted to love a movie the way I wanted to love This is Where I Leave You. I read the book and found it to be heartbreakingly authentic in almost every way and could not have been more excited about the film’s cast. But it BADLY needed steadier hands at the helm than what director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and writer Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the book). In truth, this movie is a complete mess that is just BEGGING for someone to pump some air into the room and let it breathe a little. It moves far, far too fast in an effort to touch on all the beats of the book and as a result, it almost always feels rushed. From a purely filmmaking standpoint, This is Where I Leave You is a massive misstep. But…the cast is so good and the source material is so personal and honest that you get a dozen or more moments throughout the film that actually matter and ring completely true when they probably should fall flat. I think this is why critics hated it and audiences seem to appreciate it. It’s like a song that you know is bad but you keep singing along anyway because even though it sounds wrong, for some reason it feels right. I completely get why This is Where I Leave You has failed with critics but there’s a part of me that can’t toss the whole thing out in spite of its many flaws. Grade: B I guess? The stronger moments will resonate with me for a long time I think but the low points are supremely low and frustrating. Read the book and then maybe appreciate the movie just for Bateman and Driver if nothing else.

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The Maze Runner – Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario Rated PG-13 for violence, language and thematic elements Another entry into the growing list of “young adult novel turned film franchise” properties, I was fairly unfamiliar with The Maze Runner having never been able to get through the book’s first couple of chapters. But for what it is, I actually quite liked this movie. The host of young actors are all fairly solid in their roles (it’s always a tricky proposition when you have this many young and unknown cast members) I was very impressed with the world director Wes Ball built. It’s a much more engrossing film than I might have expected. I can’t say The Maze Runner is up to the caliber of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games but I think it’s significantly better than most of the other YA adaptations that have made their way into theaters over the last few years. Grade: B+ I can’t there’s anything truly special or remarkable about this film but it’s an interesting concept that is fleshed out fairly well.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians Synopsis: 26 years after being abducted from earth, Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt) comes into possession of an artifact so valuable and dangerous that soon the entire galaxy is on his tail. In order to keep the item from falling into the hands of the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace), Quill joins forces with a ragtag group of misfits, including a talking raccoon and a sentient tree, and together they take on the impossible task of saving the universe.

What I Liked: I could probably just type a big "EVERYTHING!" and be done with it, but where's the fun in that? Guardians is a massive departure, both in tone and subject matter, from the rest of the Marvel universe and while I'm a huge fan of said universe, this movie felt like that first cool evening at the end of a burning hot summer. While Guardians does tend to follow the standard blockbuster blueprint in terms of narrative structure, it's got this wild, undeniably fun spirit that guides the ship through the most exciting route a movie could hope to take while still staying on the requisite path. It is fresh, it is energetic, and it is confident, with that last part standing out as perhaps the most important. James Gunn (Slither, Super) totally embraces the film's spirit and infuses it with a certain hipness that made it undeniably endearing to me. Guardians is not just funny but legitimately hilarious and while the jokes aren't always particularly witty, neither are they low and they fly fast and free. For that matter, the film as a whole moves at a much more rapid pace than any of the previous Marvel entries, a quality I quite enjoyed. It is also undoubtedly the edgiest film in this universe and I think Gunn succeeds in adding a layer of grit and grime to his film without making it altogether dark, which is no small task (just ask anyone invested in the DC universe).

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Guardians also succeeds in bringing forth characters that are truly likable because of who they are rather than what they represent. That's one of the big knocks on the Marvel films: their lack of strong, relatable characters that stand on their own merits. Tony Stark/Iron Man is great but in truth, that's where the list ends. We like Captain America because of what he stands for. We like Bruce Banner because he transforms into a monster. We like Hawkeye because...I'm just kidding, no one really likes Hawkeye. The point is, the majority of the Marvel movies are carried by their themes, their exciting action sequences, and a group of likable actors who carry their sometimes-lackluster characters through with charisma. But with Guardians, you get a whole handful of characters that you can't help but love. This is partly due to the cast, all of whom are excellent. Chris Pratt is a star, you guys, and as a day one fan of Parks and Recreation, I couldn't be happier for him. Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, and most surprisingly, former WWE star Dave Bautista are all great as well.

But the characters themselves are so much more enjoyable and exciting than just about anything else that exists in the Marvel universe, due in no small part to the fact that they all have actual personalities. Both Rocket Raccoon (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel), created out of thin air through the magic of CGI, have more personality than just about any other character in this series of films. That's an impressive feat. And I can't ever recall a film that featured magnetic chemistry between two CGI characters but darned if Guardians doesn't hit that mark square on the head.

What I Didn't Like: There are two chief complaints regarding Guardians. One, as guardians2mentioned previously, it follows the Marvel road map with little deviation. This is a small issue in my mind as I don't particularly dislike the pre-established safety that this road provides but with a movie as unique as this one is within the Marvel universe, it would've been nice to see it strike out on its own from a narrative standpoint. Second and much more importantly, Guardians lacks a compelling villain. This is a big problem within the Marvel universe. They've thrown all manner of bad guys at us and while some have worked marginally well (Loki in Avengers, Red Skull in Captain America), none have come close to matching up with their heroic counterparts. Guardians is chock full of villains and semi-villains, most notably Ronan, but none of them seem to truly matter. This entire franchise is building to an eventual battle between The Avengers (and compatriots) and Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) but so far it's a bunch of smoke and mirrors and if it fails to pay off, this whole thing is slightly diminished. Here's hoping this issue gets remedied sooner rather than later.

Conclusion: Small issues aside, Guardians of the Galaxy is the comic book movie the genre desperately needed. It's an absolute blast, the sci-fi elements are strong, and did I mention the soundtrack is spectacular? If The Avengers is the best of the Marvel movies (which is now debatable in my opinion), Guardians is by far the coolest and quite possibly the most memorable when it's all said and done.

Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for language and violence)

Movie Review: Boyhood

boyhood-poster Synopsis: Boy is this one hard to summarize properly. Beginning in 2002, Boyhood charts the growth and development of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 5 to 18. Mason bounces around the state of Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater), with his (at times) estranged father (Ethan Hawke) always a step or two behind. Throughout the 12 year journey, Mason endures poverty, a host of stepfathers, and a perpetual lack of stability all while attempting to discover who he really wants to be. Boyhood was filmed over the course of this 12 year period, in short installments each year, and thus, each of the cast members remains constant throughout the entirety of the film. In this way, you are actually seeing a boy grow up on screen before your very eyes.

What I Liked: Movies like this, films that are thoroughly profound and universally significant, often leave me feeling inadequate. As in, "how am I supposed to critique something this monumental without seeming like a complete moron?" It also doesn't help that there are any number of essays on the merits of Boyhood which have already been published by much greater minds than mine (and much better writers, too). To add my very meager endorsement to the list of accolades this film has already garnered, let me just say that Boyhood is simply something that you need to experience for yourself. It isn't exactly entertaining nor is it easy to watch; in fact, there are moments that are downright painful. But the point of the film is to illustrate life itself in the most realistic terms possible within this medium and as we all know, life can be quite messy at times, can't it? There is a forthright dedication to authenticity that overruns virtually every other aspect of Boyhood and kind of forces you to think about your own adolescence as Mason goes through his. I found myself reliving, or at least reviewing, my own youth (which is further away from me than I care to admit) and running through all of the feelings that come with that. As such, this a less-than-consistently-comfortable day at the movies but it is without question a wholly unique experience that I dare say will never be replicated.

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From a straight up movie perspective, there are some glitches within Boyhood (see below) but they are almost always trumped by the sheer magnitude of what is taking place before your eyes. Coltrane proves to be perhaps the perfect fit for this role in that nothing he does overpowers the rest of the film but he always seems up to the task of whatever situation director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) puts Mason in, which makes this a very appropriately even performance. The narrative is simple but Linklater uses it quite efficiently; we move from year to year in Mason's life without much pomp or circumstance and then we are simply shown a day or a week in the life of a typical child. People come in and out of Mason's life, for better or for worse, and we see the way Mason's decisions, as well as the decisions of those around him (particularly his mother), impact his "character arc" (as it were). Anchoring each shift and change in Mason's life is his father, whether he's actively involved in his son's life at the time or not, and through all of this Hawke absolutely SHINES. Coltrane is the star of the film and has deservedly drawn the most attention but in my opinion it is Hawke, and his interactions with his unknown, novice counterpart, that truly bring Boyhood its greatest depth. I would like for him to receive all of the awards in a few months.

What I Didn't Like: While Boyhood is ALMOST perfect, there are a few bumps in the road that seem to pop up in the most inopportune of moments. For starters, while Hawke is a centering and genuine force within the movie, too often Arquette comes across as too wooden or perhaps just more actor-y than the part calls for. Many times I found myself treating Boyhood like a documentary only to be taken out of that mindset when Arquette popped up again. It's not a BAD performance, it's just slightly off from what I think the role called for.

In addition, some of the ancillary characters turn out to be far more caricature-like than the leading characters, leaving a bit of a cliche aftertaste in the midst of a narrative that really goes out of its way to avoid cliches. It also, I think, spends a little too much time focusing on the hardships in Mason's life and misses a few opportunities to bring some genuinely positive influences in to offset a bit of the negative. That's not to say Boyhood dwells in the dark or ever becomes actually depressing; but there are times when I think the story was begging for someone, anyone, besides the dad to step into Mason's life and be a decent human being. And look, I know this is a VERY minor complaint, but when a movie is jumping from year to year and asks you to use context clues to figure out where in the protagonist's life we've landed, your musical choices need to be accurate. Coldplay's "Yellow", which was released in 2000, opens the movie that starts in 2002 and there are several other musical interludes that took me out of the film for just a second as I tried to work out what year we were in. Again, very minor, but when the entire film is built on staying in the reality of the film, you don't want to be pulled out of it every time a song cues up in the background.

In many ways the blips on the Boyhood radar are very small and do little, if anything, to hinder the film. That said, this blemishes are so small that they're almost more frustrating than if the movie was rife with holes and screw ups. I wanted Boyhood to be a masterpiece and it absolutely has the opportunity to be so but these tiny little missteps keep it teetering right on the edge of perfection and ultimately, for me, keep it from becoming the greatest version of itself.

Conclusion: Simply put once more, Boyhood is like no other film you are every likely to see. Linklater (one of my absolute favorites who will almost undoubtedly find his name listed at just about every award he is eligible for this winter) has created something that exudes life with every frame and provides a thoughtful and almost completely unique view of growing up. It's not an easy watch but then again, some movies are meant to entertain and some are meant to make you think and five days after viewing Boyhood I'm still thinking about it. I could not recommend this one more highly.

Grade: A+ (Rated R for language, drug and alcohol use, and some sexual references)

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014 - Part II

By now I would expect most of you who frequent my movie related content know what to expect from this series: Each year, I pick 20 films (10 scheduled to debut in the first half of the year, 10 from the second half) that I'm excited about and attempt to highlight them briefly. Or as close to "brief" as I can manage. This is one of my favorite pieces to write each year and I always hold out hope that some of you will end up seeing a movie you might have missed out on because of my recommendation. It should be noted, however, that history tells me I will likely miss WILDLY on at least one of these selections (I may never live down Monuments Men) so keep that in mind. It should also be noted that Part Two of this piece is always significantly more difficult to pare down due to the high number of quality films headed our way and thus, movies like This Is Where I Leave You, Wish I Was Here, and Inherent Vice, among others, fell by the wayside. All that to say, this should be a pretty stinking good six months at the box office. On with the show.

Honorable Mention: Unbroken (December 25) Jack O'Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson

I saw the trailer for this one last night and I went back and forth on what to make of it. There's definitely a heavy dose of feelgoodiness that could easily cross over into the cheesy territory. But many, many people have recommended this book to me and the script was done by the Coen Brothers so I'm hoping for the best.

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10. Untitled Cameron Crowe Project (December 25) Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, John Krasinski

I hesitate to put this on the list because there's a good chance the movie ends up getting bumped to 2015. But how do I say no to a Cameron Crowe film (one of my favorite directors ever, We Bought a Zoo aside) featuring THAT cast?! That's all I know about it and that's all I need to know. I kinda hope they just release it as Untitled Cameron Crowe Project. 

9. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (December 17) Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans

This is the leader in the clubhouse for "Most Likely to Disappoint" but I can't help myself. "The Hobbit" is my favorite novel ever and while there are plenty of things I don't love about the first two films in this trilogy (chief among them, the fact that it is a trilogy in the first place), I'm still drawn to them. My hope is that when the entire Hobbit puzzle is assembled, it will be (relatively) cohesive whole that will be easier to enjoy. Regardless, this is to be the most action-packed of the three and I think this portion of the source material translates well.

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8. Birdman (October 17) Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton

I'm going to admit to you, dear reader, that I have no idea what in the world is happening in this trailer. I just know it's bonkers and that I like both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton the most when they're bonkers. So I'm in.

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7. Fury (November 14) Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf

Fury kind of feels like Inglourious Basterds without the humor and strangely that sounds alright to me. Writer/director David Ayer has done some remarkable work over the years (Training Day, End of Watch) and here he gets a big budget movie all to himself. On the downside, I prefer Brad Pitt when he's in an ensemble role and this ensemble isn't overly appealing. Could we just replace Shia LaBeouf with like a crying goat or something?

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6. St. Vincent (October 24) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts

I'm a huge sucker for the "misfit kid gets guidance from an odd mentor" narrative and when American Treasure Bill Murray takes on the role of the odd mentor...well that's just icing on the cake. To be fair, this could easily go wrong fast as the trailer definitely borders on "Wes Anderson Knock-Off" territory. But hey, if nothing else, St. Vincent has gotten me excited about a movie starring Melissa McCarthy for the first time ever. So there's that.

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5. Foxcatcher (November 14) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

If you're one of the few hold outs who still doesn't understand the virtues of either Steve Carell or Channing Tatum, I hate to tell you this, but your days are numbered. Foxcatcher was supposed to be released last year and was pulled out so it could make the festival circuit and build momentum for award season. It's worked beautifully as Carell is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination at this point and Tatum has a strong case. The trailer is somewhat ambiguous but Bennett Miller (Moneyball) knows how to put a movie together and I'm confident this will be no different.

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4. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I (November 21) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

I was very, very impressed with the first Hunger Games film, moreso, I would say, than most critics and pundits. That said, I was blown away by Catching Fire and thought it took huge steps forward from the first entry. That one could end up being one of the best big budget sequels ever, dead serious. So even though we've seen almost nothing concerning this film and the third book in this series is so very bad, I have faith that it's only going to build on the achievements of its predecessor.

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3. Boyhood (July 18) Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Technically Boyhood came out last weekend and has been shown at festivals for months. But it doesn't expand wide until the 18th and thus, most of you (like me) haven't been able to see it. Boyhood represents a completely unique filmmaking experience: Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Bernie) spent two weeks a year for 12 years filming Coltrane's character as he aged from 5 to 18. We will literally be watching a human grow into a man on screen. It's basically a scripted Truman Show based in reality. I haven't even seen it yet and already I'm pleading with people to give it a chance. Can't wait.

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2. Guardians of the Galaxy (August 1) Christ Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace

I have watched the development of this film closer than almost any other non-Star Wars entity ever and I've been fascinated with what I've seen. Marvel, backed by Disney, continues to do some amazing things in a space (big budget blockbusters) that generally values safe money over chancy filmmaking. While DC Comics can't figure out a way to make Batman, the coolest superhero ever, a viable movie property, Marvel is churning out a movie about a talking raccoon and a walking tree like it's no big deal. I am so stinking pumped for this.

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1. Interstellar (November 7) Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway

Christopher Nolan + Matthew McConaughey + Sci-Fi = ? I don't know the exact answer to that equation but I think it's mostly just a series of emojis. Nolan is the best big-budget director in the business right now and McConaughey is the hottest name so why not pair them together to blow our minds? If this turns out well, we could be seeing The Year of McConaughey turn into the Era of McConaughey. Oh and by the way, the first teaser trailer (posted first below) is one of the best I've ever seen. I kind of wish I could go back in time and only see that one and know nothing else about Interstellar before going in to the theater. I am mesmerized by this film.

http://youtu.be/3WzHXI5HizQ

http://youtu.be/sWhVkztwYqA

Movie Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

x-men-days-of-future-past-movie Synopsis: In the future, giant robots called Sentinels have all but wiped out the mutant population and the world has became a dark, grim place gripped by constant war. In order to win a war that cannot be won, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) devise a plan to put a stop to it before it has even begun. Using the powers of Kitty Pride (Ellen Page), Professor X sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 and tasks him with uniting the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to destroy the Sentinel program before it ever gets off the ground. But there are massive complications with this plan and as time is running out in the future, Wolverine runs into major problems centered on Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who is dead set on the very course of action that will begin the winner-less war.

What I Liked: As I was preparing for X-Men: Days of Future Past, I went back and watched all of the previous X-Men films and rediscovered how much I truly love this franchise. As a kid, I watched the Saturday morning cartoon religiously and collected the action figures and I think the highs of this movie franchise are on par with any superhero movie out there. But the lows (like 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine and ESPECIALLY 2006's Last Stand) leave a bad taste in one's mouth and in some ways cheapen the achievements of the superior films. Without going into spoilers, what I love most about Days of Future Past is director Bryan Singer basically pushing the reset button and striking those lesser films from the X-Men canon. This is an incredibly ambitious film that cuts back and forth between two far distant time periods but Singer weaves it together wonderfully and presents an almost surprisingly cohesive whole that gives fanboys like myself an easy out to completely forget about those films that have been the source of discontentment in the past. The fact that the storyline is even remotely understandable given all the time jumping is an achievement on its own but when you take into account that Singer also had a ton of established but often contradictory background to work around, you really have to applaud the guy's efforts and recognize his excellence as a director.

Days of Future Past is highly enjoyable, a summer blockbuster through and through. XmenPosterThere is weight to the story but it doesn't feel entirely heavy the way many superhero films have felt of light in the post-Dark Knight world. That is not to say, however, that the performances are somehow less significant. Jackman is always a treat in this role, Lawrence is excellent as usual, and somehow McAvoy continues to be quite good in this role despite the fact that I've never liked him in any other role he's taken on. But as with almost every movie he's been a part of in the last few years, Days of Future Past belongs to Fassbender. You simply cannot look away when he's on screen and the sheer pull of his dynamic-but-frightening charisma is palpable. (I really tried HARD to resist making a "magnetic" pun there. Please pray for me.) There are few actors in the industry who exhibit such force on screen as Fassbender does. I love what he brings to this role.

What I Didn't Like: One of the best things about the X-Men universe is the understanding of scale as it applies to the balance of power. X-Men stories are inherently more interesting than Superman stories because Superman is such an all-encompassing, powerful being that there's never really anything at stake because there's not anything that could ever really beat him. But with the X-Men, there is a limit to the power of even the greatest mutants. I felt like there were moments within Days of Future Past in which Singer didn't hold to that tenant and the universe as a whole suffers a bit because of this. At one point Magneto rips RFK Stadium out of its foundation and flies it to The White House. If you can do that, there's very little anyone can do to you to maintain the balance of power and therefore the stakes. Singer reels it back in a bit toward the end but once the cat is out of the bag it's hard to get it back in. There are also a few very minor plot points (such as the indication that JFK was a mutant) that play a bit heavy-handed and some logic leaps that I felt could have been avoided without any detriment to the plot as a whole. Small issues to be sure but worth noting I think.

Conclusion: This isn't a perfect movie by any means but Days of Future Past is incredibly enjoyable and it puts the franchise as a whole in a far better place than it has been in a long time. The X-Men can go almost anywhere Singer wants from here on out and that leaves me even more excited about the future than I already am for this current film.

Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for some language and violence)

Movie Review: Godzilla

Godzilla Synopsis: 15 years after the tragic accident at a Japanese power plant that claimed the life of his wife, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) return to the quarantined site to finally learn the truth of what happened on that fateful day. But they soon discover a secret research facility that is home to a winged, ancient horror that suddenly threatens to send our planet back into prehistoric times. As this creature begins to wreak havoc across the Pacific, another great beast arises from the deep: Godzilla, King of the Monsters. But is he here to vanquish our common enemy or will he, too, attempt to destroy life as we know it?

What I Liked: When this movie was announced, I completely ignored it. I've never really cared about this character (as it were) and any interest I might have had in a Godzilla reboot was eradicated by the 1998 Matthew Broderick masterpiece. But that first teaser trailer was fantastic and brought with it a buzz that stayed with me so long that I might have been looking forward to this movie more so than any other this summer. So somewhat surprisingly, Godzilla had a great deal to live up to and thankfully, it did not disappoint.

In short, Godzilla is almost a perfect summer blockbuster. It's got pretty much everything you could want this time of year: Action. Explosions. Great visuals. Multiple giant monsters that like nothing more than destroying cities. One of the Olsen sisters (not one of the Olsen twins, mind you, but instead their supremely talented non-twin, Elizabeth). EVERYTHING. But hidden among all the standard blockbuster fare is a smart plot handled by a rising star in the directing world, Gareth Edwards, who understands exactly what his audience wants and how to play with that. Godzilla finds the right balance between action overload and disappointment, due in large part to Edwards handling of the great beast. You don't see Godzilla himself until an hour into the movie and during that time, Edwards builds his mystique incredibly well, leading to a tremendous sense of thrill when he does show up. There was a wave of energy that rolled through my theater when we finally got a good look at the monster and man, is he a sight to behold!

The visuals within Godzilla are outstanding, complete with some of the best CGI I've ever godzillacranstonseen. Moreover, the creature design, which I think is often overlooked in a movie like this, is gloriously well done. That is to say, Godzilla looks AWESOME, powerful and terrifying but with a touch of grace that is usually missing in this setting. (Last year's Pacific Rim, which I enjoyed just fine, could have been improved tremendously with this sort of visually appealing creature design.) He also sounds awesome and the masterfully crafted audio elements of this movie should not be overlooked. And the actors, while definitely playing second fiddle to their rather large CGI counterpart, are all solid. No one here is being asked to carry a film, of course, but far too often, actors in these sorts of rolls turn in performances that border on cringe-worthy and the film suffers. Not so here, as Cranston, Taylor-Johnson, Olsen, and the rest all bring something to the table.

What I Didn't Like: There are times when Godzilla almost feels like it is two movies being compressed into one. Much of the back story and plotting is touched on in a very choppy manner as we move from place to place and even year to year. On the one hand, I appreciate this commitment to keeping things moving as the movie clocks in right at two hours in an era that routinely sees summer blockbusters roll on and on for 150 or 160 minutes. On the other hand, I actually really dug the origin portions of this story and could have done with more time in that area. There is not much room for character development within Godzilla either and I think some of the more emotional moments suffer because of this. At the same time, the movie expends very little effort in banging the emotional drum so perhaps that angle just wasn't much of a concern. Regardless, there are some pacing issues that I think are indicative of a young director who hasn't had this sort of time or money to work with before. Even still, these are minor issues for me and didn't hinder my enjoyment of the movie overall.

Conclusion: All told, Godzilla is a highly enjoyable, thrilling film that I honestly can't wait to see again. Edwards makes a 300 foot dinosaur far more appealing than he has any right to be and left the audience wanting more. Godzilla embodies the spirit of the summer blockbuster wonderfully, setting a high standard for the summer films that are to come.

Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some language and a devastating amount of destruction)

NOTE: I went in for a 3D screening, which I rarely do, and regretted. It's not the terrible, retro-fitted 3D that we've seen in the past but it simply adds nothing to the movie as a whole. Good old fashioned 2D will do the trick and save you some money, too. You're welcome. Also, Gareth Edwards' first film, Monsters, is available on Netflix and is worth your time. Great accomplishments on a nothing budget.

 

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

SpiderMan2 Synopsis: After the events of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) finds himself struggling to find balance in his life. The time he spends fighting crime takes its toll both on his own body and mind and on his relationships, particularly with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and his Aunt May (Sally Field). Things only become more complicated when a new enemy called Electro (Jamie Foxx) begins wreaking havoc upon New York City and Peter's old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns home to take control of Oscorp, the company Peter's father worked for before his mysterious disappearance. All of these factors converge to force Spider-Man into choices he doesn't want to make and threaten to destroy the world he so badly wants to protect.

What I Liked: There are moments of true greatness within The Amazing Spider-Man 2, most of which center on the character interactions and developments. Garfield has matured into his dual role quite well and the writing for his characters here is excellent. He has a talent for an almost manic brand of wisecracking sarcasm that fits this role nicely and indeed that talent is constantly put on display. Likewise, Garfield's chemistry with Stone is palpable and the Parker-Stacy relationship is highly enjoyable every time the characters interact. While at times the dialogue is as comic-book-movie-cookie-cutter as you can get, there are spots in which screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci give the actors tremendous material to work with, such as a the touching speech that Aunt May delivers to Peter in the second act (and coming from someone who really does not like Sally Field, this is really saying something). And whereas the first film in this franchise felt like a completely unnecessary rehash (which is was), Amazing Spider-Man 2 fully sets the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire franchise aside and sets out, thankfully, on its own path. This includes a stake-raising event near the end of the film that has the potential to up the ante, in a good way, moving forward.

What I Didn't Like: As good as this movie can be in the small moments, when Peter/Spidey interacts with another character, it is just as bad when it comes to plot development and world building. There's a decisive been-there-done-that feel to most of the action sequences and the film seems incapable of maintaining momentum. Every time I started to really dig in, director Marc Webb took me away to work on a plot point I didn't care about or introduce yet another superfluous character or to stop down for a montage sequence backed by the power of Phillip Phillips. Yay! Moreover, I think Amazing Spider-Man 2 lacks identity. At times it is a fun comic book movie, at times it drifts into darker, grittier territory and at times it plays the youth adult fiction card far too heavily. As a result, the movie never feels completely committed to any one course of action and thus it suffers. No aspect of the film drives this point home harder than Hans Zimmer's HORRENDOUS score that perpetually and insufferably drives the tone of the film in the complete opposite direction of whatever is happening on screen.

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My biggest complaint, however, is how ridiculously overstuffed the entire movie is. Webb BOMBARDS the audience with new character after new character over and over again which only adds to the lack of flow within the film's development. There are more characters in play here than in an episode of Game of Thrones and outside of Peter/Spidey and Stacy, none of them are well developed. One of the biggest complaints about the first Spider-Man trilogy was the overabundance of characters, both villainous and virtuous, so you would think Webb would learn from this. Instead, Amazing Spider-Man 2 falls right into the same trap, resulting in villains without any bite and leading me to the point where I really couldn't care less about any of them, I just wanted it to be over. 

Conclusion: This was an extremely frustrating viewing experience, partly because of the up and down nature of the film itself and partly because you can see the foundation of something good that never quite comes to fruition. Instead of picking a path and sticking with it, Amazing Spider-Man 2 tries to appeal to everyone and as a result, I found it to be extremely uneven and somewhat forgettable in spite of a few fantastic sequences.

Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for comic book-y violence)

"You Were Good": 25 Years of Field of Dreams

fieldofdreams People often assume that, because I love sports and because I love movies, I must love sports movies. In actuality, I often find myself being more critical and giving less leeway for sports-related movies than I do for just about any other genre of film. I'll suspend reality when Will Smith is able to pilot an alien spacecraft within minutes of its discovery but a quarterback throwing 10 touchdowns in a game? That's just ridiculous. I'm too close to sports, too knowledgeable (that's not a brag so much as an indication of the insane amount of time I have spent obsessing over sport in what could only be described as the coolest 31 years anyone has ever spent on this planet) to accept movie magic or jumps in logic when it comes to the sports arena. I don't know, maybe police officers hate cop movies that deliver far too many shootouts and far too few citation write ups. Regardless, sports in movies doesn't often work for me. But this week, Field of Dreams celebrated its 25th anniversary and it felt only fitting to say a few words about the film that is, for my money, the best sports movie of all-time.

In my opinion, there are four ways a sports movie can succeed:

1.) Go straight for the laughs - Comedy covers up a multitude of sins because. Is Talladega Nights an accurate portrayal of the world of NASCAR? Of course not. But it's hilarious (depending on your opinion of Will Ferrell, that is) and because it doesn't take its sport too seriously, the audience doesn't have to, either. Happy Gilmore, Slap Shot, and many others take advantage of this caveat.

2.) Aim for the kids - Just as comedy allows for the deflection of reality, so does the kiddie element. Rookie of the Year is one of the most ridiculous movies of all time but I watched it 100 million times as a kid and it still holds a great deal of nostalgic, happy fun for me despite its absurdity.

3.) Strives for reality - This is by far the most difficult path to take, I think, but if a sports movie can find a way to stick as close to reality as possible, it has the possibility for greatness. The Friday Night Lights movie is one of the most genuine, gut-wrenching sports movies ever and remains one of the best. Aim for this territory and miss the mark, however, and you wind up with a mediocre biopic (see: Glory Road) or a disastrous grasping at a false reality (see: Any Given Sunday).

4.) Tell a worthwhile story outside of sports - This is where most sports movies live or die. The theory goes that you can't make a sports movie that is just about sports so other elements, usually a romantic relationship, have to be added in to make it marketable. More often than not, the handling of these additions to the sporting nature of the film determines whether or not the movie works.

And that's where Field of Dreams succeeds where so many other films fail.

Field of Dreams is a sports movie more in theory than in actuality. Sure, the central plot concerns a farmer who decides to build a baseball field in the middle of his cash crops and yes, there's a fair amount of time dedicated to the history of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. But these are shiny diversions from the themes the movie really wants to explore in depth. Faith, loss, hope, pain, and a handful of other important parts of the human experience all have a place within Field of Dreams and above them all sits the ever-complicated father-son relationship. The movie handles these themes not with kid gloves or false sentimentality but with exquisite grace and authenticity while blending them seamlessly with the baseball undertones. That's not to say that the film doesn't respect its sporting roots; baseball is the glue that holds Field of Dreams together and I've always felt this movie understood its sports setting better than almost any sports-related movie even if the actual baseball action is lacking. But the goal of Field of Dreams is to tell an important, common, wholly human story and baseball is the just medium through which this story is told.

It had been years since I watched Field of Dreams and at least days since I had wept like a small child whose favorite toy had just been burned like something out of The Velveteenfieldofdreams2 Rabbit so with the anniversary looming last weekend, I popped it in and marveled at its greatness. I love everything about this movie. I love Kevin Coster's narration. The Untouchables may have made Costner a star but it is Field of Dreams that solidified him into that status. I love the fantasy/mystical nature of The Voice and the ghost baseball players. I can't imagine that anyone involved in the making of this film thought that 25 years later, people would still be saying, "If you build it, he will come" to one another. I love the way James Earl Jones' Terrence Mann says "Baseball" in the iconic speech he delivers toward the film's conclusion. There's this endearing respect for the game that just oozes through his pronunciation of that word. I love Shoeless Joe Jackson's affirmation of Moonlight Graham, a struggling Minor Leaguer who never got a chance to bat in the majors. "You were good" may not be the most memorable line of this film but that simple affirmation is no less powerful in its impact.

And I love the supremely subtle build up to the moment of revelation that this entire movie has been leading us to a reconciliation between Ray Kinsella and the father he walked away from years before. "You wanna have a catch?" is one of the most simple-but-powerful quotes in film history and many times has served to reduce me and millions of other men into an ugly mess of tears and snot. It's one of the few standalone moments in film history that even the toughest guy is allowed to bawl over because we all get it. Watching Field of Dreams is like getting a free pass to access your deepest emotions and let them all out without any judgment from those around you because they, too, are weeping like (ugly) babies. 

All of this, and a dozen or so other reasons, makes Field of Dreams an American classic. 25 years later, while some of its fantastical nature plays a bit hokey and there are scenes that work a little more heavy handed than they once did, its heart still beats strong and it should serve as the blueprint for how to make a sports movie that works correctly.

Here's to 25 more years of Field of Dreams and 25 less years of Draft Day, Brian

Note: I didn't write a review for Draft Day because it is BRUTALLY bad. However, the Mad About Movies podcast on the movie was spectacular and includes me actually yelling into the microphone because I got so worked up. Check it out and tell a friend.

In Defense of Noah

NOTE: When writing about film I usually go to extremes to avoid spoilers of any kind. However, this piece isn’t my normal review and delving into a discussion of this film without looking at some of the major plot points would be near impossible. I will try to give out a SPOILER ALERT warning for anything worthy of such a label for any of you who haven’t seen the film and wish to go in with fresh eyes. SECOND NOTE: What I’m about to write is not likely to be popular with many of you. So be it.

It’s 3 am on a work night and I’m wide awake. Usually if I’m awake this late, it’s because I’m working or I’ve gotten sucked into a marathon of 24 or, more likely, my son is refusing the sleep and is taking me down with him. But tonight I’m awake because the gears in my head won’t stop turning, my heart is a little heavy, and I feel compelled to write something about Noah and more importantly, the outpouring of criticism Christians, my people, have heaped upon it. I’ve been trying to put my thoughts into succinct, concise words for two days now to no avail. This happens sometimes. I get a great idea or I feel like I need to write about a particular topic and it just never takes the proper shape. But suddenly it’s the middle of the night and I know that I can’t sleep without taking another crack at this. So here goes.

When it was announced that Darren Aronofsky would be writing and directing a big-budget adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. In fact, it’s safe to say I was filled with a moderate sense of dread. This feeling came about not because I have some sort of aversion to Aronofsky or his films or because I could not see the cinematic value of the source material (I can) but because I immediately began envisioning the firestorm that would undoubtedly become my social media feeds leading up to this film’s release. I knew that, of course, this would not be an exact, literal interpretation of the scripture and when that divergence came to light, Christians (again, my people, whom I truly love) would tear it to pieces, whether warranted or not. It started just hours after Noah was released on Friday; Facebook friends and family began ranting about the film’s lack of Biblicality (a word I just made up but which should absolutely exist) and the inevitable Matt Walsh blog started getting passed around like a pack of gum.

Russell Crowe as Noah

It isn’t fun to have an unpopular opinion. At least, it’s not fun when you’re trying to fit in with a given group that holds the opposing opinion. When it comes to the hot button issue of the day, whether gay marriage or universal health care or, in this case, a stinking movie, I tend to keep my head down and my mouth shut as my personal views often find that sweet spot in between the two sides of a given argument; usually, I end up too conservative in the eyes of “the world” and too liberal in the eyes of “the church.” (Quotation marks used in recognition of my extreme generalizations of both parties that I know not everyone falls into.) But in this case, perhaps because I am known as a movie guy amongst my family and friends, I feel like I cannot keep my thoughts to myself in spite of their potentially controversial nature. So let me ask my Christian readers three questions:

#1: What did you really expect? I’m a big believer that, in 2014, no one should ever go into a movie without some level of expectation of what they are about to see. Trailers for movies come out a year before a movie ever hits theaters and play ad nauseum in the weeks leading up to a film’s release. There are literally thousands of professional and amateur critics out there who can and will tell you as much about a movie as you could possibly want to know. And then there’s just good old fashioned intuition. Unless you lock yourself in a bunker with no access to the outside world and only come out once a week to go to a movie (weirdest idea for a screenplay ever but I’m claiming it), you shouldn’t be COMPLETELY surprised by the general concept of a film.

That is to say, if you saw any of the trailers for Noah, which were readily available at every turn, or if you caught even a glimpse of one of the articles about the movie that made the rounds on social media in the last few months, you HAD to know, at least on some level, that this was not going to play like a live action Veggietales movie. Even in the three minute trailer, you get a look at a super buff Noah, an armed horde attacking the ark, and brief glimpses of the rock monsters/”Watchers”/Nephilim. What about those images suggested that this movie was going to play out exactly like it is written in the Bible?

Let’s take it a step further, though. If you saw the trailer for Noah and were intrigued, a quick perusal of IMDB would alert you to the fact that the director has made some truly dark, at times disturbing, films over the last decade. Maybe you’ve never seen or heard of Requiem for a Dream but I’m willing to bet you know a bit about Black Swan since it stirred up quite a bit of controversy only a couple of years ago. I’m also willing to bet that at some point the articles about “an atheist directing a Biblical epic!” crossed your Facebook timeline. I know I saw it a dozen times over in the weeks leading up to the film’s release. (By the way, every interview I read with Aronofsky made it clear that he is not, in fact, an atheist. He’s certainly not a Christian and I can’t tell you exactly what it is that he believes. But I think it's clear that he believes in something and labeling him as an atheist was at best lazy and at worst shameful.)

My point is this: If you saw any of the advance press for this film (and it would have been very difficult to miss), you have to have known that this wasn’t the movie for you. And in that instance, what good is it doing for you to go in with a closed mind and come out and rant against it? Let me turn that around on myself for a second. I cannot stand the sort of low-budget Christian drama that makes its way into theaters every six months or so. Fireproof, Facing the Giants, and the like drive me crazy for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into here but basically, I find them to be nearly offensive because of their lack of quality. It would be incredibly disingenuous, then, for me to go into God’s Not Dead, knowing that it is not a movie I can appreciate, and come out spouting anger over something that I knew would bother me in the first place. So again I ask, if you went to see Noah and came out angry, what did you expect?

#2: What changes within the film were REALLY un-Biblical? This question plays in a little with the first question and a little with the last question. In the Bible, the story of Noah is, by my count, 89 verses long. That’s about a page and a half, maybe two pages, of content. The film Noah is 138 minutes long. That’s about 130 pages of script. So obviously there were going to be a great many additions and expansions upon the text. And I understand these additions are the main source of angst for most Christian viewers but I’m having trouble working up much anger of my own, mostly because, despite the numerous liberties taken with the source material, I’m not so sure there’s anything done that actually takes away from the story. And moreover, 89 verses are not enough to get the WHOLE story. We’re getting the broad strokes, what God deemed important when He inspired the writing of Genesis, but there’s plenty of detail that we don’t actually know.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Now, of course, my interpretation of the events that took place through the building of the ark, the flood, and the subsequent drifting on the waters would be much different than Aronofsky but the truth is, I’m just speculating as much as he did. Do I think the Nephilim took on the form of rock monsters? No. But there are plenty of people, people much more learned and sophisticated than I am, who take the translation of Nephilim to be “giants.” So that’s not way off from what actual Bible scholars speculate. Do I think there was some sort of great battle between Noah and those that would be left behind for control of the ark? Not really, but is it too much to guess that at some point there might have been some people who saw what Noah was doing and wanted a piece of the action? I don’t think it is. Do I think Noah flirted with madness on the ark and nearly executed his newly born granddaughters? No, not to that degree, but I do know that ten months on a floating zoo could very easily threaten one’s sanity.

Again, my point is, we don’t know everything that happened during these events. I absolutely, one hundred percent believe in the truth of scripture. But to bury our heads in the sand and pretend like anything not written in the Bible didn’t happen. At one point the story skips forward 100 years from one verse to the next. What happened during that 100 years? I don’t know and neither does Aronofsky but this was his vision, inspired or not, of what took place. My church did the same thing (obviously to a MUCH lesser extent) two years ago when we turned the story of Noah into a Super Spectacular performance, which is basically a three night VBS on steroids. We had an entire night devoted to life on the ark during the flood of which there is not a single verse of scripture to build upon.

In all of these additions, subtractions, and adaptations, there are only two plot points I can find (and I’m willing to admit that A.) I am no Bible scholar and B.) My memory of every single scene of the movie may not be perfect) that are explicitly un-Biblical: the lack of wives for Noah’s sons, Ham and Japeth, and Tubal-Cain stowing away aboard the ark. And even that last one…there are ways that you could interpret the text to make that a possibility. Please understand that I don’t personally hold to any of the stuff Aronofsky added in order to turn this story into a movie but I can’t get up in arms about two changes that undoubtedly drive the narrative of the movie and ultimately have little to no impact on the overall integrity of the source material. And maybe more importantly, to suggest that anyone who doesn’t buy into an established, rigidly literal interpretation of the Bible shouldn’t have a voice is to set up a tremendous stumbling block for many, many people who are actively seeking understanding.

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#3: What harm is Noah doing? The short answer is, “none.” In fact, it is my belief that Noah has the potential to do a great deal of good for our faith. People are going to see this movie, you guys. It made $45 million dollars in its first weekend of release and another $50 million overseas. Contrast that with a movie like God’s Not Dead which has made $21 million, much (and honestly, we could probably say “almost all”) of which was contributed by church groups who bought up mass quantities of tickets for their parishioners. I ask you to consider, which is doing more to bring people to the Kingdom of God:

Option A.) A big-budget Hollywood movie that has the potential to appeal to all demographics, some devout Christian, some devotedly against Christianity, and some who might come away with questions that they’ll find answers to in the Bible or in a church; or Option B.) A small-scale, probably poorly acted movie designed specifically to “reach out” to people who already believe the message it has to preach.

I contend it is the former and it’s not even close. And that's not taking into account the impact that it'll have on Christians who will now dig into the text while wrestling with the world presented in the film. I have been in the church my entire life and I read the Noah text with more vigor and focus in the last two days than I ever have before and I know I'm not alone in that sentiment.

I understand the fear that non-believers, whether actively seeking or not, will take what they see in Noah as Biblical fact and go off believing something (or rebelling against something) that doesn’t jive with our own beliefs. My counter to that would be that I would do just about anything I could to convince a non-believer to take on even a small portion of the Bible, of God’s love, even in some subconscious, underlying way. You cannot go through the entirety of Noah without getting an insight, however shrouded, into the Bible and a glimpse of God’s Word. I’m not saying that was Aronofsky’s plan but I believe in a God who is powerful enough to work through any medium, even one that seems on its surface to be an attack. And at one point there is ACTUAL, LITERAL SCRIPTURE being preached by an actor, in a major motion picture, written and directed by a man we’ve labeled as an atheist! WHAT MORE COULD YOU POSSIBLY ASK FOR IN THIS SETTING?!

I can’t tell you that I loved Noah. As a film, there’s a lot left to be desired. I think it tries way too hard to straddle the line between appeasing Christians and appealing to a wide, sophisticated audience. There are moments of greatness surrounded by muddled fence riding that ultimately leaves it feeling uneven. But attacking the film based on its ideas, and maybe more so on its lack of a “Christian” pedigree, rather than its merits is, in my book at least, a disappointing misstep and one that I fear only furthers the distance between ourselves and the people we’re supposed to be reaching out to.

Now maybe I can sleep, Brian

Movie Review: The Monuments Men

MonumentsMen Synopsis: At the tail end of World War II, art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is tasked with preserving and rescuing much of Europe's great art, sculptures, and buildings from the retreating Nazi forces. He assembles a crack team, known as "The Monuments Men", consisting of artists, architects, and playwrights and the group of aging men head overseas. Once stationed on the front lines, James Granger (Matt Damon) must persuade French historian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to trust him and reveal her knowledge while the rest of the group spreads out across Europe in an attempt to locate the thousands of stolen pieces before the Nazis put them all to the flame.

What I Liked: It's hard not to get excited about a cast like this. Clooney and Damon are great in and of themselves but when you add in American Treasures John Goodman and Billy Murray and the criminally underrated Bob Balaban in supporting roles, you know you're bound to see some excellent work no matter how the finished product turns out. And that's what sticks about most about The Monuments Men. You get these bright moments of greatness from one of these performers or another and often the best sequences involve two of them working off of one another. Clooney and Damon have an obvious easy chemistry with each other, Murray and Balaban work delightfully in tandem for quite some time, and Goodman and Jean Dujardin make the most of their time together as well. (Very little of this film includes all of the Monuments Men which is a real bummer obviously.) I think it's fair to say that when The Monuments Men shines, it is because of the rich stock of talent that makes up the cast, though the story itself is interesting and worthy of being told.

bill-murray-monuments-men

What I Didn't Like: I think we're at the point where we have to say that George Clooney as a director can no longer be considered a draw. His first two films (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck which earned him an Oscar nomination) were of the highest quality but his subsequent efforts have fallen off significantly. Leatherheads is horrible and while The Ides of March had its moments (and even brought a nomination for writing), its pursuit of greatness was hamstrung almost from the beginning and the direction had a lot to do with that. Monuments Men is much the same. Great cast (as noted), interesting story, lots of good vibes going in but ultimately it doesn't come anywhere close to achieving its goals. I think all the right pieces are here but the assemblage of said pieces is wrong. The tone is uneven and usually seems slightly off, the first hour is incredibly choppy, and the movie routinely tries to cash in on emotional checks it hasn't yet earned. We're supposed to be invested in Stokes' attachment to a certain piece of art but the development of this plot point (and many others) fails to deliver the same amount of attachment that the character feels. There are numerous, "Oh that's nice" moments that are played for, "This will stick with you for the next 20 years." The score is horrendous and often drives the tone in just enough of the wrong direction that I had trouble staying attuned. And when The Monuments Men works, it seems almost always to be a result of the great talent of the cast and almost in spite of the poor direction.

In Conclusion: I'm not willing to call The Monuments Men a bad movie but it is a far, FAR cry from the classic film that I, and I think everyone involved with this movie too, expected it to be. To me, it's like a puzzle that has been twisted and turned into an assembled whole but the final picture is all wrong. The Monuments Men is passable and decently entertaining but that unfortunately makes it quite a disappointment.

Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some language and violence)

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside-Llewyn-Davis Synopsis: Singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) bums around 1961 Greenwich Village, toiling in the folk music scene and couch surfing with anyone who will have him. Davis is a talented musician but not truly a great one and after the death of his singing partner, he drifts through life believing that he is better than his circumstances but unwilling or unable to change them. He travels from New York to Chicago and back and has interactions with a number of more successful, "together" friends, usually while transporting a cat, and whether or not his experiences leave him a changed man or not is left to the discretion of the viewer.

What I Liked: One of the things I love most about the Coen Brothers is their undeniable style that oozes through every film they make. You never watch a Coen Brothers movie without coming out knowing that you just watched a Coen Brothers movie. But at the same time, they never beat you over the head with their Coen-ness. Each of their movies centers on a drastically different subject or subject matter (though this one shares some obvious connections to O Brother Where Art Thou?) but there's this sense of familiarity that goes hand in hand with everything they do. That, I think, is why they can take chances and piece their movies together in strange ways and still expect the audience to buy in, because there's an existing comfortability that comes along with each project.

Inside Llewyn Davis is sort of the quintessential Coen Brothers movie. They've chosen a InsideLlewynDavisFirstTeaserposter1interesting but perhaps not all that accessible character and then they throw the audience right into a week in his life with very little build up but we immediately buy in because it all seems familiar (assuming you've had some experience with previous Coen works). This lets them really put you in Davis's shoes and helps to make him a much more likable character than he really has any business being. He's a melancholy, grumpy bum in many ways but the movie lets you (or perhaps forces you) to see the world through his eyes and it works beautifully.

Isaac is a tremendous medium for the Coen's particular brand of darkly comedic art. Davis is at the same time witty, sulky, and subtly charismatic and Isaac hits each mark perfectly. It doesn't hurt that he is an outstanding musician and every time he picks up his guitar is a glorious trip into the heart of 60s folk. Seriously, this is absolutely perfect casting. And the supporting players, featuring the typically strong batch of great actors in small roles we've come to expect from the Coens, take turns setting Isaac up to shine. Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, F. Murray Abraham, and John Goodman, among others, all have some glorious moments and all serve to further Davis' progression through his own personal Odyssey. Inside Llewyn Davis is also near-perfect from a technical standpoint and the cinematography, while a little understated, is superb.

What I Didn't Like: Um, that it ended?

In Conclusion: I've been looking forward to this one and building it up in my mind for a year now and somehow it still managed to exceed my expectations. Inside Llewyn Davis is smart, it has a strong emotional core, and like most Coen movies, it is darkly hilarious in just the right ways. It is a brilliant, heart-achingly genuine piece of filmmaking. This is one of the very best movies of the year for me and I've had the soundtrack playing on repeat for three days now. If I had had the opportunity to see it before I wrote my Top 10 list and Top Performances list, the movie would have come out third or fourth and Isaac's work would have been top five. Love, love, love it.

Grade: A+ (Rated R for language and some sexual references)

http://youtu.be/eXMuR-Nsylg

Top 10 Movies of 2013

Usually when I make this list, I have 11, maybe 12 movies that I have to wrestle with. Something always gets left out and more than half the time, I come back and change my mind on the movie(s) I left out. Two years ago I left out a movie called Warrior, which is an outstanding film that is also available on Netflix Instant and you should watch it, and I had to correct that oversight almost immediately. This year, though, no less than 18 movies were in serious contention for a place on the list. That speaks to both the overall strength of the year in film (one of the best ever) and to the difficult balance in the difference between "best" and "favorite." This is my attempt to marry those two terms as best I can. This is not the list of the ten films I would put up for Best Picture if the Academy decided to bestow upon me a vote nor is it a collection of the ten movies I "loved" the most this year and would consider my favorites. Films like The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave would hold prominent positions if I went with the former approach while you'll find Fast and Furious 6 and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues would be high up the list if it was comprised of the latter. So this is kind of somewhere in the middle. Maybe one of these days I ought to just make two lists, one the "best of the year" and the other my "favorites of the year." But for now, what I have is my ever-in flux Top 10 Films of 2013. Enjoy.

Honorable Mention: Two Great Documentaries Sound City (Dave Grohl), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

I always wrestle with how to quantify documentaries compared to standard films because really it's a completely different thing. But both of these movies deserve mention. Sound City is a celebration of rock 'n roll, the second half of which turns into a star-studded concert that made for an outstanding soundtrack. Any time you can get the surviving members of Nirvana playing with Paul McCartney, you're doing something wrong. Stories We Tell is an intimate, almost eerie look at a long-held family secret. It gave me chills more than once.

10. Nebraska (Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk)

NEBRASKA

I loved Alexander Payne's last film, The Descendants, and the more I think about Nebraska, the better it gets. Payne has a way of hiding deep, complex, and even painful emotions within a lighthearted story and Nebraska is possibly the best example of this. The performances are spectacular (Dern will get an Oscar nomination and Forte should) and while releasing the movie in black and white may seem like a gimmick, it absolutely works with the setting.

9. The World's End (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman)

In an otherwise down year for comedy, The World's End was for a very long time the one shining beacon of comedic hope. The third film in Edgar Wright's loosely tied together Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is quite possibly the best of the bunch and is so exquisitely tied together that I almost immediately got lost in the world the film dwells in and had an insanely good time. Anchorman 2 probably made me laugh more but in terms of laughs and quality filmmaking, this one takes the cake.

8. Dallas Buyers Club (Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner)

McConaughey

It's a surprise to me that Dallas Buyers Club was able to crack this list. When it was announced, I expected it to be a good film, even an Oscar contender, but the subject matter (a roughneck in 1986 Dallas discovers that he has contracted HIV) didn't lend itself to what you'd consider an enjoyable movie. Yet somehow, through the force of nature that is Matthew McConaughey and the excellent direction of Jean-Marc Vallee, that's exactly what it is. I have a familial connection with this story so I may be slightly biased but DBC turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year for me.

7. Rush (Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde)

Its subject matter (Formula 1 racing) caused American audiences to overlook it and its release date (late September) didn't help with critics and as such, Rush is probably going to get left off the list of Best Picture nominees. That's a shame, though, because Ron Howard crafted together an excellent film highlighted by two very strong performances (Bruhl and Hemsworth). Rush is one of the best sports movies I've seen in quite some time and a reminder of how good Howard really is behind the camera.

6. Frozen (Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff)

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How good is Frozen, you ask? It's so good that when I checked its Rotten Tomatoes score and found it to be ONLY 89%, I was outraged. I have yet to talk to a single person who did not come out extremely impressed with this movie and I wholeheartedly agree. A delightful film that grows on me more and more. Also, this movie deserves special mention because the trailers were HORRIBLE. Seriously, whoever cut those trailers together should be fired immediately. The word of mouth had to be strong on this film in order to overcome that early obstacle and it has become one of the biggest hits of the year.

5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson)

A marked improvement on the first film in the series (which I quite liked, by the way), I would say Catching Fire was the best blockbuster movie of the year and it wasn't particularly close. Francis Lawrence proved to be the perfect director to bring what I consider to be a lackluster novel to life on the big screen and a now comfortable Jennifer Lawrence is outstanding in the lead role. If this is any indication of things to come, the next two films in this franchise will be tremendous.

4. Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi)

This is the most consistent film on the list. After the first five minutes (a rocky, forced scene between Hanks and Catherine Keener), Captain Phillips settles into this strong groove that carries on throughout the entirety of the film. There are almost no peaks or valleys but it stays on this excellent plateau for a little over two hours. And then, suddenly and almost out of nowhere, the final five minutes, in which Hanks gives us the best piece of acting he's done in at least a decade, hits you like a sack of pennies and the entire thing comes together in glorious form.

3. The Way Way Back (Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell)

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At this point, I'm not sure what else I can even say about The Way Way Back. I've talked about it nonstop, I've recommended it to literally anyone who happened to walk within ear shot of me, and I've forced a number of my friends to watch it. This is, by far, my favorite film of the year and Sam Rockwell's performance alone is worth the price of admission.

2. Gravity (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney)

I had Gravity listed as the number one movie of the year since I saw it in October and it stayed there until this very moment. If I had a vote to cast for the Academy, I think I would put this movie at the top of the ballot. The only thing that holds it back is the rewatchability factor. I wrote in my review that if you watch Gravity in the comfort of your own home, even on a giant TV, even on Blu-Ray, you would be seeing a different film than I did in theaters. I believe that statement to be inarguable. As such, it's difficult to quantify how good it is. If you can't enjoy/appreciate a film as much upon a second viewing, let alone a twentieth, is it really THAT good? I'm really not sure. I do know this. This was the number one most spectacular film experience I had this year and really, that could be extended out to say the most incredible film experience I've ever had. So, if you haven't seen Gravity yet, you need to see it and moreover, you need to see it in a theater on the biggest screen you can find.

1. Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jakob Lofland)

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About ten years ago, Johnny Lee Hancock did a remake of The Alamo. It is considered to be one of the biggest flops of all-time and it is also one of my very favorite movies. The problem with the movie is that no one who isn't a Texan could possibly care about it. Mud is basically The Alamo perfected. It's a VERY good movie, marked by exquisite filmmaking (Jeff Nichols is rapidly becoming one of my favorite directors) and maybe even better performances (this movie kicked off The Year of McConaughey and you could definitely make the case that newcomer Sheridan is even better) that almost everyone responded to positively. It has a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and almost every review I've seen has approved of it. But if you're a Southerner or if you spent significant time in the South, there's a tremendous poetry to Mud that takes it from "very good" to "great" or even higher. Godfrey Cheshire wrote an excellent piece on this very topic for Indiewire and I doubt I could say it better myself. Gravity is the bigger spectacle and I think The Way Way Back is more universally accessible but if you're a serious film lover and a Southerner to boot, there are few films that understand the South better than Mud.

Top 10 Worst Movies of 2013

In the past, I've forgone the standard "Worst of the Year" list in favor of a list of the "Worst Movies I Didn't See" in that given year (2010, 2011, 2012 can be found at the links). I switched gears this year, partly because I saw more movies this year than I have recently and thus saw some of the stinkers that would have propagated that list previously and partly because it feels kind of wrong destroying movies that I didn't see. I don't know, it was always a fun piece to write so maybe I'll go back to it in the future, but for now, I'm going to roll with the typical "Worst 10 Movies of 2013" instead. I got my eyes on quite a few more bad movies this year than I have in years past (that last statement should be read while the sad buzzer from The Price is Right plays in the background) so I had PLENTY of movies to choose from for a worst-of list. Please enjoy and feel free to leave your own worst in the comment section.

Dishonorable Mention: 

Movie 43 (Box Office Total: $8.8M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 4%)

It is a point of pride that I finish any movie I start and this especially pertains to any movie I see in a theater. In the first 29 years of my life, I was UNBEATEN when it comes to walking into a theater and finishing the film, no matter what. Then Movie 43 came along and wrecked my perfect streak. Now, I went to see it strictly because I knew it was terrible and I thought it might be fun to write a "10 Movies That Are Actually Worse than Movie 43 ", only that turned out to be an impossible list to put together. I left 20 minutes in. It is the most disgusting, foul, vomit-inducing "movie" I've ever had the misfortune of encountering. It is probably the worst movie ever made. But since I couldn't finish it, I don't feel like I can definitively pass the judgment on it it so rightly deserves. To make a "worst-of" list without including it, however, would be a significant misstep. So here it sits.

(Two other movies I couldn't complete this year: Upsteam Colors had great potential and I can see why it made numerous Top 10 lists this year but it is just sooooo overwhelmingly "artsy" that I just lost my desire to stick with it. At times it made Terrence Malick look like Michael Bay. I also bailed out on the documentary Salinger because, despite centering on one of the most interesting subjects in the world (reclusive author JD Salinger), no film in recent memory has had less to say or been more boring in saying it.

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10. The Counselor (Box Office Total: $16.9M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 34%)

I don't think any movie on this list had more going FOR it coming in than The Counselor did. I was legitimately excited about it in the months leading up to its release. Great cast (Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt), great director (Ridley Scott), great writer (Cormac McCarthy). Unfortunately, McCarthy's DENSE, novel-esque, and pointless script completely railroaded everything else in the movie and the result is one of the most verbose, beat you over the head with wordiness movies EVER. A complete waste of time.

9. On the Road (Box Office Total: $720K Rotten Tomatoes Score: 44%)

I'm not a fan of the works of the Beat generation, especially the literature and poetry (so basically, the music is good and that's where it ends), so this wasn't really up my alley. Even still, I can appreciate a good film that isn't geared toward me if it is, in fact, good. On the Road most assuredly is not. It took me three days to get through a two hour movie and if I hadn't watched it over Staycation when I literally had nothing else to do, I would've quit.

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8. G.I. Joe: Retaliation (Box Office Total: $122M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 28%)

The BEST thing about 2009's G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra is that it was so bad that it wouldn't warrant a sequel. And then they made a sequel. And then they delayed the sequel so that they could convert it to 3D. This is an all-around bad movie. Not even The Rock can make it watchable. It is a slight improvement on the first film, though, so maybe by the time G.I. Joe 23: This Time Duke is Really Dead reaches us in 2037, it'll be a decent movie.

7. R.I.P.D. (Box Office Total: $33.6M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 13%)

There are a lot of movies on this list that fit the bill of, "Does not need to exist" but R.I.P.D. takes the cake. It feels like a movie that's been sitting on the studio's shelf since 2005 and clearly the entire pitch was just, "We're going to make Men in Black but with ghosts instead of aliens." It's awful, it's needless, and it wastes Jeff Bridges, a crime against all humanity.

6. Carrie (Box Office Total: $35.2M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%)

Okay, maybe this one challenges R.I.P.D. for the title of the movie that least needs to exist. I'm not a big fan of horror movies because I find that they are either A.) not scary and therefore incredibly dumb or B.) terrifying and therefore cause me to not sleep. Carrie fell into the first category, a scare-less, spine-less, needless remake rife with awful acting and miserable scare tactics. Just go watch the original.

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5. A Good Day to Die Hard (Box Office Total: $67.3M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 14%)

For the record, I don't mind the other Die Hard sequels. None of them come close to touching the greatness of the first one (best action movie of all-time) but for the most part, they're decent enough. This one is not "decent enough." It is tired and lifeless but worst of all, it takes John McClane, an American movie character icon, out of his natural environment and send him off to fight Russians in Chernobyl. Just a terrible idea.

4. Kick A** 2 (Box Office Total: $28.7M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 29%)

There are obviously three films from 2013 that I felt were worse than this one. However, I don't hate any of them as much as I hate this one. And I mean that. I actively, and on a daily basis, hate this movie. The popular trend this summer was to bash on films for their depiction of "destruction porn", that being the total annihilation of a city with no regard to the loss of human life that these scenes would result in. I guess I kind of get that except that I never heard those same critics complain about this movie which contains more mean-spirited, wanton disrespect for human life than any other movie this year. Hate, hate, HATE.

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3. Now Your See Me (Box Office Total: $117M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 50%)

I've not seen Now You See Me on any other "Worst Of" lists this year and I guess I get that. If you completely turn your brain off and pay absolutely no attention to the RELENTLESS FORCE of plot holes that drive the entire thing, you could be convinced that this is a decent movie. This is precisely why Now You See Me ranks so high on my list. Rather than actually making an honest effort to make a decent movie, the whole of Now You See Me is designed to fool the audience into thinking it is a decent movie. It is wit-less, ambition-less, and painful to watch if you're paying ANY attention. I will, however, tell everyone to see it so that we can all talk about how terrible it is. So, there's your homework.

2. The Host (Box Office Total: $26.6M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 8%)

I have no idea if the novel this movie is based on is any good. I'm leaning towards "no" because Stephanie Meyer, of course, also wrote the Twilight books which also made for historically bad films. We've found the common denominator. Regardless, as a "film", there are few (ever) that I found to be less boring and more unbearable than The Host. Have you ever read a 500 page book that could've been boiled down to a 12 page short story? That's The Host in a nutshell. There is no character progression or plot development, it just drifts from one scene to the next and before long you start to realize it's just the same thing happening over and over again. Once upon a time, Andrew Niccol wrote and directed an excellent sci-fi film called Gattaca and ever since then he's done more and more to make it quite clear that this was just luck rather than skill. Terrible, terrible movie.

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1. The Lone Ranger (Box Office Total: $89.3M Rotten Tomatoes Score: 31%)

Where to begin with The Lone Ranger? The plot is needlessly dense. The runtime is excruciatingly long (a full hour needs to be cut out AT THE VERY LEAST). Most of Johnny Depp's dialogue is worthless. The Lone Ranger himself is played as a complete moron rather than a brave hero. The villains are cliche. The plot device through which the entire film is framed (an ancient Johnny Depp explaining the myth of the Lone Ranger to a kid) is painful and unnecessary. Is that enough? Because I could keep going.

Even with all of this, without taking into consideration things such as budget, scale, and opportunity, there were probably worse movies this year than The Lone Ranger. Not many of them, mind you, but they probably exist. Adding in those factors, however, jumps this movie up a number of levels on the Bad Movie Spectrum. Disney spent $215 million on this movie, slated it for the vaunted July Fourth opening day, and pushed it HARD for the better part of 15 months. What they should have gotten with this film is a tentpole blockbuster, an exciting spectacle that people talk about all summer and tell their friends to go see. Instead, director Gore Verbinski and his increasingly obnoxious muse (Depp) took that money, flushed it down a sewer, lazily stumbled through a TWO AND A HALF HOUR film and topped it off with an expensive, "eye-catching" train sequence that felt like the only scene in the film that anyone put any effort into. The Lone Ranger is a failure on every level but moreover, it is a complete waste of opportunity on an EPIC scale.

Well, those are my picks. What movie am I leaving out?

Top 10 Favorite Performances of 2013

This is the fourth consecutive year that I have put this list together and each year has been tougher than the one before. To take all of the films I saw this year and consider all of the worthy performances in order to boil them down to 10 wimpy spots is difficult, especially in such a great year for movies. But you guys pay me to make the tough decisions so I've done the best I can. Please keep in mind that this list is a collection of my ten favorite performances of 2013, not necessarily the ten best performances. Quality definitely counts but, for example, I would never suggest that Steve Carell should get an Oscar nomination for his work in Anchorman 2 but I certainly considered him for this list. So keep that in mind as you peruse my top 10 favorite performances of 2013. Note: Due to the movie industry's brilliant insistence on preventing the average viewer from seeing great smaller movies, I have yet to see Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, and Lone Survivor along with a handful of other films that I suspect might have had an impact on this list. Thanks Hollywood!

Honorable Mention: Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth - Niki Lauda and James Hunt, Rush

Rush has been somewhat overlooked during the pre-Oscar season and that's a real shame because it is a terrific movie and the leads are phenomenal. Bruhl has a decent shot at a Supporting Actor nomination and his is definitely the better performance of the two but Hemsworth has a stage presence that few young actors do these days. And it is their fiery, intense chemistry with one another that drives the film.

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10. Ben Kingsley - The Mandarin, Iron Man 3

To talk about this role in depth is to spoil a significant plot point within Iron Man 3 so if you haven't seen this movie yet, SPOILER ALERT. The twist, turning Kingsley from the deadly supervillain Mandarin into the bumbling, strung-out street actor Trevor was a completely unexpected stroke of genius and Kingsley pulled it off perfectly.

9. Tye Sheridan - Ellis, Mud

There's almost nothing harder to do in Hollywood, in my opinion, than basing your entire film on a child actor. Director Jeff Nichols put great faith in Sheridan in Mud and Sheridan rewards that faith time and time again. He is an absolute revelation here and the strength of his performance grows every time I watch the movie.

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8. Michael B. Jordan - Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station

Jordan made a name for himself with TV viewers some time ago with his turns on The Wire, Parenthood, and perhaps especially Friday Night Lights. This year he got the chance to truly put his talents on display on the big screen and he came through brilliantly. This was a very difficult, nuanced role and Jordan is so good in it that he completely outshines the rest of the film.

7. Tom Hanks - Captain Richard Phillips, Captain Phillips

As I was watching Captain Phillips, well aware of the buzz surrounding it and Hanks' performance, I kept thinking, "This is really good but it's hardly great." And then Hanks goes BONKERS in the last 10 minutes and it brings the whole stinking thing together into one of the most polished finished products of the year. Also, it's always nice to see Hanks doing something worthwhile and not another Da Vinci Code movie.

6. Chiwetel Ejiofor - Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave

In one of the most brutal, unflinching, challenging roles of the year (or any year), Ejiofor made a name for himself with a captivating and heart-wrenching performance that will not soon be forgotten. He's one of the front runners for Best Actor and that honor is completely deserved. As a film, I found 12 Years a Slave to be somewhat flawed but Ejiofor's portrayal absolutely is NOT.

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5. Will Forte - David Grant, Nebraska

Look, I'm a huge Forte fan so I'm completely biased. But to have the guy from MacGruber pull off one of the great straight-man performances of the year is a major accomplishment. Nebraska is the first "serious" project that Forte has been a part of and while Bruce Dern is getting all of the attention, you could make the case (and I would agree) that it is Forte's performance that truly holds the movie together. He just NAILED this part.

4. Leonardo DiCaprio - Jordan Belfort, Wolf of Wall Street

No movie or performance has drawn more criticism/discussion in 2013 than Wolf of Wall Street and DiCaprio. I get it. The film is rife with debauchery and general horribleness and that makes it an easy target. But the truth of the matter is, no film in recent memory works so aggressively against its own protagonist as Wolf does. It's all about showing what a miserable, cretinous human this guy is and I didn't find any "glorification" of his actions whatsoever. As such, DiCaprio is tasked with playing a wholly unlikable, loathsome character that somehow keeps you engrossed. You don't come to like Belfort the way you do Don Draper or Walter White but you stick around to see out his inevitable downfall. It's an EXTREMELY difficult thing to pull off and DiCaprio does it so well that I'm inclined to consider this his greatest work which is, of course, saying quite something.

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3. Matthew McConauhey - Mud and Ron Woodruff, Mud and Dallas Buyers Club

2013 will henceforth be known as The Year of McConaughey. If that sounds ridiculous to you or if you think the guy from Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Sahara can't possibly be a GOOD actor, I insist that you see one of these movies. His turn in Mud is an understated, subtle piece of acting that I fell in love with while his work in DBC is much more assertive but nonetheless powerful (and probably more so, given that he is likely to get a Best Actor nomination for it). I couldn't choose between the two so here they sit together, bookends on The Year of McConaughey.

2. The Cast of American Hustle (Notably, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Louis CK)

American Hustle, like most of David O. Russell's other films, didn't quite pull it together enough for me to become the truly great movie it could have been. But the performances are another story. When I sat down to make this list, three of the first five names I wrote down all came from this film so here they all sit together. Bale is more charismatic than he's been in years, Cooper goes ever so slightly against type in a glorious way, Adams is intoxicating, and Lawrence is very likely going to win yet another Oscar (and deservedly so). She's just soooo good, you guys. And let's not forget stand-up comedian Louis CK in a very small, very under-appreciated role that he crushes.

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1. Sam Rockwell - Owen, The Way Way Back

Rockwell has been doing incredible work for over 20 years now and not once has he been put up for a significant award. That's probably not going to change this year and that's a crying shame because his work here is nothing short of perfection. Always a slightly off-beat, quirky guy, he uses that in the most extraordinary ways here to deliver a very strong, personal performance that resonates on any number of levels. GIVE THIS MAN AN AWARD, HOLLYWOOD. He stinking deserves any adulation we can throw his way.

And just for good measure, Five Smaller Roles That Deserve Special Mention:

Sean Penn - Sean O'Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

He's on screen for about five minutes and all that does is remind you of how GREAT Sean Penn can be when he's invested in a character.

Kyle Chandler - Tommy, The Spectacular Now

I like The Spectacular Now less and less the more I think about it but the one scene that truly hits home is totally owned by Chandler.

Allison Janney - Betty, The Way Way Back

At the top of her game, what woman is funnier than Allison Janney? Maybe Tina Fey and Amy Poehler but that's where the list ends for me.

Bob Odenkirk - Ross Grant, Nebraska/Spectacular Now

Again, not a fan of The Spectacular Now but in a tiny role, Odenkirk is fantastic and as Forte's opposite in Nebraska, he fits perfectly. Can we just get Bob Odenkirk in all of the movies?

Bill Nighy - Dad, About Time

I loved About Time (more to come later this week) and thought the whole cast was great but I think it's Nighy that gives the movie its emotional punch and it's great to see him doing something worthwhile.

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014 - Part I

This is one of my favorite pieces to write every year as it allows me not only to look forward to the coming months for myself but also to highlight a few films that some of you may not have heard of. I break it down into two parts, January through June and July through December, partly because it gives me the chance to talk about more movies and partly because chances are a good chunk of the films I'll be excited about in December haven't even been announced yet. Traditionally, Part 1 is the weaker of the two as the first half of the year, particularly January through March, is just a dumping ground for Hollywood. This year, though, when I sat down to make the list, I came up with 22 movies that held at least some genuine interest for me whereas last year it seemed like coming up with 10 was a chore. So maybe this will be a better year than expected. Here, now, are my Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014 (January through June). MostAnticipated2014

Honorable Mention: Divergent (March 21) Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet

In a post-Twilight world, it is far safer to avoid all teen fiction than to sift through the muck to find the occasional gem. Recently, though, I picked up a copy of Divergent, the Veronica Roth book that this film is based on, and found it to be highly enjoyable. I love Shailene Woodley as well so I'm hoping for good things. I remain wary, however, considering that a major part of the plot revolves around a love story and the trailer has faint Twilight-y edges.

http://youtu.be/sutgWjz10sM

10. Earth to Echo (April 25) Teo Halm, Astro, Reese Hartwig

Um, director Dave Green, are you trying to make a movie specifically for me? Because if you are, you've succeeded. Basically a found footage version of Super 8 which is basically a direct descendant of E.T. Yes please!

http://youtu.be/i6iiW3gkJGE

9. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (June 13) Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler

Initially, I had marked Dragon off my list under the assumption that sequels like this rarely pay off. But then I saw the trailer and I've been reminded of how good the first movie and how much I like this world. Here's hoping for good things.

http://youtu.be/Ve7p5CqTTIM

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 4) Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford

I quite like the first Captain America and yet I've found that the bandwagon for it has gotten smaller and smaller in the wake of The Avengers. If the Russo Brothers (the directors) can add a little bit of wit to this film along with a darker edge (that part looks likely from the trailer), I think the Captain will be heading in the right direction.

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7. Edge of Tomorrow (June 6) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

I love high-concept science fiction even if the finished product rarely lives up to the premise. I'm not sure I'm all that stoked about the guys behind the camera (director Doug Liman and writer Christopher McQuarrie have both been uneven in their careers) but as I've said many times before, no one tries harder than Cruise and at the end of the day, that guy knows how to pick exciting, entertaining movies.

http://youtu.be/vw61gCe2oqI

6. Noah (March 28) Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson

I think Noah is likely to be the most divisive movie of the first half of this year. People are either going to love or hate it with little in between. I don't always care for Darren Aronofsky's films (Black Swan, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) but there is no questioning his vision. I'm legitimately excited to see what a big time director can do with a Biblical epic on a massive scale.

http://youtu.be/6qmj5mhDwJQ

5. Muppets Most Wanted (March 21) Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell

I didn't love the trailer for Muppets Most Wanted the first time around but I've warmed to it in subsequent viewings. There's a decent chance that this turns out to be too star-studded and too big for its own good but when it comes right down to it, any day with Kermit is probably better than any day without.

http://youtu.be/DQiGyBiNjLI

4. The Monuments Men (February 7) George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray

I've very rarely been more excited about a movie than I was about The Monuments Men when it was announced. Since then, though, the trailers looked slightly less spectacular than I'd imagined and it got bumped out of Awards Season and into the Dead Zone of early February. Occasionally this works out (see: Shutter Island in 2010) but most of the time, this is a very bad sign. But the cast alone is good enough to keep the fire of anticipation burning.

http://youtu.be/Y8tz8YeCz1s

3. X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23) Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart

There's a very good chance that this movie ends up being a massive failure as director Bryan Singer hasn't had a good movie in a decade and he's trying to bring together a lot of loose parts. Nevertheless, this is an INCREDIBLY ambitious attempt, possibly the most ambitious superhero movie ever and I like that they're swinging for the fences here. Plus, the trailer is outstanding.

http://youtu.be/pK2zYHWDZKo

2. Godzilla (May 16) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston

If you would've told me a year ago that Godzilla would wind up on my most anticipated list today, I would have fought you. I had absolutely ZERO interest in this movie or in Godzilla as a whole. Then I saw this trailer. I hesitate to even post it here because it begs to be seen in a state-of-the-art theater with crazy good surround sound, not on your computer screen. If it's possible for you to see this for the first time in a theater, do so. But if not, behold the video below, which is the PERFECT example of how to do Godzilla.

http://youtu.be/mBwsUD7jYCI

1. Grand Budapest Hotel (March 7) Ralph Fiennes and the Wes Anderson Crew

Wes Anderson, man. He just keeps getting better and better. Moonrise Kingdom was one of my favorite films of 2012 and I like it more with each viewing. Anderson is so good at stretching himself while still staying within the atmosphere that he knows oh so well. If you're not an Anderson fan, I'll save you the trouble and tell you you're not going to like this one. But if you are an Anderson fan......NOW YOU GET TO SEE HIM WORK WITH RALPH FIENNES!!!

http://youtu.be/n1P8tTVAV8U

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a negative asset manager at TIME Magazine who spends more time lost in his vivid daydreams than he does in real life. Once an outgoing, rebellious teen, Mitty longs to break out of his shell but struggles to find the right motivation to push him into gear. This motivation comes when he loses the negative that is to serve as the cover photo for the final issue of TIME. Desperate to track down this lost treasure, he gives in to his internal call to adventure and embarks on a crazy journey to find Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), the photographer who took the shot. His journey will take him to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and back again but soon the focus of his travel shifts and Walter begins to truly rediscover himself.

I rarely feel the need to challenge the establishment, as it were, when it comes to the general critical consensus on a given movie. Art is subjective and while I often like or dislike a film more than the established critics, I don't feel the need to lead the charge of rebuttal. However, having seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, having taken note of the film's Rotten Tomatoes score (currently sitting at 48%), and having browsed through a number of negative reviews, I feel the need to lead said charge.

Most of the bad press I've read regarding Walter Mitty has boiled down to one of two responses: either the writer took issue with the film's expansion upon the original short story (written by James Thurber and published in The New Yorker in 1933) or the writer felt the film was reaching for heights, trying to connect to emotions, that it didn't get to. In regards to the first complaint, having recently read the original story, I feel good when I say it is excellent and also it absolutely would not translate to a full length feature in 2013. With this film, Stiller held true to the spirit of the book and expanded upon it in what I would say is a very fitting manner. And as far as the second complaint goes, I would much prefer a film have the ambition to reach for grander goals and fall short than to sleepwalk through a story without attempting to become anything bigger. I had no problem in the slightest connecting with Mitty and while it didn't end up as the iconic film it wants to be, it's still a stinking good film.

Simply put, I really, really liked Walter Mitty, to the point of outright love. It's a MittyPosterpredictable story but one that is told with great flair and an even greater passion that I found infectious. Ben Stiller truly cares about this film and I think that bleeds over into virtually every frame. Mitty takes the viewer all around the world and the visuals throughout are absolutely stunning. I'd say this movie is worth seeing just for the camera work and the outstanding overall look of it all. All of the actors are engaged in the story and while nothing here is deserving of award contention, I found all of the characters to be likable and the performances to be solid. Penn is perhaps most noteworthy in a tiny role that reminded me just how ridiculously good that guy can be when he's invested in the movie. Kristin Wiig could've been given more to work with but I think she played her role well and there's an awkward chemistry between her and Stiller that suits the film. Mitty is also seriously fun to watch and highly enjoyable and for me, that general likability covers over most of its flaws. Lastly, there's a timeliness to the film that embraces the love for things that are rapidly headed toward extinction. The chosen medium here is TIME Magazine and the magazine industry as a whole but it could just as easily be book stores, film, or just about anything else that we hold on to in the midst of the turning tides of technology.

Maybe it's just me and my affinity for nostalgia. I have long said that I will probably be the last person to ever shop in a brick and mortar book store or to buy a physical CD and that part of me certainly identifies with the romanticism of Walter Mitty. But even if my heart was completely frozen toward that aspect of the movie, I would think there would be more than enough herein to make me respond favorably to the whole thing. Mitty is a warm, feel-good, highly enjoyable movie that the cold-hearted critics are straight-up wrong about. Grade: A- (Rated PG for a little language)