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Sideways – Review

17 Aug

I like to think of myself as a pretty open minded guy when it comes to movies. I try to soak in all sorts of films from all around the world and from different points of view. That being said, some genres just don’t impress me as much as others. I like comedies as much as the next person, but I’d much rather watch a mystery or a crime thriller. Comedies have to work really hard to win me over, and a good place to look is the work of Alexander Payne. Throughout the years, Payne has walked a thin line between comedy and drama and has garnered a lot of respect. The first movie I’ve seen of his was Nebraska, and I have to admit that I really couldn’t get into it. I’m revisiting his work with an earlier movie from 2004, Sideways, which was also met with many accolades. While I do like this one better than Nebraska, I still just don’t think his movies are for me.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) have been best friends since they were room mates in college. They’ve been through various ups and downs together and, despite their efforts, haven’t really made much of an impact on the world. With Jack finally getting married, Miles sees this as a time to take him on a trip through California’s wine country where they will spend quality time together and drink a whole lot of wine. Along the way, the two come across Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of Miles’ favorite restaurants, and they also meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at a local vineyard. Jack immediately starts an affair with Stephanie who is oblivious to the fact he’s getting married that weekend. Meanwhile, Miles becomes close with Maya, but has a hard time holding in the secret that Jack is keeping from Stephanie. This affair in the middle of wine country will force these best friends to examine who they are, what they are becoming, and how to finally feel fulfilled.

I want to go ahead and talk about what I really loved about this movie, and it has more to do with the way the characters are written than the actual story. Paul Giamatti’s character has been through a lot of terrible things, and a lot of it has to do with decisions he’s made. By the time this movie starts, he’s a broken man trying to find something special to hold onto, which is why this week long trip with his best friend means so much. Thomas Haden Church’s character is the exact opposite. He’s a loose cannon who feels like he hasn’t lived his life to the fullest, and he doesn’t realize that his bad decisions are the same things that completely ruined his friend’s outlook. It’s an interesting friendship that I don’t think has been explored this well in movies like this. I feel like Payne really fleshed out these two characters to the point where I understand their feelings without them needing to vocalize them, which is a very strong film making technique. Miles sees a lot of his past in Jack which scares him and Jack sees a potential future in Miles which also scares him. I really can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed these two characters and the depth of their connection.

The setting for this movie also really helped put me into the story. Road trip movies now seem to always go for the extreme party cities where shenanigans are bound to happen. The fact that shenanigans occur in the California wine country is certainly different. While the setting is fun and different, I can’t really say the same thing about how the story progressed. While there are things that set Sideways apart, at it’s core it still follows the same formula set down by buddy and romantic comedies. The movie didn’t really throw me any curve balls or offer me any sort of dramatic surprises, which is weird considering how deep Payne worked to make his characters seem unique but he couldn’t really do the same with his story. There are some good moments of humor that do feel very original and that helps the story from becoming too stale. While I did chuckle at the movie and laugh out loud pretty hard once, it didn’t really strike me as hilarious. I can’t help but look at Sideways as a drama more than it is a comedy.

As far as the comedy did go, Giamatti was spot on as always. This is the kind of actor that can naturally find the perfect tone for a movie and strike it without even seeming to try. I wish the same could be said for Thomas Haden Church. I can’t really tell if his character annoyed me or his performance annoyed me. He just seemed over the top at times and, while it was a good foil for Giamatti’s character, he just didn’t have the same effect on me. Virginia Madsen is good in her role although there is one scene where the writing felt a bit too unnatural. Unfortunately, Sandra Oh’s character exists solely for an affair to happen. We get glimpses into her life, but she’s never really fleshed out to her potential, unlike Madsen. For a movie that’s so focused on character development, it’s easy to notice when one of them gets next to none.

Sideways is a good movie. I don’t think anyone will say otherwise. My only thing is that it isn’t really my cup of tea. I found it easy to find flaws because it just struck me as pretentious quite often and unfortunately predictable. Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen are excellent while Thomas Haden Church has moments of brilliance but also moments of over the top annoyance. I can’t say much for Sandra Oh since she didn’t have much to really contribute. Sideways works best as an examination of friendship, aging, and trust while also being a strong character study. It doesn’t really hold up quite the same way in the narrative department. As a comedy/drama it still holds up better than many.

Final Grade: B

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Live by Night – Review

26 Jan

When it comes to movies he’s written and directed, Ben Affleck’s track record is one of the strongest in recent years. Movies like The TownGone Baby Gone, and Argo have enough intensity and depth to be remembered a hundred times over. When I saw his next project, Live by Night, was going to be a Prohibition era gangster movie, I was good to go. I’ve been looking forward to this movie after seeing the very first trailer for it months ago, and I felt even more hopeful when I saw that it was based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the novel Gone Baby Gone. Now, while there are plenty of really great things in this movie that are worth mentioning and getting excited about, Live by Night is probably the weakest entry in Affleck’s directing filmography.

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Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a World War I veteran who makes his small living through crime as a thief. He’s also madly in love with a woman named Emma (Sienna Miller), the wife of his boss and and head of the Irish Gang of Boston, Albert White (Robert Glenister). After this affair almost gets him killed and results in him losing Emma, Joe joins forces with Italian mafia boss and enemy of White Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Pescatore sends Joe to the Ybor City in Florida to help run his rum importing business that is being threatened by White. While in Florida, Joe falls in love and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana), who is a major component of the importing business. Not everything goes smoothly however as rival factions, a tragic run in with the local sheriff and his daughter (Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning), and the looming danger of the Ku Klux Klan threaten this entire business, which forces Joe to become the violent man he never wanted to be again.

I have really mixed feelings about this movie that came up as I was writing the summary. It reminded me the biggest flaw that this movie has, and that is that there is so much crammed into a run time that barely has the ability to hold it all. There is around 3 and a half hours worth of material here that’s forced to fit in a movie that’s only a little bit over 2 hours. This makes for some weird pacing, plot lines that don’t get enough attention, and some characters that unfortunately lack enough development. Let’s start with the pacing of the movie. A lot of times when someone’s talking about the pace of a movie, they’re going to say how slow it felt. On the flip side of that, I felt like Live by Night went way too fast. There was a part in the middle where it slowed down to a crawl, but then picked up so fast I thought it was going to break my neck. This is what happens when there are at least five different main plots happening in a movie.

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Let’s look at the positives for a bit because this movie does have very cool elements. Affleck has shown us time and again that he is capable of filming a beautiful looking movie, and Live by Night holds up to that standard. The color pallets and sweeping camera work got the better of me at times and I just had to watch in awe at how amazing everything looked. This also a movie with incredible sound design. Every gunshot felt authentic and blasted through the theater’s sound system for optimal escapist effect. Speaking of sounds, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is absolutely fantastic. Finally, this movie handles violence in a very interesting way that I’ve been seeing more in movies as of late. The violence is strong but the scenes of it are few and far between. Instead of making the violence look cinematic and fake, there’s this realism to it that really hit me as I was watching it, and reminded me a lot of how Affleck handled it in The Town.

While that’s all well and good and does make the movie memorable in its own right, I still can’t help shake the fact that as time has gone on I’ve become less and less impressed by this movie. A big reason is because of the characterization and how the people in the movie develop. My biggest example of this is the relationship between Joe and Graciela. It has the potential to be a great cinematic romance, but it unfortunately isn’t explored enough and the events of their life jut kind of happen and then time moves on because there is so much left to cover. The same can be said about Joe’s partner in the movie. We briefly see him in the first third, then he’s reintroduced, but their relationship doesn’t really have a chance to go anywhere either.

I’ve been so excited for Live by Night, it kinda hurts to say that it disappointed me. It’s a beautiful looking movie with a great score and sound design. There’s also plenty of great actors giving quality performances. The problem is that so much is crammed into the movie that some plots are wasted and characters fail to develop fully which lessens the dramatic impacts of some scenes. I really wanted Live by Night to be great, but it’s a movie that fails to live to its fullest potential and I’m not sure I have any reason to see it again.

Final Grade: C+

La Vie en Rose – Review

6 Oct

If someone were to make a list of iconic singers from around the world, I can guarantee that Édith Piaf would be close to the top. Piaf’s unique voice and graceful stage presence made her an international success until her untimely death at the age of just 47. Even today, her music can be found in movies, television, and commercials which shows that even though she’s no longer with us, her musical legacy is still strong. Something that reinforced this was the 2007 film by Olivier Dahan, La Vie en Rose. This film tells the life story of Édith Piaf, which includes incredible joy and overwhelming tragedy. It’s definitely a story that had to be told.

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The film begins with a sick looking Édith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) taking the stage for a concert, and quickly fainting during a song in front of a large audience. The film then cuts back to 1918 when Piaf was just a young child who is left by her parents to live with her grandmother in a brothel in Normandy. As the years go on, Piaf makes a meager living singing on the street, but is soon found by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and invited to sing at his club where she quickly becomes something of a local celebrity. As time goes on, her fame increases and travels around the world, including New York City, where tragedy hits hard when she loses the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), in a plane crash. Finally, back in France towards the end of her life, it’s clear that Piaf’s abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol have taken a huge toll on her health, and the devastating realization that soon she will no longer be able to sing anymore.

This is a hard movie to summarize because it tells so much of a person’s life. This is a pretty long movie, clocking in with a run time of almost two and a half hours, but even then I feel like there may have been more to be told. That works to the film’s credit since I was intrigued by the subject and the handling of Piaf by making the icon into exactly what she was: a human being. While I love the way Piaf is depicted in this movie, I wasn’t really a huge fan of how the story was told. The film starts towards the end and then jumps back to the beginning for a while, and naturally progresses from there. That’s all fine, but as the movie goes on it jumps back and forth and then introduces an even later timeline, and then starts jumping around even more rapidly. Towards the end of the movie, I jumped around so much that I was sometimes confused with where and when I was in the story. I understand that this was a way for the film makers to get in as much of the story as they could, and I’m ok with a cut up timeline, but this was just way overdone.

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It’s impossible to talk about La Vie en Rose and not talk about Marion Cotillard. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest screen performances of all time. When you’re watching the movie and getting more engaged in the story, you forget that you’re watching Cotillard playing Édith Piaf and are actually watching Piaf herself. I know that’s how I felt. It’s a complete transformation from one person into another, and it’s truly incredible. Not only does she nail Piaf’s voice (although the singing was dubbed), but also the way she stood, small mannerisms that she had, and even small changes to her face that made all the difference. With a movie like this where the character was a real person whose life was filled with such success and tragedy, it’s important to believe what’s happening. Cotillard’s performances made this a very easy film to believe and get lost in. She is a marvel to watch, and earned the Academy Award for her performance, which is one of the few times someone has won this award for an entire foreign language role.

La Vie en Rose also is just a beautiful looking movie, even in the beginning when a young Piaf is living a life on the streets in Belleville to the more upscale life that she led in New York. The set design is all fantastic and the costumes work great with the different decades that Piaf lived through. There’s just so much wonderful stuff to look at, and I have to give a lot of credit to Olivier Dahan and his direction for adding something more to the design. At first, I thought the directing was nothing special, but that’s not the case. It’s understated and controlled and never takes the style too far. One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens during a devastating moment in Piaf’s life, and instead of cutting, the scene follows Piaf through her entire apartment and catches the entire range of emotion in her performance and the atmosphere surrounding the incident.

La Vie en Rose is not without it’s faults, but it’s a movie that truly captures the tumultuous life of an icon of music. This is a frustrating movie to sit through, at times, because how the story keeps jumping from the past to the present to the future to the past then who knows where. If that was just toned down a bit, the movie would have been improved. Still, Cotillard’s performance, the production design, and Dahan’s skilled directing make this an above average biopic.

Final Grade: B+

I Saw the Light – Review

12 Apr

There are many great artists who die way before they’ve done everything they had the potential to do. This goes for musicians, film makers, actors, painters, and really anything you can think of. Hank Williams is one of those people that falls into this category devastatingly well. Much in the vein of what Walk the Line did with Johnny Cash, Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light tells about the ups, downs, and inevitable end to Hank William’s career and personal life. It’s a very interesting movie about a very interesting person, but it unfortunately stumbles into pit falls that a lot of biopics do. It’s a bit too long, unfocused, and brushes over points of interest far too much to really make this a movie that comes close to reaching its full potential.

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The film begins in 1944 with Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) and Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) getting married in a gas station in a small town in Alabama. What follows is the story of how Hank rose to fame and the toll it had on his life and on his family. He started out humble enough, playing small shows around town and hosting his own radio show where his band and his wife sang songs early in the morning. Eventually, Hank goes on to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and that’s where his career really took off. With a string of hit songs and a winning stage personality, it seemed America found itself a new voice. What people didn’t know was Hank’s troubling addiction to drugs and alcohol and the strained relationship with Audrey and his children that was caused by these addictions and his sharp rise to stardom.

People who make biopics are undoubtedly taking on a huge responsibility. First of all, their subject has to be done properly for their fans or followers or even the subjects themselves to fully respect what was created in their name. There have been some huge successes like Walk the LineSelma, and even Love and Mercy. Unfortunately for I Saw the Light, this Hank Williams biopic doesn’t stand nearly as tall as the movies I’ve mentioned. First off, I’m a little concerned on how balanced the movie is in terms of his successes and his failures. I’m no expert on Williams, but I felt the film focused mostly on his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and not so much on his time at the Grand Ole Opry or really exploring his music further. All in all, I Saw the Light was a pretty depressing movie for the most part of it.

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This isn’t to say that there isn’t some great drama and music in this movie, because there are scenes that work really well. One particular scene shows Hank Williams showing up to a concert completely out of his mind and making a complete fool of himself before he even plays a note of music. That was a really good scene that’s unfortunately cut a little too short. A lot of things are cut short in the movie, even when it comes to character development. There are a few friends of Hank that show up throughout the movie that we are supposed to care about, but nothing is ever done to make the characters appear real or change. Even though the movie is about Hank Williams doesn’t mean that they couldn’t explore the lives of the people in his band a little as well. On the flip side, the music that is in the movie all sounds very authentic and really puts you in the time period. Hiddleston and the rest all perform the songs very well and I found myself tapping my toes on more than one occasion.

Speaking of Tom Hiddleston, I’m not even sure he was in this movie. For all I know, I was watching the real Hank Williams, who rose from the grave just so he could star in his own biopic. Hiddleston can now be ranked with those few actors who have completely transformed themselves into a character to the point where you don’t even feel like you’re watching them and you can lose yourself in the story. His movements, voice, posture, and expressions all seem so meticulously planned to create the most authentic representation of Hank Williams that he could possibly conjure up. If anything, people should just see the movie for Hiddleston’s performance.

I Saw the Light has a lot of problems with how the story is told and what the story focuses on, but there are also plenty of good things in the movie. Tom Hiddleston is fantastic, the music is so much fun to listen to, and I really had no problem immersing myself in the time period. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I got the full story on the life and death of Hank Williams. This is a movie that could have been great, but instead it’s just pretty good. Is it worth seeing? Yeah, I think so, but don’t expect to be completely fulfilled by the end of it.