I didn't read as many books this year compared to last year. I just finished number 35. Here are my 7 favorite, in no particular order:
The Orphan Master's Son
I had read an Adam Johnson work previously--2003's Parasites Like Us--and enjoyed it, and I had heard plenty of praise of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master's Son: it didn't come close to disappointing. I read it back in January, and it still stuck with me all the way to the end of the year. Starring Jun Do (a nod to the anonymous John Doe), a North Korean orphan who becomes a kidnapper, The Orphan Master's Son's main character is really North Korea: it's totalitarian way of life, its daily acts of violence, a place where one's identity can become lost in the fold. North Korea is a place that many of us can't even imagine, but Adam Johnson does the impossible with The Orphan Master's Son: he takes the facts of North Korea and turns them into one of the most immersive and impressive fictional worlds in recent memory.
The Art of Fielding
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach gave me the same feeling as last year's incredible Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Not because the books deal with similar subject matter, but because both are from debut novelists and have sharply-drawn characters that you begin to legitimately care about. The book is around 500 pages, but you'll wish there were 500 more: it's intricately drawn, with every sentence, plot line and character showcasing Harbach's skill with the English language. If you know nothing about it, it may be casually referred to as "that baseball book", and although the sport of baseball plays a major part, The Art of Fielding is about so much more: friendship, love and loss in a college-era story. The heart of the novel focuses on Henry Skrimshander, a prodigal short-stop in high school who gets recruited by Westish College catcher Mike Schwartz, and his experiences playing at the next level. The Art of Fielding marks the exciting beginning for Chad Harbach, and it's a novel that absolutely anyone can enjoy.
Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.
Rob Delaney has been the king of Twitter for years now, and his first book contains a variety of painfully honest stories that showcase his darker side. It also showcases how humor is one of the best ways to overcome situations in life that can fill you with sorrow. The writing world always contains stories and biographies of men getting drunk or high and doing completely stupid shit, but Delaney is a master at portraying the lessons he's learned with an excited fervor that brings the readers in. The highlights: having to take an explosive shit while out jogging with no bathrooms available, drunken near-death experiences that shaped his life (including a drunk-driving accident that left him seriously injured), and the experiences having your first child. But the real lesson of Delaney's book is about the hard times in life: if you can laugh, you'll be much better off.
Tenth of December
I try and read a couple of short story books a year, but Tenth of December, by George Saunders, may force me to up that number in the coming months: some of the writing here is better than...well...just about anything. This is the first Saunders that I have ever read, but I'll be seeking him out in the future. He is a master at getting deep inside a character's thoughts and feelings and motivations, and these ten stories showcase a simple expertise in telling moving tales. And some of these short stories are incredibly funny and incredibly satiric, but still can surprise you with shocking twists and slow burns of surrealism. Take "The Semplica Girl Diaries", where a father attempts to please his daughter and compete with neighbors by buying her Semplica Girls, women trafficked from third-world countries to be lawn ornaments. Or "Escape from Spiderhead", a satiric look at love and pharmaceuticals--these are the works of an American original.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
I'll be the first to admit that you shouldn't read No Place to Hide for a completely unbiased view towards Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks: it was written by Glenn Greenwald, who Snowden contacted to divulge the dangerous information. But God Damn if this is not an incredibly exciting and shocking account of the process of the information leak. It reads like a thriller. If you think that Edward Snowden is a villain, you will hate this account, because it essentially portrays him as an American hero for divulging information that--one could argue--the public deserves to know. And Greenwald displays plenty of his own opinions about the matter. But it doesn't stop No Place to Hide from being one of the most thrilling (and shocking) non-fiction books in 2014.
The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans is from yet another debut author, and the skill in which M.L. Stedman wraps the readers into the words is astounding: this book is damn beautiful. Listen to the plot and tell me that you're not interested: Tom is a WWI veteran and a lighthouse keeper on a tiny rock island off the coast of Australia. One day, him and his wife find a rowboat that washes ashore with a crying baby and a dead dude inside. Despite Tom's militaristic moral code, the couple decides to potentially raise the baby as their own, but the past--as it always seems to do--has a tendency to catch up with them. The story is great, and it's already been optioned for a film directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), starring Michael Fassbender as Tom. Like The Art of Fielding, the subject matter doesn't even matter: The Light Between Oceans can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys reading a great novel.
The Magician's Land
I'll start this off with a confession that will piss off many avid readers: I just started the Harry Potter series throughout the past year, and though they are (basically) enjoyable, I don't love them. I'm not sure if the movies ruined the story for me, or Rowling's writing annoys me (which it does sometimes), or I just missed the boat with the total madness when they were coming out. But Lev Grossman's The Magician's Trilogy--full of sex, magic, alcohol, and angst--is more my magical cup of tea. And The Magician's Land, the final novel in the three-book series, is a completely fitting ending. Though Grossman takes plenty from Harry Potter and Narnia, he creates a world that is completely his own, and this third book takes the characters to new, much more mature level. Even the most jaded readers, ones who never thought they could love the fantasy genre, can find something to love in The Magicians Trilogy: the only sad part is that it's over only when Grossman hit his true stride.
Sunday, December 7, 2014
10) Swans--To Be Kind
Swans are the opposite of easy-listening music. They formed in 1982, broke up in the late 90's and reformed in 2010. In 2012 they released the critically acclaimed The Seer, their 12th album, an exercise in experimental brutality. This year's To Be Kind is similar: it's a mixture of an incredible amount of styles--industrialism, classical, jazz, rock, alternative--that is a legitimate experience to listen to. Sometimes it's an experience that is frustrating and nearly un-listenable (a weird description for an album on a Top 10 list), but it's occasionally transcendent, giving you a feeling unlike any other in music this year. At nearly two hours, To Be Kind is a commitment, but with songs like "A Little God in My Hands" (with its driving, explosive funk) and the album standout "Oxygen" (the closest thing to a normal rock song that Swans have here), it's a violent and scary trip well-worth taking.
Listen to "Oxygen"
9) Vince Staples--Hell Can Wait
Based in strictly rap musical terms (and regardless of how you feel about the explosive subject), the recent microscope on police violence in America has sparked some impressive and real music in the rap genre. Hell Can Wait--a 26 minute, 7 song EP by newcomer Vince Staples--is a great example. It's short run-time is packed with emotion and real-life stream of consciousness thoughts that stick with you. Take "Hands Up", for instance: "North Division tryin' to stop my blackness / I'm watching for them badges when out in traffic / Them 911's been a tad bit frantic / if those lights start flashing / please don't panic." The song also offers a playful and surprising chorus of standard rap shout out "Put your Hands in the air". "Blue Suede" is another standout: its thoughts on gang violence over sneakers is thoughtful--and it helps that the beat is brutal too. The production values on Hell Can Wait matches Staples' great flow: it's the second best rap album this year.
Watch the video for "Blue Suede"
8) Mac Demarco--Salad Days
Mac Demarco makes slacker, loungy music that is perfect for relaxing on a rainy day. This lo-fi soft rock is charming and quite an accomplishment for a 23-year old basically kid who seems to not have a care in the world. Demarco melds real observations about love and life into his mellow pop sounds, and that's why they reach far higher than most of his predecessors. Throughout the entire album--from the opening mood-setter title track "Salad Days" to the ending of "Johnny's Odyssey"--Mac maintains his tone of leisure that causes you to just lay back and enjoy the tunes, man. Sometimes the description of being a slacker can make you feel like the music creator is lazy, but Demarco clearly isn't that: Salad Days is actually a mature achievement that's a solidly great album.
Listen to "Treat Her Better"
7) Spoon--They Want My Soul
Spoon has been one of my favorites bands for years now. But although I enjoyed the new-found poppyness of 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and the more minimalist approach of Transference, those albums never reached the greatness of Kill the Moonlight or Gimme Fiction. When lead singer Britt Daniel formed a new band with other indie legend Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs fame) by the name of Divine Fits, it became one of the best albums of 2012. Maybe that sparked something in Britt, because Spoon's new album, They Want My Soul, is a damn good one. The albums's their 8th, and it clocks in at under 40 minutes, but barely a second is wasted: you instantly know you're listening to something special when"Rent I Pay" fades into the cool groove of "Inside Out". "Do You" is another standout. With They Want My Soul, Spoon has found some additional soul, and it's the sound of a band that--even after 8 albums--is at the top of their game again.
Watch the video to "Inside Out"
6) Ought--More Than Any Other Day
Ought is a rock band with a palpable passion that you can legitimately feel: this group of Canadians play with an emotion that's impossible not to enjoy. Front man Tim Beeler's inflections and poetic lyrics are the true stars here--he's like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's lead man Alec Ounsworth except far more accessible and better in general. Like Parquet Courts, Ought's influences vary widely from track to track, but they make material with enough of their own post-punk thoughtful urgentness to seem fully original.
Listen to "Habit" here
5) Parquet Courts--Sunbathing Animal
Parquet Courts drew my attention with last year's Light Up Gold, a solid album from the Pavement school of slacker rock. And that fact is weird, because I find Pavement to be extremely boring--a sacrilegious comment for anyone who is even halfway into indie rock music. But Parquet Courts are a group of weed-smoking slackers who have plenty of clever wordplay, their songs filled with poignant and funny moments about living in a city, trying to connect with girls, or...who knows, because much of main singer Andrew Savage's lyrics don't make perfect sense. That's kind of the point: Sunbathing Animal is full of infectious guitar lines and moments of true excitement, but it's balances nicely with the repetitiveness of songs like "Instant Disassembly" and "She's Rolling" (one of my personal favorites since seeing it on KEXP). You can ponder the Lyrics while taking in the grooves. Parquet Courts is a band that is clearly influenced by many, but they have just enough uniqueness to forge their own path in the current-era indie rock landscape.
Listen to Parquet Courts' "She's Rolling"
4) Future Islands--Singles
If Future Islands keep on trucking--these dudes seem like they tour for 350 days out of the year--then Singles will be known as the album where they finally broke through to the next level in the music business. By now, their album In Evening Air can almost be considered a modern classic in the indie synth pop genre, but Singles is really their first album with true-sounding production values, complete with actual marketing and appearances on the Late Shows (including their infamous Letterman performance ). It suits them well: Singles has a true character and forward momentum that lacks on their last album, On The Water. The songs are clear and concise, and although some would say simplistic, they fit perfectly into lead singer Sam Herring's inflections and outbursts of emotion. Seeing this man live in an experience that everyone should have. Though Singles shows a calm Sam on many of its tracks, he truly shines in album standout "Fall from Grace", a dark song complete with his trademark ear-shrieking screams. The music business is full of fake, money-grubbing artists and bands that assembly-line-produce shit for our tired ears. But Future Islands are the good guys--let's cheer for them.
Listen to "Fall from Grace"
3) FKA Twigs--LP1
If you had told me to start the year that one of my favorite albums would be from an experimental R&Bish singer from London, I would have asked what you were smoking. But then I saw the video for "Two Weeks", one of the year's best tunes: It blew me away, and it caused me to check out the whole album. It didn't take me long before I was blasting these catchy, tuneful songs about sex, fame and love and loving every second of it. "Two Weeks" is the obvious peak, but other songs come close: "Pendulum" with it's minimalist approach (which always seems to work with Twigs' incredible, vulnerable voice), "Video Girl" with its chorus that gets stuck in your head for weeks, the regret of past love with "Numbers". LP1 is FKA Twigs' first album, but it's a fully-realized creation from an artist that will be around for years (if she wants to be): it's slathered in great production and surprising moments that are discovered on repeated listens. Twigs is like if Aaliyah and Grimes and Bjork all merged and had a weird, unique baby.
Watch the video for FKA Twigs' "Two Weeks"
2) Sun Kil Moon--Benji
This album is about Death. Nearly every song deals with the loss of a loved one, a close friend, a family member, a school acquaintance, or random people. Saying that, it probably doesn't sound like much fun to listen to. But like everything dealing with Death, it gives insight into life. And what Mark Kozelek, singer and creator of Sun Kil Moon, has done is create an album that is masterful in its storytelling. It's hard to say if any of it is true, and it doesn't matter at all: it is true to the listener, even if his truck driver uncle didn't really die by an exploding aerosol can or if he doesn't really have to pee 50 times a day now that he's in middle age. These songs are about characters (real or imagined) and they are so sharply drawn in their 3 or 4 minutes of fame that they stick with you throughout. The more you listen to Benji, the more connections you make: within the album itself and with connections to your own life. There's been a lot of talk recently about Mark and his attitude (the whole War on Drugs controversy), but it almost adds to the mystique of Benji. How did someone who is seemingly such an asshole make something so incredibly beautiful?
Listen to "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes"
1) Run The Jewels--Run the Jewels 2
Last year, I came across Run the Jewels from Pitchfork or Metacritic or somewhere (it doesn't really matter). It was near the end of the year when I realized how fun and great El-P and Killer Mike's beats and wordplay were--So I was incredibly pumped when just one year later, Run the Jewels 2 hit the Internet as a free download. And all I can say is wow: RTJ2 is the best music of 2014, a stew of banging beats, a combination of fun and serious wordplay, memorable guest performances (especially by Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame), and real-world ponderous thoughts. It's tag-team rap music based in a world of drone strikes, fuckboys (a term for haters that El and Mike are very fond of) and comedic disses ("Style violent, give a fuck if you deny it, kids / you can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks") that will stay in your brain for days. In its best moments, it's relevant anti-establishment protest music, whether it's against religion ("Liars and politicians, profiteers of the prisons / The forehead engravers and slavers of men and women / Including members of clergy that rule on you through religion / Strippin' kids to the nude then tell 'em God'll forgive 'em") or Ferguson-style police violence: ("Everyday I'm in a fight for my soul / Could it be my medicine's the evidence for pigs to stop and frisk me when they rollin' round on patrol?"). Like the best socially-relevant music, it's fun and catchy and transcends rap music to something much more: a bumping soundtrack for 2014 America that rarely leaves my car CD player.
Listen to "Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)"
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Some could easily call Birdman--directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, creator of thought-provoking woks like Amores perros and 21 Grams--a stunt: over half of the film (seemingly) consists of one single tracking shot with no noticeable camera cuts. But it's much more than just cool camera work. Starring Michael Keaton in one of the best performances of the year, Birdman's plot revolves around Riggan Thompson (Keaton), a has-been Hollywood actor who once started the modern trend of superhero films with the Birdman Trilogy. Now, everyone thinks he is a joke: the public, his family...even himself. To try and do something meaningful, Riggan attempts to act, direct and adapt a Broadway play based upon a Raymond Carver story. Inarritu's direction works perfectly in these claustrophobic and confined spaces, tracking different actors in the play from dressing room to stage with time lapses and day changes seamlessly intertwined with the great set and locations. Familiar actors show up: Edward Norton is awesome as Mike, an actor with immense talent and a tendency to be a dick. And Emma Stone is transfixing as Riggan's out-of-rehab daughter. But it's Keaton that is a wonder: even when the film threatens to dive a little too deeply into a meta surrealism, our former Batman grounds Birdman with a wide array of perfect human emotions. His performance allows Birdman to fly as one of the year's best. (A-)
With Still Alice, we have another film that is completely defined by its starring actor's performance: this time it's Julianne Moore, who portrays Alice, an incredibly smart and successful Linguistics professor who begins showing signs of mental decline--she's forgetting the occasional word, various thoughts, and even gets lost jogging on the college campus that she has called home for years. When she eventually goes to the doctor, she gets some of the worst news possible: at age 50, she has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and it's rapidly progressing. Still Alice is not fun weekend movie entertainment--though Alice's decline is full of dignity, the film is still incredibly sad and heartbreaking, and Moore is such a good actress (like Keaton in Birdman, it may be her best performance ever) that you feel every lost thought, every grasp at a fading word as a punch straight to the gut. This is the type of story that easily could be lost in too much Lifetime-esque sentimentality, but the directors wisely keep it simple, focusing on Alice and her family and the toll the the harsh disease takes on the entire clan. Moore's performance is so astonishing because you can almost see her strip herself away from scene to scene, regressing from an incredibly charismatic speaker to a woman who has lost the most important aspects to her own identity--her thoughts and words. (B+)
The Babadook--a low-budget Australian horror film--is a satisfying and creepy entry into the supernatural hiding-in-the-closet monster movie. Some of it is pretty standard: there are possessions, typical "boo" moments and a creepy villain that looks like a top-hat-wearing ugly thing with sharp fingers, like Freddy Kruger's uncle. But unlike most corny, PG-13 American-made creepy-kid films, The Babadook deals with real issues of loss and grief. It makes the horror all the more real. Amelia's husband died tragically as they were going to to hospital to deliver their first child, and now years later, her son Samuel is having troubles at home and school, lashing out against nearly everyone. One night, he has mum read a mysterious pop-up book from the shelf called Mr. Babadook, and strange events begin occurring in their dark and dreary home. It follows a path that is predictable, but it has enough innovative moments and good performances by Amelia and Samuel to stand above American versions of similar stories. (B)
Friday, November 14, 2014
Interstellar takes place in the near future as Earth is beginning to show signs of being done with the human race: vicious dust storms run rampant and food crops are slowly starting to die off. Farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and engineer, is trying to sustain his family, most notably his daughter, Murph, who is whip-smart and curious about science like her dear old dad. Weird anomalies begin to happen around the Cooper household, and a sequence of events better left unexpected cause Cooper to be Earth's last great hope to find a distant planet that can sustain a surviving population of humans.
Interstellar is full of scientific and space travel jargon about worm-holes, the space/time continuum, black holes and 5th dimensions. It even has that standard sci-fi discussion involving folding a piece of paper to explain space travel through worm-holes. And I couldn't tell you if any of the plot points are based in fact or fiction (many of them, according to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, are mostly based in truth). But the thing with Interstellar and most sci-fi space-based epics, is that being preposterous can sometimes be a virtue: letting go with reality and suspending your disbelief just gets you invested in the ride even more. If you do that with Interstellar, there's no way you're not entertained.
Yeah, it's easy to snicker at some of the plot jumps in Interstellar. Especially during the first third of the film, a couple of coincidences and unexplained happenings bugged me a little bit. But knowing Nolan, I should have assumed that things will connect in the end--and they did in a completely unexpected way. And yeah, some of the dialogue feels hokey and forced, trying to incite an emotional response (particularly with a certain poem) in the viewer. But it didn't matter: Interstellar is an entertaining film filled with massive ideas about the future of the human race, parenthood, love, and human nature. It has space action that rivals Gravity and intimate moments that can bring tears to your eyes. Above all, it's a great success in a year that's almost completely devoid of anything to get excited about. (A-)
Monday, November 10, 2014
Gyllenhaal portrays Lou Bloom, a scumbag sociopath weirdo who is trying to find a job. He doesn't have a set or morals or an ethical code, so when he witnesses the aftermath of a violent car wreck on an overpass and sees an independent camera crew filming the carnage to sell to the morning news, he comes up with the idea to start his own business. He buys a camera and a police scanner, and he methodically learns every police code for the city so he can zoom to dangerous crime scenes. Lou doesn't care about human beings or acting like a functioning citizen, so he gets good camera shots and fakes interviews. The morning news channel, led by Nina (Rene Russo: where has she been?), loves his footage and his go-get nature, and they start paying him more and more. And when sweeps week comes, they want more dramatic footage, and Lou isn't too concerned about how he is going to get it.
Things escalate quickly in the second half of the film. I won't give away too much--but Lou isn't the type of person who abides by a few feet of yellow police tape that say "Do not Proceed." He hires an assistant, a down-on-his-luck dude who works for less than minimum wage and is frightened of Lou's personality, and they traverse the city searching for the most violent, shocking and exciting images to film. And like the images that Lou films, we--the viewer--keep diving down into depths of tension and excitement, wonder if Lou's downfall will ever come. Gyllenhall is not a likable person as Lou, but in the context of watching Nightcrawler, he's an extremely likable character for the viewer because he's so damn weird and interesting and will do anything for a better camera angle and more news recognition.
Nightcrawler surely touches on the 24 hour news cycle and it's portents of immense fear: they pay far more for footage of violent crimes that take place in the white and wealthy neighborhoods. A carjacking in "the hood" doesn't equal ratings--a murder in a mansion does. This also ties into the exploitation of crime and victims in a world only looking for the next image to shock. But these metaphors aren't what sticks with you for the next couple days after Nightcrawler: it's Gyllenhaal as Lou, his gaunt features behind the hand-held camera, filming a bloody mess until he moves onto the next. (B+)
Thursday, October 30, 2014
I'm a huge fan of Joe Hill's novels: Stephen King's talented son has written three of them, two of which have produced that same wonder and horror that we've all experienced in older King novels like The Shining. Horns is a tough film to sell to audiences, though: it's about a young guy, Ig, who may or may not have raped and murdered his girlfriend. One morning, he wakes up after a heavy night of drinking and Devil horns are growing out of his forehead, and everyone in his presence begins telling him and acting on their deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings. The tone in the book flashes between horror, humor and fantasy with incredible expertise, but the film doesn't fair quite as well. It's not real fault of anyone: Daniel Radcliffe, portraying another character who has an abnormal bond with snakes, actually does a wonderful job of shedding the Harry Potter skin, conveying anger and hopelessness with a touching fervor. Director Alexandre Aja (whose previous work consisted of the oogle-naked-booby mess that was Piranha 3D) actually portrays some stylish scenes, but they are mixed in with work that seems pretty amateur. When reading the novel, getting sucked into Horns' world of gritty humor and shocking surprises takes no effort at all. But the film leaves you wanting more, and it strikes an uneven tone between amusing, weird, and unintentionally comical. (B-)
The Purge: Anarchy
Last year's The Purge had a really intriguing concept: all crime (basically) is legal for 24 hours once a year--essentially purging the country of its over-population problem. And I actually thought the film--anchored by Ethan Hawke's performance--was entertaining enough. But one criticism was that the film's sights were set in too small of an area--one neighborhood street, and specifically one house where a group of freaky teenage bad guys are trying to break in. The Purge: Anarchy attempts the first film's formula, except aiming a little higher: this purge takes place in the numerous streets, blocks and alleyways of an entire populated city. It also deals much more with the socio-economic reasons for the purge, but let's face it: these films are all about tension and violence. Frank Grillo (as Leo) stands out here as the man-of-few words, a sort-of hero on a mysterious mission who periodically resorts to being a badass, mowing down sickos with style and manliness. The Purge: Anarchy is an attempt at saying something worthwhile about the government, the homeless, and crime in America. But since it has nothing specific to say, the viewer just waits for the next set-up for a cool kill. (C+)
Obvious Child is about Donna, a woman who has had a really shitty go of life for the past few weeks: her boyfriend has cheated on her and left her, the bookstore where she works is being sold, and she's sunken into a bit of a depression. Donna is portrayed by former Saturday Night Live cast member Jenny Slate, and she rides the line between being very funny and almost annoying. Luckily the funny far outweighs the annoying: Donna is a comedian and it's clear to see how her self-deprecating ways have led her down this path in life. Then one random drunken night, she meets Max, a cute and nice student who takes a liking to her vulgarity. They have a one night stand and...I won't spoil the rest. Obvious Child was a huge hit at the film festival circuit earlier this year, and the praise is well-deserved: this "romantic comedy" is witty and deals with life issues that should be more in the open rather than shunned and hidden. It's one of the funnier films I've seen this year. (B+)
John Wick succeeds by keeping it simple, stupid. Every year produces films based on exacting revenge on those who have wronged you, usually because they hurt someone or some thing that you have loved. Just a few weeks ago, Denzel Washington snapped because a hooker with a heart of gold got beaten bloody, taking out hordes of foreign gangsters with guns and power tools. This past week, we had a Keanu Reeves come-back of sorts, as he stars in John Wick, which is surprising in it's simple effectiveness. Rather than attempt to blow the viewer away with massive explosions and action set pieces, Wick impresses with it's claustrophobic gun-play and martial arts fights that are violent and intense. The plot is intentionally a bit of a joke: John's wife dies of Cancer. Bad Dudes break into John's house and do some bad stuff. John breaks out of "retirement" to kill those who have wronged him. Keanu is great in the titular role: when there's barely a back story and plot, we can focus on the cool factor and impressive stunt work that Keanu performs. First time director Chad Stahelski (Reeves' former stunt double) is precise and stylistic in the choreography and cinematography--it's an impressive debut. I did grow tired of John Wick by the end credits, which isn't a great sign since it has short run time. But Wick is still an action journey well-worth taking, and showcases a comeback for fans of Reeves. (B)
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Gone Girl tells the story of a dream (or nightmare) marriage between Nick and Amy Dunne. It's as simple as this: one day, Nick comes home and the living room looks like a crime scene--the coffee table is broken, a ottoman is flipped over, there are spots of blood in the kitchen. But there's no sign of Amy. Nick calls the police (naturally) and so begins the investigation that makes up the entirety of Gone Girl. The film is told through two distinct lenses: the present day one, focusing on Nick and the investigation and corresponding search, and the past one: flashbacks from Amy's written diary, which depicts a far-less-than-perfect marriage as the years went by. It's impossible to know who to trust since we're seeing two differing stories of the relationship, and that's the best part (and the point) of Gone Girl. And in an era of deceit and 24-news coverage of crimes, opinions and allegiances are played like a game of chess.
The plot twists in Gone Girl hit a bit harder if you've never read the novel, and it's definitely not essential to have read the source material to enjoy this adaptation. It's probably better if you haven't read Gillian Flynn's phenomenon. Once the film gets going, Nick becomes a suspect--too many things are "off", and he has such a weird attitude toward possibly losing his wife. Part of the fun is deciding whether it's just the way he acts or if he's a sociopath. He has plenty of secrets of his own--but so does Amy: she disappeared on their wedding anniversary, and she has left behind a treasure hunt of sorts complete with written clues that may lead the investigators to the actual truth of what happened between this couple.
Gone Girl is far from perfect. My main complaint deals with the film's tone: Flynn adapted the script from her own novel, and it's actually a bit overwritten. There's too much dialogue, too many attempts at humor (and the film is funny at times, but I just didn't think it corresponded well with the seriousness of domestic violence and murder), too much focus on the pretty obvious satire of The Media, particularly the Nancy Grace-esque character that the film's main stars are constantly watching. And it's views on marriage are a little concerning if you're not the most cynical person in the world. If it wasn't for Fincher's skill at moving things along at a flashy and brisk pace, Gone Girl could have been the equivalent of US magazine: a sleazy, guilty-pleasure waste of time. Instead, it's something a bit more: a not-quite-trash not-quite-treasure entertaining story of one insane marriage. (B)
Saturday, September 27, 2014
The Drop, also known as the great James Gandolfini's last film, is a crime drama ripped from the pages of a Dennis Lehane work (his 2009 short story "Animal Rescue"), and it seethes with grimy backstreet Brooklyn drama about the Mob, seedy bars, and the characters that inhabit those drinking establishments. You can almost smell the smoke and stale beer. It's about a secretive and (seemingly) slow bartender (the always incredible Tom Hardy, who is completely transfixing here), Bob, who works hard for his boss (Gandolfini, showing angry regret) and one day finds a beaten-bloody pit bull puppy in the trash can of a woman's house that he walks past after work every night. Gandolfini runs a bar that is a "drop" for the Chechen mob, a dangerous group that takes power tools to their opposition. Bob begins a friendship with Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the homeowner where the dog was found: but nothing is what it seems. Connections are everywhere in The Drop, and the little pit bull sets off a chain reaction of events culminating in one of the biggest "drop" nights of the year: Super Bowl Sunday. The Drop is a slow build in the best sense possible, a film that actually satisfies in the final 15 minutes instead of leaving the viewer disappointed. Gandolfini still brings plenty of that Tony Soprano intensity--it's sad knowing that we won't see him ever again. But Hardy is the true wonder here. Is he too smart for his own good? Or too dumb to care? The Drop will leave you cheering for Bob, even if you're not quite sure who or what he is. (B+)
This is revenge wish fulfillment, an incredibly violent exercise in pain and torture that's bloody and graphic. Like with Denzel's Man on Fire, there are flashes of great style (this time by Training Day director Antoine Fuqua) and moments of stereotype. The Equalizer is also corny as can be. Maybe that can be attributed to the fact that the film is based up a 1980's television show of the same name: but some of the dialogue is just atrocious. However, none of these reasons stopped me from being completely entertained with The Equalizer, and that's mainly due to Denzel Washington's kick-ass performance as Bob. Him and Liam Neeson have perfected the art of middle age revenge. This is the type of film where you want Bob to slaughter every villain in his path, because, darn it, that's what he was born to do. Bob works at a Lowes-esque home improvement store, dealing out little nuggets of wisdom like a mom-jeans-wearing Confucius. He winks at the ladies, jokes with the younger crowd, and even helps train his fat co-worker who is trying to become a security guard. He also can't sleep at night, plagued by thoughts of a former life. When he befriends a young prostitute (played by Kick-Ass's Chloe Grace Moretz) and she gets beaten bloody by her pimp, Bob decides to use the skills he learned in a former life to take down an over-the-top world-spanning operation of Russian thugs. There's not much humor here: irony need not apply. If you enjoy watching Denzel creatively dispatch groups of bad guys (with a cool climax inside of the Home Depot), your ticket won't be wasted. If it's research for your screenplay, don't bother. (B-)
I had extremely high hopes for Frank in the first 10-15 minutes before the title card flashed across the screen. It was funny and unique watching Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a bored office worker, attempt to write catchy and profound songs in his head throughout the day. One day, Jon luckily gets the opportunity to play keyboard for a band in town (whose last keyboardist had a mental breakdown), called Soronprfbs, led by an eccentric man named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a paper-mache head over his own like an Arcade Fire roadie. Most of the film follows the band (which Jon becomes a part of) as they stay at a wooded retreat, recording their next record. No doubt Fassbender is incredibly interesting as the mentally unstable Frank, and Gleeson shows a wide range of emotions. But the film didn't stick for me. It takes short looks at unusual creative processes and the effects of fame relating to mental illness, but it doesn't spend enough time with either to become something truly profound. Frank is also about being an outsider in a world of 24/7 technology, but I was left feeling like an outsider myself, drowning in all of the film's eccentricities. (C+)
Monday, September 8, 2014
Director Richard Linklater has performed a similar experiment before with the "Before" series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), a wonderful trilogy shot once every 10ish years with the same actors dealing with their serendipitous relationship over that time period. To me, that story was more successful. Boyhood is about Mason, a young Texas child with a loving, trying-hard mom who has bad choices when picking men. Mason and his sister's biological dad (who is back in the area after abondoneing the family a couple years ago) is also back in the picture, and he's played with a mild charm by Ethan Hawke, buying them gifts and winking at the kids when he pisses off their mom (his ex-wife). The movie jumps ahead in time fairly often (you can usually tell because Mason's hairstyle is different), showcasing the progression of the characters through their lives. And like any of our lives, there are times of excitement and times of boredom--or in the case of the revolving door of alcoholic father figures, times of tension and terror.
Like a Malick film, there are moments in Boyhood of complete beauty and profound realizations about the human condition. But with a run time of nearly three hours (and who can blame the film's crew: this was quite a committed undertaking), there are too many minutes between each one. It's no fault of new actor Ellar Coltrane: his performance is just as impressive as watching him go from boy to a man in front of our eyes on the cinema screen. It's not hard to watch Boyhood and have some of the scenes relate to your own life, regardless of the upbringing you've had.
Life is made up of mundane moments, and Boyhood contains plenty of them. That's not exactly the problem. The issue is that the character of Mason barely registers major live events, or they aren't shown in the film at all. Death and love and and sex and sadness define each and every human, but we barely get any of that with Mason. Mason's mom (Patricia Arquette) chooses terrible husbands, but these scary experiences don't really seem to define Mason in any lasting way (or maybe they will in the life Mason leads after the credits role, but that doesn't help us during the movie's run time). I'm sure they would have affected me. Boyhood is incredibly well-meaning, a really cool experiment in film making, but it falls short of being a truly great film. (B)
Sunday, August 3, 2014
Guardians is a fairly unknown story to those outside of the comic book stores (myself included), but Marvel and director James Gunn create an instantly likable world. It feels like you've known these characters for years, and you root for them with as much passion as you would Iron Man or Thor. Our Guardians are a rag tag group of characters that come together (through their own reasons and motivations) to stop a ferocious villain, Ronan (Lee Pace), who has gotten his hands on a world-destroying orb and has a big-ass war hammer. Peter Quill aka Star Lord (a funny and lovable Chris Pratt) is our main hero, hunting for rare space booty like a futuristic Indiana Jones. Because of certain events, he's paired with the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a Raccoon and Tree duo named Rocket and Groot (the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel), and a muscled freak named Drax (portrayed by WWE wrestler Dave Bautista). The humor and interplay between the un-trusting character is the key to Guardians' success. Bautista, in particular, shines, switching between violence and humor like a pro.
Like many of these comic-book films, the plot deals primarily with the recovery of a world-destroying device containing a God-like power that every single character wants for different reasons (money, power, etc.) There are a couple dozen bit players (most notably Michael Rooker, who portrays Yondu Udonta, a blue bandit with a fun and dangerous weapon), and since the plot jumps around different alien cultures and worlds, it may seem like you could get confused. But if you focus on the fun, Guardians of the Galaxy becomes quite lovable, like a mischievous puppy that's cute and fun but occasionally does something to annoy you.
I went to Guardians of the Galaxy at the midnight showing on Thursday (which actually played at 7:15pm). It wasn't the best decision: the crowd contained a couple of guys (probably die-hard fans of the comics) that laughed loudly and uproariously at every single joke or half joke in the entire film. Sometimes you couldn't even hear the next line. This was extremely aggravating. So it's a testament to Guardians of the Galaxy that I still found it a funny and entertaining time. It's enough of a hit to be the start of another worthwhile franchise, and I think the second film--building on the humor-filled space opera of the first film--could reach another level of greatness in a Galaxy far, far away. (B+)
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
News reports at the beginning of the film show that the world is now a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Apes that Dawn focuses on live in the steep woods outside the crumbling city of San Francisco, where throughout the years following the human collapse their leader, Caesar (Serkis), has taught the rest of the apes to flourish. They can communicate through hand signals (and in the rare instance, speaking actual English). They haven't seen humans for years, and the majority think that it's for the best: since some of the apes had been experimented on (essentially tortured) in the first film, the distrust they feel is warranted. The new little prospering world that they have created is thrown into disarray when a few gun-equipped humans show up, looking to restore a dam to bring back some of the city's electricity.
One of the main problems with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also a bigger problem of Godzilla earlier this year) is the human characters. Gary Oldman portrays a sort-of military leader of the humans--it's safe to say that he's not keen on the apes controlling the land that the dam sits on. Keri Russell (damn good in FX's The Americans recently) pops up as the sympathizing significant other of Jason Clarke, who--like James Franco in the first film--realizes the potential and love that the apes can bring to Earth. But nobody impresses. The apes--led by Andy Serkis--portray far more emotion than their human counterparts. And when an ape deception occurs, you feel it as hard as any other human drama.
Like my the last film I reviewed, Snowpiercer, Dawn delves into social ideas about discrimination, equality, and deception. This time it's just humans vs. apes rather than humans vs. humans. But Dawn is good enough even if you're just there for the action. Sure, the image is (kinda) laughable of an ape duel-wielding machine guns riding a horse into battle. But with the tension-filled buildup, it's hard to not be excited by it. And Reeves stages some great scenes that have you picking sides, rooting for who you think is right. If you've been a bit bummed by this year's film entertainment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good remedy: an ape evolution that's thoughtful and thrilling. (B+)
Sunday, July 6, 2014
An experiment to end global warming has caused an ice age that almost has wiped out the entirety of Earth's population. The only survivors make it onto a train that flies along a global railway system powered by a mysterious man and his perpetual motion machine. The basics: the rich live in luxury at the front of the train, the poor people in the rear. Guards periodically arrive in the back of the train, giving our dirty downtrodden disgusting protein blocks (they look like old cranberry sauce) and occasionally taking children for unknown reasons. At the tip of the train, a mysterious man named Wilford resides, and his rule is law.
Everything is not swell, and a rebellion is brewing: led by our humble hero Curtis (Chris Evans, better known as Captain America), the less-fortunate come up with a plan to bust through the guards and gates to overtake the train. To do so, they need the help of an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who spends all of his time sniffing a mind-altering drug called Kronol, and his maybe-psychic daughter Yona. With their help, they attempt to move through the seemingly-mile-long train car by car. This is one of those films that mixes humor and shock and violence with a surreal skill. You just can't wait to see what is behind the next door, and it's always surprising.
The film doesn't reach for perfection; consequently, it's not perfect: the political messages in Snowpiercer are just a backdrop for the action-adventure story and the excitement to see what weird thing is contained in the next car. And some of the special effects (mostly the outside views of the train barreling through snowdrifts and tunnels) are far from stellar. I also didn't love the ending. But these thing's don't take the enjoyment away from the weird ride. If Snowpiercer teaches us one thing, it's that we need more foreign and unique ideas thrown into American cinema. Ten years from now, I want to be watching more films like this one--not Transformers 8: Transforming Yet Again. (A-)
Sunday, June 8, 2014
It's impossible to write or speak about Edge of Tomorrow without mentioning the obvious connections to Bill Murray's comedy classic Groundhog Day (and to a lesser extent, 2011's underrated Source Code). But Edge of Tomorrow never suffers from the similarities--if anything it thrives with them. The film begins in typical apocalyptic movie fashion: images of destruction and war and an unknown alien force flash across news screens, as Cruise's character (Maj. William Cage) spins a PR campaign with every reporter and newscaster for a pro-military intervention against the unknown force. Cage's biggest character flaw (and one of his biggest fears) is being involved in actual combat. So when a cocky general (portrayed by the great Brendan Gleeson) forces him to go to the front lines, Cage resists, is tasered, and wakes up in handcuffs at a military base near where a D-Day-style beach storming is about to happen the next day.
Cage gets thrown into battle, a chaotic storm of bullets, mech suits, bombs and lightning-fast slithering aliens called Mimics, only to die quickly, covered in an exploded Mimic's blood. But then he wakes up, handcuffed again, at the military base the day before. He meets the same people, gets harassed by the same Sergeant (a having-fun Bill Paxton), and gets thrown into the same group of soldiers. Only to go back into battle and die again. Wake up, die. Learn a little more. Wake up. Die. Learn a little more. Repeat. On the battlefield he meets Rita (Emily Blunt as a kick-ass heroine), the public face of the assault on the aliens, who seems to know what is happening to Cage. She tells Cruise to come find her when he wakes up, and this interaction sets in motion the majority of the mind-bending film.
Sure, in a film where the main character has to live the same day over and over again (maybe for thousands and thousands of times--you never really find out) there are going to be plot holes and derivative scenes that seem too familiar. Even the title sucks: Edge of Tomorrow. It was originally titled All You Need is Kill, the same name of the Japanese graphic novel which it is based. But who cares? This is an original film (not a sequel or reboot) that is imaginative and exciting in a sea of films which are the opposite of that. And by the looks of the blockbusters coming out in the next three months, it might be one of the best of the summer. (B+)
Thursday, May 29, 2014
The plot of Days of Future Past is seemingly intricate, with dozens of characters from multiple time periods intersecting and having their paths shaped by the events of the past and the future. But credit goes to a tight script and Singer's direction: everything is laid out in a natural and exciting way, and confusion never sets in. Though the ending is a bit predictable, the film is no less satisfying because of it. Here are the basics: in the future, mutants and humans who like mutants are segregated into work camps, slaves to the machine. These big and bad robot mofos that can adapt and use any mutant's ability (called Sentinels) are crushing the last of the mutants to bits, hunting them out like predators. A small band of mutants is surviving due to an important ability: projecting a person's consciousness back in time to warn them of incoming danger. This small band eventually meets up with our known heroes, namely Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine, and they all team up, deciding to send Wolverine's consciousness back to 1973 when an incredibly fateful moment for mutant plight occurred.
This incredibly fateful moment deals with the blue, shape-shifting Mystique (America's girl, J-Law) assassinating the future creator of the Sentinels, Dr. Boliver Trask (Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage). She gets captured, and the Bad Guys use her mutant DNA to make the Sentinels incredibly powerful. Wolverine goes back to stop Mystique from this fateful decision that changes the course of history. But first, he must enlist the help of the younger Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) who instead of being friends, like in the future, are mortal enemies after the events of First Class. There's a line in the previously mentioned Looper that deals with the complexity of explaining time travel: "We'd be here all day making diagrams with straws." The beauty of X:Men: Days of Future Past is that it doesn't need any explanation. It moves forward and backward in time with an organic symmetry full of fun scenes.
X-Men: Days of Future Past makes some other recent comic-based films look like total child's play (e.g. The newest Spiderman). It balances over a dozen characters, and though some mutants get significantly more screen time than others, you still feel as though you spent your movie money wisely. The villains, if you could even call them that term, have motivations that contain a complexity far more real than the typical world domination. And though the plot was sometimes a bit predictable, the fun-factor exceeds any specifics or questionable plot points of the time-travel story. It's super superhero summer entertainment. (A-)
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Obviously the quality is far superior than in the 1998 embarrassment directed by disaster-porn master Roland Emmerich, but that isn't saying much--not many films are considered worse. At least in this one we get former Walter White Bryan Cranston (who portrays Joe Brody) as a nuclear power-plant operator in Japan who loses his wife in a freak accident. 15 years later, he's gone a little bit wacko in his conspiracy theories and his son (Kick-Ass's Aaron Taylor-Johnson) must travel back to bail him out. Things don't go as planned, and Joe Brody begins to look like he's the only one who knows what he is talking about.
The human aspects of Godzilla suck. There's nothing new or original, nothing with enough emotion for you to care, and no characters that make you pine for their plight. You might say: "Who cares about the humans? The movie's called Godzilla. We're here for the Monster fights." That's all fine and damn dandy, but in the two-hour run time of Godzilla, there is precious little destruction other than the climax, except for the occasional shot that cuts far too quickly back to humans running around in disarray. Maybe the film-maker is building anticipation for the finale, which admittedly is cool (a group of soldiers jumping from 30,000 feet to deal with a nuclear device in the middle of a destructive monster battle). But it's too little, too late.
Godzilla isn't a bad film. But it isn't good, either. Both this year's Noah and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were far better displays of making entertainment with dozens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars injected into the their respective budgets. Above all, 2014's Godzilla just isn't fun. There weren't enough moments that brought a smile to face or butterflies into my belly (or any at all, really). It's typical movie-studio summer weekend placement: a massive and intriguing marketing campaign that leads to a movie that's all safe with no lasting stimulation. (C)