Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy Review

Despite finding the first Purge film from a year ago to be terrible, I still had some hope that a sequel could find its footing and deliver everything that the first was so painfully lacking. The problem with the first film is that its own concept raised my expectations, an idea that on paper sounded like it could be fascinating if done correctly. Right off the bat my mind was racing with thoughts regarding why the society I occupy would want or need such a day, as the human psyche and its confounding thirst for bloodshed are things that I cannot understand. I gave the vision of the unknown James DeMonaco far too much credit, expecting him to take a detailed approach to studying the troubling nature of an annual purge and why as a society we cannot strive for a crime free, peaceful world. I mean, its great that crime is down the rest of the year and the economy is thriving, but is it ever a good time to allow atrocities like rape and murder happen to innocent people?

I sat down last year, expecting a film full of chaos and murder on the surface, sure, but I had hoped for some rich subtext, some meaning to the message of the film. Instead I got 90 minutes of Ethan Hawke walking around in the dark bumping into things while a Patrick Bateman impersonator attempted to break through their oddly ineffective security system. A brilliant and unique concept wasted on one home, one family, with zero substance to absorb from the experience.

A year later and it is time again for the annual purge, and with it comes the possibility that DeMonaco caught wind of the negative feedback that plagued his first effort regarding its limited scope and poor execution. Perhaps the fact that the trailers and advertisements I saw in advance of this viewing showed the devastation of the lawless night taking place out on the streets, following various characters literally navigating the dangers simply trying to survive each minute as it ticks away before order is restored, meant that the minds behind this film had heard and understood these complains and thus expanded the scope and narrative to their full potential. Unfortunately, this sequel proved to be just as big of a failure as the first film. It just took a different path to get there.

What amazed me the most about The Purge: Anarchy is the fact that it is a 90 minute film about people in masks wandering the streets with deadly weapons trying to kill everything that moves, and yet it is so excruciatingly boring. I wasn't tired as I screened this last night so the fact that my eyes continued to leave the screen over and over again cannot be blamed on my lack of focus. I was craving an interesting film experience last night, I was so in the mood to be entertained and yet I was left daydreaming about things I could have been doing in that moment that would be more fun, and that list would be plenty long if I were to actually put it together. A lively, fantastically fresh concept yet again dies with bland cardboard characters and meaningless set pieces that feel like an exercise in merely moving from point A to point B rather than achieving anything memorable to grab onto.

"Uh oh, it's those guys! Let's go over here!"

"Now we are over here and those guys look pretty mean too! Let's go down this alley!"

"Uh oh, it's those first guys again, and boy are their masks creepy! Watch out!"

^ This is essentially the entire film until my brain nearly died and I had to take a step away for a moment to regroup.

Also, they present these "bad guys" as if they are creepy and disturbing, but they really aren't. They are just as bland as the gaggle of protagonists that we follow throughout, the film is screaming for some sort of charisma which, to be fair, Frank Grillo comes close to providing as at least he delivers some lines with conviction and manages one or two moments that are capable of putting a smile on your face amongst the otherwise dour and pointless events. Otherwise though, zero percent of the remaining cast do anything to captivate or keep someone invested in the "story".

Eventually the film attempts an on the nose commentary about rich people and their treatment of those they deem lesser, which would be interesting except it is essentially exactly the same as the first film when they trust fund killers follow the homeless man and feel it is necessary that they kill him. We get it, the 99 percent are being slaughtered by the 1 percent because money equals power. Whatever, just finish this shit up so I can eat a fruit roll up in bed while watching a sitcom rerun.

Until now, I had hope that this unique concept could bring an excellent film to the screen. Unless it gets rebooted by someone down the road with actual talent, the entire Purge franchise is a shameful waste of something that could have been special. I'm already bored just thinking about a third installment.


Monday, July 28, 2014

A Man Escaped

A Man Escaped is my first ever Robert Bresson film, and what an incredible way to start. I had no idea how literal the title would be here, as this truly is a story about a man trying to escape from start to finish, a work that thrives because of its minimalism rather than in spite of it.

I have no idea what the typical Bresson style is and whether or not this film represents it, but I really appreciated the fact that throughout the entire work the focus stayed nearly primarily on the lead Fontaine besides a brief conversation or two amongst other inmates, but even then he was the basis of their words. Much of the film not only follows this one man on his quest to escape from prison, it takes place in the claustrophobic setting of his cell and you can really feel the confinement as you watch these sequences.

After Fontaine discovers his less than ideal fate at his sentencing, the film introduces a new character that as a plot device is a stroke of genius, a cellmate for our protagonist which is a far bigger obstacle than simply being an intrusion into cramped quarters. How does one continue with their solo plan for escape when an unknown presence enters the situation, able to see their every move?

I am guilty of being a film optimist and I am aware of this. I can't help it, while some are able to delve far deeper into a narrative and pick up the smallest of flaws, I will often times forgive these minor errors. After all, no film is truly perfect, right?

A Man Escaped might be. I'm not sure of this, how could I be sure of this? It certainly feels perfect though. Looking back at every second of the film, I can't think of a single moment that didn't feel exceptional and inspired. The final act in which the escape attempt finally takes place is a sublime example of building tension, and how it is achieved makes it even more impressive. As I slid forward to the literal edge of my seat, I realized this wasn't due to a musical score that was striking a chord with my nerves or frenetic editing to keep us updated on the movements of every guard on duty that could stand in the way of freedom. No, Bresson keeps the camera glued to the movements of Fontaine for most of the escape and we follow the potential threats by simply hearing their footsteps or the squeaking of a bicycle moving past. A truly brilliant example of the potential of cinema.

I consider many, many films to be great, but A Man Escaped is something special.


12 Monkeys Review

I find really strange coincidences to be fascinating, which is why I can't seem to get over the one I experienced the other day when I was picking out films to watch at the library. I don't believe I ever knew that La Jetee was the inspiration behind the production of the film 12 Monkeys, I honestly don't recall ever hearing such a thing. Perhaps I did, at some point in time years ago and it subconsciously stuck with me, but I doubt it. So I grabbed La Jetee from the DVD section because it had been recommended to me recently, but again, with that recommendation there was no mention of 12 Monkeys, which I just so happen to walk over to the Blu-ray options and spot only moments later, adding it to the glorious pile of completely free film residing in my arms.

It wasn't until after I finished La Jetee and fell head over heels in love with it that I did some reading up on the history of that work, only to see 12 Monkeys get brought up in relation to it time and time again. While this wasn't technically my first ever viewing of Monkeys, it has been so many years between them that I could barely remember the plot of the film, let alone whether or not I enjoyed it. The fact that I was able to see the masterful short film first was a huge benefit for me entering this long awaited revisit because with the inspiration still fresh in my mind, I was able to truly appreciate that this wasn't some attempt by Terry Gilliam to remake a classic or try to improve upon a film that may have desperately needed an expansion or upgrade of the narrative. 12 Monkeys is a fantastic science fiction work that shows the utmost respect to what inspired it to be, using the incredible concept and conclusion of the flawless short film and building onto and around it with a surprising confidence and ease. Typically I dread the idea of a filmmaker finding a way to even remotely connect their own work to a true cinematic classic because the results can only fail when forced to shine in such a bright, massive spotlight. What Gilliam achieved here was brilliant, because he both tipped his cap to a science fiction masterpiece that was released 33 years before it while somehow also crafting a work that felt remarkably fresh and original.

The way the usage of time travel allows the plot to unfold is extraordinary, allowing us to encounter a unique blend of characters and set pieces that constantly keep the film feeling exciting and alive. The performances across the board fit the tone of the work beautifully, but this is not just an example of familiar faces giving us their best. This is a testament to how important the aspects of creating a film that occur behind the scenes are, the incredible importance of the words on the pages that are being delivered, the inspired casting choices that brought the best possible vision to the screen, and the art direction and cinematography that delivered such appealing, bizarre visuals throughout.

I could get used to a La Jetee/12 Monkeys double feature every so often, revisit the original work of art that proved to be so influential it literally is the reason why the latter even exists in the first place. Gilliam deserves to be commended because not only did he avoid a potential train wreck by connecting his work to such a beauty, he actually created a film that is almost just as good.


Friday, July 25, 2014

La Jetee Review

I have never understood the fascination with the nostalgic power of photographs. I encounter so many people who have an obsession with documenting every banal moment of their lives with pictures, stopping in their tracks to pose outside a frozen yogurt shop or while they are eating a slice of pizza. The worst part is that they think I care, but I don't. Don't show me 150 still images of the same seven people smiling at a camera from different angles. Don't even show me one of those images. Being totally honest, zero percent of me cares to see the picture and zero percent of me cares to be in such a picture. All I need is my memories, whether they be of the most mundane, seemingly insignificant segments of my life or of a monumental moment that changed everything.

I had absolutely no idea what style of storytelling would be portrayed during the much lauded 1962 science fiction masterpiece La Jetee, and I was surprised to find that essentially it is my worst social nightmare presented cinematically. For a brief 28 minutes, an entire narrative is presented almost exclusively through a series of still images and a voice-over, and my goodness is it incredible. Telling the story of an attempt to time travel after the ramifications of nuclear war left Paris devastated, I was completely captivated by the format of the film and floored by the results. 

The most fascinating and important slide show of photographs I have ever witnessed. If only my family and friends could present their weekend getaway in such an inspired fashion.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Inland Empire Review

David fucking Lynch. Seriously.

I was considering waiting a bit to figure out what in the hell to say about his surreal 2006 masterpiece Inland Empire, but I can't just walk away from the opportunity to put some words down while the work is still fresh in my mind. This freshness is also the downfall of my ability to form coherent thoughts though, because honestly, I have no damn clue what I just watched. I don't. Why lie about it? Why pretend like I was able to peel off the many, many bizarre layers of this film, like I have any earthly idea what was going through Lynch's mind during the creative process that spawned this picture? 

I have had intense, confounding nightmares that have haunted me less than the imagery presented throughout this film. I absolutely will not go search for meaning from whatever it is I just witnessed. I wouldn't possibly risk ruining this feeling, like I just observed both a cinematic miracle and an abomination to the medium during the same three hour film. I'm sure some out there would absolutely consider a work like this to be the latter, a pretentious (a word I friggin' loathe) clusterfuck of meaningless images without a comprehensible narrative to follow. I tend to lean more in the other direction.

The irony of surrealist cinema is that while it takes a genius to craft something as spectacular and baffling as Inland Empire, it is mandatory for me to use as little of my brain as possible while I watch it. I want to soak up all the aspects that are made apparent, the incredible imagery, the vivid cinematography, the downright scary performances, and the musical score that suits the haunting tone of the entire work, but as for trying to piece together any sort of message of the narrative, the deeper meaning of every single scene, putting too much effort into understanding does more harm than good. If I am able to have a visceral reaction to the film, if I am fascinated by what I am seeing to the point that looking away feels like a crime, than I know I love what I am seeing. 

I was endlessly fascinated by Inland Empire, and I couldn't look away.


Peeping Tom Review

Frankly, I love watching perverts in action.

Let me clarify what I mean by love. While I am watching a film like Peeping Tom, an excellent work from 1960 by director Michael Powell, I'm not in my living room cheering on the troubled subject in the film, nor am I finding some sort of unsettling sexual satisfaction due to their actions. No, when I say love in this regard I simply mean that I am completely fascinated by character studies of this manner and the tone of such films typically works wonders for me.

Despite my preconception to embrace such a film, absolutely nothing is guaranteed once the first frame appears on screen. Plenty of films have dabbled in the world of perversion and deviant sexual behavior, so it isn't some new subject matter that will automatically keep me invested. When it all comes together though, when cinema is willing to dive head first into the darkness and swim around with depraved, disturbed characters, those are the types of films that I mark on the calendar and count down the days until I have the opportunity to lay eyes on such a work.

Peeping Tom is a wonderful example of how good it feels to explore the depths of evil.

Right off the bat I knew I was going to admire the film when it kicks off from the perspective of looking through someones personal camera as it approaches an unsuspecting woman on the street. It is amazing how effective this technique is compared to simply filming a man approaching a woman in an ominous way, because the first thing I thought of was how delightfully wrong it all felt. Only a few minutes into a film and this voyeuristic approach had me feeling uncomfortable thanks to the enhanced realism, as if a work of fiction had been transformed into a documentary I shouldn't be watching.

An even bigger credit to this aspect of the film is that it isn't any less jarring as the narrative progresses and the technique is used repeatedly. In fact, it becomes even more unsettling once we witness the initial murder first hand because after that moment, even if we seem to be watching something fun and innocent, through this lens it is dripping with danger.

The casting of Karlheinz Bohm as the lead was an inspired choice. In fact it is downright perfect because his look alone fits the bill of exactly what scares me the most about the concept of a peeping tom. Bohm as Mark Lewis is just normal enough for him to blend in and even earn the trust of his peers, yet he also emits the absolute right amount of creepy to make you wonder about him in the back of your mind, even if for just a split second. We learn as the film progresses that while we technically can never be 100 percent sure of whether he was born with a level of evil lurking inside his soul, it is clear that the very unhealthy and downright off-putting relationship with his father is what brought his perversions to the surface. Through various psychological experiments conducted to study fear and the nervous system, along with the observation that his old man embraced his desire to film moments worthy of privacy, Mark Lewis became the man he is today, a man that I hope to never encounter, a character realistic enough for me to realize I unfortunately just might.

Peeping Tom was released 55 years ago, and it seems to be a work that was ahead of its time. Released during an era where such topics were controversial, the film was initially trashed by critics and the career of director Michael Powell went off the rails as a result. Seeing it now, I admire the fact that what was crafted so long ago isn't even remotely dated, playing even more relevant today as we are still attempting to understand the intricacies and terrifying realities of mental illness and sexually charged crimes.

A great film that deserves the credit it finally earned over time.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Robocop Review

When I was a teenager, I wasn't exactly what one would call a "ladies man". I didn't have the confidence, missing opportunities for adolescent romance because the fear of being rejected far outweighed the potential benefits of success in my mind. On some random night during high school I recall watching RoboCop and while I didn't pay close enough attention to the film to truly appreciate the brilliance of the satire (I was likely drunk, high or both), I do recall being captivated by the theme music in the film. I started imagining what it would be like to have it start playing just before I entered a room. I could have been forty pounds overweight wearing a stained t-shirt and pajama pants, doesn't matter, the RoboCop theme would have transformed me into a sexual icon.

It took me being an adult to finally "get" Paul Verhoeven. While I never took this film too seriously, I used to deem that as a flaw of some sort, as if the silly over-the-top performances, advertisements and news segments were unintentionally comical. In my younger, naive mind, I believed that Verhoeven was attempting to craft a super serious action film and got lost along the way. Now that I have had the opportunity to sit down and experience this film with a clear, semi-intelligent mind, I am ashamed of the limited scope of my past film appreciation potential. I can't help but wonder how many films I "watched" during that era had unfortunately soared over my head.

What I once deemed as merely silly, I now admire for being so friggin' smart. RoboCop is everything you could ask for from a science fiction/action film. It has laugh out loud worthy wit, thrilling action sequences, and yet still plenty of warmth and emotional resonance to establish a true connection with the audience. Mastering one aspect only would have still been enough to entertain and earn my recommendation. Had RoboCop been only successful as a brilliantly on the nose social commentary, I would have enjoyed it. Had it been merely an exciting action film with some inspired set pieces, I likely would be able to shut my brain off for 90 plus minutes and reveled in the violence. The fact that Paul Verhoeven managed to balance every possible direction the film could go with seemingly flawless confidence, that is why RoboCop stands today as a 1980's genre masterpiece rather than just another film lumped in the massive group of entertaining but forgettable films that were released around the same time.

Today I live life as a loyal married man, but my desire to claim the theme music as my own remains unchanged. Sure, my days of being an overly horny and lonely teenage male are long over, but the song is simply too fucking epic to ignore regardless. In the near future I will drive to work one morning with it blasting from the speakers in my car, and anyone of importance in the office will take notice. It may not guarantee a raise and a promotion, but it certainly can't hurt, right?


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Alien 3 Review

Alien 3 is a film loathed by a majority of those who have seen it, or at least it feels like a majority. Anytime I mention that I am a fan of it, the looks and strongly worded comments I receive as a result seem to indicate that I am very much in the minority, but I truly do believe it is a remarkably interesting, courageous work that is not worthy of such derision.

I should clarify quickly before I continue that this review is based on the extended version of the film that was released in 2003, also referred to as the "assembly cut". While I have never hated the film in any format, I do feel that this longer cut is more richly explored thematically and as a result it is the superior version. If you have only seen the theatrical version and dislike it, I do suggest you at least attempt the extended cut with an open mind.

Alien 3 was the first feature film by the now beloved auteur David Fincher, and rather than try to determine who was at fault for it being a step back from the incredible first two films of the series, I choose to admire it for going in a bold, different direction even if it does fall a bit short. The tonal shifts from film to film is an aspect of the series I have always enjoyed, going from the haunting horrors of the claustrophobic Nostromo in Alien, a single creature lurking in the darkness killing off crew members one by one in a terrifying fashion, to the chaotic action packed assault of Aliens, a team of Marines facing off against countless xenomorphs, the bullets and the death coming in bunches. Alien 3 reverts back to tone of the original, ditching the ammo and action for the slow burn effect of one monster stalking numerous men with nowhere to hide. It would have been easy to attempt to build something even bigger and more bad ass than Aliens given its success, hiring a filmmaker who would up the ante with double the weapons and quadruple the body count, but such a path was not taken.

Right off the bat the film makes it clear that it is willing to be bold in very unexpected and unpopular ways, killing off two fan favorite characters from the previous film before the audience has even had a chance to get comfortable in their seats. I can understand the distaste for such a choice given all the emotion poured into their survival in Aliens, but I admire anyone willing to try something so risky even if it doesn't always work. Also, given the way the rest of Alien 3 plays out, these deaths proved to be necessary to make the story and its themes resonate.

The setting of the film is one of my favorite aspects, a gritty and dour prison filled with convicted felons guilty of heinous crimes. It is far more challenging to attempt to garner sympathy for such people, and honestly the lack of secondary characters that an audience could possibly connect with likely did the film a disservice. That being said, I am unsure of what changes I would have made in this regard. It couldn't possibly have worked to keep Newt or Hicks alive, having them tag along with Ripley the entire time because it would have flied in the face of the deeper themes of the work. Alien 3 is a film about death, both the literal and emotional loss that accompanies it. It is a film about a search for God, for hope, in a place that seems so cold and hopeless.

The weight of grief continues to pile on Ripley as she yet again finds herself in a foreign situation, an absence of ties to her life before this moment, but the fact that she continues to fight despite such deep, dark scars further portrays her as a powerful, heroic female character. Even the way she is filmed throughout is important to take note of, as the camera is often times positioned in a fashion that makes her stand tall above our perspective, as if she is always the most powerful person in the room especially when she has her guard up. Pay attention to a scene in which she enters the dining hall, every man in the room sitting as she stands above them all. Most (including myself) would cower to an isolated area of the room and hope to be left alone, but Ripley not only takes the seat she wants, she also takes control of the situation. The only significant time on camera she appears vulnerable is when she is alone with Clemens, a man she quickly learns to trust and care for, a man she doesn't have to fear in a place full of scary, dangerous men.

On a performance level, I believe Sigourney Weaver shows us her strongest work of the franchise in this film. The depth of pain she portrays during a autopsy scene alone is on a whole new level for the character. The only actors that are given a chance to shine in this film are Weaver and Charles Dutton as Dillon, and I do believe both took full advantage of the opportunity, performances sorely needed in order to make the film work.

Don't get me wrong here, not everything about Alien 3 soars and it certainly isn't on the same level as its two predecessors. While I admire the courage to write a sequel to Aliens that includes literally zero weapons, I do question the plausibility in a maximum security prison not concerning itself with owning even just one single firearm. Worse yet is the explanation given during the film, that they are not needed because the inmates have no place to go and live in fear, as if this guarantees that no individual violent outbursts or organized riots could ever occur. As a result, the no weapon plot device felt lazy, an attempt to raise the tension and the already overwhelming helpless feeling without a convincing reason why this would be the case.

Still though, Alien 3 is a hated film and I simply cannot wrap my head around why. The exploration of the importance of religion in the prison is enough on its own to allow me to recommend the extended cut to anyone willing to give it a spin. I was reminded of the aphorism "There are no atheists in foxholes" used to illustrate that at times of intense stress, when life is at its darkest and the end is something approaching that should be feared, absolutely anyone can find a connection with God in hopes of salvation. Those that occupy the prison in the film are the lowest examples of humanity, rapists and murderers, and yet they regularly join together in prayer. When all hope is seemingly lost, even the most logical and level-headed individual may be searching for a miracle.

Alien 3 is far from a cinematic miracle, but a pretty great work nonetheless.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

All is Lost Review

A man is sleeping on his boat in the midst of a solo journey through the Indian Ocean when he wakes to find it taking on water thanks to a collision with a loose floating shipping container. We don't know the name of this man, we don't know what his life is like, yet I cared for him and was heavily invested in his fate. Who he was before, who he is today, who is going to be years from now, none of this matters as I was watching the life drain from his body while lost at sea facing rough weather conditions with no salvation in sight. Writer/Director J.C. Chandor crafted something special here, asking an audience to connect with a man in a nearly dialogue free film and I did instantly, and a large part of this bond I developed with the work (despite no actual attempts to develop the character) was the brilliant performance of Robert Redford.

The lack of emotional stakes that typically stem from external relationships in films such as this may have resulted in a slightly colder experience than, say, the depth of heartbreak and life-affirming joy that a film like Gravity brings to me, or the overwhelmingly beautiful connection to a God I rarely recognize in everyday life that was established thanks to Life of Pi, but I am appreciative of the bold filmmaking choices of Chandor. All is Lost is painful to watch because of the extraordinary realism and anguish portrayed by Redford, and it was done without hardly ever saying a word. The pain in his eyes as he recognizes the slim odds of his survival and the crushing disappointment he portrays when the potential to be saved passes him by, at moments like these I was able to recognize just how challenging of a role this was and how perfect of a choice Redford was to fill it.

It's hard to sell someone on a film like All is Lost. Prior to seeing it I had encountered multiple people complaining about how boring it was, but I cannot imagine being bored when the work of such talented people is on display. 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cloud Atlas Review

In the world of film criticism, the word perfect is tossed around a lot, but honestly, what defines a perfect film? How can one truly gauge something like perfection?

To be clear, I am just as guilty of invoking the word as anyone else, mostly to illustrate that an aspect or an entire work felt perfect to me personally. Even then though, how can I be so sure? The Tree of Life is a cinematic experience that is so sublime, so richly rewarding for my soul that I could never actually find a flaw, but does that mean one doesn't exist? Isn't it always possible something technically could be improved upon, even if we aren't able to spot the imperfection no matter how close we look?

Cloud Atlas isn't a perfect film, not even for me on a personal level. I find the flaws to be minor, but they expose themselves nonetheless. Six stories that take place at vastly different times are weaved together to form a cohesive narrative, and some of these characters and their personal journeys are more interesting and impressive than others, yet as a whole work this is a film that resides inside my top 30 of all time and climbs slowly higher and higher with each revisit. I tend to believe the reason I formed this deep, important connection to Cloud Atlas boils down to a matter of personal preference more than anything else.

Some may admire a more minimalist feature that expertly knows its limitations and embraces them, and that is totally fine and understandable. For me though, if you really want to get my film loving juices flowing, sit me down in front of a work that is willing to make a few mistakes in pursuit of grand, massive ambitions. The scope of Cloud Atlas is on a level I have never witnessed before in cinema, a film that aspires for true greatness and for some I am sure it falls short. Not me though. I passionately connected to not only the concept and thematic messages of the film, but also the fact that it soars to seemingly unreachable heights on a technical level.

When I read the novel of the same name that this film is adapted from, I understood why it was considered by many to be a work that simply could not be translated to the screen. I found the novel by author David Mitchell to be a literary masterpiece, a challenging read that will reward the persistence of those who are willing to commit to its innovative format in the end, but I sensed that an attempt by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer would end up being a rather unfortunate failure. I was wrong, so very very wrong, and I discovered this in an IMAX theater on opening weekend when the fastest cinematic three hours of my life floored me and left me wanting to go back and do it again and again.

This being my fourth viewing overall of the film, I still can't wrap my mind around what an achievement the editing of Cloud Atlas is. The novel separated the six different stories which allowed me to mentally focus on only the one in front of me, only the words I was currently reading, and then I would put the book down to take a minute and piece together the thematic and literal connections that linked one story to the next. The reason it felt nearly impossible for the source material to be coherently adapted was essentially, how do you present such material to those that are not familiar with the stories in advance? If you keep the format the same and focus on one set of characters at a time, you risk losing the audience during the segments that are deemed less compelling, but to attempt to weave through the past, the present and the future all at once seemed destined to befuddle an audience that entered the cinema with no prior knowledge, unprepared for what awaits them. I am in awe of how seamlessly the film is pieced together, as I find from beginning to end it takes on an almost lyrical flow that overwhelms me with joy.

If someone were to ask me for a definition of pacing that I find ideal, I would turn to Cloud Atlas and point to the intimidating running time on paper and challenge them to actually feel any sluggish moments, any fat they would trim due to boredom. I have seen films that are literally half the length of this that bore me to tears, forcing me to check the clock on the wall and beg for the hands to move a bit faster. When I watch Cloud Atlas, clocks don't exist. Time is rendered meaningless. All that matters is what is in front of me, a work that defines epic, a work that even at its silliest lows, it is still utterly fascinating.

Cloud Atlas certainly isn't perfect, but I'm not sure any film really is. Considering its ambitions and the fact that practically every single second of this wonder had me glued to the screen, I don't search for nor need perfection. I am thankful of anything bold, exciting, and unique that will resonate in my mind and heart for the rest of my life, and without a doubt this is a work that has cemented its spot forever.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Life Itself Review

Full disclosure: I grew up on the film criticism of Roger Ebert. Living just outside Chicago my entire life, when I wanted to read a print review of a new release I would turn to the Chicago Sun-Times and soak in the words of Ebert. Every chance I had to watch At the Movies, I would find myself in front of the television to hear the wonderful banter and debate between Siskel and Ebert. In a world before I could rely on various websites that would simplify the process, grouping hundreds of reviews in one location to form a consensus, I only knew of those two gentleman and their opinions. Whether or not their thumbs went up or down was a major influence on my young mind.

I felt the need to clear this up right off the bat because I will admit, this bias entering the experience of the film Life Itself may have enhanced my overall opinion of it. However, please understand that just because I loved and looked up to Ebert doesn't mean I held his word to be gospel. Often times I would disagree with him and wonder what in the hell he could have been seeing or not seeing in a film, but even when I felt like he and I were a million miles apart with our opinions, I never stopped appreciating his passion for film. Ebert wasn't cynical, he never acted like he was above anyone and he never came off as snobby. He broke down a film in a way that I could understand even at a young age, he loved what he did for a living and you could feel it in every word he wrote.

Life Itself is a documentary made by Steve James, the man behind incredible works like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, and I found so much joy within these two hours I am taking my time coming up with the proper words to do the feelings justice. Even at its most heartbreaking given the fate of the beloved subject, at its core this is a film that celebrates a life rather than mourns the loss of it. We are allowed into not only the life of Roger Ebert but also the various relationships that shaped him throughout his existence, and the emotional words from the people he was closest to resonated deeply with me.

The aspect of this film that I was most impressed by was the fact that James knew he couldn't merely throw together a giant love fest for Ebert, he couldn't just paint a picture of perfection that may have been what people wanted to hear but it wouldn't be real. The film is mostly positive, and it should be considering what an example of warmth and optimism the man was, but it isn't afraid to delve into topics such as his battle with alcoholism, his taste in women (and even the occasional prostitute) prior to meeting the love of his life, and the ugly moments between himself and his on screen partner Gene Siskel. It's important to understand that just because someone appears on television and seems to have their shit together doesn't mean they are perfect. Nobody is perfect, and even the most famous people on the planet fight their flaws and their inner demons. When you honor a life, you must honor everything, the good and the bad. It was his life, and even when things weren't perfect, Roger Ebert truly lived.

Everything I had hoped for when I first learned of this documentary came true. I got to experience nostalgic warmth but also learn something new about a man I admired deeply. I laughed repeatedly but I cried only once, but trust me, it was a good cry. As I said in the beginning, it is important to note my strong feelings for the man and what he has meant to be and my love of cinema, but I don't think it would have changed a whole lot even if I barely knew him or his story. The real reason Life Itself works is because of its storytelling, its honesty and ability to shower love onto the life of a man without pandering. This is a marvelous testament to the powerful potential of the genre.

Whenever I see a new film, whether I love it or hate it, I always wonder what Ebert would think if he were still alive today. It makes me sad to know that he never got to see some of the films either currently released or the ones that will be soon. I can't help but wish I could read his review of Boyhood prior to my entering the cinema, for example, and as morbid as it sounds for a relatively young man like myself to even entertain these thoughts, I couldn't help but consider the fact that someday I, too, would pass away and leave behind people I love and the opportunity to experience wonderful films going forward. I could dwell on this, sure, but that would suck all of the fun out of living, seeing, experiencing, and loving. Instead I choose to make sure I don't take for granted what an incredible gift it is to wake up each day and cherish life itself.

If I can live half as good as Roger did, I will consider myself lucky.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beauty and the Beast Review

I know people who believe it is weird that an adult would enjoy a "kids movie", which is a label applied to essentially any child friendly animation. I couldn't help but smirk thinking about this when I revisited Beauty and the Beast, the absolutely splendid Disney classic from 1991, but not because they are wrong (although I think their resistance to such films is a shame), they are entitled to their opinion. No, I was amused by the idea that animation is only suited for children because despite multiple previous viewings of Beauty and the Beast before last night, I finally completely connected to the work and fell in love at the age of 30.

Don't misunderstand, I never once disliked this film, in fact I have always enjoyed it, but for whatever reason I carried with me some sort of mental block that didn't allow me to really understand why it was so highly regarded. It was that same mentality that made the fact that Beauty and the Beast remains the only animated film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture under the five nominee format completely baffling, but everything just felt different this time around.

First, when my daughter asked if we could watch a movie together, for the first time ever I requested this film and she actually said no to me. I couldn't believe it but I persisted, and finally her kind 6 year old heart persuaded her to reach up and grab it off the shelf. "Sure daddy, we can watch it." she said, and I was filled with a weird feeling of joy despite my reservations towards the film. What a sight that would have been for adults enjoying animated films naysayers. A grown man celebrating because a small girl allowed him to watch Beauty and the Beast.

The point of that is, the fact that I so eagerly wanted to revisit it means I was in the perfect mindset for it, and the magic of the work washed over me. The songs were immensely more enjoyable, and for the first time I really noticed how wonderful the dialogue was and the perfect way it was balanced to allow every supporting character to showcase some humor.

Also, I couldn't help but compare a feeling I had during this viewing to a similar one I experienced the last time I watched the Empire Strikes Back, which is a strange title to invoke in this review I understand but bare with me. It occurred to me on probably my 200th viewing (possibly not an exaggeration) of Empire that not only is the pacing of the film sublime, but the sheer amount of story that was included in the relatively short two hour running time was mind boggling. I have seen films significantly longer than it achieve so much less, and realizing this actually made me appreciate one of my all time favorites a bit more. Beauty and the Beast is less than 90 minutes long but you wouldn't know it without checking. The film flows with ease, but it feels as if there is far too much meat on the bones of this wonderful story to pull it off in such a short running time. It is a remarkable achievement by co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

I knew exactly what was coming as I watched Beauty and the Beast this time around, only in a way I didn't. Everything felt new and exciting, and a romantic attraction to the entire experience swept me off my feet. While I still hold some animated films in slightly higher regard, without question this is one of the finest ever created.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Ain't Them Bodies Saints Review

David Lowery's 2013 drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints brings to mind the concept of all style and no substance, but I have felt that it is a far too extreme phrase in regards to many of the works it ends up being applied to and thus I typically try to avoid it. How often is it fair to actually label something as ALL style and NO substance?

Ain't Them Bodies Saints is often times captivating, but that has very little to do with the oddly cold and mostly lifeless narrative involving a man named Bob (Casey Affleck) on the run from the law after he escapes from prison, hoping to reunite with the love of his life (Rooney Mara) and the child he fathered yet has never met in person. The actors all show up and deliver fine work here, which is especially complimentary to say given the rather bland story that does little to invoke an emotional connection, but the real star of the show is the gorgeous cinematography, the sweeping landscapes and the brilliant framing and lighting of characters seen throughout. On a technical level, Lowery's film is a triumph, enough so that I can honestly say I was both bored and yet somehow engaged throughout. My mind was shutting down as I developed no connection to the people or their relationships, yet my eyes wouldn't allow me to look away.

The fatal flaw of the film for me is found in the opening few minutes when only a handful of brief scenes are utilized to develop an intense love between a man and a woman through a few smiles and a quick promise to wait for their passion to be possible again. It simply wasn't enough to get me to buy in to an entire plot focused on the difficulties of them reconnecting again due to Bob being on the run from the law. Any attempt at a literal romance failed to resonate, yet Lowery managed to craft a romantic film thanks to the rural setting and the warm glow of the sun filtering through the darkness. I could have watched this on mute and my heart would have been aflutter over the striking attempt at following in the footsteps of what Terrence Malick achieved with his masterful debut film Badlands, but on every other level Lowery falls short of such a lofty comparison.

The main thing to take away from Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a positive though, and that is the obvious potential for Lowery to take the next step and unleash a true wondrous work in the near future. The man has a gift for how to make a film look and feel like something spectacular, and if he can put it all together and present a narrative dripping with as much beauty as the aesthetic, the possibilities are mind boggling.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Full Metal Jacket Review

I constantly debate myself over what war film I consider to be the greatest of all time. Despite witnessing many fantastic depictions over the years, in my world there are two options for such an honor: The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick and Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick. Honestly, I am pretty sure that I award the prize to whichever I have seen more recently. As I sit here right now, it doesn't get any better than the amazing anti-war statement released by the greatest cinematic genius of all time, Stanley Kubrick.

I had to revisit this film tonight as I finished reading the novel it was adapted from earlier today, "The Short-Timers" by Gustav Hasford, and the book was nothing short of a literary masterpiece. Despite already knowing the film well and thus knowing what to expect, I had to put the book down at times because the lack of humanity on display was hard to swallow, but what made it resonate even deeper for me is that I always knew in my mind how realistic the awfulness being portrayed was. As a result of finally reading the source material, I now have a more intense love for this film as well because it is immensely difficult to adapt something so brilliant yet Kubrick seemingly did it with ease. The two together might be the greatest novel-film combination I have ever personally encountered.

I know many have a slight issue with Full Metal Jacket due to an imbalance in the quality of the two acts, but I actually completely disagree with this. The haunting depiction of boot camp and the mental breakdown of a marine in training is utterly spellbinding, but I don't consider it to actually be a stronger portion of the film than following Private Joker and the rest of the gang as they put their lives on the line in Vietnam. The two acts are completely different, yet they are also remarkably similar in that while one took place in a "safe" location and the other a war zone, the central theme of life in the military and war being senseless and moronic was evident throughout. For me, the entire experience of witnessing this film is perfect, beginning to end.


Blue Ruin Review

A homeless man receives the haunting news that the man who murdered both of his parents will shortly be released from prison thanks to a plea deal, and he knows what he must do: return home and seek vengeance. With this plot in full swing I expected a very predictable revenge film that would culminate in the expected showdown, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Not that this showdown doesn't happen, it does. I will tell you that flat out and not be concerned about revealing spoilers, and you know why? Because this all happens in the first act of the film, with surprises in store for the remainder that build the tension beautifully and invested me heavily in the journey of a man with a violent yet understandable goal.

I say understandable, but I don't know how I would react if I were to be presented with this unfortunate scenario. I hope to God I never have to know what it would be like to face someone who destroyed the entire makeup of my family, but if I was forced to guess what direction I would go if I were put in the exact circumstances of the Dwight (Macon Blair), the lead of the film Blue Ruin, I believe I would want any and every person who participated in the original senseless tragedy to suffer in the same way my loved ones did. The fact that I believe this about myself could explain why I connected with Dwight's mission immediately and was rooting for his success.

Blue Ruin is the second film from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier, the first being a 2007 release titled Murder Party that I must be honest, I know absolutely nothing about. The fact that this film is so immaculately crafted is an incredible testament to the talent of Saulnier, and what really took me by surprise was just how smart the screenplay for the film is. At times Blue Ruin is a brutally violent work, but it never seemed like it was done without reason, never overkill. Those brief moments of horrific bloodshed were jarring and upsetting to see, but in a way that felt realistic considering the circumstances. Everything about this film seems to have been well thought out and delivered with intelligence, which is unexpected for a filmmaker with such a limited track record.

As the film came closer and closer to finishing, for some reason I had a thought go through my head that I wasn't going to enjoy the way it would end. I had no evidence to assist in this thought, perhaps it was just a product of a permanent pessimism that resides in my mind. I was completely, totally wrong, as the final ten or so minutes of Blue Ruin knocked my socks off. The film had me on the edge of my seat during the first 95 percent of its running time, and with that finale sequence I couldn't stop myself from falling off. A special film that I will surely remember and revisit.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Hellion Review

Well shit, Hellion. You had me for a while there. I was buying into the vision of unknown to me writer/director Kat Candler, even if that coming of age troubled family dynamic in a rural southern setting vision isn't exactly screaming of originality. While the entire picture had a sort of redundant feeling to it, at the very least it was executed very well and featured some really solid performances, and even now I did like the film and would recommend it to others. Unfortunately, that recommendation comes with a feeling of frustrating disappointment weighing it down. 

Hellion tells the story of a father named Hollis (Aaron Paul) struggling to keep his two sons in line, 13 year old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and 10 year old Wes (Deke Garner). Young Wes isn't so much the problem, but the progression of wanting to follow in his older brothers footsteps is concerning as Jacob is the definition of a problem child, constantly getting caught up on the wrong side of the law. After one particular night of mischief leads to the removal of Wes from their home, Hollis and Jacob must balance their deep emotional scars and explosively poor relationship to find a way to bring him back home.

I had no issues with anything on a performance level, with Aaron Paul restoring my faith that his brilliant turn as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad was not a fluke. It may seem quick of me to already be thinking negative thoughts of a multiple award winner only one year removed from the end of his career-making series, but to be fair, I sat through Need for Speed. The fact that his talents were so poorly utilized in such a limited, one note role is a shame, as I believe I could have stepped in during his many sequences of driving cars and trying to look cool and the film would have been just as effective, and lord knows I probably can't act and I certainly am not cool.

I noticed one of the "people who enjoyed Hellion also enjoyed..." films listed on IMDB was Jeff Nichol's Mud from last year, and I couldn't help but think of that film often while screening Hellion. They are very similar with setting and unstable family settings and the fact that adolescent actors were the focal point of the works despite a familar face excelling in a supporting role (McConaughey, Paul). The main difference is a major one, and that is the fact that Mud is a masterful example of storytelling and a dramatic film filled with warmth while Hellion feels limited in its exploration of deep rooted emotions and is essentially 93 minutes of cold, dire circumstances with very little to root for.

Despite any of these negative criticisms, the film still had me because it had a very real and raw quality to it thanks to the actors and a majority of the material written for them. The behavioral issues of the kids as a result of their situations at home are handled very maturely and believably, as I am well aware of the commonality of teenagers acting out when faced with such adversity. Where it lost me was in the third act when an amateurish storytelling device was utilized, a moment I didn't see coming despite being introduced to a gun in the hands of a minor earlier in the picture. Despite this being a debut work by Candler, I had hoped the maturity demonstrated throughout much of the film meant that she would avoid the totally predictable climactic scene in which a gun would come into play again. In the end, eye rolling predictability reared its ugly head and diminished the overall achievement for me.

In the end, Candler absolutely shows promise as a filmmaker and I will gladly look forward to future works that could be tightened up, because the skill on display here is impressive. A pretty good film that could have been great. 


Aliens Review

When I was a kid and I saw Aliens for the first time, during roughly the first half hour of the film I wanted to be a marine so badly. It just seemed so cool to be such a bad ass, and boy did it look like they were having fun. Of course I had no concept of what it truly meant to be a marine or in the military in general, I was seven years old and thought perhaps killing xenomorphs with giant guns was a solid career path to take. Other kids aspired to be police officers or fire fighters or astronauts, and when they expressed these dream futures I smirked in the back of class and shook my head at their simplistic goals. Way to be cowards with your run of the mill jobs, classmates. Not everyone can be destined for LV-426.

You know what I love most about this James Cameron helmed sequel? The fact that it didn't take bloodshed and chaos for me to change my mind and start my realistic journey towards the middling accounting position I hold today. The moment the team lands on the ominous landscapes of the planet to begin their rescue operation I knew something real bad was going to happen, and the patience of building up the tension before any actual threat even presents itself is a wise storytelling choice. Aliens is an action film, for sure, but I look at it more as an action/horror, and its during this period of time that it is clear something awful occurred on this planet yet the creatures are seemingly long gone that Cameron wisely reminds the audience that this is a sequel to Alien. I experienced some pretty intense nightmares after seeing both Alien and Aliens, and it is the moments of quiet build up that earn such disruptive slumber rather than the predictable arrival of death.

"Game over, man! Game over!"

You're god damn right Hudson. I officially revoke my erroneously filed job application. It's probably best I leave the xeno-slaying to someone far braver than I.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Locke Review

Locke is a very enjoyable example of a film being minimalist, literally an entire picture taking place in one location following only one person throughout. That one person is a man named Ivan Locke, and Tom Hardy plays the role brilliantly with a totally measured and mature performance and the only way the film could work is if he nailed the role. Sure, it took some real ass talent to craft such a small film in a way that would result in anything compelling, and for that credit is certainly due to writer and director Steven Knight, but really this is Hardy's film and even Knight must know that. For just over 80 minutes we watch Ivan Locke talk on the phone while driving, and it was a surprisingly riveting experience.

These phone conversations aren't merely random chats between old friends, they are incoming calls that represent chaos and the destruction of what was clearly a very blessed life. That is an area that this film was a massive success for me, its ability to develop a character on the fly without technically telling us any specifics about his past. We are able to gather the information ourselves that Ivan Locke is at risk of losing a wonderful wife and family dynamic and a career that carries massive importance in his life, and out of place flashbacks are not necessarily to make us care about his unfortunate circumstances. Knight wants us to follow the character here in this moment in his life, and he does so with confidence in his vision that ultimately makes it successful.

It is fascinating to watch a man deal with the consequences of his actions not just through dialogue with those he hurt but also with the turmoil churning through his own mind. Locke is a hard film to sell on someone who has never heard of it before, as the premise of a guy driving and talking doesn't exactly get a rise out of people, but hopefully both the Hardy performance and the fact that such a small character study among a sea of bloated blockbusters can demonstrate restraint and perfect pacing will get some people curious.


Before Midnight Review

I feel weird referring to Before Midnight as the final film of the amazing love story because no one has actually ruled out the possibility of returning to do it again in 2022, when the characters will be 50 years old. If this does indeed conclude the wonderful romance of Jesse and Celine, at least they went out on top. All three films are beautiful, inspired works, but Before Midnight is just a step ahead of the others, the perfect conclusion to a trilogy of masterpieces.

The film falls into a bit darker territory than the first two, but that is to be expected. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were about falling head over heels in love at a young age, and then reconnecting after years apart, both of which are scenarios that are typically associated with happy thoughts. Before Midnight is our first glimpse at these characters experiencing a true relationship, now nine years actually together and raising twin daughters while Jesse deals with the pain that comes from being away from his son from his previous marriage. These are real problems people face and the love shared between our two leads has never felt more believable because let's be honest, life isn't perfect. Sure, it may be easier to watch two people smile and kiss and say absolutely the greatest thing at the greatest time, but I prefer the realism of how raw and painful love can be.

The entire film has the similar sublime flow of the first two, except something about the setting of the outdoor sequences makes them feel even more vibrant and alive this time around. The real shining moment of Before Midnight is ironically when it is at its darkest and most heartbreaking, the sequence that takes place in their hotel room. There is an energy and a passion during that scene that is so believable that it literally makes me uncomfortable, like I am watching something I shouldn't. The dialogue is so on point and the emotion seeps out of every single second we sit there and continue to watch something that was once so beautiful slowly unravel.

The amazing thing Linklater achieves though is that from this ugly feeling of sadness that felt like a punch to the gut, he manages to charm us all over again with a final scene that is impossible not to extract a smile. While some of the film may be hard to watch, when the camera drifts back and we live that final frame, I know I am left wanting more. As long as this level of quality and care went into making these films, I never want to completely say goodbye.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Before Sunset Review

Watching the Linklater trilogy in any fashion is incredible, but as a person who showed up late to the party and only screened these films for the first time last year, I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like to actually follow Jesse and Celine through the years. Comparing it to other films with large gaps in time between releases doesn't quite work because rarely do the actual characters age on screen at the same rate as you do, and rarely do they feel as authentic and human. I would imagine if you started this journey with them in 1995, waiting nine years to see where their story would go next, these beautiful films would feel almost like documentaries about love and life. What was probably even more exciting is the fact that I doubt anyone knew for certain the story would even continue. I can't imagine waiting nearly a decade wondering if Jesse and Celine ever did meet up again six months in the future, and not having the answers sounds like agony.

I am jealous of this agony though. I am jealous of anyone who felt the euphoria of learning that a sequel would be made and the quintessential love story would continue. I am jealous of walking into the cinema with eager excitement, waiting for the passionate chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to reignite before their eyes. I saw the trailer for Before Midnight before I ever even got to witness the way their love blossomed in Vienna over the course of one night, so I entered this wondrous cinematic trip already knowing that 18 years later they would be together in some regard. Regardless these are magical works, one of my all time favorite trilogies, but I have to wonder how much deeper my love for them could have been.

Perhaps that isn't the correct way to think about it though. Perhaps I saw these films at exactly the right time in my life, a time when I was married but still remember what it was like to first fall in love. A time when I still recall what it was like to fight for that relationship through the tougher times because I knew for a fact it was exactly what I wanted. A time when I already have a beautiful daughter and have had a chance to both accept and embrace the fact that everything changes after you experience the gift of bringing life into the world. A perfect balance of every possible emotion portrayed throughout these films, and their connection easily found a way to penetrate my soul.

Before Sunset has a flow to it that is intoxicating, as if I am soaking up every word they way seem to bask in the glow of the setting sun. The pacing is perfect to deliver absolutely everything you could ask for to understand the progression of these characters and their relationship. The dialogue is fresh and vibrant with a realistic tone to it, like they have actually be separated for so long and yet share a special bond that allows them to seemingly pick up right where they left off. Such intelligent, warm filmmaking, and Linklater knows exactly the right note to end the film, a moment that is sure to put a smile on your face yet also answer nothing about where Jesse and Celine will be in their lives if and when we were to ever see them again.

Pure magic.


Ten Best Films of 2014 Thus Far

I already covered the not so good side of the 2014 film scene as we reach the midway point of the year. Now it is time for the best I have encountered thus far, films I strongly suggest you try to see and experience for yourself if you have not already done so.

Starting with the 10th best film of the year and descending up into cinematic heaven.

#10 - Godzilla
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe

Godzilla features some flat performances and clunky dialogue. Frankly, I couldn't really give a shit about any human being on the screen and their fate was meaningless to me. So why is it on my best of list? Everything else.

Gareth Edwards previously created a very low budget film called Monsters, one that I love even more than Godzilla, and I can say having seen two of his works now that the man has an incredible amount of talent. The slow burn style was executed perfectly here, as we keep waiting and waiting for Godzilla to really show up in a grand way but that is a compliment, not a complaint. I bought in and was giddy with anticipation, and everything was paid off wonderfully.

Another star of the show who will not receive nearly enough credit for his masterful work on Godzilla is the composer, Alexandre Desplat. His score is truly haunting and powerful stuff that sets a spine tingling tone throughout.

#9 - X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, and many others

I will admit I was extremely pessimistic about the prospects of X-Men: Days of Future Past when I first heard it was announced the massive cast of characters it would include. The film screamed of being bloated for the sake of trying to feel epic and I felt there was no way they could make such a thing without it feeling messy. I was wrong.

Bryan Singer's return to the mutant world is a triumph and in the most unexpected ways. Despite the ambitious project Singer clearly shows his appreciation for patient storytelling, allowing rich and well conceived dialogue to carry the pacing of the film rather than just assaulting the audience with action. Plus, while many familiar faces are seen throughout, the right people are showcased and allowed to shine. 

Now I can't wait for X-Men: Apocalypse in two years.

#8 - The Fault in Our Stars
Directed by: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort

Am I, a 30 year old man, the expected target audience for a film like The Fault in Our Stars? Absolutely not. Am I, a 30 year old man, ashamed that I wept like a child who was told they couldn't get their favorite toy during a decent portion of the film? Absolutely not.

I enjoyed the book, but I had my doubts it would translate well to the screen without being overly sappy and I was also concerned how the dialogue would avoid sounding phony when actually coming from peoples mouths in motion. It's one thing to read cleverly written wit supposedly uttered by a 16 year old, it is a whole other thing to believe it when it is actually heard. Much to my surprise, everything worked about the film. The chemistry felt real, the heartbreak made me hurt, and the relationships throughout the film felt genuine, as I especially connected to the horrible concept of a parent having to face losing their child.

The real game changer here is Shailene Woodley, giving an absolutely incredible performance. I knew she had talent from The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but what she achieved her was so special it was eye opening to the type of career she should have going forward. Woodley broke my heart in the theater that day, but in a way that felt right as strange as that sounds. I look forward to letting her break it again and again.

#7 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan

I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier twice in theaters over the course of about 15 hours. Now, to be fair, this was planned in advance before I even saw it, so it is necessarily an indication of my enjoyment level, but holy shit after the first time was I excited to come back the next day. When Marvel announced that Anthony and Joe Russo, the minds behind the remarkably forgettable comedy You, Me and Dupree, would be at the helm of the Captain America sequel, I was floored with disappointment. The first Captain America was my favorite of the Phase One films (not including The Avengers), and I couldn't believe they would hand over the reigns to such unproven filmmakers. Plus, here comes that wacky comedy that nearly derailed Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, right?

Holy shit was I proven wrong. Whatever lead to the hiring of the Russo brothers proves that the minds at Marvel know exactly what they are doing and I should think twice before second guessing them again. The Winter Soldier proved to be a serious, kick ass spy thriller that just so happened to have a superhero in it rather than a superhero film, and I loved every second of it. In fact, I will take it a step farther: I believe this is the finest film Marvel Studios has ever produced, including The Avengers.

#6 - Enemy
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal

Prior to last year, I had no idea who Denis Villeneuve was but the buzz around his 2013 film Prisoners was rather intense, and from the small clips I had seen it seemed to have the dark atmosphere I would want to bathe in. That film proved to be a creepy, intense, ominous thriller that I immediately fell in love with, so an infatuation with the director was born and I knew I had to see everything he has done.

Some quick research of his filmography lead me to the film Enemy, one that wouldn't be released until early 2014 despite actually being filmed prior to Prisoners. One look at the trailer combined with the buzz from some festival reactions, specifically regarding the ending, and I knew this was a work to get excited about. Enemy absolutely lived up to the hype.

Challenging, confounding, perplexing, bizarre, surreal. Pick a word to describe some of the imagery found during the film, they all apply and I soaked it all up. The concept alone should be enough to put this on your radar, the idea of a man watching a film and seeing his exact double in the background of one of the frames, and the results of this idea are haunting. Oh, and that ending? What an amazing ending. It happens so fast and I literally said "What the fuck?!?!" aloud when the frame quickly disappeared. I still can't stop thinking about it.

#5 - The LEGO Movie
Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson

I am not going to say "Everything is awesome!" in my little write up here. Every single damn person in the world quotes it in their reviews, and I won't do it. Although I guess I technically already did by bringing it up in the first place. Fuck.

The balls to the walls surprise of 2014 thus far, The LEGO Movie can easily be disregarded and labeled as "silly" or a "kids movie" simply because it features toys, and that would be a shame. Did we not learn a lesson from the Toy Story films, one of the greatest trilogies of all time? Lord and Miller created very enjoyable and entertaining films with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, but when I saw The LEGO Movie I recognized for the first time that they were totally brilliant. That isn't hyperbole, brilliant is the appropriate word choice.

It is so difficult to make a film that appeals to absolutely ANYONE who is willing to let it into their hearts, but that is exactly what The LEGO Movie is. The humor is on a whole new level of clever and it results in a constant stream of laughter throughout, and then just when you think you have the whole thing figured out it hits you with a third act surprise that will bring tears to your eyes, a wonderful message about letting kids explore their imaginations and bringing their creativity to life. A genius film, yet amazingly not the top work of animation on the list.

#4 - The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willen Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric

I have been a huge fan of Wes Anderson for a long, long time, but I always felt his films were just a note short of being perfect. Even my favorite of his works, Rushmore, just couldn't quite get to that level in my mind, and I wondered if Anderson would be an auteur with a constant stream of great films but never reaching the level of a masterpiece. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the film I was looking for.

A perfect combination of all the best features of his other films, this has the aesthetic, the charm, the humor, the performances, and the pacing, all of which won me over and brought the biggest smile to my face. While watching it at the cinema I kept wishing I could somehow pause the film without others getting upset so I could really study the level of care and detail that went into every frame. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joyous work and without a doubt the finest of the amazing career of Wes Anderson.

#3 - The Raid 2
Directed by: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais

Typically I am not really into action films. If it takes place within a well told story and it is filmed well, absolutely count me in, but when something is labeled as essentially just being straight up action and little else, more often than not I will find myself bored halfway through and counting the minutes until it would be over. This would explain why I initially avoided the film The Raid from a few years ago, as I caught wind of the fact that it was almost literally entirely action with hardly any story at all to go along with it. 

I kept reading reactions to it and noticed it was actually well received by critics, so I considered the possibility that the first film had to feature something special that went above and beyond people merely kicking and punching and shooting each other, so I decided to take a look. Once I did, I couldn't look away. Sure, it was action, but unlike anything I had ever seen before and it was intoxicating and hypnotic. When it was over, I couldn't imagine how any character in the film would still be standing if the events were to have been fact instead of fiction, because I was exhausted just from watching it.

Thus we now have The Raid 2 in 2014, and it is a magnificent sequel that takes the first film and elevates it to incredible new heights. A completely different tone and feel to this film when compared to the original, The Raid 2 is an hour longer and is far more story based, as if it was the love child of The Raid and The Godfather. The final hour or so is when the action really kicks into gear and at that point I was craving it, and my goodness did it deliver.

The opening shot of the film is of this wide open, calm field of grass blowing in the wind, a massive overhead shot that feels so serene, yet it is jarring when compared closely to the first Raid film. I became so used to the claustrophobic confines of rooms and hallways that I have to believe Evans wanted to start the sequel this way intentionally to send a message, almost like he was saying this would be a bigger film and he had more room to play with. Just don't expect the quiet to stick around for long.

#2 - How to Train Your Dragon 2
Directed by: Dean DeBlois 
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson

The first How to Train Your Dragon absolutely stunned me, mainly because I consider Dreamworks Animation to be on a much lower level than Disney or Pixar when it comes to producing quality films. It was a work of incredible warmth, amazing character and relationship development, jaw-dropping animation and an impressive understanding of the importance of storytelling, and after multiple viewings it was elevated to one of my all time favorite animated films. I didn't believe they could ever release a sequel that would be even close to that level of excellence again, but they actually managed to surpass it in my eyes.

DeBlois admits being inspired by the Empire Strikes Back when coming up with the concept of a sequel and you can tell immediately, as he recognizes that the world was already built and the characters were already fleshed out the first time around. Now he can expand on it and send it to new, impressive heights, and the choice to move the story forward five years made it feel like the fans of the first film aged right there at a similar pace as the characters, allowing the tone to get a bit darker as well which reminded me of the progression of the Harry Potter franchise.

Exciting, bold, and emotionally resonant, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was a top notch sequel and proof that Dreamworks has at least a couple people on their team that know how to make a real, beautiful film rather than simply a series of pop culture gags and colorful characters that kids will eat up while the adults roll their eyes. This was sitting comfortably at the top of my 2014 list and I thought it would be there for a while, but then I saw...

#1 - Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson

The one thing I love most with cinema is when I feel truly challenged, when I have to work at piecing together a puzzle rather than just have the pieces assembled for me. A film like Under the Skin practically defines this, and I didn't even realize how much I loved it until it was over and I gave myself 24 hours to let it soak in. It is a science fiction film, but is it really? Behind all the surreal imagery and bizarre encounters, I believe there is a layered and nuanced reason for all of it that delves into gender issues, female insecurities and the way our society view women and inappropriately hold them to some sort of body image standard. 

Completely eerie and spellbinding, and even as my mind is still racing trying to process everything that happens during Under the Skin, I still know for a fact that I have so much more I can absorb from it when I revisit it time and time again. For some this film might come off as nonsense, pretentious garbage with no real cohesive narrative or message, but I couldn't disagree more. Under the Skin is the finest and most important cinema I have seen so far in 2014.

So there it is, my ten favorite films I have seen thus far this year. It will be very interesting to see where these stack up when the end of the calendar rolls around, as we are still months away from Oscar season when the big hitters are finally released. I would imagine a few of these titles will be bumped off for things like Boyhood, Gone Girl and Interstellar, but you never know. Perhaps Under the Skin will hold onto the top spot permanently, but in a year with both Fincher and Nolan releases I can't help but expect big things ahead.