Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut (she also wrote it), THE BABADOOK, is an Australian film that has a retro 70s horror production design that gives it an instant classic feel. Daniel Hanshell (think A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s Malcolm McDowell as a child) is the young boy who swears the Babadook, a kind of Boogie Man, is living in their home. His single mother, played wonderfully by Essie Davis, is still reeling from the death of her husband the day her son was born, and has problems coming to grips with her overly imaginative son. The film smartly doesn’t go for the cheap scary thrills, and instead, through its methodical pacing—another reason it feels like a 70s horror film—builds to a great third act.
Benedict Cumberbatch is spectacular as the obsessive and abrasive Alan Turing in THE IMITATION GAME, an historical biopic about the brilliant mathematician who creates a precursor to the modern computer. There are three timelines in the film: the main setting takes place during World War II when Turing and several mathematicians try to break Germany’s codes, flashbacks to Turing’s boarding school friendship with Christopher, and a flash forward to Turing after the war when the police discover he’s a homosexual. Such a structure in a film isn’t always smooth, but here it is quite effective. Keira Knightly, who plays Joan Clarke, is also very good as a brilliant mathematician who must contend with the innate sexism of the time.
The PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, a spin-off of the popular MADAGASCAR franchise, is a mixture of 1960s/70s “Get Smart” and the animated penguin, Tennessee Tuxedo. The first two-thirds of the film is raucous, clever, funny, and definitely adorable. The use of Werner Herzog at the film’s onset as a documentarian in Antarctica will leave cinephiles laughing. The film’s witty banter (almost expected in animated films today) is used to its fullest with such repeated celebrity jokes as “Drew, Barry, more!” By the end, however, the film divulges into a frenetic pace that loses some of its appeal that it built up. That said, this is a good film for families this Thanksgiving holiday.
The gang is back! Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis return to reprise their roles as dumb, dumber, and dumbest, in HORRIBLE BOSSES 2. This time, however, instead of trying to kill the other’s bosses, they are going to kidnap their investor’s (Christoph Waltz) son (Chris Pine) for ransom. Funny and raunchy, the film has a similar amount of laughs as the first film, but the humor is so lowbrow that the film never becomes anything other than a fast food film. Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, and Jaime Foxx all return in their roles from the previous film, with Spacey the only one able to bring a new wrinkle to the character (perhaps it’s his location).
Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature directorial debut is the best foreign-language vampire movie since Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish film, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Both are foreign films (A GIRL is Iranian) and have female vampires, but that is where the comparisons stop. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is stylized, musically 80s, and downright sexy in its black and white images. Even the film’s press notes reaffirms its cool indie vibe by refering to Arash Marandi’s character as the “The Persian James Dean”. But what is most impressive is Ms. Amirpour’s directorial decisions that reveal a seasoned director—not a first timer—that knows what she wants and knows how to get it on screen.
A documentary about the emotional repercussions to the Penn State community after former defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest in 2011 for sexually molesting children. The film is fair and objective in its portrayal of the community’s deep divided opinion about the alleged cover up to protect the football program by revered head football coach, Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Vice-President Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director Tim Curly, after graduate student Mike McQueary reported in 2001 possible sexual misconduct by retired Sandusky with a child in the Penn State showers. Film loses points because it was unable to secure a McQueary interview and did not show Spanier’s interview.
The first half of MOCKINGJAY isn’t your typical third installment of a “chosen one” story. Why? Because Katniss Everdeen, the film’s chosen one, is still a reluctant hero. This usually pertains to the first installment of a hero’s journey only. Even worse is the rebel resistance spends the first hour building a marketing campaign around the reluctant Katniss as the symbol of a revolution. If that seems a bit nondramatic, it is—we get more tone and mood in the first hour than drama. It doesn’t help that Jennifer Lawrence is moping throughout the entire film—by now Katniss should be kicking ass and taking names, not being confused on her role in the story.
The sequel to the 1994 film, DUMB AND DUMBER, reunites Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, two idiots with good intentions, but very little common sense—they are today’s Three Stooges! Carrey and Daniels were fine in the original when they were in their 30s playing two morons for laughs, but now in their 50s (Daniels turns 60 in February!) it comes off as a bit sad. This would have been a better film if it had been made a few years after the original, not twenty. But the writing/directing team of Bobby and Peter Farrelly still know how to load up the laughs (with a few groans) in this franchise.
Bennett Miller’s three directed feature narratives—CAPOTE, MONEYBALL, and now FOXCATCHER—are all based on true-life events. In the two earlier films he had great performances that received at least an Oscar nomination (Philip Seymour Hoffman the lone Oscar winner). FOXCATCHER is no different, with potentially three award-worthy performances: Steve Carrell as John du Pont, Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, and Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz. What could be a detractor for some U.S. moviegoers is the dark undercurrent that permeates the entire film. This darker, arthouse feel is magnified by Miller’s direction and Greig Fraser’s cinematography.
There is a surprise halfway through director/co-writer Tommy Lee Jones’ THE HOMESMAN; a “surprise” that happens as Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) and George Briggs (Jones) transport three crazy women back East. I’m assuming the “surprise” is in Glendon Swarthout’s novel that was adapted, but if you haven’t read the book it will be a bit of a shock. The film, set in the late 1880s, won’t win you over immediately… It takes its time with thoughtful pacing to grow on you. There are a couple of nice cameos by James Spader and Meryl Streep. If there is one complaint, it’s that Cuddy, played wonderfully by Ms. Swank, mentions a few times how plain she looks. Ms. Swank is not plain, even without makeup!
When Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR is good, it is breathtakingly good. The story itself—laden with scientific ideas, discussions and debates—is secondary to the grand images that Nolan has created of outer space and uninhabitable planets. Nolan attempts to soften the scientific aspect of the film with family sentimental warmth; yet it still succumbs to the cold and calculated veneer that is a part of all Nolan films. There are good performances—especially Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey—and a great Hans Zimmer score that adds to making it a good 169 minutes experience. Watching it on an IMAX screen is also highly recommended.
Jon Stewart, best know for his biting political satire on “The Daily Show”, has successfully directed his first feature, ROSEWATER. Stewart, who adapted the screenplay from Maziar Bahari’s memoir, has added visual, thematic, and thought provoking ideas to the film that could have easily been a paint-by-numbers story. Aided by Gael García Bernal’s sensitive and thoughtful performance as the imprisoned Bahari who was accused of being a spy, the film reveals the character’s inner struggle to live up to his family’s legacy of political resistance, and the absurdity of the oppressive Iranian regime attempting to control its people in the digital media age.
Jake Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Louis Bloom, a capitalistic chameleon sociopath who works as a freelancing overnight videographer in Los Angeles, capturing graphic news stories (“if it bleeds it leads”) for the local news. Dan Gilroy, the film’s writer and director, smartly keeps his camera focused on Gyllenhaal, allowing the audience to be charmed by Bloom’s sales pitch and at the same time horrified by his actions. Rene Russo, a graveyard News Director, working at the lowest rated LA television news station, seems to be just as transfixed by Bloom as we are. NIGHTCRAWLER is a very good film, but Gyllenhaal makes it great!
At the heart of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a touching true-life love story between Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones), and their challenges as Mr. Hawking battles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Redmayne’s performance as an active young man who succumbs to the debilitating and physically paralyzing disease is award-worthy. And Jones’ performance may not be as physically straining as Redmayne’s, but she provides a much-needed anchor for the Hawking family and for the film as well. The director, James Marsh, better know for his documentaries MAN ON WIRE and PROJECT NIM, brings a visual vitality and warmth to the film.
Disney’s BIG HERO SIX—a mixture of superhero team origin story, a boy and his robot, and revenge story—never hits that sweet spot of clever that is expected in today’s animated films. Entertaining and sometimes funny, the film is about Hiro (Ryan Potter) and his brother’s robot, Baymax (Scott Adslt), along with his brother’s four hi-tech innovating co-workers, banding together to find and stop Tadashi’s (Hiro’s brother) killer from exacting his own revenge. Baymax, the Disney’s seasonal kids toy is more cuddly than cute, and brings the film’s only moments of humor. Overall, the animation’s biggest failing is that is seems all too familiar.
Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR documentary is the third film in her trilogy about post-9/11 America. The film is about journalist Glenn Greenwald breaking the most important story of this century—Edward Snowden’s stolen NSA information about the U.S. Government’s data collection of everyone’s personal information in the name of protecting the U.S. from terrorism—is essential viewing for ALL citizens of the world. It is not a perfect film. But what it lacks in form is made up with revelatory content and a haunting message: that “Big Brother” is here, and sadly it seems there is nothing we can do to stop it—the monolith is too big and too powerful.