by Philip Price
For me, 2014 has been something of a transitional year. A year where my tastes have shifted and my ideas of what makes a lasting film have changed. I wouldn't say I'm necessarily more cynical, but obviously the fact I continue to see more and more films and build a larger pool of knowledge makes it tougher for each individual film to impress me more. That being said, I actually found it easier to craft a top 10 list this year than ever before. I've pretty much seen everything I imagine might have a shot at making my list except for maybe “Selma” (which I won't see until January 7th), but at this point the only year-end awards bait films I'd even consider including in a top 15 are the likes of “Foxcatcher” and “American Sniper.” After repeat viewings one of them might even crack the top 10, but as of right now I feel strongly about the films I've selected. What I've done differently this year is to begin to leverage expectations; I thought this might help the films be more impressive if I didn't go in expecting too much, but even with that state of mind many of them simply met expectations or felt more insignificant than substantial. I don't believe this has made me a snob or prude in any sense as I would still boldly place “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” in my top 15 of the year when it is clearly nothing more than a pure popcorn flick and on top of that, one most critics absolutely hated. For me, Marc Webb's super hero sequel was one of the most entertaining experiences I had at the movies this past year and one I can watch at any time without fearing boredom. My final top 10 will likely come off a little more pedigreed given that introduction, but while me liking something such as ‘Spider-Man’ may make you question my taste just know that I went into every film this year really wanting to like it and the ones that follow are the ones that surprised me with their quality or surpassed every expectation I held for it. Enjoy!
“Interstellar” offers an experience that demands to be contemplated, debated and seriously considered before ever giving anything close to a defiant verdict. I will admit to my initial reaction being that of pure awe while somewhat corrupted by the fact there were facets that didn't thrill me as much as others. Ambition is key though and that is the one thing director Christopher Nolan is never short of. Always pushing the limits, not only visually, but within the story and this time backed up by science that places the events of the film within the realm of real possibility. The result is a genuine mix of heart and facts that meld together over the course of three hours leaving you bewildered, haunted, alarmed and mystified to the point you may not be able to swallow everything you just took in, but you will certainly be able to appreciate the intent.
“Boyhood” is an ode to growing up and parenting. It is a trip through nostalgia over the first decade of the new millennium. It is not about the story, but more the fleeting feelings in each moment of our lives. It is about moments in that they are constant, a promotion to inspire the idea that there are always an abundance of memories to be made. It makes one wonder why memories are vital and reasons these are what make up the relevance of our human experience. What it is about “Boyhood” that makes it stand out more than the "gimmick" of creating it over 12 years though is that it highlights the moments in our lives where we don't always strive toward what our ambitions reach for. Just because you don't have what you want doesn't make that time in your life wasted time, but instead a true test of your character where it hopefully does with it something that leads to an even more invigorating experience.
8. “The Rover”
“The Rover” is an unnerving experience in as many ways as it is slow, but never tedious. It isn't a movie necessarily about anything as much as it is an analysis of what might happen were the structure we've always lived within to fall apart. All systems fail eventually, it is inevitable, but usually when something is perceived as failing it is because something better, more efficient has come along-it will have been superseded. This, unfortunately, is not the case for the characters in “The Rover.” The actions that take place feel as random and authentic as the settings and physicality of the characters that the camera captures all adding up to a beautifully depressing conclusion about what this life means to us and what our lives mean to others.
7. “Get On Up”
“Get On Up” is refreshing by drawing its storytelling flair through the categorization of time periods by the stages of James Brown as an entertainer and his given nicknames at those times. There is hardly any trace of formula in director Tate Taylor's biopic and it's even more precise in that it doesn't spend much time on Brown's infamous drug or tax problems, but instead chooses to focus on his extreme work ethic. It is without a doubt Chadwick Boseman's incredible performance that elevates the film from an interesting experiment in editing and performance numbers to something more real and raw. The actor’s seeming insight into Brown allows Boseman to play his perfectionist, tyrannical and paranoid traits in a way that never feel like an imitation, but more second nature to a seasoned pro.
In “Nightcrawler” Jake Gyllenhaal takes everything a little further, he amps everything up a notch higher and delivers a performance that makes every other performance he's given seem like a prelude to this master class of ambition and insanity. It is this film and this performance that will make the actor stand above the rest as exceptional. Gyllenhaal is an actor that knows how to disappear into a role by understanding not only the motivations that drive a character, but the importance of the art that composes them literally and figuratively. As Louis Bloom, a man with drive and passion to spare, Gyllenhaal is a beast of unforgiving endeavors that see him go from a driven young man to a man driven purely by the need to feel he belongs. “Nightcrawler” is a shocker of a ride, but in the scenes that make it all work it is Gyllenhaal doing the heavy lifting.
5. “Gone Girl”
“Gone Girl” is not only the story of a once high profile New York socialite who married a salt of the earth Missouri boy and came to disappear on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, but of how the media reacts to these simple, concrete facts they can play with. It's about how they can twist, manipulate and exploit any one detail they want turning the entire personality of a man or any subject it sets its eyes on into a one note killer. Further, it is the analysis of relationships gone wrong. When the person you thought you married grows to be someone you don't know and don't necessarily like who that person is. It isn't so much a discussion of the white suburbanite household or marriages that slip into boredom because they become routine, but more it is the discussion of how well we know ourselves and the things we truly want, even if we know we'll never have the gall to take them.
“Birdman” is a character study wrapped in social commentary about the current state of cinema as well as a love letter written in blood to the idea of legacy. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is interested in the moments of life that make up a personality and the effect or contribution that personality has on society, but he also wants to make a few other notions clear in the process. Needless to say, there is a lot going on in “Birdman” both on the screen in front of you and as larger analogies, but it is successful because it's capable of conveying this multitude of thoughts and ideas in an entertaining and insightful manner. The key factor is the idea of the difference in love and admiration and how the quest to feel "special" will only leave you empty if you disregard those closest to you for personal gain and have no one to celebrate with when that gain puts you at the top of the mountain.
3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Wes Anderson's latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is many things, but at its heart it feels like a quiet epic, a love letter to time gone by with a narrative spanning decades that chronicles the exceptionally unexceptional life of one young man who was influenced by another and would have his world forever changed because of him. It is as much about the world one creates around themselves and how it determines the outcome of one’s life as it is about the actual plot of the story which, be not afraid, contains prison break-outs, gun fights, affairs with older women and a fair amount of lies and deception. More than all of this though, it is a film that beautifully demonstrates the thin line that sometimes exists between real life and imagination.
“Whiplash” is a commentary on if there is a line to be drawn in pushing someone for greatness. In what will likely be one of if not "the" defining performance of his career J.K. Simmons as conductor Terence Fletcher tells Miles Teller's Andrew that there are no two words more harmful in the English language than, "good job." Fletcher has a philosophy that genius is not blessed upon an individual or built through congratulations, but rather because it is pushed to a breaking point where the only thing that matters is to never stop striving to be better. True greatness comes from real pain. While one should take the literal actions of the film with a grain of salt and look at the bigger, metaphoric implications it is making to get a clearer message of its ideas across it nonetheless comes together to deliver one of the best and certainly one of my favorite films of the year.
“Cavalry” is decidedly honest in the way it approaches the subject of life and pleasantly unpretentious in the way it deals with the psychology of religion and faith. These aforementioned subjects, these lines of thought and the conversations that spurn from them are always of an interest to me that surpass that of any material subject and McDonagh, working from a script solely of his own doing, plays with these ideas and themes in a way that entices without distancing itself from those who find solace in God. In a way, McDonagh uses the comforts and consolation given by faith and Christ as a cushion for the stories of human nature he chooses to explore.
by Philip Price
I typically put together a list of my least favorite films of the year rather than a "worst" list because I honestly try to avoid anything I think is going to be outright terrible. It is hard to consider anything the worst of the year when there could be plenty of reasons others might have found something to find interesting. For example, I found both “Under the Skin” and “Obvious Child” to be well, obvious in their intentions that were in some variation or another supposed to push boundaries. Many of the arguments in Jenny Slate's rom-com centered around abortion felt moronic while Jonathan Glazer's extreme indie lacked in any type of compelling material offering me nothing interesting to decipher. That said, there are plenty of people who find both of these films completely fascinating and even among their favorites of the year. I, of course, have no problem with that and can respect their opinion, but instead of damning a couple of obvious choices as the "worst" films of the year I figured I'd put that effort into a list of a few films that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought went unappreciated throughout the year. As I still haven't seen what I'd consider a few promising titles from 2014 this list only comprises of five flicks that I hope aren't overly obvious. Sure, there are films like the Tilda Swinton featuring “Snowpiercer” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” that are fine, but not all they've been made out to be I think. You also have quirky excursions like “Frank” (which I didn't much care for) and “They Came Together” which I would highly suggest if you liked “Wet Hot American Summer” at all. There are plenty of other smaller flicks that are more than solid entertainment you can find to rent or buy at this moment including “Joe,” “Cold in July,” “Stretch” or even “Dom Hemingway,” but the next five films left something of an impression on me while largely seeming to allude others.
Now available on both home video and streaming on Netflix, “Blue Ruin” is writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's second feature and with it he has created a film that distances itself from the pack with its ability to break down the walls of jaded movie-goers accustomed to revenge stories while delivering the goods as a suspenseful and thrilling action film. It creates this separation by delving into the philosophical ponderings of its situation through the fantastic performance of Macon Blair as lead character Dwight. This trip through Dwight's personal hell is documented with style to spare as it is beautifully captured by a cinematographer who just so happens to also be the writer and director resulting in a well-rounded product of singular vision. “Blue Ruin” is certainly worth a watch if not a few re-watches so as to really feel the effects of the near perfect execution.
From the outside looking in “The Drop” starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini (in his final screen role) should have sold itself as a Brooklyn-based crime drama. Instead, Fox Searchlight dumped it quietly into theaters at the beginning of September when the summer movie season had already come to a close and the Oscar bait hadn't started rolling out yet. One might imagine this is a good place for a smaller film to break out (“Drive”), but “The Drop” came and went without making little more than a peep and that's a real shame. What I love about Michaël R. Roskam's film is that while it centers around a robbery gone wrong and the investigation around that robbery it's not really about that at all. These elements are still very much a part of the film, but they aren't the centerpiece. As the viewer we aren't drawn into the plot as in the series of events that make up the story, but rather we become more interested in how these specific characters will decide the course of the story instead of the tropes typically employed in this genre. “The Drop” is now available for purchase in digital formats and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 20th.
Last fall we caught a glimpse of what director Adam Wingard could do with the crazy/fun “You're Next” and with his follow-up he only amps the fun up even more. I pretty much loved every single aspect of “The Guest” and only gave it a less than perfect score because it isn't something to be regarded as exceptional. It's not exceptional because it isn't necessarily innovative, but is still highly entertaining and well-constructed because it knowingly draws from very specific inspiration. Horror movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as well as the thrillers of the same decade infuse every angle of Wingard's tale of uncertainty. He plows over every moment in the film with his unabashed soundtrack fueled by synthesizers and one note tones that dispel any notion we should take this seriously. Instead, seasoned moviegoers will acknowledge this as an exercise in form, of style and take note of how every story, even the most generic of ones, can be made fresh and interesting with a unique directorial approach. Not to mention, Dan Stevens serves at the titular guest in a role that will only lead to you seeing much more of him in the future. The film is set for a January 6th DVD and Blu-Ray release.
This is the one I truly don't understand. There has been a fair amount of hate for this adaptation of Lois Lowry's 1993 hit novel and though it was clearly made in the wake of this young adult adaptation boom that relegated it to the background, this is one of the select few that falls into that genre that genuinely deserves your attention. I somehow managed to never read the book in school and so I have no nostalgic connection to the material and still found it more than intriguing. The trailers purported a film filled with sci-fi style action and an artistic design in line with the Stephanie Meyer flop “The Host,” but “The Giver” is a much smaller-scale experiment that doesn't depend on its scope, visual effects or love story to pull the audience in as much as it does its ideas. The ideas are key. The focus lies on the ever expanding pool of knowledge form which Jonas is gathering from The Giver and how that effects the rest of his life and how his perspective on his world begins to change. Beyond this more introspective approach it also features a cast that includes Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep (any person who enjoys film should check it out on those merits alone!), but it was also a passion project of Bridges that he's been working to make happen for nearly two decades. It is a shame to see that effort be so easily dismissed by so many and so, if you haven't already, check it out as it is available on all home video outlets now.
“Kill the Messenger”
This may be the most baffling case of the year for me as “Kill the Messenger” is a genuinely solid investigative procedural. It's not surprising in the fact it didn't make much money, but in that it received little to zero attention from critics and showed up in theaters for a week before disappearing completely. There is a lot to admire about the film, but what I love most is its ability to effortlessly balance the reason our protagonist has had a movie made about him as well as the influences around what made him an interesting man besides that fact. Yes, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is the central character of a major motion picture because he was a solid reporter who blew the roof off a major story and now, with a little bit of perspective, we can see the hard truth behind what he was punished for. More than this though, he was a human being who had a family, interests, and more importantly a set of ideals that composed a full human being-the only kind of human being that would have risked everything for the integrity of trying to spread the truth. It is sometimes difficult for films to find this type of balance when their narrative is so heavily plot driven, but besides the fact that Renner is excellent here director Michael Cuesta along with screenwriter and former journalist Peter Landesman have composed a film that first looks at the story the man is telling and then peels away the layers of the man behind that story. The film is set for a February 10th home video release and, once again, I highly suggest you give it a look.
by Philip Price
To set the stage: I've never seen any version of “Annie” other than the one I'm about to discuss here. I don't know that I would consider it essential viewing and by some off chance I never saw or read the stage play going through the public school system. Sure, I know a few of the famous songs that were spawned from the original production and I know the basic premise of what is going on, but anything more than that consider me in the dark. Having said that, I feel I can safely assume this latest version is a far cry from what the original had to offer, but that isn't the reason this modern day take on the story doesn't work. I was always somewhat hesitant to even be interested in the film as I am clearly not the target audience, but when the first trailer premiered I admit I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of careless fun that seemed to be brightly packaged with the pure pop confection giving the impression it would likely be a big holiday hit with the kiddos. These positive vibes were only reinforced when, upon doing a little further reading, I found out that Will Gluck would be at the helm of the project. Gluck, who has made three solid comedies since 2009 seems to direct what most have so much trouble doing with ease. There is a simplicity to his comedy that oozes naturally out of the characters he has at play and his pacing always compliments the rapid dialogue at which it is exchanged and thus at which the plot is advanced. “Easy A” is easily one of my favorite comedies of the last 10 years as I've watched it more times than I can count and maybe one of the great high school comedies of all time. Needless to say, despite not being familiar with the material and despite knowing this wasn't going to be for me I was still excited to see Gluck work in a slightly different genre as well as what he might have to offer in terms of crafting a children's film that was both highly entertaining and insightful given the obvious emotion at the core of the given story. Unfortunately, this new “Annie” is anything but fun as it loses its energy and momentum soon after the opening number and is never able to regain that feeling for the remainder of the nearly two hour run time.
Quvenzhané Wallis takes over as the titular star. At risk of stating the obvious she, along with other major character Daddy Warbucks, have been re-cast and are now African-American. This obviously isn't an issue and has nothing to do with the overall quality of the film, but these changes are intentional in that they inform the tone and musical stylings the remake chose to employ. I imagine to make a "black version" of the popular music while creating another star vehicle for Wallis is what drove Will Smith's production company, Overbrook, to partner with Jay-Z and make the thing happen. This is all well and good and there is always interesting things to be done when you take a film, play or any kind of story and decide to put a modern twist on it, but this is where “Annie” kind of trips over itself in terms of trying to keep itself a musical while not really ever committing to the essential elements of that genre. As far as the story goes, Wallis' Annie is still an orphan or, as she prefers to be called, a foster kid under the rule of boozy foster parent Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Annie has hopes of not only finding a home, but finding her birth parents by rushing every Friday after school to the Italian restaurant where she was left to wait and see if anyone with her last name returns. She's had no luck with this plan, but that luck is about to change when she accidentally runs into Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) a cell phone tycoon and New York mayoral candidate. Stacks saves Annie from an oncoming vehicle and a video of it goes viral (see, it's updated!) leading his scumbag campaign advisor, Guy (Bobby Cannavale), to suggest Will adopt the young orphan as a publicity stunt so that he might look more relatable. As these things go I'm sure you can guess how the initially cold relationship between Stacks and Annie evolves as they learn more about one another and the romantic subplot concerning Rose Byrne is so obvious they went ahead and spoiled that in the trailers. I liked that our titular character wasn't made out to be a self-loathing foster child, but more a self-assured and street smart kid that clearly sees the hustle she's involved in and leverages her benefactor for all he's worth. I just wish she would have committed to the songs a little more.
There is a palpable and infectious energy from the opening moment of the film. I sat up, almost forgetting what I might possibly be in for and was ready to embrace all that could be a great live action family film in an age where the live action family film is nearly non-existent and certainly under appreciated. The first song, a medley of a few of the more notable tunes from the play, are fine as they are creatively incorporated into the New York City setting as jackhammers, bicycle bells and car horns among other things give us the down beats. As Annie makes her way across town and through the subway I was sure she was going to stop, sing and at least bust out a few moves allowing the team behind this to really set the stage for what was to come, but then nothing happened. More or less shrugging it off, I gave it a pass and waited to see what might happen next. We then receive a couple of numbers closer to the middle of the film in which I again sat up in hopes things might turn around. Some may see Cameron Diaz's performance as rather horrible and I can see where they would be coming from, but despite the fact she can't hardly sing worth a lick she gets a catchy song and humorous choreography that speaks to her inner tragedy. It is a scene where you can feel the R-rated Gluck wanting to burst out of the seams while everything surrounding him screams to the catering of his child and pre-teen demographic. And then there is the number shared by Wallis and Byrne which feels nothing short of lackadaisical in both the production of the song and the choreography. The doubts were piling up at this point as it only became more and more clear with each "musical" element that none of the numbers were fully fleshed out. It's an odd choice that all of the characters are aware of the songs being sung rather than them being inherent to the nature of this world, but even so the songs have almost zero momentum to propel the energy of the film forward let alone the plot. Upon finally feeling ready to admit to this truth on the matter the energy of the overall film tanked, leading it to become more a standard family comedy than a fun, energetic musical.
This type of structure, where they are trying to make a comedy and then decide to throw in characters randomly breaking into song without committing to those songs, only make the musical aspects all the more silly. What might be even worse than the lazy excuses for numbers is the fact the film doesn't allow them to breathe. In what may be the worst of the bunch we get a song from Cannavale and Diaz as they plot to audition people for Annie's real parents. Cannavale has seemed to be making shit up as he went along anyway with his over the top, slapstick routine that falls flat and Diaz, as mentioned earlier, is either really camping it up or just really bad at playing an emotionally abusive, alcoholic foster mom. Regardless, the number between Cannavale's Guy and Diaz's Miss. Hannigan begins and once again you try to get into it and give them some kind of credit for what they're trying to do, but before you can even nestle down into the melody they cut back to conversation between the two breaking the song into unnecessary sections that again slow the energy. This number is a perfect example of what's wrong with the film overall in that it so desperately wants to be a musical, but it doesn't really know how and so instead of trying to figure out how you tell a story through music and convey emotions through dance they do just enough to get by and then cut back to the standard two-shot of actors exchanging dialogue. This of course isn't as compelling or exciting when what you think you're getting into is an updated take on a classic musical where the youth of today will really show audiences what they have to offer. Maybe that speaks to the mentality of our society today as we expect instant gratification and praise for a job done, no matter if it was done well or not. It's not easy to come down on a film one knows is intended for children, but it's difficult to imagine many kids even enjoying what “Annie” has to offer. Look no further than the Jamie Foxx song in the helicopter where to two main characters sit, strapped to a seat as they try to sing and make it lively. It doesn't work, it hardly makes sense and it's even further confirmation everyone here was just following a template, hoping to include everything a kid could imagine so they could advertise “Annie” has everything a kid could want! Even a Night at the Museum!
by Philip Price
What can you say about a film that is fine for what it is and nothing more? “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a movie, it has entertaining moments, looks fantastic and while I obviously didn't love it, there is certainly no reason to hate it either. The real problem is the fact there's no vision or passion behind the project. Director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”) is nearing eighty and in his aging state seems intent on pumping out films at a quicker rate than ever before. Since the massive success of “Gladiator” at the dawn of the millennium, the director has not gone more than two years without making a film and more times than not he delivers one on an annual basis. With a project on the scale of ‘Exodus’ though, one might imagine he'd have to take more time for prep and the development of visual effects at the least, but moreso for the necessity of trying to really make something substantial. Scott hardly seems interested in making anything of note these days though and instead is a misguided storyteller somewhat fascinated by history, more interested in spectacle and with no sense of impassioned faith, not even in his own work. I can only imagine what might come of an elder Scott picture were he to really take the process step by step and first develop the script he is given, this one patched together by four different screenwriters, then move on to planning a visual representation of that story that might actually allow the audience to become invested or feel a part of the action that is unfolding in front of them. Scott clearly has no problem getting budgets to secure the epic scope of his films nor is there an issue with attracting top talent to headline his movies, but instead of using these advantages to his advantage they are wasted on mediocre products that have consistently ended up feeling more like cogs in the machine than any type of exception to the rule. One might expect a Biblical epic in the vein of Cecil B. DeMille with a more contemporary approach to serve as fascinating for the generations that find Charlton Heston's version dated, but instead we receive more of what we are conditioned to. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is less an inspired retelling of a story we all know and more another attempt by Hollywood to cash in on a pre-established brand.
I can remember reading an interview with director Woflgang Petersen around the time Troy came out in 2004 where he discussed the absence of the Homeric gods in his film. Before Christopher Nolan grounded the world of super heroes in reality, Petersen was trying to do very much the same thing with ancient Greek epics. In omitting the admittance that actual Gods stood above his characters in the clouds, dictating their every move, Petersen simply positioned his characters belief systems as a guiding force in their lives and with ‘Exodus’ Scott does something of a similar nature. While it is impossible to tell the story from the book of Exodus without incorporating the hand of God, this is the one aspect of the film where Scott and no doubt his team of hundreds decided to get inventive. In having to convey the idea of this almighty God who found it necessary to subject not only the Egyptian Pharoahs, who considered themselves Gods, to pain and heartbreak but countless other, possibly innocent victims to the same pain and agony is a tough line to walk when discussing the relevance and need for God in a modern society. In Scott's version, God is presented as (Spoiler!) a young boy (Isaac Andrews). It is an interesting way to go and it allows the hard truths of what has to be done to get to where God wants to be accepted with more sympathy than were he portrayed as a raving dictator drunk on his power and embodied by a 40-year-old man. The innocence of young Andrews interpretation allows for the tough choices to be made while instilling a kind of hope in the chosen one that is Moses. Of course, as time passes people envision who God might be in different forms and as someone existing in this period of the Earth’s existence I imagine God as something more ethereal and abstract than that of a wholly defined person, but long ago might he have possessed the wonder of a child with the knowledge to foresee what was best for his inhabitants? It is a line of thinking that allows Scott's choice to feel inspired and one of the only elements that keeps this familiar tale worthy of your time.
There is inherent drama in the story of Moses and his exile out of Egypt where he eventually comes to terms with his Hebrew roots and allows his once skeptic self to become a man driven by the need to atone for his brothers sins. The problem with Scott's rendition of these events is that we're never compelled by what is happening and thus never feel the push to really dig in and have some fun with the film. Scott places all his eggs in the basket of scope, hoping that our fascination will be born from the sweeping shots of Memphis to the same sweeping shots that document the city as the ten plagues come down upon it. Not to be completely disregarded in his visual splendor though, Scott does employ some pretty fantastic filmmaking in the last twenty minutes or so of the film as Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and his army race around the narrow curves of a mountain chasing Moses (Christian Bale) who's already led his people to the edge of the red sea. The visuals, while still maintaining an over-reliance on special effects, are indeed awe-inspiring and ironically offer a moment of respite from the more unevenly paced, dialogue-heavy scenes that trudge along in between those aforementioned sweeping shots. Still, no matter the scope we as an audience must feel an investment in the story we're being told and while the actors, especially Bale, do what they can to generate sympathy for these characters under their extreme circumstances. It is the conveyance of the story and the actions occurring that couldn't feel more distant from one another. There was a moment, probably half-way through the two and half hour film, where I thought to myself that were this actually a good movie I would be completely sold on it and be completely into the modern representation of this story I've heard orally countless times before. I should love seeing the Egyptian extravagance brought to life I thought and that I shouldn't be concerned there is no natural progression from Moses leaving his family to rallying his troops, but then I thought if I were really into the movie I wouldn't be having these thoughts at all, I'd just be enjoying it, but I wasn't.
Unfortunately, I don't think it's possible to necessarily enjoy “Exodus: Gods and Kings” on any kind of deeper level than simply what you see on the surface of the screen. There is one scene in particular that occurs early on in the film as the exposition is still being dolled out that stands above the rest, that gave me hope for something interesting and complex before it devolved into step after step of story beat obligations. It is the confrontational, interrogation scene where Ramses, after being informed by Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn camping it up) that Moses is in fact a Hebrew, threatens the life of Moses' sister Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald) and that of his own sister Bithia (Hiam Abbass). The scene is one mounted on pure tension and one of the few scenes in the film that allows the actors to actually act. In the scene, not only do we feel the full effect of Edgerton's turn as the power hungry Ramses with his naive and spoiled mentality only encouraged by that of his own mother, Tuya (Sigourney Weaver in a thankless role), but we also see the first signs of real compassion in Bale's Moses. Bale is as white and British as ever, but his charisma seeps through these unforgiving factors and allows him to create a more than convincing hero. Much has been made of the fact Scott cast white actors in roles that should have been played by those of the same heritage as history denotes, but I'm not one to dwell or even care as long as the performances are in line with the bigger vision. It doesn't help that were it not for Scott casting bigger names in the leads he wouldn't have received the budget he was granted for this epic, but that would only bring us back to the question of who was asking for this movie in the first place and the answer to that is no doubt a resounding nobody. Quarrels aside, the acting is serviceable enough in a film that feels fine with simply being competent. The likes of John Turturro, Ben Kingsley and Aaron Paul also show up throughout as one supporting role or another, none with so much to do as to help them make an impression. By the time the denouement rolled around I wondered what themes or meaning I was meant to elicit from this version and all I heard was God telling Moses he may not agree with everything he does and all I could think was how the same could be said for Scott, but we continue to let him do it anyway.
by Philip Price
Having re-watched the first ‘Purge’ before going to see this quickly developed sequel I was reminded of what a good premise had been so messily squandered in execution. The idea of focusing in on one situation or opening up the world and giving a more well-rounded view is a difficult dilemma. Had the writer/director of both films, James DeMonaco, done with his premise the first time what he's done here he might have been criticized for trying to do too much. After having seen the sequel though it is clear that with such a layered and complicated world the possibilities might have been overwhelming to DeMonaco who chose to keep things simple the first time around. With the first film becoming a financial success though the studio was quick to greenlight and push into development a follow-up less than a year later which can, presumably, only boost a guys confidence. With that confidence DeMonaco has opened up his slightly futuristic world into what his one lawless night a year might be like not only for different individuals, but different classes of people according to society's structure. Given expectations weren't high for “The Purge: Anarchy” I'll try not to get too excited about how much better it is than the original while hopefully re-enforcing the fact it's still not a great or exceptional piece of cinema. Instead, this is a film that knows its end goal and accomplishes those goals well and does in fact deliver more on the promise of its interesting premise than its predecessor. From the advertising to the blatant acts of violence described as patriotism these films have always had a commentary in the back of their minds on the class systems of society and where our current situation may lead us. In this vein of thinking these films are more science fiction than horror in the way they preach nonviolence with violence and describe how escalating violence and economic issues brought the country to a breaking point that resulted in this annual event. These are naturally the more interesting aspects of the film and in Anarchy DeMonaco plays each of them up as he highlights the experiences of different groups of people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds creating a more captivating story and strong jeopardy we can all relate to.
Set one year after the events of the previous films purge we first meet Eva (Carmen Ejogo), a waitress at a diner, as she heads home from work a couple of hours before the purge is set to commence. Her strained home situation is brought to our attention due to her lack of income from the diner as she tries to support a daughter (Zoë Soul) and her sick father (John Beasley). We are then introduced to what appear to be a well-to-do couple in Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) who are going through a rough patch in their marriage. Besides the fact they probably shouldn't be driving the streets of the city so close to the beginning of the purge if they don't intend to participate they are also being followed by a group wearing masks and riding bikes led by Keith Stanfield who clearly plan to participate and subsequently become helpless after their car breaks down. Coincidence? Nope. Finally, there is the mysterious man simply known to us as Sergeant (Frank Grillo) who it's clear has a vendetta against a certain individual after something has happened to his son. You can speculate on what Sergeant's motivations are the entire film as it never comes out and says it until the final minutes, but from the hints dropped in his first scene you will no doubt be right on the major points. This isn't what is important though, what matters about Grillo's Sergeant is that despite his eagerness, his need to participate in the purge-his situation illustrates a major flaw in the idea of this "cleansing of the soul" actually becoming a tool to purify society. Whereas these thoughts of issues with the purge felt like unaccounted for caveats in the first film DeMonaco plays them to his advantage this time as his wider view of the event gives way to more avenues of exploring the various faults with the system. This group of characters who are brought together in convincing fashion and play well off one another fuel the themes at play as well and deliver an involving journey through the levels of how different classes approach their purging.
As I watched “The Purge: Anarchy” unfold I began asking myself several questions as to what the stance most individuals might take on this event would be were it to become a reality. One might consider the rest of the review a discussion in spoilers, so...Why, near the end of the film, are we treated to a ‘Hunger Games’-esque scenario in which the elite auction off the chance to kill in a safe environment? Would this government sanctioned "holiday" really become a spectator sport or would it not eventually get to the point where those with a need to kill canceled each other out? The point DeMonaco has seemed to hint at in both films is that the point of the purge is for no other reason than to rid the country of the poor and thus the worry of having to care about them. I considered as I tried to play out the reality of the situation in my head with how many people might simply choose to not participate, that when it came down to it, people wouldn't be able to kill in order to make themselves feel better. It occurred to me that of course, and depressingly, there are people who would find glee in such an opportunity and would take advantage of it to the point society would eventually be reduced to only those types of people and a mindset regressing more than it already has. To each of these considerations and thoughts DeMonaco gives us a surrogate by placing the concerns on the conscience of the characters. Grillo's Sergeant is the man seeking revenge which shines a light on what people might be like to one another the rest of the year so that retribution isn't found in them on purge night. Eva and her daughter are low-class targets the purge seeks to eradicate as seen by a SWAT team that infiltrates their apartment building with questionable motives and backing. Cali (Soul) finds truth in an underground movement led by Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) who pushes to answer violence with violence making those who support the right to own firearms a strong case while the inclusion of Shane and Liz gives a "caught in the crosshairs" perspective that even those uninterested in the event are pulled in due to the simple fact the violence is allowed. They are suspect to the thought that guns will make them safer, but in this world they pay the price for that line of thought giving the other side of the fence room in the conversation.
That a film like this, which might be considered little more than torture porn in more prestigious realms of writing, is thought-provoking enough to get me as involved as I felt seems an accomplishment in itself. That being said, this still very much has the hand of an amateur director at the helm with acting that is more reacting that actually invoking any kind of genuine emotion. We like the characters, especially Eva and Cali who have the most appeal, but we aren't necessarily shocked by one or more of their fates because of the nature of the film. Grillo is a more than capable actor with a presence that has been gaining more and more traction over the past few years and that presence is what solidifies his influence here. He is a hulking figure that places a shadow over the helpless few he decides to aid on a night where he his sole purpose has been derailed by his inability to detach himself from his conscience. While Shane and Liz are the least developed contributors to the story both Gilford and Sanchez are more than able to pull off a credible yet tumultuous relationship that doesn't have us snickering at the screen. More than any real qualms with the way the story is conveyed through the actors though it is the way in which DeMonaco, for example, captures his fight scenes with shaky cam that is substitute for any real aptitude of what it takes to evoke emotions through imagery rather than just plot points and people’s faces. Being his third directorial feature we might expect a little more from DeMonaco as a filmmaker at this point, but if things go his way it seems he will have plenty more opportunities to evolve this world and his skills. I said in my review of “The Purge” last year that while the Sandin's weren't generally people we could empathize with the homeless man (Edwin Hodge) allowed into their house who incited the incidents of that film also became the audiences point of entry into what the purge was really about. In giving us this insight it also helped us realize what a bad idea it is and how, on a bigger scale, its system will ultimately fail. It seems DeMonaco agreed with that line of thinking as he wedges into the expansive scope of ‘Anarchy’ the continued plight of this bloodied stranger towards what seems will become full-fledged revolution in “The Purge: Revolution” next summer.
by Philip Price
“Dear White People” is calling for an age old request heightened by the arrival of consistently new stereotypes and enlightened by articulate characters who know how to argue and persuade with passion, perspective and pointed examples. "Dear white people with Instagram..." Sam (Tessa Thompson) begins on her college radio show of the same name, "you have an iPhone and you go hiking. We get it." It would be too easy to argue that Sam uses racism to battle racism with snide remarks such as this on her radio show. Hell, one of the black (and I will use black instead of African American in this review because that is what Sam told me to do and I swear, I'm not a racist) characters even accuses her show of being racist to her face, but it's not really. What Sam is doing is throwing around stereotypes that she thinks will quantify all those that do the same to her by trying to break up a predominantly black house on campus into more mixed ethnicity's because the white leaders don't want a bunch of black kids hanging out and cavorting together. Whether there is any truth to this we don't really know because the film never makes it clear the real motivation behind the motivation that gets everyone so riled up. This is more than OK though, because writer/director Justin Simien has filled his film with a semester's worth of short stories with sharp racial politics and dialogue that is executed in a way only such dialogue can be while being as natural as possible and remaining extremely funny. The fact it is intended to be funny is an interesting choice though, because by the end credits it is clear this is a very serious subject in the eyes of Simien and one he intends to let people know is still relevant in our country even if most opposing views will see this as recycling the past to feel relevant. Simien is not blind to where others are coming from though as he slips in the voice of the opposing team in the form of the president of the university's son, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner). Granted, Kurt is a spoiled brat who does and takes what he wants, but even this example is intended to represent those who overcompensate just as Sam does on the other side of things. Leaving what is most impressive about this satire to be the way in which Simien doesn't fight for just one side, but all sides.
As stated, the basis here is Sam's radio show in which she discusses what it's like to be a black face in a white place. This platform becomes of ever-increasing importance when President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen) and Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) decide that the typically all-black Armstrong Hall may need a face lift for the times and that mixing things up may not be a bad idea. Sam sees this as an opportunity to take a stand as it is clear to both she and her friends the administration has ulterior motives in trying to break their tradition. In order to get a better hold on the situation Sam decides to run for President of Armstrong house which is currently in the hands of Dean Fairbanks' son, Troy (Brandon P. Bell). Troy is the big man on campus-type who runs for offices because of what it will do for his reputation rather than having any real interest in the role. He dates the President's (white) daughter Sofia (Brittany Curran) in an effort to position himself as both open to the idea of mixed relationships as well as to add more prestige to his name. It seems the real Troy couldn't be further from this facade though as he rather enjoys living up the stereotypes that plague black people in that he smokes weed in secret and has an affinity for girls such as Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris). Coco is the girl who doesn't see what all the fuss is about, who wants to leave her past behind and join another degree of people at her esteemed university. Coco is chasing the dream of simply being famous with the producer (Malcolm Barrett) of a reality show that is visiting campus. She wants people to know her name. In a move intended to impress this producer she begins to stir up controversy of her own as the opposing black voice to Sam's "Lisa Bonet wannabe" act. In doing so an ill-conceived theme for the annual Halloween party thrown by the campus humor magazine (led by Kurt Fletcher) allows things to spiral out of control. On the outskirts of all of this is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris”) who is neither black enough for the black kids or black enough for the white kids and who should be your surrogate into this world.
There are more than enough factors to discuss when it comes to what makes “Dear White People” such a cutting and intelligent film. Whether it be the calculated musical cues in the soundtrack that switch in style from classical to more current or urban sounds. These cues sometimes better accompany the situation on screen or juxtapose the setting to intentionally pull out even more humor in the situation. Simien also likes to acknowledge the many statues of faces that litter the grounds of the college campus meant to remind students of the rich history they are becoming a part of. That these statue heads are all of one clear descent gives off the point that blacks were neither able to contribute in such a manner and therefore received no recognition or that racism isn't far enough removed that we don't see this possible false history as an issue. Simien, who makes his feature directorial debut here, doesn't seem to necessarily be all about the flourishes that come with the technical aspects of filmmaking but rather is intently zeroed in on the ideas and themes behind his film and figuring out how to reinforce these through his visuals. This is easily gleaned from the very collegiate-influenced style that prefaces each section of the story structure and the shot selection that profiles the major players at the beginning as they essentially give us their mission statements. We are invited into the opposing views of each of the characters so that Simien allows us to understand the different perspectives that can come at a single point and the different angles being played all for the personal gain of the one sitting in front of us. This not only immediately dilutes any inherent arguments people (black or white) going into this may have towards what they think the film will represent or stand against, but it also gives us the through line of the point Simien will try to make throughout and that is the fact everything is about perception. Where is the intolerance problem you might ask? It is in each of us that look at others as inferior based not on race, but for who they want to be but can never feel comfortable being because of our pre-determined judgments.
I walked away from this film feeling not what I expected, but more than anything I was pleased that such a wide-eyed, understanding and well-rounded mind had been given the opportunity to take on this subject matter rather than a cynic who only jotted down racial observations in order to make a few quick jokes. “Dear White People” is indeed a satirical approach to the racial issues America still faces today, but more than this it is about inequality in general as it is able to touch on the prejudices against both women and homosexuals in our society. As much as this is the story of a seeming anarchist who wants to bring about rectitude for what is still present but mostly overlooked it is really a movie about people and the unspoken obstacles we have to overcome if we want to get to where we want. It is all about the politics of creating your desired image, yes, but if anything Simien is trying to remind us we don't have to pick a side to be on and despite the fact it will never likely, actually happen, we should be able to be who we want to be and still be able to do what we want to do without feeling the pressures of having to live up to black, white or any ethnic expectations. Even if we don't play into certain stereotypes there should be an understanding we don't all fit squarely into a pre-determined mold. Again, these are age-old ideas of equality and ones we might have all thought we learned by now, but the way in which Simien presents them with his current and enlightened stereotypes makes the film all the more precise in its execution and boils down the over-thinking mind of the academic to a simple conclusion: no one wins when we all live in stereotypes. I couldn't decide throughout the film if Sam or Lionel was a surrogate for Simien's experiences and inspirations. It would be easy to say he is Lionel as Lionel takes in every situation at hand, but in the end, when Sam has come to somewhat of a conclusion to her journey it is hard to discern whether Simien once had the same fire beneath him and has turned that passion into this feature message as it is clear he now has perspective as well. Either way, he has accomplished something special here as it manages to be knowing and confident without being self-congratulatory. It is a thoughtful piece looking for a place to belong within the society it analyzes.
by Philip Price
The amount of self-inflicted sacrifice is intended to shape and deliver who we want to be. In certain areas there has to be some level of talent involved, in others it simply takes determination. In “Whiplash” we assume there is an inherent skill to our protagonist’s ability that has been present since he picked up sticks at a young age, but it is the amount of hard work and sacrifice that will prove whether he will turn out to be complacent or one of the greats. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has plenty of ambition, but it is his drive that will turn the story of his life into something people might discuss around a dinner table decades after he dies. As a child who was not given everything on a silver spoon and certainly not conditioned to believe anything I touched would turn to gold failure in certain areas became an expectation. Our present, cushioned society makes these truths indiscernible and so we garner generations where all that is expected is instant gratification with little endeavor or commitment required. “Whiplash,” while clearly drawn from personal experiences and small truths, is also and maybe even more of a commentary on if there is a line to be drawn in breaking down these barriers of reassurance. In what will likely be one of if not "the" defining performance of his career J.K. Simmons as conductor Terence Fletcher tells Andrew that there are no two words more harmful in the English language than, "good job." Fletcher has a philosophy that genius is not blessed upon an individual or built through congratulations, but rather because it is pushed to a breaking point where the only thing that matters is to never stop striving to be better. True greatness comes from real pain. Nothing will essentially ever be good enough for Fletcher and it is in this drive to prove him wrong that Andrew is unable to stop. With his second directorial effort Damien Chazelle has crafted a film so in tune with itself and its character arcs that it is nothing short of exhilarating to see unfold. While one should take the literal actions of the film with a grain of salt and look at the bigger, metaphoric implications it is making to get a clearer message of its ideas it nonetheless comes together to deliver one of the best and certainly one of my favorite films of the year
We meet Andrew as a first year jazz drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. He describes the school as the best one for music in the United States and prides himself on becoming a part of Fletcher's core band. As a member of the core band Andrew would have access to opportunities that might afford him to make a living off his passion as well as the exposure to be recognized as "one of the greats" alongside the likes of his hero, Buddy Rich. While Simmons' Fletcher seems initially courteous and interested in the talented first year things escalate quickly once Fletcher affords Andrew the opportunity to serve as alternate in core rehearsals. Fletcher is relentless in his quest for perfection and while he attempts to give Andrew a chance to acclimate himself with the high-pressure setting and stringent requirements of his players he is like a lit fuse set to go off at any second. When Fletcher does let loose, he opens up a whole new world into which Andrew probably was afraid actually existed, but knew he would have to encounter in order to fulfill his dream. In only his first session with the core band Andrew is harassed and both physically and verbally abused by Fletcher who shifts temperament so quickly he can only be seen as either a master manipulator or complete psychopath. Outside of school Andrew becomes a drone, irritated by the thought of having to interact with other humans. He once upon a time went to the movies regularly with his father (Paul Reiser) and even developed a crush on the cute girl at the concession counter. Early in his initiation into Shaffer's core band he even thought it possible to date and asked the girl from the theater, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), out. Almost without warning the determination to win Fletcher over completely consumes Andrew's being and he is dismissing any thought of a real relationship with Nicole while eliciting certain traits more akin to his conductor at the dinner table with family and friends. The film chronicles Andrew's slow descent into the depths of his sacrifice and in revealing his inability to give into those who expect the impossible it displays how easily one can break, but more importantly how easy it is to settle.
Andrew has a desire to be successful, clearly, and while “Whiplash” is about how far he is willing to go in order to be successful it is also a movie that somewhat advocates its harsh treatment of its subject lead character in order to reach the elite status of exceptional. It is somewhat difficult to make a movie about what it takes to be truly great, to be truly extraordinary so as to go down in history without making a movie that also feels up to that level. How does one talk about the excess of pushing the limits to achieve greatness if the vehicle through which you're telling that story isn't in itself exceptional? Luckily for Chazelle he has enlisted two more than capable actors who sink as much of themselves into these roles as Fletcher expects his students to do with their music. As Andrew, Teller is the perfect balance of his own person while being able to submit himself completely to the expectations of someone else. We see who he is in his moments with his father and the short exchanges with Nicole as much as we do when he sits alone in his dorm room listening to Rich records. Andrew is a guy who is confident in himself and his talents, but seems to have never been challenged in that confidence. The catalyst for his character is his reaction to Fletcher's approach and because it instinctively tells him to strive to prove this guy wrong, we see the look in Teller's eyes change from open optimism to sharp determination. There is no looking back. Teller conveys this genuine drive with such intensity and truth that it feels we barely know the actor who up until this point had delivered only a couple of facets, but seemingly lets us in on a secret with this performance that he has much more to offer. On the other side of things is Simmons career-defining turn as Fletcher. If the guy doesn't walk away with a statue in February it will be a shame as his performance as a drill sergeant of a conductor is what amps up the film’s own beat and gives the audience the kind of energy music is usually intended to do. His Fletcher is a monster of a psychological terror that will turn any information you give him against you with the hope of never depriving the world of the next potential legend, which in some twisted way, is kind of admirable.
Does the film necessarily advocate the type of treatment Fletcher doles out in order to motivate his students? Maybe not. The film certainly paints a dark picture around Fletcher and points to how harmful too much pressure can be, but it feels as if it is more interested in posing the question of how far is too far rather than being the opposite comforting take that Fletcher's approach is completely unnecessary. In fact, his harsh demeanor, his profanity laced insults and his ability to get inside his students’ minds and subversively make them a better musician are completely acceptable to him and the film somewhat asks the audience to be understanding to this point of view. I don't know what it says about me as a person or my mentality, but I loved it. It gave me a rush not present in any other film I've seen so far this year. The film delivers a complete story of two characters who ultimately seem to find the satisfaction they crave by the climax of the film, but will never admit it for to do so would be to run the risk of allowing the idea of satisfaction into their minds. In many ways, Fletcher is creating another version of himself in the young Andrew; someone who will never allow himself to regress because of accolades or kind words, but rather someone who will always strive to outdo what they've done previously. This kind of drive is unforgiving in that it takes over your life, but it is a conscious decision. We see that Fletcher is alone, abandoned because he no doubt never gave an inch to anyone else in his life and in deciding to sacrifice everything for his art Andrew will end up the same way. Is it worth it? The film asks this question outright to Andrew at a dinner table conversation and without hesitation the idea of being known around the world as one of the best drummers of all time is wholly more gratifying than having friends or lasting relationships with family, even if he'll never be around to hear those conversations hailing him as the greatest. “Whiplash” is a film about how far one is willing to go and more interestingly how far one is willing to go before they realize they do or do not have what it takes. How one deals with facing the truth of the situation is equally as interesting, but Chazelle leaves all clarification at the door before his final scene and lets us decide whether we believe Andrew truly has what it takes to make his ambition a reality.