Monthly Archives: February 2014

Movie Review: August: Osage County

August - Osage CountyTitle: “August: Osage County”

Director: John Wells

Writers: Tracy Letts

Stars: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

If there’s one movie that had the most disingenuous marketing campaign, it would be “August: Osage County.” The campaign made the movie seem like it’s a comedy about a dysfunctional family, but it’s only funny in a few moments and the rest of the time it’s a very serious drama.

“August: Osage County” follows a dysfunctional midwestern family who comes together when the family patriach disappears and is found dead. Although “dysfunctional” really doesn’t begin to describe this family. Their mother (Meryl Streep) is addicted to prescription painkillers, the eldest daughter’s (Julia Roberts) family is falling apart, another daughter i(Juliette Lewis) is marrying a sleazeball and refuses to see him for who he really is, and the last daughter (Julianne Nicholson) is in love with her cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch).

It’s a performance piece based on a play which I understand is much better than this movie, although I haven’t seen it. While the performances are incredibly strong from all involved, nearly every character comes off as mean. Not a single character in this movie is likable and they all seem to have a chip on their shoulder. This is a major problem in a heavily character-based movie. With few redeeming qualities. We’re not sure who to root for because we don’t like anyone we’re watching.

The drama is very good, and the dialogue is cutting. Letts clearly has a talent for writing dialogue, but not for creating likeable characters. There’s also the creep factor that comes in at a couple of points, bringing up subjects such as pedophilia and incest. I’m not opposed to those subjects being handled in movies, but in the right context. Here it feels like it’s being used just to creep the audience out.

This film has some great dialogue which I’m a sucker for, but it can be difficult and painful to watch. The characters all come off as mean and self-centered which makes the journey through this movie a slog that is difficult to enjoy and find true redeeming value.

“August: Osage County” earns 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Before Midnight

Before MidnightTitle: “Before Midnight”

Director: Richard Linklater

Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Richard Linklater is clearly the master of the “talkie” movie. With movies like “Waking Life” and “Before Sunrise,” which are movies that are nothing but people talking and talking, you might think it would get boring. But nope. They remain fascinating throughout, and “Before Midnight” is no exception.

“Before Midnight” is the third movie in a series which started with “Before Sunrise” and was followed by “Before Sunset.” In the first movie, we meet idealistic 20-somethings Jesse and Celine who randomly meet on a train that stops in Vienna. We watch as they walk through Vienna and talk and talk, realizing that they’re in love, but Jesse has to catch a train at sunrise. They promise to meet up at the same train station in six months, but nine years later in “Before Sunset” we find out that this meeting never happened when they bump into each other again in Paris. Jesse is now a writer and is married with a son, but never stopped loving Celine despite losing her before. Their romance is rekindled, with Jesse admitting that he’s only stayed married for the sake of their child, and while he has a plane to catch at sunset, he chooses to miss that plane and stay with Celine.

Nine years further on, we get “Before Midnight.” Jesse and Celine are now married and living in Europe, but things aren’t going great. Celine is unhappy work-wise and finding fullfilment in life, and to make matters worse Jesse wants to move their family (they have twin daughters) back to the States so he can be closer to his son. Taking place during a single day while on a family vacation in Greece, the film ultimately ends on a slightly ambiguous note like the previous films.

To say this project is ambitious is an understatement. Begun 18 years ago, these movies catch up with the same actors every nine years as they evolve and change and involve nothing but them talking and talking, about life, themselves, philosophy, etc. This film is slightly different in that for a good portion of the film, they are not alone and there are other participant in their conversations. These conversations always feels interesting and accessible.

Why only 3 stars? It more has to do with comparing this movie to the previous films. “Before Sunrise” was magical and full of hope. “Before Sunset” felt like a course correction that needed to happen in these characters’ lives and gave a hopeful feeling as well, although it wasn’t quite as magical as the first movie. This movie is far more depressing as we witness the possible dissolution of Jesse and Celine’s relationship, characters who we have rooted for and become attached to for two decades, and it drains the film of a lot of its magic. It feels like a downer, if not a betrayal, even if it’s “real.” We want to see them work it out. We want to see their love last. But we’re not sure if it will.

With the usual beautiful scenery and interesting dialogue, this film continues Jesse and Celine’s journey even though this film is more depressing than the previous two. It will be interesting to see if they continue this project in another decade and we find out what happened when clock struck midnight.

“Before Midnight” earns 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Prisoners

PrisonersTitle: “Prisoners”

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Aaron Guzikowski

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Two families daughters go missing on Thanksgiving Day with the only clue to their disappearance being a dilapidated RV parked on their street owned by a mentally handicapped man (played by Paul Dano). After the police have to let him go for lack of evidence, one of the fathers is convinced that this man knows more than he is telling. How far would you go to protect your family?

Sounds exciting, right? Well, in a way, it is. The movie tells a solid story, the actors play their parts excellently, especially Paul Dano who gives the role just the right amount of creep to make the audience unsure how much he really knows. It’s disturbing to see the lengths these character go to find their children. But it’s supposed to be disturbing, so mission accomplished.

However, the story is a little too solid. It follows a classic story structure so rigidly that the film loses a certain natural fluidity that makes a film unexpected and refreshing. There is nothing refreshing or new here. It’s a retread of old stories, right down to the “surprise” ending, which isn’t much of a surprise and if you pay any attention during the movie, you will see it coming a mile away.

It’s a pretty standard story with few risks that we haven’t seen before, which makes this movie solid but lacking charm. As a result, it’s one of those films that tries really hard, but only manages to come out as “okay.”

“Prisoners earns 3 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: The Grandmaster

The GrandmasterTitle: “The Grandmaster”

Director: Kar Wai Wong

Writers: Kar Wai Wong, Jingzhi Zou, Haofeng Xu

Starring: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Jin Zhang

“The Grandmaster” tells the story of Ip Man, one of the greatest martial artists and possibly the greatest kung fu masters of all time, not to mention the man who trained Bruce Lee. Or at least I think that’s what it’s about. This movie makes it very hard to tell.

From the first scene, you’ll notice that this movie is highly stylized. It begins with a kung fu fight between Ip Man and an unnamed group in the rain. Seriously, this movie starts by making it look like Ip Man spent his time randomly fighting people in the street for no reason.

Throughout the movie, we see hints of what is going on in the background, such as the political upheaval in China and it’s change from an Empire to a Republic. But we only know about it through references that the characters bring up.

This leads us to the single biggest flaw with this movie: There is no context. While the style is decent and the fighting sequences are well done, they feel out of place within a film that is described on paper as essentially being a biopic. What we’re watching feels completely unreal, which gives us no reason to believe that any of this happened.

I can understand Wong’s desire to make something artistic, feeling that he could show the spirit of Ip Man rather than simple events. The problem is that he moves so far towards the artistic that he leaves behind the basics of storytelling that would give Ip Man’s story a proper treatment. Ultimately, it turns the film into a confusing mess.

This highly stylized film is more a tribute to martial arts than to Ip Man himself. It provides no context for what we’re seeing, making this film confusing. While the style is good and nice to watch, the focus is on the style and not the substance. If you can tolerate that, you might enjoy it, but personally I came away feeling like I didn’t know anymore about this legendary figure than when I started.

“The Grandmaster” earns 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyTitle: “The Great Gatsby”

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, Baz Luhrmann tries to recreate the book for the modern screen but misses the mark pretty badly. What went wrong? The answer is rather complex.

The story is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, who has come to live in New York City and lands next to an eccentric millionaire, Jay Gatsby, who seems to have designs on Nick’s cousin, Daisy.

This is one of those movies that you want to like. First, it’s based on a classic novel and one of my personal favorites. Secondly, it has some great acting talent involved. Third, the production values are astounding.

Unfortunately, that last part is where things begin to fall apart. The production value becomes distracting. The movie looks like it’s encrusted in gold and shotgunned with diamonds, with an upbeat soundtrack by Jay-Z. But as the movie progresses, we realize that this film has the same problem as another of Baz Lurhmann’s films, “Moulin Rouge,” that being that it’s all style and no substance.

This film is hollow. It depends on the flashy sets, catchy music, editing tricks, and cinematography to create a bright and pretty candy coating, but when we bite into it, we discover that all the elements that make a good film are absent. The actual story feels like it’s struggling for life. Dramatic scenes feel cartoony. Even Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t feel convincing as Gatsby. It simply fails to come together to create a solid core around which to place the more superfluous elements and fails to capture the soul of the novel.

This is one of those bright and pretty films that you might enjoy if you can overlook the fundamental flaws within. If you like your movies with a lot of flash and style, give it a try. But don’t expect something groundbreaking or inspiring. You won’t find it here.

“The Great Gatsby” earns 2.5 out of 5 stars.