The Revenant

Up next on our look at the Best Picture films is The Revenant. Directed by reigning Best Director winner Alejandro G Iñarittu, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson, it is rated R for violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.

From IMDB: After an attack that occurred in a fur trappers bivouac, across a river, in American wilderness, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), his son, and his remaining companions, are going back to the nearest outpost. Glass is left in weak condition after being mauled by a bear forcing some men from the team to be his caretakers. One of the caretakers, John Fitzgerald (Hardy), chooses to betray Glass, and leave him to die. Relying on his insurmountable anger and powerful motivation for his family, Hugh survives and attempts to find John Fitzgerald, and make him pay for his terrible decision.

9 out of 10

If Leo does not finally seize that oh-so-elusive Best Actor trophy, I will protest. I will write several strongly worded letters to the Academy. I will make a thousand picket signs and with Leo’s thousand biggest fans, march through Los Angeles, pitchforks in hand. If it wasn’t clear before, If Leonardo DiCaprio does not win Best Actor for his turn as legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass, I will have lost all hope in humanity.

As it stands, I would probably put The Revenant as my third favorite film from the past year (after Star Wars and Spotlight), though there’s no doubt that it was the most intriguing. The premise is perfectly concocted, showing off the perfect mix of revenge, love, and spiritualism. The ensemble cast is spectacular, from the experienced DiCaprio to the younger Will Poulter, previously of We’re the Millers fame. The production design and costumes are spot on, providing this world with realism… albeit a grotesque one.

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The Revenant starts out with an emphatic bang, a battle scene with thrashing, nauseating violence— think Saving Private Ryan, only 150 years prior and with Native Americans and pioneers rather than soldiers and Nazis. The opening scene of the 1998 classic is known for its shockingly violent nature, highlighted by stray body parts and gushing intestines; The opening battle of The Revenant is almost on par. However that violence does not hinder; rather it helps in establishing the setting of the film in a place of conflict and disarray.

 

One of the stars of that battle is of course, Hugh Glass, who is, in the only way I can appropriately put it, an absolutely savage. Obviously this intensity has to be attributed to DiCaprio, who plays Glass with a determination and motivation that makes him a force of nature. From gutting a horse to use its carcass for warmth to eating raw buffalo liver (Leo actually did this! And he’s a vegetarian!), Glass goes to the most extreme lengths to stay alive— something that is evident through DiCaprio’s commitment to the character. He is the shining star of the movie, absolutely controlling the big screen for the entirety of the two and a half hours.

He is of course supported by Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson, the former snagging a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his extraordinary efforts as the selfish, ruthless Fitzgerald. Gleeson is spectacular in the role of Andrew Henry, captain of the party, following up his solid performance in Star Wars with this great effort. Side note: Gleeson has had just a spectacular year, with starring roles in Brooklyn, Ex Machina, Star Wars, and now The Revenant. Bravo!

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If you saw Birdman, it might be clear to you that Iñarittu carried over his affinity for stretched out camera shots, the most memorable being the bear attack scene, shot in one continuous take. The extended shot puts emphasis on the brutality of the assault: the audience does not get a break from it because the camera does not cut away. This effect is prominent throughout the movie, underscoring the barbarity that Glass faces, which only strengthens his character every time he is able to overcome it.

My only criticism was the importance given to the storyline regarding the Indians and the French— all I really wanted to see was Leo, so each scene that was solely about this conflict felt like an interruption. Though this B plot ultimately served a purpose, I think it was given too much screen time, ruining the pacing of an otherwise great film.

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There are a lot of fantastic things in this movie. This movie is nearly flawless, impressing me in almost all aspects of film making (acting, cinematography, screenwriting, production design), with my only grievance being minor pacing issues. It is an emotional journey, with visceral effects that make it as realistic as possible. The Revenant can be considered nothing less than a successful follow up to Birdman for Alejandro G Iñarittu, one that could thrust him into Oscar glory for the second consecutive year, and finally give Leo that Oscar he deserves.
~Vig

8.5 out of 10

Much has been made of the great feat of endurance that was making Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant. And despite a comfy chair and a snack of Swedish, and firmly dead, fish coming out I felt that I could empathize somewhat with Leo and co.’s struggle. This sounds harsh but is not necessarily a criticism. Much like a long camping trip into the woods, The Revenant will be divine for some. But for others, The Revenant will be gorgeous, occasionally profound but at the end of the day all a bit much.

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Even the first scene, an attack on the fur trappers’ camp by natives, goes on ever so slightly too long. It is a minor sin but portentous nevertheless. From that scene onwards, the movie is a breathless assault on the senses. DiCaprio’s character, the abandoned fur trapper Hugh Glass, suffers trial after trial at the hands of the brutal land and its inhabitants, emerging bloodied and panting from each. Watching DiCaprio endure the first few is entertaining but as the film enters its third hour, they become tiresome and, as the watcher becomes ever more desensitized to the violence, Inarittu seems determined to keep the crowd gasping through escalating gore.

One possible solution to the problem of length might have been to shorten the film to a more digestible 90 minutes. This is an interesting suggestion but fundamentally flawed. A film titled The Revenant, as infantile as this may sound, has to be an epic. Although its raging 156 minutes may turn some off, in so many other ways the pure mass of the film is the film’s greatest strength. One cannot please everyone when making a film as grand as Glass’ story necessitates, and Inarritu deserves kudos for the pure conviction he displayed in making this beast of a film.

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And to be fair, there are some moments of repose. We are treated to occasional expository glimpses of burning camps and ethereal women on the wind. DiCaprio does well to imbue these scenes with emotion, even if at points one can almost hear the yearning for an Oscar in his breath.

On the more general topic of the acting in the film, it is all about the two men: Tom Hardy and DiCaprio. Both are such well-respected actors and in this film they earn their reputation with two great examples of physical acting. There is a strong stress on the physical there as both talk little and a decent portion of it is largely incomprehensible. In fact, DiCaprio’s most powerful line of the film, a laconic mutter about his son, is in the trailer. In the end, however, it hardly matters. DiCaprio and Hardy are both such immense presences on the screen, not only physically but emotionally too, that the dearth of dialogue becomes irrelevant.

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But as much as the film is really all about DiCaprio’s relentless hunt for those who forsook him, many will find that the most intriguing narrative to The Revenant is that of the Indians who weave in and out of the film’s forests and storyline. The film will certainly not be remembered for its portrayal of Indians and DiCaprio’s brief meeting with a wise healer/mentor at the darkest point of his journey is almost painfully cliché but the film’s portrayal of the plight of the displaced and disillusioned natives is nevertheless a thoroughly interesting piece of The Revenant’s epic puzzle.

In short, The Revenant may be one of the most divisive Best Picture frontrunners in recent history, and there’s a very good chance anyone who will enjoy it has already seen it. But if you like a good vista, and don’t mind a touch of blood, it’s a glorious ride.
~Nic

The Big Short

Up first on our countdown to the Oscars is The Big Short, directed by Adam KcKay and starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling. It is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.

From IMDB: Four denizens of the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight.

8 out of 10

Full disclaimer: I had a lot of trouble following what was going on in the movie. The dense terminology plus the complicated nature of finance completely lost me. But somehow, I still managed to really enjoyed The Big Short, probably because Adam McKay does an excellent job of recognizing that many regular people lack the ability to keep up and plays on it.

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For instance, cutting to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining financial terms to simplify it is a genius move— it was a hilarious change of pace that allowed me to catch my breath (Though it probably would have been more helpful if Margot Robbie in a bubble bath hadn’t distracted me). McKay does this twice more, giving a movie that is essentially a documentary on finance some personality.

It also breaks the fourth wall a lot, furthering easing regular viewers into the new world of confusing finance terms. Gosling opens the movie by doing this, and it is continued throughout the movie by man different characters. I personally loved when one of the actors broke the fourth wall to recognize when something in the movie differed from the real life account. Recognizing and exposing the subtle lies of movies ‘based on true stories’… Brilliant.

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Of course, The Big Short would be nothing without its trio of male stars that play extremely unique men emerged in this crisis. Carrell continues to prove that he is more than capable in dramatic roles, following up last year’s Foxcatcher with a sparkling performance as the cynical, hardened Mark Baum. Gosling acts as the films narrator in a way, opening the film with narration that draws us in and keeps us there. But the best performance of the film is that of Christian Bale’s, playing socially awkward genius Michael Burry. Bale is known for his attention to detail and it is no different here, nailing every quirk that Burry has.

The most impressive part of the film had to be how te structure and style reflected its message. The main point is that none of the American public had any idea what was going on (ex. the strippers), but instead remained obsessed with pop culture, much like how a regular audience does not have the slightest idea of what is going on in the movie and only pay attentions to the glamorized scenes with celebrities. The problem with the financial crisis is that Americans had no idea what was going on, this theme reverberating throughout the film.

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That being said, I think there was a lot of fluff that contributed to the movie being rather slow towards the middle. I thought a lot of the scenes were repetitive in terms of structure; essentially, I felt a bit of deja vu while watching the film. This, paired with the density of the material, led to some pacing issues that lulled me to sleep at one point. 

For a film that is essentially Inside Job with a bit more flavor, it is extremely well crafted. With a unique style and compelling narration, The Big Short is successfully comedic but full of grim implications, making it one of the best movies of the year.
~Vig

 

9.5 out of 10

“Anyone can make something complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

(Have I used that epitaph in a review before? Of course I have! I can’t remember which but I’d imagine it was something that clunked around under its own weight like Interstellar.)

Here’s a shocker for you: economics is not exciting. It’s pencil pushing and number crunching. It’s some brokers shouting and squawking before some red and green arrows on Wall St. It’s those contracts you never read and those acronyms you never cared to understand. Finance. Ain’t. Fun.*

I’ve previously expressed though that the highest of movie magic is when a film transfigures something from enormously complex to accessible without losing any of the topic at hand’s weight (Think Moneyball’s treatment of the nitty-gritty of teambuilding or even how the recent spectacle Spotlight deliberately paces but one protracted piece of reporting). The jargon and prolonged process is all there to bolster the accuracy yet there’s enough style, talent and deft delivery to make it (What else?) digest-able.

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Damned if Big Short doesn’t fit that bill. Comedy champion Adam McKay’s latest feature is smart as it is succinct and humorous as it is horrifying. It’s a movie that fully embraces the confusing nature of its subject (The shady swaps that all but consumed the American economy in 2008) in the hopes that you will too (Trust me, with writing this sharp and scenes this self-aware, you’ll succumb to all the monetary mayhem). This masterwork is the better blend of Inside Job (2010) and Wolf of Wall Street.

We’ll start with the all-star cast, of course, which sits at the heart of this cinematic juggernaut: comedy veteran Steve Carell wows as the curiously capricious Mark Baum. Ryan Gosling kills it as swift salesman Jared Vennet who sees the crisis coming (and exploits the living hell out of it). Even seasoned dramatics Christian Bale and Brad Pitt command more than a few snickers as their characters (savant and cynic respectively) carve through the Wall St. B.S.. Are all these characters and their antics pulled from real life? Of course, mostly (The film will gladly tell you when it diverges from nonfiction though).

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The film also stylishly zips from proceeding to proceeding, taking full advantage of an early 2000’s-dominated soundtrack (I forgot how much I loved “Feel Good Inc.”) and making some (at first) pretty jarring pacing choices. Does it suffer from these timing decisions? It stumbles a little at first but either it found its groove or I just got more absorbed by it. I’m fine with either.

Yet despite all the laughs, I left this movie feeling utterly punched in the gut. Make no mistake, it’s a muckraker disguised as a comedy. God help you when you suddenly realize the sketchy skylarking playing out onscreen did happen and, even worse, the only victim at the end of the day is you (Or so the movie seems to conclude). And all the wisecracks and keenly crafted montages in the world can’t even seem to conceal the ugliness of Adam Smith’s system today.

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*What do you call a cross between a jet plane and an accountant? A Boring 747! (I desperately wanted to fit this in the review but I have to confine it to a footnote.
~Zac

Steve Jobs

Hi everyone and Happy Holidays. This week we’ll take a look at Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle, starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Seth Rogen. It is Rated R for strong language.

From IMDB His passion and ingenuity have been the driving force behind the digital age. However his drive to revolutionize technology was sacrificial. Ultimately it affected his family life and possibly his health. In this revealing film we explore the trials and triumphs of a modern day genius, the late CEO of Apple inc. Steven Paul Jobs.

8.5 out of 10

Steve Jobs, named after the one and only, has Sorkin written all over it. It’s got the same fast-paced grit of The Social Network and the smart, sleek style of Moneyball. This may just be his best one yet though, thanks to a pair of dynamic performances and direction that gives Steve Jobs, one of this generation’s most influential people, a movie that accurately depicts his accomplishments and his failures, both as the co-founder of Apple and as a human being.

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I didn’t think he could get any better than 12 Years a Slave, where he played brutal slave owner Edwin Epps, but alas, he has outdone himself. Michael Fassbender is the driving force of Steve Jobs, bringing both the good and the bad to the titular character. Jobs is not a hero. He is not a good guy. He is not even a nice guy. But he’s human, and that is where Fassbender’s portrayal comes close to perfection. Despite there being no physical resemblance, Fassbender plays the man that we know and want to see; The hard nose, rude, egotistical man who has no mercy for his subordinates. But the most incredible thing is that there is still another side to it all. Steve Jobs still loves his daughter and despite neglecting her for the longest time, eventually shows that his love is unconditional. You’re going to be hearing Fassbender’s name during Oscar season, and deservedly so.

Backing Fassbender up is Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive for Apple and more importantly, Jobs’ confidant. She is a tour de force, proving to be the only person that can stand toe to toe with the powerful, intimidating Jobs. She matches him blow for blow, proving to be a voice of reason that he not only listens to, but follows.

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The direction of the film is done in a way where everything is very fast paced and continuously moving– much like the life of Jobs. The transitions between scenes and time periods are flawlessly done through montages of what happens in between the events of the scenes that are taking place. There are really only three or four actual moments illustrated in this entire movie, but each is stretched out to capture every ounce of tension. Every emotion is exposed and used.

The opening of the film is a perfect example of that– one particular moment in which Jobs is demanding his employees to fix the computer for a presentation without regard for the risk of the fix. Intertwined with a fight with his ex-lover over child support, the direction in this scene maximizes the intensity of both sides of Jobs’ life and fuels them together. This is done throughout the movie, making every scene more intense than the one before it.

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The fast-paced nature of Steve Jobs, mixed with a soundtrack and styling that give it a high energy, would not seem appropriate for a biopic. However, this film is anything but conventional. Danny Boyle does an outstanding job of controlling the pace and emotions of the film, aided by a fantastic script. However, in the end, Michael Fassbender is easily the star, commanding this movie with unmatched grit and power, masterfully playing one of the most admired and loathed man of our generation.
~Vig

9 out of 10

We’re gonna need some background here (Minor spoilers): Steve Jobs (No, your brain isn’t melting. We did get one of these biopics about two years ago as well.) is spread over three sections, three different Apple product launches over three different decades. It’s pretty claustrophobic with all the major plays taking place in the backstage of every presentation and the roster limited to a tight chorale of characters (Funny enough, it kind of gave me Birdman flashbacks).

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So, what’d I think of this structure? Did the whole three act thing behoove the story exactly or did it just staccato things? Here’s the short answer: it was like seeing the same story three times with escalating tensions and stakes, each execution better and more powerful than the last. We’ll get that negative out of the way first, of course: make no mistake and be warned, this is an identical story on repeat. The movie’s enclosed cast of characters kept it limited to glossing over the same points and arguments over and over (We see Jobs wrangle with his wife over money and with his companion “Woz” over the state of their company several times each. Strap in.) .

What’s the upshot to this production choice though? Well, as I said before, it’s all about the slow swell of tension. We may be seeing the same people debating the same things every section but, each time, things get a little more intense, a little more ground is covered and everyone gets a little angrier. In that respect, the movie perfectly plunges us into Steve’s top entanglements with impeccable pacing. It’s all also theatrical enough to be satisfying but realistic enough to ensure that its not straying from or romanticizing the true story (See Social Network for some of these mistakes.).

And I really can’t stress this enough: if there’s one thing West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin behind this can write, it’s a heckuva pounding argument (He always does that moment exact moment where ego flickers on and seizes control so well). Michael Fassbender may just be the best vessel out there for Sorkin’s talents as he churns out a cool and calculating yet bubbling, fiery performance (As expected, dear Magneto did me proud with some Oscar-tier work). Coupled with fantastic work from Seth Rogen (You read that right) and Kate Winslet, some of these spat scenes hit such a climatic pitch of writing and acting that they leave you feeling absolutely throttled.

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Part of me does indeed wish I got a linear, lengthy “rise and fall of Steve Jobs” story or something along those lines but I appreciate director Danny Boyle’s foray into a more abstract, bare bones, no B.S. type of biopic. With some lush, breezy transitions to keep things moving and equally powerful acting, Jobs takes it place as a solid contender to be one of the top films of the year and (pretty much as expected) surpasses its Ashton Kutcher predecessor.
~Zach

Bridge of Spies

This week, we take a look at Stephen Spielberg’s latest piece, Bridge of Spies. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, and Amy Ryan, the film is rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.

In the cold war, A lawyer, James B. Donovan recruited by the CIA and involved in an intense negotiation mission to release and exchange a CIA U-2 spy-plane pilot, Francis G. Powers that was arrested alive after his plane was shot down by the Soviet Union during a mission- with a KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel who was arrested for espionage in the US (from IMDB).

7 out of 10

If you can remember, I put this film on my ‘Top 5 Most Excited For’ list way back at the beginning of this year. With Steven Spielberg directing, Tom Hanks acting, and the Coen-Brothers writing, this film is guaranteed to be a success. Might as well give it Best Picture already. This were my thoughts a few months ago when first coming across Bridge of Spies. Maybe it’s because my expectations were too high, but I can’t lie; I was rather underwhelmed. Not to say it was a bad film, because it wasn’t, it just was, well, underwhelming.

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Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors of all time, and again he delivers as James B. Donovan. As the protagonist, Hanks drives the film, and thank god he does, because without him I can’t imagine how charmless this film would be. He has charisma, humor, but also a sternness that grounds his character in the film and makes him realistic. The turmoil that his character goes through and the way he deals with it is ultimately what makes this another outstanding Hanks performance. There are some other strong showings, including Mark Rylance as a persecuted Soviet spy that Donovan grows fond of, and Amy Ryan as Donovan’s fearful, but supportive wife.

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Per usual, Spielberg does an incredible job of creating the historic setting, the camera work serving to prolong the drama and keep the atmosphere of the Cold War tense, dark, and moody. This solemn tone was maintained throughout, largely due to the fantastic production design and cinematography that kept the film in the midst of the Cold War.

Yet the tension stops at the production design. For a spy thriller, I did not get much of a thrill at all. I felt the mistake was that the film was split into two parts, one being the trial of the Soviet spy, the other being Hanks’ attempt to trade the Soviet spy for the United States’ own spy. The first part felt like an interesting commentary on nationalism versus morality, whereas the second part felt like a cute middle school dance between the Americans and the Soviets, when you knew that the two would get together in the end to make a deal, but they spend the longest time skirting around it. That was my biggest problem: it was too predictable. Argo was predictable, but still thrilling. For a solid five minutes, I was convinced that Ben Affleck and co. would not get out of Iran alive. I just didn’t get that same feeling from Bridge of Spies.

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Perhaps the reasoning for that is a lot of the tension built up circulates two characters that no one really cares about. Frederic Pryor and Francis Gary Powers were characters that I did not empathize with, and I doubt many others did either. There was not much development for their characters, so when they were captured, I could have cared less if they were killed or not. In fact, I liked the Soviet spy more. I’m not sure whether this can be attributed to poor acting or poor writing, but those two characters lacked appeal that removed any tension the film could have had during its final act.

Overall though, it is impossible to discredit Spielberg and Hanks from what is overall a well made film that should get nominated for plenty of Oscars. Perhaps you can attribute my disdain for the second half of the film to it being nearly 11:00 PM by that point, while being on the tail end of a double-header in which I witnessed Michael Fassbender absolutely dominate as Steve Jobs (but that is a review for another day. Soon. I promise). Bridge of Spies lacked the tension and thrill that would have made it an all time great, instead forcing it to settle with being another solid film that will be forgotten in a few years.
~Vig

7.5 out of 10

Bridge of Spies brings together the powerhouse duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks once again, who have made successful films such as Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can, with a trun to the cold war, one of the few American history time periods Spielberg has not touched on in his filmography. Add this stellar pair with the Coen brothers (of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men fame) writing the screenplay, and you have talent that almost guarantees a slam-dunk. And Bridge of Spies does succeed, for the most part.

The film tells the true story of James B. Donovan, played by Hanks, who was put in charge to defend a Soviet spy caught in the U.S., then ultimately has to negotiate a trade between the spy and a captured American U-2 pilot in the Soviet Union.

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Above all, the craftsmanship is what makes this film shine. Spielberg and his customary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a world that feels so much like the time period without spoofing it. This is seen especially in the opening eight minutes, which is purely visual imagery with no dialogue, that hooks you into the story. Spielberg also uses an old style of filmmaking where he prolongs every shot for as long as possible; so when one a cut is made, it gives the audience a subconscious feeling that a beat has changed within a scene, even if it is just between two people talking. This style makes the film come alive and proves once again that Spielberg is a master of the screen.

As the case in pretty much every Spielberg film, the acting is top notch. Hanks succeeds once again in his usual charismatic role, also with some humor, making us root for him as he has to deal with both stubborn sides (with a cold as well!). But because we always see him in this every man role, it is a little safe for him, and does not necessarily stand out in his impressive filmography. But who does stand out is Mark Rylance, who plays the soviet spy. Rylance has a tranquility to him despite the character’s desperate conditions, and forces the audience to feel for him despite him being an accomplice on the other side. Other notable performances are Amy Ryan as Hanks’ wife and Austin Stowell as the captured U-2 pilot.

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But for a thriller, the film has very little suspense in it. The film runs right by the numbers, with no twist and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat as most Spielberg films do. The narrative is split into two parts with the trial then the negotiations for the swap and while I found the former to really say something strong about Americans and the complication of patriotism in yesterday and today’s society, the latter feels like the story is going through the motions, despite the really great shots of the split up Berlin, where the negotiations take place.

Also I was a bit disappointed in the Coen Brothers script; it did not contain their usual idiosyncrasies or dark humor, but rather is more paint by the numbers than you would expect from them.

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And if there is ever a complaint to be made about Spielberg’s films, it is his cheesy, feel-good endings, and that is no different in this one, with a very gooey conclusion from a film that was much more mature than that.

But the way the film presents its historical material is so well done that I have to recommend it on that basis alone. Even though it feels like there is something missing in it, possibly from the absence of Spielberg’s usual composer John Williams, not many films today are made with this amount of care, and so gets my support nonetheless.
~Seth

Amy

This week, we’ take a look at Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary based on the life of renowned jazz singer Amy Winehouse as she deals with the pressures of being a superstar while battling alcoholism and drug use.

9 out of 10

Oddly enough, I’m not one for artsy movies. I stick to mainstream blockbusters, movies with Oscar buzz, and some other random ones here and there, but the low-key, Indie hits and artistic documentaries have never been my forte. However, I went out to see Amy because my friends thought it looked interesting, and I won’t lie, I found it extremely appealing myself. And as we found, our instincts were right; Amy was beautifully well crafted documentary. filled to the brim with intriguing storytelling and an incredible use of music.

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One of the more unique things about this documentary is that the actually footage is completely put together from real footage, meaning home videos, photos, tv broadcasts, paparazzi filming, etc. There is not a single minute of this film (that I can recollect) that is artificial. There are audio overlays of interviewees that really drive the story along and take us on this journey through Amy Winehouse’s life. Her ex-husband, her manager, her best friend, her father– all these people (and more) made up the overlay. The film was so uniquely crafted from beginning to end. All the overlays did their part in moving Amy’s story forward. It was our way of getting to know her characters. Paired with real, genuine home video, we started to fall in love with this extremely talented woman, flaws and all.

The other thing that really stood out to me was the incorporation of Winehouse’s music, specifically her lyrics. Every so often, the action would shift from interviewers and video to footage of Amy in concert or in a recording studio singing a song, with the lyrics captioned on the screen. What was so incredible about this was that the lyrics and the tone of the song always matched up with the feeling of the documentary of the time. You would expect a documentary about a musician to feature their music, that goes without saying, but this music was not just featured. It was incorporated along the seams of the story. It helped to tell that story. It really was the story.

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The last 20 minutes of the film, I was absolutely on edge. Since we all know the ending– she dies of alcohol poisoning– it may seem hard to believe there is any sort of climax. However, I felt quite the contrary. The film used the dramatic irony– that the audience knew the ending– to its advantage. Instead of sugar-coating her death, they attack it full force. It really forces you to think about everything she went through. Her death was not her own ignorance and addiction. It was a combination of her father’s pressure, her husband’s own addiction, and the paparazzi absurd standards that drove her off a cliff. 

Amy is a fantastically crafted documentary that does a fantastic job exploring a number of things, including alcoholism & drug abuse, eating disorders, and the pressure of being a celebrity, all issues that were inflicted upon one of the most talented musicians we’ve ever seen. I can say before I saw this film, I didn’t think there was much to Amy Winehouse. I thought she was someone who really fucked up her life, and that its was her fault and no one else’s. Amy provided an eye-opening perspective on her, and all people with addictions. If you get a chance to see it, do yourself a favor and do so. It really is a work of art.
~Vig

9 out of 10

I really like documentaries on niche topics. A film that takes a topic I know nothing about and just absorbs me even without a direct message or commentary on said issue. In this case, that topic was the life of Amy Winehouse.

I think we all know the basic trajectory of Winehouse’s career: she was a celebrity that fell victim to the fact that we seem to love to see a talent get tossed up and dragged down regularly and recreationally.

Amy sheds light on this process and shows us the nitty gritty of her career, her time with loved ones and her struggle with addiction in between. Does it assign blame at all for her deeper problems? No, it remains pretty agnostic on that question. It doesn’t drop to the depths of being a VH1 or MTV “rise and fall” flick, it just shows you an artist and how she ticked.

The film expertly weaves in voicemails, interviews and archive footage to paint its portrait. I honestly can’t imagine how much work it took to assemble all the footage the filmmakers did, let alone configure it all effectively but their work definitely does shine here.

The documentary also makes use of the songs that you may or may not know with some bullseye interludes of just the music and the lyrics artfully juxtaposed with Winehouse’s story. The words are about one hundred times more resonant when paired with its singer’s strife and tooth and nail technique.

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As I said earlier, the film does not exactly point fingers. However, I’d be quite surprised if any viewer left the film without at least a little anger towards the media and paparazzi, both of whom the doc portrays as actively hungry and vicious. All the raw footage from sources like TMZ feature a barrage of flashes and an assault of reporters that highlight the sheer unpleasantness of being famous (a label Amy herself denies a substantial amount of times in the movie).

The Winehouse family is also not spared from a bit of scrutiny; the parents are implicated in a number of instances where they seem to brush off their daughter’s spirals as being in character. I’ve been told that several of her family members didn’t care for this documentary and, while it doesn’t explicitly draw connections between Amy’s upbringings and her eventual problems, I can see why.

No matter who the viewer chooses as the root cause of this talented musician’s passing though, there’s one question that the film persistently asks: could anything have been done to help her? Plenty of those interviewed do use “could’ve” and “should’ve” yet others imply that they did their part and that nothing else really could have been done to solve Winehouse’s deeper demons.

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Whether you sympathize more with the former or the latter, there’s no denying that Amy is an intriguing, powerful look into what it really means to be an addict, a celebrity and a divisive music legend.
~Zach

Foxcatcher

Up next is five time Academy Award nominee, Bennett Miller’s biographical drama Foxcatcher, based on the real life story of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz. Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, and Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher is rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence.

Foxcatcher follows the unique relationship of wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) and millionaire coach John du Pont (Carrell) as they train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark attempts to step out of the shadow of his more famous brother, Dave (Ruffalo), but du Pont, obsessed with victory and pride, becomes increasingly paranoid, leading to tragedy that no one could expect.

7.0 out of 10

The big buzz around Foxcatcher after its initial film festival release was Steve Carell’s stellar performance in a dramatic role. And in case you don’t know, “stellar dramatic performance” and “Steve Carell” don’t really go together. He was apparently so good that people were saying he was a shoo-in for Best Actor and that the film had a great chance at Best Picture. Yes, I did hear this chatter way back when. As you know, the film didn’t quite get there, failing to garner a Best Picture nod. This is largely due to a story structure that is unable to maintain intensity. However, largely thanks to a trio of stellar acting performances, Foxcatcher did get nominated for five Academy Awards, including two for acting and a directing nod (in the process, becoming the first film in 7 years to be nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture). 

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As mentioned, Foxcatcher has a really strong cast, anchored by Channing Tatum and supported by Steve Carell (well, according to the Academy, led by) and Mark Ruffalo, the latter two garnering Academy Award nominations. Tatum, known for rather silly roles (21 Jump Street, Magic Mike) or cheesy romantic roles (Dear John, The Vow), really steps into his own as Mark Schultz. He has so much determination and his character’s transformation throughout the film is evident. Ruffalo, looking totally sporting a shaved head and full beard, is at the top of his game, portraying Mark’s caring brother David as genuinely as possible

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Then there’s Carell, who has completely transformed his image with this one film. I recently watched The 40 Year Old Virgin and re-watched a few episodes of “The Office” and my goodness, how different he is. Not only is his physical transformation incredible (shout-out to Makeup and Hairstyling!!!), but his mentality is incredible. To be frank, he is a complete psychopath (as the character requires). It is not hard to be seduced by John du Pont’s false persona, one that feigns support and kindness, only making Carell’s dive in absolute insanity even more dramatic and intense to watch. Probably his greatest acting performance ever, though I say with complete seriousness that it might be a step below his turn as Michael Scott

Now, despite those incredible performances, Foxcatcher was unable to remain interesting for the entire duration of the film. It is broken up into three parts, the first an exposition that is understandably slow, the second of which is the Olympics and fall of Schultz, and the third of which rushes into a frantic, emotionally dense ending.

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The shift between the three parts was a bit rushed, without any build up to slur them together. For example, du Pont’s shift to absolute insanity was entirely implied rather than illustrated. In real life, du Pont did some really bizarre things. He apparently burned a den of baby foxes alive and drove around in a tank on his estate, with allegations of sexual abuse flying around everywhere. But none of this was really used in Foxcatcher, even though it could have made du Pont even crazier, making the middle section of the film all the more engaging.

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Ultimately, Foxcatcher is hindered by its poor pacing, focusing too much of the film on establishing a dark, brooding tone. And this dense, admittedly interesting tone ultimately isn’t enough to make up for the lack of progress in the story. It’s rather stale for a long period of time and nothing exciting really happens till the very ending, which (without spoiling) is tragic, and an exciting conclusion to an otherwise dull movie. However, there’s no denying the strength of the strong acting trio of Tatum, Carell, and Ruffalo. Even Sienna Miller, my new favorite actress, is in it! Yet, with such inconsistent pacing, it’s hard to label Foxcatcher as anything but a disappointment, especially with all the potential it had.
~Vig

7.0 out of 10

I have to admit I was a little surprised when Oscar nominations came out and Foxcatcher was not among the tiles contending for Best Picture. It had certainly generated the requisite Oscar buzz with winning performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, and it scored a pair of high profile nominations with Carell for Best Actor and Benet Miller for Best Director (the issues in that category are for a whole other discussion). Personally I don’t think Foxcatcher deserved to be nominated, but it certainly has some merit as a dark and cautionary film.

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Thematically it is very similar to Whiplash, a Best Picture nominee and personal favorite, in that it tackles the merits and pitfalls of controlling and abusive student-mentor relationships. We see a controlling, strong personality in John Du Pont, played by the surprisingly capable Steve Carell, contrast with the weak and underdeveloped personality of Mark Schulz, played by the surprising Channing Tatum. Despite these differences at the core of each character we also see a need to impress others and to fulfill familial expectations, a quality which bonds them but then ultimately drives them apart as Du Pont ventures further and further into the deep end.

These two performances were really what drove the movie. It was a joy to see Carell excel at a dramatic role, and he certainly deserves his Oscar nomination (though he has virtually no chance of winning and personally I think he should have been placed in the Supporting Actor category). Normally Carell is pigeonholed as the ridiculous, awkward guy in comedy films and shows, a role that he is suited for but that limits his talents as an actor. I know a lot of people who aren’t big fans of his, but I think he was exceptional in “The Office” and hilarious in Anchorman, and I sincerely hope that directors will take notice of Carell’s work and continue to cast him in dramatic roles. He certainly exceled at his creepy, off-color role as John Du Pont.

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Channing Tatum was also quite exceptional. His performance was incredibly convincing as Mark Schulz, the manipulated wrestler living in the shadow of his brother’s Olympic glory; it was so convincing in fact that I almost forgot that this is the same man who walked out of a limo at prom with doves flying out behind him in 21 Jump Street. Credit the filmmakers for taking the risk to cast comedic actors in a dramatic film.

Where I lost interest in the film was its pacing. Yes, Du Pont’s manipulation and controlling of Mark required significant buildup, but the third act of the film, it’s climax, was far too short and too rushed. The first two acts were almost entirely dedicated to building the film’s tone, a brooding and dark atmosphere, but I think it was significantly enough established within the first third. I really wish Miller had shortened the middle and drawn out the end.

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Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about this movie is that it left me with wistful thoughts of what could have been. I went home after watching the film (at Garden Cinemas, which for those of you in the massive readership haven’t been there is by far the best theater in the area, though there is some occasional noise leakage from screen to screen) and searched up some information on the real story. I found that Du Pont was even more deranged and even crazier than then film depicted. Normally we criticize Hollywood for exaggerating history, but in this case Miller went the other way. In reality, Du Pont drove a tank equipped with a machine gun across his property. He attempted to sexually assault a few of his students. He blew of a den filled with baby foxes. He paid his wrestlers to check for ghosts in the attic. Where was this in the movie? Including these elements and eliminating that dragging middle could certainly have made Foxcatcher the final Best Picture nominee of the year.
~Will

Selma

Up next is Selma, Ava DuVernay’s historical drama about civil unrest in the South during the 1950s. Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth, Selma is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, and brief strong language.

Selma recalls the incredible civil rights movement to secure equal rights for people of all races led by Dr. Martin Luther King (Oyelowo) in 1965. Following King and his followers in their triumphs and struggles during the violent fight to change history, Selma highlights the epic march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

9.0 out of 10

One of the biggest storylines of the Academy Award nominations was Selma’s snubbing. It was shut out of the Best Director Category and Best Actor category, both of which were considered virtual locks for nominations. Public outcry followed, with many criticizing the Academy for not recognizing diversity (all of the 20 acting nominations went to Caucasian actors, and the only non-white director nominated was Alejandro González Iñárritu). The truth is the academy is almost 94% white and 76% male with an average age well over 60. If you don’t have diversity in the voters you’re not going to see diversity in the nominees. It’s high time that the Academy makeup represents the diversity that exists society.

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Selma is also the movie of the moment. Yes, it recounts one of the most historical events and periods of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is also largely a musing on modern racism and the fact that we have not yet realized the ideals King strived for. It comes at a time when racial tensions are incredibly high – with the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown embroiling the country in heated conflict—which makes it all the more powerful.

From a purely cinematic viewpoint, Selma’s snubbing came as a major surprise. The film boasts major talents, with the likes of Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, David Oyelowo, and Tom Wilkinson.

Oyelowo was fantastic as Dr. Martin Luther King. He successfully conveyed the nuances of King’s personalities and the stark differences of his public and private personas. As King, Oyelowo made grand speeches with a booming voice in front of both hostile and sympathetic crowds but also excelled at his quieter, more intimate scenes. 2014 was a big year for Oyelowo, appearing in Selma, Interstellar, and A Most Violent Year. Here’s to hoping that his success continues in the future.

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Tim Roth was also exceptional. This is his first non-Tarantino film that I’ve seen, and he played the snaky, repulsive, racist governor to perfection. Just the way he delivered his lines, with drawn out vowels and overt arrogance was fantastic.

What really held Selma together was its direction. The camera work was sweeping and precise. Ava DuVernay made some bold choices, most notably her decision to film some scenes in slow motion. It was a jarring break from the movie’s continuity but I think, given the situations in which DuVernay employed this tactic, such a sensation was exactly the point.

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Unfortunately for Selma, I think the movie ended on somewhat of a sour note. Much of the film had centered around King’s acceptance of others and inhuman willingness to overcome the inequities of society, all while not shying away from the physical and social toll that his leadership put on him and his imperfections as a man. Selma ended on a moment of triumph, with (mild spoiler alert) King and his followers arriving in Montgomery, and then logically recognized the tragic end to King’s life in epilogue text. I definitely agree with this choice; a film about King’s legacy should not end with his untimely death. However, where I draw issue is with the rest of the epilogue text, specifically with regard to Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth. Without a doubt, Roth’s character was vile and venomous. In the epilogue text, the film stated that Wallace was the victim of an assassination attempt that left him partially paralyzed, and said that only then he come to adopt a more accepting view of race. I don’t have the correct phrasing, but the way it read on the screen was that the movie-makers were happy about his peril and were almost looking at it as “he got what was coming to him”. It read as vengeful and acerbic, which, while absolutely Wallace was, as I said, vile and venomous, goes completely against King’s teachings of tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness. 
~Will

9.0 out of 10 

Plenty of biopics show the turning point of a movement because it’s easy. It’s easy and satisfying. There’s enough space for struggle and for resolution. But Selma does not place itself during the actual signing of any civil rights acts nor does it show a string of victories for MLK. Instead, the films opts to show a struggle which, for its purposes, is the exact thing it needs to depict.

In racial politics, Martin Luther King has, quite understandably, transcended human form. He basically relayed what 90% of the American people want for every race: stability, kindness and fairness. He took what seemed like a ridiculous movement to many racists and catalyzed into one of the biggest chunks of American history. What’s more, he did all without violence or acrimony. He upheld his beliefs for peace. For this, many have remembered King as pacifist and a god.

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Those people certainly aren’t wrong but Selma chooses a different route for King; a more human one. And while it’s probably much easier to document an admired yet controversial leader like Malcolm X’s strategic maneuvers, Selma chooses to show the personal battles King had to fight (Not resolve) to win the one against oppression. The film rightfully locks in to but one historical event and delves into the backroom politics that had to happen. Consequently, David Oyelowo’s King becomes much more of tactician than an activist for the film’s focused purposes.

Thus, we get to see all of the family moments MLK sacrificed, the fellow protestors he had to bicker with and the leaders he had to sway to ultimately launch his cause. It ain’t always pretty. While we typically knott all of the racial organizations of the era together, Selma depicts them as individual teams with their own scopes and interests that are loosely tied together. But the film largely recognizes that these turbulent moments make us appreciate the lighter ones. When we see the young activists of SNCC quarrel with the older organizers of the SLCC, it makes their compromise seem a lot more significant. Likewise, when we see all King had to do behind closed doors to secure his cause, it enhances his image as a man who was tethered to his beliefs in widespread equality.

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Plenty of historical movies regarding race are also criticized for featuring more white characters than there were present in real life. Some films have additionally been condemned for having said white characters actually save the day rather than the black figures the filmmakers claim to be focusing on. Whether you agree with this criticism or not, there’s no denying that Selma is firmly focused on black leaders and sugarcoating history to make people comfortable plays no part in the movie. The plot is rife with realistic tensions on boths sides that, again, only serve to make the somewhat infrequent moments of agreement more rewarding.

In fact, and this is an odd thing to say after I lauded the portrayal of MLK, I’m not sure whether this really should be lumped in as just an MLK biopic. King runs the show, yes, and he embodies the wishes of an entire movement but the more I recount this film, the more convinced I am that it is simply about the strength of peaceful protest. The movie is exactly what it says on the poster: Selma. Civil disobedience, speeches and marches in Selma. With King as its captain, I think Selma’s biggest purpose is to prove the power of demonstration which is quite an interesting angle after the Arab Springs, Occupy movements and moments of national unrest the past few years.

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Where does it rank amongst the other historical films of the year? Well, it’s quite a few notches above Unbroken. Just a bit further than American Sniper though Bradley Cooper certainly holds his own with Oyelowo’s (Which was criminally snubbed by the Academy) which puts it about on par with Imitation Game: a ranking I’m comfortable with. I’m certain grateful for the flurry of powerful nonfiction films but they’ve been exhausting to watch. Still, square off some time to get a front seat to the politics behind Selma.
~Zach