“Selma” (2014) Review

How does one make a film about the crucial aspects of Martin Luther King? Do you focus more on his personal life to make him more human or do you shoot for more of his public actions for the civil rights movement? For director Ava DuVernay, it was both and neither. She doesn’t just want to singularly show King as the complete human being and hero he was, but also how he affected all those around him. From the infuriated opposition to the unlucky martyrs that followed him, DuVernay provides many angles and perspectives for one of the most important events of American history.

David Oyelowo is thankfully the centerpiece performance as Martin Luther King. He plays the iconic historical figure with the right amount of courage and doubt. When speaking before fellow African-Americans on the street and in the church, he’s an inspiring voice of civil rights. When speaking among close friends and family, he’s a simple man that has the same amount of fear as those who follow him in the marches. Oyelowo encapsulates every aspect we want to see of King in a picture such as this – not just focusing on his historic speeches and movements, but his personal struggles. Based on various accounts of his actions, we get to see how he copes at home with his family and dealing with phone assaults to the foundation of his marriage.

But Selma, as the title implies, is not just about MLK. Ava DuVernay’s best films prior were those that dealt with women trying to deal with men. From that aspect, I expected her to deliver on MLK’s wife Coretta and she does not disappoint. Carmen Ejogo gives just as strong of a performance, capitalizing on Coretta’s fears and frustrations with having such a figure as a husband. She visits him in jail and puts up a stoic front as she can for seeing him in such a place. She confronts her husband when accusations of cheating have been suggested to her and approaches the subject with cautious reasoning.

And then we branch out into other characters around MLK. Oprah Winfrey plays a determined female voter who follows King despite being subjected to the violence that came with non-violent protests. Andre Holland plays a motivated Andrew Young who encourages King to continue with a march he has doubts about. Tim Roth fills out the role of the bitter Alabama Governor George Wallace who makes his racist nature public by recommending the use of force to put a stop to these marches.

As with any historical drama, there are some artistic liberties that for many is going to make or break the film. The most prominent being the handling of President Lyndon Johnson as a more apathetic figure in the civil rights movement. Most historians, including those who worked with LBJ, can attest that he was more of a fighter for the cause than a man who had no dog in this fight. At one point LBJ calls on both King and Wallace to knock it off as if he were trying to be more of an outside moderator. DuVernay altered this presumably for a better story in which MLK really did feel like he had nobody to turn to in his hours of truth. It may have also been done to give LBJ more to do given that his performances by Tom Wilkinson is not too shabby and nowhere near the level of a cartoonishly ignorant white leader. Even when trying to distance himself from the issue, he really does appear to be on the level in the way he chews out Wallace during their meetings.

Ultimately, though, Selma succeeds at capturing the importance of rising against racism the peaceful way for what is right. It aims to portray MLK as more of a human than a figure, bringing the man and his mission to the forefront for modern audiences. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission just to see David Oyelowo revive MLK’s presence and voice for the words that should remain immortal.

The film, for all its liberties with history, presents a unique and important aspect of Martin Luther King more human than icon. It’s a brilliant film for the classroom to wake up students from the overused archive footage. MLK’s speech footage is still the important piece of film ever captured, but a dramatized film helps breed more empathy for a man’s dream of equality. Worth every penny for the strong performances of a biopic that succeeds strongly at capturing a powerful figure and his effect on the country.

“God’s Not Dead” Review

2014 brought with it many different types of religious films from major epics (Exodus, Noah) to soapy melodramas (Heaven is for Real, Left Behind). Most of these were forgettable, but God’s Not Dead was such a poisonous piece of propaganda for the fundamentalist Christian movement. This is a film built specifically to tell that group of people exactly the kind of reassurance they want to hear. It doesn’t matter if it’s not based in truth, logic, individual spirituality or honest characters. All that matters is that the Christians are seen as righteous victims and that everyone who isn’t a follower are slithering bullies of belief.

My first preconceptions with God’s Not Dead was that there would be a film which openly talks about religion in an educational avenue. This could be really interesting and wind up being the type of film that gets people interested and talking about the topic. Perhaps I was far too hopeful as the film dips so far down into the fallacious Christian reasoning that the debate turns into classroom melodrama fit for a Hallmark production.

Kevin Sorbo plays Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor that is so over-the-top cynical he requires his class write down ‘god is dead’ on a piece of paper to acknowledge this and move on with the course. One student, Josh, writes the exact opposite and chooses to turn the classroom into a courtroom as he defends his position that god does exist. I question why he wouldn’t just go to the Dean and report the teacher for forcing his beliefs upon the class. I know the student doesn’t do this because then there would be no debate about religion, but, honestly, a movie more about the bias of college teachers and the aftermath of being reported would be far more intriguing.

Okay, so it’s a battle of atheist beliefs versus Christian beliefs. This could still be an enthralling duel similar to how Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson squared off against each other with surprising intellect. But, since this is a drama narrative, there has to be a personal aspect to this debate. And, once again, another Christian goes on the offensive that an atheist makes their belief structure based on hatred of fate rather than a documented and informed opinion.

In the closing moments of the debate, Josh yells at his teacher “Why do you hate god?” to which Radisson screams “Because he took my wife away!” Josh looks at him with a straight face and questions how Radisson can hate someone he claims does not exist. Mic drop. Not only does the movie have the audacity to have all the students rise up in a triumphant chant forcing the teacher to retreat in defeat, but the script then kills off Radisson. After being struck in a car crash, he accepts God before dying. What a childish and gross method to illustrate a debate.

If the movie were simply working on a character level focusing on the teacher’s emotional drive, it could’ve been a passable drama from that angle. But this is a film that wants to stage the debate and fix it so the Christian believers come out on top. Well, what about the opposition that isn’t just a closeted Christian turned Atheist by unfortunate events? Or do the filmmakers honestly believe that the teacher’s stance defines every Atheist approach to the subject? This debate was a lot like watching a meek boxer square-off against a chicken with a Mike Tyson name tag. The boxer will win and claim he defeated Mike Tyson even though all he did was tenderize poultry.

For those who feel I’m banging too much on this film for personal preference in faith, turn the tables for a moment and pretend there was an atheist spin on the script. A student is forced to prove to a teacher that god is dead. The teacher screams that he hates evolution and the student questions how he can hate something he claims does not exist. The teacher later dies and comes to realize there is no god before passing away. Sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it?

And even looking at this film from a Christian perspective, I would think think that they would be offended by something so soft. Don’t you think a true Christian who has unshaken faith and dedication to their religion would be able to stand up to a harder target than Radisson? Where is the challenge? Why create yet another strawman argument? Why not make all these characters more fully realized so that they’re more than just the cookie cutter templates of every cheap production of this nature?

But the film is not just about the debate. Similar to Crash or Babel, we follow the stories of other students in how they come to terms with their own faith. Once again, another great idea hampered by the dim outlook of Christianity. A female Muslim displays a curiosity in the Bible the winds up with her father screaming her out of the house. A left-wing blogger who pokes fun at Duck Dynasty gets his just desserts when afflicted with cancer. And just to pound one last crucifying cross into your skull about the true message of the movie, a member of Duck Dynasty makes a cameo to call upon the college campus to use social media and shout out that God is not dead.

If God isn’t dead, he certainly received a headache from this shameless strawman of a picture carried out in his name. What could have just been forgettable Christian fluff goes on the offensive for what it believes to be an attack on religion. It’s still laughably bad for how dramatic the filmmakers believe they’re being for challenging the system with ludicrous villains, but a little less so when you realize there’s a large collective taking this tripe seriously. And that’s when the ironic laughs start turning into awkward ones.

“Whitney” (2015) Review

Lifetime just cannot wait for the chance to slap together these post-mortem retrospectives on female celebrities. Like a greedy consumer on Black Friday, they eagerly wait at the door for their demise and hop on the rights like a speedy vulture. Whereas other studios would wade and sort through the best route to take, Lifetime Productions will just jump right into these biographies with their made for TV movies. I suppose that’s the best thing you can say about these Lifetime films is that they are certainly timely on alluring subject, but, then again, so are tabloids and gossip rags.

But let’s touch on the one aspect of the Whitney Houston story that this film nails just right: the music. Naturally, you’d expect a few performances out of both Yaya DaCosta as Whitney Houston and Arlen Escarpeta as Bobby Brown. This TV movie does not disappoint in that department. Despite a separate voice providing Whitney’s vocals (Deborah Cox), you buy into their characters pouring out their heart and soul. Artificial? You bet, but it’s worth the Frankenstein approach to make Whitney’s concerts work. Their presence on stage and their powerful delivery of the lyrics is probably the best tribute to both Whitney and Bobby the film could hope to aspire towards.

And then the scenes of real dialogue begin as the movie slowly falls apart. As with all Lifetime productions, the TV movie merely touches on the media bullet points of Whitney’s relationship with Bobby Brown. We see the twinkle in her eye when she catches his performances, the flirty words they exchange for their love and the feuding dilemma of their shifting careers. Not much else is harped upon. Whitney’s cocaine addiction? Merely a glaze of mention between scenes and never really an issue. Their rocky marriage? Addressed, but mostly left hanging in dramatic clichés.

It’s rather amazing how the film tries to skirt around some of the juicier elements of Whitney Houston’s life. All the ingredients are there for a fully realized biopic, but all director Angela Bassett does is breeze through them for a mostly celebratory piece. It seems like such a waste given that Bassett starred alongside Houston in Waiting to Exhale. You’d think she’d provide some unique perspective having known Whitney during the height of her success. She mostly keeps the examination to a minimum, not even touching that familiar era of her life as Bassett restricts the story from 1989 to 1994. It’s a waste of personal perspective and a waste of real drama that is never tapped – most likely out of respect for the dead. But the film was criticized by the Houston family so it seems like a bust in that regard as well.

The performances in Whitney have all the love of a tribute while the drama has all the interest of a short high school essay on the famous singer. I’d say it’s worth viewing for the well-assembled concert footage, but if you’re fast-forwarding through the majority of the film to get to these sequences, you’re better off just watching actual concert footage of Whitney Houston. It’s a much more fitting way to remember the star than filling in the blanks of her early-90’s life with a Lifetime glaze.

“Nightcrawler” Review

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character of Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler is an intelligent man of frightening morals. He has enough determination to slick talk and inch his way into money, but has issues building trust. With a blank slate for his future, he is inspired one night by a nosy cameraman shoving his lens into the scene of a car accident. The cameraman is constantly moving and hustling to make a few dollars off some shocking footage he can sell to the local TV news. It’s a fast-paced and flashy career that he becomes infatuated with for all its thrill. Maybe it’s the hours, but he wants this job so badly he is willing to do absolutely anything and everything to be the best at such a seedy job.

If you’re following this setup by traditional movie lore, it appears as though this is another rise-and-fall story of one man seeking to make his mark. But this is a movie about a character who is so sharp that it’s all about the rise. It seems like a given that one day he will end up the victim in his own line of work, but not with this movie. I’ve seen that movie a dozen times in the form of Scarface, Wall Street and a hefty handful of Martin Scorsese pictures. Rather than give us the inevitable finale, Nightcrawler simply skims over the beginning and gives us the juicy middle to this scummy businessman.

Lou, drawn to the glamorous life of a twilight crime paparazzi, quickly steals a bike and sells it for a camera and laptop. He hits the streets and cruises around until he finds a car crash. One night he is lucky and pokes his lens directly into the bloody aftermath. The cops push and shove him back, but he butts in long enough to get what he needs. When he enters one of the local LA news stations, he appears sheepish but committed. The news anchor pays him a modest amount and sends him on his way hoping to never see him again.

But Lou never stops. Even when challenged and threatened by a competing cameraman played by Bill Paxton, Lou continues to push becoming more crafty, vicious and slimy with his methods for making the most of his footage. He hires an intern and pays him peanuts. He breaks into crime scenes to get exclusive footage. He conceals vital crime evidence and information to arrive at a murder before it happens to be the first on the scene. When questioned about his content, he hides the juicy bits from the demanding feds.

What’s most frightening about Lou is his calculated mind and cool attitude for approaching every social situation. When Lou is intimidated by Paxton’s character to join his video crew, Lou simply replies with a calm smile stating how he has such an urge to beat the man in front of him. Lou later finds himself attracted to a female news producer, but his attempt at wooing is more a business deal than a friendly chat. He knows what he wants and thinks an awful lot about how he wants to get it.

Now how could a movie about such a psychopath be so appealing? The character of Lou takes a dark and illegal path, but it’s one that gets results in the messed up world of broadcasting. The local news organization could have turned down Lou’s disturbingly graphic footage the broke the law, but they did not. The down-on-his-luck intern could have turned tail and ran from such a dangerous place, but he did not.

The media world is portrayed as a deceptive game of skirting the law with no regard for human life. Lou just happens to be the best player and we let it happen. If there was more morality in the profession, Lou would be either a bum or arrested for his behavior. He is, instead, crowned for his efforts as the king of news videos. The methods of a madman are treated as someone just doing his job.

There is no downfall of the crazy cameraman. He doesn’t get shot in the line of duty, arrested by the police or spiral down a hole of drugs and alcohol. Lou gets away with everything and comes out on top. To kill him off or kick him down the mountain he built would be a cheat that implies some justice in this microcosm of crime and broadcast news. The good guys do not win in this industry. It’s the smart people who ascend to the top and the most intelligent one in this picture just happen be completely insane and immoral. For being both a commentary on scummy media and an intense character study of quietly evil men, Nightcrawler is an endlessly infatuating movie for how dark it presents its world that becomes frighteningly reflective of current media and a loss of morality.

 

“Dear White People” Review

Dear White People is one of the best films of 2014 because it tackles a new form of racism. The safe Ivy League campus of which the story takes place breeds the type of racism that is more subtle and creeps into your skin where it festers into an almost invisible hate. It’s easy to spot racism when it presents itself in the form of the Klu Klux Klan, Nazis, blackface, old-world stereotypes, slavery and “the big N.” Those are big targets easy enough for any reasonable person to nail with a palpable hit. It’s quite another thing to find a way to deal with racism in the form of media, elections, tribalism and romance. These are not so easy to spot and even harder to resolve. Perhaps they can never be resolved.

This becomes painfully apparent when one of the school chairs remarks that there is no more racism in America anymore (“except for Mexicans”). From his perspective, racism is dead especially for these privileged kids. He doesn’t spot any lynching, fragrant uses of the N word, banning others for their skin color or a vulgar play of stereotypes in sight. But racism doesn’t come in such simple packages and cannot be dismissed simply because the biggest issues have been quelled.

The film takes a look at the subject from a micro level, following four very different black students on campus. The centerpiece is Samantha White, the loud and proud racially-motivated radio host and filmmaking student. She writes a book of black people observations on what makes a positive African American role model and what constitutes a walking stereotype. Her initial film project is The Rebirth of a Nation, a modern role-reversal of D.W. Griffith’s blatantly racist film The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Sam’s tactics on the subject are strictly eye-for-an-eye. But her path is built on a shaky foundation. When she applies to be the head of a local fraternity, she only does so to rile the masses. She does not expect to win and when she actually does so there is panic in her mind just as prominent as her opponent’s. The added burden coupled with her school work, radio show, secret white boyfriend and medical issues at home start to make her pillars crack. When she’s on the radio, ranting and classifying the racist world she perceives, Sam is calmly and casually in control. When she receives news about her dad’s illness or is challengingly questioned by her caucasian partner, she’s a mess and the us-versus-them mentality begins to display its ugliness of separation.

Other characters we focus on go to the other end of the spectrum not so much by choice, but by design. Colandrea Conners, or Coco as she would prefer to be known virally, is obsessed with becoming a celebrity achieving reality show status. But Coco is not exactly what a hunting producer is seeking. Namely, the black producer wants somebody more in-your-face with the culture and Coco tries too hard to shun her ghetto roots. He finds himself more interested by Sam’s speeches than Coco’s talking head videos on YouTube. Jealous and willing to do anything for the attention, she rants against Sam White and immediately generates a favoring with both the producer and white college students. We can see this is not entirely what Coco wants to say or do, but she carries on believing it’s the only way to get anywhere in the lime light.

The most interesting character to examine in the movie is Lionel, a gay black student with a large curly afro (which curious white girls can’t help but play with). Lionel does not choose a side in the racial debate and is just not sure of his place in the world yet. Fraternities lock him out of the house and treat him as both the outcast nerd and the gay mascot, both titles he sighs at with disappointment.

An enigmatic editor takes notice of Lionel’s writing and hires him for the local paper. But is the editor interested in him more as a writer or just the color of his skin? This question is raised even further when the two of them enter into a relationship. Does he see Lionel as a boyfriend or his black boyfriend that he can tout as a point for the qualifications of racially tolerant white people? In one of the most hurtful moments for him, one of the editors earnestly refers to Lionel as being black, but “not really black.”

Dear White People tackles modern racism in a way that is intoxicatingly honest, smart and uncompromising. It shares an undeniable similarity to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) not for its subject matter, but for its characters. There are no good or bad characters in this film; just ignorant ones. The ignorance goes all the way around displaying characters who would seem politically correct discovering the big kinks in their armor when the bullets of racism fly.

Director Justin Simien makes his debut with this feature and he proves that he not only has a lot to say, but a knack for placing all those thoughts and commentaries up on the screen. The college life is perfectly portrayed in the awkward quiet moments in addition to the hustling and bustling of campus activities. Sam argues with her white boyfriend all the way back to her dorm room and even continue the conversation when they’re alone, kissing and undressing. There plenty of beautiful shots in the bedroom that capitalize on the young intimate experience. Brief shots of the clothes on the floor or a ripped open condom wrapper stick out as we witness the characters basking the afterglow letting their inner thoughts leak out.

This is not an easy comedy, a simple examination of racism or a one-note societal commentary. For being so daring and off-beat, it strikes a genuine chord as an awkward picture that may make you squirm, but also make you more thoughtful and vocal about race. The film ends with real photos of “black themed” parties at college campuses featuring white college students in rapper garb, donning gold chains and even covering themselves in black face. These are present to remind us that this is not just an isolated incident within an Ivy League microcosm that racism is still alive. The racism that plagues these upper-class colleges may be lesser than that of the inner city or ghettos, but it still exists and is just as ugly in the way it eats away at individuals.

“Space Station 76” Review

The awkward indie comedy scene need not be relegated to the hipster landscape. ‘Space Station 76’ defies that sub-genre by injecting a similar writing tone into the setting of an isolated space satellite, ala ‘Space: 1999’. Rather than filling this retro vision of the future with stock characters constantly flipping switches and speaking technobabble, this is a collective of bitter and tired people bred from the sterile and lonely environment they occupy. It’s that harsh light of insecure reality shining down an otherwise whimsical location which gives the film its very weird and watchable charm.

Introduced into the hive of silent turmoil is the new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler), a genuinely sweet personality that does her best to make friends on the station. She tries to maintain the station’s safety, but the drunken Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) dismisses her words as he struggles to deal with his closet homosexuality. She does seek some kinship with residents Ken and his daughter Sunshine, but is viciously despised by Ken’s drugged up wife Misty. While the trio of good-natured individuals struggle to keep a stiff upper lift, the adulterers of the station battle their own personal demons through drinks, smokes and robot-operated psychiatry. They hate their jobs, their relationships and the lives they find themselves saddled with out in space.

This is the type of film that sort of catches you off guard luring you in for what may seem like a campy satire of  ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that ends up being a rather peculiar dramedy. You can feel seething hatred and jealousy emitting from this group within the hospital-style interiors.  Even within the characters that seem more pure like Ted, there is an almost haunting presence of temptation. He looks out into space and fantasizes about a naked woman within a star. Sunshine discovers a pornographic magazine in her parent’s dresser and begins to have doubts about her body. These scenes may make the film seem like a depressing journey, but I found it more intriguing for the fact that in a wondrous future people still have the same social problems. A space station free of alien monsters and looming intergalactic threats breeds its own difficulties. It doesn’t help that the robot they all rely on for psychiatric help is only programmed to respond to certain key words and doesn’t actually help them.

With so much vitriol, it doesn’t seem like the best idea for a comedy. In fact, it’s almost hatable for the first act. There are some redeeming factors that prevents it from being completely soulless as with Sunshine’s anti-gravity game in which her dad cheers her on as she float around the room. And the inevitable climax which could’ve easily taken a disastrous turn winds up being a more touching ending that brings the characters back to what’s really important. This is a very strange type of genre blending that I can’t exactly say I loved, but didn’t really despise all that much either. I got a few laughs even though it was mostly that awkward kind of amusement that comes from dark improv. I had some fun following these flawed characters even though most of their issues seem to pile up too quickly. The real deal breaker for me were the special effects and set design of a space station that embodies the 1970’s era. Popped collars, brown wallpaper and Beta tapes litter the halls of a very familiar looking design for a livable space environment. It’s those moments that give the film its true edge of speculating a future with more advancements in everything except people.

“Night Moves” (2014) Review

In the quiet drama of ‘Night Moves’, Jesse Eisenberg plays an extreme environmentalist who teams up with two like-minded individuals who conspire to destroy a hydroelectric dam. His two companions are Peter Sarsgaard as the veteran hippy of the group and Dakota Fanning as the feisty, but dedicated player somewhat new to this operation. They secretly acquire all the tools they need and silently carry out their sabotage. While they are successful at destroying the dam, the resulting damage manages to kill one singular camper near the area. All of the players break contact with each other and try to keep their mouths shut, but the murder lingers on the minds of Eisenberg and Fanning. Couple that with the crippling realization of how much of a difference they may actually be making with their actions.

These are very rich and deep characters so well-defined that we see can clearly read the mental fury pulsating through the three leads. They’re not just passionate college kids either. They are hardcore environmentalists that live on communes off the grid. These three are so committed and dedicated to the cause of crippling human sources of pollution that they’ve close their minds off from questioning any of their motifs. Perhaps they’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole they’re afraid to look back at any point. The film eventually hits on that moment of hesitation that brings things into darker realm, but it doesn’t play out as a Mexican stand-off or everybody getting caught. Instead, the film leaves us with an uneasy feeling lodged in the heart of Eisenberg’s character about how easy it is to lose sight in passion.

‘Night Moves’ is directed by Kelly Reichardt with a somber and eerie tone. Most of the film follows around Eisenberg silently as his mind does mental somersaults coming to grips with his fears. It’s the fear of paranoia, the fear of trust and the fear of humanity. He delivers a fantastic performance as does Fanny and Sarsgaard as focused group of terrorists. The film is also incredibly well shot as in an unforgettable moment when the trio is nearly caught while working under the cover of night. We see the car lights coming from high up on a hill as if we’re looking up directly at them with the characters. We feel the same tension and unclear nature of their perspective. It echoes that of a Hitchcock film which draws intensity from the long-shot unknown.

It’s brilliantly shot with great locations, it’s dreamlike in its surreal nature and gives the actors plenty to do when there is hardly any dialogue on the page. This is a very well-done piece of filmmaking that gets inside your head and never lets you go. It’s a very worthy purchase.

“American Hustle” Review

Director David O. Russel takes a con job tale and transforms it into a fast and stylish ride. He doesn’t gussy it up with lots of guns, gangsters and explosions, but keeps the plot moving so quickly with so many characters working on multiple levels. When it logically makes sense to take a dramatic approach, it goes for it. When there is a perfect moment for some comedy, Russel takes advantage of it. All of this feels organic and looks pretty darn sexy with the late-70’s backdrop.

Based on a true story, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) figures himself to be a mastermind con artist. He swindles many with various operations and his female partner Sydney (Amy Adams). They keep getting better and eventually fool around, despite Irving’s bitter wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and innocent son at home. Their scam operations are soon foiled by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), but he’s willing to let them off the hook if they work undercover to scam and blow the lid off a corrupt congressman. Irving ends up using all of his smarts to pull off a successful scam when the odds keep raising with so many changing variables involving the FBI, the mob and even his wife.

‘American Hustle’ has an organic flow, but still moves at a breakneck pace. It knows exactly when to be emotional, when to be hysterical and when to be sexy without wasting a beat. There are so many levels at play in this script for all these characters to shine and there is an undeniable charm in how they set out to achieve their own goals. Every character feels real and smart, including Jennifer Lawrence’s character. At first she just appears as an obnoxious wife who smokes too much and blows up the microwave, but she’s smart enough to keep a grip on her husband until she finally discovers what truly makes her happy in life. Needless to say, the performances from this all-star cast is a joy to witness. Christian Bale proves that he can fill just about any role as he embodies Irving with a potbelly and comb over.

At over 2 hours, ‘American Hustle’ felt like it went by too quickly given the quickness of the script and direction. We get to spend a lot of time with these characters and witness only the important and juicy scenes of this operation. Everything is kept extremely tight with hardly a single scene that doesn’t garner a laugh, a cringe or leave you salivating for more. At times the movie moves so fast that if you blink you’ll miss the ending. This may be a deterrent for some, but I just couldn’t get enough of how director David O. Russel was able to keep things moving with a smart and sexy vibe. It’s most certainly a film I’m going to want to come back to if not for the layered performances than for the amount of details that zooms past the screen.

“Saving Mr. Banks” Review

If you’re familiar with the life of Walt Disney, you know there was a little more than fairy dust and magic that went into his works. There’s a tale to be told of just about every film he’s credited on with some charming and some scandalous. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is a little of both in how the cocky dreamer attempts to acquire the rights for adapting ‘Mary Poppins’ into a feature film.

His biggest hurdle is the original author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). She completely loathes the Disney machine and can’t stand the thought of her novel being slapped up on the big screen by a cartoonist. It’s especially insulting given how personal the story and character are to her, relating to her rocky childhood in Australia. As we’re slowly given bits and pieces about Travers’ youth and the relationship with her father, the author finally decides to sell her novel to avoid poverty, but only under her conditions. A jaded Traver’ pops on over to Los Angeles where she supervises the writing process with meticulous and absurd demands. She even comments on the way the script should appear as she doesn’t understand or much care for the script writing format. The majority of the movie is a battle of personal goals as Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team attempt to woo Travers into reaching a compromise.

The film jumps back and forth between Travers’ youth and her fight with Disney. Sometimes the two stories match up with the tone and other times it feels like an opportunity was missed for transitions. The story of young Travers’ eccentric father (Collin Farrell) and his downward spiral is certainly a tragic tale, but it feels very melodramatic in several aspects. To tell the truth, I was much more moved by the relationship adult Travers forms with her limo driver (Paul Giamatti). He first appears as an over-eager Disney servant, but ends up being the most sympathetic and interesting character that Travers comes into contact with. That’s not to say that Tom Hanks doesn’t do an exceptional job as the legendary Walt Disney. I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone else in that role and the playful bickering he has with Travers is priceless. Credit should also be given to the ‘Poppins’ creative team (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Scwartzman) who put up with most of her crazy suggestions including the removal of the color red entirely from the film.

Ultimately, the performances were the main draw of ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ more than anything. Considering the film was actually a Walt Disney production, it does embellish the story in how Travers eventually comes to accept the screen version of ‘Mary Poppins’ (despite going against many of her initial wishes). The drama of both Travers’ father and her acceptance of what her novel really means feels a tad bit overdone the way it was written. Thankfully, the performances by every single cast member is pitch-perfect. I especially couldn’t keep my eyes off Thompson and Hanks whenever they’re clashing on screen. The most memorable moment is when a stone-faced Travers is lured into Disney Land with a vibrantly grinning Walt. She isn’t impressed or swayed by his words, but Walt is still happy as he was at least able to win a bet by getting her on the carousel. The constant back and forth between them make this otherwise exaggerated script much more appealing and entertaining than it should be.

“About Time” Review

Time travel isn’t a science fiction element exclusive to the genre that birthed it. If I’ve learned anything from the Back to the Future trilogy, it’s that the ability to manipulate the past and future can spawn many different stories. About Time does just that: it takes a character with the ability to change the past and has him use his powers to find the perfect woman romantic comedy style.

Right off the bat, I had serious doubts about this story. I’ve been burned before with this concept as with the incredibly boring The Time Traveler’s Wife and the predictably routine Click. Luckily, this was a movie in the hands of Richard Curtis (Love Actually). And while Curtis doesn’t really think through the whole time travel angle, he does know how to craft an enjoyable rom-com.

When Nick has finally come of age to move out of his parents lush home, his dad reveals that the men of the family have the amazing ability to turn back time by simply thinking about a point in time. He tests this out by going into the closet, thinking about the New Years party he was at last night and ends up back at that very point in time. Every element recurs unless of course Nick desires to change it. This allows him to craft the perfect life where just about every mistake he makes with the girl he desires most can be averted. Every line can be a gem, every kiss can be the best and every move will be perfect. But there’s always a catch when it comes to messing with time and Nick soon learns the consequences and how he can’t exactly save everyone.

Though the film’s main goal is to present a charming romantic comedy involving time travel, it also has a lot to do with the relationship between Nick and his father. The two of them, sharing the same ability, chat a lot about what good can come of this power and how best to use it. You really get a sense of more or less the reality of these powers as Nick’s father covers what he’s spent most of his life achieving and regretting with changing time. You can use this power to read every book in the world twice or become a famous actor several times over, but none of it beats a date with your favorite girl or a game of ping pong with your dad.

As a warning, don’t go in expecting a satisfying portrayal of time travel. The whole concept of time travel itself doesn’t make much sense in cinema to begin with, but the inconsistencies are a little more visible here. The rules of Nick and has dad’s abilities are played very loose as you can apparently take others with you as you travel to the past. The implied paradoxes of adding another character for the journey not to mention that Nick at one point uses his power to travel back to his childhood would make one’s head explode. Take a cue from the Austin Powers films and don’t overanalyze it too much.

If you’re willing to go along with suspension of disbelief, About Time is a very pleasing romance romp with a unique concept. There are plenty of likable characters, genuine comedy and real emotion to fuel the entire redoing a timeline concept. As someone who wasn’t fond of the concept or romantic comedies in general, I was very surprised at how entertained I was by the whole scenario. For being Richard Curtis’ final film, he certainly turns in an astonishingly heartwarming story that touches so many bases about life, love and family. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, but the movie is irresistible enough to bring a smile to even the most jaded audience.