Mystic River (2003) – Film Review

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Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River props up three childhood friends and puts them into adult, full-grown shoes. It’s one of the few films that pulls off this sort of generational time-lapse premise, mostly as a result of the childhood memories having been constructed in a swift, concise manner. The characters pasts aren’t dragged down by long, overdrawn back stories.

A car pulls up next to three kids on the sidewalk. They are writing their names on a wet concrete filling. A confident man climbs out of the car, declaring himself as an officer of the law to the three kids.

He demands one of the boys to come with him. They don’t realize that the man isn’t wearing a uniform or driving a patrol car, warning signs ignored amidst the oddness of the moment.

The film shifts suddenly to adulthood. One of the boys, Dave, played by Tim Robbins, has a sort of quiet, troubled look in his eyes. It’s clear from the beginning that Dave is an embodiment of suspicion: who knows what had happened after he got in the fake officer’s car?

The other two boys appear to be doing fairly well: Sean, a hothead of a boy, played by Kevin Bacon, now works as a police investigator. The third boy, Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, runs a store, employing his nineteen-year old daughter, the light of his life.

When Jimmy’s daughter doesn’t show up for work, her disappearance meshed with his own past turns into a toxic mix. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it at first and assumes she’s simply slacking off work. But when he spots a crowd surrounding a crime scene, he catches a glimpse of his daughters car. She has been murdered.

Jimmy’s daughters murder begins a long, emotional investigation. Throughout the film we discover more about Jimmy’s past, heightening our expectations of the manner in which he’ll confront his daughters killer, if he does. An extra twist thrown into the mix: the investigator of the homicide is Sean, Jimmy’s childhood friend.

The Invisible War (2012) – Film Review

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, is a movie brimming with incest and systematic injustice, probing into the issue of sexual abuse in the military in an open, graceful manner.

The film doesn’t back down from the truth. Like many great visual essays before it, it contrasts shocking statistics with real people, warts and all, on screen. The film states that twenty percent of women are raped during their military service.

It then goes on to pound the nail in even deeper with interview subjects explaining the hesitancy women have towards telling anyone, thereby likely doubling or at least highly doubting the statistics released by the military.

It’s a cautionary tale to women on what to expect when going into the service. It makes a strong argument for necessary change in the biased process of enforcement in the military. Hopefully, the culture will turn around for the better and women will be able to enter and serve in the military without fear of being harmed by their own fellow soldiers.

On The Waterfront (1954) – Film Review

“On The Waterfront” has become an American classic through the years, and the most credit, unsurprisingly, has gone to Marlon Brando, the supreme acting force anchoring the film.

Brando plays a washed up boxer, Terry Malloy, whose main source of income stems from mob deals; he works on the waterfront, where whiskey, packed and boarded, are loaded up by the tons in large fishing nets. He works hard, a common everyday laborer, but we soon discover that Malloy is very much entangled within the puppet-like strings of the mob.

Characters are often seen asking questions or talking to bystanders, as if they are talking to a blank wall; the cold hesitancy and isolating fear that the citizens feel about the mobs presence. If they slip up just once they’ve lost the opportunity for a second, or first, chance.

At one point, a box of crates fall upon a man standing directly below it; this seems to be done accidentally, a simple labor accident. Then, however, we see the mobsters smoking and gazing down into the deep cellar. They don’t care how much whiskey they’ve shattered and wasted to stage the killing. Murder is their profession and they are indeed very skilled at knocking off the rotten apples easily and economically.

The Magnificent Seven – Film Review

The greatest moments of “The Magnificent Seven” aren’t the scenes where all the magnificent’s are sitting around, talking about their magnificent adventures. Movies should show, not tell, and I agree. But if you aren’t willing to show a characters journey, their past, their present state in the world, then you’ve got to try to tell us a little bit about them.

Cowboys talk in gravely, deep-voiced mumbles, I understand. But not all of them. Josh Faraday, the alcoholic magician played by Chris Pratt (or is it just Chris Pratt played by Chris Pratt?), has a lot to say. The quiet one, Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, talks and acts as if he were living in an entirely different cinematic universe, a slow-burn, darkly-lit drama photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Luckily for Chisolm, he isn’t required to interact a whole lot with this ensemble, other than the obligatory assembling and introductions of the squad. We’ve got 7 here? One, two, three…I count six. Never mind, the seventh is standing over there, as Pratt’s character says in the beginning of the film, “Oh, good, we’ve got a Mexican!”

On-screen diversity is a hot topic in Hollywood and they’ve responded, if not in any dramatic way. They’re learning that people don’t just want diverse characters, they want actual characters. You know, a person with a motive other than revenge or a skill unrelated to their culture.

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The Chinese cowboy, Billy Rocks, played by Lee Byung-hun, is very skilled at throwing all sorts of sharp, metallic weapons, even his own hair-pin. It’s typical to cast a Chinese man as the prototypical knife-thrower (with a twist, albeit), but at least his stereotype isn’t dull. Billy actually rocks. He’s a quiet character but arguably the most entertaining of them all.

The second most engaging character arc would have to be Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, a PTSD-ridden sharpshooter who uses Billy as a circus entertainer for the locals, splitting the dividends between them. Their relationship seems very complex: Billy feels bad for Goodnight’s war-torn suffering, while Goodnight takes advantage of a foreign mans abilities for his own gain.

The film doesn’t come close to replecating the greatness of the original film, or even close to The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s original telling of the tale. But beyond the sketchy, loosely-plotted characters, there is a thirty-minute plus action sequence that’s very entertaining. If anything, you can be assured that director Antoine Fuqua hasn’t lost his interest or his touch in direction large scale, dynamite-driven action sequences.

Whiplash (2014) – Film Review

 

“Whiplash”, a deservedly praised, knockout hit, is the first feature film of Damien Chazelle, a clearly talented young director. It follows a college-aged drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, as he struggles to achieve his highly ambitious musical goals.

Young and consumed by equal parts doubt and confidence, Andrew ends up in the crazed hands of a vulgar, extremely intense composer and instructor, Terrence Fletcher, brilliantly played by a wide-eyed, spit yelling J.K. Simmons.

The film explores the pressures put upon those who participate in elite, highly-competitive orchestras. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, has had direct experiences within the field of musical performance.

The movie has a very specific idea that it poses to us on an even narrative strand throughout its running time. And that is: how far should a person be pushed and pressured towards absolute perfection? Is there such a thing as too far? Is  being healthy but lesser better than being great but maniacal?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and that’s what makes them compelling to both ask and watch unfold, as Andrew is humiliated and berated by his teacher in order to come out the other side as the best drummer he can possibly be (which he would never know, the film asserts, if he wasn’t pushed in the first place).

The screaming dialogue fiercely performed by J.K. Simmons must have been a riot to sit down and actually write. It seems like such a contradiction to see a man teaching beautiful and archaic symphonies one minute, and then violently screaming imaginatively-worded obscenities the other.

Andrew walks into a bar late one night after recognizing his old instructors name plastered on the marquee outside. We witness Terrence actually performing, his face calm, his eyes closing slightly in an unusually serene expression of peace.

The feisty former instructor seems very much at ease as he plays the melodic piano music. But what does the man love the most? The literal sound of the music or the sense of perfection felt from hitting all the right keys? Does he cherish his abilities in contrast to all of the cues his students fail to hit?

A Most Violent Year (2014) – Film Review

A Most Violent Year focuses on a few small pixels in a larger, more dangerous canvas of events. Set in New York City in the year 1981, where crime-rates are quickly rising to an epidemic level, the story sets its eye on an immigrant man, Abel, as we follow his bumpy ride up towards his homegrown American dream.

The film stars a stone-faced Oscar Isaac, playing the ambitious immigrant as a mix of quiet intensity and disgruntled vulnerability. It’s hard for him to accept even the most simplest of things. Alongside him is Jessica Chastain as his shady wife. Chastain’s scenes with Isaac’s Abel are absolute dynamite, a constant battle of wits and ego sparking off of each other. Two of the best young actors/actresses working today.

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The films premise is basically a sub-plot from a lot of other sprawling, ensemble mobster flicks. Remember in Goodfellas, when Jimmy Conway holds up a delivery truck, unloads the goods, and drives away? Well, that’s essentially the main problem in A Most Violent Year, only it’s shown from the microcosmic perspective of the driver and the effect such thievery has on that particular company.

There are a few other key distinctions between the two, though. In Goodfellas, the drivers are complicit: they aren’t getting paid enough to risk being shot in the face, and it’s usually made mutually-beneficial for them anyways. In A Most Violent Year, the driver is a young immigrant man whose not complicit, doesn’t want to be robbed.

The face and owner of the company, Abel, doesn’t want his drivers to back down, although he doesn’t want them to be armed, either. So, waxing in an intelligently cyclical manner, he’s essentially explaining to his low-end drivers that they should be willing and prepared for possible injury or death while delivering the many gallons of oil that will one day make him rich; a very morbid pep speech by any standard.

Through the course of the movie, Abel’s character slowly shapes and grows into his true dimensions. With each conversation or argument he has with others, we’re given small chunks of information about his past; the fact that he’d bought the company from his wife’s father, or that he himself used to be a driver.

It’s these small, subtlety placed nuggets that change not only our perception of him as a character, but also the overall tone of the film as well. With each piece of new knowledge, we cast increasing doubt on the legitimacy and honesty of Abel and his business.

With breathtaking cinematography and a handful of brilliantly brooding performances, A Most Violent Year is an unusually intelligent and entertaining mob film.

Foxcatcher (2014) – Film Review

Review by Logan P. Miller

Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a deliberately paced mood piece, a feeling of melancholy flowing through every frame of the film. For some viewers, taking the time to watch these characters unfold in slow, drawn out scenes filled with gaps and uncomfortable stares, is a burden and a letdown.

The story the movie’s based on, the toxic relationship between Olympic wrestlers and their benefactor, is deliciously tabloid, a true-crime tale that’s truly intriguing and complex. But “Foxcatcher” doesn’t use the story as a leaping-off point for an over-the-top Hollywood drama, as that was far from what Dupont’s life really was; long stretches of his life really were just spent alone.

The little details matter in this film, the subtle hints at the characters doomed fates. The slightest facial tick, gesture, or grunt from any of the three main characters signals a possible spell, a foreshadowing of the tragedy that we know is coming. And in that sense, “Foxcatcher” is an actor’s movie all the way.

The film stars Steve Carrell in an unusually dark role as John DuPont, the wealthy heir to the DuPont chemical fortune. He inhabits the man, and yet doesn’t turn him into some mutated hunchback or movie caricature, either. Channing Tatum plays Mark, the ape-like surviving younger brother, whose trying to escape the shadow of his brother’s glory. He sees an opportunity to do this following DuPont’s unusually generous offer, and he rides on it, all the way to the Foxcatcher ranch.

Does every acclaimed, intense film these days have to include an on-set story about an actor inhabiting their role so completely that they actually physically hurt themselves? Is it now officially a requirement for a great performance? Bleed like DeNiro did or don’t even bother.