Tag Archives: 2013 Movie reviews

Free Fall-2013

Free Fall-2013

Director-Stephan Lacant

Starring-Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt

Reviewed May 3, 2017

Grade: A-

Free Fall is a 2013 German language film that is very reminiscent of the highly influential LGBT film, Brokeback Mountain, only set in Germany- during present times. The loneliness, struggles, and deceit that the characters face are similar in both films and both are arguably bleak as overall films. I, however, truly enjoyed this film and embraced the touching aspects and truthful writing.

In the case of Free Fall as compared with Brokeback Mountain, only one of the male characters is a family man- coming to terms with his sexuality in very bad timing, while the other male character is more comfortable in his own skin. A case could be made that a similar characterization is apparent in Brokeback. In both films, a love story develops between two men and outside forces thwart their happiness. The film is a very good watch and the love scenes particularly steamy and emotional.

Marc Borgmann is a young police officer, fresh out of the academy, living with his very pregnant girlfriend, Bettina. They are temporarily staying with Marc’s parents until the baby is born. Seemingly happy, Marc befriends a new recruit, Kay, and they begin a ritual of jogging together in the forest. Both men are young and handsome and very masculine- an aspect in a LGBT film that I personally find as a positive. Kay is much more brazen about his sexuality than Marc, and they eventually fall in love with the added pressure of their very macho surroundings, and Marc’s pregnant girlfriend to contend with.

Free Fall, as the title implies, is not a cheerful, romantic film, as a whole- nor is it completely bleak either. Yes, the love affair between Marc and Kay has some happy moments, but more often than not they face some sort of peril and do not get much time to relax and enjoy each other. As circumstances begin to unravel, Marc’s girlfriend slowly suspects something is going on with Marc, but when Kay is outed (the film suggests he purposely outs himself) during a gay nightclub raid, their lives spiral out of control.

The film itself is very realistic and does not come across as forced nor plot driven. The acting by both principal actors (Koffler and Riemelt) is quite strong and I buy their attraction instantly. The scenes where Marc questions whether the pair are buddies while internally fighting his attraction for Kay, are excellent and very passionate. The range of emotions on the face of actor, Koffler, is excellent. In fact, passion is felt during each and every scene the pair share together.

The way many of the supporting characters are portrayed, however, is disappointing,  yet also a brutal strength of the film. Marc’s parents are quite unsympathetic to either Marc or Kay and are written as stereotypical, anti-progressive and rigid. When Marc’s mother catches Marc and Kay kissing, she coldly chastises Marc for being “raised better than that”. In her mind being gay is bad- the father wholeheartedly sharing her beliefs. Another of the cops in the police academy is written as homophobic, but the film wisely writes Marc and Kay exceptionally well, proudly with none of the unfair effeminate qualities films and television still seem to cling to. The characters are not written for laughs, nor should they be. They are strong men.

The film wisely throws in a handful of supportive characters, like the police force as a whole- teaching and recognizing diversity and inclusion, and a fellow cop who is supportive of the situation with Marc and Kay, but most of the characters come across as harsh and unfeeling to same sex attraction.

The conclusion of the film is slightly disappointing as the story ends abruptly and in a rather unsatisfying way- rumors of a proposed sequel have circulated around the film. Certainly shot on a very small budget, the funding for a follow-up film must still be raised, which hopefully will occur. A nicer (and happier) ultimate resolution would be great.

American LGBT films, sometimes going too much the comical, or worse yet, the sappier route, can take a lesson from this treasure of a German language film. Free Fall is a humanistic, realistic, and brave film that I hope more people find themselves experiencing. The film will touch those who are either involved in or sympathetic towards the LGBT community.

Oz The Great and Powerful-2013

Oz The Great and Powerful-2013

Director-Sam Raimi

Starring-James Franco, Mila Kunis

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Reviewed April 29, 2013

Grade: B

Being a huge fan of the original The Wizard of Oz epic classic from 1939, I was interested in seeing this extension of the original version. While it has its moments of charm and good old fashioned adventure, it is ultimately good, but nothing great.

James Franco is fantastic as the Wizard of Oz, the highest point of the film,  and has great charisma in the role. He brings a fun flair and is quite appealing. The witch characters are okay, but not terribly interesting or deeply explored. Further character depth might have been helpful as I did not notice much rooting value for either of them.

On a positive note, I loved the first sequence, which was in black and white, true to the original and the twister scene is impressively done. The set/art design in this sequence and once the setting was Oz were beautifully done.

Toward the end of the film, though, the story becomes more of a silly fantasy action series which drew away from the heart of the original. The first half excels, the second disappoints.

Evil Dead-2013

Evil Dead-2013

Director-Fede Alvarez

Starring-Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez

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Reviewed May 24, 2013

Grade: B

Having recently seen the original Evil Dead, directed by horror master Sam Raimi, from the early 1980’s, the recent remake is fine, but not as compelling as the original. Hardly the most terrifying film you will ever experience either. Quite low budget was the original, the remake is very modern and glossy looking, though with a tiny cast of characters.

The film is set almost entirely inside of a cabin in the middle of nowhere, at night, and has wonderful mood and contains all the necessary horror elements. A Book of the Dead is unearthed and one by one the youngsters are possessed by evil spirits. The film is entertaining, lots of well done gore (loved the bathroom face-cutting scene), and while over-the-top, did not seem overly cartoonish. It has a fresh energy.

Clearly, some liberties are taken (in reality someone with a torn off limb would not continue to walk around like nothing happened). There is a silly drug addiction sub-plot that feels unnecessary. There are some genuine scares and all in all an enjoyable horror movie-going experience.

Behind The Candelabra-2013

Behind the Candelabra-2013

Director-Steven Soderbergh

Starring-Michael Douglas, Matt Damon

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Reviewed July 14, 2013

Grade: A

I thoroughly enjoyed this HBO film based on the life of Liberace, whom I was too young to know much about before viewing this movie. The excesses of his lavish lifestyle are explored completely.

The standouts are Michael Douglas and Matt Damon who are both exceptional in their portrayals of Liberace and his young lover. Both were unrecognizable at times and completely embodied their characters. I can’t attest to the absolute truth to the story, but the HBO film does a nice job of mixing joy, passion, heartbreak, sadness, and competition throughout.

The story undoubtedly bears a likeness to many Hollywood troubled relationships past and present.

The Immigrant-2013

The Immigrant-2013

Director-James Gray

Starring-Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix

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Reviewed December 5, 2015

Grade: A-

The Immigrant is a lovely, classic, old-style Hollywood film set in early 1920’s New York City. The film is a classic tale of a poor Polish immigrant who travels to America in hopes of a better life, only to be met with hardship, manipulation, and conflict. However, The Immigrant is not a downer. Rather, a powerful and intriguing story of life and the clichéd pursuit of happiness with a compelling love story mixed in. Nominated for Best Actress for Two Days, One Night, eligible the same year as The Immigrant, this is a good example of the Academy getting it wrong as Marion Cotillard really should have been nominated for this performance instead of the former.  The actress was, however, recognized with an Independent Spirit award nomination for Best Actress for this role. A true talent, she gives a wonderful performance.

Little is known about Ewa’s (Cotillard) life before she arrives on Ellis island with her sister Magda in tow. We meet them as they disembark a ship and wait on line on the immigration line, weary from their escape from war torn Poland. Obviously, they have escaped their native country in hopes of a better life in the United States. Unfortunately, Magda is ill and cannot hide a cough and is sent to the infirmary most likely before being sent back to Poland. Ewa desperately needs money and is told that her Aunt and Uncle have not shown up to collect her as she had originally thought. Ewa is now on her own and desperate in a land where she knows not a soul.

As the plot unfolds, Ewa encounters two men who enter her life- Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and Emil (Jeremy Renner)- brothers with a rivalry, both professionally and in regards to Ewa. They both fall in love with her- she is gorgeous and innocent after all. But can the men be trusted? Are their feelings true? We begin to get to know the men better and all may not be exactly as it seems or originally appeared to be.

The Immigrant perfectly captures the 1920’s era cinematically with gorgeous cinematography and camera work. Directed by James Gray, a director with a tendency to direct films set in New York City and feature a romantic element (Two Lovers comes to mind- also starring Joaquin Phoenix as a Jew pursuing a blonde girl). In The Immigrant, I felt like I was transported to the 1920’s with Bruno’s dark coat and bowler and the characters costumes in general. The Lower East Side, from the automobiles to the theaters, seems like that’s how it was back then- charming, artistic, and yet combustible too.

Marion Cotillard gives a soft yet tough performance as the long-suffering, heart of gold Ewa. The character’s yearning to keep her traditional catholic values while transported into a new and dangerous world filed with corruption and the need to survive is heartbreaking and Cotillard wears her heart on her sleeve. She is also tougher and more stubborn than we first think she is- she will not be taken advantage of and these aspects give the character complexity. I did not see her as a victim.

Let’s not forget the men in the film and while it borders on turning into a “woman’s movie” towards the climax, and Cotillard is certainly front and center, Phoenix and Renner are flawless. Phoenix, with the larger role, is extremely complex and it takes the audience until the final scene to entirely figure Bruno out.

I wish The Immigrant would have found a wider audience, but for fans of a traditional, classic, romantic Hollywood experience, this film is a treat. It will take you back to an earlier time in the world- in a completely authentic way.

It Felt Like Love-2013

It Felt Like Love-2013

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Gina Piersanti

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Reviewed October 17, 2015

Grade: B

It Felt Like Love is a small, independent film from 2013, which garnered two independent spirit awards for its efforts. A coming of age story encompassing a vulnerable and naïve fourteen year old girl, aware of her budding sexuality and developing a crush on an older rebellious boy. Quiet and subdued, the film tells an honest story of a young girls emotional struggles surrounding jealousy, loneliness, and fitting in.

Lila is a typical teenager living in New York City in what appears to be a blue collar area of Brooklyn. Lila emulates her seemingly more mature (she is turning sixteen), and much more sexually experienced best friend, Chiara. Never without a boyfriend, and very popular, Chiara gains the attention of almost every boy she is around. One day on the beach, a handsome friend of Chiara’s, named Sammy, passes by, when Chiara describes him as “sleeping with anyone”, Lila becomes fixated on him. As she pursues him relentlessly, she puts herself in precarious situations and gets in way over her head. Throughout this drama, Lila’s best male friend and neighbor, a child-like and innocent looking kid, contrasts perfectly with the rugged, older Sammy. Lila has two “men” in her life, who could not be further opposites. The neighbor kid represents her youth, and Sammy, her adulthood, and she is stuck somewhere in the middle, wrestling between the two stages of her life.

The film is the debut from acclaimed director, Eliza Hittman, who weaves an interesting and true to life premise. The feelings and emotions of a fourteen year old girl are powerful and often involves risk taking without any thoughts of repercussion. Liza is extremely vulnerable as anyone her age is, but especially since the film reveals that she has recently lost her mother to breast cancer. Her father is a caring yet no nonsense type and is written well- as a typical blue collar father would really act-.

The standout to me is the actress who plays Lila, Gina Piersanti. What a marvel! The youngster brilliantly portrays a range of emotions- gloominess, insecurity, and annoyance. She is insecure, but intelligent and savvy for her age. Her obsession for Sammy, clearly from the wrong side of the tracks, is dangerous, as he smokes pot regularly, parties, and works in a pool hall. He ultimately is not for her and I think Lila knows this deep down. But at her age she is craving attention and sexually blooming. All of the actors in the film are newcomers and do a fantastic job at relaying an honesty. Lila’s motivations are not always clear, but then again, she is a teenager- moods and motivations change with the weather.

During one powerful scene, Lila hangs out at Sammy’s apartment (where she usually can be found and is perceived as a pest). Sammy and his two friends are smoking pot and watching basketball on television. Somehow, the subject matter turns to oral sex. As Sammy’s friends eagerly accept Lila’s awkward offer to pleasure them, Sammy rebuffs her advances and says that his “privates” do not like her. This seems to bring acceptance to Lila to leave him alone. The audience hopes she musters her self-esteem and goes on with her life. The showing of full-frontal male nudity was surprising to me- very seldom is this shown in American cinema. Interestingly, we never actually see Lila engage in any sexual activity- the point of the film is that she wants to desperately, but we cringe as we fear for the worst in each dangerous sexual encounter she experiences.

Perhaps it could have been further developed or fleshed out, but, It Felt Like Love is a truthful, quiet film with powerful acting and writing from new talent sure to be around for years to come, with the wonderful skills they possess.

Venus in Fur-2013

Venus in Fur-2013

Director-Roman Polanski

Starring-Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric 

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Reviewed August 23, 2015

Grade: C

Venus in Fur is a French language film from 2013, directed by the enormously talented Roman Polanski, and based on the American play by David Ives. Interesting to note is that Ives’s play is itself based on a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch entitled Venus in Furs. Polanski’s film adaptation is really a filmed play and takes place entirely within the walls of a theater, except for the opening shot, as the camera pans inside the doorway of the theater as if the audience are the eyes of an approaching theater-goer. The subject matter is quite adult- sadomasochism and dominance, though there is little nudity and is not perverse in any way.

The story surrounds Thomas, a stressed out writer-director of a new play set to open soon in Paris. Finishing touches must be handled as well as casting the lead actress! His play is an adaptation of Venus in Furs and a frustrated Thomas is on the phone complaining about an unsuccessful day attempting to cast the lead role of Wanda. A disheveled actress named Vanda wanders into the theater and attempts to convince Thomas to let her read for the part, which she desperately wants. Initially Thomas is turned off by Vanda as she is dressed slutty and is on the middle-aged side and, in his mind, wrong for the part. When she finally does convince him to let her read for the part, she becomes Wanda and a strong, bizarre, sadomasochistic, attraction develops between the pair as they run lines together.

Roman Polanski might very well rank within my Top 10 favorite directors of all time list (Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite films), but this work disappointed me. Containing a cast of only two characters, I found the story to be limiting and became tedious as the story developed. It was tough to distinguish when Thomas and Vanda were in character and when they were expressing their true selves and I did not find either particularly likable. This may have been intentional, but confusing and dull nonetheless.

The sexual-fetish subject matter is prevalent, but not in a tasteless way. The initial roles reverse as Vanda goes from whimpering, pleading actress needing some work to dominatrix, who obtains control over Thomas, who in essence becomes her slave. Thomas begins as powerful director with an ego and ends up catering to Vanda’s every whim. They develop a deep emotional connection that they simultaneously realize. The main issue was not feeling much connection towards either character. I detected no chemistry between them. Clearly the dominant soon becomes the submissive, but who cares when you are invested in neither character?

On the plus side, I loved the basic theater set. This instantly reminded me fondly of my college days and rehearsing/performing in a theater similar to the one in Venus in Fur, complete with the rustic red audience seats and the moody ambiance of the theater.

Venus in Fur has an interesting premise as people immerse themselves in the roles they play, but a disappointing film, especially coming from one of the greats. Whatever the exact reasons, the film did not work for me. Interesting premise, but ultimately failed for me.

Getting Go-The Go Doc Project-2013

Getting Go- The Go Doc Project-2013

Director-Cory Krueckeberg

Starring-Tanner Cohen, Matthew Camp

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Reviewed June 23, 2015

Grade: C

Getting Go- The Go Doc Project is a small budget documentary that focuses on a shy, awkwardly gay college student named Doc, who is completing his thesis project by filming a documentary surrounding an online crush he has developed, via porn, on a New York City exotic dancer named Go. When Doc finally contacts Go and inevitably meets him, the filming of Go’s life begins. From this point a relationship forms, but at what price and what will the turnabout be? The film is okay, but is surprisingly dull as it develops and begins to quickly drag towards the predictable conclusion.

The underlying themes of this documentary are loneliness and obsession from two differing perspectives. Doc, the boring, lonely college student is enamored by the gorgeous, buff, seemingly independent Go. As the two get to know each other, more is revealed about Go, his life-past and present, his hopes, dreams, and fears. Doc is also psychologically explored and the two form an unlikely bond. In this way the film succeeds in teaching the audience that there is more to a dancer than his body and more to a nerd than his brain. Both are complex individuals.

The first half of the feature is fairly interesting. The initial courage that Doc musters up to contact and ultimately meet Go is admirable and I enjoyed seeing what transpired next. Will Go be receptive to Doc or callously treat him as another enamored gay man? When Go agrees to be filmed and his life story slowly revealed, I feel sympathy for him and am intrigued to learn more about him. What was his family life like? Was he abused or victimized as a child, I wondered? Getting Go- The Go Doc Project loosely explores matters like this, though no supporting characters are introduced. Go and Doc and their budding relationship are the only focus. The film then plods for the final 45 minutes with an uninteresting love story that is fairly lacking in the suspense department. Are we to believe the pair will live happily ever after? Not a chance.

Unfortunately, the acting is not great either, especially on the part of Go, played by Matthew Camp. Tanner Cohen is a bit better and the more interesting character of the two, with more depth. He is clearly not comfortable with himself, his body, or even with being gay. However, at this age (early twenty’s) one wonders if the character would even be comfortable with girls had he been made to be straight. The main problem with the film is that the two are mismatched. Despite the fact that they develop a fondness for each other, the audience is aware that this will not last.

Props to the filmmakers for trying something a bit different. In the end, Getting Go- The Go Doc Project starts off well, meanders, and ultimately stalls, but tries hard to present a different type of story and that is not so bad.

Contracted-2013

Contracted-2013

Director-Eric England

Starring-Najarra Townsend

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Reviewed October 12, 2014

Grade: B-

It seems that many reviewers of Contracted are looking for a deeper meaning to the film or debating whether a particular scene was a rape or a consensual sexual act- I looked for neither and just took the 2013 independent horror film at face value. I do not view the film as particularly worth over-analyzing or delving too much beneath the surface.

The plot is rather basic- Samantha is a young woman on the outs with her girlfriend Nikki. She goes to a party where her friend Alice gets her drunk and Samantha winds up talking to a handsome stranger named BJ. Samantha agrees to have sex with him in his car, but at one point begs him to stop. It is unclear what transpires at this point. The next morning Samantha wakes up feeling strange- she assumes she is simply hung-over, but gradually her hair, teeth, and fingernails begin to fall out and her eyes are hideously bloodshot. Her symptoms slowly worsen as she transforms into a strange monster. In the mix are supporting characters, Riley, who is in love with Samantha despite the fact that she is a lesbian and clearly rebuffs all of his advances, and Samantha’s Mom, who is convinced that Samantha is using drugs again (which she is).

I did not find the film to be a metaphor for punishing women or lesbians for a one-night stand- I viewed it as a fun, Saturday late-night, horror flick. If I were to dissect the film in a critical way, the premise is rather absurd- a young woman turning into a zombie/monster after having sexual relations with a stranger? Silly, but I am not expecting highbrow art from this type of film. The acting- especially of the actress portraying Samantha is below average at best- horrid at worst. The three central female characters (Samantha, Nikki, and Alice) are presumably all lesbians or bi-sexual and, especially, Nikki, is irritated when a man dares to hit on her, as if they should magically already know she is a lesbian. In fact, the character of Nikki is very unlikeable- she seldom returns Samantha’s phone calls and continually pushes her away. I did not buy any of the three as lesbians- not to be stereotypical, but they each had extremely fem, and feminine only, qualities. The way Samantha’s mother kept insisting that Samantha was on drugs became irritating by the fifth time she brought it up. Why did Riley pursue Samantha ad-nauseam when he was aware that she was a lesbian? What is BJ’s motivation for presumably giving Samantha a drug? She was already drunk enough to have sex with him- why did he want to turn her into a monster? This plot point is unclear.

The film is not character driven, is strictly plot driven, and like most horror films, meant to be that way. The finale of the film is actually quite satisfying as Samantha’s fate, along with her mother’s, is left up in the air. The same cannot be said for Nikki or Alice as both receive their just desserts. Contracted is not a masterpiece, but is a fun little horror film to be enjoyed- just don’t ask too many questions.

Go for Sisters-2013

Go for Sisters-2013

Director-John Sayles

Starring-Edward James Olmos

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Reviewed September 27, 2014

Grade: B-

Go for Sisters is a 2013 independent feature film about a female parole officer (Lisa Gay Hamilton) with a troubled, missing son named Rodney, feared to be mixed up with the murder of a drug dealer. The film takes place in California and Mexico. Hamilton plays Bernice, a middle-aged black woman, who has always done the right thing in life. Widowed and recently dumped by a new boyfriend, she runs into ex-convict Fontayne, played by Yolonda Ross, at her parole office.

Initially wanting nothing to do with her former high school friend, Bernice decides to use Fontayne’s criminal connections to locate Rodney. From this point, they hire retired Mexican police officer Freddy Suarez, played by Edward James Olmos, and the trio embarks on an adventure across the border of Mexico.

I loved the story involving the two female leads (Hamilton and Ross) who share a Thelma and Louise type of bond. The characters reconnect with each other and develop independently- straight laced Bernice toughens up and breaks a few rules while Fontayne, determined to go straight, struggles to keep her head above water, resisting drugs and attempting to hold down a job. The two forge a bond based on trust, respect, and loyalty and their friendship grows throughout the film. One gripe about Fontayne’s character- she admits to being a lesbian, but then mentions she is not sure if she is or if she is not. This sexual identity crisis seems strange- why couldn’t the film just make her a lesbian? Why the hedging? The remaining aspects of the film, though, are mediocre to weak. Adding the character of Freddy to the mix is unnecessary- He adds little to the plot except helping the women get into Mexico and being, intended I’m assuming, male comic relief. Either way, I didn’t find the character very interesting or care about him and the film would have been better without Freddy. What was the reasoning behind making him have poor eyesight? What was the point of Freddy taking a young woman and her daughter to breakfast and realizing they are crossing the border to find her estranged husband? Who cares? It had nothing to do with the plot. All the audience really knows about Freddy is that he is retired due to some misunderstanding and accepts money to help Bernice and Fontayne and sort of tags along with them for the rest of the film.

The stereotypes of the film should have been eliminated- the Chinese dragon lady and the corrupt Mexican police officers have been played to death in films and at this point are rather insulting to smart and serious movie-goers.  I found the plot a bit tough to follow and I still don’t really understand how or why Rodney was involved with the Chinese mob in the first place other than to help Chinese immigrants cross the border. Was he involved for the money or truly want to help the immigrants cross into the United States? The film mentions countless times how Rodney is a decent person so what’s his motivation? The film never wholly explains why he is kidnapped and a suspect in a murder case.  Also, countless characters are introduced to help the women on their journey with some sort of connection to the kidnap victim, but are written haphazardly with no character development.

The ending of Go for Sisters is too predictable and leaves the audience not really caring about the outcome. Despite numerous negatives the heart of the film belongs to the talents of Hamilton and Ross and their characters interesting and warm friendship that develops over the course of the film.

The Past-2013

The Past-2013

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim

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Reviewed September 16, 2014

Grade: B+

The Past is an international film directed by acclaimed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who directed the brilliant A Separation from 2012. Despite being directed by an Iranian director the film is spoken in French and set in France. While not quite on the level of A Separation, The Past is still a very good, layered, and quite compelling film, though admittedly slow paced in spots, which is similar to real life.

The film centers on a couple, Marie and Ahmad, in the midst of a divorce. Marie lives in France with her two daughters from a relationship prior to Ahmad so therefore they have no children together. He lives in Iran and comes to visit and finalize the divorce proceedings. Further complicating the situation is that Marie is in a relationship with another man, Samir, who has a son by his current wife, who is a vegetable in a coma after a suicide attempt. What were the events that led her to attempt suicide? Did someone reveal something of importance to her? If so, who?

Questions such as these compel viewers to invest in the characters. The Past is an excellent family drama done right- there are no needless stereotypes and the children serve more of a purpose than being cute or attractive wallpaper like in many family dramas. Each child involved- there are 3- has real feelings and expresses themselves in a realistic way. All three principal adult characters are mature, complicated, and have depth. Nobody is the villain and the intent is not to make the audience root for one couple over the other- the film is more mysterious than that. Rather, the audience spends the film trying to figure out the secrets that each character keeps. Is Marie ready to divorce Ahmad or does she still love him? Does Samir blame Marie for his wife’s condition? Why does the oldest daughter hate Samir so much? These are questions that arise more and more as The Past unfolds.

Another interesting facet of the film is there are no red herrings introduced to manipulate the viewer. The film is simply a detailed, complex drama. All three leads (Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, and Ali Mosaffa) give wonderful performances, though I’m not sure why Bejo’s performance is considered the standout. Upon completion and thought, I noticed many similarities to A Separation. The Past is a good, solid, family drama, with rich writing and honest, compelling situations.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom-2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom-2013

Director-Justin Chadwick

Starring-Idris Elba, Naomie Harris

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Reviewed September 13, 2014

Grade: B

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom recounts the true story of the life and times of South African leader Nelson Mandela chronicling 50 plus years of his life from 1942 to 1994, his passion for freedom and dedication to anti-apartheid, his battles with the government, and his struggles to survive in prison. The film is shot beautifully, the cinematography gorgeous, and the South African landscape is breathtaking.

I enjoyed the chemistry between Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, who play Nelson Mandela and his second wife Winnie respectively and Elba, in particular, is very well cast. He is charismatic, handsome, and calm, and perfectly encompasses the famous leader’s mannerisms. It was interesting to be exposed to a biopic that spanned such a lengthy period of time and, in a way, is a history lesson for the viewer, especially viewer’s young enough not to completely remember all the details of Mandela’s life. I was too young to know of all of Mandela’s trials and tribulations. For example, I knew he was imprisoned and released, but had no idea of how long he had actually spent in prison and away from his wife and family. I got the sense that factually, some details were either embellished or skipped over entirely. I’ve heard this criticism from some moviegoers regarding Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

A few drawbacks- this film is VERY Hollywood. It has a glossy feel to it. I would have preferred a bit more grit to it. Was there any sexual abuse while Mandela was imprisoned? Was Winnie abused while she was in prison? Why was the lack of sexuality in Mandela’s and Winnie’s marriage in later years alluded to, but never explored? This seemed to be a negative to the film. Being that the film is rated PG-13, aspects are toned down and it has a very safe feel. Also, for such a perfectly shot and designed film, the aging makeup was absolutely dreadful! It was apparent that Idris Elba was wearing a glued on, unflattering grey wig. Furthermore, the woman playing Mandela’s mother was surely the same age if not younger than Elba, with dyed grey hair. This aspect seemed poorly produced.

Overall, Mandela: A Long Walk Freedom is a good film, largely due to its acting and the look of the film, but it is not a great one.

Pit Stop-2013

Pit Stop-2013

Director-Yen Tan

Starring-Bill Heck, Marcus DeAnda

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Reviewed September 10, 2014

Grade: B

Pit Stop is a very small independent film from 2013 centering on a group of gay men living in rural Texas, somewhere outside of either Houston or San Antonio. The plot focuses on two specific men, Gabe and Ernesto, neither of whom is acquainted with the other and tells of their series of ups and downs, mostly regarding dating and relationships. Gabe lives with his ex-wife Shannon and they share a child whom they raise together as a family. They have a warm relationship and live together as friends.  Gabe was recently dumped by a married man who wants Gabe to stop calling him. Ernesto lives with a younger man who he used to date and is trying to convince to move out and get his life together. Ernesto also has a former partner who is comatose and whom he continues to visit in the hospital.

A sub-plot of the film is Shannon’s struggles to date. She arranges a date with a co-worker and, after drinking too much, embarrasses herself by coming on too strong to him. The point of the film is that all of the characters are struggling to find love and companionship and most are quite lonely people, yet not unbalanced or neurotic folks. They reside in the middle of nowhere which dims their chances of finding love.

Interestingly, there are no villains in the film and all the characters are quite likeable. There is a rooting value to each of them especially towards Gabe and Ernesto and all along I kept hoping that they would be brought together as they seem to be a wonderful pair fraught with potential chemistry. Both are clearly caregivers in their current situations so it is interesting and appealing what transpires at the conclusion of the film.

Pit Stop is a feel good, happily-ever-after type film, mostly screened at independent film festivals and the gay festival circuit. The film is small and steady, but a nice, uplifting experience. It is worth checking out.

Rush-2013

Rush-2013

Director-Ron Howard

Starring-Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl

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Reviewed August 31, 2014 

Grade: B+

Rush, a film directed by Ron Howard, delves into the world of auto racing with the true story of the 1970’s rivalry between racing superstars of the day James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The film mainly focuses on the time period from 1970-1976 and the series of races and championships involving the two with some of their personal life trials and tribulations thrown in. At first bitter enemies, a respect and friendship slowly builds over the years.

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl both give excellent performances as Hunt and Lauda, respectively. Ron Howard, a very mainstream, Hollywood style director carves a nice film that is not edgy or particularly risk taking, but is a solid biopic that works and will hold the viewer’s interest. The film is not gritty and has a definite safe feel to it, but that is unsurprising since Ron Howard directed it and is a characteristic of his films. Reportedly, the feud between Hunt and Lauda is slightly embellished from the low-key real life feud and some events are created for effect- Hunt never beat up a reporter in Lauda’s defense. The racing sequences are compelling and are not overdone or take away from the human aspect of the film. I loved seeing the real life Hunt and Lauda at the end of the film as is quite common these days when telling a true life story. Bruhl, an unknown to me, received a deserving Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Rush is not a movie to go down in history nor will it leave one thinking about or asking questions days from viewing it, but a slick, competent, entertaining story with impressive acting by the two leads.

 

The Spectacular Now-2013

The Spectacular Now-2013

Director-James Ponsoldt

Starring-Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley

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Reviewed August 29, 2014

Grade: B

The Spectacular Now is a coming of age independent film that tells the story of a romance between two unlikely high school seniors. Sutter (Miles Teller) is a popular student who takes a shine to smart loner Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and the two develop a strong bond as they each struggle with parental issues while being completely opposite social types- she is college bound and motivated, he lives in the now with no thoughts of the future. But somehow they forge a connection.

The success of this film lies with Teller and Woodley who each give nice performances as the chemistry between them is evident. At first I neither bought Teller as a traditionally popular kid or Woodley as the friendless recluse, but somehow the film works as each has a rooting value to them. Sutter’s ex-girlfriend Cassidy, who he still has feelings for is played by Brie Larson, but the character is rather undeveloped, needless, and not much rooting value for her or competition for the main couple.

Interestingly, alcohol and alcoholism is touched on as the two leads drink quite heavily and regularly for being only eighteen years old, but really glossed over and I think the film is more about the romance between the two rather than any social issues. There are capable supporting performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Shailene Woodley received an Independent Spirit award nomination for Best Actress, but sadly Miles Teller received no nomination and I am surprised as I thought he was a bit better than she was and certainly has the meatier role.

The Spectacular Now is hardly anything groundbreaking, but a nicely told story and has an authenticity to it that is admirable for a teen film.

The Missing Picture-2013

The Missing Picture-2013

Director-Rithy Panh

Starring-Randal Douc

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Reviewed August 21, 2014

Grade: C+

One question continued to go through my mind while viewing The Missing Picture- is it a documentary or a foreign film? To me it is clearly a documentary, but strangely the film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar yet the Best Documentary Indie Spirit award, which is strange. I hate to say this, but after 15 minutes or so I found the film quite dull. I respect the creative, expressionist clay figures and enjoyed the black and white real life clips of the horrific events from 1970’s Cambodia. But I found the narration as dull as dishwasher.

I watched 45 minutes of the 1 hour and 35 minute run time and deduced that I had gotten the point of the film. It does not take away from the importance of the subject matter at hand, but the presentation could have been a bit more exciting. This is a common occurrence in the documentary genre.

After Tiller-2013

After Tiller-2013

Director-Martha Shane, Lana Wilson

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Reviewed August 13, 2014 

Grade: A

After Tiller is a brilliant and thought provoking documentary about the controversy of abortion. The issue presented is not whether abortions should be performed, but rather should they be performed late term (beyond 20 weeks). The Doctor Tiller mentioned in the title was the Doctor who opened the handful of clinics that perform late term abortions and who was murdered outside of his church by fanatics before the documentary was made. The 4 remaining protégé’s of his are Doctors who now openly perform these controversial procedures and who are presented as, not monsters as some would think of them, but as sympathetic, kind professionals who put the pregnant mothers’ needs first.

As I assumed before seeing the documentary, the Doctors are not strictly performing the abortions for mothers seeking a way to get rid of a “problem”, but rather, in most cases, the baby will lead a life of pain, misery, and health problems and typically the parents do not learn of the problem until late in the pregnancy which adds dimensions and levels to the issue at hand. The viewer is left wondering, what would I do? Most of the parents struggle with the decision to terminate the pregnancies. These Doctors (and their families) constantly receive death threats from pro-life groups who do not comprehend the issue and the Doctors are harassed by people who do not want their abortion clinics anywhere near them and as a viewer this is painful to watch. Any viewer who is pro-life or pro-choice ought to watch this for a better understanding of the complexities of late term abortions. After Tiller is absolutely riveting, but has shamefully been seldom seen by audiences.

Short Term 12-2013

Short Term 12-2013

Director-Destin Cretton

Starring-Brie Larson

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Reviewed August 6, 2014 

Grade: C+

Having just viewed Short Term 12, I am not sure I am getting all of the “this movie is brilliant” or “beyond amazing”, or glowing praise surrounding the film.  The film is set in a group home for troubled teens and centers around the supervisor of the home named Grace (Brie Larson). Grace runs the home with her boyfriend and other twenty-something, mostly former troubled youths. The films focal point is Grace and both her personal problems (she is pregnant and her abusive father is being released from prison), and her relationships with the teens currently staying in the group home.

The film is fairly engaging, but seems a bit forced and not gritty enough given the subject matter. I enjoyed the relationship between Grace and a new charge, Jayden, whom she befriends. The group of teens is almost too perfectly cast however- a mix of races and stereotypes, the kids did not come across as genuine. I would have liked to see more backstory for some of the kids besides the two that were given one. Subjects were introduced but not followed through with- Why was Grace’s father never introduced onscreen? Where was the mother? Her childhood issues were mentioned only in passing. Some of Grace’s actions were unrealistic and out of character for a counseling supervisor. Would she really smash the windows of one of the teen’s father’s car out of anger and not consider the repercussions? And what was with the constant poop jokes especially in the first 10 minutes? That was dumb and out of place.

The film seemed glossed over and I didn’t feel the realism to it- almost like a CBS television drama with swear words added to seem harsher. The subject matter was brave, but so many more details could have been delved into and explored in Short Term 12.

Her-2013

Her-2013

Director-Spike Jonze

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson

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Reviewed August 5, 2014

Grade: A-

Her is a very unique film that is directed by Spike Jonze. The film tells the tale of a lonely, depressed man named Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who lives in a beautiful high-rise in futuristic Los Angeles. He works as a writer for a company that creates intimate cards for people in relationships. Having suffered a recent divorce, he then falls in love with his computerized operation system named Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson- voice only. Conflicts emerge as the relationship deepens and intensifies. Her is a love story so uniquely crafted, but also a story of loneliness and of the world of technology that we now live in.

It portrays human relationships as troubled and unsuccessful yet several characters have wonderful relationships with computers. Is this what the future may really bring with human beings? How many people have fallen in love with a fantasy or a voice on the phone? The film ponders why relationships have been changed due to technological advances and wonders what will happen even further into the future. Technology, while wonderful, has changed our interpersonal relationships and this film successfully delves deeply into that aspect. Conversation is a lost art and Her features the joys and the tragedies of technology. Visually, the film is successful in that it portrays Los Angeles in a sophisticated, ultra sleek, modern way that is fascinating to look at. Several technological games are featured (the Alien child is brilliantly comical) and the “Mom points” fascinating in its irony. Her is a deep film that raises questions and I applaud this in modern cinema.

Her is a slow moving film to be sure, but a questioning one. Her won the 2013 Best Original Screenplay Oscar and I am so glad the academy recognized the originality of this film.

Texas Chainsaw-2013

Texas Chainsaw-2013

Director-John Luessenhop

Starring-Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeager

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Reviewed May 18, 2013

Grade: B-

If you are a horror buff (as I am) the reality that one must accept is that classic horror films will be remade or some incarnation of them will be made over time. That is the harsh reality. They will never hold a candle to the originals. That is also a reality. One can either accept them for what they are or resist them.

Once again yet another version of the classic 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes upon us. It is present times (2013), and the main character, Heather, takes a road trip with her friends to Texas to collect an inheritance from a long-lost Grandmother she has never known. An interesting twist is the film begins where the original left off- the fact that sequels were made in between seems to be forgotten.

I enjoyed how the film picks up where the original left off and brings in a bit of history to the story. Unfortunately, the timeline makes no sense and is a complete impossibility- the heroine of the story would chronologically be 39 years old, but the character is in her early 20’s. In typical horror fashion the characters are all one dimensional (sex starved) and a token minority is thrown in for good measure, which has become standard in modern horror. The Texas police are clearly portrayed as corrupt. Happily, there are brief cameos by two of the original cast members (Gunnar Hansen and Marilyn Burns) from the 1974 version, which is a great touch. Otherwise, this is a by the numbers modern horror film and quite forgettable, yet enjoyable for the 90 minute length. Certainly does not hold a candle to the original, but what would?

The Great Gatsby-2013

The Great Gatsby-2013

Director-Baz Luhrmann

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire

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Reviewed May 19, 2013

Grade: A

Despite some mixed reviews of this movie, I loved it. Having read the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I was familiar with the story of lavishness and scandal during one sweltering summer in the well-to-do Long Island, NY community during the 1920’s.

Directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) I found the look of the film lavish, realistic, and gorgeous- perfect ambience and a dream-like quality.  I loved the casting of Leonardo Dicaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Caraway. The chemistry among the three leads is apparent and visually the film is spectacularly dressed, from costumes to gorgeous sets, and the speech patterns of the era- “old sport”, and “row”, are used frequently and seem authentic.

Many complained about the mixing in of modern rap music with a film set in the 1920’s, which does sound strange on paper, but I personally enjoyed that aspect of it and feel like it gave a contemporary edge to the film. There are slight adjustments from the novel, but I thought it was a very successful transition to the big screen.

Lovelace-2013

Lovelace-2013

Director-Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Starring-Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard

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Reviewed July 24, 2014 

Grade: B

Lovelace is an account of famous 1970’s porn star, Linda Lovelace, and her rise to stardom and inevitable fall from the spotlight, difficult family life, abusive relationships, and her attempt to escape the porn world for good. The film certainly portrays the story from Lovelace’s point and view and based on her tell-all autobiography, and spins her in a very sympathetic way. Whether all of her abuse and struggles that Lovelace claimed are to be believed is up to the viewer.

Lovelace, the film, comes across as similar to Boogie Nights- even the 1970’s soundtrack is eerily alike, but clearly inferior to that masterpiece. The only character whose past is fully delved into is Linda Lovelace and she is the sole focal point; the others are simply an extension of her character. One major issue I found with the film is the casting of Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace. Seyfried does not have the plain Jane or girl next door characteristics that the actual Lovelace had. She comes across as rather soft and gentle, much too much for this particular role. Conversely, the casting of Sharon Stone and Peter Sarsgaard are excellent as each is dynamic in their respective roles. Stone in particular should have received much more acclaim than she did for her role. As Lovelace’s mother she is gritty, steely, and unsympathetic.

The film contains a who’s who of Hollywood names involved in small roles. Another issue is the film seems like a made for television movie and considering the subject matter is the porn industry, it seems awfully watered down and not harsh enough. Lovelace is entertaining enough to keep ones interest, but is not riveting or in depth enough to be a major success.

Omar-2013

Omar-2013

Director-Hany Abu-Assad

Starring-Adam Bakri, Eyad Hourani

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Reviewed July 24, 2014

Grade: B

Omar is a 2013 Best Foreign Language film Oscar nominee. Omar tells the story of a young Palestinian man living in the political unrest of Israel, personally conflicted, and a freedom fighter, sympathetic to the other side. He is in love with a young girl whose brother is a leader in the freedom fight and their romance eventually becomes a love triangle. Once Omar is arrested on suspicion of murdering a soldier, a series of events take place that make the audience wonder what side of the fence he really is on and who his allegiance lies with. The film starts out slowly and way too much emphasis is placed on the romantic story- seemingly endless scenes of Omar and Nadia professing their love and passing notes to each other. In fact, the film seems to know not what it wants to be- a political thriller or a romance film.  Approximately, 30 minutes into the film it really kicks into high gear as the arrest and the political cat and mouse aspects come to the forefront.

The ending of the film is unexpected and rather excellent.  At times, though, the story is a bit unrealistic and implausible, especially some of the prison scenes- Would a Palestinian traitor really be given a second chance and not killed instantly? Would the prisoner and interrogator really become friends? Certain aspects of the film seemed plot driven and too convenient to be realistic, but I was enraptured with the story overall, minus the romance, which seemed overextended and sappy.

The Purge-2013

The Purge-2013

Director-James DeMonaco

Starring-Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey

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Reviewed June 8, 2013

Grade: A-

On paper, the premise of the film The Purge is very intriguing. It immediately caught my attention and I was compelled to see it. Set in the near future, the government, fed up with the overwhelming crime and prison overcrowdings, decides to initiate a once a year purge, whereupon, anything goes. It’s like Christmas for the criminals and insane. All emergency and police will shut down on this night and citizens are left to their own devices as a way to purge the violent and aggressive instincts from humans systems. An affluent family, led by a security systems genius (Ethan Hawke), nestles in their lavish home. Of course, events go horribly awry and chaos ensues.

The film contains suspense, thrills, frights, and a bit of humor and contains a question of class distinction and raises societal questions- Why are the wealthy better off than the poor? Do they deserve to be?  I enjoyed the setting of the wealthy, gated Los Angeles community and the eerily Stepford wife like atmosphere of the neighborhood where housewives delivered casseroles and other dishes to each other for the big night. Throughout this sunny environment the viewer could sense a too good to be true cheerfulness and the darkness to follow anticipated as sunset emerged.

I found this film to be unpredictable and edge of your seat and the film delved into a home invasion thriller, which was effective. I could not predict what might happen next and that is incredibly entertaining. I am unsure if some of the humor in the film was intentional or not- some of the kills were over the top and contained one-liners, but The Purge is a crisp, fun, summer popcorn horror film.

World War Z-2013

World War Z-2013

Director-Marc Forster

Starring-Brad Pitt

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Reviewed June 22, 2013

Grade: B

World War Z is the type of film that is a summer hit and will most likely be forgotten over a couple of years’ time. It is a slightly above average, enjoyable action/ zombie thriller, but really not much more. It stars Brad Pitt as a former United Nations investigator called in to save the world from a zombie pandemic. The crisis is spreading throughout major cities of the world simultaneously.

The film sees Pitt traversing the globe in an attempt to find a cure for the epidemic before it is too late and the zombies make the world extinct of humans. The zombies are super zombies in that they can fly and move at lightning speed making them ultra-dangerous. The story is completely implausible and plot driven, but somehow it doesn’t matter and it works on some level. My theory for this success is that the film is fast paced and the action starts almost immediately and Brad Pitt is charismatic in the film. He is clearly the star and all the action centers around him.

The film contains some very exciting, tense scenes including a plane crash sequence and a chase around a medical lab. World War Z is clearly a popcorn film, meant to be sat back and enjoyed and not overanalyzed or taken too seriously. It is a perfect summer hit.