Archive | December, 2015

Bernie – Review

29 Dec

In 1996, the small town of Carthage, Texas experienced the most bizarre act of violence it has ever seen perpetrated by the least likely of suspects. This strange, almost surreal tale, caught the attention of a journalist named Skip Hollandsworth, and his article on the event caught the attention of film making auteur Richard Linklater. After the two put their minds together, the end result of their collaboration was the 2011 dark comedy Bernie. Murder may seem like a really heavy subject to make a joke out of, but in the hands of Linklater it has the ability to be both funny and upsetting, which makes Bernie an odd, but lovable dark comedy.

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It would be a strange thing if the most popular and loved man in town was the assistant mortician, but that is the case of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). In the small town of Carthage, Texas, Bernie serves the community in the ways he knows best: making the deceased look their best for their funeral and comforting the the grieving family in the days and weeks that follow. Normally it all works out fine, but Bernie gets in a little over his head when he gets involved with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the meanest woman in Carthage who recently lost her wealthy husband. While Bernie does become good friends with her, their relationship deteriorates over the course of a few years which pushes Bernie to do something unthinkable and completely out of character. As questions start rising about Nugent’s sudden disappearance, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) starts building a solid case for murder.

Bernie works really well on a few different levels. For one thing, you have some surprisingly fantastic performances, but then you also have a really unique true crime story that works because of how funny the screenplay is and how interesting the questions is raises are. It’s quite clear that Bernie Tiede did something egregiously wrong and deserves to be punished, but I found myself siding with the people of the town when they were lobbying to make his sentence a lot less harsh than it should have been. It made me wonder about the adage that the punishment should fit the crime. Can there be circumstances where that shouldn’t be as strongly applied? I don’t want to analyze this movie too much because it doesn’t really need to be, but it was nice to see that there was more to it than just a dark comedy. It had a point of view that could rouse up debate, which is a good thing when working in this genre.

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Going into Bernie, I was expecting it to be pretty straightforward when it comes to structure, but this is actually a very strange example of how to make a movie. Leave it to a film maker like Richard Linklater to take what could’ve been a pretty average movie and work it into something different. What makes this movie really unique is that there are interviews throughout the length of the film with some of the real residents of Carthage who personally knew Bernie Tiede. There are some interviews that are scripted, but a majority of them are spoken by people that experienced the events first hand. This makes the movie feel very authentic, but also something like a legend to come out of this small Texas town, where word of mouth sometimes distorts the truth but gives you a taste of the town’s lifestyle. It’s also really funny to see scenes play out that are exactly what one of the interviewees were just talking about. At first, I was a little put off by this, but I’ve grown to really love the originality behind it.

Other than his part in his band, Tenacious D, I feel like Jack Black’s film career really took off when he starred in another of Linklater’s movies, School of Rock from 2003. Black gives a funny and pretty standard performance in that film, but he really gets to show off his acting chops in Bernie with a performance that may be the only reason you need to see this movie. Sure, I highly recommend the film anyway, but I find that it’s almost necessary for people to see it because of Black. Bernie is a character that is far from what the actor is used to playing, but he seems to pull it off with ease and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching an actor and not the actual Bernie Tiede.

Bernie had a lot of potential to be a run of the mill dark comedy, but under the direction Richard Linklater, it became something a little more. With films like Dazed and Confused and Boyhood under his belt, it’s quite obvious that Bernie doesn’t rank up at the top of Linklater’s filmography but it does rank the highest for Jack Black. This is an interesting movie in terms of content and structure, but it will also make you laugh and want to stick around for the end. I’d say check this one out.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review

21 Dec

I remember exactly when I fell in love with movies. I was in the first grade when I was first exposed to Star Wars. I had just gotten home from school and was watching Return of the Jedi, and I distinctly remember the feeling of excitement watching the speeder bike chase that takes place on the forest moon of Endor. Now here we are in 2015 and I finally got to see a new Star Wars movie. The prequel trilogy didn’t really give me the intense experience that I wanted, so this film had a lot riding on it. With a lot of the cast members returning and J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair, I was confident that this was going to be the Star Wars film that I’ve been waiting for. I’m proud and excited to say that I was right.

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30 years after the Galactic Empire was destroyed by the Rebel Alliance, remnants of the Empire have joined together to create a powerful military strength called the First Order. At the forefront of the First Order is one of the last remaining Jedi, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has make it his mission to track down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for his own nefarious purposes. On the other side of the spectrum is the Resistance, a much smaller military with the support of the Republic. The Resistance is also hot on the trail of Skywalker and will fight back against the much larger First Order to protect the galaxy and find Luke before any great damage can be done.

There’s really no other way I can lay out this story without giving anything away. The marketing for this movie was perfect because I went into the theater without knowing what the movie was about or what anyone’s motivations were. That made the experience so much more exciting than it could have been. Let me just say that I was not disappointed. Everything about the story flowed very smoothly and felt exactly like the kind of stuff you’d come to expect with a Star Wars movie. My only complaint is that sometimes it felt a little bit too much like the older movies. The Force Awakens contains plot devices and themes from all three of the original films which is really cool in some aspects, but the fact that they took so much was a little bit off putting. Luckily, that is where my problems end and my excitement begins.

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I had a feeling that I was going to love this movie, but I didn’t know that it was going to give me a character that I was going to fall in love with. Since I’ve seen this movie, I can’t stop thinking about Kylo Ren. He is, without a doubt, one of the most complex and interesting villains that I have seen in a long time. I was just expecting him to be the stereotypical bad guy, but what I got was a deep character that is full of mystery and conflict. Luckily all of the other characters hold up really well too. As the series’ new heroes we have Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), who both have very exuberant personalities. At times their motivations do clash, but their chemistry still works great. Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is another performance that stands out. He may be one of the most likable characters of this new trilogy, which means Disney better be planning on keeping him around. Finally, seeing Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, and Mark Hamill in their respective titles was great even if a few of them get pretty limited screen time.

Most importantly, though, The Force Awakens just felt like a Star Wars movie, and I really shouldn’t be worried about that. Unfortunately, in a world where the prequel trilogy exists, I sort of have to. If this movie turned out to be another Attack of the Clones, I would’ve just given up on film all together. This movie has plenty of action, adventure, and humor rolled up in J.J. Abrams signature style. Abrams has a great eye and it really shows here. This film really feels like a grand spectacle. There are huge set pieces, beautiful CGI, and there were also a lot of great practical effects and make up which I really appreciate. It’s nice to know that, along with his two Star Trek films, J.J. Abrams has the ability to handle major and beloved franchises with care.

There was a lot riding on The Force Awakens since it’s pretty much rebooting the Star Wars franchise. I’ve heard some different opinions, but for me, it was a huge success and I loved pretty much every minute of it. Sure, the fan service, references, and plot elements can be a little overwhelming and repetitive at times, but these are minor complaints. This is a really fun and action packed entry in a franchise that is both beloved on side and mocked on the other. It may not be as iconic as the original trilogy, but it sure is great.

Rampart – Review

17 Dec

Throughout my movie watching career, there have been collaborations between certain actors and film makers that work so well it should be illegal. For the sake of this review, the collaboration is between writer/director Oren Moverman and his go to actor Woody Harrelson. In 2010, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moverman’s heart wrenching drama, The Messenger. The two were then reunited 2012, along with co-writer James Ellroy (best known for L.A. Confidential), with Rampart. The performances and overall story in this film are really something to behold, but the overcrowding of subplots and an over the top artsy fartsy style almost ruined the movie for me.

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The year is 1999 and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a police officer in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Unfortunately for the people of Los Angeles, Brown is a racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant bigot who will resort to violence whenever he wants to to get the information he wants. After he is caught almost beating a suspect to death on tape, Officer Dave Brown’s life soon starts spiraling out of control. His ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) want nothing more to do with him while Assistant District Attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) starts pushing him towards an early retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, Brown becomes embroiled in an affair with an attorney working against him named Linda (Robin Wright) but also gets into more trouble after getting bad advice from his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), which ends in a brutal murder.

I think the main reason to see Rampart is to see all of the amazing talent at work. Harrelson gives what may be the best performance of the year. It probably even beats his work on True Detective, especially since there is so much more corruption and hostility flowing through his character’s veins. A lot of the other actors I feel get under utilized though. For example, Steve Buscemi is only in one scene and I wanted to see him a lot more. Ice Cube also only shows up towards the end even though his character had a lot of great potential. After Harrelson, I think the next performance you really have to pay attention to is Ben Foster’s. Foster is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and his small role in Rampart and his leading role in The Messenger proves he’s capable of a lot more than he is given.

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James Ellroy is a master at writing in the crime genre. He has written plenty of murder mysteries and dramas while also penning screenplays and having involvement in documentaries. That being said, both Ellroy and Moverman went a little overboard in Rampart. The story of a corrupt cop finally facing his demons and getting what he has coming to him is great, and they show his breakdown wonderfully. The problem is that there is way too much crammed into this movie. It’s like they tried to take everything from a long novel and stuff it into a movie that’s less than two hours. Characters are underused, plot lines are unresolved, and some of the development feels either forced or nonexistent. Luckily, the crux of the story is there and really good. This is more of a character study of Dave Brown and Ellroy and Moverman hit the nail on the head when it came to that area of the screenplay.

Another major complain that I have with Rampart is that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski went a little overboard with the art design. There’s a motif throughout the film that Dave Brown slowly begins disappearing. The start of the movie has him at the forefront of the action going on onscreen and while the movie goes on, he becomes framed behind objects and obscured. That’s an example of great artistic design. On the flip side, there’s a scene where the camera keeps cutting and spinning during a meeting and it’s not only unnecessary, but looks stupid. I get what they were trying to do, but it just didn’t work and only succeeded at annoying me. If Moverman and Bukowsky just toned it down a little bit, the film would have been all the better for it.

I almost loved Rampart and at the same time I almost hated it. I really don’t know how else to explain how I feel about this movie. On one hand it tells a really complex story about a man who refuses to change who he is and has to suffer for it, and on the other hand it’s an overstuffed movie that seemed to be going nowhere at parts. I feel equal on these two sentiments, so Rampart really just left me baffled. I wanna say give it a watch, but I can’t see anyone really coming out of it without a lot of questions that need answering.

Monster – Review

13 Dec

Between 1989 and 1990, a Daytona Beach prostitute named Aileen Wuornos killed 7 men in cold blood. While Wuornos isn’t America’s first female serial killer, she is the first one that got this amount of attention thanks to the media and her reputation as psychotic. It goes without saying that there have been a few documentaries, books, and other works dedicated to Wuornos, but none have had the impact that Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster had. Instead of focusing on the crimes themselves, Jenkins decided to focus on Aileen as a human and what drove her to do such horrible things. If that doesn’t sound interesting enough to grab your attention, Charlize Theron’s transformation into Wuornos surely is.

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Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute working the streets in Florida who has just about completely given up on her life, that is until she meets a woman named Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby is a lesbian and has strong feeling for the straight Wuornos, who at first turns her down, but soon finds out just how nice it is to be loved and the two start an unlikely relationship. Money soon becomes tight after Aileen decides to quit being a prostitute, so she hits the streets once again but instead of sleeping with anyone she begins to murder them and steal their money and their cars. Aileen feels this is all justifiable since she believes that all of these men are going to rape her, but her story begins falling apart and soon she won’t be able to keep this cold blooded secret from Selby or law enforcement.

I’m gonna start with the weakest part of this movie so I can dedicate the rest of this review to what is so overwhelmingly positive. The narrative flow of Monster is very weak and makes it kinda hard to follow at times. Aileen Wuornos killed people between 1989 and 1990, but there is no indication as to how much time has passed between scenes. It could be an entire year of 3 weeks for all I know. If you’re making a movie about a very specific amount of time, it’s important that the audience feels that this amount of time has passed. By the end of the movie, I didn’t really feel like I’ve been with the characters for over a year. This is actually a pretty major complaint since it actually affected how the movie flowed and made the overall narrative feel pretty choppy.

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But really, what is the main reason anyone is really interested in seeing Monster for? It’s obviously to see what is one of the best onscreen performances you will ever see. I don’t even know if Charlize Theron was actually in this movie. There was no evidence onscreen that she was ever there. Theron completely succeeds at transforming herself into Aileen Wuornos. Not only is the make up applied perfect, but also the fact that she gained a decent amount of weight and mimicked Wuornos’ facial expressions and ticks in a creepily authentic way. It’s an almost incomparable performance that, to me, should make Theron one of the most respected actors working in Hollywood. While I really can’t say enough about Theron’s performance, I also have to give a lot of credit to Christina Ricci for giving a performance on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. She’s a timid, almost pathetic, character that is played out wonderfully.

Something else this film succeeds in is putting an interesting twist on the cinematic views of a serial killer. Many films make their serial killer subjects, whether they be real or not, into something inhuman. What Patty Jenkins does with Monster is show Aileen Wuornos as a tragic human being. Make no mistake, though. Jenkins in no way condones or tries to defend what Wuornos did, but she does sprinkle a theme concerning circumstance and environment into the film. This kind of puts this movie into an interesting sort of category where it doesn’t focus on the horrors of the murders, but the horrors of this woman’s life and actions.

Narratively, Monster may not be the strongest movie out there, but this film is ultimately a character study. Charlize Theron gets so deep into her role as Aileen Wuornos, it’s truly unsettling, but it’s also a relief that Patty Jenkins showed a different kind of side to what we normally see in films about serial killers. Everyone will agree that what Wuornos did was despicable and wrong, but what was done to her was also despicable and wrong and, especially in a time when there are more and more mass killings, maybe this is a good topic to talk about.

Mother – Review

6 Dec

While there are many great film makers to come out of South Korea, Bong Joon-ho is, by far, my favorite. All of the other films I’ve seen of his have really struck a chord in me in some way. The Host was a perfect blend of environmental warning, monsters, and comedy. The same can be said about Snowpiercer, but Bong also showed his strengths with more realistic film making with his 2003 film Memories of Murder. All of these movies seamlessly blend different genres with dark comedy, and Bong’s 2009 film Mother is no different. Not only can Mother be appreciated by different artistic stand points, it also raises a lot of interesting questions about mental health, love, and the legal system while also providing us with an entertaining mystery that will often make you laugh.

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This film tells the story of a nameless single mother (Kim Hye-ja) who struggles with taking care of her mentally disabled son, Do-joon (Won Bin). Do-joon may be mentally inadequate, but he’s harmless, so when Do-joon is charged with the murder of a young school girl his mother knows it can’t be true. Unfortunately for the mother, she is stuck with a lawyer that isn’t interested in the case, a police force who is only interested in the circumstantial evidence, and her own son who is really no help to anyone. When all looks bleak, the mother enlists the help of Do-joon’s troublemaking friend, Jin-tae (Jin Goo), to help her on a mission of vigilante detective work to prove her son’s innocence.

Mother had the potential to be a really somber movie. From scene to scene, things just go from bad to worse to the worst it can possibly get. If another film maker wrote and directed this film, this would’ve been a pretty upsetting movie. Now, I’m not saying that this film isn’t dramatic. I’m saying that Bong Joon-ho’s unique style gives this movie a little something extra. Like I said before, Bong is known for putting a lot of dark comedy into his movies, even one as serious as Mother. Putting too much comedy into it, however, would have ruined the mood of the movie completely and make it feel uneven. Luckily, Bong’s talent pulls through again and Mother has a perfect balance between stone seriousness and hearty laughs.

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What makes Bong Joon-ho such an affective film maker is that he captures life in a very real kind of way, which goes back to what I was saying about him mixing comedy and drama together seamlessly. Other than that, his characters all feel like real people, even in a science fiction monster movie like The Host. Of course none of this would be possible if the actors playing the characters didn’t play their roles just as naturally. Kim Hye-ja doesn’t just give a great performance, more so an excellent performance. She is both intense and naïve during her investigation to prove her son’s innocence, and this can almost become tragic when she begins ignoring facts and acting irrationally. I can’t forget to point out the good work also done by Won Bin and Jin Goo, but Kim is really the one that’s going to grab your attention in every scene.

The storyline of Mother doesn’t just happen in one place, which means there is plenty to look at in terms of environment. Much like in Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho captures everything both good and bad about where his characters inhabit. The urban and rural landscapes often clash with each other as the beautiful and the ugly pop with startling colors and subtle grays. This is a beautiful looking film, indeed.

This review may have seemed like my love letter to the career of Bong Joon-ho, and in a way it sort of is, but I was reminded of it because of how great Mother is. This movie works as a mystery, a drama, and even a dark comedy in some scenes. While I still think The Host is my favorite movie in Bong’s filmography, Mother is still a movie that I won’t forget and ranks up there with the best of Korean film making.