[Oscar Madness Monday] Still Alice (2014)

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Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parish

Screenplay: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

101 mins. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role [Julianne Moore]

 

Well, there simply aren’t enough days during Oscar season to talk about movies. There aren’t. So, on the occasion when I feel like it, I’ll be talking with you on some Mondays about films the Academy has deemed worthy of admiration. Today, an Oscar winner from this most recent awards ceremony: Still Alice. So let’s begin.

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Alice Howland (Julianne Moore, The Big Lebowski, Freeheld), a brilliant linguistics professor, lives for her mind. Her world is that much more shattered when she is diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Now Alice must learn to lean on her family, including caring husband John (Alec Baldwin, The Departed, Aloha) and strained daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart, Twilight, American Ultra) as she slowly loses the parts of her that make up who she is.

Still Alice isn’t a perfect film. It has faults, to be sure. I find that the runtime could be shortened. A few of the character arcs are believable. A few of the story points are cliché. But none of that really matters.

This is Julianne Moore’s film. She controls the screen in perhaps her most captivating roles. She takes viewers on a journey with her as we see Alice slowly deteriorate in front of her family’s eyes. Seeing her in her place of zen, a cabin by the beach with husband John, struggling to remember where the bathroom is. The scene is heartbreaking. There is a difficult and triumphant sequence in which Alice attempts to give a speech on her disease. Her character’s emotional and physical transformations are on full display, and Moore’s nuanced performance carries this film, so much so that the problems I encountered bothered me a lot less.

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Still Alice is one of those difficult movies. Like Precious or 12 Years a Slave, it isn’t a film I like to watch. That doesn’t stop it from being an important and challenging piece, moving in its own right. Julianne Moore owns the screen and her statue due to an unparalleled and unstoppable command of the craft.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

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Director: Tom Harper

Cast: Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy

Screenplay: Jon Croker

98 mins. Rated PG-13 for some disturbing and frightening imagery and for thematic elements.

 

Ah, the January movie dump bin…how tragic.

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Decades after the events of the first film, Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox, One Day, War Book) and Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory, TV’s Penny Dreadful, Skyfall) have taken their schoolchildren to the Eel Marsh House in Crythin Gifford as a place of refuge. Eve doesn’t fully understand, though, that a dark force still resides in the house and wants the children for herself. Now, Eve and her new friend Harry (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse, Beyond the Reach) must discover the horrifying truth about the Woman in Black (Leanne Best, TV’s Ripper Street, Salting the Battlefield).

Helen McCrory is kind of a bish in this movie. Yeah, I said it. Bish.

There are two classic types of characters in horror films. The first is the character that you want to live. The second is the character that you want to die. Then, there are the characters of The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, the type of character that you just want to be interested in, but you still don’t. Not a single character is performed in such a way that I cared about any of them.

Don’t even get me started on the look of this film. It certainly has less elegance to it than The Woman in Black, very poorly shot and very blurry during some of the sequences that should’ve been more exciting. The film was also very poorly lit. I couldn’t see a damn thing.

The question we need to be asking ourselves when seeing a sequel is: how are we progressing the story or taking the series in a new direction? With this bland sequel, we don’t have an answer. This film is unneeded and essentially rehashes the progression of the first film. We don’t move forward. We, in fact, move backward. I’m not even sure how that is possible, but it happened.

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The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death goes nowhere when it makes a smart move that explore new territory by moving the story forward years. It could have built on the story presented of the first film, and then it didn’t.

 

1/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

Unbroken (2014)

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Director: Angelina Jolie

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock

Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson

137 mins. Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Editing

 

In Unbroken, based on the true story, Olympic athlete and World War II airman Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell, Starred Up, 300: Rise of an Empire) is captured behind enemy lines after his plane is shot down. The film, from director Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey), chronicles Zamperini’s time after the crash leading up to and including his time at a POW camp and his altercations with the Japanese soldier Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara).

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I found myself checking the time several times throughout Unbroken. It seemed to meander far too long on events that should have been more exciting and climactic than they ended up feeling. It also looks too glossy, and it doesn’t end up feeling real, but more like a Lifetime presentation of the Zamperini story.

Now, I won’t bash the entire film. I liked Jack O’Connell’s performance, as well as supporting work from newcomer method Ishihara. Even the smaller roles played by Domnhall Gleeson (About Time, Ex Machina), Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, Inside Llewyn Davis) and Finn Wittrock (TV’s American Horror Story, Noah) were all spot-on.

So what makes the film so underwhelming? Is it the screenplay from the Coen brothers, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson? No, not at all. Then what? I think Angelina Jolie had a lot of great elements to use, but they just weren’t put together the right way. As I said before, the cinematography was great, but the sets and costumes captured felt fake. They just didn’t have the look they needed. The pacing is off as well. It’s disappointing from my initial hopes of the film.

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Unbroken is broken in several ways. Like a puzzle with too few edge pieces, it just has a lot of trouble fitting together. Angelina Jolie has proven before she can handle the directorial duties, but this film isn’t a great representation of that handle. For my money, there are better war films…American Sniper, anyone?

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

Nick Offerman: American Ham (2014)

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Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Cast: Nick Offerman

Screenplay: Nick Offerman

78 mins. Not Rated.

 

Last year, comedian/actor Nick Offerman (TV’s Parks & Recreation, Danny Collins) released his newest special American Ham. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) helped craft the special and elevated it to a higher level.

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In Nick Offerman: American Ham, the performer gets his chance to give his tips and advice to the audience on how to be a glorious human being. Essentially, it boils down to being an adaptation of his novel Paddle Your Own Canoe, and it works in that way. There is something soothing and interesting to Offerman’s stylistic storytelling that works really well here.

Director Vogt-Roberts, who will next be taking a trip to Kong: Skull Island, filmed visual cues to Offerman’s different points, and they are gorgeously shot, adding a touch of film-like flair to the stand-up special featuring wife Megan Mullally.

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Nick Offerman is a unique soul in the body of a distinguished celebrity. It was a thrill to watch him muse on life and give thanks to “the gorgeous stack of curves that is Nick’s legal property: Megan Mullally” while throwing in a song or two (the songs mostly don’t work in contrast to the rest of the material). All in all, American Ham is a worthwhile 78 minute excursion and celebration of life and I can’t wait for the next.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Foxcatcher (2014)

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Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

Screenplay: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

134 mins. Rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Steve Carell)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mark Ruffalo)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

 

I knew nothing about the actual events of Foxcatcher until Foxcatcher.

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Foxcatcher tells the story of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street, Jupiter Ascending) and his relationship with millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell, TV’s The Office, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day). The true story of these two men, as well as Mark’s brother David (Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers, The Normal Heart), is a powerhouse tale of manipulation, love, and neglect at the infamous Foxcatcher Farms as du Pont plays the brothers for what they can give him as he furthers himself in the world of professional wrestling in the latest film from director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote).

I’m going to bring up my big beef with this movie right now, because there are so few. I don’t like that we spend so little time in du Pont’s head. Carell’s performance is unbelievably incredible, but we don’t get to delve into the man’s psychosis. I also have some trouble with the runtime, which has some definite places to cut.

That being said, these performances are at a level so incredibly powerful that you forget you are watching a film. I already mentioned Carell, but Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo turn in near-perfect work as well, not to mention their amazing chemistry as brothers. Don’t let me forget Sienna Miller (Stardust, Unfinished Business) as Nancy Schultz, David’s wife.

Bennett creates a world in this film, and he has the ability to really get the best work out of his actors. His vision always gives something completely fresh.

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The editing and screenplay could have used a little more development, but Foxcatcher is an intense film that shows a shocking set of events that I didn’t know all that much about. The impact will not wear off soon, that much I can promise.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

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Director: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Jaime King, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Juno Temple

Screenplay: Frank Miller

102 mins. Rated R for strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity, and brief drug use.

 

Sin City is back and at it again with four new tales of brutality and violence.

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In “Just Another Saturday Night”, Marv (Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, Immortals) wakes up with little memory of last night’s events and tries to piece it all back together. In “The Long Bad Night”, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception, The Wind Rises), a gambler on a winning streak, attempts to win it all from Senator Roark (TV’s Nashville, The Avengers), at any cost. In “A Dame to Kill For”, Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, W., Inherent Vice) gets involved with former flame Ava (Eva Green, TV’s Penny Dreadful, Casino Royale) who is in deep with the wrong people. Finally, in “Nancy’s Last Dance”, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba, Fantastic Four, Stretch) is still reeling from the loss of her beloved Hartigan (Bruce Willis, The Sixth Sense, Vice) and wants revenge of the men who caused his death.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn’t as good as the original film. The story selection here is a lot of similar fare. Still, it is a gorgeous looking piece of noir cinema. “Just Another Saturday Night” is a great, albeit short, character piece that brings back fan favorite Marv, who appears a lot in this collection. “The Long Bad Night” is mostly entertaining even if it doesn’t really go anywhere, but I don’t agree with the decision to cut the story in two halves which appear separately in the film. “A Dame to Kill For” isn’t the least worthy piece in the film, but it doesn’t have the strength it should and doesn’t make the connection to the original film it should. Finally, “Nancy’s Last Dance” feels like it is missing something. All in all, these stories  are mostly entertaining, but they don’t weave like they should.

The performances are mostly awesome, with notable exceptions being Jamie Chung (Big Hero 6, 7500) taking over as Miho and Jeremy Piven (TV’s Entourage, The Pirates! Band of Misfits) as Bob. Both characters were previously played by Devon Aoki and Michael Madsen, and the originals were much better. Dennis Haysbert (TV’s 24, Dead Rising: Watchtower), on the other hand, takes over for deceased Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute and does well at giving the character something new while not forgetting the work put in by his predecessor.

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For looks great and feels good, and while not being as powerful as the original film, it is still a ton of fun.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, click here.

HouseBound (2014)

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Director: Gerard Johnstone

Cast: Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru

Screenplay: Gerard Johnstone

107 mins. Not Rated.

 

HouseBound is an interesting little horror comedy about Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), a troubled young woman who is now under house arrest at her childhood home with her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata), a superstitious woman who believes that the house has something supernatural about it. Though Kylie dismisses these thoughts as the ramblings of a bored old woman, she begins to hear noises in the night and starts to suspect that all may not be what it seems in the rickety old house.

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HouseBound was fairly well-received at SXSW last year for its unique blending of horror and comedy, and while I mostly agree, the film takes far too long to get to there. The whole beginning of the film takes too much time setting up the concept and introducing characters. The scary moments are scary and the funny moments are mostly funny, but they don’t play off each other like they should until the final act of the film. The movie felt mostly confused to me as I don’t think they knew which direction to go for some of the material, and thus, it doesn’t land all that well. That is, until the ending. The finale of the film works quite well and does leave one with a good impression.

The performances are good enough for the cast, and the real laughs come from the solid cinematography of Gerard Johnstone, who knows where to place the shot to get the most homage from it.

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Looking back on it, I feel like HouseBound has enough promise to warrant the recently announced US remake, and I feel like it’s a film that may benefit from it. The story works and, given some time to learn from the mistakes, it can be done (although perhaps Hollywood could leave well enough alone and just make something fresh and new, but whatever).

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Happy Christmas (2014)

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Director: Joe Swanberg

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, Mark Webber

Screenplay: Joe Swanberg

82 mins. Rated R for language, drug use and some sexual content.

 

Happy Christmas is about…wait, let me think for a minute. No,seriously, nothing exciting or entertaining happened here, but I’ll give it my best shot. So Jenny (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect, Into the Woods) breaks up with her boyfriend and goes to live with her brother Jeff (director Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies, V/H/S) and his wife Kelly (TV’s Togetherness, Up in the Air). She makes their life terrible essentially. I mean, supposedly they all grow as people, but I didn’t see it.

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This movie was boring as shit. Nothing happened where I felt a connection to these characters. Jenny actually convinces Kelly to throw away her writing abilities to write smut a la Fifty Shades of Grey-like ripoff. The performance serve the screenplay (also by Swanberg), but the story takes them nowhere. This is partly due to the fact that the screenplay called for improvisation and most of the cast could not deliver.

Now Swanberg can direct. I’ve seen some of his work and I liked it. He also can serviceably act. Writing, though? Not so sure.

I’m lucky I watched Happy Christmas by myself at home because I got up and left the room several times out of frustration. Even the dialogue gave me nothing to cling to, which sucks because I love Anna Kendrick and could possibly watch her paint a house and enjoy it, or at least I thought.

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Happy Christmas is so disappointing that I strain to find any merit. There is a great scene post-credits I guess…but even that doesn’t fit the characters and I merely enjoyed the banter between the two female leads and Carson (Lena Dunham, TV’s Girls, This is 40). Seriously. This movie pained me. Bad. Bad movie.

 

1/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Whiplash (2014)

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Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser

Screenplay: Damien Chazelle

107 mins. Rated R for strong language including some sexual references.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (J.K. Simmons)
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Achievement in Film Editing
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay

 

Whiplash was a strange entry to the list of Best Picture nominees at this year’s Oscars. It kind of just came out of nowhere. Everyone was talking about this movie that came out at the beginning of the year and just sort of slipped by everyone. All of the sudden, though, people were talking about J.K. Simmons (TV’s The Legend of Korra, Spider-Man) and his riveting performance as a musical maestro with a sharp edge.

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Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, The Divergent Series: Insurgent), a fantastic drummer who dreams of entering stardom at any cost. He will do absolutely anything to become one of the greats. This brings him to the attention of Fletcher (Simmons), a bandleader at the prestigious music school Andrew attends. Fletcher has the hottest ensemble on campus and everyone wants to join, but there are costs to working with the best, as Andrew soon discovers. As relationships with his girlfriend and father (played by Paul Reiser, Aliens, Life After Beth) crumble around him, can Andrew hold it all together?

Whiplash is, to put it best, a jarring piece of art. It is difficult to watch and, in equal measures, glorious and destructive. The performances by Teller and Simmons are intense and building and emotionally draining.

The screenplay, by writer-director Damien Chazelle, is an engrossing pile of paper, with themes of stardom and loneliness worked in.

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Whiplash feels like a rock concert that you want to see but don’t necessarily want to be a part of. The stellar work from just about everyone involved is top notch. My only complaint is that it does lull for a bit in the middle, but other than that, this is a movie you need to see. Now. Seriously. Go rent it now.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Lucy (2014)

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Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked

Screenplay: Luc Besson

89 mins. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality.

 

Lucy, the new film from occasional visionary Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Family) is the tale of a young woman who becomes more than human thanks to an experimental drug and a situation she couldn’t have imagined falling into. Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is Lucy, who has become a drug carrier to appease her boyfriend. When the drug she is delivering ends up in her bloodstream it awakens her full brain capacity and starts turning her into the Star-Child. You remember Star-Child, right? From 2001: A Space Odyssey? Yeah, well, this movie kind of just rips that off, but don’t worry, there are also bits of Limitless in there, too.

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Luc Besson’s major fault as a filmmaker is that he comes up with great ideas, but sometimes, he is a bit late to the game, and when he does get there, he can’t always formulate the ideas into a workable piece of art. Not all his films are like that, but it is a trend I am starting to see with the writer-director.

Scarlett Johansson is reduced to playing an unemotional machine by Act II, which depletes all the emotional resonance that she is capable of. Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Dolphin Tale 2) is relegated to reading out of a textbook for the entirety of the film as Professor Norman. Really, the only character I found myself even marginally connecting to by the midpoint of the film is Pierre (Amr Waked, Syriana, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), a cop caught up in Lucy’s mission to ascend to the next plane, and even he isn’t given enough fleshed-out time to really do anything.

The visuals are cool but they feel like they’ve been taken from better films. The screenplay (which took nine years to get off the ground) doesn’t offer anything new to the genre and just sort of falls flat.

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I wanted to like Lucy, but Lucy just didn’t like me back. Near the end, like Johansson’s previous Under the Skin, the film started to win me back, but it was too little too late for me. There are better films that play with these themes, so experience one of them instead.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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