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The End of the Tour

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Prior to seeing this film, I had limited knowledge of David Foster Wallace and his works. After seeing the film, I wanted to learn more. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt) is a very reflective film, highlighting author Wallace on the last stretch of his book tour for his novel Infinite Jest. Our entry point into this intriguing man is David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter hired to do a piece on him in the late 1990s.

What little there is of plot is made up for in excellent characterization. The film is really all about existentialism, and thankfully it never leans towards pretentiousness. Rather there is an air of optimism about making your time on earth worthwhile. Wallace and Lipsky in a way represent two extremes of existentialism. Wallace is very relaxed, and takes his newfound celebrity with a grain of salt, while Lipsky is very Type-A, yet never brash or irritating. Lipsky has been trying to get his foot in the door as an author for a while now, while Wallace almost became famous overnight, and the film plays with the concept of “fame” in fun and unique ways. Through the film, Ponsoldt is able to explore these two extremes and find common ground between them, all while touching on the idea of fame and what it means to different people.

The script is outstanding, and hits all the right notes I touched on above. The dialogue between Lipsky and Wallace feels natural, nothing is forced. I wonder how much improvisation was done for the film, because the two seem like good friends from the moment they meet. There is a natural chemistry that draws these two characters together, and it’s outstanding to watch on-screen. It’s difficult to adapt a book like Lipsky’s, which is mostly interviews and recording, as the book was published after Wallace’s death in 2008. But screenwriter Donald Marguiles makes it work, and the result is an insightful, often hilarious film.

All this talk about chemistry would be a waste if it weren’t for Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg as Wallace and Lipsky, respectively. Segel is a marvel as Wallace; it’s a performance that doesn’t demand much, yet Segel taps into all of Wallace’s nuances and quirks. His delivery, cadence, and warmth almost makes it feel like you’re talking to an old friend. It’s a subtle performance that I hope is remembered come awards season. Eisenberg, too, is great. His reporter-type isn’t very developed until the middle-end of the film, and he might come across as annoying for some. But he makes Lipsky tick as the curious interviewer wanting to learn more. He’s driven by his desire to success, his want to make a successful piece for Rolling Stone, yet he ends up with a lot more.

The End of the Tour is a huge success. It isn’t a very showy film, without much in the way of technical prowess, yet it’s a talker. The realistic dialogue and blasé tone make the film feel like a 140 minute hang out with two good friends. Ponsoldt keeps a tight grip on the film’s themes, never letting one overpower the film’s true intentions. It’s a wonderful ode to Wallace, and a funny one at that.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Clouds of Sils Maria

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Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria portrays one of the most addictive relationships I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a story of companionship and professionalism, but also with rich themes that comment on Hollywood’s obsessive culture. Without the spark between the two leads, Clouds of Sils Maria would still be a deeply impressive movie with plenty to say, but Assayas goes the extra mile and gives us two outstanding performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristin Stewart.

The first 20 minutes of Clouds aren’t too perfect. It’s a bit expository, we are kind of just thrust into the middle of an awkward situation without much background, and details are a bit muddy. Eventually we learn that Maria’s old director friend Wilhelm has passed away, whom she owes her career to after playing the lead role in a play titled Maloja Snake. At an awards ceremony, Maria is approached by a famous director who wants to revive the play but with Maria in the opposite role, and a younger actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) as the role Maria played previously. She accepts, and what begins is a complicated study of career success and aging in Hollywood.

Maria’s assistant, Valentine, played by Kristin Stewart, is her closest confidante. The two have a personal and professional relationship that just sparks when the two are on-screen together. Binoche lets this new role consume her, and the film goes to some dark places at times. The best scenes are when the two are rehearsing lines for the play, where you can’t tell where their acting begins and where it ends. The dialogue is a meta-commentary that makes some interesting parallels to their relationship at the same time. It’s some outstanding writing, made better by the excellent performances.

And damn, isn’t Stewart turning out to be quite the young actress? Valentine is hands down her best role to date. It’s a quiet, contemplative role; it’s subtle, but creeps up on you. Stewart makes it all look so easy, yet there are layers to Valentine that unravel as the film progresses. The rapport between Stewart and Binoche makes for a relationship that will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Their loud line readings are paralleled with quiet hikes through Sils Maria and a fun night out at the bar. The interplay here is just phenomenal. Assayas’s direction keeps a mysterious tone throughout the movie, and while the film never reaches the surreal, it definitely toes the line and plays with the audience a bit.

Clouds is a backstage drama with plenty to say about Hollywood and how actors like Maria are treated, but it’s never preachy like, say, Maps to the Stars. Maria is just a victim of the system, a well-respected actress past her prime, whose personal struggles allow her to reach new heights as she takes on a new role and says goodbye to her older self. Expert writing by Assayas makes you care about these characters more than you might think, and when the film ends, you know you’ve seen something special.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Marvel’s Daredevil

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The trouble with the superhero genre comes not with the plotting, but with the interpretation of these beloved characters. There isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to adapting everyone’s favorite comic book heroes onto the big screen (or in this case, small screen), and one wrong move can spark an outcry (see: Superman Returns). Marvel’s latest venture, Daredevil, represents how to do this best. The show is very natural, with a brilliant interpretation of Matt Murdock/Daredevil and his cohorts, that never gets too caught up in its grittiness that it feels like imitation.

Credit this excellent interpretation to showrunner Steven DeKnight (Spartacus) and creator Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods). The show has such a unique style, but it doesn’t sacrifice this for substance. There’s still plenty of good stuff here in the writing. Let’s start with Daredevil himself. We begin in Hell’s Kitchen, where Matt Murdock and his friendly associate Foggy Nelson have started their law practice, and have begun to attract clients. Matt, blinded at the age of nine, uses his heightened senses to fight crime and bring criminals to justice. He eventually gets caught up with Karen Page, who puts him on track towards uncovering a crime syndicate run by the hands of Wilson Fisk.

Daredevil wisely utilizes the binging model to create tense episodes that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but that also allow for intricate plotting that demands repeat viewing. Daredevil isn’t a light show; this isn’t your dad’s Spiderman comics. Being outside of network constraints allows all kinds of brutal violence, and the show pushes for a mature tone that it admirably reaches. There’s human trafficking, drug rings, people getting impaled, but turn it around and we get intimate moments that flesh out these characters to their core. The show uses flashbacks (a bit too many, for my taste) to show Matt’s Catholic upbringing, his struggles after his accident, and his relationship with his father. What I didn’t expect, however, was for the flashbacks to give me more than I thought I needed about other key players in Hell’s Kitchen.

This begins with one of the best villains this side of the Joker – Wilson Fisk, played by the brilliant Vincent D’Onofrio. His motivations, his plan, his backstory, his allies, everything about him is so complex and multifaceted. He became one of the shining stars in the series. In a world full of anti-heroes, we always talk about the “likability” complex. And while I don’t think this is an accurate metric to base character development on, Wilson Fisk is a demonstrator that villains are humans just like everyone else. Marvel struggles with their villains. For every Loki, there’s a Malekith. But Wilson Fisk stands out purely on his merit as a well-written character. One of the best scenes involves him going on a date with Vanessa, whom he meets at an art gallery. First off, when was the last time we saw a villain get a love interest and giggle with glee as the two went on their first date? This scene is a reminder that villains don’t have to be hell-bent crime lords, they can be sympathetic hell-bent crime lords.

Wilson Fisk aside, there is still some excellent secondary characterization here. Karen Page is the strong female character that Marvel has been looking for, as she steals the spotlight as she uncovers a conspiracy with the help of investigative journalist Ben Urich. And Foggy Nelson, despite receiving the “comic relief” token, still has plenty of memorable moments that help him stand out. The one dark spot is Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who I was hoping would be a key character. She appears in less than five episodes of the series and is instantly forgettable in almost all of her scenes. I expect to see more from her should the show continue.

Daredevil throws away tempting conventions to make the storytelling predictable despite lobbing plenty of twists at you. It isn’t afraid to kill off a major character even though he or she still had plenty of work to do. It’s this kind of risky storytelling that makes Daredevil stand out. I’m glad we got a 13-episode series of this rather than a movie, because I fear the two-hour run time would kill everything that made the show what it is. Well-developed characters, a formidable and tragic villain, and exciting action sequences that keep you on your toes elevate Daredevil to the top of the ever-expanding TV superhero genre pack. I hope Daredevil is a sign of good things to come for the rest of the Defenders series, and for Marvel in general.

 

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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While We’re Young

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Noah Baumbach has always been a great social theorist. His films delve into modern life in satirical and not-so-subtle ways that many of them begin to blend together to create one narrative for the way we live now. His latest, While We’re Young, might be his most “on the nose” yet.

While We’re Young‘s examination of middle age and cross-generational conflict offers witty commentary on a variety of subcultures. It begins with Josh and Cornelia, 40-somethings without much meaning in their life. Josh has been hard at work on a documentary film for eight years, while Cornelia is constantly being asked when she’s going to have kids. Their life gets thrown for a loop when they meet Jamie and Darby, millennial hipsters who collect vinyl records and do yoga and visit street beaches.

This premise might seem a bit sitcom-y, and at times it is. There are a few montages too many of the differences between the couples. Baumbach isn’t giving us anything new here (we all know how cell phones are changing the way we communicate, do we really need to hear it again?), but this doesn’t succinctly get at the core of the film. The core is in Josh himself, played with renewed vigor by Ben Stiller, and how his ego gets the best of him in his documentary project with Jamie. The script allows us to get to know Josh before he battles his inner demons, as a bad drug trip flips things upside down halfway through the film. It’s a great character study, sometimes tragic, oftentimes hilarious, but very complex and engaging.

While We’re Young is bursting with great personalities though, not just Josh. The four main characters are all distinct and well-fleshed out, especially Cornelia, Josh’s wife. Naomi Watts brings some comedy to the table as she is reluctant of Josh’s new friends. The film paints a dichotomy between young and old, making clear the harsh realities of adulthood and “saying goodbye to your youngness.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship with their other friends, Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz), the typical sitcom adult couple with children who want the young kids to get off their lawn.

The film kind of takes an unexpected turn towards the end, however, as Josh’s documentary project consumes him. It dives into a critique on filmmaking ethics in documentaries and how to work with integrity, being a strange detour in a film that was about finding renewed youngness at middle age. But the core elements are all still here. Josh’s war within himself escalates quickly after learning Jamie’s motives, and the film ends with a Listen Up Phillip Woody Allen-esque dramatic scene between Josh and Jamie. Baumbach’s direction is on point here, going back and forth and all around the room in a dizzying sequence, a very memorable one.

While We’re Young isn’t Baumbach’s best film by any means, but it offers up something new in the ever-expanding indie mumble core New York genre. The key here is the central couples, actors with great energy and game, and these unique caricatures of cross-generational relationships. There might be a few too many broad strokes here, but the witty writing and excellent direction will keep you hooked for the breezy 90 minute run time.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Insurgent

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There’s a good movie hidden somewhere inside Insurgent, but it struggles to come out. All of the pieces are there, with nice action sequences and some solid performances, but whatever is left of a plot is simply fraying at the edges. The result is a sloppy film, that feels cobbled together, with little narrative cohesion. It’s not a misfire, but the Divergent series is turning out to be quite the snoozer.

Insurgent picks up where Divergent left off, with Tris, Four, and the rest of the Dauntless rebels escaping the city to gather allies for the attack on Erudite, led by the nefarious Jeanine. I’m a fan of the book series, and while I thought Insurgent was by far the weakest, I didn’t think it was this weak. Director Robert Schwentke and his screenwriting team have made significant changes to the core material. Normally I don’t mind when things are changed for a film adaptation, but some of the changes are straight up bizarre, and make no sense in the overall narrative. They added a “box” that only divergents can open as a sort of “one ring” for the franchise, but this is ridiculous and only serves purpose to show Kate Winslet’s acting strengths.

A few other changes make Insurgent feel less like the second of a trilogy, and just more of the same from Divergent. In The Hunger Games’s second film (a book adaptation done right), things are changed, but they ramp up the action, romance, and drama to make an altogether more thrilling film. Insurgent is just a snoozefest sometimes. There isn’t a sense of urgency, so vital in the novel, that is just absent here. Random characters popping in and out only never to be seen again, plot inconsistencies, a ridiculous ending. Man, this movie just did not make any sense. I’d almost recommend not reading the book and seeing it as a non-book reader. Seems like Roth took out everything that made the books special for this film adaptation.

Like I said, though, Insurgent isn’t a total flop. The pieces are there, they’re just scattershot. I love the ideals that being divergent represents, and both the book and film series hit these themes well. Seeing Chicago all torn up allows for some cool imagery, and all of the five factions have their own unique flair. Take Amity for instance: a farm village run by kindness. Contrast it with Erudite: towering technological fortresses and stoicism. The five factions are very cool and very unique, and the film retains the best parts of what made the first film so great.

Acting this time around is good, not great. Shailene Woodley, whom I loved in the first film, doesn’t have as many good moments here. She has some badass action heroine scenes, to be sure, but nothing that makes her performance anything but standard. Same with Theo James. I left the film feeling like their chemistry had worn off significantly. The key to romantic pairings like these in young adult films is to ramp up the heat each film, and Insurgent is a missed opportunity for the both of them. The rest of the supporting cast is similarly average. Kate Winslet is solid like always, Miles Teller is the film’s only comedic grace, Ansel Elgort is boring as all get out. Talented performers all of them, they just don’t have much to work with.

This makes me worry for Allegiant, which is ridiculously being split into two parts. The Divergent franchise needs to get back on track, fix the structural messes, ramp up the chemistry, and just make things more interesting. Insurgent is one more plot hole away from being a disaster, but right now it’s simply watchable. It’s pretty short, some cool visuals keep things interesting, and I guess I could say I was intrigued all the way through. But this movie could have been a hell of a lot more.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Cinderella

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Kenneth Branagh’s live action adaptation of Cinderella is almost too perfect. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker put it well, saying, “Indeed, there is barely a frame of Branagh’s film that would cause Uncle Walt to finger his mustache with disquiet.” This is great news for fans of Disney and fans of the universal love story between Cinderella and Prince Charming. It also reassures that Disney is on top of their game with their new trend of adapting their classic animated films into live action stories. Cinderella is the best of these so far, as it’s more focused on retelling the story than reimagining it.

Unlike Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, Cinderella is a pure retelling of the tale, not a gritty reimagining. While this allows for limited narrative flexibility, Branagh inserts his own take, permitting a unique directorial feel that focuses distinctly on what makes Cinderella the classic love story it is. We begin with Ella’s childhood, her parents’ deaths, and the cruelty endured by her evil stepmother and stepsisters. For the most part, the beginning of the film is schmaltzy in all the Disney ways. It reminded me of Saving Mr. Banks in its cute storytelling and optimism. From here we delve into her encounter with her fairy godmother, her attendance at the royal ball, the glass slipper incident, you know the rest.

It’s not fair to call the film predictable, because we all know the story that stands the test of time. But the key here is the script from Chris Weitz, which is chock full of good visual imagery and characterization for the characters we love. Even everyone’s favorite villain, the evil stepmother, has a nice character arc.

Like I said, Branagh’s direction is on point here. Beautiful production design lends itself to some outstanding visuals. From lush forests to beautiful castles, Cinderella is a feast for the eyes. Costume design is incredible from acclaimed designer Sandy Powell. The film is brimming with the trademark “Disney magic” that was most recently on display in Into the Woods. Excellent cinematography helps create these signature magical moments, from the beautiful fairy godmother transformation to some exciting moments between Cinderella and the Prince. Naturally, there isn’t much “excitement” in the traditional sense in Cinderella, but Branagh makes it happen.

Obviously the film is nothing without its performers, and the film delivers, allowing some great background actors a chance to shine. Featuring star-making turns for both Lily James and Richard Madden, best known for their roles on Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, respectively, the film gives them the opportunity to show their talents. James’s performance is subtle, with great characterization from great scenes between her and her father. She’s a low-key natural performer, whose performance grows on you. Her cute expressions and sheer optimism are enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. Madden is also charming as the titular prince. Chemistry is key here, and Cinderella is full of it.

I expected a bit more from Cate Blanchette as the evil stepmother, however. She’s evil to be sure, but I almost wanted more from her. Her passive aggressive tone and over-the-top lines grew a bit tiresome towards the end of the film. Maybe I’ve been desensitized, and was expecting a more evil performance, but perhaps that isn’t in the film’s nature. Her character arc, though, is one to watch, with a great scene between her and Ella at the film’s conclusion.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Cinderella at its core. It’s a cute, memorable, fashionable film, with eye candy and memorable performances abound. There aren’t many narrative surprises, but Branagh’s direction is nothing to disregard. He keeps the film exciting (and under 2 hours, no less), which is more than could be said for the snoozefest that was Alice in Wonderland. It’s a perfect family film for young girls, as well as a great date movie (moreso than Fifty Shades). If this is the latest trend in live-action renditions of our favorite Disney classics, then sign me up for more.

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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House of Cards Season 3

The third season of Netflix’s first original hit, House of Cards starts to show its flaws, but the show remains as engrossing and rich as ever. When we last saw ruthless politician Frank Underwood, he had successfully pushed President Walker out of office, and Underwood is now running the nation. Should we be concerned or confident?

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While the season starts out a bit rote, and it takes some time for Frank and his wife Claire to settle into their new roles, we eventually kick into high gear by episode 6. The way I see the season, it’s split into two very different segments. The first focuses on Frank’s dealings with Russian prime minister Petrov (sound familiar?) concerning sending support troops to Israel. Petrov is a fascinating character, neither a hero nor villain, played with chilling insanity by Lars Mikkelsen. An early episode finds his visit to the United States getting very awkward as everyone gets intoxicated, leading to some hilarious moments. In the meantime, Claire, newly appointed on the council of the United Nations, faces opposition from both Frank and his opponents as she fights to get support for ground forces in Israel. In the backdrop, Frank is pushing his first big move as president, his program America Works, which aims to get Americans back to work.

That’s already a lot, and we’re dealing with a lot of information early on. House of Cards has never been for the casual viewer, and this season remains so. Those not sensitized to the wheeling and dealing of Washington should stray far away. The show can get a bit muddled, but showrunner Beau Willimon creatively blends emotion and pathos with these plot devices, making things bearable.

That said, the first couple episodes of the season are a bit rough around the edges. Half of the premiere is spent with Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s former chief of staff, and his recovery after being assaulted by Rachel, whom he has been trying to keep quiet since season one. A plot that should have ended last season is overstaying its welcome big time here. Doug is an extremely unlikable character, and while House of Cards is full of those, its simply hard to root for him. His scenes pale in comparison to Frank and Claire’s, and his character is just boring. They should have wrapped up his story early on and kept it that way, instead of dragging it out every episode until an unsatisfying conclusion. A visit from his brother does little to make things interesting, and you’ll be waiting for his scenes to end. Thankfully, it looks like we might be back to the Doug we know and love for the next season.

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But Doug isn’t the focus here, it’s all about Frank and Claire. The sixth episode marks a turning point for the couple, as their trip to Moscow to free a protestor goes south. This causes a rift in their marriage, and from here until the finale, the show delves deep into their marriage as Frank battles for reelection and Claire ponders purpose in her career. Now the cracks in their marriage are starting to show, and it isn’t pretty. Claire has always been my favorite character, and she gets some killer scenes in season three. Robin Wright continues to grow and deepen Claire’s character, making her the most interesting of the bunch. Claire finally begins to question her work and her ambitions in the second half of season three. Are they a result of her own knack, or because of her husband’s position in power? It’s an important question that such a political couple like the Underwoods must ponder. By the end, Claire makes up her mind in a polarizing finale, leaving for what should be a riveting season four (should the show get renewed, and why would it not?)

Kevin Spacey brings his A-game as Frank, molding a character so deep and complex that there isn’t much to go forward with. A side story involves a journalist coming to the White House to write a story about Frank’s new America Works program. But it quickly diverges into a personal piece about Frank and his upbringing. This leads to some excellent scenes where we get to see how Frank really ticks. In short supply this season are Frank’s fourth-wall breakings, fan’s favorites. It’s disappointing, but it’s a logical progression as Frank loses grip on those around him. One of the best scenes in the season comes when Frank is debating with his fellow presidential candidates, Heather Dunbar (below), and Jackie Sharp, House majority whip. It’s a wonderful sequence, shot with intensity, as each candidate makes their claim and gang up on each other.

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House of Cards is a beast of a show. There’s always so much going on that it can be difficult to process, but one of the best produced and shot shows this decade. Cinematography is top notch like always, writing is exhilarating and at times darkly humorous, and the acting is flawless. While the season falters a bit early on, season three is at its best when it delves into the Underwood’s marriage. It paints a portrait of a modern political marriage, with great feminist themes in Claire’s story and a somber childhood tale of Frank’s. This season feels like a gap season – fewer calculated shocks, more slow-burn thematical elements, but at its core it’s the same – an irresistible soapy political drama, one that continues to prove why it was made for the binging model.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2015 in TV Reviews

 

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