Category Archives: 2014 Movie reviews

Jimi: All Is By My Side-2014

Jimi: All Is By My Side-2014

Director-John Ridley

Starring-Andre Benjamin

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Reviewed September 30, 2016

Grade: A-

Jimi: All Is By My Side was not quite the film that I was expecting it to be- it was better! I was not expecting drivel certainly, the film did receive a Best Male Lead Independent Spirit award nomination for Andre Benjamin in the title role, after all. But I expected an overview of the rise and fall of famed rocker Jimi Hendrix. Instead I was treated to a more introspective piece than I imagined. The film is a British production.

Interestingly, the film was denied use of any Jimi Hendrix songs familiar to audiences, but only songs written in 1966 and 1967. This surprisingly turns out to be a positive to the film.

The awesome achievement of this film is its non-conformity and being an independent film, lots of freedoms were undoubtedly given.  This is a good thing. Had this film been targeted for a run at the local multiplex, it may have been a run of the mill affair, focusing on the star and the star only. It is also shot in a less than glossy way, giving it an almost grainy, gritty look that I found added something.

Impressively, the supporting characters, specifically three females that Hendrix has relationships with throughout his initial rise to fame, are prominently featured, and the story shifts at times to their perspectives and feelings, not just on Hendrix’s. The film does not focus on Hendrix’s untimely death.

We meet Hendrix (compellingly played by Benjamin) performing guitar in a sparsely attended bar in New York City. He is discovered by Linda, girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, as she becomes both smitten with Hendrix and also recognize his immense talents. Slowly, he is discovered (mainly in London) and rises to fame. However, the film is not solely focused on his success, but rather his personal life.

Besides Linda, Hendrix becomes involved with volatile groupie and fixture among the 1960’s London music scene, Kathy, and cultured American Ida. Instead of the female characters being written as one-dimensional and dizzy, all three are quite intelligent and layered. While each has feelings for the star, they are forces to be reckoned with in their own right, and we grow to care about their characters as individuals.

A scene involving Jimi violently beating girlfriend Kathy with a telephone during an argument has been refuted by friends as being fictitious- Hendrix was known as a gentle, peaceful man. A controversy has emerged as to the accuracy of this film in general, but I thought it quite introspective and fascinating.

Vampire Academy-2014

Vampire Academy-2014

Director-Mark Waters

Starring-Zoey Deutch

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Reviewed September 18, 2016

Grade: C

Vampire Academy is a teenage intended mixture of Harry Potter meets Heathers meets Twilight. It is escapist fare and is quite light in nature, but rather fun in an amateurish way. I am certain the target audience is of teenage, female persuasion, but when traveling one can be limited in film options. Hence, on a chilly night in Norway, this film kept me occupied.

The story features a half human-half vampire named Rose, a teenage girl, who aspires to be a guardian, who is called back to a boarding-school to uncover an hierarchical web of secrets, lies, and plots. She is accompanied by her best friend Lissa. Predictably, there is a romantic angle to the story as Rose has feelings for Dimitri, a fellow guardian.

The film itself is fine- it knows the demographic it is going for and young adults are sure to enjoy the compelling drama, likable leads, and attractive cast. From a film critique standpoint, there is really nothing wrong with the film, but it is a bit generic and slightly predictable- from the romantic perspective, though impressively the ending is a bit of a surprise- in fact it is a whodunit of sorts.

Impressive also is Sarah Hyland (Modern Family), as nerdy classmate Natalie, who seems to be the brains and the keeper of gossip throughout the academy. The role is against type for the young actress and she does very well.

It is tough not to compare this film to the Harry Potter series of films since many aspects of Vampire Academy mirror Harry Potter- only with a female in the driver’s seat. The mysterious teachers and characters are also reminiscent of the fantastical Harry elements.

Unfortunately, a planned sequel was scrapped due to lack of interest, which surprised me. I would anticipate a film like this to be a hit and perhaps introduce a franchise, but not to be.

An adequate young adult film that borrows from other films and also harkens back to the days of former teen minded genres of the past, specifically the 1980’s.

The Purge: Anarchy-2014

The Purge: Anarchy-2014

Director-James DeMonaco

Starring-Frank Grillo

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Reviewed August 16, 2016

Grade: B

As a fan of the original The Purge, a creative, fresh modern horror film with a distinct message, I did not expect the sequel to match expectations nor to be as powerful as the original and I was right on both counts. As a stand alone film, though, it is a decent flick, having almost nothing to do with the original, save for the same premise. In fact, I hesitate to even call The Purge: Anarchy a horror film as it contains little blood, gore, or true horror elements- it is much more of a thriller.

The premise is simple- the Government sanctioned holiday of March 21st has come around again, meaning twelve hours of sanctioned mayhem, where murder, rape, and assault are all allowed without punishment to the criminals, and no police or rescue teams of any sort are available. The time period is 2023, though I am unsure why this is relevant, since there is nothing that distinguishes the year from the current year, 2016, in the story. Several protagonists fearfully hunker down for a night of safety holed up in their individual dwellings, but circumstances force them onto the streets. A mother and her teen daughter, a young couple, and a vigilante of sorts are the differing characters. The backstories of these folks are not really all that important or relevant to the film. They form a group and bond with each other.

Whereas the original kept the audience confined to one house, The Purge: Anarchy does anything but. As the group commences, the streets of Los Angeles serve as the backdrop for the action as they endlessly traverse the dark and mainly deserted streets, hiding in garbage dumpsters, tunnels, and other sources for protection.  The vigilante, who is revealed to be an off-duty police officer, has motivation, as his son was killed one year ago today, not as a result of the Purge, but by a drunk driver. The police officer is seeking his revenge via the freedom the annual Purge allows him.

The film is purely plot driven and little character development exists, however, the group is mostly likable, especially the mother and daughter. Interestingly, the film makers chose to feature multiple races and ethnic group, giving it a dose of diversity, which gets a big kudos from me.

I could not help but draw comparisons to the popular television series The Walking Dead, at several points of the film, as the group, brandishing weapons, continuously encounters thugs and enemies of every kind as they wander the streets.

A creative twist to The Purge: Anarchy involves a group of Anti-Purgers, all black, who have a following of people supporting them against the government’s protocol of allowing  an annual purging. It is made clear that the main victims of the purge holiday are the poor and the sick. Correlating with this, our group finds themselves kidnapped and taken to a lavish party where wealthy folks arrange a night of champagne and hunting as the victims are lured to their deaths while the onlookers cheer and feast in celebration. Think an Oscar party with gruesome results.

The Purge: Anarchy is a good, fun, Saturday night popcorn film that does contain a message that is worth pondering. Would society succumb to a fetish such as the annual purge if the government condoned it? Undoubtedly the film must have been influenced by the popularity of The Hunger Games in tone and theme. It is a decent film, no more-no less.

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya-2014

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya-2014

Director-Isao Takahata

Starring-Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora

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Reviewed June 23, 2016

Grade: B+

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is a Japanese animated film released in 2014.  It is a unique film- mixing elements of fantasy and drama- stunning to experience and appreciate from a creative perspective. Unusual still is the lengthy running time of two hours and seventeen minutes- animated films are typically on the short side. This is not to say that it drags, although I found it helpful to view in segments. Originally made in the Japanese language, the film has been dubbed in English and features recognizable voices such as Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Lui, and James Caan.

A bamboo cutter named Miyatsuko discovers a baby girl inside a bamboo tree one day. He and his wife consider her to be a divine presence and decide to keep her as their own, naming her Princess Kaguya. Mysteriously, she begins to grow and develop at an alarming rate and is the wonder of the village. Kaguya develops  a playful crush on Sutemaru, a handsome peasant in her village.  Kaguya, led by her parents, is taken into a life of nobility and wealth as her destiny. Her governess attempts to mold her into a regal Princess, but Kaguya is a wandering, free spirit, and rejects the formalities of this life. Her myriad of wealthy suitors counters with her feelings for Sutemaru.

From a story perspective, the film shines, as the conflict over wealth versus poverty are explored. Kaguya’s parents are not greedy, but they do want her to receive her just desserts and a life free of hardship- as they are used to. They want something better for her. One can relate to the parents views, but Kaguya feels differently. She wants freedom, love, and happiness, not  a life of rules, procedures, and smoke and mirrors.

The makers of the film clearly present the viewpoint of someone “other-wordly”  who is observing and analyzing planet earth, warts and all, so the film does have a message to it. It is not cliched or overbearing in its approach though-merely honest and sincere.

Every frame in the film appears to be a gorgeous drawing- not conventional, fast-paced animation, but rather classic, muted, pastel type colors are used, giving it a softer touch, which astounded me. If one is not into the story (tough to imagine), one could easily sit back and marvel at the spectacle.

The growing trend in animated films seems to be a return to traditional drawings- think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer- as evidenced by The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya and Anomalisa, two recent animated features receiving critical acclaim. This is music to my ears as these are far superior than the usual, and redundant, CGI-laden films.

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem-2014

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem-2014

Director-Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Starring-Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian

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Reviewed June 9, 2016

Grade: B+

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem is the third in a trilogy of films focusing on the title character of Vivian Amsalem and her unhappy marriage to husband, Elisha. To be clear, the unhappiness is hers and he sees no reason to end the marriage. It is a film about culture, religion, and modern views versus traditional ones. I was unaware the film was a trilogy until after I finished watching and began conducting some research as I prepared to review it. It is not a necessity to view the first two films  (To Take A Wife and Shiva) in order to enjoy this film as I suspect they are each chapters as opposed to continuations.

Vivian is a tall, strikingly beautiful woman, though she is clearly weary and haggard when we first lay eyes on her in the stifling courtroom, where she sits and clearly spends much of her time. She has long dark hair and intense eyes- she appears driven and quite modern and of liberal thinking, a feminist perhaps. A determined woman frustrated because her yearning for an independent life has been thwarted by her husband. She would like a divorce from her husband of over twenty years. Having met him at age fifteen, his is the only life she has known. Since he will not agree to the divorce, the courts will not grant her the decision she wants. Since he has not abused her and gives her everything she desires, the judges have no grounds to grant her the divorce. This is the conflict of the film.

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem has a clear religious message, which is an interesting component for an American viewer. How simple it is to divorce somebody in western civilization and how different the measure is in Israel. Jewish religious law is quite restrictive. Vivian faces an enormous ordeal. She does not love her husband, yet she is unable to end her loveless marriage. The film is fraught with a clear conflict and ones interpretation of right and wrong.

Almost set as a play since the film has merely one set- the courtroom- this aspect is very effective in showing frustration, exasperation, and even rage. All the while, Gett, has a sly sense of humour, and I could not help but smirk at a few of the supporting character portrayals. I sensed a Pedro Almodovar (a famous Spanish director) influence in the quirky, sly writing, and his themes of political freedom.

Character after character are called into the courtroom to testify as witness to Vivian and Elisha’s happy marriage- each attorney looking for evidence to cement their clients point of view. To contrast Vivian’s fierce independence, a mature neighbor couple of Vivian and Elisha heralds them as the perfect couple. Soon, the wife is grilled revealing that she is submissive to her husband and lives in an entirely different world than Vivian.

To be critical, the film does drag at times, but I wonder if this is the director’s intent. Clearly, the tone of the film is a suffocating one- Vivian and her attorney languish in the same courtroom for five long years as delay after delay occurs.

Throughout the numerous testimonies, an accusation is raised that is an interesting component of the film and an aspect I wondered about very early on- was an affair brewing between Vivian and her attorney? It is alluded to, but never confirmed, rather shrouded in mystery. One wonders.

From an acting perspective, Ronit Elkabetz is fantastic, and I am saddened she did not receive an Oscar nomination, but I do recall some buzz about this fantastic actress being expressed at the time the film was released. Her scene of pure rage towards the end of the film is brilliant. All the years of bottled up emotions come flowing out in one great performance.

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem is an intense experience in tedium, frustration, and ultimately rage, but is never stuffy or too serious as evidenced by humorous supporting characters. It is for patient film fans seeking an emotional, human experience.

The Way He Looks-2014

The Way He Looks-2014

Director-Daniel Ribeiro

Starring-Fabio Audi, Ghilherme Lobo

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Reviewed June 4, 2016

Grade: B+

The Way He Looks is a foreign language film (Brazilian) from 2014 that tells a coming of age story about a blind high school student,  who develops feelings for the new kid in town. The other boy has rapidly become his new best friend and the boys, while unsure of the others sexual preferences, fall in love. The film is a charming story about a modern romance, now becoming more prevalent in film today.

Leonardo (known as Leo) is a blind high school student struggling to be his own person.  His close friend Giovana is in a similar situation as neither has ever been kissed, yet they feel adolescent desires- they are lonely, but share a close bond with each other. Regardless of his disability, Leo is quite independent, despite having parents who border on smothering. One day, a new student named Gabriel volunteers to sit behind Leo in class and they strike up a friendship. Giovana, unaware of Leo’s sexual preferences, develops a crush on Gabriel. The film then tells a sweet story about young, blossoming, romance. The main characters do not face particularly tough obstacles from outside sources, but rather from each other as their feelings and emotions are fragile. In addition to romance, the film focuses on the friendships between Leo, Gabriel, and Giovana.

The Way He Looks is a warm film. It is sweet and compassionate and tenderhearted. The viewer witnesses a budding romance between two teenagers and the fact that they are both male is really secondary- that is how charming the film is. The audience will root for Leo and Gabriel because they are nice kids. Giovana, the outsider, also has a rooting factor- she is in no way a villain, nor does she harbor resentment for either Leo or Gabriel, but rather, yearns for her own first romance and happiness. The film wisely does not turn her into an emotional wreck, or a psycho. Sure, she gets drunk at a party, but this is really only to temporarily escape her feelings.

I recoiled at scene after scene of Leo’s parents either fretting about something, worried sick about Leo coming home late, or simply worried that something may happen to their son. Relax already. Life is not meant to be spent frazzled because your son is blind. The parents are not the strongest written characters in the film and, in fact, are rather secondary characters. The case is the same for the bullies, the slutty girl, and the teacher. The film belongs to Leo, Gabriel, and Giovana wholly. The supporting characters in The Way He Looks are meant to merely react to the central characters issues.

A kind film about a same sex, young romance. Charming, not too heavy, with likable characters, who one can root for. There are no bombs, car chases, or explosions needed. The Way He Looks is a slice of life film that is simple, pure, and true.

Obvious Child-2014

Obvious Child-2014

Director-Gillian Robespierre

Starring-Jenny Slate

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Reviewed March 22, 2016

Grade: C+

Obvious Child is a 2014 independent comedy nominated for a couple of independent spirit awards, that contains mixed results from me. It works on some levels, but has an irritating underbelly and some unneeded components that ultimately give it a thumbs down. The major success is star Jenny Slate, a real-life Brooklyn stand-up comic with immeasurable comic timing, who will hopefully become a rising star. Interesting to note is that Slate starred in a 2009 short film of the same name before said film graduated to a full length feature.

Slate stars as a twenty-eight year old Brooklyn-ite, who moonlights as a stand-up comic in a dingy bar while working in a desolate bookstore that is soon closing. Conversely, her parents are successful- her mother a famed professor. When she is unceremoniously dumped by her steady, she takes up with a handsome young man for a one-night stand filled with fun. Predictably, she winds up pregnant and forges ahead with a plan to abort their child.

The abortion story is quite interesting in that there is never a doubt what she will have done to the unborn child. Unlike films that make abortion the main focus of conflict, Obvious Child wisely does not- every character in the film supports, and even encourages her to have the procedure, including her mother and best friend. Having been written and directed by women, this is clearly intentional and a way of empowering women, which is one of the high points of the film. If one is on the fence about the topic of abortion or is pro-life in stance, this film may be very tough to watch as its slant is made crystal clear.

Slate is the other high point of the film. She exudes confidence and comic range. Jewish and slightly awkward looking, she is not the leading-lady type and this arguably makes her wit and sarcastic language all the more comical. She is a natural in the comedy department and I am hoping she will go far.

Two slight props for me worth mentioning is the wonderful mention of the classic film Gone with the Wind and the setting of Brooklyn. This was a great nod to film history and the setting gave Obvious Child an authentic New York City feel.

On the other hand, an utter annoyance about Obvious Child is the shameless and constant use of blatant and off-putting bathroom humor- not just once or twice, but numerous times. How is this necessary to the plot? I really cannot say, but only can surmise that it was deemed necessary by the filmmakers to show that females can give as good as males can. Almost saying, “men can make poop jokes, why can’t women”? Why this is necessary in any film is beyond me and it gives Obvious Child a crass, ugly feel.

The film also has an unrealistic quality to it. Max is portrayed as a prince charming. He can do no wrong, supports Donna in any decision she makes, is enamored by her sole being, and loves her unconditionally after only a one-night stand. This would not happen in real life. The fact that Donna is Jewish and quirky and Max is Christian and straight-laced is not explored. What conflicts would they undoubtedly face? Why were his parents not featured.

Highly uneven, with a great premise and an interesting slant on a still controversial social issue, Obvious Child succeeds in the story department, but fails in it’s uncalled for use of potty humor to elicit cheap laughs.

Wild Tales-2014

Wild Tales-2014

Director-Damian Szifron

Starring-Liliana Ackerman

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Reviewed February 5, 2016

Grade: A

What a crazy adventure! Receiving a well deserved 2015 Best Foreign Language film Academy Award nomination, Wild Tales is an Argentinian film that weaves six unique vignettes together. Each tale involves conflict between characters and oftentimes centers around the subject of revenge. Each reminds me of a foreign language version of a Twilight Zone episode, albeit much darker, mixed with a prevalent Quentin Tarantino influence.

A psychopath arranges for all of his enemies to be on the same flight (“Pasternack”), a hit and run accident among a wealthy family turns murderous (“The Proposal”), a bomb expert turns his expertise onto a corrupt towing company (“Little Bomb”), a disturbed bride and groom celebrate their wedding reception in  bizarre fashion (“Until Death Do Us Part”), a revenge driven waitress waits on her rival (“The Rats”), and a brutal tale of road rage (“The Strongest”) are the stories told in this fantastic film.

Wild Tales is an outrageous journey and as each chapter unfolds we are treated to the unexpected and each is cleverly written- bear in mind that they are independent stories and have nothing to do with each other chronologically or otherwise. The vignettes also vary vastly in length with one as short as ten minutes and another hovering around the forty minute mark.

Some characters are sympathetic-others hateful, which is interesting in itself. The diner in “The Rats” is hateful and we wish for his demise. At the conclusion of “Little Bomb”, the protagonist (or antagonist depending on how you look at it) receives a heroes welcome for standing up to corruption. Other stories, particularly in “The Strongest”, all of the characters are unlikable.

Famed director Pedro Almodovar (The Skin I Live In, Volver)  does not direct Wild Tales, but does produce the project and his imprint is all over it. Almodovar has a thing for the weird and, as in 2013’s I’m So Excited, a thing for passengers in peril inside airplanes. At the conclusion of “Pasternack”, the first installment, one will experience an “OMG!” moment, which wisely sets the tone for the entire movie. We wait and wonder what can possibly happen next?

My favorite tale was a tie between two- “The Proposal” and “The Strongest”. I loved the class distinction that was evident in the former as a wealthy father struggles to cover up his family’s dirty deeds initially at any cost necessary, but has he finally had enough? Will the wealthy once again victimize the poor?  In the latter, class distinction is again explored, as a hot shot in a slick car angers a simple man in a battered car, only to regret his outburst of road rage. The story turns into a Lord of the Flies situation where it is “kill or be killed”. The clever ending for this one is fantastic as the officials completely misinterpret the events.

By far the most bizarre tale is “Until Death Do Us Part”, which is also the finale.  A glorious and festive Jewish wedding reception turns bitter and bloody as the bride’s jealousy is tested. But is the bride the unstable partner or is the groom? Or perhaps both? This chapter reminds me  most of a Quentin Tarantino film (must have been the bloody bride), as the tone and the texture is reminiscent of his films (and yes, the blood too!).

Unusual, delightful, and sometimes even deranged, Wild Tales is a nice reminder that there are still creative and left of center projects being made in modern film that must be experienced and enjoyed. This is not an ordinary, predictable film and that is what makes it quite a gem.

Leviathan-2014

Leviathan-2014

Director-Andrey Zvyagintsev

Starring-Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov

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Reviewed January 16, 2016

Grade: B+

Nominated for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film (Russian), Leviathan is a tale of governmental corruption at the expense of the “little man”, mixed in with a family drama- and is quite heavy at times. The film is very good- sort of a standard, tense drama, if you will, though a bit slow moving at times. This is not so much a complaint as it is an observation. As with many Foreign language films versus American films, there is more nudity (not in a gratuitous way) and less explosions, which is an admiration and a hats off to foreign language films as a whole. Leviathan made me think of the overall foreign language film genre in that assessment as it did not need CGI or any other “bells and whistles” commonplace in current American film.

Set in a gorgeous coastal area of Russia, and featuring a plethora of landscape-most of the film in outdoor shots, Leviathan is a story with religious overtones mixed in with the drama.  “Good vs. evil” and both sides questioning god or defending their actions for god are featured message points.

The protagonist of the story, Koyla, lives with his second wife, Lilya, and his son Roma on the coast in a fishing town. Koyla is hot-headed and expresses rage from time to time, but is a good man living a simple life as a mechanic.  The corrupt Mayor of the town is determined to take Koyla’s land and build a villa, offering Koyla an insulting sum of money to sell his land. The disputed land is currently in legal hands, and Koyla’s handsome lawyer friend, Dima, arrives from Moscow to handle the case and lend support to the family in their uneasy times.

A secondary plot involves a love triangle between Koyla/Dima/Lilya, and Roma’s hatred for Lilya that, while somewhat interesting on its own terms, did not do much to further the main plot and I am not sure how necessary it was to the film as a whole. It had nothing to do with the land dispute and was left unresolved.

The clear “hero” of the film is Koyla, but he is no saint himself. He drinks heavily, at one point smacks his son (albeit deservedly so), and has a temper. But his land is being taken from him by a corrupt figure so that makes Koyla empathetic and likable.

Leviathan is a compelling film as the clear message received is “bully vs. beleaguered working man”. The mayor is a fat, unattractive, drunken bully and the audience is clearly instructed to root against him. He has the town justice department in his back pocket and uses blackmail to achieve success. The film brings religion into the plot as a priest tells the mayor he is doing “gods work”, thereby justifying his motivations (at least in his own mind). Later, a defeated Koyla has a conversation with a religious man questioning god and gods actions.

The film has a cold feel to it- despite being set in what I believed to be the summer or fall. There is a chill in the air, it always looks windy, and the look of the film is dark. This is effective as Leviathan is a dreary film and one with an unhappy ending. Life is harsh and cruel and the film extends that message.

I did not quite understand Lilya’s motivations and not much is known about her character, despite being heavily involved in the events. What motivates her to have an affair with Dima? Why does she return to Koyla? Is she unhappy and seeking a more glamorous life? This can be assumed, but is never made clear so therefore she is a mysterious character.

Enjoyable to me most was the final thirty minutes or so of the film. When a characters sudden death occurs, I was left wondering if a particular character was responsible for the death before it was revealed what truly happened.

A cinematic treat and an interesting premise, mixed with a bit of religion and  a whodunit of sorts, make the Russian film Leviathan, a worthy viewing experience.

It Follows-2014

It Follows-2014

Director-David Robert Mitchell

Starring-Maika Monroe, Debbie Williams

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Reviewed December 23, 2015

Grade: A-

It Follows is a mysterious, very unique, dreamlike (or shall I say nightmarish!) independent horror film that is a pleasant throwback to old school horror films (my favorites!), with a supernatural twist thrown in. The film is directed very well by newcomer David Robert Mitchell containing wonderful cinematography, creative camera angles, etc. This film is not glossy and has a raw, almost videotaped feel, which I personally found quite wonderful. The film was shot entirely in and around Detroit giving it a cold, industrial look.

The film begins on a dramatic note leaving the viewer curious right off the bat. A young woman flees her suburban home and nervously stands on the street looking back at her house.  A neighbor asks if she needs help. She then returns to her house, collects her things and hurriedly drives to the beach. She suspects something or someone is watching her. She tearfully phones her father and tells him she loves him. The next scene appears to be the following morning and the woman is lying murdered on the beach in a grotesque position- her leg strangely bent. This is a fantastic way to begin the film.

From this point the premise is quickly revealed. The main character of the film is Jay, an attractive college-aged girl. She lives with her sister Kelly and are good friends with their next door neighbors Paul and Yara. An additional neighbor and classmate, Greg, also figures into the plot. Jay is on a date with Hugh and things are going well. They attend a classic film. They sneak into a deserted lot and have sex. Afterwards, Hugh chloroforms Jay and the weirdness begins. A strange woman appears and Hugh tells Jay that she must pass on a curse. Otherwise, an entity in the form of another person that nobody else can see but the victim will get Jay and she will be doomed.

I loved the throwback elements to 1970’s and 1980’s horror- in fact it is vague when the film is set- purposely so I imagine- as many of the cars are 1970’s and 1980’s models. Only one cell phone is used throughout the film, but mostly the time could be present or past. Even the houses appear dated.

Story-wise, It Follows is tough to figure out and open to a certain level of interpretation. Is the film anti-sex? Is the story a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases? Clearly the victims become possessed by the entity after sex and then must pass it to another unwitting victim, sexually.

I noticed some similarities to John Carpenter films- specifically the classic Halloween. Jay sits in a classroom (ironically in the back row next to the window ala Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween) and looks out to see a strange old woman slowly lumbering towards her, eyes fixed on Jay.  Later, the three principal girls casually walk around the neighborhood engaging in small talk similar to the characters of Laurie, Lynda, and Annie in Halloween.

The ending- a scene in the indoor community swimming pool where the kids try to catch the spirit is a bit hokey and unresolved. However, I did enjoy the final scene- a peaceful one  in which I was unsure if the entity has been destroyed or remained. A sequel perhaps?

I give It Follows major props for its styling, creativity, while all the while giving classic horror fans a good old fashioned treat without much CGI necessary.

She’s Lost Control-2014

She’s Lost Control-2014

Director-Anja Marquardt

Starring-Brooke Bloom

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Reviewed December 14, 2015

Grade: B+

She’s Lost Control is a dark, independent drama, and the directorial debut of Anja Marquardt. This film is one reason I proudly support independent film, as it is otherwise a film that most do not know about, and will never know about, if not for good word of mouth and award recognition- think indie spirit awards. Hopefully, Marquardt will one day be a household name. The film is heavy yet intriguing and certainly a character study.

The film is a dark and dreary experience- some might argue depressing, centering on Ronah- a young, female, college student, aspiring towards her master’s degree in psychology, who works as a sexual surrogate in Manhattan. The film explores her experiences with various clients, specifically, a disturbed, volatile man, who she takes on as a client. As she becomes better acquainted with Johnny, they forge a special bond, but will romantic feelings and jealousy get in the way of the therapy assigned to both parties involved? How each of them explores their feelings is the focal point of the tale, and clearly the feelings involved are not peaches and cream.

Ronah is not a prostitute and there is very little sex that goes on, albeit the implication is certainly there. She is nurturing and very emotionally invested and intends to become a psychiatrist one day. It is unclear whether her “boss”, a shady seeming character, is her pimp or simply employer. His role and motivations are a bit unclear.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the title and throughout my viewing of the film I wondered about the title more and more- are any of Ronah’s experiences in her mind? Is she stable or does she perhaps have some emotional or mental issues? She befriends a kind neighbor around her age and invites her for dinner- they bond. The neighbor invites her out dancing, but Ronah declines.  She also has an older female confidant- a former surrogate herself who gives Ronah tips and suggestions. Still, Ronah is lonely. Again we wonder if perhaps all is not what it seems? This is a fascinating aspect to the story. One must watch to determine the answers to questions such as these.

New York City can be a tough, unkind world and She’s Lost Control does not sugar coat an individual’s difficult existence when not blessed with family money, strings, or some other advantage. Ronah lives in a dump with holes in her shower and cramped quarters. In addition to her hardships where she lives, she is constantly kept abreast of problems concerning her brother and mother back home in upstate New York. Quite simply, Ronah is overwhelmed by her life. Might she be spinning out of control?

The dreary aspect of the film, to me, is not so much the sexual aspect. Ronah is a therapist and everything is with mutual consent.  Unfortunately, she is challenged by some of the people she encounters in her profession.

I admire She’s Lost Control quite a bit for its insight, thoughtfulness, and compelling story of a woman with a difficult life, trying to make ends meet, and aspiring to something worthwhile. She is brave, troubled, and interesting all rolled up in one fascinating lead character.

The Lego Movie-2014

The Lego Movie-2014

Director-Phil Lord, Chris Miller

Starring-Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks

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Reviewed October 24, 2015

Grade: D

A child’s movie in every sense of the word, The Lego Movie is silly and amateurish. It contains a hackneyed plot and an incredibly fast pace that makes the viewing experience quite unpleasant, frankly. Computer animated and primarily created by imagery, a scene involving two human beings interspersed among all of the animation only makes the plot more sappy, overwrought, and predictable. The film is a complete dud and a waste of energy save for one lone catchy song appearing throughout the film. I am perplexed why this film received mostly positive reviews as I did not share the same sentiment.

The premise is too complex for the target audience, for starters. In a Lego universe, where all of the characters are Lego pieces, a mysterious wizard- Vitruvious, attempts to protect a super weapon (Kragle) from the evil Lord Business. While he fails, he prophesies that a person named “The Special” will one day find the Piece of Resistance capable of stopping the Kragle. Kragle turns out to be superglue in the human world, as a cameo with Will Ferrell reveals he is really the human version of Lord Business, and refuses to let his young son play with Dad’s Lego set, thereby threatening to permanently keep the set stationary with glue. Inevitably, this leads to a tender scene with Dad and son.

I simply did not find The Lego Movie very engaging story-wise or from a visual standpoint and was bored throughout most of the experience. Admittedly, modern animated films are not my favorite genre- I miss the days of the classic Disney drawing style films like Bambi or Dumbo. The major flaw is the frenetic pacing of the film. Did the powers that be think that all youngsters and parents dragged along to see the film suffer from attention deficit disorder? There was no time to pause and ponder what was going on in the story since immediately it was on to the next scene. In fact, during most scenes the action was non-stop so that the film seems like one long action sequence.

The main character of Emmett, a young Lego piece characterized by everyone as dull is voiced by Chris Pratt. Emmet stumbles upon a young woman named Wyldestyle looking for something at his construction site- she assumes he is The Special and they race to save the world from Lord Business. Emmet, as far as a lead character goes, is likable enough and predictably, a romance of sorts develops between he and Wyldestyle. Through their adventures we meet various creative characters like Batman and Princess Unikitty.

The film contains a sickeningly catchy song called “Everything is Awesome” that will stick in the viewers head whether desired or not and that is the strongest part of the film. It is not that the song is lyrically great or anything, but it is fun and hum along.

Overly high octane and an uninteresting plot make The Lego Movie perhaps appealing to young kids in the seven to ten range, but is a forgettable and tedious experience for this grown-up. The ending of the film leaves room for the inevitable sequel.

Guardians of the Galaxy-2014

Guardians of the Galaxy-2014

Director-James Gunn

Starring-Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana

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Reviewed October 9, 2015

Grade: C-

The summer blockbuster hit of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel comics film popular among fans and critics alike, disappointed this viewer. Too many superhero films are overly conventional, by the numbers fare, and this one certainly contained the aforementioned characteristics. Presumably targeted for teens (I would think), the film has cute jokes and decent special effects, but a bland, mediocre screenplay that lacks any edginess.

Handsome Chris Platt plays Peter Quill, a space pilot from Earth, who is abducted as a young boy by a pirate group named the Ravagers. Now a grown man, Peter attempts to steal a mysterious and powerful Orb known for special powers, for monetary gain. The Orb is desired by many, including the evil Ronan, and his daughter Gamora. Predictably, events turn into a battle of good vs. evil as Peter and Gamora (who turns good) team up with misfits Drax (a strongman), Groot (a tree), and Rocket (a raccoon) to thwart intentions by Ronan of destroying a peaceful planet, Nova Empire. The meat of the story involves the teams journey from imprisonment and escape to their efforts saving the world. As traditional with these types of films, there is inevitable romantic chemistry between Peter and Gamora, who at first are rivals, but slowly develop a fondness for each other when it is revealed that she is plotting against Ronan, and has valiant efforts.

Strengths of the film are the 1970’s soundtrack and the incorporation of a cassette player and Walkman, unheard of in today’s modern world, to the story. I loved how this was not simply background music, but referenced throughout the film in various situations. For example, when Peter comically explains to a clueless bad guy what his treasured cassette tape consists of and how he cannot bare to part with it, this impressed me. The creative sets and bright colors are another high point of Guardians of the Galaxy. The Xander planet, specifically, is portrayed as clean, bright, and progressive, which counterbalanced the dark, dreary nature of where Ronan and his entourage live.

However, the film is too conventional and not the least bit edgy or out of the ordinary in any way story wise. Let’s take the hero for example. He is clean-cut, all American, and is humorous. But, why exactly is he the hero? He inevitably saves the world, but makes him go from a pirate who is a thief, to a golden boy leading a team to save a relatively unknown planet. There is, of course, a scene involving a backstory of his mother dying of cancer and his regret over not taking her hand one final time. This is assumed to make him kind hearted and one of the good guys. This felt forced to me and what we have seem time after time in super-hero films. The message I received from the film was basic- powerful, strong, masculine guy with a sense of humor mixed in for good measure, saves the world from the bad guys, while including a bunch of tag-alongs. This is fine, but albeit predictable.

I was left with some questions. What were Ronan’s and Tharos’s motivations? They were simply evil with not much explanation as to why. What led them down this path? Did they each want theirs to be the only planet remaining in the galaxy?

A tender moment towards the end of the film when one of the team members dies is done in a rushed way that it was a missed opportunity for more emotion.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a mediocre superhero/action film, one that might have been better if further fleshed out. This film contains a blandness that left me forgetting about it soon after the credits rolled.

Force Majeure-2014

Force Majeure-2014

Director-Ruben Ostlund

Starring-Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli

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Reviewed October 4, 2015

Grade: A

As a huge fan of foreign language films, I was delighted to stumble upon this inventive and thought provoking treat that is Force Majeure. A Swedish film set in the alps of eastern France, the film is a family drama that is powerful, emotional, and especially psychological. The best films leaving you absorbed in thoughtful conversation or introspection, and this film successfully did both for me.

Tomas and Ebba are an attractive couple in their mid thirties vacationing with their two young children, Vera and Harry. Everyone is excited for the holiday as Tomas is away from work for a full week. They are clearly a family of affluence and sophistication based on the luxurious mountain top hotel they stay in. However, there is a subdued level of tension among them. On the second day, they enjoy lunch at the hotel on an outdoor patio along the snowy mountainside. As a controlled avalanche begins to head their way there is suddenly a panic as everyone flees for safety. The avalanche is feared out of control, but thankfully is mist and everyone safely returns to their lunch. However, Tomas’s instinctual reaction to the terror sets off a wave of debate for the remainder of the film. The family experiences an enormous range of emotions and subsequently engage their friends in the conflict as they discuss and analyze the event. The heart of the film is Ebba’s rage and Tomas’s guilt.

What I adore most about this film is the intelligence of it. It is smart and well written. From a pacing perspective, it is admittedly slow and this may turn some viewers off. Simple scenes feature the family brushing teeth or napping- scenes in which not much happens. But the intense psychological aspect lying beneath the surface make up for these uneventful scenes. Smart dialogue between characters are my favorites- Ebba sits in the lobby sipping a drink with her friend, a sophisticated, sexually promiscuous woman, who is vacationing alone to get a break from her husband and children. She picks up men for fun and has no hang-ups about it. This particular scene is laced with interesting discussion. Ebba cannot understand her friend’s life choices and freedom and reveals that she is afraid of being left alone- she comes across as judgmental and insecure whereas the friend is confident and secure. It is a “coffee talk” moment, but reveals so much about the characters.

Later, Tomas and Ebba have a chat with their friends Matts and Fanni, over wine. When the discussion turns to the avalanche experience, the situation is analyzed by Matts, leading to tension for all. Matts sides with Tomas, whereas Fanni sympathizes with Ebba. The disagreement stays with Matts and Fanni throughout the night as they reveal their own conflict and puts themselves in the other couples shoes. Towards the end of Force Majeure events become strange as Matts and Tomas embark on a relaxing guys day out on the ski slope. As they sip drinks and listen to music an attractive female flirtatiously tells Tomas that her friend thinks he is the sexiest man she has ever seen. Tomas feels like a million bucks and the audience is happy for him- however the woman quickly returns and informs them that she was mistaken and her friend was referring to another man. This escalates into a near fight and little dialogue is used throughout the scene. Rather, expressions are wisely used. Later, a bizarre scene involves Tomas being accosted by frat boys and forced to guzzle beer- is this imagined or real? We never find out.

Force Majeure is a spectacle. Scenes of the crisp, white, cascading snow are beautiful. The avalanche scene is amazing and creepy as the snow rapidly comes into view and gets closer and closer to the diners. Will they be killed we wonder? The climactic bus scene as the departing vacationers travel by bus down a windy road are quite scary as the inept bus driver has difficulty navigating the bus. Will it crash killing everyone? Is he purposely driving recklessly on a suicide mission? The looming mountain side to the bottom is bot frightening and fascinating to look at.

Intellectual, curious, and bizarre, Force Majeure is a foreign language film worth checking out for a unique, cerebral experience.

Interstellar-2014

Interstellar-2014

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain

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Reviewed September 25, 2015

Grade: B-

Interstellar is an interesting film to review. A science fiction/futuristic epic with a run time of nearly three hours, it is complex and intricate. It is the latest offering by director Christopher Nolan. I cannot say I loved this film, however, I did appreciate and marvel at the visual and technical aspects of it, which completely usurps the convoluted plot, made difficult to follow due to changing worlds and galaxies.

The film reminds me of Inception with an obvious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the former directed by Nolan, but not quite as compelling from a story point of view as Inception was. The complexities of different entities, worlds, and layers of worlds are featured and admittedly, mind blowing, which is the weak part of the film. By making the film arguably too intelligent, it loses the audiences attention. By too intelligent, I mean too complex. As I review the film, I see two halves to it- the story side and the visual side. In Interstellar, both are essential components and one fails and one marvels.

If I am to attempt to summarize the story it goes something like this- Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed, former space expert stuck in a small town in the mid-west, where he begrudgingly runs a farm, living out an unsatisfying existence. The Earths food and crops are slowly running out and the planet is dying. His two children, daughter Murphy and son Tom, face a bleak world. One day, a dust pattern with coordinates lead Cooper and Murphy to a secret NASA team intent on finding other worlds and thereby attempting to save Earth. The team is led by Dr. Brand, a college professor and science wizard, played by Michael Caine. Cooper, naturally, is chosen to lead the venture, which could take him away from his family for years. He accepts much to Murphy’s chagrin. Once in outer space- assisted by Amelia Brand (Dr. Brand’s daughter), the team embarks on an endless mission leading them to different planets and one strange encounter with a rebel astronaut (played wastefully by Matt Damon). Years later (on earth anyway) Murphy and Tom (now grown and played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) assume their father Cooper is dead.

Critically, the story is way too much to comprehend and after awhile I found myself gradually letting go of the story altogether instead focusing on the visual spectacle I was treated to. The plot eventually meanders off track completely as the team traverses through a space wormhole created by an alien intelligence and travels fifty years or so without aging, while obviously life has gone on over planet Earth. Some characters age, others do not. To summarize, the story is convoluted and impossible to follow.

Speaking of the story side to Interstellar, the writing contained an irritating wholesomeness to it, especially in the early stages- pre outer space. McConaughey was given this tough guy, machismo side to him that screamed of Hollywood traditionalism- almost like “I am man- I save family”. Haven’t we seen this too many times in film? I also found the relationship between Cooper and young daughter Murphy incredibly saccharine and screamed of Hollywood schmaltz. To be fair, McConaughey was given, and succeeded in delivering, one great crying scene.

The visual aspect to Interstellar, however, is a spectacle and much, much better than the story, especially during the final third of the film. The sheer grandeur is astounding. When the crew lands on Miller’s planet, an ocean world, a great tidal wave topples their space ship killing one of the team. The massive look of the tidal wave is monumental in size and ferocity. Later, when the crew lands on an icy planet, the immense coldness and shape of the planet work perfectly in the film and one feels like they are really in outer space.

How inventive and creative was the scene where Cooper attempts to contact a character through a bookshelf. The scene was set up like a maze with different time periods, and colors and shapes, seemingly blending together was very impressive and artistic.

Visually speaking, Interstellar has some similarities to the 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Grandiose, artistic, experimental, and epic along with the obvious space theme allow the two films to be compared. However, where 2001: A Space Odyssey was about life and contains a clear and powerful message, I did not find the same with Interstellar. Instead, I did not find much of a message, but rather a confusing story, mixed with spectacular visuals.

Dear White People-2014

Dear White People-2014

Director-Justin Simien

Starring-Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson

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Reviewed September 18, 2015

Grade: B+

Dear White People is a highly creative, independent satire that begs to be watched if for nothing else but its message of existing racism in present times, homophobia, and class distinction. Set at an Ivy League college and written tongue and cheek, but also with a direct message from newly discovered director Justin Simien, it is a meaningful gem that challenges audiences to think as well as be entertained and emit an occasional chuckle at the wit and comical lines presented.

Set in present day- assuming 2013 or 2014, and well beyond the Civil Rights era, the film features a hip, sharp look and a myriad of characters, all with differing perspectives, and all of whom are either caucasian or black in racial identities. All of the characters attend the affluent and sophisticated Winchester University, a mostly white, conservative school with a small community of black students, who curiously all seem to reside in the same dorm house. In addition, the Dean is a black man (played by Dennis Haysbert).

Sam White is a rebellious female student, of mixed race, who runs a radio show entitled “Dear White People”, which challenges the current state of racism in America, and specifically at Winchester University. Supporting characters include Lionel Higgins, a gay, bookish student with an enormous afro, who is excluded from almost all of the sub-groups. Lionel is intrigued with Sam’s radio show. Other characters include Coco- an attractive black girl with typically “white” mannerisms and friends, who tried to fit in with white culture. Troy, a very handsome black student (who tries to act “white”), dating a white girl (who tries to act “black”). Finally, the film features Kirk, a white student whose father is the school president, who values an old-style way of thinking. Kirk, shockingly, hosts a blackface party, which leads to a major controversy at the school and is the focus of much of the films drama.

The main theme of the film is obviously race, but different characters have different viewpoints on the subject matter, and all are explored, which is what makes the film so unique and interesting. Sam, for example, is a true advocate for racial equality and constantly challenges white people’s motivations and actions, blatantly so. Coco, on the other hand, is resistant to being stereotyped as a woman of color and, in one scene is incorrectly assumed to be from the hood by a reality television producer she is auditioning for. She is clearly envious of white people and the advantages they have, even going so far as having straight hair and blue contact lenses. Then we have Lionel, who is both gay and black, and clearly considered an outcast. He fits in with no group and curiously seems okay with being his own person.

What is unique and compelling about Dear White People is that it brings up a controversial issue, mixes it in satire, humorously so, but also presents compelling arguments against stereotypes, but also bringing those stereotypes center stage, which most films avoid like the plague. One black character is frustrated that, in their mind, most black people are content watching dumb black comedies, thereby supporting a negative racial stereotype.

One interesting aspect regarding the score of the film is the use of lily white classic film music- such as Barry Lyndon- the most lily white of lily white films (British and Irish). Famous film director, Quentin Tarantino, is called out as being a racist director. What wonderful irony!

Dear White People is a witty, intelligent slice of inventive film making that is worth seeing if only for its controversial subject of inequality and racism, that is too often forgotten in today’s day and age. A non-formulaic indie treat for those inclined to think a little.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night-2014

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night-2014

Director-Ana Lily Amirpour

Starring-Sheila Vand

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Reviewed August 24, 2015

Grade: A-

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a highly creative, unique, independent horror film from 2014. One of the many reasons I am a fan of independent cinema is to discover and promote little seen gems. The dialogue is in Farsi (Iranian) and the cinematography is in black and white, which in itself is very unique in modern film. I notice similarities between this film and Let the Right One In (both the English and the Swedish versions) in the frigid mood and love story enveloped within. This film is the debut of director Ana Lily Amirpour and what a marvel she could become. Despite obvious influences by other films and directors, A Girl Walks Home At Night has a brilliant freshness to it and seems completely original and unpredictable to watch.

The title of the film accurately depicts the main story. A teenage girl (Sheila Vand) walks around the desolate, dark streets of a city aptly named Bad City in the Iranian underworld. The film is actually shot in southern California and looks like it could double for Detroit. The girl, who has no name, has strange encounters with a myriad of peculiar individuals, including what appears to be a transgender prostitute, a vicious drug dealer, a nice yet mysterious young man named Arash, Arash’s father, who is hooked on drugs, a mysterious cat. She then embarks on a tender flirtation with Arash. The overall plot, which I found secondary to the look of the film, centers around The Girl’s encounters with these individuals as well as their encounters and relationships with each other. The Girl is a lonely vampire and feels isolated from society, but it is unclear what she is looking for- she is both destructive and sweet depending on the circumstance. She takes her aggression out on the bad.

The most striking and impressive aspect of the film is its dark moody atmosphere. Brooding and cold looking, the city reeks of death and loneliness. The Girl speaks very little so that her expressions are what the viewer will notice. Her eyes delve into her soul. She is the most interesting of the characters, but the others, specifically Arash and the transgender prostitute have potential and we are curious to explore more about them. Arash and his father have more depth than any of the supporting characters- Arash painfully lets his drug riddled father stay with him and attempts to assist him with his issues. One assumes that since the father’s wife (Arash’s mother) has died suddenly, he has taken a downward spiral, but this is only suggested to the audience. We do know for sure where she is- in one scene we see the father angrily look at a photo of a middle-aged woman and is destroyed by her absence. He believes that the woman has taken on the body of the mysterious cat. Arash caring for his father is a fascinating role reversal. Wouldn’t we expect the young man to have the drug problem and the father the care-giver? This is interesting in itself.

The aforementioned influences are plentiful, but most notable from a director standpoint is David Lynch. The black and white filming along with the viewer’s point of view in one scene involving a car driving down a dark highway resembles the Lynch film Lost Highway. The moody background music and the slow but methodical pacing also gives A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night a Lynch feel. One curious element of the film is The Girl’s interest in 1980′ pop music- her bedroom wall riddled with Madonna and similar pop stars from the 1980’s posters. The Girl even admits to listening to a sappy Lionel Richie tune. It is unknown if it even could BE the 1980’s as time seems unimportant. The film strangely combines edgy, alternative film-making with commercial pop references. I half expected The Girl to break into a rendition of “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. My thought is that perhaps Amir’s intention is to portray the Girl’s desire to fit into a mainstream society knowing that a vampire never can. This theory is proven when The Girl is melancholy when Arash buys her a hamburger, knowing she cannot enjoy it as he does.

Creative, a dreary atmosphere, and intelligently thought out, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a strange, murky experience in film experimentation. Amirpour is a fresh, new director worth watching for in the years to come.

A Little Chaos-2014

A Little Chaos-2014

Director-Alan Rickman

Starring-Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts

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Reviewed August 22, 2015

Grade: B-

A Little Chaos is a difficult film for me to review. The film does not kick into high gear, or much of a gear at all, until the final thirty minutes or so as the drama hits a crescendo and past events are suddenly explained. At this point it becomes a very entertaining film. Until then, it is largely a bore and slow paced. Starring Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman, who also directs the film, A Little Chaos is a good film with beautiful period piece costumes to marvel over, and looks and feels great, but misses the mark with a lack of balancing the momentum throughout the length of the film. It is also largely fictionalized, which makes viewing it a bit less enjoyable.

A period drama set at the gorgeous Versailles in France, the time period is the late 1600’s when King Louis XIV of France is in power and lives on the illustrious estate. Landscaper, Andre Le Notre, hires unconventional gardener Sabine (Winslet) to create one of the gardens. Sabine is progressive and does not live in the past. Rather, she has ideas of creating a unique pattern. Sabine is instructed to incorporate a wonderful fountain within the garden. She faces hostility from staff members for simply being a woman and they refuse to work for her. Others admire her creativity. As the plot unfolds, Sabine has romantic feelings for Andre, a man trapped in a loveless marriage with Francoise, and they begin a tender courtship. Sabine is haunted by past events and frequently hears a little girl’s cries in her dreams. The audience does not know what her past life was, only that she is widowed. The final act of the film brings everything together nicely. We learn Sabine’s past and her suggested dalliance with Andre comes to fruition. At the conclusion of the film I was left thinking how exceptional the film was, but then remembered the majority of it had dragged.

The theme of A Little Chaos are class systems, feminism, and societal views. At first snubbed by some for being a commoner, Sabine slowly is accepted by the royal figures, including the King himself, who Sabrine humorously mistakes for the gardener at one point. Ideally, it would have been lovely if a woman had actually been hired at the time to create the garden. Sadly, events did not happen this way, but rather, it is someone’s fantasy.

A Little Chaos has great potential and looks beautiful- my main complaint is for most of the film nothing much really happens. Also disappointing is that the film was not filmed at the historical Versailles, nor was it even shot in France. Every exterior scene was filmed in England. This is not a deal breaker, but some genuineness would have been nice. Another major detraction is that Sabine De Barra is not even a real life figure, but rather is fictionalized- sort of how the past should have been, but wasn’t really. Having been a real person would have made the film more interesting. What is the investment?

From an acting standpoint the film succeeds. Winslet, clearly a highly talented actress, is well cast and the chemistry between she and Matthias Schoenaerts is palpable. Both actors are believable in their roles. Stanley Tucci, typically great in whatever he appears in, plays Phillippe, a silly, slightly effeminate Duke that does more to annoy than to amuse and is a trivial character.

Throughout my viewing of the film I kept thinking of it as the type of film that ought be liked because it looks great, but something was definitely missing. The royal drama, sexual dalliances, and antics were fun, but I felt like the film could have been much more than it ended up being.

Two Days, One Night-2014

Two Days, One Night- 2014

Director-Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Starring-Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

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Reviewed August 21, 2015

Grade: B

Two Days, One Night is a French language drama starring the wonderful and highly talented Marion Cotillard, who received an Academy award nomination in 2015 for this role, and is the main draw of the film. I never tire of viewing any of her film performances, however, I felt the film itself was lacking something special. An adequate film, yes, but below the standards in which I was expecting given the award recognition. Quite frankly, the film is good, with an interesting tale of morality, but becomes redundant as it goes along.

Sandra, played by Cotillard, is a working class woman living in an industrial town in Belgium. She works in a factory and struggles to make ends meet with her supportive husband, Manu. They have two young children. It is revealed early on that Sandra has a history of suffering from depression and has recently been forced to take a leave of absence from her job due to her struggles. Now recovered, she is ready to resume normalcy, but her boss forces a vote among her sixteen colleagues in which they decide to either save her job or eliminate her position entirely, thereupon each will receive a hefty bonus. Sandra, along with a co-worker she feels close with, convince the boss to allow an anonymous vote the following Monday, leaving Sandra with one weekend in which to convince the others to save her job. The conflict is that during Sandra’s absence, the department was able to run successfully so why is she needed?

The plot has an interesting moral concept. Will people sacrifice personal gain in order to assist someone else? The fact that Sandra is a kind woman makes the decision seem easy. However, many of her colleagues are struggling to put food on the table for their families and could use any extra wages manageable. The audience absolutely is on the side of Sandra and her equally kind husband, who continually talks her out of giving up and instead encourages her to spend the weekend convincing the others to vote for her come Monday morning.

The weak point to the film is that it contains one basic formulaic story and does not branch out into anything more. The plot is simple- this is not a bad thing, but I was expecting a bit more from this film. The action takes place over the course of one weekend and the entire plot is that of Sandra traversing the town looking for colleagues in order to persuade them to vote for her. Most of the people she encounters are sympathetic and, if they cannot help her, they empathize with her. By the fifth or sixth person, we get that she needs their votes. It becomes the same scene over and over. The character of Manu is undeveloped. We learn nothing about him except he is a devoted husband and father, but what about his feelings? How did he deal with Sandra’s depression? Strangely, many of the co-workers Sandra looks for are not home at the time, which requires her to go to the park or the laundromat or the pub to track them down.

I question the authenticity of the story. Sandra’s boss (the foreman of the factory) has the power to pit colleagues against each other (supposedly approved by management) and to control the destiny of one employee? There is no Human Resources department mentioned throughout the story until almost the final scene, when a manager appears, and it is never explained why the boss is able to get away with this. There is also no mention of a union, which in factory work is common. Furthermore, Sandra and Manu never mention consulting an attorney- yes, they are poor, but surely a conversation might have occurred. The title also does not make sense- Two Days, One Night- the film begins on a Friday and ends on a Monday morning. What does the title mean?

Two Days, One Night is a film featuring an honest performance from a talented actress (Cotillard), but a tad bit slow and tedious at times, all but repeating similar scenes over again. The film is a nice, simple, quiet story, but nothing spectacular.

Maps to the Stars-2014

Maps to the Stars- 2014

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska

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Reviewed August 14, 2015

Grade: A-

Maps to the Stars is a bizarre, unpleasant, film that is as dark and perverse as it is provocative and fascinating to observe and ponder. More like an independent art film than a blockbuster Hollywood project and made by an arguably mainstream director, David Cronenberg (Crash, The Fly), I am surprised it was able to be made on a large scale budget due to the negative portrayal of actors and celebrity types, specifically, troublesome starlet and child star. One must be wary of biting the hand that feeds. Maps to the Stars is a film where almost all of the central characters are unlikable in nature- difficult, unstable, self absorbed, or all of the above. The subject matter is ugly, but fascinating to me. The wealthy and glamorous are interesting and, at times the film is like a Greek tragedy as well as containing Shakespearean elements- think Romeo and Juliet in an incestuous way times two- one must watch this film to see what I mean. Hint- it contains the ick factor.

The plot centers on a Hollywood family, where the son is a famous child star and the primary bread-winner. They are the Weiss family- all struggling to either find success, or hang on to it, all the while each of them is neurotic. The father, Dr. Samuel Weiss, played by John Cusack, is a TV psychologist, who is hired by Havannah Segrand (Julianne Moore), a highly self-centered, aging actress, struggling to land a coveted role playing her mother. Her mother was a young actress in her day, who tragically died in a fire. Havannah despises her due to claimed childhood abuse. Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams) is Samuel’s wife, a very controlling, ambitious woman, who strives to get the most money out of her son Benjie, a Justin Bieber type character with a troubled streak. Rounding out the family is Agatha Weiss, a troubled teenager, sent away for years after giving her brother pills and setting her parents house on fire. Though not directly related to the Weiss’s, Havannah, and limo driver, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) become heavily involved with the family as events transpire.

As I watched the film it reminded me of a myriad of other influencial films and/or directors in peculiar ways. I noticed elements of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, for instance, in dark clever mood and the obvious setting of Los Angeles- even the score is similar during parts of the film, as the moody momotone sounds played in the background. The Ice Storm (1997), American Beauty (1999) and Magnolia (1997) also sprang to mind in their dark and strange worlds (Magnolia) and the inclusion of the dysfunctional family element (The Ice Storm and American Beauty). Furthermore, to a lesser extent I saw some Robert Altman ingrained in Maps to the Stars. These aspects are an enormous reason why I loved the film so much.

A prevelant theme throughout Maps to the Stars is one of burning- a victim of burning, a fire set, a character setting oneself on fire. Some characters see dead people. Havannah regularly sees her dead mother. Benjie sees a young girl who he visited in the hospital before she died, her last wish of meeting the big star. She suffered from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, who he foolishly thought had AIDS. He sees her in visions and tries to strangle her, instead strangling an innocent living person. The film is a weird trip for sure.

There are times when the viewer will be filled with dread at an oncoming dark moment. When Benjie carelessly plays with a gun that he assumes is unloaded we know trouble will occur. He is showing off at an actor friend’s party along with equally obnoxious starlets, while talking about poop, all selfish and wanting to party.
When Havannah belittles Agatha, her assistant, we see Agatha’s past anger come back into play as she slowly unravels with rage- Havannah, unaware of Agatha’s knowledge of her betrayal.

One small gripe is the continued use of gross toilet talk in multiple scenes including a raunchy discussion of a fan buying a well known actors waste for thousands of dollars. What was Cronenberg’s motivation for this? This was a silly, tasteless, unnecessary element of any otherwise great film.

Maps of the Stars is dirty and ugly, but is also a quirky treasure about bad people in Hollywood. Unpleasant characters whom I could not take my eyes off of. A brilliant film that delves into the Hollywood shallowness and madness and does it in such a daring, twisted, wonderful, sort of way.

The Judge-2014

The Judge-2014

Director-David Dobkin

Starring-Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall

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Reviewed August 2, 2015

Grade: B+

The Judge is a by the numbers, formulaic, courtroom drama that we have all seen many times before, but regardless, I found the film actually rather enjoyable. The main reason for this is the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in the pivotal central roles. The two actors play estranged father and son. The clichés are numerous, but with excellent acting the story feels fresh, fun, and compelling, if not terribly innovative. Seen by few, The Judge was on my radar only because of Duvall’s Oscar nomination for his role.

Hank Palmer is a big shot attorney from Chicago. Highly successful, he is selfish, driven, and a downright prick. Going through a messy divorce with his gorgeous, athletic wife, he has a close bond with his daughter, despite not being home very often. Suddenly, Hank’s mother dies tragically and he must return to small town Carlinville, Indiana, a place he despises, not simply because the town is in the sticks, but he has bad memories of the town. When he arrives he reconnects with his two brothers and his father (Duvall), who is the local judge. While staying at the family house, Hank once again butts heads with his father and runs into an old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), who now owns the local diner. On his way out of town for good, Hank is asked to defend his father when he is arrested and charged with murder. The Judge is a family drama that contains suspense and a few twists.

The film reminds me of a slew of 1990’s era courtroom drama’s based on John Grisham novels (A Time to Kill, The Client, The Firm) so I was fearful of a bland, dated film. I loved the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Duvall, which I think is the most successful aspect of the film and also enjoyed the family style drama with numerous trials and tribulations thrown in. Hank is smarmy and ruthless, but also has a humorous side and tells it like it is. I smiled at his wry wit. Judge Parker is equally stubborn and the battles they have are wonderful to watch. Conversely, the film also has tender bonding moments between the two men, which are sentimental and warm. As one man takes care of the other during sickness it is a tender and heartbreaking scene.

An interesting aspect of the film is the small town sense of community in the little town of Indiana, which I found charming. Everyone gravitates towards the cute diner in the center of town owned by Hank’s high school sweetheart. There is a nice wholesome, small town appeal to the entire film. I half expected a county fair or apple pie baking scene to be added. The film feels wholesome and comfortable- a slick, mainstream drama. Movie comfort food if you will.

The relationships among the three brothers- Hank, Glen- a middle aged man regretting never having moved from Carlinville, and Dale, a sweet natured autistic man, determined to one day become a filmmaker, are interesting. They are each so different from each other and yet they stick together, bicker, and bond with each other. Similar to real life families.

The negatives to The Judge are that the courtroom scenes sometimes go on too long and the film brings nothing rather new or exciting to cinema and plays it safe throughout. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to be treated to a film above mediocrity as this genre of film oftentimes is, but neither expect a reinvention of the wheel.

To be seen for simmering acting by the entire cast and especially film stalwarts, Duvall and Downey Jr, who bring life and wit to an otherwise traditional film..

Unbroken-2014

Unbroken-2014

Director-Angelina Jolie

Starring-Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson

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Reviewed August 1, 2015

Grade: B

Unbroken tells the true story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, a runner during the World War II period, who was also serving in the military during this tumultuous time in history. His story is one of bravery, courage, and endurance, as he survives a hellish experience in Japanese prisoner of war camps after having crashed in the Pacific Ocean, stranded for 47 days, as if that were not enough to break a man.

Mainstream Hollywood fare to the hilt, this film is surprisingly directed by Angelina Jolie (a woman) and written by the Coen brothers, the latter usually emitting less traditional and more quirky fare than this film. Jolie directs what is arguably a “guys movie” that contains very few women in the cast, and the ones who do appear are either a loving mother or giggling schoolgirl types, so the big names associated with Unbroken surprise me. I would have taken this work as a Clint Eastwood film. Unbroken, which was expected to receive several Oscar nominations, was shut out of the major categories.

Visually, Unbroken is slick, glossy, and shot very well- it looks perfect. The cinematography, sound effects, and costumes look great. The cast of good-looking young men look handsome even while battered and bruised and half starved. While in a way this is a compliment, it is also not one. Unbroken lacks any grittiness and plays it quite safe. Even the scenes of abuse and beatings lack an edge to them.

This is not to say that the film is not good. It is good. I found myself inspired by the lead character of Louis, played by Jack O’Connell, for his resilence during his ordeals. O’Connell gives a very good performance as his motto, “If I can take it, I can make it” is repeated throughout and who will not cheer at his accomplishments? Zamperini, who has traditional Italian parents having relocated to the United States, are strict but fair. Louis’s older brother, Peter, is his best friend and is the person who has the most faith in him. At first Louis is on the verge of becoming a punk, in trouble with the law, if not for the interference of his brother, who gets him interested in the sport of running.

As the years go by and war erupts, Louis embarks on a tour of duty in the military and his plane crashes in the water providing yet another test of courage and stamina. Louis is strong and in many ways always the leader of the group he is intertwined with. The scenes of the three survivors stranded on the raft for days become slightly tedious, but perhaps this is the films intention, as they eat raw fish and raw bird to survive. Much of the remaining action is set in two Japanese war camps as Louis (and others) struggle to survive until the massive war has ended- they do not know if they will live or die.

The central antagonist- a vicious Japanese sergeant named “Bird”, perplexed me. Blatantly targeting Louis and administering cruel beatings and heaping tests of strength upon Louis, presumably out of jealousy because Louis was an Olympic athlete, why did Bird not simply kill him? His motivations were also odd- In one scene, Bird tearfully tells Louis that he knew they would be friends from the beginning and seems to admire him. Bird’s father, going by a photo, seems a hard, mean man. Is this why Bird is so vicious? Bird’s character is not well thought out. Also, every single Japanese character is portrayed in a very negative light, which sadly is common in war movies. Surely, despite being a war, there had to have been a few Japanese people who were not cruel. Character development and depth is not a strong suit of this film.

At the end of the day, Unbroken is a good, solid, war drama with an inspiring message of triumph, faith, and determination. Indeed, a positive message to viewers of all ages. The abuse/torture scenes are tough to watch, but the end result is a feel-good story. The snippets of the real Louis Zamperini at the end of the film are wonderful to watch.

Cake-2014

Cake-2014

Director-Daniel Barnz

Starring-Jennifer Aniston

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Reviewed July 14, 2015

Grade: B+

Cake is a film about a woman suffering from chronic physical pain and the depression that she constantly battles after a terrible accident that she was involved with in the recent past. Jennifer Aniston gives a wonderful performance as Claire Simmons, a grumpy, sarcastic, bitter victim of unimaginable loss. In fact, Aniston’s performance is the best part of the film by far. It is interesting to note that Aniston Executive produced this film. Similarly and somewhat sadly, Reese Witherspoon had to produce her own 2014 film centered on a female role in order for both women to showcase their powerful acting chops. Too few films about women are made these days unless female star power is used and that is too bad.

Claire has been through hell and back. As the story opens, Claire is sitting angrily in a support group filled with other women with problems. One of the women, Nina, (played by Anna Kendrick) has just jumped off of a freeway overpass to her death. A giant photo of her glares jarringly at the other women. When Claire prods about details of the death and uses sarcastic tones, she is politely asked not to return to the group by the lead counselor, Annette, (played by Felicity Huffman). Claire returns to her well maintained Los Angeles home and the audience is introduced to her well-meaning housekeeper and confidant, Silvana, played by Adriana Barraza. Barraza herself gives a powerful performance. Nina appears throughout the remainder of the film in visions as Clare debates suicide.

Let me discuss Jennifer Aniston’s performance in particular. I thought it just amazing and she was shamefully overlooked for an Oscar nomination. She was superior to at least a couple of the other Best Actress nominees from 2014 (Felicity Jones immediately comes to mind as one). Her character of Claire starts as a bit of a shrew, but gradually becomes quite sympathetic as the story becomes layered and the audience gets to know what makes her tick. Initially we do not know how she came to be in her predicament. We know she was in a terrible accident, but it slowly takes time for all of the details to emerge. We only know she is in pain and angry. Claire’s relationship with Silvana is an interesting one. They spar, Claire takes Silvana for granted at times, but throughout the film a close friendship emerges between the women. In a touching scene they hold hands as they sleep.

Two scenes in particular are heartbreaking and honest. A man played by William H. Macy emerges on the doorsteps of Claire’s house and she is engulfed in rage at his appearance. The power that Aniston emits in this scene is unrivaled. In another scene she sees a portrait hanging on her living room fireplace mantle given by a friend- she bursts into tears and sobs emotionally. At this point the plot makes more sense to me and we feel Claire’s raw pain.

The subject matter of depression and suicide is not a cheery one, and Cake delves deeply into this territory. To be fair, the film is a bit of a downer, slow, and, at moments, drags a bit, and teeters on the verge of a lifetime television movie (yikes!), but is MUCH better than that thanks to Aniston’s compelling portrayal. I only mean with a lesser actress and performance the film might have felt watered down and safe. Some light moments in the film fail. For instance, when Claire “blackmails” Annette and bribes her with vodka for the address of Nina, this seems very trivial and silly- formulaic almost.

Thanks in large part to a gripping performance by one of Hollywood’s underrated talents, Cake takes a film on the border of being one-dimensional to a grander level of dynamic acting by it’s leading lady. A supporting cast of similar talents helps the film rise above mediocrity that it may have been if served by lesser casting choices.

Inherent Vice-2014

Inherent Vice-2014

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin

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Reviewed July 7, 2015

Grade: A-

Inherent Vice is a bizarre detective film noir type of experience, set in 1970 Los Angeles. Directed by the superb Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), the film has a weirdness and incoherence that is a marvel to experience. Fans of a straightforward plot will not be thrilled with this film, but for fans of Anderson, this will not disappoint. It has a complex plot, but the payoff is grand and it is certainly a thinking man’s film.

The protagonist is Larry “Doc” Sportello, a stoner private detective, grizzled and jaded, who is contacted by his mysterious ex-girlfriend Shasta. She is worried about attempts by her boyfriend’s ex-wife and new lover’s attempts to kidnap him and have him committed. Mickey, Shasta’s boyfriend, is a wealthy real-estate developer. Doc is also hired by two other people- one a former heroin addict looking for her missing husband, and the other a former convict looking for a prison mate who owes him money and is a former henchman of Mickey’s. All of the stories clearly intersect and such oddities as a peculiar massage parlor and a ship named the Golden Fang come into play throughout the telling of the film. The intersecting stories lead to the revelation of a drug ring.

For much of the film I found myself with little idea what exactly was going on, but was still enthralled by it all the same. There is an unpredictability surrounding Inherent Vice that is so pleasing and captivating. Joaquin Phoenix is compelling as Doc, a damaged character whose past is unclear. When Doc is, by all accounts, framed for the murder of a convict and interrogated by the police, we wonder what history he has with them and what led him to branch out on his own as a private investigator. Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, wonderfully played by Josh Brolin, is a rival of Doc’s, though it is unclear why. “Bigfoot” is frequently seen with chocolate covered phallic objects in his mouth and is married to a severe, overbearing woman. In fact, most of the characters are peculiar and have strange nuances, yet are never fully fleshed out, instead remaining curious and thought provoking. Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Torro, and Owen Wilson appear in small yet pivotal roles.

Quite reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, in both the California setting and the plodding, slow-paced, magnificent storytelling, Inherent Vice is a confusing gem, but by all means a gem worth seeing and reveling among the intrigue. Just don’t try to make too much sense of it all.

Maleficent-2014

Maleficent-2014

Director-Robert Stromberg

Starring-Angelina Jolie

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Reviewed June 27, 2015

Grade: C+

Maleficent is an updated re-telling of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” told from the perspective of Maleficent, the evil godmother, who in this version, it is revealed, was not always so evil after all and, in fact, is rather sympathetic towards the beginning of the film. Later in life, becoming the antagonist of the story, she initially begins life in a world of goodness, wonder, and hope until one day she is duped by a young man she loves and is then turned wicked with hatred and revenge. The casting of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent is excellent and the main reason to watch the film. Also worth noting is the wonderful, creative art direction and costumes that allow the film to look gothic and interesting. Otherwise, the film meanders a bit, is slightly watered down, and contains a sappy Disney style love story. The story itself is actually the weakest part of Maleficent.

Born Maleficent, protector of the fairies in the magical land of the Moors, as a young girl she is betrayed and is NOT a villain. Her male suitor (Stefan) is someone she trusts, loves, and respects, and she is then duped and has her wings stolen by him. He goes on to become the King of the neighboring land of humans, which is vastly different from the peaceful world that Maleficent lives in. These events lead her on a path of devastation followed by revenge as she places a vicious sleeping curse on Stefan’s first born, Aurora.

Let’s start with some positives. Jolie is simply wickedly delicious in this role- the sultry, pouty looks, and those eyes! She plays scorned, revenge-driven to the hilt without being too over the top as lesser actresses certainly would have. As the actress ages she is beginning to take on more character, villainous parts rather than sexy bad girls or heroines and I am all for that. It gives the actress something meaty to sink her teeth into. Her dark costumes perfectly give the character edge.

The art direction is magical and the difference between the two lands is distinctive. The beauty of the Moors with gushing streams, mountains, and flowers contrasts with the stark nature of the human world. The fairies symbolize peace and freedom with a life filled with treasures, whereas the human kingdom symbolizes ambition, greed, and coldness. The tiny fairies flittering around add zest and life to the film.

The silly love story, though is not believable nor compelling to me, especially the latter film romance between Stefan’s daughter- Aurora, and her wealthy suitor Phillip. hey seem manufactured to b together without having really a chance to get to know each other. This seems contrived and produced to add something young to the story. And on a storytelling note, Maleficent’s sleeping curse is set to transpire on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday when she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep that can only be remedied by love’s true kiss. Why does he send Aurora away to live in hiding when she is a newborn? Doesn’t he have sixteen years to enjoy her?

The film then dwindles to the inevitable battle finale with lots of movement and fire and a stand-off between Maleficent and Stefan that is dull and predictable. Overall, the first half of the film is the better part and the performance of Angelina Jolie is wonderful.