REVIEW: “Upstream Color”

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Mark my words, you will spend the first half of “Upstream Color” wondering what the heck is going on. And if you’re like me, you’ll spend the second half making a series of observations or connections that may or may not exist. But all of that is okay because by the end I realized I had watched something intelligent and strikingly original. There is nothing Hollywood about this picture. It’s independent cinema in its purest form. But don’t let that fool you. This is also one of the most visually entrancing pictures to come out of 2013.

To call this Shane Carruth’s movie would be an epic understatement. Carruth serves as director, writer, editor, cinematographer, co-producer, co-star, and he composed the music. “Upstream Color” is only his second film but his first since 2004. When speaking of Carruth comparisons have been made to Terrence Malick and we see the validity of the comparisons in “Upstream Color”. His penchant for filming nature, his use of sound, the sparse dialogue, and his sweeping poetic camera feel heavily influenced by Malick’s work.

It’s impossible to put “Upstream Color” into a box and giving too much of the plot away would be stripping the film of some of its allure. It’s a very abstract movie with a haunting and hypnotic feel that permeates the entire project. And drawing in your senses is clearly one of Carruth’s main objectives. I’ll just say this, a young woman (Amy Seimetz) is drugged by a mysterious man (known only as The Thief) while at a nightclub. The drug is actually a mind-controlling parasite which The Thief exploits in order to rob her. Later she is drawn to a man (played by Carruth) who may or may not have shared a very similar experience.

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There are several other mysterious elements and bits of imagery that are cleverly used to peel back the film’s meaning. But even after you’ve dissected the movie in your mind, thematic interpretation may still be a bit challenging. But that’s one of the things I appreciated about the movie. It doesn’t lay everything out all nice and neat for the audience. It engages you and challenges your perceptions of what you are seeing. Interestingly enough, that also leads to one of the movie’s only flaws. It does reach a point where it gets a bit bogged down in its artful approach. It’s a point where the connections and revelation seems to slow down and the film turns into a series of well shot but drawn out sequences.

That aside, “Upstream Color” is a treat. Shane Carruth shows an amazing eye for cinema and he creates a movie experience guaranteed to be unlike anything else you’ve seen in a while. And I haven’t even talked about Amy Seimetz. Talk about a wonderful performance. Now be forewarned, this is a movie that may not appeal to the masses and it has flown under many radars. But for me it shows the diversity of high-quality movies we saw in 2013. It’s definitely worth checking out. I loved it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “3 Days to Kill”

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Kevin Costner’s 2014 reemergence campaign reaches phase two with the release of “3 Days to Kill”. It’s an action/thriller/comedy/family drama (and an assortment of other things) from director McG. The consonant-loving director isn’t one who automatically excited me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would get a movie akin to “Terminator Salvation” (which I actually liked) or crap like his “Charlie’s Angels” flicks or the even worse “This Means War”. The inclusion of the sketchy Luc Beeson as co-writer added yet another line of uncertainty. But “3 Days to Kill” had one essential draw for me – the resplendent Kevin Costner.

Beeson is no stranger to taking an aging actor and making him an action movie star. Liam Neeson’s wallet is a lot heavier thanks to Mr. Luc. That’s what he does here with Costner although this story is an overloaded hodgepodge of action and dramatic storylines. Beeson and co-writer Adi Hasak try to take this story in a number of different directions but they never take the time to stop and commit to any of them. There are also frequent clashes in tone between the film’s curious split-personality. Toss in some corny melodrama and lazy shortcuts and you have a messy film but not one completely devoid of entertainment.

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Costner plays a grizzled CIA field agent named Ethan Renner who gets a bit of bad news. He finds out he has brain cancer and only a few months to live. He heads to Paris to find his ex-wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenaged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld). His dedication to his work cost him his family and due to his illness he hopes to make amends in the short time he has left. But wouldn’t you know it, work comes a calling. Ethan is approached by a beautiful CIA handler named Vivi (Amber Heard) who wants him to pull that ‘one last job’ in exchange for an experimental drug that may save his life.

Vivi morphs from a CIA agent to a femme fatale with a penchant for leather, stiletto heels, and a wacky assortment of hairstyles. She is one of the weirdest, most cartoonish character, and while Heard is certainly lovely, I have no idea what the movie is trying to do with her. Vivi wants Ethan to hunt down a couple of German arms dealers ominously known as The Albino and The Wolf. Yes, that is honestly their names. He romps all over Paris, from Montmartre to Saint-Germain, shooting, punching, and driving cars really fast. Whenever he does something good, Vivi rewards him with a syringe of meds big enough to kill a cow.

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At the same time he’s reconnecting with his daughter who is suddenly entrusted to his care so her mom can take a three-day trip to London (you tell me who the worst parent is). There are so many preposterous and head-scratching moments that make Ethan and his wife look like blundering idiots. I know the film tries to develop believable relationships and sincere family drama, but it ends up tripping all over itself.

There are a number of other examples of how the dopey writing hurts the movie. For example, I don’t know how many times his sickness kicks in just as he’s about to catch The Wolf or The Albino. And I’m talking about within 10 feet of them. He suddenly gets blurry vision, disoriented, and then unconscious. Oh so close! And Parisien law enforcement must of been on strike. You never see one police car or policeman despite all of the shootouts and car chases in public areas. Then there is the ending which uses one of the lamest and most contrived “twists” in order to wrap things up. I could go on but you get the point.

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So considering all I have said this should be a horrible movie, right? Well not necessarily. It’s not as bad as it has every right to be and that’s mainly because of Costner. I love the guy and he makes things look effortless. Regardless of how absurd the scene may be, he is still a ton of fun to watch. He’s basically doing his Crash Davis from “Bull Durham” except he replaces baseballs and bats with pistols and explosives. I also really like Hailee Steinfeld. She’s not always able to rise above the material like Costner, but she’s still a talented young actress.

“3 Days to Kill” also features some cool actions sequences that Costner falls right into including a fantastic car chase through the beautiful yet busy Paris streets. There are also several gags that are actually very funny (in many ways also thanks to Costner). But these things can only cover up so much. Unfortunately the poor writing and McG’s lackluster direction leaves us with a sloppy movie that wastes a lot of potential. It still has its moments of fun and Costner almost saves it. But ultimately its a mediocre action picture that never anchors itself enough to tell a competent story.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Last Love”

Last Love PosterIt’s easy to dismiss a movie like “Last Love” as lightweight and forgettable. It’s not loud or showy nor is it anything new or profound. It’s a movie that you will either latch onto and enjoy or fail to connect with and be utterly bored. Sometimes we get movies like that – films that you either connect with or you don’t. I definitely connected with this 2013 drama written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. It also goes by the title of “Mr. Morgan’s Last Love”, but regardless of what you want to call it, it’s an intimate and earnest examination of lost love, fractured families, and the will to live.

The story’s initial plot point puts the film somewhere in between Pixar’s “Up” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (a sharp contrast, I know). The great Michael Caine plays a retired philosophy professor named Matthew Morgan. In the film’s first scene we see him sitting at the bedside of his deceased wife in their Paris apartment. Three years pass and Matthew has fallen into a suicidal state of depression. But his life takes an enigmatic turn when he meets a compassionate young Parisian woman named Pauline (Clémence Poésy). She adds a new element to his life that he can’t define. The two strike up a sweet relationship that could potentially fill the overcast voids in their lives.

“Last Love” is based on Francoise Dorner’s novel “La Douceur Assassine”. Nettelbeck’s adaption takes several creative liberties that adds new dimensions while still capturing the charm of the book. Her film is slow-moving and unfolds at a pace that may not suit some people. It worked for me mainly due to the two main characters. I truly cared about Matthew and Pauline and I was drawn to their unlikely relationship. The two share similar feelings of isolation and loneliness and each see things in the other that they want. It’s both lovely and gloomy. It’s desperate and hopeful.

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As you would expect, Michael Caine is fabulous. He gives a sincere and nuanced performance that is capped with a stinging realism. He demands an emotional commitment from the audience. Caine makes us feel for him and hope his situation improves. But things get worse when Matthew’s two kids arrive from America to check up on him. His son Miles (Justin Kirk) is a smug jerk who is clearly harboring anger from a past experience. Matthew’s daughter Karen (Gillian Anderson) is a self-absorbed and disrespectful snot who feels inconvenienced by having to check on her father. Both Kirk and Anderson are very good and they add a whole new layer to Matthew’s state of being.

But for me, the most captivating performance came from Clémence Poésy. The versatile French actress is essential to the story’s effectiveness. We learn a few details about her character but in many other ways she is a mystery. Her compassion and exuberance are intoxicating but they mask a deeper yearning. In some ways Poésy gives us a character just as sad as Matthew. She is such a good actress and she is the one asked to navigate the trickier character developments. She does so with ease.

“Last Love” is a poignant film about lost souls desperate to plug holes in their lives. It’s charming, sweet, somber, and heartbreaking. Now it does dip its toes into the pool of sentimentality on a few occasions. I’m also struggling with my feelings about the film’s ending. There’s no twist or ambiguity. I’m just not sure how I feel about it. But I do know that I really liked this film. I was unquestionably drawn to the characters, I loved the Paris setting, and the heartfelt story carried me through till the end. This was a small 2013 film seen by few, but it caught my eye and I’m glad it did.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Grudge Match”

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Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro have had incredibly successful movie careers. What a shame that they have reached a point to where they would sign on for something as gimmicky and flimsy as “Grudge Match”. The trailer for the film left nothing to be desired. It made the movie look shameless and utterly predictable. Well, after seeing it I can confirm that it hasn’t an ounce of shame and you’ll see everything coming from a mile away. That said, it’s still not as bad as it could have been. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Stallone and De Niro have both had big successes with boxing movies – Stallone had “Rocky” and De Niro “Raging Bull”. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to see this film is clearly milking the whole Rocky Balboa versus Jake LaMotta novelty. Yes these are different characters who have different stories and different personalities. But this is clearly meant to cash in on the two older and superior movies. The big problem is I couldn’t care less about the gimmick.

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The story is a pretty ridiculous and cliché-riddled. Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were big time boxers who had a heated rivalry stemming from their two fights where each won one apiece. But right before the decisive rematch Razor retires. Thirty years later Kid is still furious that he was denied his shot at Razor. But as luck would have it a loud mouthed aspiring promoter (Kevin Hart) eventually gets a rematch. It’s first viewed as a big joke but soon, through the power of the cell phone generation, people begin to take notice of this grudge match for the ages (did I really just say that?).

Perhaps the best thing about this film are the performances. Both Sly and Bobby give committed performances even though the material is weak. To be honest I’m not surprised that Stallone would take a part like this, but it’s really sad to see De Niro reserved for such fluff. That aside, each gives all he has to try to make it all work and they are both really good. The problem is you have to wade through endless ‘out of shape’ jokes, over-the-hill gags, and some trumped up drama that is impossible to sell. It has a few funny moments and it is fun watching these two work. But it’s not too much to ask for a smarter and more engaging script.

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Most of the supporting cast is very good even though they too are hampered by the lackluster material. Alan Arkin is cast as Razor’s crude trainer. Arkin is always good but here is is such a caricature. Kim Basinger also pops up and tries to save a role that is so fabricated and poorly written. We also get Jon Bernthal as a character shoehorned into the story for dramatic effect. He’s actually very good and he’s really proving himself as a better actor with each new role. All of these performances are good despite the narrative obstacles each face. I can’t really say the same for Kevin Hart who seems to be in constant standup comedy mode. Every single scene he’s in features him doing his shtick. Eventually it grew tiresome and annoying.

So how do you summarize “Grudge Match”? It’s a film featuring some good performances, scattered chuckles, and pretty capable direction. But you can dress up the pig all you want and it’s still a pig. When it comes down to it the commitment of the actors and the decent direction can only go so far. At some point you have to have good material and that’s what “Grudge Match” lacks. What we are given is hokey and forgettable comedy that’s not nearly as funny as it wants to be. I was definitely ready to throw in the towel.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recuit”

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It’s rare to find a fun and entertaining film on the front end of the movie year. January is notorious for being the month where studios empty their cupboards of held-over films with low expectations. That’s why “Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent” is a breath of fresh air. It may not have the best title, but it is an able action thriller. It’s a good ‘kick back and have a good time’ movie that is a nice change of pace from the heavier, deeper films we get during awards season.

This is the fifth movie from the Jack Ryan film series but the first since 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears”. It’s a reboot that also serves as an origin story for Jack. Chris Pine takes the lead once played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Alec Baldwin. We first see him on the campus of the London School of Economics. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspire him to leave college and join the Marines. A series of uncontrollable events soon has him working as a financial intelligence analyst for the CIA. Kevin Costner plays his boss Thomas Harper who in many respects serves as Jack’s mentor.

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All of that leads to Jack’s first foray into the world of geopolitics. He uncovers a potential plot by a powerful Russian businessman named Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh). He travels to Moscow and soon finds himself more than just an analyst. The mission soon goes bad and Jack becomes a full-fledged field operative. Harper pops back up and Jack’s fiancé Cathy (Keira Knightley) soon finds herself in the middle of the chaos. It all plays out in a hail of bullets, car crashes, and big booms.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” follows a pretty familiar blueprint. It doesn’t strive to be original and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground. But it does know exactly what it wants to be and that focus helps make this a really fun ride. Kenneth Branagh also directed the film and he did a fine job of delivering a variety of great scenes. Perhaps my favorite is the first meeting between an undercover Jack and a suspicious Cheverin. It takes place in Cheverin’s ultra-modern Moscow office and you can cut the tension with a knife.

We also get quite a bit of action in this picture but I found it to be the right dosage. The shootouts and car chases are often set to beautiful Moscow and New York City backdrops and they are competently shot with a lot of energy. The fight scenes were filmed ala Paul Greengrass style with loads of quick cuts and herky-jerky hand-held cameras. As is often the case with this frantic style, it made it a little difficult to follow what was going on. Personally that drives me nuts. It’s obviously a popular stylistic choice these days but it doesn’t always work for me.

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Chris Pine seems to be getting better and better with each new role. I completely bought into him here because he brings so much more than the normal macho bravado. His Jack Ryan feels like a real person. He is nervous, uncomfortable, and the things happening around him deeply effect him. I appreciated that. But it’s Costner who really steals the show. Now I’ve always been a big Costner fan so I was excited to see his name attached. But he handles this material like the old pro that he is. It’s a great performance despite the few bits of cheesy dialogue. Keira Knightley is another story. She certainly has the American accent down but that’s about it. She has some good moments but there were several times when I had no idea what she was doing. She employs an assortment of weird facial expressions and quasi smiles that were often times distracting. Kate Beckinsale turned down this part when it was offered but I wish she had accepted it. I can see her bringing a lot more to it than Knightley.

Is this a formula that we’ve seen before? Absolutely. But when I’m enjoying myself, I just don’t care. Branagh keeps things rolling at a crisp pace and the time flew by. Some have had problems with the film’s lack of desire to do anything new. I can see that to a point. But when you handle your material well and the results are good, I’m okay with it. This is a straightforward and unapologetic thriller that never tries to be something it isn’t. Most importantly this is good old-fashioned fun and that counts for a lot in my book.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

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I am such a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dating back to 1984 with their first film “Blood Simple”, the brothers have put together an incredible filmography, etching out a prominent name for themselves in the process. Not only that, they have developed into some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Armed with a sharp wit and an undeniable style, the Coens have taken their special brand of cinema to a variety of places. Their latest is the early 1960s New York folk music scene. The film is “Inside Llewyn Davis” and while it may not be the best Coen brothers movie, it is undeniably theirs.

I was so glad to hear that Oscar Isaac had gotten the lead role. This criminally underrated actor has amazing acting chops yet rarely gets big leading parts. Here he plays Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck musician struggling to get by in 1961 New York City. Llewyn’s singing partner has committed suicide, his solo album isn’t selling, and he is flat broke. He spends his nights on the couches of different acquaintances and his days trying to get enough gigs to get by until his big break comes.

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There really isn’t a lot of plot in “Inside Llewyn Davis”. We basically spend a few days with Llewyn witnessing his routine and seeing the nature of his struggles. It doesn’t take long to learn that Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He’s constantly driving people away whether it’s fellow musicians, family, hospitable friends, or even girlfriends. Llewyn is selfish, uncompromising, and irresponsible yet he never casts an examining light on himself. He’s not a character who will draw the audience’s affection. Much like the other people in his life, we can’t get that close to him even though we feel sympathy towards him. Llewyn is an extremely talented musician. He just needs to get himself out of the way.

This is a colder Coen brothers picture that clearly has no desire to be hopeful or uplifting. Perhaps that why I had trouble embracing the film at first. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying a movie has to be uplifting or hopeful. I don’t believe that at all. But watching Llewyn continually self-destruct for the entire film had me wishing for a glimmer of hope. There are a few scenes of the Coen’s signature dark humor that occasionally lighten things up, but mostly this is a pointed, unflinching character drama that captivated me while still holding me at arms length.

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As with all Coen brothers films this one is loaded with an assortment of interesting characters and captivating faces. We get quick but great roles for John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as a fellow musician who is married to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. She’s played by Carey Mulligan who is very good in the role. But her character is one of the few Coen creations that could have been handled better. She’s abrasive and profane to the point of being distracting. There is a subtle attempt at humor with Jean and her harsh personality but she disappears before we are allowed to see the compassionate side we are teased with. But this is Oscar Isaac’s show and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance. He brilliantly flexes his acting and singing muscles in what I hope is some career-launching work.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has all the other traits you would expect from Joel and Ethan Coen. There is beautiful cinematography. The sense of time and place is impeccable. The music is unforgettable and the film features arguably the best soundtrack of the year. And it’s certainly a smart film featuring great vision and unquestionable craftsmanship. But for me it doesn’t quite rank up there with the Coen’s best pictures. That said, this is another time capsule experience brought to us by two of the best in the business, and anytime they make a movie it’s something special. Better yet, it has stuck with me and different themes from the film keep coming to mind. That a sign of something good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS