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The Double (2014)

The Double

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Richard Ayoade

Starring Jesse Eisenberg as James Simon/Simon James

Mia Wasikowska as Hannah

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A shy, socially awkward office worker named Simon is challenged when James moves into the building next door and starts working at his office. A man with an identical face and an opposite personality.

This is a surprise addition to my top ten of the year. The Double is like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil meets Wes Anderson meets Enemy, and it is pretty spectacular. I had previously seen and not enjoyed Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, so my hopes were not all that high for this one, but I thought it seemed like it could be good, and I really liked Enemy which is this film’s doppelgänger about doppelgängers, and I was curious about this. Somehow, I ended up loving The Double even more than I did Enemy. This movie is just off the walls crazy, it’s full of some really great deadpan humor, some darker stuff, and a whole lot of references to Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi stuff except set in a non-science fiction setting. Brazil is one of my ten favorite movies, and the fact that this film comes so close to doing what Brazil does but taking a completely different path in terms of story and setting makes me love it all the more. Jesse Eisenberg does an incredible job with his two roles, and though it’s hard to buy him as a womanizer, I could suspend my disbelief enough, and I really enjoyed the subtle differences between the two characters, he really does a good job here. I love the production design as well, how it manages to look almost timeless by having sets designed like a mix of 195os Los Angeles and a strange surreal painting. The Double is an incredible film, it’s a lot of fun, really well made and creative, and ultimately one of the best films of the year.

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The Untouchables (1987)

The Untouchables

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Brian De Palma

Starring Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness

Sean Connery as Jim Malone

Robert De Niro as Al Capone

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Elliot Ness is a cop in Chicago who decides to take down Al Capone’s criminal empire with his group of four cops who call themselves “The Untouchables.”

The Untouchables was the ending to a shitty week of films that I needed. The Untouchables is everything I could ever want in a gangster movie and more. I love the story of Al Capone’s downfall, he’s one of the most interesting criminals in history (speaking of which, I’d love to see a biopic of his rise to power), and I also feel some personal connection to it because my grandfather was born in prohibition era Chicago, and his father bought bootlegged alcohol from Al Capone before Capone’s gang became an empire. While I know that The Untouchables takes a lot of artistic license in making this an action film, when in real life, Capone never tried to kill any of the untouchables and simply tried to bribe them, I think they did the story justice. I love Brian De Palma’s style of filmmaking, he uses a ton of slow motion, close ups, and lots of homages to old films. My favorite sequence in the entire film is the train station shootout on the stairs, entirely slow motion, referencing Battleship Potemkin‘s Odessa steps massacre scene with the baby rolling down the steps. I keep telling myself that I really need to watch more of De Palma’s films, because I really like his style. He’s one of the best auteurs in the game, and when he’s working with the right team, he can really do something special. One thing I’ve noticed in the few films I’ve seen by him is he really likes focusing on music. Phantom of the Paradise has one of the best soundtracks of the seventies, and Scarface tries to feel modern by using synthesizers (I hated Scarface’s music, but it is a big part of the style of the film). With The Untouchables, De Palma brings classic spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone in, one of my favorite composers of all-time, and he uses the music to make this gangster epic feel like a western. The trumpets, guitars, harmonicas, and everything else in this score would feel right at home in a Sergio Leone epic. I think De Palma chose to use this music to establish prohibition as a kind of lawless society, even though cars are driving around, and everyone is in trenchcoats and fedoras instead of cowboy boots and hats, this society is operating just like the wild west. Morricone’s score might not be something I’d like on my iTunes playlist, but it fits the film like a glove. I also really have to praise David Mamet’s script, he’s one of my favorite playwrights, American Buffalo is one of my ten favorites plays ever written. Mamet’s script is awesome, the man knows how to write dialogue like no other. It’s quick, clever, yet realistic and believable. The cinematography looks stunning, the use of shadows is reminiscent to old film-noirs, and the lighting reminds me of The Godfather.  In the end, everything about this movie was great (except for Kevin Costner, that guy can’t act). It’s an incredibly entertaining, action packed adventure through gangland Chicago.

Fair Game (2010)

Fair Game

★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Doug Liman

Starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame

Sean Penn as Joe Wilson

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Valerie Plame is a CIA operative whose husband writes an article in the New York Times, criticizing the Bush administration, and the war in Iraq.

Fair Game is one of the most dull spy movies I have ever seen. I understand that real life spy work is not like a James Bond film at all times, and this is based on a true story, but that doesn’t mean that it can be excused for being so uninteresting. It’s an interesting story that’s suited for a magazine article, “my fight with the Bush administration” or something like that, but as a feature length film, it does not work. Fair Game tells the story of Valerie Plame, a covert operative in the CIA who sent her husband to check out some alleged uranium mines in Niger, and returned to say that nothing is there, only to have the government put out a report that Niger had sold uranium from these fields to Saddam Hussein. So he writes a controversial article in the New York Times, which leads the government to reveal his wife’s identity, and leads to Sean Penn giving a bunch of political speeches about how much the Bush administration sucks. This movie is not a thriller, this is not a spy movie, this is not a military intelligence thriller about how wrong we were in going into Iraq. This is a movie that is just one huge political message of “fuck George Bush.” I agree with the political messages, and I think George Bush sucks, but seriously, I’m not watching your film so that you can tell me exactly how much George Bush sucks. I want a story, compelling characters, interesting filmmaking techniques. I want to watch Sean Penn perform, not yell about his actual real life political views. I have no problem if a film has political messages, that’s completely fine by me, but I definitely do not like when the only thing a film has to say are political slander, and the film only exists as a piece of hate mail to someone. Aside from that, Fair Game does nothing interesting in its filmmaking, it plays it very safe, the camera angles are very ordinary, the lighting is a typical “we’ll make this look dark so that it looks gritty,” type thing, the editing is passable and nothing more. I will say however, that Naomi Watts does quite a great job in this film. I was impressed with her performance, however, it wasn’t portrayed as a lead role, even though this is a biopic about Valerie Plame, she seemed to be the supporting character to Sean Penn’s politics.

Salt (2010)

Salt

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Starring Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt

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Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent who is accused of being a Russian spy, sent to assassinate the Russian president while he visits a funeral.

Well, with this and The A-Team, I got two action movie failures in one day. Both for incredibly different reasons. Salt is one of the most convoluted films I have ever seen, with more plot twists in its 90-minute runtime than in M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career. This is the story of a CIA agent, who is accused of being a spy for the KGB, and instead of defending herself from the accusation, she runs away, and kills a bunch of CIA agents, just because, then it turns out she actually is a part of the KGB, but maybe she doesn’t want to be? And which side is she on? And why does everything have to be so confusing in this movie, it’s like they couldn’t do anything the straight forward way, like it would actually happen in real life. No person would ever act like anyone in this film, even spies have logic, no scratch that, spies should have more logic than anyone else, yet it seemed like no one did a single rational thing in the entire runtime of the film. The characters were incredibly poorly written, and we never learn anything about any of them other than “I’m a spy.” The tagline for the movie has had me curious since its release in 2010, “Who is Salt?” it asks, and after watching the movie, I ask the same question. Seriously what was going on in that character’s brain, is she secretly working for North Korea and fucking over both Russia and America? Who is she really? I had no clue by the end of the film. Another thing that’s bothering me about the film is the fact that it lacks any heart or fun that ridiculous action movies need. In movies where people are defying nearly every law of physics with stunts, you need to keep that in perspective and have a sense of humor. A sense of humor can show it isn’t meant to be realistic, and so it becomes acceptable. Salt has no sense of humor, so it’s just a very dark and serious movie where the universe seems to not obey physics. I will admit that I laughed a good deal at Salt’s husband’s ridiculous accent and his speeches about spiders, though I don’t think that was meant to be funny, they couldn’t have chosen a worse actor or job for Angelina Jolie’s love interest. Salt was an incredibly convoluted movie that seemed to be so interested in surprising the audience that it forgot to have a coherent plot and what makes my favorite action films my favorites, a sense of fun.

The American (2010)

The American

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring George Clooney as Jack

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An assassin, whose name may or may not be Jack, is sent to a remote Italian village to lay low from enemies and await further instructions.

The American would be what it would look like if you gave a director like Michael Haneke the Bond franchise with George Clooney in the lead. This is a pretty typical spy thriller script that has a director who took it in a completely different direction. The American is a very slow moving movie, but it doesn’t have a slow moving plot, it’s the style of the filmmaking, the way that every shot takes its time, the actors don’t rush through their movements. This is a spy movie filmed in the style of a European art house piece, which makes it unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’m not typically an enormous fan of European art-house (I find that like every genre, there’s a lot of great stuff, but then you get the films that miss the point and try and copy the style ending up feeling empty and incredibly pretentious), but I love how it was thrown in as a twist to the spy genre, and it fit the story and location of the film like a glove. So I do really enjoy the film, but as with any film, there are flaws, in this case, the flaws can really weigh it down at moments. The script is where it seems the majority of my problems with the film come from. The plot becomes very stretched out at times, and there isn’t enough conflict throughout the entire film. The fact that an entire section is devoted to Clooney trying to assemble a homemade gun shows that maybe they didn’t have enough story to work with. Furthermore, I think that having a main character who has pretty much zero personality traits other than “mysterious” makes them hard to relate with. Other than that, the director, Anton Corbijn proves with The American that he can take a mediocre script and turn it into something pretty interesting and different. The American is no James Bond movie, it isn’t packed with action or intrigue, but it does have a lot of beautiful shots of the Italian countryside, and a very unique look at an overdone genre.

Green Zone (2010)

Green Zone

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Starring Matt Damon as Roy Miller

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A soldier in Iraq, Roy Miller, starts to notice that intel on the WMDs seems to always lead to nothing, and dives deeper into what could be a conspiracy.

Paul Greengrass has to represent everything I hate about modern day action filmmaking. This guy seems to think that he can replace any actual action, or nice shots, with the shakiest of shaky cams, and cuts so fast that you can hardly keep up. His films move ridiculously fast, and not in a good way. When I say they move fast, I mean that, for example, we have a fight scene, the camera is already shaking so much that we don’t know who is hitting who, we think we see something but we aren’t sure, and in the midst of that, just to make it even more confusing, it’s cutting to different angles every half second. Watching a Paul Greengrass film is like watching a Toddler with ADHD play Call of Duty. That said, somehow Paul Greengrass always ends up getting great scripts. In the direction of any other competent human being, Green Zone would have been a good film. The script plays out like an espionage thriller, where it’s really America vs America, and showing us the dark side of the war. It’s refreshing to see an Iraq war film that is actually very anti-America. Even The Hurt Locker, and from what I’m hearing, American Sniper have some sort of “don’t fuck with ‘merica” propaganda message in them. Green Zone has none of that, it debates the reasons that the Iraq war happened, it puts the American army not just in a moral grey area, but it outright says that they were in the wrong about everything. I wish that they’d given this film to Kathryn Bigelow, who seems to have the opposite problem to Greengrass. She’s a damn good director, but I never like the scripts she’s given. Green Zone is one of those films that has so many good things about it, but it has an equal amount of bad things which makes it a completely neutral film. But Hollywood, stop giving Paul Greengrass good action movie scripts, and start giving those scripts to someone who doesn’t think you can substitute actual action for blurry laziness.

Leaves of Grass (2010)

Leaves of Grass

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Starring Edward Norton as Bill and Brady Kincaid

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An Ivy League philosophy professor, Bill Kincaid, goes home to Oklahoma after hearing his equally brilliant drug dealing twin brother has passed away.

When compiling a list of movies from 2010 that I needed to see (yes I am still doing catch up work on four years ago), Leaves of Grass showed up purely because it was mentioned in a single best of the year list, and nowhere else. So this was kind of just a “just in case it’s actually not half bad” and was kind of a movie I was dreading watching fearing that the mediocre to bad reviews would be true. Leaves of Grass pleasantly surprised me with a really clever script, and one of the best performances of that year from Edward Norton. The premise of the film involves an ivy league philosophy professor who has distanced himself from his dysfunctional, Oklahoman family, and who has to return home after his twin brother fakes his death. His twin brother is now a drug dealer, who actually has a higher IQ than the professor, and the whole film centers on the drug dealer’s attempt to make himself an alibi by using his brother. It’s a very fun story, and it’s told in a very darkly comedic way. The sense of humor may not be for everyone, but it really hit me the right way. Also, the film has one of the funniest uses of Chekhov’s Gun that I think I’ve ever seen (actually, I can’t think of any other comedic Chekhov’s Guns at the moment) and I can’t spoil it, because it really surprised me. Anyways, I really need to talk about Edward Norton, who is simply outstanding in his two roles that are practically complete opposites. He rocks it in his caricature portrayal of a redneck drug dealer, as well as his more straight laced counterpart. The way he managed to play off himself is incredible. I found myself trying to figure out how they pulled off having two Edward Norton’s on screen at a time. Everyone gives credit to The Social Network for putting two Armie Hammer’s on screen, but both those twins looked the same. They would have to do very elaborate hair and makeup changes to Edward Norton every time he changed characters. I was marveling at the technical skills and patience it would take to pull the shots with both of them off. Leaves of Grass does have some tonal flaws, and a few pacing issues, but for the most part this is a really fun and funny dark comedy. I highly recommend checking this one out. It seems to have flown under the radar, but it really shouldn’t have.

Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Damien Chezelle

Starring Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman

J.K. Simmons as Fletcher

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Andrew Neyman is an aspiring jazz drummer, attending New York’s top music school, where he joins the studio band, conducted by the ruthless, and verbally abusive Fletcher.

Whiplash is one of my most anticipated films of the year, and it has finally come to my town’s small art house theater. I’ve been so excited to see this film, and after seeing it, I can actually say that it met my expectations. Whiplash is probably one of the most intense films of the year. The film revolves around a psychological battle between a drummer, Andrew, and his teacher, Fletcher. This is an excellent look at what it means to be great, or how far some people have to go to become one of the greats. The other film I would compare this to would have to be Black Swan in the character’s pursuit of perfection driving them to a degree of madness. Of course Andrew goes a lot less crazy than Nina in Black Swan, but there is a comparison to be had there. Andrew’s love of drumming, and his willingness to just sit and take the abuse that Fletcher doles out is both heartbreaking and inspiring. But this is equal parts a heartbreaking and inspiring movie. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it is the perfect combination of heartbreaking and inspiring. Damien Chezelle has a very bright future ahead of him after this film, you can tell that he has an excellent musical sensibility. I would love to see Chezelle take on a Broadway Musical adaptation, I think that would be amazing. Anyways, now to the part of the movie that I just can’t stop thinking about, and the part that I’m going to tell my friends about to get them to see the film. J.K. Simmons. I think that we can just give Simmons the Oscar already. He’s been the frontrunner since January, and I can’t see the award going to anyone else. Simmons is a terrifying man in this movie. His fits of rage and explosive temper had me clenching every muscle in my body, then laughing at his amazing insults, then going back to tense. The thing that I think makes his performance great though, is that it’s never just “scary guy yelling”, there’s always so much more to it. You understand his point of view, and see his reasoning. J.K. Simmons, gives the second best performance of the year, just behind Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Anyways, Whiplash is an awesome movie, an intense psychological thriller unlike any other.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring Farley Granger as Guy Haines

Robert Walker as Bruno Antony

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Two men meet on a train, one proposes a plan to help murder the other’s wife to avoid getting a divorce, and in return the other man will murder his father. The other man shrugs the idea off, but then his wife turns up dead.

Alfred Hitchcock can be very hit and miss for me, and this one is definitely more of a miss for me than it is a hit. Strangers on a Train has a great premise, but the way it is written makes it feel stiff and mechanical, unbelievable. Two men meet on a train, one is insane, the other is a tennis player, crazy guy proposes murder scheme, tennis player says no, crazy guy follows through and stalks tennis player. I love the idea that the storyline has, it’s a creepy premise, and should lend itself perfectly to the hand of the master of suspense. However, there is a lot more to a script than a good story, and this is where Strangers on a Train fails for me. The way the characters interact is completely unrealistic, conversations don’t feel like actual conversations, they feel like written dialogue. When talking in real life, people never say exactly what they mean, here it seems like everyone always says exactly what they “should” say. Sometimes, the motivations for actions can seem strange, and other times, characters lack any sense of logic whatsoever. For example, covering a lighter in your own fingerprints when trying to incriminate someone else, or even tailing the person you’re trying to murder so that everyone in the world notices you. The characters were my main problem in the film because they always seemed to say and do things that were just too convenient in terms of driving the plot forward. Another thing that bothered me was the editing, it seemed like the cutting was just too quick, hardly ever giving us time to breathe, or think about what we’re witnessing. For example, the tennis scenes were a full on assault on the senses. I really didn’t need five minutes of quick smash cuts to understand that Guy was in an intense tennis match. I do however have to give credit to the director of photography for making the film look excellent. It’s Hitchcock’s noir, and the harsh shadows give it a really neat feel that is quite different to anything else I’ve seen from Hitchcock. The sequences at the circus had some really interesting lighting as well, and were by far the most interesting looking scenes in the film. Also Robert Walker gives a simply captivating performance as the villain. Whenever he was on screen, Walker stole the show. Strangers on a Train is one of the weaker Hitchcock films I’ve seen, has some great parts to it, but I can’t say I’m a fan of the film as a whole.

Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring Pam Grier as Jackie Brown

Samuel L Jackson as Ordell

Robert Forster as Max Cherry

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An airline stewardess, Jackie Brown, is held for questioning when she is caught bringing $50,000 into the country for her arms dealer friend, Ordell.

I would say that I’m a fan of Tarantino, I love the majority of his films, Django Unchained, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Reservoir Dogs are all films I would consider to be some of my favorites. Yet, I have never got around to watching Jackie Brown. After watching, I’m a little bit disappointed with this film. Even though I think it’s a very good film, I’m disappointed because it’s not “Tarantino good.” Jackie Brown is missing the thing that makes every other film by Quentin Tarantino feel so fun, the ridiculous, off the walls style, with rapid paced His Girl Friday style dialogue, lots of homages to movies I’ve never even heard of, and this sense of surrealism in that the universe he creates in his films seems so different to the universe we live in. These are the reasons that I love the majority of his films, they’re so much fun, so ridiculous, so stylish. Jackie Brown has none of these qualities. Which is why I say it is a good movie, but it is disappointing that it’s made by Tarantino. The script does not have much of a sense of humor compared to his other films. Only two of the many characters are amusing, Louis and Ordell have conversations that are reminiscent of Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction, but they’re really the only characters that talk in a remotely “Tarantino” way. It’s by far the most serious film in the Tarantino universe, even in terms of editing, held back violence, music, performances. I think I’ve said enough that makes it sound like I didn’t like it, so I should just clarify, I enjoyed Jackie Brown, I think it’s a good film, and an example of an auteur stepping outside of his comfort zone. It would be like watching Wes Anderson make an entirely serious movie that doesn’t even have a hint of his quirks in it. Interesting, and even possibly good, but not what you were hoping for when the opening credits rolled. Jackie Brown is that film.