The impact of the Sept. 11 attacks are still felt all around the world. Government buildings, airports, and Hamburg, the city where Mohammed Atta and his associates planned their 2001 attack, have heightened security protocols. Even a decade later, 9/11 keeps intelligence officers in the German port city on high alert as Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, God’s Pocket) runs an anti-terrorism unit that’s all about biding their time and pulling in the biggest fish they can.
It’s the sort of realistic spy work that doesn’t always make for good cinema. Bachmann’s methods are slow and meticulous; he takes his time in order to build a chain of sources so vast that he can topple the whole organization.
It’s a trait that runs throughout the film to a fault, as the audience follows Bachmann around the city grooming his pathway to higher-profile suspects. As he chases after Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), an immigrant seeking asylum in the German Islamic community, Bachmann’s search takes its time, winding through his network and strategies. He makes a complicated play involving Karpov’s human rights attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Midnight in Paris) to use Karpov to topple a target his team has been tracking for months.
The movie was adapted from a 2008 novel by John le Carré, and there’s definitely the same slow boil that was present in another le Carré adaptation, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Both films focus on a protagonist with palpable weariness and a fabulous cast that can’t quite shake the complexity of its story.
The plot, although complicated and a bit dry, does manage for a steadily absorbing and compelling story. “A Most Wanted Man” falters in constantly having to deal with and explain the complexity of its spy work, never managing to fully settle its focus on the characters. The movie is methodical in its hunt of every fact, number, and figure, while leaving the personality of its cast in the background.
Though his accent isn’t perfect, this is another great performance from the late Hoffman. He’s the perfect embodiment of a cigarette-fueled anti-hero, convinced of what he’s doing in a post-9/11 world. His turn as a dilapidated intelligence worker helps to carry the plot through even its more tedious moments.
Although there isn’t too much he can do to untwist the plot from all the slow-paced, brooding turns it needs to take, it’s admirably textured; taking leaps so that audiences don’t get everything spelled out for them. But in the end, “A Most Wanted Man” stays too entrenched in its stiff analytical side, and not enough into the personality of its players. It’ll make for great fair for those looking for a unhurried summer spy thriller. But unlike the politics it founds itself on, it won’t leave much of a lasting effect.
Verdict: A gradually enthralling spy thriller rooted meticulous counter-intelligence strategy. Emphasis on “gradually.”
Let’s just get this out of the way: The idea that humans would be omnipotent if they had access to more than ten percent of their brain is false. While it’s true that humans don’t use all of their brain at once, it would be like saying we don’t use our legs when we’re sitting. That said, the concept does make for an intriguing premise.
The science fiction takes flight as Lucy (Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is forced to become a drug mule for an Asian crime syndicate. But when the drugs start leaking into her system, she starts being able to access more and more of her brain, gaining powers, and transforming herself into a vengeful and merciless warrior who will seek retribution at any cost.
Scenes are cut between well-timed flashes of the animal kingdom (cheetahs stalking a gazelle as Lucy is about to get nabbed by the mob) and convenient narration by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, The Dark Knight trilogy, The Lego Movie), who Lucy eventually finds to help explain her newfound powers.
“Lucy” is the kind of movie that’s, if not clever, then at least snazzy in its own action-packed kind of way. The setup is almost inconsequential to the actual plot, since as Lucy gets a higher and higher brain capacity she’s stripped of her more human elements. As the movie continues it becomes clearer that there really wasn’t a need to set it in Taipei, except maybe to make it look like they have an explanation for the bad guys all being people of color. They don’t.
Johansson is just the kind of actress who can turn from helpless hostage to placidly powerful in the span of a couple minutes. The naturally entrancing vibe in her acting has already taken a deadly and unearthly turn this year in “Her” and “Under the Skin,” and “Lucy” only heightens that persona with some elements of “Limitless” and mainstream blockbuster. But though she carries the role well through the movie, she can’t quite compensate for the utter pseudo-intellectualism that runs rampant through the movie.
It’s definitely a movie that — for all the flaws in its premise — revels in its preposterousness. As Lucy is able to access more and more of her brain power, obstacles (and people) in the plot just float away. Before too long she’s so powerful that there don’t seem to be any stakes she couldn’t handle if she wanted to, so it’s lucky that the action and dazzling visuals are there to distract the audience from the wholly invisible Lucy. Even if her main foe is a dastardly mobster with a fully-loaded arsenal.
The biggest problem is that “Lucy” is trying so hard to be smarter than it is. It could be a sound, if slightly absurd, action movie, but it strives to be something that speaks to the human condition and science, instead of just watching Scarlett Johansson all but take over the world. While they’re watching, audiences are sure to be in for some mind-expanding action, but ultimately the film won’t be blowing any minds.
Verdict: Though it has some solid action scenes, “Lucy” never manages to access more than 80 percent of its potential.
Every once in a while there comes a movie so ambitious, so extensive, that it’s hard to believe the film itself could live up to the hype. Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” seemed like the textbook definition of such a movie.
Shot intermittently over 12 years, the eponymous boyhood belongs to Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) who the audience sees through snapshots of his life starting when he’s only six years old. The film follows his growth and relationship with his divorced parents, Mason (Ethan Hawke, Before trilogy, Gattaca) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette, Holes, TV’s Medium), all the way through to when he’s just another 18-year-old leaving for college.
The description of “Boyhood” seems like a project that’s cool in theory but couldn’t quite come together — how could it, carrying the narrative of one kid over the course of twelve years? But luckily, thanks to Linklater’s talent for realism and natural dialogue, the movie is a masterpiece.
If his “Before” trilogy was a sort of microcosm, examining the lives of two people within a certain number of hours, then “Boyhood” is the macro-cosmic other side of the coin: 12 years in only three hours. Its stance is vast, covering everything from divorce to abuse, to revelations of personal philosophies.
There’s no three acts, no grand finale, per se. “Boyhood” barely even gives its characters a chance to stop and establish the changing years; the audience is left to deduce it from a character walking through a door and suddenly having braces, or a mop haircut.
But between the period-laden effect of the soundtrack, or clues left as time markers, the actors bring surprising honesty and authenticity to their roles. Hawke and Arquette are just as much in the thick of growing up as Coltrane is. It’s both rare and refreshing that “Boyhood” leaves its protagonist without a life-changing heart-to-heart with one of his parents, leaving him instead to develop his own sense of life.
Though most major events happen off screen, in between the episodes and snippets that Linklater chooses to show, the effects are still felt rippling through, providing an odd — but poignantly realistic — sort of narrative that carries throughout the film. Linklater sidesteps the “big” moments of Mason’s boyhood, what are normally considered the meatier action bits, to knowingly create a whole new way to capture adulthood.
Based on the way people are talking about “Boyhood,” it sounds as if it verges on pretentious, but the movie’s ability to stick to its simple nature, exploring the supposedly boring space between life’s bigger moments and revealing in them how much definition of our own character is there, keeps it grounded and authentic.
The audience may not have gone through the same experiences Mason Jr. does, but there’s a little bit of everyone in Coltrane’s Mason Jr. As we watch him struggle with his crushes, his classmates, his sister, or his parents, we can all hearken back to a time where our growth crossed paths with his.
As the film progresses, the characters become more nuanced, the actors become more experienced, and the whole production seems to knit itself together in a way no other movie really can. That’s probably the hand of Linklater’s stylized realism at work, mirroring how Mason Jr. might actually be recalling his boyhood. The coming-of-age cliches are stripped down and the traditional rites of passage removed until all that’s left is a simple boyhood; perhaps the most true-to-life coming-of-age film so far.
Verdict: A magnum-opus for all involved, “Boyhood” is the most realistic coming-of-age film yet
Before sci-fi was synonymous with dazzling graphics and big budget blockbusters, before it was a way for smart writers to blend their far fetched ideas with technology that wasn’t around, before it was ever merged with the realm of action movies, it served a simple purpose: to ask what if. For ages, science fiction asked questions of its viewers, contrasting hypothetical society’s with our own, holding a mirror to the systems in place.
As does “Snowpiercer” where, thanks to man’s mishandling of the global warming crisis, Earth has frozen over. The only survivors continue to inhabit the Snowpiercer, a train with a perpetually-moving engine, 17 years later. But the eternal locomotive’s remnants of the old world live on in a classist system, where the riders in the front of the car are afforded luxury while those in the tail section live in crowded filth. But not for long. Because tail-enders Curtis (Chris Evans, Captain America, The Avengers) and Gilliam (John Hurt, 1984, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) are brewing up a revolution to take control of the engine.
“Snowpiercer” is that rare summer sci-fi movie that takes its concept and utilizes it to the fullest. The film explores layer after layer of injustice, all while really exploring what it would be like to wage class warfare on a train going through a frozen tundra. It has the same fiber of a big summer movie, but takes trope after trope of the classic blockbuster fanfare and transforms them into something much more grounded and compelling.
The movie is mesmerizing in its action as well as in its acting. Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitvale Station) makes a perfect Tanya, another tail-ender who’s fighting to find her son, never bringing her character to either extreme of ‘mother’ or ‘rebel’ archetype. Instead she blends the two sides into a wholly believable character. She’s the deeply-caring, maverick mother who’s the antithesis of Tilda Swinton’s (Only Lovers Left Alive,Moonrise Kingdom) Mason, who brutally and unambiguously preaches order in the tail section.
But it’s Evans who carries the movie. It’s a sly touch, casting Captain America as a man fighting for justice at the end of the world, and it pays off. He delivers one of the stronger performances of his career, and by the end he’s gone through so much it’s hard to believe he’s still the same man he was before. It may not be perfect, but it’s a great flip side to his normal boy scout routine.
Director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Memories of Murder) certainly delivers some cold bite into the summer with his English-language debut. His eccentric style has made the sci-fi genre a safe place to think boldly and cleverly. It may seem like a tall order to invest so much into a new perspective and edge but don’t worry, you’ll warm up to it.
The recent release of Amma Asanté’s Belle is not the first dramatization of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle—and for good reason. Inspired by historical events surrounding the life of the eponymous Belle (called Dido in life and in film), the film generously chooses to fill in the historical blanks with somewhat of a fairy tale.
Indeed, fans of enchanting costume dramas will be happy to find a story complete with scathing critique of British high society and heartwarming promises of love’s ability to overcome prejudice and circumstance. However, viewers hoping to find commentary relevant to contemporary audiences may be disappointed.
First person accounts and historical documents offer sparse, yet intriguing accounts of a woman born to a white British naval officer and an enslaved African woman in late 18th century England. From this starting point, the film opens with Dido’s father, Sir John Lindsay, collecting his young daughter from the West Indies after the death of her mother. Lindsay deposits Dido with his aunt and uncle, who promise to raise her as a free gentlewoman.
What follows are the inevitable complications surrounding Dido’s life: a seminal court battle regarding the legality of British slavery is presided over by her uncle, and Dido’s interest in the case prompts her to newly examine her identity and combat the notion that she is, “too high of rank to dine with the servants, but too low of rank to dine with my own family.”
The premise is full of potential, but the film ultimately does little to challenge its audience to re-configure any of their existing thoughts regarding race or status. Much of this is due to the construction of the characters, who remain consistently un-nuanced despite skilled performances all around.
The audience can safely identify with Dido’s steadfastly noble family and righteous love interest, or cast judgment upon cartoonishly villainous suitors, all without being asked to see contemporary parallels in any of the seemingly outdated prejudice and subjugation which the film depicts.
One of the only exceptions to this is the construction of the film’s title character. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Odd Thomas, Larry Crowne) instills into the role of Dido the impeccable grace of good breeding, while simultaneously charming the audience with all manner of identifiable minutia: giddiness towards dresses shared with her sister, quiet anxiety surrounding being depicted in portrait amongst (almost) entirely white faces, and, finally, not-so-quiet rebellion regarding her future within society and her investment in the promise of an end to the British slave trade.
Ultimately, however, Belle does not make for thought-provoking fare. Without realistically complex characters, moments in which the film presents conflict that can be translated to present day are few and far between. Nevertheless, it is sure to satisfy any audience member’s desire for delightful, consumable period drama; the political, familial, and romantic arcs all coincide for a satisfying, though predictable, finale. And for an extra kick, the true story at the center of the sweetly constructed tale promises all kinds of possibilities for adaptations to come. For whatever political shortcomings Belle may have, this will certainly not be the last we hear of Dido Elizabeth Belle.
Spike Jonze has certainly etched himself as one of the more creative and influential directors of our time. Bread in the new school of self-taught auteurs, Jonze has created his own compelling brand of cinema, placing offbeat characters in realistically tender scenarios. But the true stamp of a Spike Jonze film is his touches of magical realism that elevate his works beyond bizarre pieces and force his audience to constantly engage with his films.
It is this ability to navigate and bend genres that allowed Jonze to draw such artistry and poignancy out of a premise as strange that in Her.It’s what can described as a Redditor’s fan fiction, Her depicts the lonesome Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix The Master, Walk the Line) and his budding relationship with his artificially intelligent OS Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier).
In the hands of a lesser writer or director, the film could have easily been cheapened or become farcical. Jonze, however, maintains a steadfast hand over his film and script. From the warmth of the pink-kissed color palate to the wistful score featuring Karen O’s “Moon Song,” Jonze creates an atmosphere built on trust and vulnerability. Even as he moves his film into more emotional intensity, he never betrays his audience’s investment, and treats his material with severe yet sincere reliability.
The film is buoyed by strong performances by it’s two leads. Even though Johansson is only a voice, the chemistry between her and Phoenix is palpable. The two performances complement each other perfectly, with Phoenix’s touching physicality and Johansson’s melodic tenderness. Both are halves of a beautiful dissection into a relationship.
Their relationship is set against a delicate picture of the future. In both costume and aeshetic, the Her universe seems like a realistic extension of our modern technological framework. It’s the perfect balance between futuristic predictions and muted change that creates just the right feeling of normalcy for its tale.
Her is a rare type of film with the unique quality of taking a step back from reality to take a closer look into it. We see ourselves in the best and worst of Theodore and Samantha, making us ponder and reconcile the choices we have made in interacting with others. That maybe the best solace doesn’t come from other people or gadgets, but somewhere in between. Someone like her.
There are bad days, and then there are no terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. Brooklyn comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate, Parks and Rec’s Mona Lisa Saperstein) is having one of those. She finds herself dumped, fired, and pregnant just in time for Valentine’s Day. And then she does the rom-com unthinkable: she schedules an abortion.
It may sound like no small feat, but honestly, this simple choice alone is groundbreaking as far major cinema goes. Despite their relative frequency here in the U.S., abortion remains a pervasively stigmatized topic. People who have dealt with abortions feel a need to hide their experiences.
So while there’s a place for the Juno MacGuff’s in the world, there’s a quiet revolutionary element to a movie where the female lead has her heart set on obtaining an abortion. And thanks to Robespierre’s backdrop and Slate’s delightfully nuanced performance, Obvious Child is, without a doubt, the best abortion comedy you’ll see all year.
Not that it needs all those qualifiers. I’m serious guys, this movie is A++; delightful, and charming to boot. Donna is quick-witted, awkward, and observant; the perfect mix of millennial stereotype with honest woman in unfamiliar territory. Slate carries the film with an elegant realism; breathing character and voice into an experience that feels free from any sort of judgement. In Obvious Child women freely discuss their past experiences with abortion, and it’s clear that a baby — or pregnancy, as the case may be — is not in the stars for Donna Stern.
There’s still a sense of gravity to the film (how could there not be over such a third-rail topic?) but it never bogs the movie, or Donna, down. The movie remains inviting throughout, making it an easy and obvious choice to pop in when you’re having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Marvel films have been churned out at a breakneck speed. They’ve already moved on to the third tier Marvel heroes and multiple reboots. It was inevitable that they would circle round to making a sequel and milking each franchise dry. In this day and age, we have become accustomed to rather uninspired sequel fare. These films often suffer from oversaturating scripts with new characters, recycling plotlines, or mistaking confounding arcs for complexity. So color us skeptical whenever we fork over $11.50 for the latest addition into the Marvel canon.
However, we were pleasantly surprised by this year’s sequel offerings. Both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men Days of Future’s Past steer clear of any sort of sequel trappings and make for solid summertime spectacle.
The original Captain America was rather ho-hum, mirroring the titular character. It’s difficult to spin a boy scout into a 3-dimensional character, where the divisions between right and wrong are clearly and predictably drawn.
The Winter Soldier takes a grittier and more ambiguous approach. The Cap now has a darker outlook and with it a shaken moral compass, delving deeper into consequences of Captain America adjusting to the 21st century. What he once knew to be true is gone and he must now reconcile those inequities.
The film also demonstrates some smart writing by veering away from any expected campiness, instead grounding the script with a contemporary update. The film plays more like a spy thriller than a superhero film; delivering self-aware humor with biting political commentary, making it more than your mother’s Captain America.
Days of Future’s Past seemed, if you’ll pardon the pun, like a timebomb. X-Men films had a hard enough time juggling large cast, let alone doing so across multiple timelines. However, the script is wise in not taking on too much and streamlining its narrative, focusing mainly on the development of the young Charles Xavier and Mystique.
Of course an X-Men film would be remiss without a tour-de-mutants, but it is handled in a way where our investment is logically placed with Xavier and Mystique. Providing fresh perspectives on the troubled and formative years of these two X Men icons, it provides enough compelling character development to keep the film humming along between the quirky wit and sleek action sequences.
While these films are far from perfect, they provide a nice break from usually bland and bloated blockbuster fare. They are able to couple dazzling action set pieces with keenly written scripts to keep even the biggest sequel naysayer quiet. So yes Marvel, keep the sequels coming. I mean they are bound to be better than Ant-Man.
Granted, music journalists are a special breed. The best of them will judge you for your taste in music but never write you off. Bad ones are so swept up in the pretension that you want to drown them in pop music. But it’s a safe bet that no matter which one you meet finds their field in a state of flux.
Which is the case for Ellie Klug (Toni Collette, Hitchcock, Little Miss Sunshine), a middle-aged, Seattle journalist; a holdover from the bygone days of Seattle’s hotspot rock and grunge scene. Coming up on the anniversary of indie rock-god (and ex-boyfriend) Matthew Smith’s CD release, she’s too busy boozing about and flirting with young musicians to care. But she quickly finds herself teamed up with an eccentric, amateur, documentary filmmaker (Thomas Haden Church, Heaven is for Real, Easy A) to hit the road in search of answers.
It’s a quirky take on the mid-life crisis flick, littered with Sub Pop memorabilia and strong performances from its leads, that proves largely forgettable. If there’s anything to be said for it, it’s that it’s an actor’s showcase of channeling emotion into effective carrying.
Church is delightful, as always, nailing the comedic timing with his dry enthusiasm. His sarcastic deadpan all at once brings affection and disassociation making his performance a key element of the movie. Collette similarly proves herself capable of anything, including turning an honest and complexly flawed character from a script that only supplies the bare bones. The plot swims by; intriguing enough to finish out the mystery, watch the chaos of Ellie’s life collect, and see the Seattle streets slip by.
“Lucky Them” makes the most of its hour-and-a-half runtime with heart and unlikely friendship. If that sounds corny it’s because it is, but Collette and Church’s chemistry is so delightfully kooky it comes off as a fluid companionship between two very different people. Getting to the end of their journey may not make you feel lucky, but it’s definitely not a bad flick to pull of Netflix to warm your heart.
Set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, “Half of a Yellow Sun” follows Olanna (Thandie Newton, The Pursuit of Happyness, Run Fatboy Run) and Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejifor, 12 Years a Slave, Kinky Boots) through their lives before and during the war. Olanna comes from a sophisticated family; she and her sister just returned from getting their education in England. Odenigbo, is a “radical professor,” who has a growing interest in the Igbo people struggling to create Biafra as an independent republic.
The story is an adaptation of the 2006 bestselling novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian feminist and writer whose TEDx talk was recently sampled by Beyoncé in her song “***Flawless.” The film is a sprawling story, anchored in strong performances by Newton and Ejifor, who each bring a quiet intensity to their roles, which drive the heart of “Half of a Yellow Sun.”
Most book adaptations can delve into episodic, and “Half of a Yellow Sun” is no exception. There’s a lot of ground to cover between the personal lives of Odengibo, Olanna, and her sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls, The Princess and the Frog). Frequently it can feel as if the movie is delving into melodrama of the sisters’ lives and relationships, and though strong performances carry the film through its low points, it doesn’t erase them completely.
It might not stay with you forever; melodrama in book adaptations rarely do. And for all the finer points of the movie it’s hard to get past that. But there’s heart and history to be had in “Half of a Yellow Sun,” and set against the gorgeous Nigerian backdrop that’s not half bad.