A Most Violent Year

Movie Review #971

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AFI Fest: November 6, 2014. Limited release: December 31, 2014. Nationwide release: January 30, 2015. Action/Crime/Drama. Runs 125 minutes. This film is rated R for language and some violence. An American production, with additional Emirati involvement. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Cast: Oscar Isaac, Elyes Gabel, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, and David Oyelowo.

THE FIRST HALF OF THE FILM PROVES THAT J.C. CHANDOR TELL A VERY INTERESTING STORY. THE SECOND HALF PROVES THAT HE DOESN’T ALWAYS HAVE TO.

★★
By Alexander Diminiano

The title of “A Most Violent Year” refers to the year 1981, as experienced in New York City. Played by Oscar Isaac is an immigrant who owns an up-and-coming heating oil company called Standard Oil. He’s plagued by the constant highjacking of his trucks, and on top of that, the D.A. (David Oyelowo) is trying to expose his company for tax evasion. I guess we’re supposed to feel bad for this guy’s situation, because he’s getting the boot from criminals as well as someone who works against criminals. He’s supposedly a good guy, but he inexplicably reminds us of Al Pacino in “Scarface”. He’s certainly a toned-down version of that child-in-king’s-clothing character. It’s funny, though, that his name is Abel Morales. What a surname.

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Mad Max: Fury Road

Movie Review #970

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Premieres: Hollywood, California, May 7, 2015; Sydney, May 13, 2015. Wide release: May 15, 2015. Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi. This film is rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images. Runs 120 minutes. An Australian-American production. Directed by George Miller. Written by George Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris. Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, John Howard, Richard Carter, and Megan Gale.

WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO — UNLESS HE’S TOM HARDY.

★★★½
By Alexander Diminiano

As I write this review, I am listening to “Hells Bells” by AC/DC. It was first track off the Australian rock band’s Back in Black, their first (and perhaps best) release following the death of lead singer Bon Scott. The howling vocal sound is definitely different from when the band started with High Voltage and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, but it awesomely corrupts the music.

Tom Hardy does the same for “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Forget that Mel Gibson didn’t want to return for a fourth film, and forget any suggestion that he’s too old for the role by now. Hardy really delivers here. Perhaps I’d have a greater say if I’d seen the first three “Mad Max” films (which, I now realize, is a gigantic mistake), but if Hardy continues to give the same rock n’ roll performance that he does in “Fury Road”, I don’t even want Mel Gibson back in the game.

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America: Imagine the World without Her

Movie Review #969

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Limited release: June 27, 2014. Nationwide release: July 2, 2014. Documentary. This film is rated PG-13 for violent images. Runs 105 minutes. An American production. Directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan. Written by Dinesh D’Souza. Other writers: John Sullivan, Bruce Schooley. Featuring appearances by Dinesh D’Souza, Alan M. Dershowitz, Charmaine Whiteface, Noam Chomsky, Charles Truxillo, Ted Cruz, Michael Eric Dyson, Ward Churchill, Jagadish Bhagwati, Allen Guelzo, Ron Radosh, Niall Ferguson, Stanley Kurtz, Rand Paul, Stanley Fish, Brian Wesbury, Arthur Brooks, Star Parker, Harvey Silvergate, Leslyn Wallace, Dan Robinson, and Temo Muniz. Also featuring performances by Josh Bonzie, Rich Bentz, Don Taylor, Michelle Swink, John Koopman, Caroline Granger, Jodie Moore, Janitta Swain, Rett Terrell, Jennifer Pearson, and Chad A. Baker.

AN INTERESTING CONCEPT, SHALLOWLY EXECUTED.

★★
By Alexander Diminiano

Dinesh D’Souza has been a figure of controversy (in America, at least) since 2012, when he released his documentary “2016: Obama’s America”, just a few months ahead of the President’s reelection. It became the second-highest grossing documentary of all-time, behind Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″, from the opposite end of the political spectrum, but founded on the goals: to root the incumbent president out of a reelection.

“2016” was one of few documentaries I actually saw at the theater. Once I saw it, I was quick to back it. D’Souza was under fire from film critics who saw the film as conservative propaganda. Be that as it may, it was an insightful documentary, and D’Souza most certainly deserves points for that. D’Souza had outlined “2016” based on three major predictions about the future of America under the Obama administration, and shockingly, all three have started to run their course since President Obama’s reelection.

D’Souza’s sophomore film “America: Imagine the World without Her”, initially, asks us to do just that, but it’s a question we don’t get much of an answer to by the end of the film. It’s not nearly as insightful as D’Souza’s first work, if the two warrant any comparison. Yes, initially, the film seems to pose the question in its title, but it becomes clear soon enough that the question is virtually irrelevant.

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Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

Movie Review #968

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Wide release: April 17, 2015. Action/Comedy. Runs 94 minutes. This film is rated PG for some violence. An American production. Directed by Andy Fickman. Written by Kevin James & Nick Bakay. Characters by Kevin James & Nick Bakay. Cast: Kevin James, Raini Rodriguez, Daniella Alonso, David Henrie, and Steffiana De La Cruz.

I LAUGHED VERY HARD. YES, FOR REAL.

★★★
By Alexander Diminiano

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2″ is the latest release from Happy Madison Productions, Adam Sandler’s production company since 1999. That pretty much says everything. “Paul Blart 2″ isn’t the smartest of movies–who am I kidding, it’s high-ranking among the dumbest movies I have ever seen, save for perhaps a select few that were mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But there’s a difference: those were B-movies. “Paul Blart 2″ doesn’t give a flying fatguy about how dumb it is, because it’s joyfully basking in the glory of its idiocy.

There’s dumb funny and there’s dumb unfunny. Admittedly, Happy Madison has had some of the latter. There ain’t no hiding my absolute hatred of “Jack and Jill”. It made me want to blind myself with ice picks. You’d think my reaction would at least be similar for “Paul Blart 2″ (and by the way, I have not seen the first movie, though I am now interested). For at least a week, this sequel held a rare 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes, something that hadn’t to a wide release happened since Eddie Murphy had to shut up for an entire movie in 2012’s “A Thousand Words”.

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Marvel Avengers: Age of Ultron

Movie Review #967

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Premiere: Los Angeles, California, April 13, 2015. Wide release: May 1, 2015. Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi. Runs 141 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments. An American production. Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, and Stellan Skarsgård.

WOULDN’T IT BE GREAT IF THE MOVIE WERE AS IMPRESSIVE AS ITS BOX OFFICE EARNINGS?

★★
By Alexander Diminiano

Does complaining about special effects make me sound 70 years old? Maybe older is wiser. I am sick and tired of seeing movies that feature computer-generated effects so prominently that they end up, at best, looking like video games, and at worst, losing our interest.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is distracting. It hemorrhages special effects like it’s the newest member of the European royalty, and the results are stultifying. This is Marvel Studios’s costliest film to date, and the seventh most expensive production in history, at $250 million. Of course, Disney is guaranteed to make that sum back four times, but do finances really matter in a movie that overdoses on visual effects like it’s Janis Joplin? I’m wagering that at least 70% of the movie’s cost was spent on visual effects alone.

“Ultron” is a mess of unoriginal folklore from the greater days of science fiction. The main story is referenced in the title. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is running out of good ideas, so all of a sudden he decides to build a machine called Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that he’s sure will save the world, because he’s programmed it through a language called Jarvis. His plan seems misguided from the beginning, and moreso when Ultron proceeds to eat Jarvis. So it appears, at least. I personally don’t blame Ultron, though. If the popcorn line were long enough, I would’ve eaten Jarvis, too. Anyhow, once this happens, Ultron proceeds to defy his master and make enemies with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). He still claims his objective is to save the world, but now it’s looking like he’s going to destroy the world.

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Two Days, One Night

Movie Review #966

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Cannes Film Festival: May 20, 2014. Toronto International Film Festival: September 9, 2014. Vancouver International Film Festival: September 26, 2014. New York Film Festival: October 5, 2014. AFI Fest: November 7, 2014. Limited release: December 24, 2014. Drama. Runs 95 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements. A Belgian-French co-production, with additional Italian involvement. Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. Writers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne. Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione.

YOU’D HAVE TO HAVE A HEART OF STONE NOT TO REACT TO A FILM THIS EMOTIONAL.

★★★★
By Alexander Diminiano

It’s the reality of “Two Days, One Night” that makes it such an emotional movie. Marion Cotillard, in her most dynamic role since Édith Piaf in “La Vie en rose”, offers that intense reality as Sandra, a woman living in an industrial town in Belgium. She has just pulled herself out of a bout of depression, only to find that her boss wants her fired. Sandra is perhaps the most valued at her job, but the man in charge of the company doubts her abilities to work up to her previous standards after her bout of depression.

Sandra begs to differ, and frankly, so do all her coworkers. However, the owner of the company has used them all as pawns to discreetly fire Sandra. It is on a Friday that he hands out ballots to Sandra’s 16 coworkers. He gives them the choice to keep Sandra and lose their bonus (1,000 euros), or to let Sandra go and keep their bonus. The decision, unfortunately, is to let Sandra go, but only because so many of Sandra’s coworkers are in need of their bonuses. Sandra won’t give up, though, because she has a husband and two kids to support. She can’t afford to lose her job. She appeals to her boss, who then agrees to recollect the ballots on Monday. This gives Sandra two days and one night to find a majority of her coworkers (9 of them) who are willing to give up their bonuses to keep her on the team. It’s a question of stabilizing their respective financial situations, versus sparing the hardest worker among them. It’s not an easy decision for any of them to make.

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Unfriended

Movie Review #965

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South by Southwest Film Festival: March 13, 2015. Wide release: April 17, 2015. Horror/Thriller. Runs 83 minutes. This film is rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use – all involving teens. An American production. Directed by Leo Gabriadze. Writer: Nelson Greaves. Cast: Heather Sossamon, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson, Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Mickey River, Cal Barnes, and Christa Hartsock.

“UNFRIENDED” ISN’T GROUNDBREAKING. IT’S JUST NEW ENOUGH TO GET BY AS MODERATE ENTERTAINMENT.

★★½
By Alexander Diminiano

It’d be rather difficult to argue that the characters in “Unfriended” are anything but stock characters. If anyone’s done it, I’d be happy to see the attempt. “Unfriended” unfolds over a series of Skype conversations between characters whose names don’t do them much justice. I’d prefer to call them the Smart Girl (whose real name, for all intents and purposes, is Blaire), the Smart Girl’s Boyfriend, the Computer Nerd, the Trashy Girl, the Dumb Blonde, and the Black Sheep. You can’t go much further into stereotypes.

They don’t initially know it, but there’s also a seventh among them–perhaps the only character with much original groundwork. That’s the girl who has become a part of their Skype calls and seemingly taken over it. Even when she’s not invited into the call, this mysterious caller somehow latches onto the call like a giant tick. She’s also disabled them from hanging up on her. The caller tells the group that she’s Laura Barns, a teenage girl among them who was harassed so much that she committed suicide exactly a year earlier. The group wants to think that someone has hacked Laura’s account and has decided to play a sick joke on them, but it begins to become clear that this caller is actually Laura, and she is seeking revenge.

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Team America: World Police

Movie Review #964

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Premiere: Hollywood, California, October 11, 2004. Wide release: October 15, 2004. Animation/Action/Comedy. An American-German co-production. Runs 98 minutes. This film was released unrated. Theatrical version rated R for graphic crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language – all involving puppets. Directed by Trey Parker. Written by Trey Parker & Matt Stone & Pam Brady. Voice cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Kristen Miller, Masasa, Daran Norris, Phil Hendrie, Maurice LaMarche, Chelsea Marguerite, Jeremy Shada, Fred Tatasciore, and Josiah D. Lee.

LIKE THE BEST POLITICAL SATIRES, “TEAM AMERICA” ONLY GROWS MORE RELEVANT AS THE FACE OF POLITICS CHANGES.

★★★★
By Alexander Diminiano

NOTE: This is a review of the unrated version, which received an NC-17 rating upon its submission. Forty seconds from this cut were removed for the theatrical version. Why they even needed to be removed to retain an R rating, is beyond me.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have created an absolute masterpiece. They’ve started with the idea of marionette animation, as popularized in the 1960s TV series Thunderbirds, and from there, they’ve created something completely original, completely adult, completely aberrant, completely hilarious, and completely brilliant. On one level, “Team America: World Police” is just a movie about puppets that swear like sailors and screw like animals. On another level, it’s a spoof of action movies and their most tired tropes. And on yet another level, it’s a brilliant satire on the American government and its obsession with policing the world (hence the title).

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La grande bellezza

Movie Review #963

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Cannes Film Festival: May 21, 2013. Toronto International Film Festival: September 9, 2013. Vancouver International Film Festival: October 7, 2013. AFI Fest: November 13, 2013. Limited release: November 15, 2013. Expanded release: March 14, 2014. Drama. Runs 141 minutes. This film is not rated. An Italian-French co-production. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Story by Paolo Sorrentino. Screenplay by Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello. Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Serena Grandi, Vernon Dobtcheff, Anita Kravos, and Isabella Ferrari.

IN ENGLISH, THE TITLE MEANS “THE GREAT BEAUTY”. IT CERTAINLY IS.

★★★½
By Alexander Diminiano

“La grande bellezza” (or “The Great Beauty”, as it is known in the USA) is a cinematic time machine, its controls set for the 1960s. The heyday of Italian cinema, kinged by none other than Federico Fellini. His muse Marcello Mastroianni’s conflicted psychological standpoint in “8½” is practically reborn in “Bellezza” for the characterization of our aging, burdened protagonist, Jep (Toni Servillo). His wild, party-like atmosphere from “La Dolce Vita” translates in “Bellezza” as just that. One moment, we’re beelining to everywhere and back in a nightclub, and the next, we’re faced with the grave but eager desire to recall past experiences.

Our director, Paolo Sorrentino, owes a great deal to Fellini, but he’s certainly made “La grande bellezza” an exceptional film in its own right. The title is well-deserved—so much that I can’t fathom how it was snubbed of a Best Cinematography Oscar. The shots of Rome are absolutely beautiful, and I say this with regard not only to the exteriors but also the interiors. The fusion of sight and sound in various nightclub scenes creates a fierce, sultry, adrenalized environment for this modern ode to Rome. Such scenes are absolutely anything but calm, and yet their power is matched by the serenity of most every landscape in sight.

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Rosewater

Movie Review #962

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Toronto International Film Festival: September 8, 2014. Limited release: November 14, 2014. Biography/Drama. This film is rated R for language including some crude references, and violent content. Runs 103 minutes. An American production. Directed by Jon Stewart. Screenplay by Jon Stewart. Based on the book “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival” by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy. Cast: Gael García Bernal.

JON STEWART’S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT IS HEAVY, FORTIFIED, AND TRIUMPHANT.

★★★½
By Alexander Diminiano

Political comedy isn’t a sport fit for the village idiot. One must first of all know what one is talking about in order to make us laugh. One must also be able to take any political topic seriously, and to understand it inside-out and backwards, from the view of any political comedy, any faction.

Thus, Jon Stewart’s 16 years of success as the host of The Daily Show wouldn’t have been if he didn’t understand that that key to his brand of humor. Politics itself is not a joking matter; rather, what one can make of it is.

This time, though, it’s not a joking matter Stewart makes of politics, and wherever he does utilize comedy, it’s for effect. It shouldn’t take us aback that Jon Stewart chose to adapt a prison memoir, or that he chose to adapt it into a most serious political drama. He knows the ins and outs of politics. He has to.

“Rosewater”, Stewart’s directorial debut, isn’t an account of Iran’s poor treatment of its citizens. It’s a wakeup call to what could be a red scare in Iran. Not unlike Americans’ widespread fear of communists in the post-World War I era and in the 1950’s, Iran is shown as both fearful of and angry at the western world. How accurate the film is at depicting this, I cannot quite say, but “Rosewater” brings the issue to our attention. What’s most interesting here is that Maziar Bahari is portrayed by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. Given his history in Spanish-language comedies (“Y Tu Mamá También” and various Almodóvar films), it’s difficult to fathom just how Bernal turned in such a good performance as an Iranian-Canadian in such a heavy drama. Bahari was born and raised in Iran, but his family brought him up in a westernized household. One of his fondest memories happens to be of a certain Leonard Cohen LP, for example. Bahari has lived in Britain during his time as a writer for Newsweek. He has a wife in Britain, who is expecting their first child. But when Bahari travels to Iran on a business trip, he is accused of spying on the Iranian government.

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