Blog Archives

Mini Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

the grand budapest hotel

by Steve Habrat

By this point, you know if you’re a proud member of the Wes Anderson fan club. After films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, you know if you’ve developed a taste for his meticulously organized frames, quirky casts of characters, dry sense of humor, and surprisingly touching dramatics. If you’re one that hasn’t been tickled by Anderson’s cinematic efforts, don’t expect anything to change with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finds the auteur indulging his whimsical artistry like a kid in a candy store. With all of the usual traits in place, Anderson sends the audience spiraling through a small slice of history—one fashioned from the winking cartoonish touches that Anderson has become noted and celebrated for. While this zany murder mystery is contagiously colorful and cute even in its raunchier moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fuzzy tribute to storytelling, and a sugary tribute to classic slapstick comedy of years past presented to the viewer in 1.33 aspect ratio, common in silent cinema, which appears to be a major influence here. And then there is his cast, a list bursting at the seams with fresh and familiar faces ready to take a big bite out of the oddball creations that Anderson has scribbled up for them.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes), the beloved concierge of the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled in the snowy mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka. The tale picks up in 1932, with young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played by Tony Revolori) arriving at The Grand Budapest Hotel and having his first encounters with Gustave H. It turns out that Gustave H was carrying on an affair with a wealthy elderly woman named Madame D (played by Tilda Swinton), who, while visit Gustave H, reveals that she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen. Despite Madame D’s concerns, Gustave H laughs off her premonition, but a few weeks later, Madame D turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Together, Gustave H and Zero travel to Madame D’s home, where her will is read to a house full of grieving friends and family members. Much to the horror of the guests, Madame D’s will states that she is leaving him a coveted painting called “Boy with Apple,” something that enraged her son, Dmitri (played by Adrien Brody), who vows to come after Gustave H. After making off with “Boy with Apple” and returning to the hotel, things get worse for Gustave H when authorities led by Inspector Henckels (played by Edward Norton) arrive to arrest him for the death of Madame D. Stuck behind bars and with Zubrowka on the brink of war, Gustave H races to escape from prison and prove his innocence with the help of Zero and some unlikely inmates. Meanwhile, a shadowy assassin called J.P. Jopling (played by Willem Dafoe) closes in on Gustave H and those closest to him.

The Grand Budapest Hotel #2

There isn’t a shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that isn’t littered with Anderson’s cinematic fingerprints. Nearly each and every frame is neatly arranged down to the fussy tilts of a pencil or the messy stack of legal documents. It’s unmistakably Anderson to the point where if you scrubbed his name from the credits, it wouldn’t take the audience long to figure out that it sprouted from his distinct imagination. There are the tracking shots that explore the inside of The Grand Budapest Hotel as if someone sliced it down the center and peered into it like a dollhouse. There are also the glaringly artificial miniatures, which Anderson presents with his expected winks and grins. Though what sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart from other Anderson fare is the nods to classic cinema, particularly silent slapstick comedies. The Grand Budapest Hotel could be muted and converted to black and white, have intertitles placed strategically throughout, and the film would work marvelously as a silent comedy. There are also a number of chase sequences throughout the film, the most outstanding—and vaguely Hitchcockian/German Expressionist—is a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse through a museum between Dafoe’s vampiric thug J.P. Jopling and Jeff Goldblum’s lawyer, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs. It’s the highlight of the picture, followed closely by a snowy ski chase that keeps you doubled over in laughter over how preposterous the action is.

As usual, Anderson enlists the help of an ensemble cast, many of which will be familiar to Anderson aficionados. The newcomer here is Fiennes, who takes great pleasure in applying his gentlemanly demeanor to Gustave H, the flamboyant concierge who sleeps with elderly woman, gags at the thought of drinking cheap wine, and is bound-and-determined not to become the “candyass” in prison. Fiennes is exquisite, but hot on his coattails is Dafoe, who excels in the role of the stocky assassin J.P. Jopling, a brick of a man who sports skull rings on each one of his fingers and mercilessly tosses cats out of windows. Other standouts include Norton’s dweebie Inspector Henckles, the barely-recognizable Swinton as the elderly Madame D (she’s basically an extended cameo that acts more as a visual chuckle), and Revolori’s Zero, Gustave H’s young sidekick who inks on his pencil-thin mustache and essential acts as our guide through the halls of the hotel. There are a number of other cameos from faces you’d expect to see, although, the most severely underused is Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha, Zero’s birth marked love interest who isn’t give much to do yet acts as a huge emotional weight. Overall, though The Grand Budapest Hotel may not rank as my favorite Wes Anderson picture, and it may not be as funny or tender as some of his previous work, it’s still an enchanting ode to the art of storytelling (it concludes with a nod to Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig), and to the eternal joys of silent cinema.

Grade: B+

Advertisements

Noah (2014)

Noah

by Steve Habrat

In 2010, director Darren Aronofsky became a household name with the success of his sexually charged thriller Black Swan. After years of enjoying a devoted cult following with films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, the filmmaker finally broke through into the mainstream with his steamy tale of a delicate ballerina slowly slipping into pitch-black insanity. Earning universal critical acclaim and snagging several Academy Award nominations, audiences were curious to see what all the fuss was about—and eager to catch a glimpse of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis swapping some spit. After almost four years of waiting, Aronofsky returns to the local Regal Cinemas with Noah, an epic and controversial reimagining of the Old Testament’s beloved tale, Noah’s Ark. Obliging the overwhelming demand for darker and grittier blockbusters, Aronofsky proves that he can indeed hold his own in the popcorn arena without totally turning his back on his art-house past. Truth be told, Noah has a colossal visual scope that is never short of spectacular. It’s immensely stylish, with a number of talented thespians nailing their respective roles. With Noah, Aronofsky cooks up a unique blockbuster formula that borrows a bit from his trippy mindbender The Fountain, but a bloated runtime and an uneven second half finds this beaut taking on some water.

Noah begins by explaining that the once beautiful Earth has slowly been polluted by cities built by the ruthless king Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone). One day, a young Noah is about to receive the precious snakeskin shed by the serpent in the Garden of Eden from his father, Lamech, when Tubal-Cain and his forces interrupt them. Determined to take the hill for himself, Tubal-Cain kills Lamech, steals the snakeskin, and takes the new slice of land. Noah narrowly escapes the encounter, feeling into the rocky wasteland before him. Many years later, Noah (played by Russell Crowe) and his sons, Shem (played by Douglas Booth), Ham (played by Logan Lerman), and Japheth (played by Leo McHugh Carroll), are scavenging the wasteland for anything they may be able to use when they witness a drop of water hit the ground and a small flower instantly sprout from the scorched soil. Later that night, Noah has a vision of humanity being wiped out by a massive flood sent by the Creator. Confiding in his wife, Naameh (played by Jennifer Connelly), the family sets out on a journey to speak with Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins) about the bizarre vision. Along their journey, the family rescues a severely wounded young girl named Ila (played by Emma Watson), who was left to die in the wasteland. Relentlessly hunted by Tubal-Cain’s forces, the family receives help from a group of rock-like monsters called The Watchers, which are actually fallen angles who took the rock form after landing on the polluted soils of Earth. After experiencing another vision and receiving a seed from the Garden of Eden, Noah realizes that he has been chosen by the Creator to build an ark and save the animals of Earth from the great flood.

In this new era of the dark and gritty blockbuster, Aronofsky’s Noah isn’t handled any differently. It’s got its fair share of shaky camera work, gritty violence, and smudged grime smeared all over the faces of each and every character. This approach gives the story of Noah’s Ark a realistic feel, even when the fantasy action spirals its way out of the gunky layers of mud and blood. We’re treated to cosmic visions of the Garden of Eden, a twinkling universe made from infinite darkness, a starry heaven peeking through the heavy clouds that blanket the cancerous Earth, and The Watchers, the rock-monsters that look like they lumbered forth from the imagination of the late monster-kingpin Ray Harryhausen. There is clear inspiration drawn from The Fountain, especially the futuristic space travel and the Spanish conquistador storylines that bookended the modern day content. And in typical Aronofsky tradition, each and every moment is made gloriously dramatic with the aid of Clint Mansell’s typically grand strings. Mansell frequently collaborates with Aronofsky, providing raw violins and slamming orchestral cues to give even the smallest scenes a towering and emotionally charged power. If I were to guess, their past collaborations on Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan were just warm-ups for this epic.

Noah

From its opening frames until the battle between The Watchers and Tubal-Cain’s forces for the ark, Noah is a singular and sweeping achievement—a blockbuster from a man who has never really dabbled in filmmaking on a scale such as this. While he borrows a bit from The Fountain and finds fantasy inspiration in other period epics such as Lord of the Rings, Noah is still alive with Aronofsky’s art-house spirit. It’s refined, even when stampedes of CGI critters fly, stomp, slither, and gallop into the bowels of Noah’s ark. Most eye-popping is the massive battle set in the blinding rainstorm pouring down from the heavens. The action is crystal clear and tremendously meticulous as The Watchers clash with the darker forces that hunger for shelter inside the mud-and-stick fortress. It truly makes you wonder what Aronofsky could do with other blockbusters, specifically those in the sci-fi or comic book realm. (It was rumored that he wanted to direct a Batman film, and for a while he was attached to the RoboCop reboot that was released earlier this year.) However, it’s the second act of Noah that really starts to show signs of fatigue, as the action retreats to the inside of the ark. From here, Noah evolves into a bit of a bore as CGI waves crash and Noah’s sanity starts to slip. There’s an unexpected pregnancy that Noah believes is a curse, the presence of an evil character that should have probably perished in the battle for the ark, and a tug of war for the soul of one of Noah’s sons. It’s intermittently interesting and tense, but it’s way too choppy and ends up bringing the brisk pacing to a screeching halt.

On another positive note, Noah is teeming with gripping performances, specifically from Mr. Russell Crowe. As always, Crowe brings an intensity that is unmatched, playing Noah as a conflicted soul who believes that nothing should stand in the way of the Creator’s plan. Even if it is a bit silly when Noah is sulking around the ark and threatening to kill a child, Crowe manages to inject a bit of sympathetic menace into the role. Connelly, meanwhile, is elegantly poised in the role of Noah’s fiercely loyal wife, but her love is tested when the family bobs along in the flood. There are echoes of an Oscar in one emotional standoff, as she sobs at Noah’s horrifying and heartless decision to strike down a miracle. Winstone is lip-smacking evil as Tubal-Cain, the mangy king that growls through blood bits of reptile about man taking control of the world around him. Harry Potter’s Emma Watson continues to prove herself as a young talent to watch as Ila, the adopted daughter of Noah who has caught the attention of Shem. Anthony Hopkins turns up in the small role of Methuselah, Noah’s senile grandfather who craves a handful of sweet berries and is able to work incredible miracles. Rounding out the main cast is Logan Lerman as Ham, Noah’s impossibly difficult son who demands a wife and walks a tightrope between good and evil.

Considering that Noah is drawn from the Old Testament, you’re probably wondering if the film becomes overbearingly religious or preachy. Aronofsky chooses to focus on the barbaric nature of man, sometimes graphically so. He warns us that we should be respectful of our fellow man, and that we should treat the world around us with affectionate respect—a fiercely relevant and somewhat simple message in a time when climate change is a hot topic of debate and mankind grows increasingly savage, self-centered, and cruel. Overall, as a daring slice of biblical escapism, Noah packs plenty of awe-inspiring moments that are sure to pack a movie house. Its deafening action practically shakes the seats from the screws holding them to the floor, and it’s emotional surges crash down upon the heads of the audience like tidal waves. It can be disturbing, eerie, intimate, delicate, and dreamy, all wrapped up with Aronofsky’s unmistakable cosmic visions. However dazzling Noah may be, a slimmed down runtime and a reworked second half would have kept this mighty vessel afloat.

Grade: B

The Swimmer (1968)

The Swimmer #1

by Steve Habrat

At a quick glance, director Frank Perry’s surreal 1968 drama The Swimmer doesn’t jump out at you as a cult classic. When you watch the trailer, it swells with emotion as star Burt Lancaster proudly proclaims that he is going to swim home across a number of swimming pools that dot his scenic, upper class Connecticut suburb. Melodramatic music takes the wheel as the handsome Lancaster flirts with a number of beautiful socialite women, races a horse, and yellow on-screen text asks, “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of film that would fit into the cult classic mold—a mold that was constructed over time by B-movie cheapies, ultra-violent midnight movies, grindhouse filler, and quirky failures. In all honesty, it seems like the type of movie your mother would love. However, when you dive deep into The Swimmer, you realize that the film, which was based upon a shot story by John Cheever, is a haunting tragedy dressed up in studio-drama garb. Led by an unforgettable performance by Lancaster, this overlooked gem is a film unlike any other—a strange, moody experience that slowly evolves from a sunny daydream into a stormy nightmare.

The Swimmer introduces us to Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster), a charismatic and seemingly well-off advertising executive who unexpectedly appears in an old friend’s manicured back yard. Wearing nothing but a pair of navy blue swimming trunks, Ned is met with handshakes, smiles, and warm welcomes from all sitting around the pool. While peering out across the backyard, Ned realizes that there is a river of swimming pools that lead right to his own home, and he is suddenly compelled to swim the entire way home. Dubbing the river of swimming pools the “Lucinda River” after his often-mentioned but never-seen wife, Ned embarks on a journey that takes him to the homes of several old friends and acquaintances, all of which react to Ned’s sudden appearance in drastically different manners. Upon his journey, he reconnects with a young babysitter, Julie Ann Hooper (played by Janet Langard), who had developed a crush on Ned while watching his daughters, and Shirley Abbott (played by Janice Rule), a cold stage actress whom Ned had shared a brief fling with. Yet as Ned gets closer and closer to home, he realizes that several of his relationships and his lavish lifestyle may not be as sunny as they appear.

Early on, very little is overly strange or surreal about The Swimmer, the only peculiar things being Ned’s sudden appearance and his reluctance to reveal what he has recently been up to. He masks this unwillingness to speak about the present by offering up suave charms that tickle his old friends nursing hangovers by the pool. Upon getting the idea to swim home to his family, The Swimmer becomes increasingly moody, constantly bouncing between warm, sunny, charming, romantic, uncomfortable, psychedelic, and spontaneous before cowering down underneath gathering storm clouds in the final half hour. This constant shift in tone makes The Swimmer an incredibly unpredictable drama, as old friends and acquaintances welcome Ned with increasingly mixed reactions. Some people are icy and instantly order Ned off their property, while others are a bit uneasy with him dropping by. One encounter is fairly romantic, but it ends in squirm inducing rejection that leaves an emotionally wounded Ned limping off towards his next pool to dive into. One of the most stinging encounters comes when Ned meets up with Shirley Abbott, a woman Ned had a fling with many years earlier. Where once Ned’s playful flirtations were met with giggles and smiles, now they are met with put downs and the admittance that Shirley never enjoyed her intimate moments with Ned. Watching Shirley kill off what’s left of Ned’s cool optimism is immensely painful, ending with a venomous sting that leaves our bathing suit clad protagonist shivering in the dying sun. (This emotional encounter with Janice was actually ghost directed by newcomer Sydney Pollack.)

The Swimmer #2

Aiding with The Swimmer’s shattering power is Burt Lancaster, who gives a mesmeric performance as Ned, the mystifying advertising executive on a mission to swim his way home. While Eleanor Perry’s script almost paints Ned as an apparition who just suddenly materializes from the nearby woods, Lancaster really pivots around all the emotions like the graceful professional that he was, using his massively expressive, baby-blue eyes to really emit Ned’s early wonder and his final soul-shaking trauma. He also draws from his career as an acrobat, leaping, jumping, and playing with Julie in a horse pen like a couple of invincible school children who believe they are capable of anything and everything. And then there are the small touches, especially near the end when Ned is growing weary on his journey. His face is drooping into exhaustion and emotional defeat as he begs his way in to a public pool and limps his way through the rusted gate that guards his mansion. In the supporting roles, Langard’s Julie is a young, naïve sunbeam who has yet to experience the sadness and disappointment that Ned has encountered. She rambles on about silly school girl crushes that she hid just years before, and sheepishly admits that she stole one of Ned’s shirts one evening while she babysat his daughters. Janice Rule’s Shirley is like a viper lying out in the sun, one that Ned tramples on with his bare feet and ends up with her venom pumping into his exposed ankles.

Since The Swimmer offers very little about Ned’s background, the viewer is left to piece together his rocky past through his swim across the “Lucinda River.” As far as one can tell, life started out great for Ned—a man with a great career, a loving family, a slew of friends, and a lavish lifestyle in the sun. Behind his wife’s back, he carried out flings and affairs that ended with broken hearts, and he wronged several of his friends, leaving them seething with bitter hatred. As relationships fizzled, so did Ned’s lavish lifestyle, as money problems struck the Merrill household, his daughters ran rampant through the neighborhood, and his wife’s elitist personality left many acquaintances sour. This all added up to tragedy and ruin for the swimmer, as he crawls his way through an early fall thunderstorm for a place to rest his aching bones. As far as the technical aspects of The Swimmer go, the film’s cinematography looks beautiful and radiant, and the score from Marvin Hamlisch is a rush of melodramatic strings that compliment Ned’s successes and failures in suburbia. Overall, The Swimmer is a unique work of art that can be interpreted many different ways. No matter how you choose to look at it, Perry’s film will haunt every inch of your brain long after you’ve walked away from it. It’s a true one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

Grade: A+

The Swimmer is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Mini Review: Philomena (2013)

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena

by Steve Habrat

When assessing this year’s long list of Academy Award nominees, a good majority of the films that have landed nominations are mainstream pictures. Perhaps the most obscure (I use “obscure” rather loosely here) nominee would have to be Philomena, the newest dramadey from director Stephen Frears, the man who also gave us High Fidelity and The Queen. Based upon the extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee and her 50-year quest to find her son, Philomena finds Frears crafting a charming odd couple story that never forgets to press all the weepy emotional buttons that Academy members just can’t resist. With the script, penned by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, swinging smoothly between comedic and poignant, Frears can let his stars, funnyman Coogan and Judi Dench, really make the sparks fly. The drastic differences in their personalities comprise most of the chuckles, and watching a naïve woman of God butt heads with an atheist political journalist makes the hour and a half runtime fly by at the speed of light, leaving you wonder where the time just went. It’s chemistry at its very finest.

Philomena introduces us to Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an aging Irish nurse who has been desperately searching for her missing son for fifty long years. It turns out that in 1951, Philomena got pregnant at a fair, and as punishment was sent to Sean Ross Abby, an isolated convent in the Irish countryside. While working at the convent, Philomena is allowed to see her son, Anthony, for only an hour a day. One day, Philomena is horrified to learn that a wealthy American couple has adopted Anthony and moved the boy to the U.S. Over the years, Philomena’s grief over her loss has gotten worse. Meanwhile, Martin Sixsmith has just been fired from his job as a political advisor for the Labour Party. Distraught over his recent termination, Martin contemplates writing a book on Russian history, but his plans change after he meets Philomena’s daughter and he hears her mother’s amazing story. Reluctantly to write a human interest story, Martin is slowly won over after meeting with Philomena and traveling to the convent for answers. With very little information made available to them in Ireland, Martin and Philomena decide to travel to the U.S., where they learn of Anthony’s extraordinary life.

Philomena #2

Early into their journey, Martin and Philomena learn a devastating twist in Anthony’s life, a twist that leaves the viewer wondering just where Frears and his screenwriters will take the story next. It’s here that a wealth of discovery gushes forth and picks up the film’s tempo to the point where it feels like the story was told in the blink of an eye. The secrets of Anthony’s life are certainly absorbing, this the viewer cannot deny, but his background takes second place to the exploration of faith versus atheism. It’s truly incredible to watch Philomena hold on to her faith, even when her faith had turned on her and ripped her life apart. On the flipside there is Martin, an atheist who is constantly biting his lip and looking for an opportunity to attack those who have wronged the poor, sweet Philomena. While a majority of this plays to the sensitive side of the film, there is also plenty of humor to be milked from it. It’s hard not find Philomena’s naïve wonder to be funny, especially when she is in awe over things like chocolates on her pillow in her hotel room and her fascination with a foreign chef cooking up her breakfast. Naturally, this all gets on Martin’s last nerve, tempting him mutter veiled sarcastic remarks to the beaming Philomena. Despite his efforts to keep a bit of distance between himself and Philomena, Martin isn’t immune to this woman’s misty-eyed grief or twinkling charms, and it is increasingly heartwarming to watch him stand up for her.

When discussing the central performances of Philomena, funnyman Steve Coogan expertly adapts his comedic wit to fit with the more dramatic tone of the picture and it truly does show off his wealth of talent. The earlier scenes of the film find Coogan sneaking in his dry sense of humor, but when the drama rises, Coogan displays impressive confidence, leaving you hoping that he explores more dramatic turns in the near future. And then there is Judi Dench, who really earns her Oscar nomination as the impossibly sweet Philomena Lee.  You instantly fall for this little old lady who clutches to breezy romance novels and an eagerness to forgive even when she is being ridiculed by a handful of glowering nuns. Overall, Philomena is a film that seems to have come from the hearts of the filmmakers and headlining stars. It’s moving, comical, smart, and down-to-earth, completely lacking the sensationalized touches that Hollywood usually insists on for these true-story crowd-pleasers. This is a must-see buddy movie that you won’t be able to pull away from.

Grade: A-

The Best and Worst of 2013

3d-movie-audience

by Steve Habrat

What a spectacular year 2013 was at the movies! The early months were slow—something that was to be expected—but when we finally hit the summer movie season, things took off with a bang. There were out-of-this-world science fiction thrillers, city-shredding superhero epics, and plenty of blood curdling horror to give you a chill during those sweltering months. As the summer days faded and we entered awards season, things really got good. There were wolves from Wall Street, moody folk singers, HIV-positive outlaws, cranky old sweepstakes winners, and 70s conmen all ready to keep our minds off the snowy weather outside. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s picks for the best and worst films of 2013.

10.) The Wolf of Wall Street

wolf wall street

Legendary director Martin Scorsese’s newest cinematic outing is a three-hour trek through a land dominated by sex, drugs, and sleaze. Our tour guide through this non-stop party is Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives one of the most daring performances of his acting career as Jordan Belfort, a slimy stockbroker who had more money than he knew what to do with. Wickedly hilarious and about as raunchy as R-rated movies can get, Scorsese gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the underbelly of wealth and greed, presenting it all as a runaway train destined to horribly crash and burn. While it’s been accused of being overly excessive and revolting, that’s the whole point—we’re meant to recoil in disbelief at what we are seeing. It just so happens that Scorsese injects each and every second with irresistible charisma, even as it lobs dwarves at the audience, throws champagne in our face, and leaves the audiences coughing up a cocaine cloud.

9.) Blue Jasmine

blue jasmine

Woody Allen’s latest film about a wealthy New York City socialite who lost her riches when her husband gets caught up in a nasty financial scandal finds the neurotic filmmaker embracing a punishing reality that leaves a sting that just doesn’t seem to fade. Early on, Blue Jasmine is laced with Allen’s dry wit, but the lightweight appeal is soon engulfed by dark storm clouds of swirling madness. They close in on the brilliant Cate Blanchett, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Jasmine, our bitter heroine who flat-out refuses to accept her crippling fall from the designer-brand arms of grace. Complimenting Blanchett’s outstanding performance is the equally wonderful Sally Hawkins, who is here as Ginger, Jasmine’s modest and impossibly sweet sister who allows the scoffing Jasmine to shack up in her tiny little California apartment. With it’s polished story in place, and a number of charming performances from a colorful cast consistently impressing, Allen perfectly positions us for the lightning bolt climax that will leave you paralyzed in your seat. Bravo, Mr. Allen!

8.) Prisoners

 prisoners 1

Last year, I saw several hair-raising horror films at the local Regal Cinemas, but none left me as shaken up as director Denis Villeneuve’s ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Prisoners. Like a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and Death Wish, Prisoners tells the terrifying story of two little girls who suddenly go missing on a rainy Thanksgiving Day and their father’s who grimly set out to track them down by any means necessary. With stomach-churning torture sequences, a dreary Seven-like atmosphere, and emotionally draining performances from an A-list cast (good luck getting Hugh Jackman’s seething determination out of your head), Prisoners is a white-knuckle masterpiece that is given even more power due to the recent news of Areil Castro and the three girls who were missing in Cleveland, Ohio. Believe me when I tell you there is no way to leave Prisoners unaffected. It will disturb you on levels you never thought possible.

7.) Captain Phillips

captain phillips

Bringing the unflinching realism that he brought to the Bourne series and United 93, director Paul Greengrass returns with Captain Phillips, which tells the breathtaking true story of the 2009 pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama. Told in a chilling, fly-on-the-wall style, Captain Phillips is an exercise in pure tension and raw authenticity. It also finds star Tom Hanks at his absolutely best as Captain Richard Phillips, the man who was taken hostage by four terrifying Somali pirates in a confined lifeboat. While Hanks furiously reminds us of his seasoned acting abilities, Captain Phillips ultimately belongs to breakout actor Barkhad Abdi, who gives a menacing performance as Abduwali Muse, the lead pirate who refused to give up. Bursting at the seams with heart-pounding suspense, Greengrass finds momentum in the confines of the lifeboat, where Phillips pleads with the pirates to give themselves up and avoid a devastating showdown. It’s in these moments where Greengrass humanizes the monsters, and makes a piercing comment on the lengths some men will go to make a living.

6.) Gravity

gravity

If you were one of the five people out there that didn’t see Gravity in 3D on the big screen, you really missed out on an extraordinary experience. While it may not have the most robust storyline, Gravity was pure, how-did-they-do-that?! entertainment that left audiences with the weightless sensation that they truly were drifting around among the stars with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. While director Alfonso Cuarón handles the stunning visuals with overwhelming confidence, it’s Bullock, who gives a show-stopping performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a grieving astronaut floating through a shattered existence, who cradles Gravity’s shimmering heart and soul. With performances and special effects working in perfect harmony, Gravity weaves a poetic tale of rebirth that culminates in an emotional blast that allows the film to rocket near the top of the best science fiction films ever made. A starry-eyed crowd pleaser of the highest order.

5.) American Hustle

american hustle

In mid-December, director David O. Russell’s 70s-set caper about a handful of quirky con men and FBI agents took the box office by storm. Featuring the best ensemble cast of the year (Christian Bale! Amy Adams! Bradley Cooper! Jennifer Lawrence! Jeremy Renner!), American Hustle is a cartoonish deconstruction of the American dream and what it takes to make a name for yourself in the good old U.S.A. With plenty of leisure-suit style to burn and a sexy strut that is impossible to resist, American Hustle is a dryly hilarious and entrancing slice of gold-platted entertainment that is carried off into classic territory by Christian Bale, who has never been better as Irving Rosenfeld, the pudgy con artist with the loudest comb over to ever hit the big screen. With its popularity growing by the day, Russell’s work is quickly becoming a new American classic, one that will surely be revisited for it’s layered script, retro swagger, impeccable costume work and set design, and laid-back sense of humor. This is one cool movie!

4.) Nebraska

nebraska

After diving into some weighty territory with 2011’s Hawaii-set dramedy The Descendants, director Alexander Payne trades the palm trees for a John Deere tractor with Nebraska. Set against the barren landscape and the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a sweet and soft-spoken little road movie carefully navigated by legendary thespian Bruce Dern and former SNL funnyman Will Forte. Following a senile old man on a quest to claim one million dollars that he believes he won and his patient son that accompanies him on his journey, Payne’s newest effort is a touching trip down memory lane, one that visits rundown farmhouses, old watering holes, and shady backstreets of year’s past. It’s all marvelously atmospheric and nostalgic, given a razor-sharp comedic edge through Dern’s cranky performance as the frizzy-haired sweepstakes winner Woody Grant. When Dern isn’t busy hogging the frame, actress June Squibb keeps you doubled over in laughter as Woody’s unfiltered wife, Kate. Though it may be in black and white, Nebraska is given plenty of color through its unforgettable cast of characters and it’s genuine warmth that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.

3.) Dallas Buyers Club

dallas buyers club

Who knew that Matthew McConaughey had this performance in him?! After proving himself to be a talent to be reckoned with in Mud, the drawling actor best known for his work in romantic comedies took critics and audiences by surprise with his turn as HIV-positive cowboy Ron Woodroof in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Boasting the strongest performances of the year from a lead actor and a supporting actor, Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on an extraordinary true story, is a powerful look at the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the lengths that one man went to bring proper treatment to both himself and countless others suffering from the disease. Serving up unflinching looks at the terrible symptoms of AIDS, Vallée’s film never spends too much time remaining downbeat. It’s got an optimistic mindset and hope shining brightly in its eyes. And then there’s McConaughey, who undergoes a shocking physical transformation as a hard-living, homophobic outlaw who reluctantly joins forces with a breathy transgender woman. His performance is a revelation, complimented by a delicate turn from Jared Leto as the transgender Rayon. The Academy may as well hand them their Oscars now.

2.) Inside Llewyn Davis

inside llewyn davis

After shooting their way across the Wild West with their 2011 remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen return to movie screens with Inside Llewyn Davis, a Polaroid glimpse of the rise of folk music in Greenwich Village. Set in 1961, this character-driven period piece about a homeless folk singer with a bad attitude found the Coen’s relishing their return to the realm of dark comedy. Blustery and frigid, Inside Llewyn Davis is made even chillier through star Oscar Isaac’s breakout turn as Llewyn, a grieving and starving artist who shacks up on the couches of friends and family members, reluctantly takes care of an orange tabby cat, and only bears his soul through the gorgeous acoustic songs he strums out for packed night clubs. While its open-ended climax may leave some viewers fuming, Inside Llewyn Davis is an elegant character study, one that examines those who risk it all to make it big. As an added bonus, the film features a number of toe-tapping folk numbers that range from swelling and emotional to inescapably cute and catchy. Good luck getting “Please Mr. Kennedy” out of your head!

1.) 12 Years a Slave

12 years a slave

Towering over all the other releases this awards season was director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave. Daring to shine a light into the darkest corners of American history, McQueen’s powerhouse film pummels the viewer with the horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and tossed into the brutal jaws of the American slave trade. Unblinking with its sequences of abuse and torture, 12 Years a Slave is a film that is overwhelming and crucial, one we desperately want to recoil away from, but one that demands to be seen, heard, and felt for the remainder of our days. Though it is deeply disturbing, 12 Years a Slave ranks as the most handsomely filmed and detailed period piece of the year, and the work from stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o has to be seen to be believed. A film that was long overdue, 12 Years a Slave is a motion picture that dares to confront and challenge with a realism that most American films shy away from, and in the process, it becomes an instant cinematic classic that will stand as a constant reminder of our blemished past.

And now, the best of the rest:

–       The Conjuring and You’re Next both brought the horror genre back with a deafening “BOO!”

–       Pacific Rim was a candy-colored blockbuster sugar rush, and Elysium was the smartest sci-fi epic of the summer.

–       Spring Breakers was a demented, day-glo fantasy about living the fast life in a constant paradise.

–        Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a poetic tribute to Terrance Malick’s classic Badlands.

–       Out of the Furnace was a formulaic but unnerving and rusted out backwoods revenge thriller

–       This Is the End was a raunchily rambunctious and gut-busting apocalyptic comedy from the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

–       Saving Mr. Banks was a feisty, family friendly look at Walt Disney’s rocky quest to make Mary Poppins.

And now, the worst of 2013:

3.) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

anchorman 2

This dreadful follow-up to the severely overrated 2004 original recycles the same jokes that were used the first time around and the results are absolutely disastrous. The glaring lack of effort from Will Ferrell and company leaves you feeling like you were robbed blind.

2.) Insidious: Chapter 2

insidious 2

After delivering two impressive back-to-back scarefests, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell found it necessary to further the events of the first Insidious with this confused follow-up that tasted like moldy, month-old leftovers. Pray that these demonic forces have been banished for good.

1.)  The Hangover Part III

the hangover iii

The Wolfpack returns for a third and final time in this bizarre climax that never even once tries to be funny. The gross-outs and shocks are all there, but director Todd Phillips and his crew are clearly disinterested and in it strictly for the paycheck. This was the biggest turd of the summer and the most excruciating cinematic experience I had all year.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club #1

by Steve Habrat

After refreshing his career with his buzzed-about supporting role in Mud, Matthew McConaughey brought his career-high year to a close with director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Based on an extraordinary true story, Dallas Buyers Club is an addicting drama that follows Ron Woodroof, a hard-living and homophobic electrician/bull rider who was unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. Peppered with quirky characters and spilling confidence, Dallas Buyers Club has nudged its way up the list of the best films of 2013 with the absolutely mesmerizing performances from both McConaughey, who underwent a drastic physical transformation for his lead role, and actor/rock star Jared Leto, who is nearly unrecognizable as a transgender woman who becomes the cowboy’s unlikely ally. Considering that the film is tackling such grave subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club never even considers sending the audience away staring down at their shoes. Sure there are emotional blows that break your heart, but Vallée excels when the story is optimistic and uplifting, reassuring the audience that even when the odds are stacked against you, you are still capable of making a difference, especially when we set aside our differences and work together.

Dallas Buyers Club begins in 1985 and introduces us to Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a booze-swilling, coke-snorting electrician/bull rider who relishes the company of lovely ladies. After a nasty accident at work, Ron is sent to the ER, where a simple blood test reveals that the reckless cowboy is HIV-positive and has only 30 days to live. Reluctant to believe that the test was accurate, he instantly gets back to his partying ways, but after remembering he had unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user, he slowly comes to terms with his current situation. After learning about the new drug ATZ, which is said to prolong the life of those who are HIV-positive, Ron enlists a hospital employee to sneak him bottles of the drug under the table. After taking ATZ for an extended period, Ron realizes that his health is getting worse rather than improving. Ron’s poor health soon lands him back in the hospital under the care of Dr. Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), who reveals that the combination of cocaine and ATZ has been making his situation worse. While recovering in the hospital, the extremely homophobic Ron meets Rayon (played by Jared Leto), a transgender woman who is also HIV-positive. After taking a trip to Mexico to obtain medicine, Ron learns of the devastating side effects of ATZ. In place of ATZ, Ron is recommended several other drugs that are not approved by the FDA. With the new drugs improving Ron’s health, he forms an unlikely partnership with Rayon, and the two begin smuggling in the drugs to sell to other HIV-positive patients.

Initially, Dallas Buyers Club hits us with an array of emotions that rattle us in a number of different ways. We’re disoriented with shock as Ron learns of his serious condition, and his quick defense of denial is certainly understandable. He storms off in disbelief at the mere suggestion of him being HIV-positive, laughing off the diagnosis as something that only homosexuals can get. He then quickly drowns his sorrows in powder, liquor, and skin, drunkenly telling one of his close friends about the news. Ron’s denial and anger are quickly relieved by realization as he remembers having unprotected sex with a woman with some nasty looking needle marks on her foot. This realization shifts to explosive grief and anger as his friends grow increasingly hostile towards him, viciously mocking and humiliating him. They scoot their chairs away from him when he joins them at the bar, he’s chased out of work, and he’s booted from his trailer park home. The blows that Ron have been dealt finally soften when he stops taking the ATZ he’s been slipped under the table and makes major changes in his lifestyle. This is where the film gains confidence and southern swagger, emitting sugary charms, upbeat chuckles, and relentless determination.

IF

At the heart of all this southern swagger and sugary charm is McConaughey, who gives the best performance of the year as Ron Woodroof. At first, Woodroof is sort of a tough character to root for. He’s wildly homophobic and sleazy, having sweaty threesomes, chugging bottle after bottle of liquor, snorting cocaine, and getting himself into gambling trouble. When he finally accepts his new disease and vows to live past the 30 days he’s been given, the magnetism is as powerful as ever and we find ourselves on team Woodroof. He becomes even more lovable when he reluctantly joins forces with Leto’s Rayon, a sweet and childlike soul who shatters Ron’s seething disgust for homosexuals. Like the scrawny and drawling McConaughey, Leto undergoes a shocking transformation that will absolutely blow you away. Watching him push all of Ron’s buttons is absolutely uproarious, and it’s certainly heartwarming to see Ron soften to his flamboyant partner in crime. Leto’s unforgettable performance hits its high note during a tearjerker meeting with his disapproving father, who sighs with exasperation right in his son’s face. It’s a sequence that leaves your frozen in place. Also on board is Jennifer Garner, who warms the heart as Dr. Saks, a close friend of the delicate Rayon and a growing supporter for Ron’s crusade.

While Dallas Buyers Club is certainly inspirational, there are still plenty of scenes that show the terrible symptoms of this dreaded disease. The symptoms are shown in a raw and horrifyingly realistic manner, from deep coughs, to crippling headaches, to dark splotches on the frail skin—one symptom more terrifying than the last. It’s through this glimpse of the symptoms that Vallée milks huge amounts of empathy from the audience. You’ll also find yourself struck by the bravery of these infected characters, willing to fight until their last tearful breath. Unsurprisingly, Dallas Buyers Club does take a stand against homophobia, and it certainly never misses a moment to remind us that we should all set aside our differences and live in harmony. The message side of the film is certainly expected, especially since gay rights have been a hot topic over the past few years, but Vallée keeps a firm grip on things and prevents the message from feeling redundant. Overall, while it dares to address dark subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club is a superbly directed story that instantly sucks you in. Its outlaw strut gives it a singular glow, and the performances from McConaughey and Leto rank as some of the most outstanding acting work I’ve seen in ages.

Grade: A

Nebraska (2013)

NEBRASKA

by Steve Habrat

The last time audiences spent time with director Alexander Payne, it was in 2011’s The Descendants, the heart-wrenching, Hawaii-set dramedy about a family facing the sudden and devastating loss of a family member. With The Descendants, Payne bluntly pointed out that even those who live in a constant sunny paradise and sport floral print shirts are not immune to the harsh blows that life can unexpectedly dish out. Two years later, Payne returns with Nebraska, another frank dramedy with a heavy lean on location. Shot in nostalgic black and white and set in the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a simplistic road movie about an elderly father and his patient son on their way to collect a million dollars that may or may not be real. Along their journey they drop into the father’s hometown, a bare strip of farm country that is aging right along with the born-and-raised citizens that still make up its population. With veteran actor Bruce Dern at the helm and comedian Will Forte riding shotgun, this soft-spoken little movie is unexpectedly hilarious and overwhelming sweet. It’s a snapshot of a meat-and-potatoes family brought together through one man’s senile belief and staunch determination. It’s also about digging up the past, taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane and fondly looking back at year’s past.

Nebraska introduces us to Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern), an elderly man who receives a letter in the mail stating that he has won a million dollars. Bound and determined to collect his winnings, Woody begins walking from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. After being stopped on the side of the road by a police officer, Woody’s son, David (played by Will Forte), picks him up from the police station where he discovers that the million dollars that Woody believes he has won is actually just a scam to sell magazines. After David realizes that Woody isn’t going to give up trying to collect his prize money, David decides to drive him to the sweepstakes center in Lincoln so that he will understand that it is all a scam. This plan outrages David’s mother, Kate (played by June Squibb), and his brother, Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk), who strongly believe that David shouldn’t encourage his father’s hopes. Ignoring the protests, the two set out on a road trip that leads them back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. Upon their arrival, David and Woody begin reconnecting with old friends and family members, but after word gets out about Woody’s sudden new fortune, they all quickly have their hands out for money.

For a good chunk of Nebraska, the story lingers around the peeling buildings and desolate stretches of Hawthorne, a place that appears to be slowly fading from the map. It’s a town that seen some excitement back in the good old days, but now, the memories that haunt the abandoned farmhouses and boarded-up businesses are all that are left. Our characters chat about distant friendships that faded, family members that have passed on, or old American cars that have been hauled off to the junkyard, the chatter stopping when talk shifts into the present. Now the wrinkly inhabitants flock to the local buffet where the main form of entertainment is bad karaoke sung out in flat tones. The big news for the day is Woody’s return and the rumored million dollars that he has won, no one really knowing for sure if it’s true. Still, that doesn’t stop the citizens from beaming, gossiping, and proclaiming that it’s the biggest thing to happen to Hawthorne in quite some time. Even the Hawthorne newspaper jumps at the chance of doing a piece on old Woody. When David tries to explain that his father hasn’t really won anything to one eager newspaper employee, they simply shrug their shoulders and say that they’ll just do a piece on the prodigal son’s triumphant return. This grasp on the past that the citizens of Hawthorne hold so dear is complimented by the black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, who provides haunting shots of rusted out Americana, photographed with misty eyed nostalgia and twinkling memories known only to the character’s themselves.

Nebraska #2

And then we have veteran actor Bruce Dern, who gives an irritable and touching performance as prizewinner Woody Grant. With his shock of mad scientist hair and his drunken shuffle, Woody is a man on a mission, pausing only to have a few bottles of beer here and there. It’s clear that he is starting to slip mentally, although it’s implied that he has been a simple and gullible man his entire life. His delight over the winnings is truly lovable, even if we the audience know that there is no million dollar prize waiting for him in Lincoln. It also grows extremely difficult to watch old friends and family members try to milk money out of the poor man. It’s even worse because he has absolutely no idea they are trying to do it. While he is definitely overshadowed by Dern, former SNL comedian Will Forte does a fantastic job as David, Woody’s sweet and easy-going son who decides to let his father have his moment in the sun. June Squibb will have you doubled over in laughter as Kate, Woody’s gabbing wife who never misses an opportunity to rip him up one side and down the other. Always a woman to speak her mind, Squibb is a feisty blast, especially when she is visiting the graves of several friends and family members at a Hawthorne graveyard. Bob Odenkirk takes a minor role as Ross, David’s older brother who is fed up with Woody’s behavior and believes that they should be considering a home. Also on hand is Stacy Keach, another veteran actor who turns up as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old buddy who may not be as friendly as he first appears.

While Nebraska certainly has its fair share of leisurely moments, Payne turns up the hilarity level to high when he wants to. In the early scenes, the glimpses of Woody marching by the side of the road towards Lincoln will nab a chuckle and the constant verbal beatings that Woody is subjected to from Kate will have you doubled over. When the Grant’s make it to Hawthorne, the comedy really kicks into high gear as David mingles with his deadbeat cousins, Bart and Cole, and the rest of the family tries to awkwardly reconnect. In between the hearty laughs, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson delicately fill us in on Woody’s past. We learn he was a man of few words and that he had an ugly experience in the Korean War, but we learn that he would do everything he could for those he cared about, making him all the more lovable. Overall, Nebraska is a sparse and atmospheric story told with timeless care and comedic warmth. It puts up a defense with a dry sense of humor, but Payne isn’t afraid to reveal a vulnerable side, especially at the bittersweet climax. Though it may be shot in black and white, the film is given plenty of color from its quirky cast of characters, especially Dern’s career high turn as Woody. Nebraska is one of the finest films that 2013 has to offer.

Grade: A

Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor 2013

by Steve Habrat

Way back in 2012, one of the first films that kicked off the summer movie season was director Peter Berg’s sci-fi Hasbro epic Battleship, which ended up being one of the biggest flops at the box office that summer. Whether you loved or loathed Berg’s aquatic aliens-vs.-humans blockbuster, it was clear that he is a very patriotic gentleman. A little over a year and a half later, Berg returns to the big screen with Lone Survivor, a breathtaking true war story that sheds the cartoonish Navy propaganda of Battleship and embraces a hair-raising grittiness that drops you right into the cold heart of combat. While Lone Survivor can be accused of bookending itself with the typical war movie sentiments (brotherly bonds, lump-in-the-throat jingoism), the film avoids clichéd mediocrity through the fluid chemistry between its hardened cast members, it’s pulse-pounding gunfights, and a shell-shocking brutality that leaves you sore and aching for hours after seeing it. More importantly, Berg works in a nerve-racking moral debate, which he uses to set the character’s fates into doomed motion.

Lone Survivor tells the true story of four Navy SEALs, Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and communications officer Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), who were sent into the rocky hills of Afghanistan to gather surveillance on Ahmad Shahd, a high-ranking member of the Taliban. The SEALs set up camp just outside the village where Shahd is believed to be hiding, but their position is soon compromised after three goat herders happen to stumble upon their position. The SEALs take the goat herders prisoner, but after a lengthy debate about whether to kill them or let them go, the SEALs decide to let them go back to their village. But soon after being letting them go, the goat herders quickly report the run-in to Shahd, who orders a small army of Taliban soldiers to take to the hills and smoke out the Americans. With poor radio connection and no way out, the outnumbered SEALs are forced to engage the charging Taliban forces in a gunfight until they are able to radio the nearby American base for extraction or reinforcements.

Given the film’s title, it is no secret that only one soldier (Luttrell) makes it out alive from this confrontation. Still, Berg ups the film’s tension considerably, and he applies a bruising realism that practically blasts you from your chair. Berg begins the film with stock footage of soldiers in basic training, reconfiguring themselves to be able to endure the intensities of war and the unforgiving environments where they may fight. It’s pretty captivating stuff, and you can’t help but admire these men for doing this, but when our four protagonists are wedged into the rocky Afghani terrain and taking bullets from all angles, it’s truly difficult to imagine that the wounds suffered are met simply with loud groans and a quick grits of their teeth. Rest assured that realism wins out, especially when a heavily wounded Dietz goes into shock after taking a few bullets and having several of his fingers shot off. And then there is the violence itself, which ranges from a nauseating decapitation early on, and then culminates in compound fractures, shrapnel protruding from legs, and spraying gunshot wounds that are executed with exploding squibs and red corn syrup, which gives the violence an extra punch that isn’t shaken off easily. What truly is astonishing is that these four men were able to keep their composures, even after tumbling down rocky cliffs and clearly suffering unimaginable internal injuries that must have been excruciating.

Lone Survivor #2

Berg’s swipes at realism are also aided by the performances from Wahlberg, Kitsch, Foster, and Hirsch, who all seem to instantly click as a unit. Over the past several years, Wahlberg has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and with Lone Survivor, he continues to earn our respect. His performance as Luttrell is one that the audience really feels as he drags himself over jagged rock and collapses in a nearby stream. Kitsch, who was the star of Berg’s Battleship, gives an authoritative performance as Mike Murphy, the group’s leader who has the final say over how to deal with their grim situation. Foster, an actor who has always remained shy of the mainstream, contributes an impressive performance as Axelson, a man who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his fellow brothers alive. Then we have Hirsch as Dietz, the boyish communications officer that slips into shock after having several of his fingers taken off by whizzing bullets. When they are all together, the group really makes the brotherly camaraderie seem natural, even if they sometimes flirt with burly clichés. Rounding out the main cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, who attempted to lead the rushed rescue mission that ended tragically. Also on board is Ali Suliman as Mohammad Gulab, the kindly Afghani villager who was willing to do whatever he could to protect the horribly injured Luttrell.

While Lone Survivor is certainly gripping and unforgiving, the film isn’t completely immune to a few creeping clichés. There are the expected slow-motion acts of heroism that coax tears to the eyes of the viewer, and the brotherly bonds, while convincing, are laid on pretty thick. Clichés aside, Lone Survivor’s real problem shows up when the guns start blazing and the grenades start exploding. The action looks, sounds, and flows spectacularly, but Berg allows it to overshadow his human subjects, which results in speculation that the filmmakers may have cared more about making an action picture rather than remaining fixed on the men who fell in this fight. Still, these complaints are minor, and they are neutralized by the moral debate at the film’s turning point. Watching the SEALs deliberate the fates of the three goat herders—a group that consists of an elderly man, a teenager, and a young boy—is something that will really ignite conversation when the credits roll. Overall, stretches of Lone Survivor will feel slightly familiar to most audience members, but Berg and his cast do a fine job at paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during Operation Red Wings. It’s a tribute made with scorching realism and teary-eyed patriotism, sending you away with a renewed appreciation for those who lay down their lives for freedom.

Grade: B+

Her (2013)

Her #1

by Steve Habrat

Ever since his surreal 2009 children’s fantasy Where the Wild Things Are, indie director Spike Jonze has remained relatively low-key. In the years following that wildly popular screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved tale, Jonze has filled his time with a few acting gigs, a skateboarding video or two, a handful of music videos, and some writing/producing duties. After four long years, Jonze finally returns as director for Her, the celebrated futuristic love story that has been gaining quite a bit of momentum this awards season. Also written by Jonze, Her is a film that is alive with vision and originality, a resonant love-story for a world that has developed an alarming addiction to the glow of their smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. While certainly a beautiful film with a truly fascinating premise, Her, like Jonze’s last feature film, begins to drone on the viewer. The initial “wow” factor only carries it so far before it begins to grow repetitious, never really knowing where it should cut itself off. Luckily, your growing loss of electronic enchantment will be rescued by star Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an outstanding performance as the heartbroken writer who falls head over heels for his brand new operating system.

Her picks up in futuristic Los Angeles and introduces us to Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man nursing a broken heart over the recent separation from his wife, Catherine (played by Rooney Mara). By day, Theodore works as a writer for a company that composes personal letters for those who don’t quite know what to say, and by night, he sulks home to play video games or fidget around restlessly in his bed. One day, Theodore decides to purchase a new artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that is capable of interacting just like a regular human being. Impressed by the operating system’s abilities, Theodore strikes up a casual friendship with the new AI, sharing tidbits of information regarding his messy separation from Catherine. After a botched blind date with a beautiful woman (played by Olivia Wilde), Theodore finds himself romantically drawn to the operating system, which also appears to have developed romantic feelings for him. With his newfound love and the help of his close friend Amy (played by Amy Adams), Theodore begins pulling himself out of his slump, but the challenges of dating an operating system arise and put the relationship to the test.

If you’ve ever imagined what it might be like if Apple started making live action movies, Her gives you a pretty good indication of what the computer company’s type of movie might be like. Jonze fills the screen with soft pastel colors and sleek views of a futuristic Los Angeles—a squeaky clean metropolis where everyone shuffles about with tiny white earpieces stuffed in their ears and the glow of a smartphone screen reflecting off their down pointing faces. The overhead shots of the city are so crisp and clear that they would be perfect as the screensaver on your MacBook Pro with retina display. It’s all absolutely gorgeous to take in, even if it is glaringly obvious at times that this futuristic American city is actually just a shimmering Shanghai. On its own, the visual lyricism of Her consistently keeps your eyes wide—it’s a digital dream world that would have made Steve Jobs drool and storm off to his Apple boardroom to demand that his staff get to work on updating Siri. While Jonze keeps a firm grip here, his story, which I should reiterate is extremely original and inspired, is so thorough in the way it explores a relationship that it nearly ceases to fill us with wonder and instead begins to mildly drone on the viewer. It’s perfectly fine that he wanted to tell this digital romance in a convincing and personal manner, but the ups and downs of Theo and Samantha’s relationship begin to grow repetitive and exhausting, numbing us slightly to the couple’s conclusion.

Her #2

Though you may drift out a bit, star Joaquin Phoenix gives Her a strong emotional pull that yanks you back into the picture. Phoenix is a raw nerve as Theo, our sensitive and aching hero who is adrift in this digital world. He sulks from the office with his frown hidden under a mustache, seeking escape from his pain in an encompassing video game he obsesses over. When Samantha asks if he wants a pair of emails regarding his divorce read to him, he gives a quivery objection and fights back tears. When Samantha begins to pull him out of his hole of sadness, you’ll smile over his newfound delight as he dances through a bustling fair. Phoenix gives Theo such tenderness and vulnerability that you can’t help but root for this unusual romance to really make it, even if there are points where it makes you squirm from its awkwardness. Guiding Theo out of this rut is Johansson’s husky voice, which she lends so wonderfully to Samantha, the operating system that has won Theo’s heart. While we never see her, Johansson is able to convey so much emotion that you’d swear she was ready to manifest right next to our hero. As far as the supporting cast goes, Amy Adams gives another spectacular performance as Amy, Theo’s understanding best friend who is also facing heartbreak. Rooney Mara is prickly as Catherine, Theo’s childhood sweetheart who has shattered his heart into a million little pieces. Olivia Wilde rounds out the cast in a brief role as a sexy blind date who quickly sours to the sadsack Theo.

While the stunning cinematography and the candid performances are truly special, the real beauty of Her lies within the plausibility of its script. With the way that technology has been rapidly advancing over the past several years, it isn’t that far-fetched to think that operating systems could be this advanced ten to twenty years down the line. The smartphones now come equipped with personal assistants that can look up internet trivia, tell jokes, send text messages, bring up emails, and make phone calls all at your request. This story also speaks to the creativity that lies within Jonze, who wrote the script and just nabbed a Golden Globe for his work. It truly is remarkable that Hollywood gave the script a chance considering that most romantic dramas have evolved only to the point of having unhappy endings where boy doesn’t necessarily end up with girl. Overall, while the imagination, vision, and performances are all magnificent, Her could have done with a software update to clear out a few bugs. I understand that Jonze wanted to really sink his teeth into this peculiar romance and envision it from every angle possible, but there are stretches of dead space that allow the magic to seep out.

Grade: B

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis #1

by Steve Habrat

The last time audiences saw Joel and Ethan Coen, the directing duo was coming off a lengthy directing streak with 2010’s True Grit, a stunning remake of a John Wayne western that earned several Oscar nominations and almost universal acclaim from critics. After taking a small break and penning the screenplay for director Michael Hoffman’s 2012 film Gambit, the Coen’s return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which easily ranks as some of their best and moodiest work since No Country for Old Men. Comprised of washed-out cinematography, crackling dialogue, immaculate performances, and the Coen’s distinct brand of humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful period dramedy—one that explores the burning drive and stinging disappointment that many starving artists face on a daily basis. Though rich with eye-grabbing early 1960s set design and frigid atmospherics, Inside Llewyn Davis is first and foremost a complex character study. It allows us to voyeuristically glimpse inside the chilly world of a self-absorbed jerk as he sulks through New York City’s Greenwich Village in search of his big break and a couch to lay his weary head upon. The fact that we actually mildly root for Mr. Davis to make it as a folk singer is a testament to Oscar Isaac, who gives an extraordinary performance that is ripe with frustration, heartbreak, sarcasm, and exhaustion.

Inside Llewyn Davis picks up in 1961, with small-time Greenwich Village folk singer Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) homeless and broke. In between gigs at the Gaslight Café, Llewyn still nurses wounds from his break-up with his singing partner, Mike, who recently committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. Frustrated that his new solo album isn’t selling, Llewyn is forced to shack up on the couches of close friends, some of which have rocky relationships with the bitter musician. One of these close friends is Jean Berkey (played by Carey Mulligan), the wife of Llewyn’s friend and fellow-musician Jim (played by Justin Timberlake), who turns out to be pregnant after a one-night stand with Llewyn. In one final attempt to make it big, Llewyn decides to travel to Chicago with rebel beat-poet Johnny Five (played by Garrett Hedlund) and cranky jazz musician Roland Turner (played by John Goodman) in the hopes of auditioning for famed producer Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham). Along the way, Llewyn is forced to take care of an orange tabby cat that managed to get loose from an apartment that Llewyn was staying at. To make things worse, Llewyn learns another devastating secret about a past lover who moved to Akron.

While the Coen’s lighten the mood with doses of their eccentric humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a morose work of art that lingers on Llewyn’s testy attitude and self-inflicted turmoil. He scurries around New York City in the middle of winter, bundled up in a corduroy blazer and scarf, seeking out friends and family members in the hopes that they may lend him some money or give him shelter from the blustery cold. He is constantly taking verbal beatings from Jean, who absolutely detests him, but he does nothing to soften her blows. She calls him a loser and demands that he arranges for an abortion, and he retorts by calling her a conformist and rolling his eyes. When he isn’t busy pushing his friends away or refusing a winter coat from his manager, Llewyn is busy being combative with his sister and refusing to visit his sickly father. Despite the fact that he basically invites many of his problems, Isaac still manages to convey a deep-rooted pain that is visible in both Llewyn’s sleepy eyes and the aching folk songs that he cathartically belts out. You consistently get the impression that if Llewyn could just have one good thing happen, it might ease some of the tension that he carries with him. This is why you can overlook his long list of flaws and actually root for the guy.

Inside Llewyn Davis #2

Complimenting Isaac’s ornery and nomadic turn as Llewyn are equally complex performances from Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and even Garrett Hedlund. Mulligan is a snippy ball of fury as Jean, who never misses an opportunity to call Llewyn an “asshole” for getting her pregnant. Watching the two butt heads is hilarious and exasperating, especially since Llewyn keeps lighting her short fuse. Justin Timberlake gives another surprising turn as Jim, Jean’s eager-to-help husband who does everything he can for Llewyn. Timberlake’s shining moment comes when he sings a song with Isaac and co-star Adam Driver called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a cutesy novelty track that will be stuck in your head for days after seeing the movie. Coen regular John Goodman is a scene-stealer as the baritone jazz musician Roland Turner, who scoffs at the music Llewyn makes and the cat that he carries around with him. There is a particularly disturbing scene that reveals that the rotund Roland has some fierce demons of his own. Garrett Hedlund is a man of mystery as Johnny Five, a greaser-like beat-poet who answers in grunts, growls, and one-word responses. Watching Llewyn attempt to make small talk with him is spectacularly awkward, especially when he denies Llewyn a cigarette by claiming he is out, only to light one up in front of the broke folk singer just moments later.

In true Coen fashion, Inside Llewyn Davis comes equipped with a must-hear folk rock soundtrack that warms the film’s zero-degree chill considerably. Isaac, Timberlake, Mulligan, and several other colorful characters lend their musical talents to the soundtrack; delivering heart-on-the-sleeve numbers that can really make a room hush up and take notice. The darling of the film is undoubtedly the charming novelty track “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an upbeat tune that will certainly be included in the Best Song category at the Oscar’s. Other standouts include Isaac’s rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” which he strums out for an unimpressed Bud Grossman, Isaac’s heart-and-soul final performance of “Fare Thee Well,” and a sweet little number by Stark Sands called “The Last Thing on My Mind.” In addition to the emotional folk soundtrack, the film is photographed in a dreamy, washed out manner that makes this week-in-the-life tale resemble a collection of forgotten polaroids that have been hiding in your attic since 1961. Overall, Inside Llewyn Davis is a soulful tune that won’t tickle everyone’s eardrums, but if you’re a fan of folk music or if you just can’t resist a morose Coen comedy, then you need to high tail it to the local theater and take a walk with this shaggy folk singer. It’s an American masterpiece that is downright impossible to forget.

Grade: A+