Showing posts with label 2013. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2013. Show all posts

February 19, 2014

2014 Oscars: 20 Feet from Stardom

20 Feet from Stardom

What qualities make a music superstar? Is it all marketing, real talent, or simply an obsessive drive to reach the top? Judging by some of the people who’ve made it, there’s no easy answer. For every Katie Perry, there’s a veteran who deserves attention like Glen Hansard. These questions play a key role in the world of backup singers. They’re often the most talented people on stage, yet their goal is to make the star look better. When they try to take the spotlight, the challenges are entirely different and involve luck as much as skill. There’s only so much room at the table, and changes in trends have left fewer spots for the supporting cast. These issues are chronicled in the engaging documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which reveals the faces behind names like Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones. Veteran music filmmaker Morgan Neville gathers an impressive group to ponder the life of a backup singer and gives an intimate perspective on their lives on and off the stage.

Merry Clayton in 20 Feet from Stardom

When a movie begins with an interview with Bruce Springsteen, it has my attention. He joins stars like Sting, Mick Jagger, and others to explore a lesser-seen group. The real focus is on the backup singers themselves, though. Some are household names like Darlene Love who struggled to get out from under the thumb of power-hungry guys like Phil Spector. Others like Lisa Fischer don’t have the name recognition but have enjoyed remarkable careers. A love for music permeates the film and makes it a joyous occasion. Even when it documents career difficulties, it’s presented as part of a glorious look at music’s under-represented heroes. A prime example is the segment about “Gimme Shelter” and the remarkable work of Merry Clayton on the iconic song. She brings the house down and made the song what it is today, and the recounting of that recording identifies her importance.

The most intriguing participant is Fischer, who won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1992. She didn’t maintain that status as a solo artist, and part of the reason was her own reticence. It’s interesting to note the way the others seem downtrodden that Fischer didn’t push harder. It’s tough to feel too bad for her, though. Fischer has toured with The Rolling Stones since 1989 and supported Luther Vandross for several decades. She’s made a great living as a backup, so it’s easy to understand why she’s okay with that role. Her experience also raises questions about how much the artist’s ego affects their ultimate situation. Can a mild-mannered singer do what’s necessary to take center stage and stay there? Fischer seems happy with her choice to play a secondary role.

Judith Hill in 20 Feet from Stardom

A counterpoint is Judith Hill, who was preparing to tour with Michael Jackson when he died in 2009. The 29-year-old singer has an excellent stage presence and clearly wants to make it as a solo artist. The scenes of her belting out emotional ballads at the piano are some of the most powerful in the movie. Hill seems destined for stardom, though she’s still backed up lesser talents to make ends meet. It shows the challenges for even the most talented artists in today’s music world. What connects them all is a love of music that pushes them to pursue their passions. The ones who’ve stepped back from music still wonder if they’ve made the right choice. The drive won’t go away, and there’s a joy on stage that can’t be matched. This inspiration is all over 20 Feet from Stardom, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. This recognition is a testament to its engaging look at artists who may not reach the marquee but are an essential part of music history.

February 18, 2014

The Spectacular Now: Love Is a Caging Thing

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now

The situation is very familiar. A cool guy in high school meets a wallflower and discovers that she’s more interesting than he expected. Their relationship helps him to gain confidence and grow into something more. This description would apply to James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, yet it hardly does justice to the movie. There are no cruel bets, vicious cliques, or cool kids that reject their friend when he strays from the fold. These are three-dimensional characters that make mistakes and say the wrong thing, yet they’re trying their best. Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is the type of person who has an easy time interacting with anyone. He walks into a party and makes anyone feel important. This engaging personality can lead to good things, but it also masks uncertainty about his future. He’s living in the now and doesn’t see the reason to prepare for the future. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) recognizes it and dumps him, and she gives an honest assessment of why it won’t work. It’s this type of believable moment that lifts this movie above your standard teen drama.

The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt

The film’s key relationship involves Sutter and Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a smart and quiet girl who stays in the background. It’s clear from their first meeting that there are more similarities between the pair than you’d expect. There’s that easy chemistry that you can’t fake during their first ride on her paper route. While their relationship grows, it helps Aimee to come out of her shell, but there are hints that Sutter might be dragging her down. He’s constantly drinking alcohol, and those tendencies are growing in her life. It’s positive for Aimee to let loose and enjoy life more, but there are consequences if it goes too far. They also bond over tricky relationships with their moms, who both are single for very different reasons. Having common ground brings them even closer, but it won’t be an easy road.

The challenge to connect with this movie is Sutter, who has a limited view on his own abilities. His geometry teacher Mr. Aster (The Wire’s Andre Royo) tries to help him, but there’s little he can do with a guy who doesn’t believe in himself. There’s no sense that finding the right approach will change the game, and that’s a positive for this film. Sutter isn’t dumb but lacks the drive to bear down and work. A trip to see his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) could offer a solution, but it brings the opposite result. This sequence reveals the issues with Sutter and puts them in a grown man. His dad cares about no one and is more concerned with hanging out at the bar than his own son. While the similarities are a bit too obvious, there’s a real sadness in seeing them play out in such a blatant way. Chandler acts against type as a loser who’s just drifting through life until the next drink.

Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now

The best aspects of The Spectacular Now cover Sutter and Aimee’s relationship, and the main reason is Shailene Woodley. She could easily play the cool kid yet finds just the right approach for the likable girl. Aimee speaks so quietly that you can barely hear her, and her blind spot about Sutter is disheartening. You can’t change a guy who isn’t ready to see the truth. The story becomes a bit less interesting when she takes a back seat to his soul-searching. Miles Teller is game for anything and brings a lot more than what’s on the page for Sutter. He drives through some clumsy dialogue because the emotional authenticity is always there. It’s that genuine feeling that helps the story to overcome an uneven final act.

There’s a great moment when Cassidy’s new boyfriend Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) confronts Sutter, and the situation may get ugly. Instead, the more wooden guy asks for advice on letting loose. It’s a surprising turn for a set-up that we’ve seen in so many films. Bob Odenkirk and Mary Elizabeth Winstead also do solid work as Sutter’s boss and sister, respectively. They only get a few chances to shine yet make an impression. The Georgia setting feels believable for the middle-class characters, and that brings a laid-back atmosphere to their lives. There’s little melodrama beyond their day-to-day choices, though one glaring exception feels unnecessary. Putting Aimee in physical jeopardy sidetracks the momentum, but only for a short while. This is a character-driven story that avoids the traps and stays on track despite a few hurdles. Aimee’s look in the last shot says it all and ends the movie on an uncertain, yet understandable note. Life is just getting rolling for the couple, though questions remain on if they’re heading in the same direction.

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February 17, 2014

2014 Oscars: Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

Adapting a well-known real event into a movie is a tall order. It’s easy to put together a check list and just hit the expected beats. The problem is that taking this path leads to a dull film. When Paul Greengrass directed United 93, critics were ready to tear him down for exploiting 9/11. The fact that he managed to deliver an intriguing piece of cinema is remarkable. He created such tension from every moment despite the fact that the ending was certain. It wasn’t a star vehicle designed to draw big crowds with manipulative drama. He used real participants in the tragedy and unknown actors to keep us engaged with the story on the screen. Greengrass employs a similar approach with Captain Phillips, which depicts the highly publicized hijacking of a U.S. vessel by Somali pirates. Despite the presence of Tom Hanks, the style remains clinical and doesn’t over sell the stakes. It’s another great achievement from a director who thrives on subverting our expectations.

Somali Pirates in Captain Phillips

Based on the book A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, this story puts you on board the Maersk Alabama and its lifeboat during the final act. Although it feels extremely spare, the screenplay from Billy Ray (Breach) is essential in building the tension. We spend a few minutes with Phillips and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) during a routine conversation on the way to the airport. This seems like a strange way to spend our time, but it sets him up immediately as a regular guy. He may be the captain of a ship, but Phillips is no super hero. When the reports of pirate activity grow, the grave concern on his face reveals the clear danger. Meanwhile, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) has been tasked with recruiting a small group to steal the vessel. Instead of presenting them as unknown villains, Greengrass shows the young Somali men as equally important. There’s little surprise when they begin the furious pursuit of Phillips’ ship. This creative choice is pivotal in giving us sympathy with the pirates, especially Muse.

Despite this even-handed approach, this film truly grabs you because of Hanks. Once the action shifts away from the Maersk Alabama, it’s all about Phillips and his four captors. I’ve seen most of Hanks’ performances, and few match the power of this role. He’s trying to stay brave and not show weakness, but there’s only so much that anyone could take. Much has been said about the last five minutes, and that scene more than lives up to expectations. Hanks is so vulnerable after surviving the trauma, and watching him crumble is fascinating. We’ve moved so far beyond standard action movie territory at this point. Despite his criminal acts, it’s also disheartening to watch the fate of Muse after being tricked by the U.S. Navy. Despite the evidence to the contrary, he still believes that the elders will stand by him. Abdi does so well in showing the young man’s innocence in the brutal ways of the world. He may try to act tough with Phillips, but he’s hardly ready for the complexities involved.

Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The stunning part was the lack of recognition for Hanks, who’s been showered with awards. Comparing the worth of performances is impossible, yet it still’s surprising given the power of Hanks’ work as Phillips. The unknown Abdi did earn a nod, and it’s a revelation to watch him reveal the layers behind Muse’s bluster. Greengrass and Ray give them the right environment to work, and the actors are sharp. It’s a gripping film that grabs you and won’t let go until the final confrontation. Even with our knowledge of Phillips’ fate, the resolution never feels secure. It takes a master to maintain that tension without manipulating the audience. This story could have fallen prey to the obvious formula, and its success offers a telling reminder of what’s possible in the right hands.

February 11, 2014

Enough Said: I'm Tired of Being Funny

James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said.

Much has been written about the death of the mid-budget film as Hollywood studios focus on blockbusters capable of overseas success. This trend has also focused the attention on audiences that go to the movies the most often. Where does that leave viewers looking for something beyond the latest superhero film or generic comedy? We’re still seeing great independent films, but the ability for even veteran filmmakers like John Sayles to get funding is very difficult. There are some exceptions in this landscape, but they’re becoming rarer with each passing year. When a movie like Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said turns a tidy profit with a September release, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Even so, it doesn’t fall into a simple category and looks much different than your standard romantic comedy. Despite a few plot contrivances, there’s a refreshing feeling to this movie that’s rare even in the indie world.

Enough Said – Directed by Nicole Holofcener; Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener, Ben Falcone, and Tracey Fairaway

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Eva, a divorced masseuse with a daughter getting ready to leave for college. She meets Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party, and they begin a relationship. He’s also divorced with a daughter that’s graduating, and everything is looking positive for the couple. Their first date feels natural and doesn’t involve much awkwardness. This sequence is charming and never over plays their attraction. Eva and Albert get to know each other, and it’s thrilling to watch such a different take on the formula. Their interactions feel realistic and aren’t too witty or perfect. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini show each character’s hesitance even when things are going really well. It’s a clear take on people who’ve been through a lot and aren’t sure if relationships are worth the effort.

James Gandolfini in Enough Said.

Before getting to the hook, it’s worth stressing just how different the conversations seem from the typical movie dialogue. These characters have jobs and families, and they talk about the worries and challenges of daily life. Every statement isn’t designed around the main plot and allows us to get to know the characters as they meet each other. There’s a tricky moment when Eva rejects his move to kiss her, and Holofcener doesn’t over play its importance. Albert accepts her reluctance because there’s such potential. Even a really great first date is going to have a few bumps in the road. The actors play everything so well that we never doubt the characters for a second. Both are working at the top of their game and bring life to people who are different from their usual roles, especially for Gandolfini.

Every relationship needs a challenge, and Holofcener grabs an obvious one. Eva also meets Marianne (Catherine Keener) at the same party, and she becomes a client and eventual friend. The catch is that she’s Albert’s ex-wife, and it’s a twist out of a lesser movie. Even so, I didn’t find it as difficult to accept as expected. The reason is that Louis-Dreyfus plays the hell out of Eva’s reluctance to mess with either friendship. There’s one moment where she’s hiding behind a bush to conceal her identity, but that works because we don’t see it repeated. The ultimate revelation works because Gandolfini sells the heartbreak. Keener also plays the scene well, and both characters act like you’d expect adults to respond. They don’t forget about the hurt and realize Eva might not be good for their lives.

Catherine Keener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said.

Another refreshing aspect is the focus on Eva as the lead throughout the movie. We rarely get such a nuanced perspective on an older (by Hollywood standards) woman who just can’t get out of her own way. She has close friends and a great daughter (Tracey Fairaway), yet there are plenty of challenges. Holofcener has created other memorable female characters, but few have provided such depth. I’m really interested to see Louis-Dreyfus take on more roles of that caliber. She’s hilarious on Veep and is superb at comedy, but there’s a lot more potential. Gandolfini’s death was an unfortunate surprise at such a young age, and this wonderful role provides more evidence of his range. Both overcome the plot contrivances and forge ahead to create thoughtful characters that stick with you for a long time.

January 29, 2014

Drinking Buddies: Love Don't Leave Me Waiting

Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies

There’s something thrilling about getting that first job after college. In the right environment, you’re joining a young people with few attachments who are just getting started. My career began at a travel company editing materials sent to passengers before their trip. None of us made any money, but that loose feeling brought a sense of community with nights at bars just hanging out. There’s a similar feeling among the workers at Chicago’s Revolution Brewing in Drinking Buddies, who drift from the workplace right to the bar and repeat that pattern nearly every day. The challenge comes when the participants aren’t in their early 20s and have connections away from the workplace. Where does the life of constant drinking leave the boyfriends and girlfriends waiting at home? How can they compete with the tight bonds that grow among people who spend nearly every waking minute together? There’s no easy solution, particularly when the cycle keeps repeating right in front of their eyes.

Drinking Buddies – Directed by Joe Swanberg; Starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, and Jason Sudekis

Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick in Drinking Buddies

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has made his name directing micro-budget indie films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Alexander the Last, and he’s only recently become well known. The major draw here is a cast of familiar faces with Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston. Working without a real script, they shine and create believable characters with depth beyond what we see on the screen. They have actual jobs and aren’t in place just to further a thin romantic story line. Wilde in particular is a revelation in a part that’s much different from recent roles in blockbusters like Cowboys & Aliens and Tron: Legacy. Her chemistry with Johnson is evident from the start, yet the reasons for their characters not being a couple make sense. His grizzled Luke is clearly smitten with her, but he’s been in a committed relationship with Jill (Kendrick) for a long time. Meanwhile, Wilde’s Kate drifts through relationships and only shares a real connection with Luke. She’s essentially playing a character to try and stay together with Chris (Ron Livingston), and their distance stands out when compared to Kate’s bond with Luke.

The idea of two characters that are meant for each other but don’t act is hardly new. The difference here is that it isn’t fodder for one-note jokes or typical conflicts. Swanberg gives an intimate look at why Kate and Luke work together. They’re so comfortable and are able to let their guard down and just be themselves. It’s an unspoken bond that plays out through nights of drinking, playing pool, and just having fun. Meanwhile, their more reserved significant others sit at home and read books in a much quieter spot. Swanberg deftly shows this contrast, which plays out during a trip to a cabin on the lake. Jill and Chris go on a hike, while Luke and Kate hang out and play drinking games. The difference is almost too obvious and would fall apart with lesser actors. Johnson and Wilde are so relaxed on screen that it doesn’t feel like we’re being hit over the head about their connection.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in Drinking Buddies

Looming over this story is the constant drinking, especially from Luke and Kate. This raises the question of how much their bond depends on it. Are they alcoholics who connect over consuming large quantities of beer? They work at a brewery, so there’s an obvious interest in it. Even so, the behavior goes beyond a normal passion. They’re having beers with lunch, hitting the bars, and then immediately grabbing a beer from the fridge when they get home. A lesser movie would nail this theme with a tragedy, but we’re living in more subtle territory. Beers are just a part of life, and removing them would essentially change their entire routines. Could they really work as a stable couple if the alcohol subsided? The evidence points against that possibility, which means that little will probably change in the future.

Swanberg works constantly, and there’s been a haphazard feeling to some of his work. That sense is missing from Drinking Buddies, which packs a lot of engaging character material into less than 90 minutes. There’s little forward movement for Kate and Luke on the surface, but there’s a quiet understanding that seems different. The silent final scene at the lunch table is dead-on in showing the shorthand that’s built up over the years. Will they get together? Swanberg leaves it open to interpretation, but I have a pretty strong feeling it’s going to happen. That doesn’t mean their long-term happiness is assured, however. Their hearts may be in the right place, but neither seems willing to truly grow up. Luke can’t bring himself to leave Jill, yet he isn't looking for the marriage she wants. Kate’s a great friend for a night on the town, but does that make her the right match? These unanswered questions bring such depth to this surprising, down-to-earth film. I can’t wait to see what Swanberg does next.

January 27, 2014

Dystopian Films: Elysium (2013)

Elysium's space vessel for the rich and Jodie Foster

dystopia, noun a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding

Considering the bad news in our 24-hour cycle, it's easy to think that we aren't far away from losing our society as we know it. Film makers have picked up on this trend, and we're seeing a lot of films depicting an ugly future. Big-budget movies like Oblivion and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire show a much-different Earth coming our way. This material is rife for great drama if done well, and that makes it the perfect choice for my latest marathon. My first movie also came out in 2013 with great expectations. Elysium is Neil Blomkamp's follow-up to his 2009 debut District 9, which earned raves from critics and audiences. While I admire its concept of aliens living in an Apartheid-like setting, it lost steam for me because of its final act of generic shootouts. Would his second film avoid that trap? It comes with a scorcher of a concept that offers plenty of intriguing opportunities.

Elysium, starring Matt Damon

In 2154, the divide between the rich and poor has become much wider. The wealthy live in luxury on a giant space station called Elysium floating above the Earth while the others struggle to survive on the surface. After suffering massive radiation exposure in a work accident, Max (Matt Damon) will do anything to reach Elysium to save his life.

In the most basic sense, the idea that the rich would move to a giant space station above a devastated Earth isn’t outlandish. People are already moving further away from urban areas to gated communities. This is an extreme take on that shift, but it also never goes deeper. We don’t really understand how the society functions beyond the general split. Why couldn’t the entire populace move into space? How are people even surviving on Earth? The robots play a key role in suppressing the masses and take a very severe approach to law enforcement. They’re the most interesting part of the scenario, but they’re mostly eye candy for the action sequences. The figures in power are using pods to stay young and avoid disease. What impact does that have on the way they look at the rest of us? That’s another intriguing topic that’s barely mentioned under this limited perspective.

Matt Damon battles Sharlto Copley in Elysium.

Blomkamp develops an interesting premise about a possible future to our current path. If the uncaring CEOs of giant corporations had the chance to escape to a heavenly utopia, they’d certainly take it. Jodie Foster’s Delacourt embodies this type of power-hungry figure who even wants to dominate this new world. On the other side of the fence is Max (Matt Damon), who can’t seem to catch any breaks. His boss cares little about his impending death and treats him like a non-entity. Blomkamp’s themes could lead to an intelligent story, but he wastes them in a script that lacks wit or brains. He’s more interested in cool guns, evil brutes, and spilling blood. It’s so disappointing to watch him waste a potentially strong opportunity. The basic elements or in place, but the execution is a huge misfire.

Damon does his best to make us care about Max, but it’s futile. The prologue establishes his relationship as a child with Frey (Alice Braga), but they have little chemistry. Her focus is on saving her sick daughter, and they can’t overtake that tired plot device. Appearing in a different movie is a nearly unrecognizable Sharlto Copley as Kruger. That cartoonish villain just wants to incite mayhem and reminds me of the goons that hindered District 9. Copley has a blast playing the over-the-top guy, and he injects some much-needed energy. The problem is that he’s living in another movie. He does a lot better than Foster, who employs a ridiculous accent that can’t be taken seriously. Her awful dialogue is on par with a B movie serial, and her odd vocal style just adds to the silliness. It’s Foster’s only performance in the past two years and a strange choice to jump back into the game.

Jodie Foster in Elysium.

Elysium is such a clunker and only gets worse during its final act. The visual style is impressive, and it’s clear that Blomkamp has talent. He may want to step away from writing his own screenplays, however. I love sci-fi, but this is such a by-the-numbers action movie that it loses any relevance. It’s the type of movie that would star Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin if it had a lower budget. The talented cast and Oscar nominations for District 9 created a smokescreen that set high expectations. Those fall away quickly, and the resolution creates a lot of questions. Can everyone on Earth really fit on the space station? It’s a one-note end that matches the lack of gravity in the entire picture. If any film needed script doctor treatment from Shane Black, it’s this one.

Nest week, I’ll deliver justice with Karl Urban in the new version of Dredd.

January 23, 2014

Escape from Tomorrow: Disney Shouldn't Worry

It's a Small World in Escape from Tomorrow

If you’ve followed my blog for a little while, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of theme parks. We visited Disney World frequently as kids, and I’ve gone multiple times as an adult with our family. The story of Escape from Tomorrow’s filming is intriguing. The guerrilla production is old news, so I won’t waste any time describing it again. Writer/Director Randy Moore’s surreal tale of a family’s last vacation day in Orlando has so much potential. Any film that opens with stunning black-and-white footage of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is right up my alley. What’s amazing is how quickly it squanders that goodwill. How can a sci-fi film shot at the Disney theme parks fall flat? The reasons go beyond the toothless satire and relate closer to the basics of storytelling. Despite some fun gags, Moore gets sidetracked and loses sight of the mission statement that seems to be driving his film.

French girls in Escape from Tomorrow

Moore visited Disney World frequently as a kid, and he seems to be working through some issues with his dad in this movie. The main character is a distracted middle-aged father who cares little about his wife or kids. Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is most concerned with stalking and leering at two French teenagers. His behavior goes beyond a guy who takes a quick glance at an attractive girl. He barely hides the interest and acts terribly in front of his son and daughter. There’s nothing wrong with having a despicable lead character in the right hands. The problem is that Jim’s issues are so clumsily handled and occupy such a large portion of the movie. The entire middle act involves him tracking them from ride to ride, and it quickly grows tedious. What does this tell us about Disney and their parks?

On the positive side, the early scenes provide some cool perspectives on the Disney attractions. Snow White’s Scary Adventures is easy to portray in a terrifying fashion, and even Winnie the Pooh looks eerie. Stripped of its soundtrack and replaced with a creepier score, It’s a Small World is hardly magical. The black-and-white cinematography brings out the manufactured nature of these images. There’s the potential for something intriguing within this project. The problem is that the rides occupy such a small portion of the movie. They become the backdrop for the disintegration of an unhappy guy who’s just lost his job. There’s little to latch onto with that plot, and Abramsohn makes Jim hard to even tolerate.

EPCOT Center in Escape from Tomorrow

Moore spends a small portion taking shots at the Disney princesses, who work as prostitutes for wealthy business men in this vision. That’s hardly a huge stretch and has potential, but Moore is more interested in a crazy ex-princess obsessed with Snow White. He’s drifting around the notion that Disney sells about fulfilling dreams. That plays a key role in the ending, which does more than showcase a few odd parts of the Disney model. Jim literally becomes the version of himself that he dreams of being after a dire end. The key moment is a ridiculous scene in a room below Spaceship Earth with a helpful scientist. The shot of a miniature Spaceship Earth on top of Jim’s head is laughable but shows what might have worked for this movie. If Moore had gone for it, it could have worked as a ridiculously subversive comedy. He tries to walk the line between the sci-fi premise and Jim’s personal descent, and the result is all over the map.

For a Disney parks expert, there are so many silly moments. Moore shot the film in both Disney World and Disneyland, and he shifts frequently between the parks. Characters enter Soarin’ in EPCOT and walk into the queue for the California version. He also rides It’s a Small World from Disneyland, which might explain the confusion. Jim really needs to invest in a Touring Plan and stop crisscrossing the parks with his tired kids. He goes from Tomorrowland over to Adventureland and then back to his original spot. Who is running their day? There are also really obvious green screen moments that weren’t shot in the parks. Those take you right out of the movie and make it harder to accept what’s happening on screen.

Elena Schuber in Escape from Tomorrow

Escape from Tomorrow is a mess, but I might forgive a lot if Moore even tried to create an interesting female character. Jim’s wife Emily (Elena Schuber) is depicted as being a constant nag who cares little for her husband. The other women are simply sex objects. It’s easy to understand why Emily is frustrated with the sleazy and constantly distracted Jim. However, that doesn’t excuse Moore from making her such a one-note character. Schuber has little to do but complain about his failings as a father. His attempts to romance her are ridiculous; he wants to make out on Winnie the Pooh with their kids in the vehicle. Her rejection makes total sense, yet she’s presented as the villain in that scenario.

This limited perspective on women is the real crime within this film and kills its chances to work as a satire. Moore can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat and change the game in the last act. He’s already blown his chance by that point. The limited perspective on gender relations is so frustrating and carries through most of the film. There’s a truly subversive film hidden within Escape from Tomorrow, but Moore spends most of his time in less thrilling territory. Many expected Disney to sue him and prevent its release, yet the company has remained silent. That feels like the right move; there's no need to bring more attention to a film that's far less subversive than it seems.

Note: I caught up with Escape from Tomorrow at a local screening by the Webster University Film Series here in St. Louis. They're a great local resource for seeing independent and foreign films that aren't playing elsewhere in town.

January 17, 2014

Something in the Air: How Free Are We Really?

Something in the Air, directed by Olivier Assayas

When you’re a teenager and learning about life, it’s easy to feel that anything can happen. We can change the world! Idealistic views about the power of the people are strongest as young adults, and life has so many possibilities. Those feelings usually start to dissolve as the years go by. I may still listen to Bad Religion and read Howard Zinn, but it’s clear who really has the power. Millions hit the streets to protest the Iraq war, and it did little to stop it. There are still ways to inspire change, but a sweeping result is rarely possible. These issues rest at the center of Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, which follows a group of young French activists in the early ‘70s. They’re angry with the May 1968 events and want to do something about it. The looming question is what they’re really accomplishing. They’re falling in love, having a great time, and traveling the world, yet the destination is unknown. It’s a free life, yet the chains of adulthood lurk right around the corner.

Lola Creton in Something in he Air

Clement Matayer stars as Gilles, a high-school artist with aspirations to be a painter. He participates in protests against the establishment but isn’t as committed. After his girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) leaves the country, he begins a relationship with Christine (Lola Créton). She’s passionate about social justice and ready to devote her life to the cause. They’re a good match, but this rift between their goals could be a challenge. Despite being free of responsibility, Gilles is already thinking about his career. His dad makes schlocky films at a French studio, and he pushes him to join the business. The idealistic guy loves his art, but there’s a part of him that wants security. He senses the shallow side of their activism, particularly with some filmmakers who draw Christine’s attention. There’s a fine line between doing the right thing and becoming a pretentious intellectual.

Assayas does an excellent job depicting the environment specific to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The landscape in France and Italy doesn’t feel that different from the Vietnam-era protests here in the United States. There was plenty of anger, but the sense that activism could lead to change remained. When Gilles and Christine go to Italy, they encounter many young people with similar views about speaking their mind. There’s a communal feeling of being outsiders taking on the system, aided strongly by drugs and sex. The excellent soundtrack puts us right inside this time period and rarely feels intrusive. Assayas captures the raw energy of the movement while revealing its limitations. Competing goals make any choice feel like the wrong one, especially with love involved.

Clement Matayer and Lola Creton in Something in the Air

Something in the Air is a gorgeous film that envelops us in this culture. Assayas and Cinematographer Eric Gartier (Into the Wild) use such vivid colors to present an idyllic time. When Gilles enters the adult world, that beauty dissipates into a restrictive space. We see the joys from young people trying to connect and have a great time. Of course, even the most unrestricted souls eventually change their tune. Leslie (India Menuez) talks of visiting Nepal and learning their dances, but she eventually returns to America for school. There’s also the prison of drug addiction, which shackles Laure with an unsavory boyfriend and dangerous lifestyle. Gilles realizes that he loves Christine and should give up anything, but he can’t sidestep a career. Did he really have a choice, or did society make it for him? That’s the challenge for young people in any era, and it’s heightened during a time of change. Who cares about a job when you’re about to change the world?

January 15, 2014

Orange is the New Black: Believe the Hype

Orange is the New Black, produced by Netflix

In today’s packed TV landscape, it takes quite a lot to stand out from the crowd. When a show develops massive critical buzz and actually delivers on that promise, it’s a rare treat. Orange is the New Black recently earned a score of WGA nominations, and it deserves every one of them. It’s a brilliantly constructed series that begins as a fish-out-of-water comedy and turns into something else entirely. The huge ensemble is filled with engaging characters that would be the prime standouts in a lesser project. Packing the cast with so many unknown actors helps us to watch the show without preconceived notions. Only Laura Prepon, Kate Mulgrew, and Natasha Lyonne are recognizable apart from this show as the inmates, and all make us forget their past work. It’s a breakthrough for women and reminds us of the potential to toss aside gender expectations within this great medium.

Orange is the New Black stems from a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, and it pulls a lot from her real-life experiences. It’s created by Jenji Kohan, who’s known for Showtime's long-running series Weeds. The writing staff is filled with women, and that brings a fresh perspective within the male-dominated TV landscape. It stars the relatively unknown Taylor Schilling (Mercy) as Piper Chapman, who is sent to prison for a drug-trafficking crime she committed 10 years earlier. While her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) waits outside, she grows more accustomed to prison life and becomes alienated from their upper-class New York world. The situation’s complicated by the presence of her former lover Alex (Prepon), the drug dealer involved with the crime. Chapman is way out of her element, which leads to numerous gaffes that end up threatening her very existence.

Taylor Schilling and Uzo Aduba in Orange is the New Black

This brief description fails to do justice to the brilliance of this remarkable series. Sending an upper-class white woman to jail could be the plot for a sitcom, but there are few generic trappings. The administrators are corrupt, but they rarely fall into expected categories. The prison guard George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) is a despicable guy, yet there’s a weird genuine side to his simple world view. Characters initially seem terrifying and become something different once Chapman (and the audience) gets to know them. A prime example is Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, played wonderfully by Uzo Aduba. She quickly falls for Chapman and believes they’re a couple, which leads to comedy. What makes Suzanne so intriguing is the other side to her character. She essentially has a child’s mind and is nothing like the delusional crazy person we anticipate during her early scenes. Aduba makes Suzanne so original that it’s impossible not to care about her.

It’s impossible to list all the remarkable performances from the cast; there are so many unsung heroes. Each episode shatters the Bechtel Test and makes it feel like an antiquated measure. Flashbacks show us the characters before their jail time, and they add depth without getting too intrusive. Mulgrew’s “Red” initially seems like the frightening kitchen lady of the laziest comedy, but she’s nothing of the sort. Although she protects strength, it masks a vulnerability that’s revealed through poor treatment in her past. Red takes a motherly approach to many of the girls, but she can act rashly when threatened.

Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black

A similar surprise is the warmth behind the tough façade of Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). She rooms with Chapman and lays down the law, but she’s hardly a cranky old woman. When a chance for love and early release appears, her walls start to crack. There’s a danger in getting too positive in this mind-numbing environment, however. When Chapman finally lets loose, she ends up in solitary for “lesbian activity”. The boisterous “Taystee” (Danielle Brooks) is thrilled to get out of prison but quickly realizes it’s a different kind of nightmare. There are constant examples of positive events undercut by the limits of the system. Transgender inmate Sophia (Laverne Cox) runs into obstacles when her much-needed pills are cut. Cox does a remarkable job in one of the show's most affecting performances.

If there’s an area where Orange is the New Black falls short, it’s with certain depictions from outside the prison. Chapman’s mom and best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) are never as interesting as the inmates. Her laid-back brother Cal (Michael Chermus) has some nice scenes, but he’s around mostly for comic relief. Even so, it makes sense because we’re invested as viewers with Chapman’s story. We don’t care as much about Polly’s baby or Cal’s engagement because they’re outsiders. That’s a major challenge when dealing with Larry, who gets writing and radio gigs through his story as Piper’s suffering fiance. From her perspective, he’s betrayed her and doesn’t understand her situation. The reality isn’t that simple, though. Biggs is well-cast as a guy who tries to do the right thing but just can’t cope with all the hurdles. He’s right to be concerned with her relationship with Alex, and the final destination for Larry and Chapman is sealed once she enters the prison.

Taylor Schilling and Taryn Manning in Orange is the New Black

A common trend for Chapman is discovering that good intentions usually lead to disaster. When she sticks her neck out to save Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) from the psych ward, the reaction isn’t so gracious. Speaking honestly with crazed individuals is rarely the right move. Pennsatucky is unhinged and ready to murder someone, and Chapman’s liberal worldview makes her a good target. Chapman’s innocent discovery of a chicken in the yard also sets off an unintentional firestorm. On her first day, she accidentally insults Red and is nearly starved to death. It’s best to say little and do nothing or risk the consequences. Even the friendliest inmates can turn on you if you press their buttons. Orange is the New Black shows both the humor and stress from this environment. It’s a comedy on the surface, but there’s plenty of menace beneath it. The brutal last scene ends the finale with a shuddering chill. Can Chapman recover? I can’t wait to find out next season.

January 13, 2014

Into the Unknown: The East (2013)

Brit Marling in The East

It’s been more than 12 years since 9/11, but the paranoia around terrorists remains prominent for many Americans. Along with fearing the worst, they’re disenchanted with the government and others in power. When the system lets everyone down, what’s to keep people from building their own moral code? This frustration has permeated movies, and we’re seeing plenty of cynical films about the disconnect between the select few and everyone else. This environment plays a key role in The East, Zal Batmanglij’s follow-up to Sound of My Voice. Collaborating again with co-writer and star Brit Marling, he depicts a community striking out at the leaders who’ve let them down. We observe their world from an outsider’s perspective and recognize that determining right and wrong is rarely simple.

Brit Marling and Alexander Skarsgard in The East

Sarah (Brit Marling) works for a private security firm and has been tasked with infiltrating a terrorist group known as “The East”. After joining them and becoming accepted, she starts relating to their cause. Their leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) also grabs her romantic attention beyond the movement. Fully immersed in their world and away from her former life, it’s trickier to distinguish who’s truly on the side of angels.

Batmanglij is a pretty subtle filmmaker who lets us get to know the characters before raising the stakes. This style makes it easy to identify with Sarah, but it only works if she's thrust into an interesting situation. It takes an understated actor like Brit Marling to fit within this universe. Ellen Page also makes an impression as Izzy because her acting doesn't feel too bombastic. Batmanglij clearly admires slow-burn thrillers from a different era, but that approach still needs a convincing final act. If he doesn't stick the landing, all of the construction during the opening hour loses steam and feels like unfortunate filler.

Terrorists play spin the bottle in The East

It's interesting to note just how scathing The East gets towards corporate greed. It's hardly stunning news after the economic collapse of 2008, but it's still surprising to plant major sympathies with the terrorists. They kill a pharmaceutical rep with their own drugs, threaten polluters with their nasty water, and seem ready to do a lot more. While Batmanglij and Marling never fully endorse these plans, there's a strong feeling they're justified. An interesting twist is having Sarah's boss essentially push her into their arms with her callous attitude. Instead of having Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) represent corruption in the government, she shows another failing with the private sector.

While the plot is a little flimsy, it's the characters (with one notable exception) that make this film worth seeing. Marling has an intriguing presence and sells the confusion Sarah's facing with the immersive assignment. Page gets her chance to shine, and Toby Kebbell does nice work as Doc. The challenge falls with Alexander Skarsgård, who knows how to brood as Benji but never really sells his anger. He's handsome yet seems out of place as the leader of this band of misfits. The film explains how Benji ended up leading their group, yet Skarsgård seems too aloof to draw them into the fold. He's a far cry from John Hawkes' brilliant manipulator in Martha Marcy May Marlene. There's less brain washing in this group, but you still need a fiery center piece to really sell their bond.

The East, starring Brit Marling

Despite some concerns with Skarsgård and story questions, I found plenty to like with The East. It connects us with Sarah and all that's required to gain everyone's trust and keep it. We're rooting for her success yet share the conflicts about the group's actions. They're obviously going after villains, but does that make it right to strike back? The result never digs too far into this question, but it provides enough to offer solid entertainment. There's enough intelligence behind the script to avoid the obvious cliches for the most part. The final twists aren't too obvious, which makes for a few clever surprises in the end.

Next week, I'll venture into The Zone and tackle Tarkovsky's Stalker.

January 6, 2014

Into the Unknown: Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report, directed by Sebastian Cordero

How do you make space travel exciting yet ground it in the real world? Unless scientists discover hyperspace or warp drive, future astronauts will spend a lot of time just sitting around during long flights. They'll eat boring meals, perform experiments, and journey through the nothingness. Even when the ultimate destination is a moon of Jupiter, the grand feelings about this journey will eventually dissipate. Venturing into the emptiness of space is the perfect topic for this new marathon. Discovering great mysteries can lead to thrilling films in the right hands. My first selection is this year’s Europa Report, which presents a dangerous expedition that goes further than anyone has traveled. The found-footage production avoids the shaky-cam approach and cleverly recounts this ill-fated journey. Will anyone make it back to Earth? The odds aren’t looking great for this crew.

Six astronauts venture to the moon of Europa to search for new signs of life, but their communications are wiped out by a solar storm. More than a year later, the results of their privately funded expedition become known to the world. Footage from their 20-month odyssey is edited together to reveal their fate. Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz) presents this material and the ultimate discoveries that happened on Europa.

Remarkable effects in Europa Report

The most interesting aspect of Europa Report is the style, which takes a different approach to the found-footage genre. Since the cameras are part of the ship’s technology, characters aren’t needlessly grabbing cell phones or video cameras while running through danger. When the astronauts venture into space, the cameras are on their suits to document everything that happens. The limitations for us are only getting a partial view of what’s happening. If there is life on Europa, we may not get a chance to see it. The benefit for Director Sebastián Cordero is being able to craft this film on a limited budget. It explains why we’re only getting an incomplete picture since the footage is limited.

These astronauts are scientists and thinkers, yet they’re forced to perform heroic feats when their situation goes awry. They bumble their way into situations they don’t understand, and the results aren’t pretty. Cordero and Writer Philip Gelatt (The Bleeding House) aren’t delving into complex psychological themes. The main focus is the technical side of presenting the mission in an original way. There are a few exceptions, however. A key moment forces a decision between communicating their mission and life support. It’s those split-second decisions that create the tension in this mysterious environment. When the unknowns are too high, do you turn tail and run? After taking such a long and arduous journey, they’re hardly ready to go home without achieving their goals.

Anamaria Marinca in Europa Report

These aren’t larger-than-life individuals who can crack a joke at a moment’s notice. The standout performance comes from Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) as Rosa, who emotionally recounts the events for the camera. The end result of those scenes is a big surprise. The most recognizable actor is Sharlto Copley, but his character receives limited screen time. Michael Nyquist also makes an impression as Andrei, who’s a changed man after a close call in space. The nonlinear plot shows us their excited early months and what happens when tragedy strikes. It’s a subtle approach that grows the more you think about it.

Despite the limited budget, Cordero delivers some great effects and offers a convincing look at the unforgiving Europa. The plot does evolve a bit too much into a generic thriller, but that doesn’t really take away from the original style. It has a similar feeling to the short-lived TV series Defying Gravity, without all the romance. The international cast adds to the believability, and it’s a strong example of doing more with less. There are a few dry spells, but the brief running time ensures that we don’t lose interest. Cordero is a director to watch, and he puts together a surprisingly inventive film.

Next week, I'll join Brit Marling and infiltrate a terrorist group in The East.

January 1, 2014

Top 5 Blog Discoveries of 2013


2013 has been one of the most eventful years of my life. We have an amazing new baby girl (our second), I finished graduate school, and I started a new job after working at the same place for more than 10 years. Back in January, I posted five resolutions for the new year that would guide this blog and my movie viewing. Although it could always be better, 2013 was a success by these standards. I watched a lot more documentaries and caught fewer dull movies (if you forget Jack Reacher). Here's what I resolved to do nearly one year ago:

1. Participate more fully in the film community.
2. Seek out intellectually satisfying blogs and podcasts.
3. Avoid generic, predictable films.
4. Expand my movie-watching horizons.
5. Focus more on depth over frequency.

It was a challenge to make it to the theater, so I wouldn't call myself an expert on the latest releases. However, I still caught up with nearly 150 films, so there were plenty of cool discoveries. I've pulled together five of the most refreshing ones from the past year, though others would definitely qualify. Some are highly regarded but were still better than I expected. I've also included quotes from my original reviews along with the picks.


5. Across the Universe (2007): There’s so much happening on screen beyond the main plot, and it brings such vitality to every moment. Taymor brings together this challenging project with grace, and we rarely see the strings behind each scene. 

4. Monterey Pop (1968): Pennebaker brilliantly uses a “fly on the wall” approach to give the feeling of being in the crowd. His cameras provide clear views of the band along with an intimate look at the crowd. It’s a subtle approach that captures the energy of being in Monterey without going over the top.


3. The Interrupters (2011): James shows us the obstacles they face around every turn to make this happen. He doesn’t manipulate us and lets the events speak for themselves, which is the perfect approach to this complicated subject.

2. Ace in the Hole (1951): Wilder’s script is harsh and morose, yet it still provides an engaging ride. Its points about human nature and falsehoods remain poignant today, and this film deserves more interest from modern audiences. 


1. Oslo, August 31st (2011): We feel so strongly for Anders and want him to make the right choice, but there's a uneasy feeling that it's not going to happen. The final scenes are heartbreaking yet fit completely within the framework built in the opening frames. 

Looking forward to 2014, I'm not making any specific resolutions for the new year. There are still so many films to check out across every genre, and I've missed plenty of classics. I might focus more on recent fare, but there will be plenty of older movies in the mix. I'm looking forward to another great year and hope to discover a lot more surprising films.

December 23, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2013

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

I’ve had plenty of great experiences watching movies in 2013 and have just scratched the surface on what’s out there. Having missed so many key releases, it doesn’t seem fair to create a normal Top 10 list. Even narrowing it down to a Top 5 list wouldn’t be fair because it would come from such a small sample size. However, I would like to spotlight some of my favorites from the past year. The five choices below might not all qualify as the best films, but they were the most memorable choices for me. I’ve added three movies that just missed the list plus aspects of others that have stuck with me since the initial viewing. I’m hoping to catch up with a lot of the other 2013 releases in the upcoming months. The positive side of missing them originally is having a wealth of options for home viewing. I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments section! I’ve also included quotes from my original review (with one exception) that summarize my original reaction to each film.

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) – “It’s haunting to watch Jesse and Celine lose their way, but those problems make their lives more poignant.”
It seems incomprehensible for a film to rank as my least favorite in a trilogy and still be a favorite. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have such a clear understanding of what makes Jesse and Celine tick. The romance is still there, but the challenges of real life have made everything more difficult. Idealized love gets a lot more complicated when kids enter the picture. The opening hour shows the couple trying to re-kindle that passion, but hints creep up about issues beneath the surface. When chaos erupts, it’s a difficult but spellbinding experience. Delpy is especially good at showing Celine’s manic behavior, which might seem overboard yet springs from true assumptions. It’s a tough, intriguing continuation that expands the characters without betraying them.

LisaGay Hamilton in Go for Sisters

Go for Sisters (John Sayles) – “The personal challenges outweigh any political message, and that makes for a riveting experience.”
I’m a John Sayles apologist and can’t say enough good things about his films. Even so, I’ll admit that his output during the past decade hasn’t been as sharp. This trend makes the success of Go for Sisters even more refreshing. He creates two intelligent African-American female characters that are embodied with great depth. Yolanda Ross and LisaGay Hamilton both give excellent performances as high-school friends reconnecting under difficult circumstances, and Edward James Olmos shines in a supporting role. Sayles again reveals his ability to depict connections within a community that surround the main story.

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon) – “Whedon gets the chance to pull back from the blockbuster world, and the result is a joy to experience.”
After his gargantuan success with The Avengers, Joss Whedon thrives in the small-scale setting of this charming Shakespeare adaptation. It doesn’t hurt to have so many familiar faces on hand from his TV shows and movies. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof make a sharp couple as Beatrice and Benedict, and Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, and many others thrive in supporting roles. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect for the classic tale even when it’s moved to a modern setting.

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

Mud (Jeff Nichols) – “This slow burn of a film grows on you because the characters are so well-defined.
Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) has only directed three films, but he’s already shown the ability to depict a believable community. His characters have depth and rarely explain their true motivations at the start. Matthew McConaughey’s Mud is intriguing to the boys because he’s a mystery. He lets them into his world as the pursuing forces surround him. Nichols gives characters their own arc while still moving the story forward. Tye Sheridan brings such heart to Ellis, who’s looking for any hint that love is possible while his parents drift apart. It’s a moving, effective tale that rarely hits the expected notes.

Sam Rockwell in The Way Way Back

The Way Way Back (Jim Rash, Nate Faxon)
One of my best viewing experiences this year was seeing this film in an empty theater on a rare night out with Erin. Jim Rash and Nate Faxon use the formula but supersede it because we’re drawn to the characters. Sam Rockwell injects such life into the story as the mentor who helps Duncan (Liam James) escape from the doldrums. Any film that can sell a ridiculous dance sequence and make me laugh out loud deserves a lot of credit. It wears its heart on its sleeve but never falls prey to the expected tropes.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

These three films just missed the top group and are equally deserving. Here’s a quick blurb from my original reviews about each one.

In a World... (Lake Bell) – “There’s a confidence and maturity that’s often missing from debut filmmakers.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) – “The pivotal factor is Gerwig’s performance, and she delivers the strongest of her excellent career.

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh) –“Soderbergh shows how idealistic visions of love can only go so far when the entire system is corrupt.”

Stoker

These films didn’t make the list, but they had elements that I really enjoyed. Here are some reasons they kept me engaged:
  • A celebrity culture that’s run amok in The Bling Ring
  • Found footage done right in the believable Europa Report
  • M83’s music that sets the tone in Oblivion
  • The epic visual scale and grand ambitions of Pacific Rim
  • The Britney Spears music interlude in Spring Breakers
  • Benedict Cumberbatch’s looney performance in Star Trek into Darkness
  • The serene beauty that masks the villainy in Stoker
  • The parade of guest stars and dorky insanity of This Is the End
  • Upstream Color’s confounding and inexplicable mystery
  • A ladder of zombies piling into Israel in World War Z

What were your favorite films of 2013?

December 20, 2013

Man of Steel and Mud: 2013 Capsule Reviews

Henry Cavilll as working-class Superman.

Looking beyond this blog, this year has been very busy. We had our second daughter Etta and I finished grad school in March, and I started a new job in September. While everything is going well, it hasn't allowed for much time to check out new movies. I'm way behind with 2013 releases, and I'm only now starting to catch up with some titles. Instead of doing longer features on films that everyone's discussed for months, I've decided to write capsule reviews that give my impressions on a smaller scale. It's been challenging not to have my opinions skewed by comments on podcasts, Twitter, and other online spots. I rarely check out reviews of movies that I haven't seen, but it's still tricky not to get a general idea of how people are responding to a certain release. This is definitely true with both Man of Steel and Mud, though each has received a much different response. I won't struggle to draw any thematic lines between them; the only real connector (besides Michael Shannon) is the 2013 release. Regardless, I'd love to hear your thoughts on either film.

Man of Steel – Directed by Zack Snyder; Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, and Laurence Fishburne

There are plenty of thrills in Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, and its ambitions are off the charts. It opens with a striking look at Krypton and the events that sent Kal-El to Earth. These CGI-heavy moments have a similar feeling to Kenneth Branagh's Thor. You can imagine that Snyder and Writer David Goyer used the word "Shakespearean" a few times when creating it. Henry Cavill is solid and brings out Clark Kent's compassion. The first two acts work pretty well, and the set-up aligns us with his main dilemma. Should he reveal himself to the human race and risk the consequences? Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe are both strong as the two fathers who drive his thinking. Crowe in particular finds a way to sidestep goofy dialogue and bring grace to Jor-El.  His appearances don't feel out of place and remind us of the larger stakes in the battle with Michael Shannon's General Zod.

On the other hand, Man of Steel ends with a painfully drawn out third act with lots of CGI fighting. Zod's plans are thwarted, but the battle to stop him unleashes a ridiculous amount of destruction. If that wasn't enough, Snyder makes blatant references to 9/11 that give a bloated sense of importance to a summer movie. Superman throws Zod into buildings and likely kills thousands of people, but our concern should be about the safety of a few we barely know. It's a pompous conclusion that has such an air of seriousness that it becomes laughable. Even Michael Shannon can't make "release the world engine!" not sound ridiculous. There's a great movie hidden somewhere within this mess, but Snyder goes overboard and can't help himself. Goyer's script also is extremely on the nose; characters utter obvious lines that to slam home points like a sledgehammer. There's fun within this 143-minute ride, but the end result loses most of this goodwill.

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

Mud – Directed by Jeff Nichols; Starring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, and Sarah Paulson

It's been thrilling to watch Matthew McConaughey fulfill his potential and deliver a string of exciting performances. His role as the title character in Mud is one of his best and shows the depth behind the handsome face. It's covered in dirt and has bad teeth this time, but that's hardly the story for Mud. He's an intriguing guy who's living in a boat stuck in a tree while on the run from the law and other vengeful figures. When he's discovered by two boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), they form an interesting relationship with the friendly but mysterious Mud. Set in rural Arkansas along the Mississippi River, this slow burn of a film grows on you because the characters are so well-defined. The community is believable, and the actors never strike a false note. It's like a John Sayles film because the connections around the town are so clearly defined.

Jeff Nichols has only directed three films, but he's already become a filmmaker to watch. Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter spotlighted Michael Shannon, and he's done the same for McConaughey. What raises the bar in Mud is the way he depicts the other characters surrounding main trio. We don't spend much time with Reese Witherspoon's Juniper, but it's clear why Mud is smitten. Ellis' parents are struggling and might get divorced, and that pain affects everything that he does. When a brief relationship with an older girl ends quickly, it devestates him because his parents' love is gone. Ellis is the true main character of the movie, and Tye Sheridan reveals the warmth and conflict in the 14-year-old's heart. He sees hope in Mud's refusal to give up on Juniper, but that sets him up for a letdown. The story doesn't play out as expected, and it leads to one of my favorite 2013 films.

What did you think of these 2013 films?