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.
By the end, “God’s Pocket” feels like an exercise in what could’ve been. What if, for example, 22-year-old Leon (Caleb Landry Jones, X-Men First Class) hadn’t threatened a man at his work, leading to his untimely death? He might’ve saved his stepfather Mickey (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles, The Master, Capote) and his mother Jeanie (Christina Hendricks, Drive, TV’s Mad Men) a whole lot of heartache and questioning.
Based on the 1983 novel of the same name, rundown columnist Richard (Richard Jenkins, Cabin in the Woods, Killing them Softly) comes to the town of God’s Pocket to write about Leon’s death, and things go from bad to worse. Soon Mickey finds himself with a distraught wife, a large debt, and a body in the back of his freezer truck.
It could have been a great film. It’s got an all-star cast with acting talent to boot. Luckily, the actors all fade into their roles as down-on-their-luck, small towners. Helmed by John Slattery of “Mad Men” fame, who serves as director and co-writer, “God’s Pocket” has a charm that Slattery brought to the episodes of “Mad Men” he’s directed in the past.
Richard’s columns (and voice-overs) describe a town full of people lacking ambition, staying housed in bars for hours, that turn into years, of their lives. Slattery’s debut feature film manages to do justice to the setting of its source material, but the efforts, unfortunately do not save the film. His style walks the line between canonizing and demonizing the blue-collar workers who make up God’s Pocket.
But, alas, there’s wasted potential running amok through the streets of God’s Pocket. Mickey’s attempts to handle the details of the funeral with no money to pay for it make up the loose plot of the film, but it feels largely episodic.
It doesn’t help that the tone shifts between scenes — and even between characters. It’s not always clear what characters’ motivations are, and “God’s Pocket” seems more concerned with making things happen than letting them happen organically. It seems like Slattery and his cast do what they can for those without the support of details to shore up their authenticity, but the script is so sparse on specifics that there’s not much left between scenes.
It can be serious and it can be funny, but it never seems to be enough of either to stake out any territory. Perhaps a more experienced director could have smoothed out the kinks and made for a more consistent tone.
Fortunately, there’s enough talent in the cast to at least somewhat carry the plot. This being the first of Hoffman’s posthumous releases, there’s a distinct twinge of melancholy that plays right into the air of God’s Pocket. It also furthers the general feeling throughout the film that “God’s Pocket” exists in a reality somewhere close to a well-told story. But by the end the story you are left right back where you started: hoping to see something great from a collection of talented actors.
The verdict:The first of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s posthumous releases comes close, but isn’t good.
Slavery is America’s greatest shame. During American reconstruction, the consequences of slavery were swept under the rug and allowed to fester in our society in the form of steadfast inequality and internalized racism. This has been the same approach from American cinema. Few attempts have been made at confronting the issue and the few that have were directed by white directors—it’s startling to realize that a specifically black narrative has not been told through a black lens. Until now.
Steve McQueen has already established himself as one of the most audacious and exciting directors in independent cinema with his mesmerizing Hunger (2009)and his beautifully shot (though unevenly written) Shame (2011). However, his film from this year, 12 Years a Slave, may be his magnum opus.
Based on the memoir, 12 Years a Slave chronicles the journey of Solomon Northrop, a free black man living in the North who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Branded a runaway and renamed “Platt”, Northrop travels from plantation to plantation encounters the horrors of slavery in all of its grotesque forms.
12 Years a Slave is spearheaded with an exquisite ensemble cast featuring Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks,There Will be Blood), Michael Fassbender (Shame,The Counselor), Benedict Cumerbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness, Desolation of Smaug), and Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of Southern Wild). However the core of the film comes from performances by Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, Talk to Me) as Solomon Northup, both of whom are sure to expecting Oscar nominations.*
Nyong’o performance embodies the fear and warranted paranoia as she is stalked by the rapacious eye of her master. Nyong’o’s turmoil is paired with a visceral yearning to escape her violent and abusive life.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is the very heart of the film. Northup is not painted to be any sort of superhero; he is an average man placed in the most impossible yet horrifyingly common of circumstances and forced to rely on his strength of his will. The key to Ejiofor’s performance is the portrayal of his repression: Northup must repress his potential to pass as a submissive slave. He grinds his teeth and bears the grit of his enslavement, yet there is an overlooming tension in his shoulders. He knows he cannot be true to himself, for his very survival depends on his charade.
12 Years can easily be described as the best film made to date amongst slavery. There are no caricatures making the film a shocking realist document of American History. It taps into the side of history the U.S. would rather sweep under the rug, revealing a raw and unflinching portrayal period that still touches us today. The film’s ability to stay simple while it uses every scene to convey a piercing truth. It’s not an easy view, but it is most certainly a necessary one.
Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises,Lawless) has spent years becoming the person he wants to be: a dedicated family man and a respected construction foreman. But the night before a historical concrete pour, Locke receives a phone call that threatens everything he holds dear. He made a mistake and he has to fix it, and so he must drive to London as he deals with the repercussions of his decisions, both professional and personal.
It’s an interesting exercise in film and storytelling, to say the least. Perhaps the most difficult hour and a half of this character’s life, told in real time, and the script never ventures outside of Locke’s hatchback to tell it.
Of course a narrative so experimental requires a strong actor in the driver’s seat (literally) in order to pull it off. Luckily, Hardy is up to the task, even if his Welsh accent is not. Hardy is captivating as everyman Ivan Locke who is struggling to get through a strenuous, if small, snapshot of his life.
Taking an everyman with stakes beyond his control and transforming him into a spellbinding case study is perhaps Hardy’s most compelling role. Complex gear-switching and emotions transition seamlessly across his face and voice.
As fascinating as Hardy’s performance is, “Locke” will polarize audiences. It’s a difficult film to stick with, since the only real power Locke has from his handsfree telephone is through Donal (Andrew Scott, Sherlock's Moriarty), the man who must step in for Locke during the concrete pour — which might not feel like the biggest issue at stake for those in the audience.
How engrossed audiences are by the conflict in Locke’s life will affect how forgiving they are of the cinematography, which basically switches between the same camera angles over and over again. After his destination is revealed, there isn’t a lot of resolution to be had, except how exactly the events in question will unfold.
As Locke claustrophobically deals with his emotional demons, the camera blurs the line between him and the urban, night-time landscape around him. His life is just as dominated by the passing streetlights and headlights as it is with his current conundrum.
For some people who don’t particularly care about the sordid details of Ivan Locke’s life or about a momentous cement pour the movie will drive like a flat tire. But there will likely be many in the audience for whom the weight of Tom Hardy’s performance will be enough. He’s aided, of course, by the faceless voices he interacts with over the phone, who have to act out their night with only their voice. But it’s basically a one-man show, and Hardy nails it. All in all, how enjoyable the movie is will depend on one’s ability to put up with an experimental gimmick and tag along for the ride.