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Out in Theaters: ‘ARRIVAL’



A palindromic tour de force, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a real film lover’s film. A product of deep emotional and intellectual beauty, loaded with provocative philosophical treatises, smart symbolism and crafty red herrings, Arrival’s rich palette of heady questions and satisfying answers make for a movie-going experience that will surely dwell on long after the film reaches its sock-knocking, bittersweet conclusion. Cast doubt aside. Villeneuve, after four English-language films, manages to maintain his unfathomable winning streak and appears to only continue to sharpen his craft as a storyteller and visual artist. Read More

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Blu-Ray Review: ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’

Synopsis: “Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The new status quo deeply divides members of the team. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sharply disagrees and supports oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) all must pick a side.” Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson cropped up in an eye patch in Iron Man’s post-credits, Marvel films have had their eye firmly planted on the future. Setting up incoming installments has been a precarious process, resulting in such face-palmingly clunky sequences as the infamous “Thor in a Bath Tub” scene and the entirety of Iron Man 2. When not preoccupied with teasing the oncoming comic strata or hogtying in easter eggs for uber-nerds to dissect and debate, Marvel has admittedly done fine work developing their roster of heroes, taking careful stock in ensuring that its non-comic reading audience has at the bare minimum a working sense of what drives these supers to strap into spandex and save the world. With Captain America: Civil War, a direct sequel to the events of Captain America: Winter Solider that employs nearly the entirety of The Avengers, those characters turn to the rear view to take stock of what has been lost along the way. Read More

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Out in Theaters: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION

For the sake of honesty, I’ll report this: I loved 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol too much. So much so that it earned a slot in my top ten that year. To this day, it’s my favorite of the series and an improbably rewatchable event film. Even with a somewhat spotted past (Mission Impossible 2 is fun though objectively not the greatest film accomplishment), the Mission Impossible franchise is one of my sleeper hit favorites, with the last two entries –  the aforementioned addition from Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams‘ Phillip Seymour Hoffman-starring threequel – delivering some of the series’ absolute best material. When it was announced that Christopher McQuarrie (director of Jack Reacher, screenwriter of Batman & Robin) had mounted the directorial stool for the fifth iteration of Ethan Hunt’s impossible missions, my anticipation shuttered and cautiously withdrew. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

What to say about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? It’s certainly a Marvel movie; a spectacle-heavy rationing of motormouthed zingers, busy with whip-pan, slo-mo action montages and done up like a prom queen with CG glitz. It’s the insatiable younger brother to Joss Whedon’s initial compulsory corporate softball tournament; a large and in charge super-conglomeration that rarely stops to make time to make sense, and though darker (emotionally), bigger (logistically) and meaner (spiritually), it’s not nearly as much fun as when space worms were involved. The Marvel brand has been defined by its sense of “fun” and Age of Ultron certainly houses the brand of larger-than-life, escapist entertainment that Marvel fans have emptied out their pockets for in the past but it misses the shock-and-awe boat that installment numero uno rode in on, instead serving up a welting reminder of the inconsequential, aggressively episodic nature of this whole shared universe business. By the end of Ultron’s short-lived age, tables have been set but little has actually changed. This is Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Age of Redundancy. Read More

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Out in Theaters: KILL THE MESSENGER

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Kill the Messenger is a magic bullet meant to assassinate – or at least tarnish – the reputation of the CIA for their uber illegal association with Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Their anti-communist war effort was funded in part by *gulp* distributing crack cocaine to Central LA ghettos, a network Webb contends the CIA was complicit – or at least complacent – in facilitating.  And like the projectile from any effective firearm, the path it travels is straight and narrow. Lead Jeremy Renner is monstrous good as big-in-his-britches San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, an ambitious journalist who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong and ends up getting stung by the barbs of a well executed smear campaign, but director Michael Cuesta never lets the work truly take off. It’s a competent, A-to-Z biographical picture that misses the moments to really get in the head of a man pushed to the brink or elevate his tale into a thing of true artistry.

Cuestra spends the first half of the movie setting up Webb’s pending investigation and eventual damning story “Dark Alliance” that would win him the Bay Area Journalist of the Year Award, a celebration that lacked the fanfare he had once envisioned. Stumbling upon the trail without meaning to, Webb (Renner) is tipped off about a local drug kingpin with ties of the CIA. Upon digging into the shadowy association, Webb begins to connect dots that go deeper than he could have ever imagined and proposes that in order to wage an anti-Communist war that Congress had already voted against, Reagan and his inner circle conspired to fund the Nicaraguan Contras by knowingly allowing cocaine to be smuggled into the US and sold without penalty in underprivileged neighborhoods. According to Webb, this significantly worsened the crack cocaine problem that had become pandemic in African American communities in the 1980s.

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Racing to find proof of this heinous allegations, Webb leaves behind wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and children to solidify sources in the thick of Central America. Not surprisingly, few officials are wont to rush forward and those that do aren’t necessarily in great standing (being drug dealers, slimy bankers or others involved in the black market lifestyle.) Upon publication of Webb’s record-setting article, outrage explodes across African American communities and general populations equally, until the spotlight is turned on Webb by a CIA scurrying to discredit everything about the man.

With a background in political slowburners like Homeland and Elementary and bloodlusters like Dexter and True Blood, Cuesta understands storytelling but has not adapted his style from the small screen to the big one perfectly. To get the bulk of the narrative onscreen, he’s simplified events done to the meat and potatoes version. We hit on each major point like SparkNotes, never really getting the time to dive into the intricacies that make everything so compelling. At just under two hours, it either feels too short or two long. An HBO miniseries would likely have been a better avenue. Without Renner’s captivating turn as Webb, the story would feel too much like a moving document; the cold hard facts of a national outrage turned media circus.

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But in a time where the US has seemed as internally adversarial as ever (look at the recent outcry at Ferguson and prevailing Us vs. Them mindset of nationwide citizens and police forces), Cuesta’s telling of Webb’s story is worth remembering for the cold hard facts alone. Since his death – two gunshots to the head, deemed a suicide – Webb’s allegedly falsified charges against the CIA had been vindicated. While his controversial point ended up proven to be true, he wasn’t there to see his day of salvation. And this is the most important story of all: truth being met with brutality and the ease of which such can be covered up with the wave of a wand. Cuesta goes to show how the mere mention of conspiracy can sometimes be enough to transform an expert newsman into a theorist crackpot. That’s the tale here: man finds conspiracy, man validates conspiracy and man goes down in flames for it. It’s the equivalent of Loose Change confirmed ten years from now. Definitive proof that the moon landing was a hoax.

And yet for all the controversy Webb’s story whipped up, the end result is a man lying penniless in a hotel room with two bullets in his skull. Years later, official validation of Webb’s controversial story came and went like a summer breeze. The hive mind of Americana had moved onto a new scandal. Oval office blow jobs triumphed over one of the most damning government cover ups of all time. This is the story that Cuestra should have been telling, not something to leave until an end credits stinger.

A living reminder of our government’s readiness to desecrate an individual in order to escape ownership of past crimes, Kill the Messenger is a wake up call for a slacktivism-obsessed generation of American citizens. It’s a film about caged justice, about evil actually prevailing and the lengths to which our once great nation will go to validate each and every transgression of their past.

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The picture this paints is not a pretty one. It’s one of deception distributed wholesale, of a blindly lead populace, of a mastermind behind the curtain pulling levers and blowing smoke to scare people into submission. Were the meek to inherit the Earth, we’d have a nation owed many inheritances. And the most frightening aspect of all is that the one behind the curtain is seemingly calling the shots unchecked. America the Great is as desperate, deranged and unpredictable as Oz. The fungus of corruption has infected her immune system. Nothing is left untarnished.

If she were a best friend, you’d send her kicking and screaming to a mental institution for delusions of granduer. If they were your employee, you’d fire them for flagrant misconduct. As a governing body that represents the will of 300 plus million people, truth, integrity and basic human values – the pillars upon which a nation should stand – have been relegated to the lowest wrung of the totem pole. The right to life, liberty and happiness comes with a big, blaring asterisk. The sad truth, when one man’s honest zeal is pitted against the reputation of one of the secret-coveting countries in the world, you better believe he’s going down in flames. This is the ugly picture that Kill the Messenger paints and the million discussions it will warrant afterwards. Though deceptively straightforward in its telling, it’s the aftermath of Michael Cuestra‘s film that should matter most.

B-

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Out in Theaters: AMERICAN HUSTLE

“American Hustle”
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro
Crime, Drama
138 Mins
R
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However great all of the performances in American Hustle are, great performances do not a great movie make. This kooky tale of maladjusted thieves, sleezy politicians and unscrupulous government employees is rich with standout performances – particularly from proven powerhouses Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence – but director David O. Russell‘s identity as an “actor’s director” has taken precedence over his being an effective storyteller.

The film opens with a telling long shot in which Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is going about the delicate process of putting together his elaborate comb-over. He’s got little hair to work with – and the thatched mop he’s got to work with is straggly and thin – so he glues clumps of hair-like substance to rake the real hair over. The final product isn’t pretty but it’s better than before. This strange but captivating opening scene is an unintentional metaphor for the movie at large – a little bit of story, padded with movie-like substance, and combed over with the icing that is these great performances. It may look passable when all is said and done but you have to know that inside, it’s a bit hollow.

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Post-comb job scene, we discover we’re in media res con, somewhere halfway down the line where Irving has teamed with  Bradley Cooper‘s Richie DiMaso and Amy Adams‘ Sydney Prosser. They’re on their way to bribe a pompadoured Jeremy Renner‘s Mayor Carmine Polito because… well we find out later. But rather than set us on the edge of our seats with this choice to begin in the midst of things, we’re only slightly intrigued and are hardly left anticipating what the hell is gonna happen next. This isn’t Fight Club. There isn’t a gun in anyone’s mouth. So why bother starting somewhere down the line at all if that moment is just arbitrary? While this hardly creates a huge issue story or structure-wise, it is a symptom of the larger issues at play.  

Since American Hustle is a story about con men told through the lens of various con men (Bale, Adams and Cooper each provide voice-over narration), we’re never really sure who is and who isn’t reliable narrator. While this worked wonders for the likes of The Usual Suspects (although I personally was never won over by that film), the effect here is exaggeratedly diminished and feels like a last-minute attempt to pull the rug from beneath the audience’s feet rather than an astonishing story turn.

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As for the variety of voice-over work that seeks to fill in the blanks on character’s histories, backstories, relationships and anything else that passes for pertinent information, there is definitely far too much on the table. Having one narrator is fine (in the right circumstances) but having three is plain overkill. If anything, it’s an indication that O. Russell needed to patch up the narrative and beef up scenes shared between characters. Infamous as a story crutch, voice over is very hit or miss and here, it’s mostly a miss. Show, don’t tell. It’s filmmaking 101.

Even with all the disappointment found in the story’s patchiness, American Hustle does have one thing in spades: fantastic performances. Everybody in the cast shines in their distinctive roles, each throbbing with eccentricity and lighting up the scenes beyond anything going on behind the camera. Assured yet another nomination at this year’s ceremonies, Lawrence proves that her Academy Award was no fluke. Her haphazard Rosalyn is a revelation and whenever she pops up she steals the scene. Her riotous “science oven” scene is sure to be the talk of the town come Christmas.

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Bale too is on his A-game, offering another performance in which he not only completely changes his body-type but his persona entire. Character-wise, he’s painted with complexity and jostles back and forth between empirical confidence and shady anxiety with the effortlessness of an acrobat. Physically, his swinty eyes and schlubby build is a whole new ballpark for the usually hunky Bale. Although he’s gained quite the reputation for his physical transformations, there’s always something more to his embodying his characters that goes far beyond physicality. The man is a chameleon and, once more, he’s able to convince us of that he is someone else entirely.

Cooper’s zany FBI agent Richie DiMago also steals scenes like its his job. His manic behavior and shotgun psyche are built for an actor’s showcase and Cooper doesn’t fail the character. While DiMago lacks the roundedness of Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook headliner, Pat, he is truly an actor coming into his own, proving that he can be oh so much more than just a comic actor. For her part, Adams  also shows off why she is so valued in the thespian community even though the script doesn’t provide her with as many flashy moments as her co-stars. So though she tends to fall to the back of the pack in terms of wowing performances, she is still as solid as ever.

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Smaller bit roles from Renner, Louis C.K.Michael Peña, and a quick, uncredited pit stop with Robert De Niro all have their moment in the sun and help to shape American Hustle into what could confidently be called the best ensemble performance of the year. As I mentioned earlier though, great performances are only one faction of a film’s impact and although the acting is this movie is grade-A stuff, the story lingers around a C.

You could probably also say that my expectations were too high going into American Hustle (I was ready to jam it in my top ten before even seeing it) but I don’t think that really accounts for all the disappointment found here. Just writing this review and finding out that the movie was over two-hours long shocked me. I hardly remember it being nearing two-hours and there was surely no need for the length in a movie that already felt light on story. Then again, maybe that fact that I didn’t notice how long it was is an indication of my enjoying the film. And don’t get me wrong, the performances are inspired, fine-tuned, and just plain lovely and the film itself is a lot of fun. Unfortunately though, it stops there. Instead of reaching for the stars, it settles with being fun and stuffed with great acting. Next time, I hope O. Russell pushes for that extra mile.

B-

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Justin Lin Brought On For BOURNE 5

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You might not think you know the name Justin Lin but trust me, it’s right there at the tip of your tongue. He’s the guy who turned the Fast and Furious franchise from a joke into an empire, somehow winning over action junkies, international crowds, and even critics to the tune of billions. But now that he’s been confirmed to direct Jeremy Renner, the star of last year’s very mildly successful Bourne Legacy, in a fifth Bourne film, already rumored to see the return of original trilogy header Matt Damon, talks have turned to how Lin will handle a property that drops fast cars, massive set spectacles, and a flock of skin-deep meat heads (sorry Dom) for a simmering thriller rife with political undertones.

Lin has most certainly shown he’s adept at staging larger-than-life action sequences but Bourne has always been more about close quarters combat – not to mention shaky cam – than actual the stuff of stunning spectacle. Legacy suffered a horde of bad reviews that marked it down for keeping its head in the chem clouds and prioritizing twists and turns over genuine character arcs so one wonders how Lin – a typically action-heavy director – will serve as a substantial improvement over Tony Gilroy‘s (Michael Clayton) direction. If one thing is abundantly, it’s the fact that Universal Studios seem to want to go a new direction with the franchise, presumably a much more high-octane-oriented route.

Whether Renner’s Aaron Cross character will actually cross paths with Damon’s Jason Bourne is nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors at this point but there’s something about nabbing Lin that leads me to believe that this fifth film looks to really take things to another level.

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Bale Leads Second AMERICAN HUSTLE Trailer

Christian Bale stars in 'American Hustle,' due out in December. 
As the Oscar race heats up more and more by the minute, American Hustle remains one of the biggest unknown contenders. Directed by David O. Russell and featuring a truly all-star cast of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro, Michael Peña, Louis C.K. and Amy Adams, American Hustle could potentially be O. Russell’s third major Oscar player in a row. 

With a year crowded with great performances, there’s no saying if O. Russell’s acting nomination hot streak will continue or who of his cast will receive the bulk of the accolades. Taking a look at this second trailer, who do you think looks the most likely to snag a nom?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5Cb4SFt7gE

American Hustle is directed by David O. Russell and stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro, Michael Peña, Louis C.K. and Amy Adams. It opens in limited theaters on December 13 and opens wide on December 25.

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