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Nebraska

March 3, 2014 2 comments

By: Addison WylieNebraskaPoster

I’ve been selling Nebraska to people as “a charming version of Fargo without the violence”.  That gets attention fairly quickly.

Alexander Payne’s drama, however, is more quaint than quirky.  Nebraska’s prominent road trip involving a distracted father Woody (played by Bruce Dern) and his patiently courteous son David (played by Will Forte) coasts along flat landscapes.  The two converse about the past and the exciting current possibilities of million dollar winnings Woody received in the mail.  The relationship between Dern and Forte is just one of the many likeable building blocks to this heavenly appealing film.

Practically everyone doubts Woody’s grand prize, saying that it’s a sham.  Woody’s wife Kate (played by June Squibb) is also part of the crowd, often reminding her dullard husband of his unhelpful, checked-out personality.

David has a feeling that Woody’s prize is bologna too, but he can’t help but go along with his father’s happiness.  David doesn’t hope to see his Dad fail.  He’s going along for the ride because he shares the same sort of dream chasing.  He even tells his mother he just wants to give his old man hope.

Payne shows his audience how far different types of hereditary characteristics can travel.  We meet the men of the Grant family throughout the movie.  The clan can be often seen together moderately stimulated by television while hesitantly trying to make small talk.  During these moments, we observe that David – while taking on his father’s traits – can see the pattern.

Nebraska is wise, but also very funny.  Screenwriter Bob Nelson understands the nature of telling dry readings, and Payne knows perfectly well how to direct his actors in accordance to the script.

Once Dern and Forte are set in scenarios that cause them to put their mission on hold, the movie turns into a collection of vignetted character driven pieces.  We visit a cemetery where Kate calls out the dead.  She remembers the flaws over strengths, but never with cynicism.  Another scene has David and brother Ross (played by Bob Odenkirk) retrieving “stolen” equipment and leaving their worried parents to cover for them.  Actually, this sneaky sequence plays out as a cuter version of Sideways’ unforgettable wallet sting – also directed by Payne.

Nebraska doesn’t feel like a movie that pretentiously puts its story aside, but rather understands that development – not comedy – is the main priority.  We see Forte and Dern go through extensive characterizations.  Like Forte’s David, Nelson and Payne are patient with how the pieces play out, making each step convincing.  This is what separates the drama from other family adventures that follow a routine of “drive, stop, make the audience laugh, drive again”.

The cinematography is also a stand out.  It’s beautifully shot in black-and-white giving the composed film an antiqued look.  The shooting style adds to the film’s plainness without making the movie appear drab itself.

You often hear people describing a filmmaker’s movie as “a film with a warm heart and a kind soul”, and it couldn’t be more true with Nebraska.  Alexander Payne’s film had me smiling throughout and I was quite swept up by how honest the film was being with its bare portrayal of a family tree rooted in the outskirts of Americana.  It’s touching and delightful.  I dare you not to be grinning by the final frames.

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Her

February 3, 2014 1 comment

By: Addison Wylieherposter

“Bittersweet” is the best word to describe Her.  Spike Jonze has taken our bad habits with technology and projected them to frame an original love story with messages of poignancy.  It’s a personal film about an impersonal society.

The characters on-screen are closed off to everyone around them.  Among them is writer Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix who is a spitting image of Napoleon Dynamite’s “womanizing” brother Kip).  People are enjoyably and passively soaked into their own world via their devices, and don’t show any attachment – or interest – to the outside world.

As audiences acknowledge that Jonze’s vision of the future isn’t too far off from how we live now, we also fathom how secluded we’ve become because of how modern technology provides everything we need – including social activity.

It’s not just people who are shutting themselves out.  Virtually every location in Her is concealed.  Walkways are cavernous, buildings tower together to make a domed environment, and Twombly’s work and living space closes him off with limited interactivity.  It’s not until he begins talking with his new personalized operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson playing the role of “Samantha”) that he begins breathing in the outside.

Jonze doesn’t show us our antisocial dirty laundry in a cynical way that scolds us for being shallow.  In fact, the most impressive quality about Her is that it doesn’t mock or speak down to its audience.  The filmmaker recognizes and observes our society’s current state, and accepts it.  Her is simply a “head’s up” to one of the paths our lives could take if we continue ignoring.

Twombly, who’s gradually trying to muster the strength to sign off on his divorce papers, opens up to Samantha – a relationship buds.  Since his OS is the only entity who can see into his documented life through his computer, Samantha is the only one who “gets” Theodore.

Her ways aren’t used to manipulate our lead into a gullible twit.  Her inquisitive talks involve Theodore in a way that only his ex-wife could.

As Her flies along, Samantha and Theodore’s relationship blooms.  They both admit that their involvements with each other are introducing them to new things.  Especially Samantha, who is quickly evolving as she writes her own work and experiences Theodore’s sheepish attentiveness.

The connection between Phoenix and Johansson is strong and constantly watchable.  That says a lot since one half of this duo is never seen on screen.  Johansson does a terrific job at developing her audible performance, but Phoenix is sensational as an apprehensive one-man show.

Jonze, who also wrote the script, gets inside the head of someone who is sheltered and successfully establishes them over time in an authentic manner.  His screenplay says beautiful statements about the ups and downs of love, growing up and growing apart, as well as having an observant eye for gawky sweetness without hitting any easy targets.

The competency in the writing continues after the exchanges between Theodore and his OS.  Conversations between Theodore and his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) are very dear and tender.  Amy, who is also having a tough time herself figuring out the game of “love”, finds her talks with Theodore to be cathartic.  The friendship between these characters is well drawn with real feelings of aggravation and lightheartedness.

If I have a main criticism towards Jonze’s script, it’s regarding the brewing of a dicey “fourth act”.  Around the 90-minute mark, Jonze approaches a possible wrap-up that feels like a natural close to this story.  However, he drives past the exit.

The remainder of Her is constructed well and continues to hold our attention, but there are a couple of moments where it feels as if Jonze is thinking on-the-fly and trying to cover up his missed opportunity.  There were instances where I thought, “where exactly is this going?” only to be surprised to see the final outcome offer movie goers a touchingly humanistic conclusion to this delicate love story.  As an afterthought, I suppose I kind of liked that feeling of not knowing where Her was leading me.

Her is bound to sink into our subconscious soon after watching.  It goes to show that a filmmaker doesn’t have to put up a fuss to establish an opinion on modern day romance and why personable connections are important.  They also don’t have to make a stink about materializing irony and poking at known introverted faults.  Approaching the topics with elegance and civility earns Jonze splendid scenes of emotion and humour.

Spike Jonze, who has shown in early music videos to be an untamed visionary, has grown up to be a delicate filmmaker who can sensibly talk about issues while building an interesting story around them.

I would say we need more filmmakers like Spike Jonze in the world, but I like how we have only one artist like him.  Like Theodore’s Samantha, he’s a wonder of a storyteller who is a marvel to behold.

American Hustle

January 21, 2014 Leave a comment

By: Addison WylieAmericanHustlePoster

American Hustle is like watching a group of distinguished hard boiled card players play poker when you’re only learning the ropes.  None of them will break their deadpan expression or expose their hand.  Suddenly, someone will make a game changing move and raise the stakes.  Someone to your left leans over and – with pure exuberance – tells you how important the move was.  Meanwhile, you nod with acknowledgment and when they’re not looking, you check the time.

I think American Hustle looks great.  Director David O. Russell has done a standout job providing the essential period detail to late 70’s/early 80’s America.  The film sounds wonderful, providing plenty of great tracks from the era and using them to add to a scene instead of milking them for novelty sake.

These characters are by no means distinguished.  They’re crooked, sly, and slick with their work.  Each performer does an awesome job at building perpetual charisma with the equipped ensemble.

An overweight Bale, playing a top-of-the-game con man, grabs us with his corny combover and his anxiety ridden personality; suggesting Irving Rosenfeld is always sweaty and on his toes.  He not only physically embodies Rosenfeld, but emotionally as well.

Rosenfeld’s relationship with Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser is unstoppably watchable.  The two click incredibly and ignite the screen with their warped admiration for each other.  Russell has a knack for excelling with these sort of oddball romances.  He proved this with Silver Linings Playbook, and it’s no different with American Hustle.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper reunite and play their roles just as well as Bale and Adams.  It’s debatable whether or not Lawrence could’ve gotten away with more screen time, but the amount she’s been dealt is handled with every bit of hutzpah the actress seems to be getting better and better with as her career shoots onward.  Cooper, an adamant FBI agent, is super too as he treats the audience to a twitchy performance that takes him from different statures in a blink of an eye.

I wish I had liked the actual movie in which all these great ingredients are mixed up into. Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s convoluted screenplay is overzealous and piles on too many cons, blackmails, and double crosses. The comedy is supposed to stem out of these dishonest situations as people have to constantly adjust and act on their defensiveness. Personally, I felt the whole ordeal kept getting more unlikeable as these colourful characters fell deeper into their own plots.

The only somewhat sensible character is the “mark” involved with the film’s central scheme, Mayor Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner).  But, no movie goer is going to want to settle with the putz who is targeted throughout the movie.  We want to know more about the unusual folks.  Unfortunately, their loudness can dance close to being overbearing during all their exclaimed explanations and motions Russell has them going through.

American Hustle has been picking up all sorts of awards for its technical achievements and for its addictive performances – those areas all deserve the accolades.  But, convincing one to claim David O. Russell’s crime movie as a flawless feat is the ultimate con.

Dallas Buyers Club

October 31, 2013 1 comment

By: Addison WylieDBCposter

It’s undoubtable that Matthew McConaughey is going to win acting accolades with his incredible portrayal of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan who tests positive for the HIV virus. It’s a performance that’s unstoppable with McConaughey’s conviction and brute honesty, as well as an unwillingness to show Woodroof as flawless.

The man held firm beliefs against those who were different than him and his buddies down at the factory. But, when Woodroof is given the critical news that he only has 30 days to live, he’s determined to find a solution while those who once embraced his southern charm now shun him.

Dallas Buyers Club takes place in the mid-eighties and demonstrates really well how scared and shaken up everyone was when AIDS predominantly entered the scene. If you weren’t Woodroof, you tried to cope with others who were diagnosed with it. Such as the case was with Rayon, a transgender woman played phenomenally by Jared Leto who shouldn’t go unnoticed come award season.

Meanwhile, most medics saw this as an opportunity to experiment – most notably with an FDA approved drug named AZT. AZT was fishy to Woodroof who claimed the drug did more harm than good. After finding a loophole, Woodroof organized the Dallas Buyers Club, where HIV positive patients could pay for memberships entitling them to non-FDA approved drugs from over the border.

I’m bringing up a lot of award winning pre-buzz for good reason. The entire movie is worthy of acclaim from its top notch acting down to the script written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. However, Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t feel like pandering Oscar bait. It’s a confident production, but it isn’t out to solely garner trophies. It’s primary goal is to tell a strong story about a relentless individual who refused to let a three-letter diagnosis get in his way.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée has done wonders with telling this remarkable tale and representing Ron Woodroof in a way that starts off with his blunt ignorance and gives him a transformtion that’s endearing while also realistically sticking to his sheltered views of the world. Woodroof’s tolerance of homosexuals slowly opens up, but not in a contrived way where he wakes up one morning and declares, “hey, maybe these gays are A-OK!”

Dallas Buyers Club is an all around exceptional piece of work. It’s that rare case of feeling its beefy runtime, but not caring because Vallée and company have done such a fantastic job and use each minute to its fullest. It’s one of the best films of the year but, really, did I need to spell that one out?

Les Misérables

January 8, 2013 1 comment

By: Addison WylieLesMis

Tom Hooper wowed audiences with The King’s Speech. Well, most audiences – I thought it was inspirational but ordinary, with stylistic cinematography that overshadowed many elements of the story. Nonetheless, his film won multiple Oscars; including Best Picture.

He may follow suit with his adaptation of Les Misérables; in both the award garnering sense and the cinematography sense.

Hooper has brought his shooting style to his latest feature following Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) as he flees from perturbed policeman Javert (played by Russell Crowe) while keeping a close eye over young Cosette (played by the adorable Isabelle Allen and then by doe eyed Amanda Seyfried) who is the daughter of a tragic factory worker named Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway).

The case with Les Misérables is that the style does not trump the story. In fact, it keeps itself far away from sabotaging the dynamic and heavily emotional story – which has been flawlessly adapted by screenwriter William Nicholson.

Hooper allows cinematographer Danny Cohen to get up-close-and-personal with his actors. Occasionally – and I stress occasionally – we see a shadow as the camera gets too close, but the relentless intimacy adds a personal connection that the stage play provides in an alternate way.

When patrons see Les Misérables being acted out on stage, the real-time performance allows for those viewers to grow attached to the actor on stage. It’s obvious Hooper wants to capture that same personal connection with his medium. I think he’s gone above and beyond with his ability to build a relationship between his actors and the moviegoing public.

The performing cast all do a fantastic job. From the sensational and dedicated lead performances by Jackman and Crowe to the sweeping and emotional background ensemble to the emotion-shattering supporting performance from Hathaway – who may as well start clearing her throat now for her Oscar acceptance speech.

Jackman disappears into the role of Valjean; giving his best performance of his career. We feel his morality struggle and his aging development with every frame of the film.

As for Crowe, his voice may be the most grumbly of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He’s quite impressive with his melodic monologues and his gradual breakdown through the years hunting Valjean.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are hilarious scene stealers as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, a mischievous couple who steal and swindle. Those two character actors are recognizable but they’re very much focused throughout their screen time. Though, I thought I heard a sprinkling of Ali G during Cohen’s quick punchlines – which was amusing rather than distracting. However, to write his performance off for that very minor quibble would be silly.

Les Misérables balances two different storytellings and visual presentations. It wants to be true to its period while also being theatrical – as it should be. The period detail starts off strong, with most of the cinematography during the first and second acts resembling war photography.

As the third act plays out, the film becomes more theatrical with its staging of fights and choreography. That’s not a problem per se, but more of an observation.

The theatrical elements are expected and embraced though. The entire project is being respectable to the subject material whilst also adding moments of classic cinema to the equation. It guarantees you perpetual goosebumps throughout it’s two-and-a-half hour duration – which flew by for me (yes, even without an intermission!).

Hooper has won me back and confirmed that he’s here to stay as a director and visionary. It’s understandable his shooting style is polarizing and is utterly subjective. For this critic, it worked wonders in Les Mis’ context; as does every other element in this magnificent cinematic event.