August 13, 2014
Most people would probably not turn down an invitation to go home with Scarlett Johansson. But most people would also not expect Scarlett Johansson to be an alien out to harvest human organs. That provocative notion is the exact premise of Jonathan Glazer’s, Under the Skin.
As could be inferred from the premise the best word to describe the film would be unsettling, and Glazer certainly deploys all the cinematic techniques in his arsenal to reach the desired ambiance. The visuals are bold and terrifying, using blaring lights and criss shadows that pain us to watch but find difficult to look away. He is also able to able to contrast that with more muted grey palettes that create foreboding landscapes. All of this is accompanied by one of the most purposeful scores of the year. The combination of a deep pulsating percussion and cacophonous screeches make sure that anxiety never leaves the room.  
Despite being rather polished from a cinematic perspective, the film finds itself lacking in both pacing and structure. The first half of the films plays like a monster movie from the perspective of the monster, where we see Scarlett Johansson as “The Alien” lure unsuspecting men into their eviscerated deaths. Then, there is a tonal shift in the second half, where The Alien begins to sympathize with humans and drudges throughout England pondering her isolation and identity. 
While this shift could have certainly made for an intriguing narrative, the execution failed to live up to its lofty goals. The first half of the films becomes very repetitive in its stalk and capture structure while the second half feels drawn out and aimless. Scarlett Johansson certainly flexes her acting chops in the role, by moving between a seductive killer and melancholy wanderer, but because the film is barely tethered to it plot, we never truly identify with her character or the overall story.  
As one of the more challenging films of the year, Under the Skin is sure not going to whet every filmgoer’s appetite.  Those who enjoy more experimental works such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead can look tol appreciate it’s bizarre and existential look on scifi horror.  For the rest of us, it might just get under our skin.    

Most people would probably not turn down an invitation to go home with Scarlett Johansson. But most people would also not expect Scarlett Johansson to be an alien out to harvest human organs. That provocative notion is the exact premise of Jonathan Glazer’s, Under the Skin.

As could be inferred from the premise the best word to describe the film would be unsettling, and Glazer certainly deploys all the cinematic techniques in his arsenal to reach the desired ambiance. The visuals are bold and terrifying, using blaring lights and criss shadows that pain us to watch but find difficult to look away. He is also able to able to contrast that with more muted grey palettes that create foreboding landscapes. All of this is accompanied by one of the most purposeful scores of the year. The combination of a deep pulsating percussion and cacophonous screeches make sure that anxiety never leaves the room.  

Despite being rather polished from a cinematic perspective, the film finds itself lacking in both pacing and structure. The first half of the films plays like a monster movie from the perspective of the monster, where we see Scarlett Johansson as “The Alien” lure unsuspecting men into their eviscerated deaths. Then, there is a tonal shift in the second half, where The Alien begins to sympathize with humans and drudges throughout England pondering her isolation and identity.

While this shift could have certainly made for an intriguing narrative, the execution failed to live up to its lofty goals. The first half of the films becomes very repetitive in its stalk and capture structure while the second half feels drawn out and aimless. Scarlett Johansson certainly flexes her acting chops in the role, by moving between a seductive killer and melancholy wanderer, but because the film is barely tethered to it plot, we never truly identify with her character or the overall story.  

As one of the more challenging films of the year, Under the Skin is sure not going to whet every filmgoer’s appetite.  Those who enjoy more experimental works such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead can look tol appreciate it’s bizarre and existential look on scifi horror.  For the rest of us, it might just get under our skin.    

August 10, 2014
There’s plenty of familiarity in Woody Allen’s 44th feature, “Magic in the Moonlight.” An odd pairing of people who debate philosophies in a beautiful location. This time, it’s the gorgeous southern France in the 1920s, where Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The King’s Speech) is taking a break from his stage-duties of a magician in yellowface as “Wei Ling Soo.” Persuaded by his childhood friend Howard (Simon McBurney), he ventures to the Catledge family mansion hoping to debunk young Sophie Baker (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-man series, The Help) as a clairvoyant swindling the family out of their money. 
Though it’ll likely go down in history as one of the weaker entries to Allen’s extensive canon (especially after last year’s Blue Jasmine), overall “Magic in the Moonlight” is certainly a lighthearted one. It’s not quite a farce, but it’s not prime-Allen either. With only a 97-minute run time it’s lightness can venture on uneven at certain points, especially as a not too romantic romcom. 
But its leads, Firth and Stone, are adept at picking up some of the slack. The pair, mismatched as they may seem, does find something adjacent to chemistry, if only due to their own likeable styles. They make the most of Allen’s witty script, giving the flick a charismatic Wildean feel. 
But all things considered the movie generally softballs what would have the potential to be a really sharp comedy. There aren’t many twists, turns, or surprises to make the film happen organically, rather than just as it needs to happen. As Firth and Stone battle wits and beliefs in the unexplainable, the film expects its audience to just trust that there’s a growing love between them. 
All in all though, the film is too light on its feet to really get bogged down. Though its scope is vast (Allen’s classic musings on death and the bigger meaning run rampant), the film strolls along, at an easy pace through scenic backdrops, focused on the vexation of love and trickery, as well as curing Stanley Crawford of his woefully cynical disposition. It takes after its leading lady: though it’s not going down as one as one of Allen’s modern classics, it sure does have a lot of charisma. 

The verdict: In terms of Woody Allen’s magic touch, this one is a bit more “Scoop” than “Annie Hall.”

There’s plenty of familiarity in Woody Allen’s 44th feature, “Magic in the Moonlight.” An odd pairing of people who debate philosophies in a beautiful location. This time, it’s the gorgeous southern France in the 1920s, where Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The King’s Speech) is taking a break from his stage-duties of a magician in yellowface as “Wei Ling Soo.” Persuaded by his childhood friend Howard (Simon McBurney), he ventures to the Catledge family mansion hoping to debunk young Sophie Baker (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-man series, The Help) as a clairvoyant swindling the family out of their money.

Though it’ll likely go down in history as one of the weaker entries to Allen’s extensive canon (especially after last year’s Blue Jasmine), overall “Magic in the Moonlight” is certainly a lighthearted one. It’s not quite a farce, but it’s not prime-Allen either. With only a 97-minute run time it’s lightness can venture on uneven at certain points, especially as a not too romantic romcom.

But its leads, Firth and Stone, are adept at picking up some of the slack. The pair, mismatched as they may seem, does find something adjacent to chemistry, if only due to their own likeable styles. They make the most of Allen’s witty script, giving the flick a charismatic Wildean feel.

But all things considered the movie generally softballs what would have the potential to be a really sharp comedy. There aren’t many twists, turns, or surprises to make the film happen organically, rather than just as it needs to happen. As Firth and Stone battle wits and beliefs in the unexplainable, the film expects its audience to just trust that there’s a growing love between them.

All in all though, the film is too light on its feet to really get bogged down. Though its scope is vast (Allen’s classic musings on death and the bigger meaning run rampant), the film strolls along, at an easy pace through scenic backdrops, focused on the vexation of love and trickery, as well as curing Stanley Crawford of his woefully cynical disposition. It takes after its leading lady: though it’s not going down as one as one of Allen’s modern classics, it sure does have a lot of charisma.

The verdict: In terms of Woody Allen’s magic touch, this one is a bit more “Scoop” than “Annie Hall.”

August 9, 2014
Director and writer Jesse Zwick’s debut film “About Alex” picks up right as Alex (Jason Ritter) tweets out a suicide note. Yup — tweets. As news spreads to his best friend Ben (Nate Parker) and his long-time girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace) they pass along the word to their gaggle of college friends, and they all come out to Alex’s country house for a weekend away.
Sound familiar? If it does it’s because it’s essentially the same premise of the 1980s film “The Big Chill,” except in that one Alex’s suicide is successful. Here, Zwick uses Ritter’s sheepish style to provide a catalyst for all the simmering tension and jealousies that run rampant through the group. Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) has a tricky sexual past with Josh (Max Greenfield), but also has always had a thing for Isaac (Max Minghella), who comes to the weekend with his new, younger girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy).
With all those balls in the air, “About Alex” is tackling too much and too little, all at once. Beyond the depression and disassociation current that haunts the house, the characters themselves are dealing with “millennial problems:” Their careers haven’t quite gone the way they thought, and they’re weighed down with emotional baggage left and right. It’s a lot for any movie to grasp. 
Clearly “About Alex” isn’t the first of its kind, and it likely won’t be the last. The strength in this incarnation lies in the actors, who find a sort of low-key intimacy in their relationships. They carry their problems on their shoulders into each scene, resonating value and nature of well-established friendships.
And yet, Zwick never really manages to make the dramatics feel like more than the whims of the screenplay. Where real relationships are a product of details and lives lived, “About Alex” expects its audience to fill in the cracks — a device that would be realistic if it wasn’t also riddled with awkward exposition.
Ultimately, the movie just isn’t as deep as it thinks it is. There’s plenty of emotion to be had, but “About Alex” seems to ask the audience too become too enthralled by the raw, overdetermined reactions. For all its flaws though, it still manages to be a sweet and moving portrayal of twenty-somethings grappling with the world. It’s satisfying and sweet, even in its familiarity, bringing an indie quirk with Zwick’s oversight. Although the memory of the film might not make a lasting impression, there’s certainly enough emotion to set the tone of your day.

Verdict: Not entirely original or innovative, but the film is still all about the heart.

Director and writer Jesse Zwick’s debut film “About Alex” picks up right as Alex (Jason Ritter) tweets out a suicide note. Yup — tweets. As news spreads to his best friend Ben (Nate Parker) and his long-time girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace) they pass along the word to their gaggle of college friends, and they all come out to Alex’s country house for a weekend away.

Sound familiar? If it does it’s because it’s essentially the same premise of the 1980s film “The Big Chill,” except in that one Alex’s suicide is successful. Here, Zwick uses Ritter’s sheepish style to provide a catalyst for all the simmering tension and jealousies that run rampant through the group. Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) has a tricky sexual past with Josh (Max Greenfield), but also has always had a thing for Isaac (Max Minghella), who comes to the weekend with his new, younger girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy).

With all those balls in the air, “About Alex” is tackling too much and too little, all at once. Beyond the depression and disassociation current that haunts the house, the characters themselves are dealing with “millennial problems:” Their careers haven’t quite gone the way they thought, and they’re weighed down with emotional baggage left and right. It’s a lot for any movie to grasp.

Clearly “About Alex” isn’t the first of its kind, and it likely won’t be the last. The strength in this incarnation lies in the actors, who find a sort of low-key intimacy in their relationships. They carry their problems on their shoulders into each scene, resonating value and nature of well-established friendships.

And yet, Zwick never really manages to make the dramatics feel like more than the whims of the screenplay. Where real relationships are a product of details and lives lived, “About Alex” expects its audience to fill in the cracks — a device that would be realistic if it wasn’t also riddled with awkward exposition.

Ultimately, the movie just isn’t as deep as it thinks it is. There’s plenty of emotion to be had, but “About Alex” seems to ask the audience too become too enthralled by the raw, overdetermined reactions. For all its flaws though, it still manages to be a sweet and moving portrayal of twenty-somethings grappling with the world. It’s satisfying and sweet, even in its familiarity, bringing an indie quirk with Zwick’s oversight. Although the memory of the film might not make a lasting impression, there’s certainly enough emotion to set the tone of your day.

Verdict: Not entirely original or innovative, but the film is still all about the heart.

August 5, 2014
It’s pretty Groot. 
Since Marvel released “Iron Man” in 2008, the studio has proved two things: first, that there was a place for humor amid the sordid lives of superheroes, and second, that it was about to weave one of the greatest cinematic universes of all time. So it may be surprising that “Guardians of the Galaxy” takes one giant leap away from that world to follow a group of 31st-century screwballs across the universe. But don’t fear: they’ve still got the same ol’ Marvel wisecracks. 
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks and Recreation) was abducted from Missouri as a child in the mid 1980s and never quite grew up. And after being raised by galactic smugglers and listening to the same old mix tape for 20 years, who could blame him? So when he finds himself in possession of an unusual orb being coveted by the genocidal radical Ronan (Lee Pace, Lincoln, TV’s Pushing Daisies), he’s far less concerned with potential war than he is with getting paid. 
It’s exactly the kind of protagonist that Marvel and Pratt rock. Caught somewhere between a Labrador and an action hero, Pratt gives Quill — or Starlord, as he’d like to be known — an idealistic dimension to his everyman role. His comedic timing is on point from start to finish as he dances his way through the film. In the hands of an actor who was not as downright charming, it might be obnoxious, but instead Starlord comes off as a less-damaged and more goofball version of Tony Stark.

He’s offset by Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Into Darkness, Avatar), a ruthless alien assassin who’s dispatched by Ronan to get the orb and isn’t interested in Starlord’s tomfoolery. Her tactics hit a bit of a wall when she’s faced with the team of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, The Iron Giant, Fast and the Furious series), a CGI mercenary team who (except for all the gun play) look like they’ve wandered out of a fairy tale and are also trying to track down Quill. After all being sent to prison together, the ragtag group bands together with muscle man Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, Riddick) to break out — and maybe even save the galaxy.
There really isn’t anything about the premise that isn’t slightly ridiculous, and the movie is keenly aware of that. But “Guardians of the Galaxy” manages to be the exact right amount of not taking itself seriously. While the jokes sling as freely as bullets, they all manage to land. And a stunning galactic backdrop makes a vibrant and dazzling setting for the effects, quips, and action that gives the film a swagger from the opening to closing credits. 
Its scope is not unlike the star system it portrays: simultaneously a vast epic that creates peril for whole planets and races, while also feeling grounded in the characters. Each “hero” gets their moment in the spotlight, and each does it with flair to boot. Between Gamora and Drax’s straight-faced, no-nonsense attitude that simultaneously makes for a great straight man and punchline to Groot and Rocket’s jibber jabber, there’s more than enough snark and heart to go around. Despite the fact that one repeats the same three words over again with different inflection, Cooper and Diesel deliver performances with just as much warmth as their non-animated counterparts. 
It’s definitely a departure from the established Marvel universe. The plot barely intersects with the Earth we know and love; coupled with the lack of teaser at the end of the credits (though there is a tag early on),* it seems like Marvel was prepared for this to be a one-off if it flopped. But with everything from a kickin’ soundtrack to sincere action heroes, Marvel fans will no doubt be hooked on a feeling from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
The verdict: We may have a new Marvel favorite on our hands. 

*THIS JUST IN: apparently they cut out the end scene in the screening we were at. What the fuck, right? 

It’s pretty Groot. 

Since Marvel released “Iron Man” in 2008, the studio has proved two things: first, that there was a place for humor amid the sordid lives of superheroes, and second, that it was about to weave one of the greatest cinematic universes of all time. So it may be surprising that “Guardians of the Galaxy” takes one giant leap away from that world to follow a group of 31st-century screwballs across the universe. But don’t fear: they’ve still got the same ol’ Marvel wisecracks. 

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks and Recreation) was abducted from Missouri as a child in the mid 1980s and never quite grew up. And after being raised by galactic smugglers and listening to the same old mix tape for 20 years, who could blame him? So when he finds himself in possession of an unusual orb being coveted by the genocidal radical Ronan (Lee Pace, Lincoln, TV’s Pushing Daisies), he’s far less concerned with potential war than he is with getting paid. 

It’s exactly the kind of protagonist that Marvel and Pratt rock. Caught somewhere between a Labrador and an action hero, Pratt gives Quill — or Starlord, as he’d like to be known — an idealistic dimension to his everyman role. His comedic timing is on point from start to finish as he dances his way through the film. In the hands of an actor who was not as downright charming, it might be obnoxious, but instead Starlord comes off as a less-damaged and more goofball version of Tony Stark.

He’s offset by Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Into Darkness, Avatar), a ruthless alien assassin who’s dispatched by Ronan to get the orb and isn’t interested in Starlord’s tomfoolery. Her tactics hit a bit of a wall when she’s faced with the team of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, The Iron Giant, Fast and the Furious series), a CGI mercenary team who (except for all the gun play) look like they’ve wandered out of a fairy tale and are also trying to track down Quill. After all being sent to prison together, the ragtag group bands together with muscle man Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, Riddick) to break out — and maybe even save the galaxy.

There really isn’t anything about the premise that isn’t slightly ridiculous, and the movie is keenly aware of that. But “Guardians of the Galaxy” manages to be the exact right amount of not taking itself seriously. While the jokes sling as freely as bullets, they all manage to land. And a stunning galactic backdrop makes a vibrant and dazzling setting for the effects, quips, and action that gives the film a swagger from the opening to closing credits. 

Its scope is not unlike the star system it portrays: simultaneously a vast epic that creates peril for whole planets and races, while also feeling grounded in the characters. Each “hero” gets their moment in the spotlight, and each does it with flair to boot. Between Gamora and Drax’s straight-faced, no-nonsense attitude that simultaneously makes for a great straight man and punchline to Groot and Rocket’s jibber jabber, there’s more than enough snark and heart to go around. Despite the fact that one repeats the same three words over again with different inflection, Cooper and Diesel deliver performances with just as much warmth as their non-animated counterparts. 

It’s definitely a departure from the established Marvel universe. The plot barely intersects with the Earth we know and love; coupled with the lack of teaser at the end of the credits (though there is a tag early on),* it seems like Marvel was prepared for this to be a one-off if it flopped. But with everything from a kickin’ soundtrack to sincere action heroes, Marvel fans will no doubt be hooked on a feeling from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

The verdict: We may have a new Marvel favorite on our hands. 

*THIS JUST IN: apparently they cut out the end scene in the screening we were at. What the fuck, right? 

August 5, 2014
I know many of us were wary that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s animated action/adventure flick, “The Lego Movie”, would clock in at 100 minutes of soulless commercial fodder. I admit that I walked into the theater prepared for my contraband 6-pack of Twinkies to be the most engaging thing I consumed that evening. However, 10 minutes and one face splittingly amped-up theme song later, my misgivings had vanished entirely.  
The audience is invited to follow Lego construction man Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, TV’s Parks and Recreation), through his everyday routine as it is dictated by the corporate state of Bricksburg. This corpocracy is managed by the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell, Anchorman, Elf), who aims to vanquish creativity and free thought with the aid of his superweapon, the Kragle. Emmet lives under this regime in ignorant bliss, until a chance encounter with cool-girl WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games, Pitch Perfect) leads him to join her and other master builders (those who can build freely without instructions) in their search for the Piece of Resistance, which will stop Lord Business’ nefarious plot.  
The strength of this premise is precisely what allows “The Lego Movie” to succeed where other plaything-based films have failed. Lord and Miller tapped into the heart of Lego’s cross-generational appeal when they decided that the battle between free-wheeling expression and careful, planned construction would be the center of their plot.
Any viewer will be able to sympathize with the plight of the master builders, as we’ve all known the kids who agonized over the models on the front of the box and then put them on the shelf, never to be touched again. And if you were that kid, then the film’s live-action twist(ish) finale will reach out to you, as well.
At its core, “The Lego Movie” understands why we bought our tickets, despite all of our fears of commercial pandering and childish storytelling. Lord and Miller use their screen time to successfully illustrate all of the sides of Lego building that unite parents, children, siblings, and playmates. Indeed, we all know that the joy of creativity goes hand-in-hand with the frustration of unrealized ideas, the pride in skilled construction, and the drama of creative differences.
Above all that, however, is a central theme that makes me want to watch this film again with my brother, and then again with my parents, and one more time with anyone else who ever argued with me about the merits of color vs. size coordinated Lego city planning. This is the notion that all of our favorite Lego creations are memorable to us now because of who we remember sharing them with. The Lego Movie is kitschy, cute, funny, and nostalgic, but above all it is a film to share. I can only hope that my still-uninitiated friends and family members won’t get sick of me singing “Everything is Awesome” before I’m done sharing it.

I know many of us were wary that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s animated action/adventure flick, “The Lego Movie”, would clock in at 100 minutes of soulless commercial fodder. I admit that I walked into the theater prepared for my contraband 6-pack of Twinkies to be the most engaging thing I consumed that evening. However, 10 minutes and one face splittingly amped-up theme song later, my misgivings had vanished entirely.  

The audience is invited to follow Lego construction man Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, TV’s Parks and Recreation), through his everyday routine as it is dictated by the corporate state of Bricksburg. This corpocracy is managed by the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell, Anchorman, Elf), who aims to vanquish creativity and free thought with the aid of his superweapon, the Kragle. Emmet lives under this regime in ignorant bliss, until a chance encounter with cool-girl WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games, Pitch Perfect) leads him to join her and other master builders (those who can build freely without instructions) in their search for the Piece of Resistance, which will stop Lord Business’ nefarious plot.  

The strength of this premise is precisely what allows “The Lego Movie” to succeed where other plaything-based films have failed. Lord and Miller tapped into the heart of Lego’s cross-generational appeal when they decided that the battle between free-wheeling expression and careful, planned construction would be the center of their plot.

Any viewer will be able to sympathize with the plight of the master builders, as we’ve all known the kids who agonized over the models on the front of the box and then put them on the shelf, never to be touched again. And if you were that kid, then the film’s live-action twist(ish) finale will reach out to you, as well.

At its core, “The Lego Movie” understands why we bought our tickets, despite all of our fears of commercial pandering and childish storytelling. Lord and Miller use their screen time to successfully illustrate all of the sides of Lego building that unite parents, children, siblings, and playmates. Indeed, we all know that the joy of creativity goes hand-in-hand with the frustration of unrealized ideas, the pride in skilled construction, and the drama of creative differences.

Above all that, however, is a central theme that makes me want to watch this film again with my brother, and then again with my parents, and one more time with anyone else who ever argued with me about the merits of color vs. size coordinated Lego city planning. This is the notion that all of our favorite Lego creations are memorable to us now because of who we remember sharing them with. The Lego Movie is kitschy, cute, funny, and nostalgic, but above all it is a film to share. I can only hope that my still-uninitiated friends and family members won’t get sick of me singing “Everything is Awesome” before I’m done sharing it.

July 27, 2014
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.”

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.”

July 26, 2014
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.

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.

July 25, 2014
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

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

July 22, 2014
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.   

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.   

July 12, 2014
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.   

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.