SPECTRUM CINEMA

Herein lies the reviews of a self-proclaimed film snob. I review as I see: good and bad, old and new, anything in between and under the sun. Please read, follow, and enjoy. ♥

FRANK (2014)

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DIRECTOR: Lenny Abrahamson

STARRING: Michael Fassbender & Domhnall Gleeson

I’m not too subtle when it comes to the actors I love. There are certain ones whose work I will almost always respect, regardless of whether or not the film itself is up to par. One of these actors is Michael Fassbender; I’ve yet to be disappointed by anything he’s done. When I heard he’d be spending the majority of this film hidden by a papier-mâché head I was baffled — who in their right mind would want to cover that face?! Then it occurred to me, however, that maybe a mask like that could be a gift to an actor like Michael; without that face, all you have is Frank. There’s only character.

Frank tells the story of Jon (Gleeson), a young Brit whose primary goal in life is to be a musician; unfortunately, his talent doesn’t live up to his aspirations, no matter how hard he tries. It isn’t until encounters a bizarre band with an unpronounceable name that he sees an opportunity to make something of himself. Fronted by Frank (Fassbender), an eccentric musical genius that constantly wears a papier-mâché head, the band has a unique sound that is unlike anything Jon has ever heard — and unlike anything he could ever do by himself. Recruited as the new keyboardist, Jon joins in as they conceptualize and record a new album, secretly documenting it along the way through social media in order to amass fans. Convinced that Frank’s music has the potential to be hugely successful, he fails to recognize the fragility hidden behind the mask; success, it seems, may be the last thing that Frank needs.

The life of a creative person can be a frustrating one; not everyone possesses the tools to express what they have inside. Encountering a truly talented person can be the hardest thing, a person that can create without any effort, as easy as breathing. What jumps out to me is that dichotomy — those who understand the creative process and those that don’t. Frank and Jon are brilliant foils of one another, expressing this binary. While Jon dreams of music festivals and tens of thousands of Twitter fans, Frank simply wants to be inspired by the sound of a door opening and closing. He loves the art of music; Jon loves what music represents. At the end of the film I was left with a feeling of endearment for the creative process. For Frank, music is literally all that keeps him sane; I can certainly relate to that.

As far as performances go, I hate to say that while Domhnall Gleeson is a good actor I will never really like him. Last thing I saw him in was About Time, a film I less than cared for, and after Frank it’s likely I’ll only ever see him as a man who means well but screws things up by way of his own selfish desires. Relatable, yes, but maddening. He plays the characters well, but like several characters in this film, I only just want to punch him in the face.

Michael Fassbender… well, what can I say. It’s amazing what an actor can express without the use of his face. He’s fantastic with physical performance (as we all know from Shame, heh-heh… sorry), bringing compassion, mystery, and laugh-out-loud humor to Frank. Not to mention, he sings and performs like a pro, so hats off to him for all the work he obviously put into making this character special.

An honorable mention goes to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Clara, Frank’s somewhat terrifying bandmate. This is probably my favorite role of hers. Brilliant stuff.

I can imagine that most people will enjoy this film, but those who thrive on creativity, particularly musicians, will likely enjoy it most.

FINAL GRADE: A-

ABOUT TIME (2013)

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DIRECTOR: Richard Curtis

STARRING: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, & Bill Nighy

I saw this film over two weeks ago and have been struggling to write a review of it ever since. It may be because I’m still a little rusty (my last review was my first in over a year). The truth, actually, is that in my earlier drafts I sounded incredibly mean. It’s much more fun to write glowing reviews of films that I love; bitching about well-meaning movies like this makes me feel like, well, a bitch. Here goes my attempt at being objective. Forgive me if it becomes a rant.

About Time tells the unlikely story of the story of Tim (Gleeson), a ginger-haired and relatively awkward young man who, at the age of twenty-one, is informed by his father (Nighy) that the men of their family possess the ability to travel through time. Initially disbelieving, he quickly discovers that it’s true — in an instant, he can go back to any moment he desires. Naturally, he chooses to use this remarkable gift to get himself a girlfriend. After meeting Mary (McAdams), a pretty American girl, he decides she is his one true love, so he will manipulate time relentlessly in order to win her love. As their story progresses, however, real life hardships come calling and Tim must face the limitations of his ability.

I have a hard time watching romantic movies, mostly because I feel like they shouldn’t piss me off as much as they do. They’re always so innocent, so I shouldn’t expect so much from them. After all, this was made by the same guy who made Notting Hill and Love Actually; his conceptions about love are about as shallow as a puddle, so why am I surprised? (Guilty admission: I like Love Actually. I’m aware of its faults, but it’s still my annual Christmas movie. No shame.)

That being said, I believe a lot of people buy into and internalize these “romantic” ideals, thus skewing our ideas of what love should actually be. As long as there’s twinkly piano music, it must be true love! Never mind that our leading man spends the entire film manipulating his love interest in order to get her, as if she’s his own personal puppet he’s entitled to play with. Never mind that his manipulation extends to his friends and family as well, altering little things to achieve what he thinks is the best outcome and thus depriving them of their own choices. Not only is the audience never asked to hold him accountable for this, but we’re expected to think this is all terribly romantic.

It’s difficult to get invested in a love story when we only get to know one half of the couple; we sort of know Tim, only because we spend two hours following him. We know what makes him unique (time travel), we know his objective (get a girlfriend), and we know his target (Mary). That works. Who we don’t know is Mary. She may as well have been a paper doll with Rachel McAdams’ face stuck to it, because other than that she existed solely as a prop for Tim. We never see any real connection between her and Tim; in fact, her big meet-cute moment with him is so rushed and brushed over that it’s never really clear why he’s so fixated on her. Yes, she’s pretty, but we know nothing about her other than she likes Kate Moss (which, as a defining character trait, is just strange).

Now, I could get into the narrative (bottom line: it’s boring and nothing really happens), but I have one final point to make. It was hard to let go and just enjoy this movie when it was so glaringly sexist. Yeah, I know, people are all too happy to throw in words like “misogyny” and “sexism” these days to make their pieces more interesting, but I’m quite serious here.

First of all, there’s the fact that for absolutely no reason only the men in the family can time travel — why? What’s the point of that? There is none. No questions asked, no explanations, nothing.

Secondly, out of everyone in his life, it’s the women who are most affected by Tim’s ability: Mary and his sister, Katharine a.k.a. Kit Kat (oh, what a precious nickname! She’s so charming! Let’s love her!). Mary is manipulated into sharing an entire romance with this guy, when under normal circumstances she may not have liked him at all or maybe it just wouldn’t have worked out. I think the movie missed a great opportunity here to tell a really interesting story: what would have happened if she had found out what he was doing? How would their relationship have changed? But no, this never even becomes a factor. Kit Kat, on the other hand, is rescued from ever having to take responsibility for her life, thanks to her dear brother. As a character, she’s allowed a little more depth than Mary, but Tim still can’t just let her be. Even with his noble intentions, he manages to rob both women of their autonomy… and he’s such a great guy for doing so, isn’t he?

 I really am trying to be nice and objective here. I wish I could just enjoy it, because it did have a few good things going for it — well, two things, actually. One: Bill Nighy’s always cool, even if he plays every role he’s ever had in the exact same way. Two: featuring one of my favorite Nick Cave songs, “Into My Arms,” at the end. It’s one of the most beautiful love songs in the world, so cheers for having the good sense to use it.

Okay, moving on now.

FINAL GRADE: C

Sadness.

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Paul Walker personified my adolescence. I still remember the exact moment when I first saw him in The Fast and the Furious, with those beautiful blue eyes of his. I was about twelve years old at the time. That movie was hugely influential during my early teens, probably to an extent that I wouldn’t normally want to admit. Recently I’ve laughed it off — bad movie, bad actor, stupid teenager with crap taste. You know the drill. The truth is, however, I’m genuinely sad to hear of his passing today. I didn’t want to believe it, so I kept waiting for admissions of a hoax. Time to accept the truth.

The fact that he died in a violent car wreck is indeed ironic, but nothing to be snickered at. I hate that a lot of people are apparently making jokes about it. He was a man with a family, a daughter, and a successful career. He may not have been the greatest actor, but he loved what he did. From what I’ve read, he seemed to be a humble and genuine person; never the egotistical Hollywood asshole. 

My most sincere condolences go out to his family, friends, colleagues, and fans. Yes, he was a public figure, but he made a real impact on my life. I am sorry that the world has lost him so soon.

Go re-watch The Fast and the Furious, Joy Ride, Pleasantville… don’t just dismiss him as another celebrity death. Honor his work if you’ve enjoyed it in the past. Please, just be a decent human being about this.

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013)

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DIRECTOR: Abdellatif Kechiche

STARRING: Adèle Exarchopoulos & Léa Seydoux

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a review… too long, really. It hasn’t exactly been out of laziness — to be honest, I haven’t been as focused on cinema lately as I have in the past. Instead, I’ve been enjoying what some people have called the “golden age” of television, including American Horror Story and The Fall. It’s sad to accept that the overall quality of TV has apparently exceeded that of film, but alas, the day has come.

That isn’t to say that I haven’t seen some wonderful movies recently. 12 Years a Slave was incredible, as was Dallas Buyers Club — in fact, these two films represent my own personal battle over who will win the Oscar for best supporting actor: Michael Fassbender or Jared Leto? Either way, I’ll be happy. I’m fairly convinced that it’s between these two talented and beautiful gentlemen, and for once, I’m pleased to say that the winner will be more than worthy. Go, boys.

The reason I’ve decided to write up a review this evening is that for the first time in a long time I’ve felt a conflict. Upon leaving the theatre today I didn’t just think, “Well, that was great.” Instead, I thought, “That was great, but…” It’s the but that’s always intriguing, isn’t it?

Let’s start with the fundamentals, as I typically do. Blue is the Warmest Color tells the story of Adèle (Exarchopoulos), a French high school student struggling with her homosexuality. She uses her beauty and mystery to disguise herself amongst her peers, even sleeping with boys — that is, until the day she spies Emma (Seydoux) on the street, literally stopping traffic with their exchanged glances, and thus falling into her first experience of real love.

Whoever might be reading this, I imagine that you’ve probably at least heard of it already. There has been a considerable amount of press coverage for months: reports of the graphic seven-minute sex scene between the two leading ladies that earned the film an NC-17 rating; stories from the actresses themselves about boundaries pushed by the director, Mr. Kechiche, perhaps to the extent of abuse. There have been no exaggerations, I believe. I don’t consider myself someone who is easily shocked by things I see onscreen, and today was no different, but I will say I have many mixed feelings. I try to form my own opinions when it comes to pop culture controversy, and after seeing this film I’m more convinced than ever that in these matters there are no easy answers.

Before I write another word, I must say this: Adèle Exarchopoulos. Adèle Exarchopoulos. Adèle Exarchopoulos. It’s a personal frustration of mine that I’m so rarely blown away by female artists, but today I felt genuinely honored to watch this girl’s performance. She is one of the most natural and unpretentious actresses I’ve ever seen. Her fear, her smiles, her tears, her orgasms, her angst — all of it felt so real and intimate. If anything, I hope that all of the publicity and drama surrounding this film bring the best resources into her life so she can flourish. Please, give this girl the attention she deserves.

One of this film’s many strengths is its lack of pretension, much like its young starlet. It’s a quality I see often in European films. Here in the States, we usually associate romance and love with high stakes, drama, and contrived circumstances — a continuous buildup of rising actions and climaxes followed by the comfort of happily-ever-after. Europeans seem to know better. Here, there is no swelling music, no meet-cute scenarios; there’s merely a glance on the street, a meeting in a bar. When it comes to love, it clings to its honesty, no matter how much it hurts. For that, it has my utmost appreciation and respect.

The sex, however, is a different story. It might be blasphemous for me to say this as a queer woman, but I can’t say I appreciated the girl-on-girl fucking scenes, regardless of how hot they were. (I use the word fucking here very intentionally.) I have no problem whatsoever with graphic sexuality in film, but in cinema, as with any form of artistic narrative, it all depends on context. Every scene should lend itself to the story in some way; that includes sex. If the scenes are included for any other purpose, we have a word for that: gratuitous. I wouldn’t go as far as to call these scenes pornographic, but I can’t see any other point than to cause controversy and/or turn on its audience — or worse, its director. The first scene, the seven minute scene, I can get on board with, even if it does seem to go on and on for too long; it felt important to establish the passion Adèle and Emma felt for one another. After that, however, all I could imagine was the director shouting at the girls, “Moan loader! Slap her ass! Come on, get into it!” At that point I no longer cared about how intense their orgasms were, as I already knew. It seemed perfectly clear that the purpose of these scenes had nothing to do with these girls’ love story.

Aside from this issue — which, valuably, has stirred up some excellent cultural discussions regarding the male gaze and representations of lesbian sexuality — I have no other negative critiques as far as artistic merits go. Regardless of the director’s behavior, he has produced a beautiful film. I loved that he didn’t take the easy road of making Adèle and Emma purely likeable; there were times when I hated them both, just as often as I adored them both. I loved that he wasn’t afraid to take all the time he wanted to tell Adèle’s story, at the risk of alienating his audience (the film runs about three hours). The girls never looked flawless, in spite of their beauty, and their words were often awkward instead of polished. It felt just like life, just as the film’s French title promises: la vie d’Adèle.

FINAL GRADE: A-

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

DIRECTOR: Lynne Ramsey

STARRING: Tilda Swinton & Ezra Miller 

Talk about onscreen birth control, man. Not since Rosemary’s Baby have I been so convinced that procreating is an absolutely horrifying idea and that no good can come of it. This is one of those films for the masochistic viewer, the kind that I probably wouldn’t recommend to the average viewer. That being said, everything about it was brilliant, disturbing, and hard to swallow. That is, the best kind — worth multiple viewings, worth ownership, and so on.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) has become the pariah of her community, punished and blamed for an act of horrific violence committed by her teenage son, Kevin (Miller). As Eva becomes increasingly isolated in her own guilt she reverts into memories of raising her son: his unusual development and vindictive cruelty, as well as his escalating and innate disdain for his mother and family, of which his father seems to be willfully oblivious. Suffering through her memories as she searches for something of an answer, Eva struggles to come to terms her own responsibility, as well as the love she still holds for Kevin in spite of it all.

I actually saw this film a few months ago, and then went out to purchase the source novel; it’s proven to be one of the most deeply unsettling books I’ve ever read. I decided to re-watch the film halfway through the book, and then again upon completion, using it like a visual aid. As a pair the novel and film work together quite perfectly; the screen provides the atmosphere while the page provides the insight. They are companion pieces to one another. With the book I can understand some of the subtler interactions that I’d missed before, the significance of little things.  That isn’t to say the film isn’t worth seeing with the book unread; it certainly is. It still stands alone as an interpretation, though it may leave more questions than answers in the end.

The strength of the film lies in its emotional grip. While the book is analytical and in-depth, the film is dreamlike (or nightmarish?) and atmospheric, providing an unsettling framework for its viewers. The credit mostly goes toward the actors, because despite the filmmakers’ beautiful take on the source material, they couldn’t have gotten far without Ms. Swinton and Ezra fucking Miller. We all know Tilda Swinton is legendary — natural, understated, almost alien-like in her physicality — while Miller, whom I’ll never be able to watch again without getting nervous (in spite of his delightful upcoming role as Patrick in The Perks of Being a Wallflower), has the potential to join her ranks. Although the film sometimes struggles with its ability to convey the fine details of the novel, these two actors make up for it in spades with only their expressions and interactions with one another — particularly Miller, who works his performance off the two young actors who play Kevin as children at different ages. The three of them have the “Kevin death-glare” down to an art. Well done, boys.

This is a beautiful, chilling film; it is also unique, in that it is not better or worse than the novel, but better with the novel. I strongly recommend both, simultaneously and independently. Soon I’ll be adding this to my shelf. It has certainly earned its place.

FINAL GRADE: A-

THE WOMAN (2011)

DIRECTOR: Lucky McKee

STARRING: Pollyanna McIntosh & Sean Bridgers

I became aware of this little film last year when I came across a YouTube video of a man walking out of a theatre having just seen it. On camera he essentially damns the filmmakers and the festival for showing it, declaring that it should be banned, that it’s filth, and so on and so forth. He was genuinely livid that such a film could exist. Naturally, I’ve been waiting to see it ever since. Now, having sat through it and subjecting myself to a cement mixer of reactions, I’ve had to give myself a rare reminder: there are some things you can’t un-see.

In The Woman, Chris Cleek (Bridgers) is an old-fashioned patriarch with a beautiful country home and a picture-perfect family. While on a solo hunting trip, Chris comes across a feral woman (McIntosh) living in the woods, having grown up alongside wolves since infancy. Witnessing her savage behavior, he decides to capture her and keep her bound in his cellar, enlisting his family to help him “civilize” her. As he cleans, feeds, and clothes her, deep-seated family tensions steadily rise to the surface, allowing her to become subject to various forms of abuse. Eventually the Woman’s presence begins to wreak havoc on the Cleeks, as Chris’s tailored exterior falls away to reveal something much darker.

 I’ve seen a lot of nasty movies in my day; you might even say that I’m irrationally drawn to them, even though I have little tolerance for gore. I’m confident in saying that The Woman is the most disgusting film I have ever seen — likely the most disturbing, too — and after seeing one scene in particular I can understand why the previously-mentioned YouTube man was so upset. That is not to say, however, that I agree with him. I don’t think this is a film that deserves to be banned. I believe it is a very valid film that only people with very strong stomachs should watch. It’s often too easy for filmmakers who are involved in the “torture porn” genre to justify their work by citing social commentary in their work, but in this case I actually approve of what was trying to be said. This film can be seen as an analysis of abuse, of misogyny, of gender, even of American culture itself; whichever way you want to look, you just might find it. It is an incredibly ugly film that sugarcoats nothing and pushes the limits of horrific violence, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is a time and place for such things. This might be the place.

I have to give huge praise to Pollyanna McIntosh, who was by far the best thing about this film. She elevated it far and above what it might have been. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any actor, man or woman, physically inhabit a role quite like she did, without ever resorting to sex appeal (even though she’s a stunning woman). She scared the shit out of me, and I liked it.

I can’t say this was a good film, but I can’t say it was a bad one, either. The only words I can use to describe it are repulsive, shocking, and absolutely fucking insane.

FINAL GRADE: B-

This is the trailer for Oliver Stone’s upcoming film, Savages. Sure, Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively give me tingly feelings, but the rest of the cast looks fucking stellar and I’m excited even though it looks a little cheap. Enjoy.

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

DIRECTOR: Gary Ross

STARRING: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson

Adapting a rabidly loved book to film is probably one of the riskiest — not to mention, lucrative — moves in Hollywood. Every single reader has a different idea of what the end result should look like, and a good share will inevitably end up disappointed and/or angry. I came to The Hunger Games late, like I often do with these popular series, and as it turns out it was actually the movie trailer that sold me on it. The story was nothing like what I expected and there was a surprising amount of heart. After consuming all three novels within two weeks I eagerly counted down the days. A film like this could have ruined everything, pissing off every fan in the world. Thank god it turned out to be good.

The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a sixteen-year-old girl struggling to survive with her mother and sister in the impoverished District 12 of Panem. Her story kicks off on what is known as Reaping Day, an event in which two children from each of the twelve districts are selected at random to participate in the so-called Hunger Games — a televised fight to the death, designed to terrorize, punish, and control the masses. When her meek younger sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place, joining Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) as 12’s tributes. In the midst of her fight for survival Katniss unwittingly becomes a symbol of hope and revolution, which may put her in greater danger than the Games itself.

I’m not going to pretend that this is the greatest series in the world; it’s not. I’m also not going to pretend that it’s well written, even though I think the story is great; it isn’t. What makes it stand out, however, is its social and political relevance, as well as a plethora of well-rounded characters combined with a real-life approach that makes readers fear for the lives of their favorites. In short, it’s engaging as hell. The film does a fair job of recreating that onscreen, remaining loyal to the source material while bringing its own flavor. The best moments are its quiet scenes of tension; yes, the fights and bloodbaths are thrillingly executed, but I was much more taken by the moments before Katniss enters the arena, when you can literally see her quaking with fear. I am mostly familiar with Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: First Class, in which I found her annoying, but after seeing her here I’m beginning to understand her hype and potential (not to mention, she’s my celebrity doppelganger!). Next stop: Winter’s Bone.

However, I do have to say that the film suffered where the books did:  in spite of its gruesome and adult material, it is still strictly YA. I’m not a fan of gore, but an R rating would have elevated it considerably. It was hard not to get frustrated every time the camera whirled away from a kid’s violent slaughter just in time; to look away seemed to miss the story’s themes. Likewise, the whole notion of death was softened and cleaned up. One death in particular — I won’t name names, but you probably know who — was drained of every bit of poignancy and horror, salvaged only by Katniss’s displays of grief. The filmmakers seem to forget that yes, the audience knows kids are dying, and yes, we can handle watching it. I only hope they can commit a little better in the following films.

It’s also worth mentioning that anyone who hasn’t read the book might have a hard time following what’s going on, considering a large amount of the details are left out. Sadly, that’s the nature of book-to-film adaptations, but it’s still good to know that going in. I was satisfied for the most part, and now I’m eager to see what they’ve got next. I’m also going to join in with the Tumblr crowd and vote: Taylor Kitsch for Finnick! Pleeease! Okay, I’m done. 

FINAL GRADE: B+

LIKE CRAZY (2011)

DIRECTOR: Drake Doremus

STARRING: Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin

Some people might be surprised to know what a romantic I am; my cynicism and dislike for romantic comedies might mask that, but at the end of the day I adore a good love story. I like them simple and honest, without the gimmicks that rom-coms typically resort to. Hence why I was drawn to Like Crazy: its beautiful trailer showed what looked like the innocence and complications of first love. While that promise may have been fulfilled to an extent, other issues prevented it from getting to me quite like I wanted it to.

 In Like Crazy, Anna (Jones) is a British exchange student studying to become a journalist at a Los Angeles university. She meets fellow student Jacob (Yelchin), an American boy with a passion for designing and building furniture. Their relationship takes off overnight, launching them into a love neither expected. When Anna overstays her visa and is subsequently banned from the U.S., their romance becomes complicated and desperate. Attempting to navigate the gray areas and terms of their newfound long-distance relationship, they struggle to reconcile the separate paths their lives are taking, as Jacob’s business gains strength and Anna climbs the ladder of her career. Facing potential new lovers and endless legal hoops to jump through, they become uncertain of whether or not their love is worth it.

On paper this is a heartbreaking situation, and admittedly there are moments when it’s easy to feel how devastated they are. What bothered me, however, was that their relationship felt too idealized to be genuine — perhaps trapped by circumstances in the early stages of love and therefore unable to mature — and also that the wound was, frankly, self-inflicted. Love stories possess most of their power in the audience’s ability to relate to the characters, and in this case it was hard for be to feel sympathy or even like them. Anna is aware of the consequences of overstaying her visa, but can’t bring herself to leave Jacob for a few months anyway; Jacob often fails to meet her halfway, choosing instead to just be angry or withdrawn. They string people along, they mope, and they ignore the fact that they are both excelling in their prospective careers. Never once do they say, “Wow, that was really stupid of us.” My point is that their entire trial would have been easily preventable, but they never take responsibility for it, and in the end the payoff/conclusion doesn’t feel worth the journey.

This film was beautifully shot, heartfelt, and certainly felt real enough; however, failure to get me invested in the two lovebirds cost it dearly. Both Jones and Yelchin were strong in their performances, but I just couldn’t respect their characters. Not the biggest disappointment in the world, but still left me feeling a little sour afterward.

FINAL GRADE: C+

JOHN CARTER (2011)

DIRECTOR: Andrew Stanton

STARRING: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins

Being the predictable person that I am, you may have suspected that following my review of The Bang Bang Club I would go off and investigate pretty-boy Kitsch’s career. You suspected right. While there isn’t a lot to draw from, I have become thoroughly addicted to Friday Night Lights, which inevitably convinced me to see this little film here. It may as well have been called Tim Riggins of Mars: Barsoom Forever. Like the rest of the female world, I attended solely to see Riggs run around in a loincloth for two hours; however, I am pleased to report that while I was not disappointed in that regard, I was also treated to one hell of an entertaining movie.

In John Carter, Civil War veteran John Carter (Kitsch) has become disillusioned with the ugliness of war. Carrying his own tragedies in his heart, he plans to leave his former life behind; the fight for his freedom, however, leads him to a bizarre discovery and his sudden transport to what he eventually discovers to be Mars — known by its native peoples as Barsoom. He finds himself thrust into yet another raging war, between the noble people of Helium, the brutal and ambitious Zodangans, and the green Martian Tharks. Upon meeting Dejah Thoris (Collins), the beautiful princess of Helium, John decides to stand up and fight for her and her people, reawakening his own humanity in the process.

In different times I might have panned the hell out of this movie. It was cheesy to say the least, with a script that certainly could have used some tightening; however, I’ve come to appreciate that certain films call for certain approaches, and as far as this one goes, it has my seal of approval. John Carter is not a modern action hero in any sense; in fact, the source novel was written a century ago and was the springboard for many classic hero tales including Star Wars, so to expect anything other than an old-fashioned hero would be silly. It is (apparently) very easy for critics to label many aspects of this film, including Kitsch’s performance, as wooden or flat. In my viewing, however, I was reminded of old films like Jack the Giant Killer or even John Wayne-like characters — vintage takes to the hero’s tale. Having seen Kitsch excel as Riggins in FNL, I can only imagine that he or the director might have had this in mind. He plays it straight almost to a humorous degree, while putting his ass on the line in some of the most impressive wire stunt work I’ve seen in a while. Let’s just say I might even make myself sit through Battleship, just to lend my support to his career. (It’s also worth mentioning: the loincloth works.)

As far as the rest of the film goes, the plot is admittedly a little hard to follow but still manages to wrap itself up nicely by the end, integrating the pieces and giving its audience some satisfaction. Lynn Collins is more the modern heroine, often channeling Xena in more ways than one, though she’s arguably flatter than Kitsch in her performance (but not quite as pretty). The best part, though? Woola: adorable alien dog creature. I want one.

I’m not going to pretend this is a great film, but I think it deserves a lot more attention and box office action than it’s getting. All I hoped for was a fun two hours, and that’s exactly what I got. Sometimes it’s worth setting aside one’s snobbery and just enjoying the ride.

FINAL GRADE: B

THE BANG BANG CLUB (2010)

DIRECTOR: Steven Silver

STARRING: Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch

I think it’s time to get back into the blog biz, after a bit of a hiatus. This isn’t the most fabulous of films to use as a re-launching pad, but for some reason it’s the one that’s left the most lasting impression on me lately. It’s funny how that works. While the emotional and historical sides were extremely well executed, the standard pitfalls of Hollywood weighted it down, leaving quite a lot to be desired. However, it managed to be saved by good portrayal of a great man — a man whose story has been haunting me the last few days.

South Africa, 1990-1994: the final days of apartheid. Horrific factional violence is rampant throughout the country, and only four photographers are fearless enough to capture the atrocities on film. These men include Greg Marinovich (Phillippe), a brave and talented amateur, and Kevin Carter (Kitsch), who is suffering the mental and emotional tolls of his job. Known for their willingness to get as close to combat as anyone would dare, the group quickly gains notoriety — particularly when Greg wins a Pulitzer for his graphic photograph of a violent murder. It is Kevin’s photograph, however, that truly captures the world’s attention: that of a young Sudanese girl suffering from famine and the vulture that stalks her. He also wins the Pulitzer, but faces intense controversy when the public begins asking difficult questions. What is a journalist’s responsibility to their subject? Should, or could, he have helped the starving girl? As Greg struggles to hold onto his distance and perspective on his job in order to maintain his sanity, Kevin sinks further down his spiral of depression.

I think it is appropriate to include Kevin’s photograph here. I had seen it before and immediately recognized it in the trailer, which was what compelled me to see this film. Whoever was in charge of recreating all of these historical images — the mob violence, the immolations, machete hackings, and yes, that famous photograph — was absolutely impeccable. Nothing was glossed over and it felt frighteningly real, which is really what made this film stand out. The rest of it, unfortunately, was a little on the weak side, mostly due to the decision to focus a lot of attention a contrived romance between Greg and a pretty photo editor. In fact, I feel it was a mistake to focus primarily on Greg at all; that’s not to say that he wasn’t any less important that the other three —after all, he did win a Pulitzer — but Phillippe was probably the weakest actor. I won’t rag on his poor South African accent; because the real problem was that I just didn’t care for him as a character. He was one dimensional and dull, expressionless. It was a pity.

On the other hand, we have Taylor Kitsch as Kevin — the man whose story has truly gotten to me. It helped that Kitsch more or less fit the very narrow mold of males-I-find-attractive, but it wasn’t only that. It was the man he was playing. Since Kevin was a real person I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that he ended up taking his own life not long after winning his Pulitzer. It crushes my heart to think of a man risking his life for his work, only to be essentially blamed for failing to prevent the injustices he exposes. There is nothing fair or right in such accusations. I feel that Kevin Carter was given the sensitive portrayal he deserved, with respect and honesty. Pretty-boy Kitsch should be proud of himself.

I’m torn over what grade to give this. I am fascinated by its subject matter and Carter’s story, but unfortunately the film did not look very far past the surface, copping out with a lame love story and not giving enough focus to its most interesting character. Still, it did its job. Two days later and I’m still thinking about it.

FINAL GRADE: B / B+

THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE (2011)

DIRECTOR: Lee Tamahori

STARRING: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier

Truth is stranger than fiction: this is often remarkably true, and it’s a cliché that some filmmakers could benefit from remembering. In spite of this film not being typical of my preferred genre, I was as excited for this as any other — with a story like this, it’s hard not to be fascinated. After watching it, I’m left scratching my head, wondering how this went wrong with so many excellent ingredients going for it…

The Devil’s Double in question is Latif Yahia (Cooper). Bearing an unlucky resemblance to Uday Hussein (also Cooper), the eldest son of Saddam Hussein, Latif is selected to become Uday’s fedai — that is, to be his body double. With his family threatened, Latif has no choice but to comply, undergoing plastic surgery and learning Uday’s distinct mannerisms in order to effectively erase his own identity. He realizes, however, that Uday is a psychotic time bomb, living by no boundaries and no rules, owning vast riches as well as people, including Sarrab (Sagnier), with whom Latif shares an attraction. Knowing it’s either life or death, Latif begins to look for a way out.

The problem with this film was that the filmmakers took the route of making this exactly like every other blasé thriller on the market. They fictionalized it, focusing on the glitz rather than the substance. There’s violence, there’s sexy women, guns, drugs; you name it. But the fact is, Yahia’s story is such a compelling one that there was really no need for the filler bits. There were so many other ways this could have been done. The tension doesn’t lie in Latif’s relationship with the terribly flat character of Sarrab, whom he knows is off-limits, making him more of an idiot than anything else; it lies in the fact that Uday is absolutely batshit insane and that his reality is so warped that that any of his actions could mean complete chaos. No offense to the real-life Latif Yahia, but Uday is the centre of this story, at least as far as this film is concerned. He is the interesting part, the draw. Latif is failed by the filmmakers.

There are two things this film has going for it (and only two). One is the brilliance that is Dominic Cooper — not, as I said, as Latif, but as Uday. He puts all his eggs in one half of his basket. Had this turned out to be a better film, I’d bet that Cooper would have gained a lot of recognition for his work here. He’s like a tantrum-throwing little child who has free use of his father’s gun, as well as whatever other weapons he can get his hands on. I don’t know much about the real Uday Hussein, but from what I’ve read, Cooper nailed the part. It’s hard to be completely ridiculous and terrifying at the same time. He somehow pulled it off.

The second highlight is featuring the track “Jesus for the Jugular” by The Veils over the incredibly unnecessary and gratuitous sex scene; therefore introducing me to one of the best bands I’ve ever heard. I know it has nothing to do with the film itself, but I couldn’t go without mentioning it.

I was so sure this was going to be good. Unfortunately, it was boring, shallow, and flashy, supported only by one excellent performance.

FINAL GRADE: C+

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)

DIRECTOR: Sean Durkin

STARRING: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, & Sarah Paulson

“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” This is a question proposed by Martha to her sister, summing up one of the underlying themes of this film. Some of the most disturbing films are often the most thought provoking, offering up an unexpected bout of self-reflection long after the end credits have rolled. In this case, that introspection may be rather uncomfortable, like something crawling around under your skin; but if you’re anything like me, that might have been what you were looking for in the first place.

In Martha Marcy May Marlene, a young woman named Martha (Olsen) emerges from the woods and desperately contacts her sister Lucy (Paulson), whom she has not seen in over two years. As she moves into the lavish vacation home that Lucy shares with her yuppie husband, it is revealed through Martha’s memories that she had been living as Marcy May in a cult under the leadership of Patrick (Hawkes), a charismatic man whose philosophical convictions often resulted in abuse. It quickly becomes apparent that Martha’s trauma runs much deeper than anyone imagined, even as she closes herself off and sinks into paranoia.

This is a powerful film that explores a lot of themes, while also being one of the best portrayals of a damaged psyche that I’ve seen. It’s incredibly hard to watch, even for me (I considered myself fairly thick-skinned). It was clearly inspired by the Manson Family, at least as far as how the cult operates; it was hard not to think of ole’ Charlie every time Patrick came onscreen. It does a tremendous job of showing how fragmented Martha has become and the power that one leader can have over a group; the entire film is dreamlike, moving effortlessly between present day and memory often in a single shot. I predict an award or two for cinematography.

This is one of those cases where it’s actually difficult for me to choose just one theme to discuss, because there were many threads to choose from, depending on where your attention lies. To me, it was about the codes we live by: what is acceptable, what is not. Martha is torn between the violent “freedom” that Patrick promotes and the proper materialism that Lucy sees as the only way to live. Either way, the supposed answers are forced in from the outside, never letting Martha find her own truth. Woven into that are threads of misogyny, hypocrisy, control, manipulation, and all sorts of other not-so-wonderful things. Don’t go into this expecting anything remotely cheerful.

It’s worth mentioning that Elizabeth Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, and it appears that she’s taking a dramatically different route than her sisters. As it turns out, she’s one hell of an actress, and I expect to see her sweeping up a few awards of her own.

Overall, this is one of those films that I’m grateful for, but I doubt I’ll ever want to see it again. Once was enough. That being said, it deserves all the praise it’s getting, although it may not be what some people expect. I was certainly surprised.

FINAL GRADE: A-

THE RUM DIARY (2011)

DIRECTOR: Bruce Robinson

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, & Aaron Eckhart

Like most teenagers with a love of literature and eccentricity, I went through my mandatory Hunter S. Thompson phase a few years back. Fear & Loathing was all fun and good, though I prefer some of his other work… but The Rum Diary, I must admit, left me deciding that he was smart to stay in the realm of non-fiction. Thompson’s only published novel (correct me if I’m wrong) has some interesting content going on, but it felt underdeveloped to me, so I was curious to see how a film adaptation would fare. I’m a little sad, but not surprised, to say that the big screen didn’t offer much more than the source material.

In The Rum Diary, Paul Kemp (Depp) arrives in 1960’s San Juan, Puerto Rico, to work as a journalist at a floundering newspaper. Joining a crowd of bizarre characters drowning themselves in alcohol, Paul finds himself immersed in the island’s underbelly; soon, however, he’s becoming acquainted with Sanderson (Eckhart), a charming but smarmy businessman who’s prepared to exploit the beauty of Puerto Rico for every dollar he can get — with Paul’s help. While Paul straddles the fence of his own morality and attempts to keep himself out of jail, he becomes infatuated with Chenault (Heard), Sanderson’s young and beautiful fiancée. 

Here’s the thing. I admire Johnny Depp as much as the next person, and I would love if this were a perfect world in which he was one of those actors who could do no wrong. A few years ago, I might have made such a claim. The problem lies in the fact that the Pirates of the Caribbean films destroyed him; yes, they were the box office pinnacles of his career and Captain Jack was a great role, but they turned him into a profoundly lazy actor. In every film I’ve seen of his since then, there’s been something missing in his performances; there’s no longer any life in his eyes, no zest… no effort. He no longer cares. When he isn’t playing an eccentric Willy Wonka/Mad Hatter type, he simply looks vacant. I was afraid that he would revert to his performance in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas — that would have been inappropriate, considering Paul Kemp is a fictional character and not necessarily modeled after Hunter Thompson himself — but at this point I almost wish he would have. Instead, we get a watered-down version of Johnny’s recycled antics: the deadpan delivery, the occasionally “weird” and wide-eyed expression… but barely anything beyond that. It felt like he wanted to just get through it for the sake of making the film. Considering the friendship he shared with Hunter, I wish he’d have tried a little harder, or at least given the role to someone more suitable for it (after all, he doesn’t exactly look thirty-something anymore).

There really isn’t much of a story to speak of — at least, not anything to go beyond the quarter-inch thickness of the novel, which doesn’t offer much for a two hour film. The actors can’t even rescue anything, seeing as both Eckhart and Heard’s characters are each people you could summarize in a few sentences. Sanderson is a sleazy, one-dimensional douche bag, while Chenault is apparently the only blonde woman in Puerto Rico, which makes her consistently accompanied by angelic music and camera shots focusing on her various body parts (cleavage, legs, whatever). Her romance with Kemp is shallow and weak, which is not helped by the fact that she’s half his age. Sure, Amber Heard is exceptionally pretty and decently charismatic, but she just doesn’t have the acting chops to make Chenault an interesting character. Too bad.

No story, no tension, no real resolution, boring characters, lazy Johnny… but pretty island and pretty girl. Sorry, not enough.

FINAL GRADE: C

TAKE SHELTER (2011)

DIRECTOR: Jeff Nichols

STARRING: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain

You might say that diversity is the spice of cinema, as it is in life — walking into a theatre, there is always the possibility (or the promise) of an experience. You never know what feelings you’re going to leave with. That couldn’t be truer with my viewing of Take Shelter, a film that’s been the most challenging in my recent memory. My companion disliked it, citing “not getting it,” which is understandable; after all, I’m not even sure I got it. But sometimes that’s a good thing. In this case, I think it is. Sometimes you gotta work.

In Take Shelter, Curtis (Shannon) is leading a simple life with his wife Samantha (Chastain) and their deaf daughter, Hannah. One day Curtis notices dark storm clouds on the horizon, accompanied by rain like motor oil; soon he’s witnessing flocks of birds flying in bizarre patterns; and then his dreams begin to haunt him with violent, doomsday-like images. As the dreams get progressively worse and his stormy visions bleed into the day, Curtis becomes convinced that something horrible is coming — while simultaneously wondering if he has inherited his mother’s schizophrenia. As he struggles to prove his sanity, he begins obsessively building a storm shelter in his backyard, ultimately jeopardizing his family’s trust and security.

Most films of this type tend to have a message, a punctuating statement before the closing credits. It usually isn’t obvious, but it’s always there, although many viewers will take away their own interpretation of it. In the case of Take Shelter, I’m not entirely convinced there is one underlying thing — I mean, not just one. I think it’s about many different things — family, faith, belief, or whatever you might see — but I tend to believe that what was most important here were the feelings it carried. In the end I am still unsure if Curtis was mentally ill or if he was some kind of prophet, and I see no reason to definitively make up my mind.

As much as I’m praying for Michael Fassbender to win the Oscar for his role in Shame, I’m ready to admit that he has tremendous competition in Michael Shannon. As Curtis, Shannon is possessed by so many conflicting emotions that it’s impossible not to feel his tension in every scene. He represents “the unknown,” and it’s very clear that he knows that. He carries a struggle between what he rationally thinks and what he feels, two ends of a spectrum that cannot coexist. He’s a paradox in many ways, but one that we as an audience can relate to, while at the same time watching his journey with anxiety and uncertainty.

This isn’t a film for people who want a neat package at the end. It requires patience and surrender; otherwise you’ll get nothing but frustration. It’s a beautiful film, but one that I can’t seem to pin down. Strangely, I have no problem with that.

FINAL GRADE: B+