Tag Archives: Ben Affleck

The Biggest Problem With ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

It’s been a week after the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and I still can’t shut up about it. Can anybody? Whether you see it as good or bad, you no doubt can see the impact it’s having on the comic book and movie communities alike. Some fans like it. Most critics don’t. But regardless, Batman v Superman has caused a massive divide in the DC Comics fan base and on how to best proceed with the DC cinematic universe.

I myself didn’t care much for it. I gave the movie two stars out of four, citing Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill’s performances as the best things about the movie, but Jesse Eisenberg and the editing as the worst things. As a comic book movie, fans might see the movie as passable. But as a movie standing on its own two feet, I found it to be pitiful. At least be honest with yourselves, DC fans: if this movie had anyone as its leads besides Batman and Superman, you would not have enjoyed this movie as much.

My biggest gripe with the movie was one that I didn’t even mention in my review. I had a good reason for doing so too: it had to do with the movie’s ending. Even now, I still hesitate to mention it because of my extreme hatred for spoilers. Yeah I didn’t enjoy the movie, but that doesn’t mean that somebody else out there won’t, and the last thing I want to do is to ruin the experience for them.

All the same, if you’ve already seen the movie and are curious as to my biggest gripe with the film, check out my commentary video below to see my biggest problem with Batman v Superman and the upcoming DC cinematic universe.

And of course, obvious spoiler warning ahead.

– David Dunn

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“BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” Review (✫✫)

How’s does the peach tea taste, Mr. Wayne?

Let’s start with the obvious: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the worst title for a superhero movie since Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. And yet, it’s so appropriate for a movie like this. The title is on-the-nose, hokey, ridiculous, and clearly unfocused, just like the movie itself is.

Taking place a few years after the events of Man of Steel, Batman v…. screw it, I’m not going to repeatedly spell out a bad title. BvS: DOJ picks up in the aftermath of the disaster that struck Metropolis during the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and the Kryptonian army. The city is dismantled. Hundreds of casualties have been named. A memorial that evokes the tragedy of 9/11 sits in the heart of the city, right next to a monument dedicated to the superhero that saved everyone. It is a tense time for Metropolis as they’re trying to rebuild, and everyone has one question on their minds: Is Superman doing more harm than good?

Enter billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who unequivocally sees Superman as mankind’s enemy. During the day of the attack, Superman fought inside of one of Wayne’s corporate buildings, which had many of his employees still inside when it fell. Wayne took the hit very hard. He’s too familiar with losing a family, and here he lost his second one. Now, he once again adopts his criminal-fighting personality of Batman with one focus: to kill the Superman.

Let me start with the positives. First of all, Ben Affleck was incredible as Bruce Wayne and Batman. That genuinely surprises me, because A) Christian Bale’s Batman is still fresh on my mind, and B) Ben Affleck isn’t normally a great actor, minus the movies that he’s written or directed. This movie is a game changer for him. He’s playing Batman with a more grim facade; an older, meaner, more coarse attitude that is even more distrusting of people than The Dark Knight’s Batman was. This is not the same Batman that you’re familiar with. His psychological trauma and torture tactics have intensified, and he isn’t above killing criminals. This might be maddening for some comic purists out there, but I found it to be a refreshing take on the caped crusader. After all, in a DC Universe where you’re fighting for your life against space aliens and Frankenstein monsters, I think it’s reasonable to say that the stakes have been raised on all fronts.

And the Batman/Superman dynamic was equally amazing. The thing I liked most about this movie, and what I think most fans were looking forward to, was the contrasting nature between Batman and Superman. I’m not talking about the fight itself, although the buildup and the payoff to that sequence definitely did not disappoint. I’m talking about the real conflicting ideals of Batman versus Superman. Batman is a mortal who has faced cuts, bruises, and bloodshed all his life. Superman is an indestructible alien from outer space. Batman believes torture and intimidation are effective tactics for fighting crime. Superman finds those things to be disturbing and unnecessary. Batman sees a Kyryptonian alien as mankind’s greatest threat. Superman sees it as a vigilante that answers to no one. I was expecting their ideals to clash in this movie, but I wasn’t expecting to be rooting for them both when the film built to its climactic titular fight. The fact that we’re engaged in a superhero beatdown between our two protagonists and we can understand where both are coming from is the evidence of strong, smart writing, and Affleck and Cavill alike do very well in bouncing their personalities off of each other to make a strong, rivalrous relationship between the two.

Unfortunately, as far as positives for the movie goes, it ends there. Where do I start with the mistakes of Batman v Superman? First of all, its editor David Brenner needed to be fired. Either him or director Zack Snyder, depending on which one decided this movie needed to be two hours and 30 minutes long. There were so many unecessary scenes in the movie, so many sequences that added nothing and truly took away from the larger conflict between Batman, Superman, and our mischievous third player Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Don’t worry, we’ll get to him in a bit.

Look at the first act as an example of the film’s poor editing. If Brenner knew what he was doing, he would open the film right on the destruction going on in Metropolis, with Bruce frantically driving and running around in a quickly collapsing city trying to save as many people as he can. That was a great scene that showed Bruce’s vulnerability, and even more rarely, his fear. We didn’t start with that though. We start with the same sequence we’ve seen in every Batman movie now, which is the death of Bruce’s parents. Why? Why do we need to see this again? Haven’t we seen it enough in Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies? What is the purpose in showing this again? And also, when a younger Bruce falls into the cavern and becomes enveloped in bats, is there any reason to show him as a levitating Bat messiah floating to the top of the cave?

I’m blaming Brenner because he didn’t cut the sequence out, but the truth is it is just as much Snyder’s fault as it is Brenner’s. Why did he choose to even film these scenes in the first place? Didn’t either of them see that these scenes weren’t necessary? That the dream and hallucination sequences added nothing to the plot, that the easter eggs to the DC Universe did nothing to develop the story, or that the epilogue of the film was sappy and dragged out? There were so many stupid scenes in this movie that made no sense and formed no coherency with the greater ideas of the film. You could have cut 30 minutes from the film, make it shorter than The Dark Knight, and have a better movie.

And then we get to Eisenberg. Ugh. Remind me again why he is Lex Luthor? I get that he’s a great actor and that he was enthusiastic for the role. That doesn’t make him right for it, and he’s definitely not right for it.

I’ll give Eisenberg this: he tried. But he tried too hard. We’re not seeing Lex Luthor here as much as we are seeing a B-grade Joker or Riddler. He’s not the smart, calculated supervillain you remember. He’s ecstatic, chaotic, and impulsive, which makes him a good villain archetype, but not a good Lex Luthor. Eisenberg throws himself into the role and succeeds in portraying it, but it’s not his portrayal that’s the problem. It’s the way him and Snyder envision the character, as a psychotic messenger of doom rather than the intelligent, well-crafted, yet connivingly evil gentlemen that he’s supposed to be. If Batman was my favorite part of the movie, Lex Luthor was my least favorite. He’s that far off of the map from what Superman’s arch-nemesis is supposed to be.

What we end up having then, is an out-of-focus movie that does a lot of things right, and then equally does a lot of things wrong. That’s the most disappointing thing about this movie, is seeing its potential and how wasted it is by stupid editing and even stupider characters. And this is the movie that’s supposed to set up the Justice League films. Pray that those movies display smarter storytelling and editing. And a better title.

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Oscar Nominations Turn To The Dark Side

Another year, another time to gripe about the Academy Awards.

Nominations came out today, and while most of them are well-earned, there are obviously a few movies, actors, and filmmakers who were clearly snubbed for reasons we’ll never know. In previous years where I’ve written about the Oscars, I would build up to an infuriating rage about the Academy for not recognizing deserving filmmakers in either one category or another. Perhaps the biggest snub as far as nominations I’ve ever experienced is when The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for best picture in 2009. Or when Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for best director for Argo in 2013. Or when The Lego Movie wasn’t nominated for best animated feature just last year. I don’t know. Roll the dice and tell me which is the worst. There’s lots to pick from.

This year, I’m a little more relaxed in my frustration. No, I don’t care less. The anger has just exhausted me, and in venting my emotions towards the Academy and their repeated negligence year after year, I’ve become so tired about it that it took away from my energy towards appreciating the year’s best films. So this year, I’m going to calmly state my perceptions towards this year’s Academy Award nominations. I will keep my cool for most of these, but there are a few nominees where it will be just impossible to keep my self-control in check.

For best picture, we have the hot-blooded true-story/comedy The Big Short, the British period-drama Brooklyn, the Steven Spielberg-directed Bridge of Spies, the ridiculously overblown Mad Max: Fury Road, the intelligent and funny sci-fi survival film The Martian, the brilliant and ambitious The Revenant, the indie dark horse Room, and the journalism drama Spotlight. Most of these pics are among the year’s best and deserve to be up here, though I haven’t met many people who have seen Room or Brooklyn. The biggest snub here is not one individual picture, but rather, the Academy’s capacity for potential.

Ever since the Academy announced its proposal for a max of 10 best picture nominations in 2010, they’ve never fulfilled that maximum capacity, minus the year where The King’s Speech won best picture. Every year since then has strayed slightly shy of nine best picture nominees, up until last year when they dropped it down to eight. It is unfair to do this to the movies. There are plenty of other films that are more worthy of a nomination than some of the other nominees on this list, especially including Sicario, Straight Outta Compton, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No, I didn’t expect to see these movies on the list, but that’s not the point. These were movies that had a clear and visible reaction from the public. To not notice them by snubbing them of a nomination is absurd and unnecessary.

For best director, we have Lenny Abrahamson for Room, Alejando Gonzalez-Inarritu for The Revenant, Tom McCarthy for Spotlight, Adam McKay for The Big Short, and George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road. Again, these are well-deserved nominees, although I’m surprised to see that Ridley Scott was skipped over for directing The Martian. Then again, however, so was Dennis Villanueve and J.J. Abrams skipped over for Sicario and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so maybe it’s not so surprising to see great directors get snubbed at the Oscars.

For best actor, we have Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Matt Damon for The Martian, Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, and Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl. This is the category that by far pisses me off the most. Great actors get snubbed for great performances every year, but there is absolutely no reason why Johnny Depp should be forgotten for his mesmerizingly evil performance in Black Mass. His performance was not just the best of the year: it’s a competitor for best of the decade, with every ounce of his appearance erasing into this sick and wicked man who doesn’t have a shred of decency in him. With all of the other nominees, you can at least see the actors’ resemblances behind the characters they portray (Yes, DiCaprio purists: that includes good ol’ Leo too). With Black Mass, there was absolutely no indication that Johnny Depp and Whitey Bulger were the same person. The only way this category could be even more ransacked is if DiCaprio doesn’t win the Oscar come awards night. Cross your fingers that doesn’t happen.

For best actress, we have Cate Blanchett for Carol, Brie Larson for Room, Jennifer Lawrence for Joy, Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years, and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn. Okay, call me out here for lack of gender equality guys: I have not seen any of the films in this category. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible person, critic, writer, throw anything at me what you will. However, it certainly doesn’t help that three out of the five nominees were limited releases, so cut me some slack. I will say that with her recent Golden Globe win, Larson is currently the leading contender for this category. We’ll have to see how the rest of awards season plays out first, though.

For best supporting actor, we have Christian Bale for The Big Short, Tom Hardy for The Revenant (which is very well deserved), Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight, Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, and Sylvester Stallone for Creed. One complaint people have had with this category is the lack of diversity, with all of the nominees being tall, handsome white guys. However, I have to ask the dissenters: have you seen all of these performances? The biggest misses are the inclusions of Jason Mitchell from Straight Outta Compton, Will Smith from Concussion, or Idris Elba from Beasts of No Nation, and you could probably have switched one of those out for Rylance considering he was pretty one-note throughout Bridge of Spies. The rest of the nominees, however, are rock solid. No complaints from me as far as this selection goes.

For best supporting actress, we have Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight, Rooney Mara for Carol, Rachel McAdams for Spotlight, Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl, and Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs. Again, there’s a lack of diversity here from tall white women, but what other actresses would you put in their place? Can you name another ethnic actresses from this year that put on performances as unique and memorable as the ones here? If you can, please reply with those performances below, because I honestly can’t remember any.

And finally, we end on the screenplay categories. For best original screenplay, we have Bridge of Spies, Ex Machina, Inside Out, Spotlight, and Straight Outta Compton. For best adapted screenplay, we have The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, and Room. Both categories are guilty of snubbing not one, but two great screenplays. Those scripts are The Hateful Eight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, albeit for very different reasons. For the horrible year that Quentin Tarantino had to go through to bring The Hateful Eight into film, he delivered a very funny, witty, and memorably grotesque experience that can only be brought to life through his writing. Do I even need to explain why Star Wars belongs here? J.J. Abrams succeeded doing in one movie what series creator George Lucas couldn’t do in three: he breathed new life and energy into the science-fiction epic, providing noteworthy original content while at the same time paying homage to the classic characters and mythology that we came to love from Star Wars. Abrams continued Lucas’ epic story with seamlessness and creativity, and to not reward him and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Ardnt is disrespectful to them and their vast accomplishment.

You can click here to see the full list of nominees. In the meantime, I’m going to be staring blankly at the nominations sheet until I can decide who the Academy is going to snub next on awards night.

– David Dunn

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“’71” Review (✫✫✫)

A boy trapped in a soldier’s life. 

We’re always looking for someone to blame in war. Most of the time, the blame is directed at the soldier. Rarely do we blame the military, or the government, or those we are fighting, and even more rarely do we blame the people living stateside, in the warmth and comfort of their blanket and home and far away from the battlefield. No, if we are angered at travesties such as the Vietnam or the Afghan war, we don’t point at the general who gave the order to shoot. We point at the soldier who was following orders.

In ’71, the soldier is treated not as a cold-hearted, emotionless machine, but as a young man, a flesh-and-blood being full of heart and consciousness, but who is equally confused, hurt, alone, and afraid of the people he’s trying to protect. The controversy around another war film called American Sniper released a few months ago argued if we glorify war and the military too much. Those same people need to watch ’71 and realize there is nothing to glorify about it.

Taking place during the height of civil unrest in the Troubles, ’71 follows a young British army recruit named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), who gets deployed into Belfast during his first few weeks of training. Him and his squad is warned of the great dangers in entering the territory. Protestant and Catholic Irishmen are living side-by-side at each other’s throats, each with starkly different ideas of what is better for them. The protestants believe that the United Kingdom is their home and it is their best interests to remain with them. The catholics believe Ireland can be it’s own land and wants to secede from Europe. Hook and his fellow soldiers are just looking to keep the peace.

On the day of deployment, Hook watches as both sides come to a boil. The KGB is entering houses, threatening and beating people with their billy clubs, while an angry crowd of catholics gather outside in retaliation against the military. One of the rioting crowd members throws a rock and knocks a soldier out cold. A kid no older than ten grabs the soldier’s rifle and runs. Hook and another soldier chase after him when the crowd assaults them and beats viciously. Hook watches as the soldier is shot in the face. Hook only narrowly escapes with his life intact.

Trapped in Belfast with no way to find his comrades, Hook must fight through the night to survive against the city that’s hunting him.

Functioning more as a survivalist-thriller than as a pure-blooded war movie, ’71 strikes the viewer with sharp imagery and intelligence alike, filling them with a deepening sense of dread as we watch this young man crumble into desperation as he tries to escape from the people who are seeking to kill him. One of the things I love so much about this movie is how expertly it orchestrates itself and its emotions. French director Yann Demange, who before this directed British television shows such as “Dead Set” and “Top Boy”, debuts here as a talented filmmaker, crafting an exciting thriller that efficiently balances action with context.

I am reminded of another film similar in direction and subject, and that is Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo. In both films, the main character evades their pursuer through the chaos of a collapsing political climate. The camera captures the essence of both perspectives, with the pursuer desperately chasing their target while the pursued is equally as desperate trying to get away. And through both highly exciting and pulse-pounding features, both directors have deeper things to say about those societies and what impact they’re leaving on the people around them.

To me, ’71 is the British version of Argo, with one big difference: coherency. In Argo, everything is crystal-clear and straightforward. We know who the characters are, why they are there, what they are doing, who is after them, and how and why they plan to get away. In ’71, all of that is focused in towards one character only, and that is Gary Hook. We know everything we can know about a novice soldier, we just don’t know the same of everyone else around him.

For instance, the leaders of both factions, the catholics and the British Military Reaction force, are both skinny gingers with mustaches as thick as their hair. How can you tell who is who under the dim view of the street light? A young boy helps Hook towards a bar after his initial attack, but he’s on the same side as the people who are hunting him. Why is he helping Hook when he so clearly has so much disregard for British soldiers? In another scene, a Protestant seeks to help Hook when minutes earlier he had the cold, direct eyes of a killer with purpose. What inspired him to switch sides so easily? And then, near the end of the movie, there is a twist that didn’t make much sense to me at all.

Still though, the movie is there, and Demange handles the senses of unease and desperation well with the film, especially when trusting Jack O’Connell to portray all of these emotions at once. O’Connell is really having a strong career packing in for himself. In the past year, for instance, he created a very compelling presence in the prison-drama Starred Up and in the Angelina Jolie-directed biopic Unbroken. He makes a very strong case for choosing acting as a career in all of these films, and in ’71 he clearly shows that he can pull off the role of a young, desperate, and inexperienced soldier who just wants to go home. Demange was wise to cast him in this role and trust him with the emotional complexity of the character: O’Connell was the best part of the film.

I’ll admit, I didn’t understand everything I probably needed to understand in the movie, perhaps the biggest one being more aware of what the Troubles were in the 1970’s. Take that out of it. Take all of the political facets out of the movie, and what do you have? You have a raw, emotionally-charged war thriller that challenges the viewer to see it not from their perspective, but from the soldier’s perspective. Everyone hurts during the times of war. ’71 makes me wonder who war hurts the most.

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Top Ten Films Of 2014

Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why all of the best of the year lists have to be in the top ten? Like, what sort of critic was working on his list and thought that ten would be the magic number? Why ten and not twelve? Or fifteen? Five? Twenty? Eight? Why was ten specifically chosen as the big number? Was it chosen at random, or was it actually chosen for some relevant, significant reason?

Regardless of whatever the case may be, I’m choosing to be a little rebellious this year. For the past few years, I’ve seen enough films to make a “Top 15″ list if I wanted to, but if I had done that, my site viewership would go down by about twenty views.

So this year, to battle the preconceived notion that “best of the year” lists have to have ten movies, I’m doing two different things. 1) I’m adding an “honorable mentions” selection that while those films aren’t necessarily in my top ten, they are still significant films that have contributed to the year’s industry regardless. 2) In honor of our first full year without the wise, sometime snarky, words of film critic Roger Ebert, I’m offering a special Grand Jury Prize, which honors a film from the year which has made a notable accomplishment that fits outside of my year’s top ten.

As always, there is a few things you need to know before I get into my year’s best. First of all, I haven’t seen all of the films the year has had to offer. I’ve heard from so many people how Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild was emotionally stirring, with Reese Witherspoon’s performance being the greatest highlight of the film. I’ve also read from critics that Selma, A Most Violent Year, and American Sniper were great movies as well, but guess what? None of those movies get a wide release until after Dec. 31, so I’m not able to even see those films until after the year anyway. So what am I going to do? Release a revision to my current list, or add those films to 2015 if they’re good enough? I’ll make a decision when it comes to that. It’s the studio’s faults for releasing those movies so late into the year anyway. Blasted film mongers.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this is my list for the best films of 2014. Not yours. There has been high praise from many notable films of the year, including Edge of Tomorrow, The Theory of Everything, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. None of those films will be on my top ten list because I didn’t deem them worthy enough to be on there. It’s nothing against the films or the filmmakers: I just didn’t think they were good enough.

If you’re not satisfied with that, then please, make your own top ten list. I’d love to read it, and if your reasonings are sound enough, I’d like to share it with others.

Now then, let’s hop to it, shall we? Here are my top ten films of 2014:

10. Interstellar 

A mesmerizing, breathtaking, and exhilarating journey that may have only slightly exceeded it’s grasp. Based on an idea by physicist Kip Thorne and directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar takes place in the future on a dying planet Earth, where the only source of sustainable food is by growing corn. When former aircraft pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon a secret station that has been hiding NASA for so many years, Cooper enlists in a daring space mission to find a new planet that will be able to sustain and save the human race. A testament to the quality of film that Nolan is consistent in making, Interstellar is a brilliantly woven, thought-provoking plot, invoking the same themes of humanity and identity that Nolan exercises in all of his films. McConaughey reaches an emotional depth much deeper than past “Nolan” actors, and succeeds in making his character more human than hero. This is Nolan’s most emotional movie yet, but it’s also his most complicated and convoluted. But if Nolan’s only real flaw with this film is being overly ambitious, I don’t consider that a flaw at all. Three and a half stars.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A crafty and artsy film that acts as a homage to the early days of cinema. After being framed for a violent murder of one of his former hotel guests, Concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) teams up with his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence through a series of weird, wacky, and crazy adventures. Written and directed by Wes Anderson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a peculiar, quirky film, a fun and enjoyable ride in it’s own singular way. Anderson is very specific with the direction of the film, using practical effects and set pieces that gives the film a very distinct visual style and aesthetic. The antics Gustave and Zero go through are the stuff of slapstick gold, with these guys doing silly stunts and chase sequences that reminds me of the silent film days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It’s definitely seasoned for the art house crowd, and it’s definitely more difficult to appeal to the masses. But if you allow yourself to be lost in it and have fun with it, you’ll find that it is easily the most unique film of the year. Three and a half stars.

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2

A wildly exciting and entertaining animated ride that appeals to both kids and adults. When a crusade of dragon-hunters reach the land of Berk and begin their hunt for the flying beasts, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) must team up once again with his dragon Toothless to stop the brigade and save Berk’s dragons and dragon riders. Written and directed by Dean DuBlois, who returned from directing the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a near-perfect follow-up. It hits on every note it needs to, from the comedy, to the animation, to the action, to the emotion. Hiccup is a much stronger, yet more vulnerable, character now, and needs to face more mature situations now as a grown man rather than as he did when he was a boy. In many ways, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is to it’s first counterpart as Hiccup is to his younger self: they both grew. Three and a half stars.

7. Gone Girl

A brilliantly frustrating thriller that exercises themes of infidelity and media harassment. When Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, all eyes turn to Nick for what happened to his wife. When clues slowly surface and more details surrounding the disappearance reveal themselves, everyone is asking the same question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife? Directed by David Fincher and written by author Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a masterfully orchestrated thriller, equal parts daring, inventive, intelligent, and unpredictable. Fincher propels Flynn’s brilliant plot forward with expert direction, eye-striking camerawork, and a cast that Fincher pulls the best from. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse. There is not one note in the film that you can guess is coming. Three and a half stars.

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human/primate condition as two sides to one coin. After the chemical attack on planet Earth that took place at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leaders of the apes and the humans, respectively. As the human-primate war rages on violently, Caesar and Malcolm begin to see that the apes and the humans aren’t so different from each other, and they begin to explore any possibilities of peace between two races. Matt Reeves builds an intelligent, in-depth story around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and handles its premise with skill and precision.  It surprising that the basis of this film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. Serkis is a revelation in the movie, and deserves an Oscar nomination for both his physical and emotional performance. Four stars.

5. Birdman

One of the most mesmerizing, unique, disturbing, shocking, and darkly funny films I’ve ever seen. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu writes and directs this ingenious dramedy starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie actor trying to escape his image in a former superhero role by adapting his favorite broadway play to the stage. Keaton is a natural in the role, relating his own experience to portraying Batman in order to further authenticity for the character. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski contributes to the visual design of the film, shooting and editing it to look like one, continuous shot rather than multiple longer takes. But Inarritu is the most essential storyteller here, making a visual and emotional masterpiece that is so distinct in its own language that it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Four stars.

4. Whiplash

One of the most edgy, thrilling, and provocative films of the year. Miles Teller stars as Andrew, an upcoming college student who is majoring in music and dreams of becoming one of the best drummers in the country. A series of events lands him in the top jazz orchestra of Shaffer Conservatory and under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but harsh and antagonistic instructor who is known to go very hard on his students. Andrew and Fletcher both develop an intense rivalry that both hurts Andrew, angers Fletcher, and yet equally compels them both to become the very best they can be. Writer/director Damien Chazelle conducts both actors through his sophomore effort, and does a great job in producing a tense, electric vibe consistently throughout the film. Teller and Simmons’ chemistry with each other is equally perfect, with the both of them bouncing off of each other’s words and emotions as perfectly as a drum beat. This film is about more than just music. It’s about the human desire to be great and what sacrifices we’d make to get there. Four stars.

3. Boyhood

The most revolutionary film of the year, ambitious in both production and vision. A twelve-year project pioneered by writer/director Richard Linklater, Boyhood tells the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, chronicling his entire life from when he was six years old, up until when he turns 18 and leaves for college. The movie isn’t so much a story as it is a scrapbook of memories, and Linklater is pulling each photograph out of it just to show it to us. When he is younger, Ellar isn’t acting but living, behaving like any other child would in the moment because he is in the moment. As he gets older, his performance gets more stagnant and Coltrane becomes more of a surrogate for us to express our emotions through, rather than experiencing his own. In this day and age, it’s rare to find a film as real and honest as Boyhood is. Four stars.

2. X-men: Days of Future Past

The best entry out of the X-men franchise, and the best superhero movie of the year. Serving as a sequel to both 2011’s X-men: First Class and 2006’s X-men: The Last Stand, X-men: Days of Future Past is set in the apocalyptic future where mutants are being exterminated by humanoid robots called “Sentinels”. Having only one chance to go back in time and stop this future from ever happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) through time to their younger selves (Portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) so they can stop the triggering event and save the future. Directed by Bryan Singer, who formerly helmed the first two entries in the franchise, X-men: Days of Future Past is a game changer. It is not only a visually-dazzling and highly climactic sci-fi blockbuster: it is a vastly intelligent and contemplative story that focuses on its recurring themes of racism and xenophobia, once again bringing the consequences of discrimination to the forefront. X-men: Days of Future Past is one of those movies that restores your faith in the superhero genre. Four stars.

And finally, my number one film of the year is —

1. The Fault In Our Stars

Surprised? I’m not. The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical, heartbreaking, and genuine films you will ever see, and is more than worthy of being called the most emotional film of the year. Based off of the novel by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the love story of two Cancer-stricken teenagers: the shy and book-loving Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) and the optimistic amputee Gus (Ansel Elgort). Written and directed by independent filmmaker Josh Boone, The Fault In Our Stars is one of the best stories ever translated from book to film. I initially was skeptical on seeing this film, considering how much it seemed to have been doused in rom-com syndrome. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Boone adapts Green’s story perfectly to the big screen, retaining everything in the novel from the visual details to the words that were written. But its Woodley and Elgort that sells it so well, their chemistry that vibrates so wonderfully with each other and leaves such an impression on you. Trust me when I say this isn’t your typical rom-com: it’s a heartfelt drama disguised as a tween movie, and it is the best of it’s kind. Four stars.

And finally, this year’s first Grand Jury Prize appropriately goes to Steve James’ documented biography Life Itself. Following Roger Ebert’s life and career from him growing up in Chicago, to when he got his first reporting job, to when he won the Nobel Prize for film criticism, to when he lost his best friend, to when he got Thyroid cancer, this film is everything that Roger Ebert is: funny, honest, heartfelt, unabashed, unflinching, and real. It doesn’t give you a peppered-up look at his life: it’s whole and accurate, as genuine as any of the reviews he’s written. I’m probably biased towards this subject, but the subject doesn’t count as long as it is handled well. James’ handles this story with respect and humility, and ends up telling a story about life itself rather than just limiting it to Roger’s story. It’s my favorite documentary of the year, and it brings me great pleasure to award my first Grand Jury Prize to this wonderful film tribute.

Honorable mentions include the creepy and morally ambiguous Nightcrawler, the funny yet stylish Guardians of the Galaxy, the humorously innovative The Lego Movie, and the quietly thrilling The Imitation Game, featuring the year’s best performance from actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Not all films can be honored at the end of the year compilations, but this year I was glad to have seen so many films and give each of them a chance to shine in their own way.

All the same, if you feel differently about some of the films on my list, or you have seen another film that deserves to be recognized, please comment about it. Or make your own list. Movies are deemed as great films not from individuals, but from the masses, and the only way you can tell if a movie has truly accomplished something is if it has the same effect on all its viewers.

On that note, my fellow moviegoers, I end with a classic line from my favorite film critic: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

– David Dunn

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“GONE GIRL” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Gone Girl

What happened to Amy Dunne?

When I started watching Gone Girl, I had no idea what happened between Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Now I have finished the movie, and I still have no idea what happened between the two of them.

Gone Girl is a very strong psychological thriller, packaging the essential elements of tension, grit, and confusion to make an extremely fascinating, yet equally frustrating, watch. Imagine you’re driving on a highway, except you take a wrong turn. Then you take another wrong turn. Then you take another, then another, and then another after that. Gone Girl is that highway, taking you through so many twists and turns that you don’t know which way you’re going anymore. The only problem is that there’s no end destination when you get off of the highway.

Based on the book of the same name by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl starts with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) coming home to see his living room torn apart and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. There are a few details that disturb him upon this discovery. The glass table is smashed in. Chairs are overturned. A blood splatter can be spotted above the stove in the kitchen. Suddenly, Nick finds himself swept into a media frenzy as everyone everywhere cries out “Where’s Amy?” as he and Amy’s parents work to find Amy and bring her back home.

Yet, in the midst of all of this media attention, people start to recognize strange things about Nick. He’s behaving oddly for someone who has just lost his wife. A woman outside of a press conference takes a selfie with him and posts it online. He smiles at the conference when people take his picture. And as police discover Amy’s diary and uncover incriminating evidence about Nick’s marriage with Amy, people start to ask one question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife?

Let me start by saying this: there’s no way to expect anything from this film. The minute you think Gone Girl is going in a specific direction, it does a reversal and goes in the complete opposite direction, setting you on another prediction track until it does another reversal. There are many factors contributing to these twists, the biggest one being the writing contributions of Gillian Flynn. Flynn, who wrote the original book, was adamant about being involved in writing the screenplay for David Fincher’s adaptation, and she’s a good sport as far as working with him. Even though there are a few differences conceptually from the book, the work remains a whole emotionally, and lets off this gnawing paranoia on both characters as we question who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse.

The writing is ingenious, but the real star of this show is David Fincher. Fincher, who is no stranger to mind-bending plots (1997’s The Game, 1999’s Fight Club, and 2007’s Zodiac), incorporates elements from all of his movies into this one mind-bending thriller. It has plot twists as big as those in The Game, the pseudo/suicidal/mind trickery in Fight Club, the dark, disturbing realism in Zodiac, and the broad, expressive shots, angles, and edits from The Social Network. I like this about Fincher films, that they’re so distinct in visual style that you can almost instantly tell that it’s a David Fincher film.

Example: In the opening sequence of The Social Network, we capture the essence of the scenery as a lonely Mark Zuckerberg trots back to his dorm. We get a sense of the campus he’s on, the bridges, the buildings, the sidewalks, the trees. We not only feel the physical surroundings around him, but also the life that’s in it, almost like the scenery is breathing around him. Fincher did the same thing during The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and he did it again with Gone Girl. When he’s not filming a scene where there’s a tense exchange of dialogue between characters, he’s quietly viewing the scenery all around him, telling a story with silent images just as much as he does with outspoken characters.

More than what he does shot-wise though, I’m impressed with how he handles his cast. Look at the names associated with this film. Ben Affleck. Rosamund Pike. Tyler Perry. Neil Patrick Harris. Are any of these names what you’d expect to see in an intricate crime-thriller, let alone give a decent performance? I mean, the last memorable role Perry had since dressing up in drag as Madea is Alex Cross, and that was about as complacent as an action movie can get. Neil Patrick Harris’ most serious movie role is as himself in Harold and Kumar. Rosamund Pike is most known as a Bond girl. Affleck’s acting career is self-explanatory. I looked at all of these actors cast in these roles, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were doing in a Fincher film.

Then I saw what he did with them, and I couldn’t see anyone else in their roles. Perry played Dunne’s attorney Tanner Bolt, and he was so smug and straightforward that he could lend Robert Downey Jr. a few tips for The Judge. Harris steps so wonderfully into a role he’s never played before, and Pike is exemplary too, though I won’t exactly specify how. Affleck to me was the most interesting. He uses awkward lulls, blank expressions, and his sterile voice just like he did during some of his bad performances in past movies. It’s not a bad performance though. Fincher is just using Affleck’s natural reactions to lend details to Nick Dunne’s character, like how he could be smiling in pictures while his wife is missing, or why he sounds so unconvincing when he gives a speech about how he loves his wife to ongoing listeners. Fincher uses both Affleck’s strengths and weaknesses as an actor to the film’s advantage, and that goes the same for everyone else in the film.

I liked many things from this film. The cinematography, the editing, the thought-provoking plot, Fincher’s masterful direction of the film and it’s cast all culminated into a jaw-dropping experience. My only regret about this film is it’s ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it ends in the same way that it begins, posing questions and vague thoughts so that the audience may fill it with their wild imaginations. I realize Fincher and Flynn did not intend to have a straightforward, clear-cut ending, but I have a stubborn need for closure. Films are supposed to provide answers to the questions they’ve already posed to you. Gone Girl does not provide an answer. It provides a question.

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“DAREDEVIL” Review (✫✫✫)

What is the man without fear afraid of?  

We open on a still, quiet shot, a haunting frame of a rat walking over a pool of blood dripping in front of a church.  As we pan up the window frame, with quick flashbacks cutting in and out as the music crescendos, we reach the top, helicopter spotlights shining on a wounded man in a devil costume grasping onto the holy cross.  This is easily the film’s master shot, and its influence quite possibly lasts throughout the rest of the film, even if nothing else ever comes to live up with this establishing shot.

The man we are looking at is Daredevil, and unless you read the comics, you would never have guessed that he’s blind. Growing up as a young boy in Hell’s Kitchen, Matthew Murdock (Ben Affleck) was the son of former boxer Jack “The Devil” Murdock (David Keith), nicknamed for his brutal fighting style towards his opponents. One day while skating past a construction site, Matt got in the way of a truck carrying barrels of radioactive chemicals when a bar suddenly punctures the metal, spilling the lethal chemical into young Matt’s eyes.

He lost his vision, but what he gained changed him forever. When he woke up in a hospital bed the next day, all of his senses were enhanced to superhuman levels. He could feel the fabrics of his eye bandages without even touching them. He could smell the aroma of bleach permeating off of the tiles in the hallway outside of his room. He could hear the sound of construction work, the cars beeping and the heartbeats of other human beings from miles away. But most impressively, his sense of sound gave him a “radar sense”, allowing him to form images of the people and things that he saw in front of him. He wasn’t just a boy any longer: he became a living sonar.

After witnessing the death of his father (I guess “hearing” his death if you want to get technical), Matt vows to never be afraid of the things he can’t see. To find the killer and bring him to justice. To seek justice, one way or another. To become Daredevil.

Here is a film that has an irresistible sense of style, a movie that takes us through its lavish stunts, choreography, and fight sequences and makes them exhilarating to sit through. It is really exciting, seeing these characters pulling off these crazy, mind-blowing leaps and bounds over buildings, in bars, and on rooftops as they fight each other with lightning-quick movements, attacks and reflexes. It’s even more fascinating seeing it from Daredevil’s perspective, watching bullets fly past him while he slides on railing, flips over tables, and knocks criminals out with his staff and nunchuks. Most would probably view these scenes as silly or preposterous, with characters flying from building to building as if they were in The Matrix. My response? I don’t really care. The fight scenes are choreographed and filmed in a very specific way to where its enjoyable, almost as if the laws of physics don’t matter in a movie like this. You more or less watch it for the joy of seeing the sensational effects rather than criticizing how preposterous and unrealistic it looks.

Oh yes, the action is excellent. Compared to the action, the performances are… inconsistent. Not bad, mind you, just inconsistent, and not all of it is entirely the actors fault. Affleck at least does a good job to keep us interested in between the sensational fight scenes, and even offers some very nice emotional moments where his character experiences both fear and vulnerability. Michael Clarke Duncan, most known as the pure-hearted and innocent miracle-maker in The Green Mile plays here the antonym of that role, a kingpin so foul and villanous that its shocking to see him make the transition. The highlight performance is in breakout actor Collin Ferrel as a hitman named Bullseye, and his presence on the screen is infectious. He is terrifying, his motions, speech and mannerisms forming this character who is so set on making his jobs perfect that he will kill anyone that makes him do something as simple as missing. He is mortifying, and definitely not the kind of guy you want to sit next to on a plane. The only actress I didn’t care much for in this movie was Jennifer Garner, who played a love interest of Matt’s named Elektra, but we’ll get a more into that in a bit.

For simple entertainment, the movie is acceptable. The fight scenes are great, the actors are fitting in their roles and the story advances in a form of pulpy comic book violence, the kind you expect to see when you open a Frank Miller comic and see two superhuman acrobats fighting all over the page.

The problems don’t start at the fight scenes or in its cast: they start at the hands of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, and that’s a problem because those are two areas that should be the strongest in any film. Johnson, who directed the critically-favorable Simon Birch before this obviously has his “rookie” cap on because the film is so lopsided. It’s so freakingly inconsistent, so much so to the point where I can name an equal number of scenes that I liked side-by-side with the scenes that I disliked.

Do I really need to write out a list? The script switches from serious to silly. So does the acting. The tone can’t decide whether it wants to be dark and dreary or smirking and tongue-in-cheek. I mentioned early in this review that we were introduced with a dark, mesmerizing shot that hooked our attention to the screen. Would you take this movie just as seriously, however, if I told you that there was scene later in the movie where blind lawyer Matt Murdock was kung-fu-fighting against Elektra at a children’s park in broad daylight in public? Probably not, no.

Look, in the eyes of a critic (and I’m not talking about myself), this movie failed. The tone is off-beat, the acting is off-kilter, the scripting is inconsistent, and on that note, so are the visuals. And yet here I stand, giving this movie a marginal positive rating.  Why?  Because I liked it, that’s why. Because I sat down, looked at the movie, compared the good side-by-side with the bad, and ultimately, the good won me over.

I know that won’t be the same case for other viewers, and others are likely to hate the movie for its silliness, for its half-completed visuals, for its inconsistent scripting, filming, editing, and even acting. That’s fine. Different movies appeal to different tastes, and Daredevil won’t appeal to all of them. In the genre of superhero movies, there are many obviously superior to this one,  including the recently-released Spider-man and X-men movies.  If we are going to admit what it is worse than, however, let’s not be forget that Batman and Robin and Howard The Duck also exists. No, that last one was not a typo.

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“ARGO” Review (✫✫✫✫)

“Argo”: The science-fiction epic that didn’t exist

In 1980, political instability and rebellion shook the grounds of Iran, a once prosperous city run dry by the greed and evil of its former shah, Mohammad Pahlavi.  When the U.S. agreed to house Pahlavi in southern California after he contracted cancer, the Iranian people stormed the U.S. Embassy in a furious rage and took everybody inside hostage.  Only six Americans escaped with their well-beings intact.

This is the true story of Argo, a political thriller based on the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980.  After barely escaping the U.S. embassy just before it is overran by Iranians, the Americans flee and take refuge inside Canadain Ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) house as social and political stability continues to crumble outside of the Taylor household. They remain stuck there for 69 days.

Enter the CIA. The intelligence agency plots ways to try and rescue the Americans and get them home to safety, but no luck. Their best ideas involve riding bicycles and meeting them at the border with gatorade. All hope seems lost until Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) hatches the idea of disguising the American’s as a film crew scouting for locations out in Iran. As the Secretary of State asks Tony Mendez, “You got any better bad idea than this?”

“This is the best bad idea we have sir. By far.”

Here is a movie that knows how to utilize suspense and tension to the fullest effect. Similarly to how Kathryn Bigelow sets up the stakes of the film within the establishing shot of the 2009 best picture winner The Hurt Locker, Argo similarly sets up its stakes with a tense, horrifying sequence of the Iranians overrunning the U.S. Embassy in the beginning shot. They jump over walls and tear down the gates as they storm through the front lawn. They break through doors and windows as they charge into the building, screaming as they hold up picket signs and crow bars. They bind their hostages in rope and cloth as they grab and shake them all while screaming into their ears and breaking furniture around them. In the world of film, the goal is to put audiences into the scene, into the moment of the picture. We are not just put into the environment of Iran in Argo: we are immersed in it.

At the same time though, this is a movie that knows how to expertly balance drama with humor and comedy. Two essential roles in this movie help achieve this: John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin as movie producer Lester Seigel. These two are the C-3PO and R2-D2 of filmmakers, a duo who argue and bicker over the smallest, funniest of details. In one scene where they were looking over scripts for the operation, Lester complains as to how they are all of poor quality.

John: “We’re making a fake movie here.”

Lester: “If we’re making a fake movie, I want it to be a fake hit.”

This is one of those rarities of films where it transcends merely being labeled as a “movie” and has graduated to being something as an “experience”.  Argo is a tense, nerve-wracking film.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat, cringing, waiting, teeth chattering, spine tingling with every tense moment of the film pulsating through your entire body.  Ben Affleck directs this film with alluring precision, utilizing jump-cuts and precise cutaways to the greatest effect during this American horror that is a true story.

Very few films match the precision and craftmanship that this film possesses.  Combine that with the film’s smart, witty dialogue, as well as its great spirit for humanity, and what you have is one of, if not, the best drama film of the year.

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