2014 Movies

Whiplash

One of the greatest things about film is its ability to transport you to another world. Whether it’s the ravages of war, the inside of a television network, or the world of boxing – you can be a fly on the wall of another realm. Even the most mundane, seemingly uninteresting subjects can become fascinating if one is allowed a glimpse of its inner workings. Such was the case in Whiplash, a fascinating film that examines the relationship between a hard-driving music instructor (J.K. Simmons, Labor Day) and his gifted pupil (Miles Teller, That Awkward Moment). Writer/director Damien Chazelle (The Last Exorcism Part II) gives an unflinching look at the competitive backstage world of a top tier music conservatory, crafting a surprisingly tense film.

Teller stars as Andrew, a sophomore at fictional Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York. A jazz drummer, he spends most of his time playing or listening to jazz, perfecting his craft in seclusion. Eventually he crosses paths with Fletcher, an instructor who typically works with the more talented upperclassmen. Fletcher operates with impunity, berating and insulting his students, exacting every ounce of sweat and ability until only a shell remains. He parsimoniously withholds praise to the point of cruelty, but one could argue the merits of his approach – as the Shaffer jazz band routinely fares well whenever it competes against other ensembles. Having been raised by a single father and with few friends, Andrew pours himself into his work and longs for Fletcher’s approval and validation.

Whiplash was a compelling psychological study. So named for an oft-played piece of music from the film, the title serves as a jarring harbinger of things to come. I’ve seen war movies with some of the most intimidating drill sergeants imaginable – yet they pale in comparison to Fletcher, who never has a kind word for young Andrew – even when he drums his fingers into bloody oblivion. Teller was brilliant in the role, both technically and artistically. He filmed most of the drumming scenes himself and prepared tirelessly for the part. Simmons is probably most known for supporting roles, but showed he has the chops to take center stage. Fletcher was cruel and menacing, but also a richly complex character. He revealed rare compassion in one scene as he mourned the death of a former student, a startling moment of humanity punctuating the onslaught of abuse.

I enjoy jazz music and loved the film’s musicality, but if jazz isn’t your thing you may grow tired of the behind-the-scenes angle. Black Swan showed us that drive, intensity and competitiveness aren’t reserved for athletic pursuits. Whiplash isn’t as complex or beautiful as that film, but I enjoyed it. There aren’t many surprises or character growth leading to resolution, though the ending leaves this up for interpretation. It was a well-done film, and though its subject matter may not excite all viewers, I’d highly recommend it. Grade: B+

The Gambler

I wouldn’t necessarily list Mark Wahlberg among my favorite actors, yet I find myself enjoying many of his movies. He’s capable of turning in really good performances – whether it’s Lone Survivor or The Fighter. On the other hand, he’s also good for the occasional dud (see Broken City), though not for lack of effort or talent. When I got wind of The Gambler, I thought it might have been a stylish crime movie something like Rounders meets The Drop. The film could have been an effective character study and examination of addiction – but instead it fell flat, leaving me bored and disappointed.

The Gambler is a remake of a 1974 movie of the same name starring James Caan. The newer version keeps the same basic plot, with Wahlberg starring as English professor Jim Bennett, a man with a profound gambling addiction. We’re introduced to his weakening vice immediately, as he impulsively wagers and loses large sums of money on blackjack and roulette in a backdoor casino. He is not a man who will ever quit while he is ahead. Despite his penchant for reckless living, Jim seems to be doing ok for himself. However, every addict faces rock bottom at some point, and it’s only a matter of time before his lifestyle catches up to him.

While gambling at the aforementioned casino, Jim becomes indebted to its owner after losing big and adding to an existing debt. He borrows more money from a loan shark named Baraka (Michael K. Williams, Kill the Messenger), and soon he owes money to at least two people who are threatening to wipe him out in about a week’s time if he doesn’t pay up. Baraka challenges Jim’s moral code when he wants him to involve one of his students in paying the debt. Complicating matters is the strange dynamic he shares with another one of his students, who moonlights as a waitress at the casino. Their relationship is never fully explored, and the subplot remained undeveloped.

The plot was straightforward, and I appreciated its simplicity. However, the movie could have been much more entertaining. As a viewer, I never connected with Wahlberg’s character, even though his dire circumstances lent themselves to empathy. His performance was capable, but something about it felt too restrained. Where was the abject desperation? I never felt sorry for him, despite his obvious pathetic state. One could see that his addiction was crippling and that he was powerless to stop it, but that was the only aspect of the movie that resonated with me. I could see that he was desperate, but he never made me believe it.

The performances were fine, with some notable supporting turns from Jessica Lange (The Vow) as Jim’s wealthy, enabling mother and John Goodman (The Monuments Men) as yet another loan shark with whom Jim makes a high stakes side-bet. But once again, the movie never really went anywhere. Despite a lot of tough talk, the threats from his bookies felt hollow, and I only mildly cared whether or not Jim escaped with his life. The gambling scenes were taut with anticipation, but those moments were sparse.

In sum, The Gambler just didn’t leave much of an impact. The potential for a great story was there, but the movie never seemed to go anywhere. It could have been an exhilarating ride as we watched a man descend into total desperation – but Jim just seemed like a rich brat who never really “got it.” I thought it was just average. Grade: C+

Interstellar

Science Fiction is hit or miss for me. I enjoy the imagery and special effects associated with the genre, but if the plot is mired in the technicalities or minutiae of science, it tends to go over my head. When it came to Interstellar, it was director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) that got my attention. I’m a big fan of his work, so the mere attachment of his name to a project is enough for me to consider checking it out. Moreover, star Matthew McCounaghey (Dallas Buyers Club) made quite the case for the film while making the rounds on its press junket.

The film opens in an unspecified future time, when the world has been ravaged by famine. The entire globe is struggling for resources, and in America corn is the only remaining crop after what appears to be a devastating drought. McCounaghey stars as Cooper, a former pilot and father to a teenaged boy and adolescent daughter. They live in America’s heartland, where an omnipresent layer of thick dust serves as a reminder of lost vegetation. Cooper is a loving, doting father and he staunchly defends his children, particularly his daughter Murphy. “Murph,” as she is affectionately known, has a fiercely independent spirit and idolizes her father. She is curious, and believes their home is being visited by a supernatural force with which she communicates via Morse code. Their future is uncertain, but Cooper has carved out a life for his family, including his late wife’s father Donald (John Lithgow, This Is 40).

One day after communicating with the apparition, Murphy reveals a “message” from the otherworldly visitor. The message leads them to a hidden NASA location, where they are made privy to a master plan for the population’s survival. A scientist named Brand (Michael Caine, Now You See Me) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables) explain the options to Cooper, whose expertise as a former pilot proves valuable to the scientists and astronauts. Cooper determines that he will execute their mission, traveling to the outer reaches of space in hopes of finding a planet that can sustain human life after Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Well folks, we’ve just about reached the limits of my comprehension, because I couldn’t recount the finer points of the plot if you paid me. I had a very basic understanding, but for me the film’s strength lay in its emotional portrayal of a father who is faced with an unbelievable moral dilemma. Cooper’s decision to travel in space has mammoth repercussions, not the least of which is the temporary abandonment of his family for the greater good of humanity. He has every intention of returning, but the mission is risky and time elapses quite differently in space than it does on Earth.

McCounaghey proves once again that he has the emotional depth to convey the most vulnerable aspects of the human condition. Cooper was courageous, yet frightened, self-interested, but capable of immense sacrifice. My only negative observation of his body of work is that he has yet to ditch his omnipresent Southern twang, though it was not out of place here. He has turned his career around, and there are no discernible signs of regression. Although this was ostensibly a big budget movie, he still chose a vehicle that allowed him to sink his teeth into the emotional elements of his character. Hathaway was also effective, and she too was successful at evoking empathy in the viewer. Finally, Jessica Chastain’s (Mama) performance was worth mentioning. She portrayed Murphy as an adult, and the casting was superb. Although it wavered momentarily, the bond that she shared with her father held the film together, especially when I felt bogged down by the science.

This is another movie that may not be for everyone. The film’s first act focuses on Cooper’s family, and the middle act markedly shifts to another realm. At just under three hours, I had to make an effort to focus on what was happening, particularly when the more nebulous aspects of the storyline emerged. Fortunately, the movie’s emotionality and the talented cast kept me invested. Grade: B+

Kill The Messenger

“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster

Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra

I ran contraband that they sponsored”

-Jay Z, “Blue Magic”
Conspiracy theories are funny. On the one hand, only a fool believes everything their government tells them. On the other hand, if you find a conspiracy behind every corner, your assertions lose credibility. That being said, I know the U.S. government is capable of some appalling behavior. An entity that intentionally infected Black men with syphilis is capable of anything; so the notion that the government facilitated the sale of crack cocaine to its own citizens is not unbelievable to me. Under the Reagan administration, the CIA funded the Nicaraguan Contras by allowing them to export cocaine into Los Angeles (and other American cities) while funneling the profits back to them.

That revelation forms the crux of Kill the Messenger, a film based on true events involving San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner, American Hustle) and his exposure of the CIA’s involvement in what came to be known as a massive crack epidemic. The movie takes place in the mid 90’s, just before the dawn of the information age in which we now live. Although we weren’t in a “24 hour news cycle” back then like we are now, you can imagine the controversial uproar Webb’s articles caused.

The government’s actions were layered and corrupt, as an intricate scheme revealed their use of an informant who doubled as drug middleman. Danilo Blandon was a go-between for the Contras and American dealers like the infamous “Freeway” Ricky Ross, who grossed upwards of a billion dollars by selling drugs to the Blood and Crip street gangs of Los Angeles. Blandon informed on Ross, collapsing his empire while working at the behest of the government. I’d encourage you to read up on this scandal yourselves, as it is quite interesting. These types of events are nearly unbelievable, and lend themselves well to cinematic re-telling.

Webb should’ve been a Pulitzer winner, as he had the courage to risk his life to expose the truth of a corrupt government. However, those who pull back the curtain often fall victim to those they are exposing. Webb’s career was ruined, as the paper began to distance itself from him and his reputation was smeared and character assassinated. In a tragic turn, he was found dead in 2004 of two gunshot wounds to the head, in what was deemed a “suicide.” How one could be capable of shooting himself in the head twice is truly baffling, but after all I’ve told you – are you really surprised?

Jeremy Renner turned in a very good performance, effectively conveying the idealism, passion and doggedness that drove his character. Webb risked his own safety and that of his family in pursuit of what he believed was right. Saddest of all was the realization that his career was ruined. It was cruelly ironic that Webb’s assertions were subsequently confirmed in a government report that went largely unnoticed while the nation was distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I often talk about the goal or purpose of film. Aside from the obvious emotional effect movies have on us, every now and again the purpose of film is to educate and expose. Kill the Messenger was a nice reminder that you can actually learn a thing or two from the movies. Grade: B+

The Equalizer

Some actors enjoy success early in their careers (Lupita N’yongo), while others experience a total resurgence after years of acting (Matthew McCounaghey, John Travolta). I’ve noticed that some legendary actors tend to be less selective in the second halves of their career, and the same could have been said for Denzel Washington (2 Guns), until 2012’s Flight, for which he received an Oscar nomination. I was beginning to think Washington’s best work was behind him, because although his efforts on screen are above reproach, the source material doesn’t always deliver. In The Equalizer, Washington reunites with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen), for another gritty, entertaining tale.

Washington stars as Robert McCall, a quiet, unassuming middle-aged man who suffers from insomnia and obsessive compulsive disorder. His afflictions don’t impair him terribly, as he enjoys the contented existence of a normal job at the local home improvement store. His co-workers are fond of him, and he has an affable, positive manner with everyone he meets. His insomnia frequently finds him at the local diner at late hours, when most of Boston is counting sheep. Here he befriends Alina, a young “working” girl whose eyes are tinged with sadness and fear. When her pimp rousts her from the diner one night, it’s all he can do to restrain himself.

Eventually Alina’s profession catches up to her, and her Russian employers brutally retaliate against her for stepping out of line. Washington epitomizes the phrase “no more Mr. Nice Guy,” as he turns into a one man wrecking crew on a quest for vengeance. The playing field between a prostitute and her pimp is never a level one, but McCall is the equalizer and he has his own brand of justice. It’s obvious that he had a very different profession at one point in life, perhaps as a Navy Seal or CIA operative. He obliterates her pimp and his associates, but things get dicier as he fights his way up the criminal food chain.

The story was straightforward and simple. There weren’t many plot twists, and Washington’s singular focus was reminiscent of recent, similarly themed films. My movie companion noted the similarity between The Equalizer and Washington’s Man on Fire, though the latter movie featured greater depth of character, easily. That’s not a criticism, rather an observation. Washington was his charismatic self, but viewers looking for a total departure from his previous work won’t find it here. The simplicity of the script left me questioning McCall’s motivation. I’ll reference another film to make my point. If you’ve ever seen The Punisher, you know that the main character suffered a catastrophic loss when his entire family was massacred. THAT’S the type of thing to set a man on a course for vengeance.

Here, McCall’s motivation for his actions involved a stretch of the imagination, in my opinion. But hey, sometimes it’s a good thing when you don’t have a million different subplots taking you all over the place. Simple can be good. All in all, it was an entertaining film with some authentic fighting scenes and action sequences. The hand-to-hand combat element was fun to watch and added an air of realism. Washington didn’t stretch artistically, but he didn’t have to. He has the presence and ability to carry any movie, and he delivered here for Fuqua. Grade: B.

The Drop

As the summer movie season draws to a close, I look forward to better offerings in the fall. I’m optimistic about the films slated for release in the coming weeks, from Gone Girl to Kill the Messenger. I was disappointed with the summer selection, and it looks like studios are featuring some weightier movies in the next few months. The Drop’s trailer appeared promising, with multi-faceted Tom Hardy (Locke) alongside James Gandolfini (Enough Said) in his final film.

Writer David Lehane’s source material has given us some heavy, emotionally rich films like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, and the same melancholy, gritty undertones of the working class were present in The Drop. Lehane adapted the screenplay from one of his short stories, and the movie pulsated with moments of electricity, despite an overall quiet tone. Of course, in criminal parlance, a “drop” refers to a place where illegal money is exchanged for a criminal act, or “job.” Enter ordinary man Bog Saginawski (Hardy), a solitary guy whose low-level criminal activities belie a warm heart. He works at a neighborhood bar called Cousin Marv’s, owned by Gandolfini’s character in name only.

Marv’s bar doubles as a drop spot for the local mob, a no-nonsense group of Chechens who ousted him as owner a decade prior. He runs a tight ship, keeping Bob in line and reminding him of whose name is on the door. The movie opens with Bob narrating an overview of the way money changes hands in New York’s underworld, especially at night and especially at places like Marv’s. We watch as Bob discreetly receives mysterious brown envelopes from an assortment of crooks and hustlers; and it’s business as usual until two armed, masked men hold up the bar one night as Marv and Bob are closing.

The film follows the aftermath of the robbery, as Bob and Marv contend with the police and the mob. An interesting subplot emerges when Bob develops a friendship with a neighboring woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace, Prometheus) after they discover an abused pit bull puppy. The adorable puppy was a recurring use of symbolism throughout the movie, representing the duality of the vicious breed and the innocence of a baby. Bob’s character somewhat mirrored the dog’s, as his simple, peaceful exterior obscured a more brutal survival instinct.

I was drawn in by the performances, and I’m beginning to think Hardy is incapable of a bad showing. His character does a 180, but the shift felt authentic rather than disingenuous. He had a fraternal chemistry with Gandolfini and plaintive tenderness with Rapace as they were threatened by a menacing ex-lover from her past.The film was suspenseful and effectively dramatic throughout, although it lagged here and there. Patient viewers will be rewarded in the final act, where the plot twists unexpectedly. The trailer is a bit misleading, so you should be forewarned that this is a definitely an “indie” movie with a subdued tone. It won’t make much of a splash at the box office, but The Drop is worth checking out. Grade: B

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

As I type this review, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is limping towards a sixth place showing at the box office. However, if you glance at IMDb.com, you’ll find that it has a respectable average user rating of 7.2. Count me among the IMDb tribe, as I found the movie to be just as visually stunning as its unique predecessor. Director Robert Rodriguez (Machete Kills) and Troublemaker Studios reunite the likes of Mickey Rourke (The Courier) and Rosario Dawson (The Captive), while adding newcomers Eva Green (300: Rise of an Empire) and Josh Brolin (Oldboy) to another hard-boiled tale from the back alleys of Basin City.

The movie opens against the familiar black & white backdrop we experienced in part 1. Recall that Bruce Willis’ character tangled with Senator Roark and his demented pedophile son, and that he ended up killing the younger Roark. In the sequel, Roark Sr. remains a corrupt senator, just as vicious as before. He crosses paths with a young gambler named Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon), and when the cocky upstart bests him in a game of poker, Roark erupts in violence. This is just a small slice of life in Sin City, and it prepares the viewer for what’s to come.

Familiar characters Marv (Rourke) and Nancy (Jessica Alba, Little Fockers) collide at the hole-in-the-wall bar where Nancy performs nightly on stage. It’s the perfect seedy setting for the cast of characters in this dark underworld. We’re introduced to Dwight (Brolin), a private eye with a tortured past – just like nearly every other man in Sin City. Dwight is beguiled by ex-lover Ava Lorde (Green), a “dame to kill for.” His resolve crumbles, despite feeble attempts to resist her advances. The female characters in Sin City reminded me of a line from The Godfather: they’re more dangerous than shotguns.

As the tale unfolds, the characters have distinct yet overlapping storylines. The atmospheric tone and the cinematography were amazing. Cigarette smoke wafted through the air and lingered like smog, while splashes of color punctuated the otherwise monochromatic landscape. I saw the movie in 3D, and for once it was used effectively, as Frank Miller’s graphic novel sprang to life. I loved the gravelly narration, as both Dwight and Marv brought us into their world. Some viewers may not like the stereotypical portrayals of men as burly brutes or women as vampy but vulnerable vixens, but what other inhabitants would you expect in a place called Sin City?

If you enjoyed the first Sin City, you will probably think this one is even better; I did. The movie was a visual feast, if nothing else – and I found it supremely entertaining. My sole criticism is that each vignette ended in somewhat silly fashion, as the characters met their respective fates. This movie isn’t for everyone, but I sure enjoyed it. I normally give letter grades, but it’s more accurate if I just say this was 8/10 for me.