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Film Review Ė The Grand Budapest Hotel
03/15/14 at 11:13 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Summary: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is unabashedly a Wes Anderson concoction that only he could create, as viewers of his previous seven films will quickly attest, and yet itís a little bit different as well. The symmetrical compositions, color palette, detailed production design, meticulous camera shots, quirky antics and ginormous ensemble are all there, but this time Anderson has the biggest canvas heís ever had to play with, shooting largely in 4:3 to match the time period, and thematically thereís a darker tinge.

To start things off, Anderson employs a story-within a story-within a story framework. Itís not exactly necessary, but it turns the great F. Murray Abraham into the filmís narrator, so he gets away with it. The two main protagonists are newcomer Tony Revolori as Abrahamís younger self and Ralph Fiennes, and for the majority we follow their exploits of working at the Grand Budapest, in a fictional European country right before the outbreak of WWII, and some of Fiennes extracurricular activities, which revolve around an elderly ladyís will and stealing a priceless painting named Boy With Apple.

Revolori is a revelation and a natural for Andersonís eccentricities, which as weíve seen in past films are not always easy for newbies to pick up on, and itís amazing this is just his first big screen outing. Meanwhile, Fiennes, another Anderson first-timer, turns in one of the top five performances of his storied career, being both charmingly captivating and ruggedly profane, often simultaneously, and is a delight to witness in action. The camaraderie between the two is impeccable.

The biggest detriment to Grand Budapest might be in its own ambitions. With the time jumps and endless stream of characters, the story is so jam-packed things fly by at breakneck speed and rarely slow down. Itís never particularly confusing, but repeat viewings will be a must to soak everything in. From top to bottom, Anderson has assembled his most impressive cast yet, which is saying something, but it also means no one outside of the two leads is fully fleshed out. Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman pop by for only one or two minutes, and then theyíre gone. Too little of a good thing is hardly the worst criticism you can lob at a film, but the world and characters Anderson created are so rich, it would have been nice to spend additional time with them.

As mentioned previously, thereís a shadowy tint to Grand Budapest Hotel that makes it stand out amongst Andersonís filmography. While all of his work has an underlining element of sadness to it, Grand Budapest embraces that to a fuller extent. Characters die, one even in gruesome fashion, making it probably the first of Andersonís films you could actually classify as violent, and the storyís large passage of time paints events in a more remorseful light. Thereís still plenty of laughs and fun capers to go around, but the real life heaviness leaves as big an impression. In the end, Anderson uses it all as a springboard to address the very nature of storytelling itself, and purposefully or not serves an example of a modern storyteller at the top of his game.

Grade: B+
Tags: the grand budapest hotel, wes anderson, review
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Film Review Ė The Act Of Killing
03/08/14 at 10:09 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

If youíre like me, and I would assume most Americans, you have little to no knowledge of the Indonesian genocide that happened in 1965-66 where the government hired death squads to butcher half a million people it accused of being ďcommunists.Ē To make matters even scarier, that same government remains in charge to this day, right down to some of the same people who carried out the task, and thereís never been any sort of public apology or remorse for their actions, much less anyone being punished or brought to justice.

The Act of Killing follows one of the survivors in particular, Anwar Congo, as he and his buddies recreate what they did in mini film scenes, only fitting, you see, since some of their gangster influences where from watching American cinema growing up. Congo at first sees nothing wrong with his past deeds, in fact often rejoicing and celebrating in them, but gradually begins to open up about having nightmares about the hundreds of people he killed, until in the end getting physically sick and seeming to understand just what he actually did for the first time in his life. Whether itís sincere or merely acting for the camera, only Congo knows for certain, but it makes for one of the most chilling looks into human nature youíre likely to encounter, and hopefully will raise more awareness about this horrible atrocity, in Indonesia itself and worldwide, so that it can finally be reconciled with and never happen again.

Grade: B+

Post script: I would not recommend watching the 167-minute directorís cut, because it is really looong and has a habit to drag.
Tags: the act of killing, film review
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Film Review Ė The Lego Movie
03/08/14 at 08:44 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: An ordinary LEGO minifigure, mistakenly thought to be the extraordinary MasterBuilder, is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil LEGO tyrant from gluing the universe together.

The Lego Movie went from having zero expectations to giant ones in the span of the week before it opened, thanks to some ridiculously raving reviews and strong word of mouth. It makes for somewhat of an awkward viewing, then, because itís clearly better than it has any right to be, easily superseding a quick cash-grab nature most people assumed when the project was first announced, but never reaches the plateau of greatness people hastily began bestowing upon it, which I doubt was ever its intent, either.

Itís a lot of fun either way, with some spot-on casting, loads of jokes and impressive animation, along with a surprising dramatic twist late in the game I didnít see coming but one it pulls off well. On the other hand, itís also the most ADD kidís movie Iíve ever seen, never dwelling on much for very long and tossing everything but the kitchen sink at viewers. Itís pure overload, plain and simple, and though it does make some thematic sense in the end, additional focus would have done wonders. It also starts off quite slowly, leaning a little too heavily on Matrix/1984 underpinnings, and really doesnít take off until Will Arnettís Batman shows up, who steals every scene heís in and is the obvious standout.

As someone who actually grew up playing with Legos, as a great many kids did in the 90s, The Lego Movie was a welcome trip down memory lane, and despite its flaws the best animated film Iíve seen since 2011ís Tintin.

Grade: B
Tags: the lego movie, film review
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Film Review Ė Short Term 12
01/28/14 at 01:03 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.

The stories behind the at-risk youth in Short Term 12 may be fictional, but there is an element of truth to them that unnervingly reverberates in an all too realistic fashion. Writer-director Destin Cretton spent two years working at a similar facility as seen in the film, helping him to craft an environment that almost feels like it could be culled from a documentary at times. The understated brilliance of Short Term 12 is seen through the eyes of those given charge of temporarily watching over these kids, and how perhaps theyíre not much better off themselves. They may have life slightly more together in the present, but deep down are just as broken and in need of the same things.

Brie Larson is magnificent as our ďheroine,Ē the main person in charge of the center who comes with her own set of childhood baggage. Larson excels in the scenes interacting with the kids, and then turns around and is completely heartbreaking when she doesnít take her own advice and plunges her personal life into chaos. Itís my first time seeing Larson in a lead role, and it will not be the last because she is destined for greatness.

The rest of the cast is a proverbial whoís who from recent TV shows, and while itís a bit distracting at first, they settle into their roles nicely. John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom) especially makes an impact as Larsonís boyfriend and shows what heís capable of when actually given strong material. Kaitlyn Dever is terrific in a role similar to her troubled turn on Justified, while Rami Malek (The Pacific) and Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) make brief appearances as the other staff members.

Short Term 12 might be a little overhyped by critics (it was 2013ís highest-rated limited release on Rotten Tomatoes after all), as admittedly some of the melodrama feels a little manufactured (bad things tend to happen in rapid succession). However, to its credit it really nails the group-home dynamics and is a worthwhile film demanding of a wide audience, especially by those who work or have worked with teens. At its core, it speaks to how every person has the same profound aching for love, and it is love that in the end keeps us together. It might sound sappy, but Short Term 12 proves itís for real.

Grade: B+

Postscript: Nathan Rabin recently wrote a piece for The Dissolve comparing his own experience growing up in a group home with Short Term 12. Well worth a read.
Tags: short term 12, film review
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Film Review Ė The Square
01/25/14 at 04:31 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience.

Revolution as change is never easy. It does not happen overnight. The societal foundation needs to be ripped apart so a new cornerstone can be set, which is an arduous and oftentimes extremely violent process. The most well known is Americaís own Revolution, which lasted roughly 20 years and culminated in a bloody five-year war. But Americaís lasting liberation is a historical outlier. Most are not nearly so successful.

Egypt is currently three years into its own revolution, with mixed results, and The Square strikingly captures the growing crusade from the ground floor. Things kick off in earnest in January 2011, when protestors take to Cairoís Tahrir Square that leads to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarakís resignation following a brutal 30-year reign. People weep in the streets. Cheers and smiles are everywhere. Yet few realize their struggle is only beginning.

The Muslim Brotherhood quickly steps in and fills the power vacuum, but little actually changes. They abuse power in much the same manner as before. Real democracy and freedom from oppression remain elusive, while people continue to be arrested and protestors shot at in the streets. This leads to another massive showing in Tahrir Square in the summer of 2013, bigger than before and one of the largest demonstrations in human history. President Mohamed Morsi is replaced by military rule, conditions remain dire, and the cycle continues.

Despite all the political upheaval and a constant state of chaos, The Square to its benefit remains relatively focused on three main characters amidst the Tahrir-related activities. The main voice is Ahmed Hassan, a twentysomething working-class man who is very passionate and optimistic about Egyptís quest for social change. We also follow British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, United 93), an outspoken activist who gives interviews to U.S. news stations and posts YouTube videos chronicling what is happening. The final person is Magdy Ashour, a close friend of Hassan and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is conflicted between supporting the cause and the questionable methods the Brotherhood employs.

Documentarian Jehane Noujaim, who was raised in Egypt but has lived in Boston since the Ď90s, masterfully constructs all this footage into a most harrowing and unforgettable experience. Immediately you are dropped right into what is happening on the street level, and it never lets go. Iíve never seen anything quite like it before. Many people put in years of hard work and risked their very livelihoods to get Egyptís story more widely known on a global scale, and are to be commended for their efforts. The Square received the prestigious audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and is one of those rare films that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

Certainly, Egyptian politics remains a very convoluted maze right now, with no clear end point in sight, and thereís no way for it to be effectively communicated or solved in a single two-hour film. It will probably be decades from now until the revolution itself can even be judged a success or failure. What The Square is invaluable at is providing a slice of insight into Egyptís current state by matching human faces with what weíve seen on the news. Tahrir comes to symbolize the very soul of Egypt and those fighting for it, and the film posits genuine hope the revolutionís initial dreams will one day be fulfilled. As Hassan beautifully closes, ďWeíre not looking for a leader as much as weíre looking for a conscience. What is a leader anyway? Are they going to offer solutions from the heavens? They wonít do that. The thing is, if we are able to create this conscience within the society, weíll be able to find a good president. We are not looking for a leader to rule us. Because everyone who went to Tahrir is a leader. We are looking for a conscience.Ē

Grade: A-
Tags: the square, film review
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Film Review Ė Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
01/23/14 at 12:04 AM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

This latest Jack Ryan entry is Hollywoodís fifth installment of the character in the last 24 years and third reboot of the franchise, with Chris Pine the fourth actor to take on the title role. The last entry, 2002ís The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck, was moderately successful if creatively indistinctive, and indeed 12 years later the only thing I remember from it was it had a cool explosion scene. None of these things make for good omens, and the very fact itís taken 12 years for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to make it to the big screen proves the latest example of Hollywoodís unwillingness to let things die without milking every last dime first.

Admittedly, Shadow Recruit was not very high on my radar until the first trailer hit, which piqued my interest and showed the character still had potential to succeed. Chris Pine is a fine choice to build a franchise around. It worked gangbusters in Star Trek, and though he has never proven to be a box office draw on his own yet, heís done solid work over the years in fare such as Unstoppable and People Like Us. Heís a charming actor easy to like and root for, and whatever success Shadow Recruit has is largely due to him.Pineís trend is unfortunately likely to continue, however, as Shadow Recruit drew lackluster business at the box office and fails to distinguish itself afresh.

The main problem is it remains stuck in the past and is forced to play a difficult game of catch-up. In the years since Hunt for Red October and the two Harrison Ford outings in the early 90s, and especially in the wake of Sum of All Fears, the Bourne, Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises have redefined and to a certain extent perfected the modern spy thriller. Shadow Recruit tries to have its cake and eat it too without going through the efforts of a complete overhaul, a la Casino Royale, and suffers for it.

It stubbornly clings to the original characterís outdated Cold War tropes, which stopped being exciting plots for movies years ago, while director Kenneth Branagh shoots through a Bourne lite lens that impresses little. Branagh always seemed like an odd choice for spy reinvention, being how shooting action has never been his forte. He doesnít have the slick chops to pull off the thrills or inventiveness someone like a Paul Greengrass or Brad Bird brings to the table, but he also regretfully doesnít incorporate the fun antics that made Thor work, the film which probably landed him this one, and plays things safe down the middle.

Safe is perhaps the best word that encapsulates the current state of Jack Ryan. It mainly sticks with what has worked in the past and doesnít mess with that tried and true formula. To a certain degree, I suppose thereís some comfort to be found in that, especially for fans of Ď80-90s action, and despite its many faults I never found myself ever actively disliking Shadow Recruit.

The plot is as ridiculous as expected, involving an act of financial terrorism that kind of makes sense but not really. Thereís an over-the-top Russian villain with a ridiculous accent (really, is there any other kind?), played by Branagh doing double duty. Kevin Costner provides a nice supporting turn as Ryanís mentor. These are all more or less things that you can roll with, but what cannot be fully overcome is how low the emotional stakes are.

The story suffers whenever it comes to dealing with Ryanís personal life. It starts off with an interesting take of him as a wounded vet, but then jumps to present day and does little else outside of the obligatory patriotic flutters. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley is wasted as his fiancť in a relationship that leaves most of the romance and reason to care on the floor. Not exactly the strongest place to be starting from if youíre planning on launching a blockbuster franchise.

Like itís 2002 predecessor, Shadow Recruit adds nothing new to the genre, but on the other hand it doesnít embarrass itself, either. Jack Ryan spins a competent enough yarn to keep oneself occupied on a lazy afternoon, and once itís over likely will be forgotten just as quickly. Whether or not Hollywood finally decides to forget about Ryan, too, remains to be seen.

Grade: C+
Tags: jack ryan, shadow recruit, film review
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Film Review Ė The Past
01/21/14 at 10:05 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: An Iranian man deserts his French wife and two children to return to his homeland. Meanwhile, his wife starts up a new relationship, a reality her husband confronts upon his wife's request for a divorce.

The opening scene of The Past features a pair of characters in a busy airport attempting to communicate through a glass partition. They're not very successful, no surprise, and it serves as a perfect thematic symbol for what The Past represents - the things in life that get in the way and make communicating with loved ones a difficult, and at times seemingly impossible, task.

The Past is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to 2011's A Separation, one of the very best foreign films of the past decade that holds a coveted 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. While it doesn't quite achieve that film's masterpiece status, it is more than a worthy effort that firmly establishes Farhadi as one of the most exciting and dramatically adept directors in the world working today. How it didn't even make the shortlist for Best Foreign Film is beyond comprehension.

The two films also make for absorbing companions. Both use a messy divorce as a springboard into examining an intimate domestic setting more closely, gradually peeling back layer upon layer to reveal no person or situation is as cut and cry as it first appears. Relationships turn out to be incredibly complicated and cluttered. Characters rush to judgment without knowing the whole story and suffer devastating consequences. The past continually reverberates its ugly head in the present, hence the title. Emotional collateral damage is everywhere. And yet, startlingly and to its credit, The Past never settles for a simple defeatist attitude despite all the distress.

It wallops like a gut-punch, no question. There are scenes likely to make you wince. There's no music of any kind until the end credits, no easy relief or insinuation about how you're supposed to feel. The words and the silence in between those words are loud enough, exquisitely conveyed by the superb cast. The Past knows we all make mistakes and have faults, but it also knows healing is possible when we admit and take ownership of them. As the film's potently ambiguous final single-shot reveals, the choice on when and if it is irreparably late is up to you.

Grade: A-
Tags: the past, film review
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Film Review Ė Her
01/19/14 at 12:10 AM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need.

On paper thereís absolutely no way Her should work as a dramatic film. A man falling in love with his operating system is a ludicrous, Pluto Nash-sized disaster-in-waiting at worst, a mildly entertaining, end-of-the-night SNL sketch at best. Yet, against all odds, the sheer creative genius of Spike Jonze pulls the concept together and makes it work, and boy does it work.

From the world building, to the slightly futuristic meets retro production design, to the dazzling Los Angeles crossed with Shanghai locales, Jonze concocts a time and place where entering into a relationship with a computer is a socially acceptable and normal thing to do, and we the audience donít question it for a second. Thatís a remarkable sleight of hand to achieve, but all would be for naught, however, if the actors didnít make it believable and real on an emotional level.

Joaquin Phoenix was faced with the daunting task of pulling this off by appearing in nearly every scene, often by himself and playing against an unseen voice, which as we know on set was an actress (Samantha Morton) who didnít even make the final cut. But as Phoenix has proved throughout his career, most recently in 2012ís The Master, thereís this deep reserve he is able to tap into to make any role utterly convincing. The result is one of the most resonant performances of 2013.

It certainly helps when the imaginary voice turns out to be Scarlett Johanssonís, who is as magnetic as the critics have made her out to be. Itís one of the most impressive voice-only performances Iíve ever heard, and itís the natural chemistry between her and Phoenix that makes Her come to life and give it real world weight, no matter what preconceptions you might have had based on the trailers.

Now Jonze has been criticized for trying to cram a little bit of everything into Her, and itís true the film is stuffed to the brim with tantalizing thematic possibilities and doesnít have time to sufficiently address all of them. The nature of love, what constitutes being in a real relationship, the role of technology in our lives and how it reflects our deeper selves, is all heady stuff not easily explained away by a single montage. Peopleís reactions to the filmís conclusion have been somewhat split as well, but I thought it was earned and a worthy end to what Jonze was trying to say.

Above all, what Jonze does is zero it in on one particular manís loneliness and struggle to overcome his recent divorce. We experience his alienation and longing for connection firsthand, we ache during his flashbacks to his ex-wife, we revel in his bubbling infatuation with Johansson, and we emphasize when (shocker) all his relationships turn out to be hard work, even one with an OS. In much the same way as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there are bits and pieces we all joyfully and painfully see in ourselves over the course of Phoenixís journey, in addition to being wowed by the inventive flourishes. Years from now Her seems destined to join it as a modern classic, a rumination of love, loss and ultimately rebirth for the 21st century.

Grade: A
Tags: film review, her
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Film Review Ė Lone Survivor
01/18/14 at 07:31 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd, in late June 2005. Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.

Something didnít sit well with me while watching Lone Survivor, and itís exemplified in The Atlanticís thought-provoking article, ďEvery War Movie is a Pro-War Movie.Ē What it boils down to is the line between depicting war as a terrible, gruesome nightmare no human should have to endure and romanticizing the fighting, explosions and brotherhood to such a degree it ends up glorifying war instead. For most of its runtime, Lone Survivor unfortunately falls in the latter camp, a bit uncomfortably as well.

Thereís no question writer-director Peter Berg did an exhaustive amount of research and has all the respect in the world for the men and women who fight for our country, as evidenced by the insightful Q&A he did with Jeff Goldsmith. However, the manner by which he depicts them in action, relying on numerous slow motion shots and fixating on how many times these soldiers take bullet hits and sustain bloody injuries without slowing down, seems to paint them in almost a comic book light. Comparisons to a less stylized 300 are not too far off. By turning these soldiers into nothing more than larger than life action heroes, it contradicts the hyper-reality Berg was going after, putting them on such a pedestal it dissociates from the actual stand they took and the fact they lost their lives for it.

Iíve been a fan of the four leads for a long time, and they provide adequate work, but they are clearly hamstrung by how a large chunk of the movie is essentially reduced to one big action sequence with them spouting off uncreative dialogue. There are hints of a deeper meditation on the morality of war and the tough decisions people caught in the middle of one face, on both sides, but it never ventures very far down that path, either. Ultimately, Lone Survivor is more concerned with trying hard to be a small scale Black Hawk Down, yet it lacks the sheer power and balls-out intensity that film sinks you into to make up for its dramatic faults. Regretfully, Lone Survivor is more of a hollow, Hollywood-action memorial instead.

Grade: C+
Tags: film review, lone survivor
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Film Review Ė Gravity
10/13/13 at 08:16 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Itís been a long seven-year wait since Alfonso Cuarůnís last film, the masterful Children of Men, so needless to say there was a lot of excitement for Gravity among the film community, especially considering Curaůn has spent the last four plus years working tirelessly on it. However, I found the marketing of Gravity to be a letdown, with the CG standing out as quite corny in places, so was prepared to be a little disappointed going in. Thankfully, within the first few minutes those fears were quickly put to rest because, when taken in context on the big screen, the effects are nothing short of spellbinding.

With Gravity, Curaůn has created a visual feast the likes of which have not been seen before. From the opening 17-minute shot, you immediately get the sense youíre watching something special unfold. I have no idea how they made it (I canít wait to watch the extras!), but he renders space as realistic as anyone could possibly expect in a Hollywood production. I have little doubt itís the closest most people will ever come to actually being there or experiencing a zero-g environment. Itís the closest I personally ever want to get, thatís for sure.

All is for naught, however, if there arenít good characters or a good story. Sure, the story is as simple as it gets, and it only consists of two characters, but itís always compelling and resonates on an emotional level. In a role several other A-list actresses passed on, looking foolish for them now, Sandra Bullock turns in the strongest work of her career, one in which will position her in the center of Oscar talk once again.

Iíve never been a huge Bullock fan, but here sheís stripped of all charm or awkward attempts at humor and is simply fighting for survival, and she is magnificent. Even when the back story involving her son is brought into focus, which, letís face it, was fairly manipulative and made the filmís themes blatantly obvious, she still makes it play and have it feel real.

George Clooney, as the other character, doesnít have as much heavy lifting to do, but does exactly what is called for. He makes a few wisecracks to alleviate some of the tension, gets Bullock to where she needs to be (in more ways than one), and then brings it home with one of my favorite scenes towards the end.

Gravity has a few minor faults, but none I would call serious or major. The dialogue, which has been called out by many, I didnít have much of a problem with. I can understand why it has gotten under fire, and canít deny the film likely would have improved if it had been even more silent than it was, but two other things stood out to me more.

Gravity does a stellar job at avoiding clichťs, but thereís one whopper of a scene where it fully embraces one of the oldest in the book midway through. Youíll know it when you see it. It could easily have been switched out for something less predictable, and it became all the more bothersome when I found out afterwards it wasnít even scientifically accurate in the slightest. Oh, well.

The other quibble I have with is the ending, which I thought would have greatly benefited from some ambiguity, in much the same way Children of Men would have. It was a little too Hollywoodized for my tastes, which Iím sure a lot of people appreciated as a release after going through such an unconventionally rendered experience, but imagine the gut-punch it would have packed if it ended two minutes earlier.

Still, those complaints are essentially nitpicks when taken with the grand scale of things. Gravity is one of 2013ís finest achievements and will likely be looked back as one of the special effects pioneers of our day. Itís also on pace to becoming the most financially successful avant garde film ever made and a global phenomenon, which is equally as impressive. Curaůn is one of the great visionaries of our time, and itís a joy to watch the rest of the world finally catch on.
Tags: film review, gravity
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Film Review Ė Side Effects
02/13/13 at 10:24 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Stephen Soderbergh has been contemplating early retirement for a few years and now, according to him, Side Effects will be his final theatrical release, at least for the time being. He has a film that will air on HBO later this year, and then after that, heís moving on to the next phase of his life. If Side Effects does indeed go down as his swan song, he goes out on a high and striking note.

Tapping into his inner Hitchcock and Polanski, Side Effects is Soderberghís version of a creepy psychological thriller. It starts out as a vicious, almost PSA-esque attack on the dangers of pharmaceuticals before morphing into something completely different 45 minutes in. Our society has become far too overly dependent on trying to prescribe its way out of problems, and Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take that concept to its extreme conclusion in unexpected ways.

Needless to say, there are plot twists aplenty, which are quite effective at keeping you on your heels, so go in as cold as possible. At some point a certain level of disbelief becomes required by necessity, as is often the case with stories of this nature, but the groundwork laid is strong enough to fall back onto without much of a hiccup. A good deal of that is due to the brilliant casting of Rooney Mara, who previously was the opening scene-stealer in Social Network and underwent the impressive transformation as the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She does another 180 here, suffering under an intense depression cloud with deeper demons bubbling beneath the surface. Mara has established herself as one of the most talented young actresses of her generation, and itís obvious to anyone paying attention sheís going to have a very long and prosperous career.

Jude Law is the other main piece of the puzzle and responds with some of the best work heís done in a while. Heís able to play both sides of the aisle, as his character seems to be a good guy at times and a bad one at others, and that gray becomes key when his life and career quickly unravel and he starts to lose it. The supporting cast of Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta Jones, among others, all contribute important, and memorable, aspects to the story.

Side Effects is a definite step up from Soderberghís last two efforts, Haywire and Magic Mike, both of which left plenty to be desired, and joins Contagion as his best work since the early 2000s. Itís masterfully shot and put together, clearly demonstrating heís still at the top of his game with a lot left in the tank. There stands a good chance he will get the itch to direct again and be back at it in a few years, but you never know. This could very well be it. Anything is possible, as Side Effects makes abundantly clear, and if he is done, his 25-year, one-of-a-kind career wonít soon be forgotten.
Tags: film review, side effects
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Film Review Ė Zero Dark Thirty
02/09/13 at 11:36 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Without a doubt 2012ís most controversial film was Zero Dark Thirty, especially if you were a member of Congress. Torture has become one of the moral issues of our time, one that everybody has a strong opinion on, therefore it was only natural something touching on it so directly would generate a heatedly split response. Months before it was even released there was a debate over whether or not classified information had been leaked to the filmmakers, and then of course there were the huge questions over whether the film was pro-torture and the manner it portrayed torture in helping to get bin Laden. The controversy turned out to be something of a double-edged sword Ė it contributed to it becoming an unexpected box office smash, but the ruckus also likely cost it a shot at several prestigious (and well-deserved) awards, as Kathryn Bigelowís snub for Best Director can attest to. Above all, though, it got people talking, a tradeoff the filmmakers are likely content with.

Zero Dark Thirty is immaculately constructed by Oscar-winning scribe, and former journalist, Mark Boal, which was no easy task. He had to boil down a decade-long manhunt into 150 minutes, plus rewrite the whole thing when bin Laden was killed halfway through preproduction, and it all works seamlessly like a charm. Itís not hard to follow nor does it feel overstuffed, yet at the same time itís very thorough and never feels shortchanged, either. Itís a tricky balance to walk but Boal manages to get it just right.

The acting is another big reason why Zero Dark Thirty is as good as it is. Jessica Chastain gives one of 2012ís most compelling performances, in my opinion a Best Actress worthy one. The 10-year hunt ends up consuming her to the point of obsession, and Chastain nails the transformative steely resolve and determination to a T. Bigelow also enlists a long line of excellent character actors to make even the small roles worth paying attention to, one of the perks of having just won Best Picture and Director.

Which, as we all remember, happened three years ago when the Hurt Locker famously beat out Avatar, but Bigelow and company werenít content sitting back and decided to one-up themselves with the follow-up. This time itís on a larger scale, a lot more storyline threads are at play, itís more complex thematically and less of an action picture. But that isnít to say itís not exciting or dull, and being that everyone already knows the ending, was an obvious concern going in. Rest assured, the bin Laden raid is one of the most arresting sequences in recent memory. Kudos to Bigelow for shooting it in what feels like real time and keeping Hollywood bombast out of it.

As for its depiction of torture, I found it to be about as accurate as can be expected for a non-documentary. The facts are our nation did many terrible things in the wake of 9/11, and Zero Dark Thirty never shies away from the ugly. Does it make torture out to be more successful than it was in real life? Perhaps, but it also shows how unreliable the information obtained using enhanced interrogation can be and that sometimes good old-fashioned detective skills are the best bet. Truth is, the real life issue of torture is far from clear-cut and cannot be summed up in a simple paragraph. There are countess articles that delve into the accuracy and message of Zero Dark Thirty in greater detail than I am able, so read a few and make up your own mind. I would recommend starting with The Atlanticís excellent ďZero Dark Thirty Is Not Pro-TortureĒ and go from there.

Whatever your thoughts on torture are, whatever you felt Zero Dark Thirty was or wasnít advocating, there is no denying it is a striking and well-made piece of filmmaking. Ultimately, it tries to be as ambiguous and apolitical as possible to force viewers themselves to wrestle with the consequences of using torture, both the positive and negative, because persuasive arguments can be made on either side. Bigelow even fittingly chooses to end by lingering on an unanswered question as if to say the debate is far from over and now left up to us to decide the final outcome. Art is supposed to be provocative, and few did it better in 2012 than Zero Dark Thirty.
Tags: zero dark thirty, film review
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Film Review: Sound City
01/25/13 at 09:03 AM by Jonathan Bautts
Sound City was a popular Los Angeles recording studio that rose to prominence in the 70s, sagged a bit in the 80s and went on to enjoy a resurgence in the mid-90s. It was a trashy building that no one was particularly fond of, but inside featured one of the premiere Neve soundboards in the world, which is where the real magic happened. The studio closed in 2011 due to financial difficulties, but thankfully Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl decided to buy the board for his home studio and make a documentary about its storied legacy.

The beginning portion of Sound City focuses on its early roots, those running the studio and the first artists to record there. Fun fact: the board originally cost $75,000, a boatload of money at the time and twice as much as the owner had paid for his house. We see snippets of Neil Young cutting After the Gold Rush, as well as Fleetwood Macís self-titled breakthrough, Tom Pettyís Damn the Torpedoes and Rick Springfieldís Working Class Dog. Some of the history can be a bit dry, and being this was years before my time Iím only halfway aware of all the names tossed around, but Grohl keeps things moving at a steady clip so it remains interesting. Plus, itís pretty cool hearing about how it took Petty and the Heartbreakers 150 takes to get ďRefugeeĒ right and how Springfieldís dog was awkwardly in between the legs of his guitarist when they were cutting ďJessieís Girl.Ē

Then we get to the 80s, where the digital revolution is starting to materialize with the advent of computers and the compact disc. Sound City begins to struggle as a result and is in danger of closing, but then in 1991 a band few had heard of decided to record an album there that would go on to change the face of music. As we all know, this band was Nirvana and the album turned out to be Nevermind. Being how this is one of my favorite albums from the 90s, this is when things really started to take off for me. Obviously, Grohl was there himself for all this, so we hear firsthand from him about the 16 days Nirvana spent recording the album and anecdotes like how he had to play to a click track for the first time ever on ďLithium.Ē His enthusiasm is infectious, and he says numerous time he literally owes his career to Sound City and the board. We then move on to see the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Johnny Cash, Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails working in the ensuing years at the studio.

But with Pro Tools and the digital age becoming ever more pervasive and cheaper, easier alternatives, Sound City just wasnít cost effective anymore and it was only a matter of time before it, like most classic recording studios, was forced under. As previously mentioned, Grohl buys the board and then decides to invite several artists over to cut an album at his studio like they used to do back in the day at Sound City. Similarly as in the Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth, which spent the last half hour focusing on the making of the bandís current album Wasting Light, Grohl spends a half hour on the making of the Sound City Players album, which will be out in March. We see Grohl and the Foos jamming with Stevie Nicks, Springfield, Josh Homme, Trent Reznor and finally Paul McCartney. For fans of the aforementioned, itís a neat chance to get an up close look at them in action and hashing things out on the spot.

For a first feature, Sound City is a solid accomplishment for Grohl, whose previous directing experience consisted of only a handful of Foo Fighters music videos. Itís competently edited together and well shot, while itís never immediately obvious the idea originally was envisioned as just a YouTube short. At one point in the film, Grohl broaches the question, ďIn this age of technology, where you can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element? How do we keep music to sound like people?Ē At its core, this is what he feels the story of Sound City encompasses, and probably why he felt so compelled to turn it into a movie in the first place. Itís unfortunate, then, he never allows himself the opportunity to delve too deeply into the subject, especially as we all know from the Grammys a few years back he is clearly opinionated on the matter. But thatís really a whole other can of worms for a different feature-length documentary, while Sound City turns out to be more content with simply rehashing the good old days. So instead we get to see many respected and well-loved artists reminisce and recount stories of days gone by, and in the end thatís more than entertainment enough.
Tags: film review, sound city
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Film Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
01/21/13 at 08:42 PM by Jonathan Bautts
I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on opening night, of course, which has given me a month to let the film simmer and plenty of time to reflect upon. Turns out thatís not a positive thing, however, because the more I think about this first Hobbit film, the more glaringly problematic it becomes and the less I like it. Perhaps most tellingly of all, I canít shake the feeling Peter Jackson has made a major mistake, or rather several.

Lord of the Rings is neck and neck with Star Wars as my favorite film of all time and the books are my favorite books of all time. I am a huge Middle Earth junkie, needless to say, and have been greatly anticipating the Hobbitís cinematic adaptation. Things got off to a rollicking good start in April 2008 when Guillermo del Toro was brought on board to direct. In my mind, he is a superior director to Jackson in almost every area, along with being in my top five favorite directors, and I was very much looking forward to what new and different things he would bring to the table.

Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Hobbit was stuck in development hell over MGMís bankruptcy woes for years and thus could never be greenlit. This forced del Toro, one of the busiest guys in all of Hollywood, to eventually leave the project in May 2010 because he couldnít afford to waste more time on something that was going nowhere. In hindsight, this turned out to be an ominous omen of what was to come. Strike one.

Then after filming was complete, Jackson got the bright idea to stretch the Hobbit into a three-part trilogy, which as we all know is only 300 pages in length. Originally envisioned as a two-parter, which would still have been somewhat of a stretch but one I was willing to accept and could definitely have seen working, this new vision pretty much damned the Hobbit before it was released, especially considering how Jackson and company never scripted it that way to begin with. Strike two.

And what do you know? As a pure stand-alone entity, An Unexpected Journey is an outright mess. I can only imagine the reaction from someone who is either unfamiliar with Lord of the Rings or not a fan of the trilogy to begin with. For starters, itís far too long and has more pacing issues than any of the Lord of the Rings films, all of which were even longer. This is shocking because since they didnít have enough good material to split it up in the first place, one could have logically deduced these three new films would end up shorter and more manageable as a result, but no. Doubly shocking is thereís still an extended version to come with 20 more minutes. Shudder.

Instead, almost everything Jackson has added to the film that wasnít in the original novel, from either Tolkienís other writings or stuff he made up himself, feels superfluously out of place. Thereís several tangents that contribute nothing to the story and only slow things down or make the story unfocused, whether it be the Necromancer stuff, anything involving Radagast, Orc villains or a pointless mountain pass journey.

Everything involving Azog, a newly created Orc chief framed as Thorinís personal archenemy, is laughably terrible. Thereís a reason Tolkien didnít have something like that in the Hobbit in the first place because it doesnít work! Speaking of not working, Jackson must have been watching the Star Wars prequels recently because he decided to throw in a bunch of cartoonish stuff and juvenile attempts at humor, which lo and behold fails as well. Chief offense is Radagast, who absolutely has no business being in the theatrical version. You could literally edit him out of the entire film and not miss a single beat.

Finally, Jackson got the equally novel epiphany to shoot in 48 fps, which has backfired on him in a big way. The reaction has been almost universally panned and harsh from the first time he screened footage at CinemaCon. It was so bad I didnít dare venture to see it in that format myself, lest I risk tarnishing Middle Earth for myself, and I almost guarantee the lukewarm reviews would have been much kinder if it had only been shown in the traditional 24 frames.

Despite all these narrative deficiencies and cartoonish elements, the Hobbit does do a lot of things well. It still feels like Middle Earth, for one, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and it was very welcome to set foot in the beloved land once again. The performances are solid, too. Martin Freeman as the new Bilbo fits right in, though despite being the title character he isnít given much substantial to do. Richard Armitage as Thorin is the only other new character to stand out in a good way, as unfortunately most of his dwarf brethren blend together and have trouble differentiating themselves. It was nice to see a few familiar faces as well, namely Ian McKellen, wonderful as always as Gandalf, yet the unequivocal highlight was Andy Serkisí return as Gollum. The game of riddles between him and Bilbo is by far the best thing in An Unexpected Journey. Those 15 minutes are a brilliant delight in every way and the only scene that feels like it could hold its own to the best from Lord of the Rings.

While the Hobbit as a whole is competently told, itís the flaws that stick out the most and serve a stark contrast to its award-winning predecessors. As previously mentioned, it doesnít really work as a stand-alone film, something I felt like the other Rings actually could do, especially the Hobbitís narrative cousin, Fellowship. However, it does a decent job at setting the stage for what is to come, so in hindsight if the next two films turn out to be amazing, it will be much easier to pardon An Unexpected Journeyís faults. Yet I feel like the odds are against Jackson this time, especially when almost everything he added to the first one were the weakest parts, and in the end I just donít think the Hobbit functions best as its own trilogy. I would love to be proven wrong, but this Hobbit project has seemingly been doomed from the start. At this point, the strikeout might be inevitable.
Tags: film review, the hobbit, an unexpected journey
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Film Review: The Impossible
01/16/13 at 11:54 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The will to survive and the bond of family are two very familiar themes in storytelling, and itís true the Impossible is not breaking any new thematic ground. But framed against the horrors of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, itís a powerful and personal story that wonít soon be forgotten.

The one scene that everyone immediately calls out is of the tsunami itself, which is as realistic a tsunami/flood scene as has been portrayed in film. Itís both terrifying and exhilarating, a remarkably realistic feat for something operating on a somewhat limited budget of $45 million or so. It is shot and framed well, while most of the water effects seem to have been done practically, which feels like youíre put right in the middle of it all.

The other aspect that stands out is the performances, particularly those of Naomi Watts and Tom Holland. Over the past decade, Watts has established herself as one of the premiere dramatic actresses working today, and she deservedly earned her second Oscar nomination for her work here. I doubt any other character in 2012 had to go through as many trying circumstances, as sheís either in various stages of excruciating pain or literally trying to stave off death for most of her screen time. Itís a gutsy role that is both physically demanding and emotionally draining, and we feel it through her every breath.

Holland plays her eldest son of three, in his early teens, and he joins Beasts of the Southern Wildís Quvenzhanť Wallis as the yearís most revelatory discovery. He capably holds his own against his more experienced costars, and this type of material is no easy task, regardless of age. Meanwhile, he evokes remarkable pathos in the moments when he has to act on his own, perfectly walking the scared-brave tightrope everyone in the film is undertaking on some level.

Now the first half of Impossible is near flawless. Following the tsunami we stick with Watts and Holland basically in real time as they try to find safety and medical attention. Thereís no score, and itís a riveting piece of pure filmmaking. However, an hour in it starts cross-cutting between the other half of the family, which consists of Ewan McGregor and their two youngest sons, and the raw intensity gradually begins to fade until it becomes more traditionally movie like. Thatís not necessarily an outright bad thing, but the second half writing is the weakest element by far.

It should come as no surprise thereís some kind of reunion that takes place, and the scenes immediately preceding it definitely are exaggerated narratively. The sequence still works because weíve become so invested in these characters, but in the back of your mind you know what youíre seeing is fairly ridiculous and manipulative. Iím not sure how you would fix the problem, because almost any ending you pick would feel ďimpossibleĒ to a certain extent, but it remains a particular flaw nevertheless. Iím curious how the direction they went with compares to what happened in real life.

Speaking of real life, the last thing I found interesting is how the nationality of the actual family was switched from Spanish to British. I donít know if thereís an underlying studio reason for that, or if they simply jumped at the chance to get actors of Watts and McGregorís caliber, but considering how almost all of the principle crew is Spanish to begin with, it struck me as slightly odd and out of place.

The Impossible is just the second film from director Juan Antonio Bayona, who started out on 2007ís above-average horror film The Orphanage, yet you never would have guessed it because he already seems like a seasoned pro. I have no idea what the manís future ambitions are but I can definitely see him helming a huge Hollywood blockbuster in the near future. The Impossible is a wonderful accomplishment and something to be proud of, a moving testament to one familyís love in the face of some of the worst life can throw your way.
Tags: the impossible, film review
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