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December 2014

The Best Films of 2014


An emotional test of twinship, southern revenge served cold, the happenings inside a most unusual hotel, wearying concerns during an all-night car ride, a retired assassin on the hunt for blood, a demon born from depression, dragons and the Vikings who love them, doomsday on a speeding train, friendship between a mouse and a bear, and a creature of the night who can't be stopped. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Long Goodbye


Emerging during Robert Altman's heyday in the early 1970s, "The Long Goodbye" is perhaps one of his most successfully translated ideas, finding a comfortable home in this loose adaptation of Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel. The helmer dreams up a fluid fantasy world for the character of Philip Marlowe, a fatigued detective most famously played by Humphrey Bogart in 1946's "The Big Sleep," only instead of updating the source material for modern consumption, the screenplay (credited to Leigh Brackett) imagines a world where Marlowe remains in his period headspace, trapped in an updated, post-hippie landscape of crime and self-exploration. The contrast isn't emphasized, but it's enough of a tease to keep "The Long Goodbye" on the move as it attempts to marry Altman's habitual disinterest in plot with Chandler's commitment to the steps of criminal investigation. Playing subtle and slack, with a fantastic lead performance by Elliot Gould, the picture is easily one of Altman's best, allowing his specialized approach a chance to breathe as the particulars of murder and theft are sorted out. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - More Dead Than Alive


Studying the stain of violence, 1969's "More Dead Than Alive" takes on a troubling reality with the western genre, where men of sheer brutality have to eventually move on with their lives, with some looking to step away from such physical temptations. For Cain (Clint Walker), a history of violence has left him unemployable, tempted by sideshow owner Ruffalo (Vincent Price) to pick up a gun after 18 years of imprisonment and revive a brand name, "Killer Cain," that's made him a legend in the old west -- a legacy he wants nothing to do with until financial strain demands to be tended to. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Interview


After taking on the apocalypse with their last effort, 2013’s “This Is the End,” directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg take on an even more volatile enemy in North Korea for “The Interview,” their farcical take on an assassination thriller. Continuing their quest for rude and crude entertainment, the pair remains fixated on cursing and bloodshed with their follow-up, working to hit high points of shock value with this violent comedy, which isn’t nearly as hilarious as it should be. Lost in a haze of aimless improvisation and dreary dumb guy antics, “The Interview” isn’t a lethal weapon of a movie, it’s merely a mediocre one, never matching its hellraising potential. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Gambler


“The Gambler” is a remake of a 1974 feature, a semi-autobiographical effort that launched screenwriter James Toback’s career and provided star James Cann with one of his best roles. It was a complex, gritty look at self-destruction, boasting a decade-approved detachment that added to its severity and sophisticated characterization. 2014’s “The Gambler” doesn’t share the same sense of tonal bravery, hoping to remain in a claustrophobic space of personal ruin while keeping hope alive through half-realized romantic prospects. There are moments of moral muddiness that stick to the movie in fascinating ways, but this is not cohesive work from director Rupert Wyatt (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), who’s often caught trying to make a pretty picture when the material begs for ugliness. Read the rest at

Film Review - Into the Woods


There’s a tight, tempting, and dangerous 80 minute musical fighting for oxygen in the 120 minutes it takes for “Into the Woods” to tell its story. An adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical, it’s difficult to tell if this particular work was ever meant for the big screen, much less a Disney production, with all its nasty parts and ghoulish developments either haphazardly muted or sawed off completely in an effort to appeal to a family audience. I don’t think Sondheim was aiming for the matinee crowds with this movie, but that doesn’t stop director Rob Marshall from softening the blow, botching tonality and ease of characterization in this visually engaging but ultimately joyless celebration of death and deceit, with the periodic musical number arriving to restore some snap to the picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Big Eyes


“Big Eyes” reunites director Tim Burton with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Their last collaboration was 1994’s “Ed Wood,” a bio-pic about one of Hollywood’s worst filmmakers and his collection of friends and artists. It’s also considered by many to be Burton’s best picture. Returning to the bio-pic routine, the trio cooks up “Big Eyes,” an overview of Margaret Keane’s marriage and life as a frustrated artist. Those anticipating another affectionate and playful romp in the “Ed Wood” style should rein in expectations, as the production elects the Lifetime Movie route, missing many of the askew elements that typically shadow a Burton effort. Creative growth is welcome, but “Big Eyes” is hurt by a flavorless, humorless script and generic direction. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Imitation Game


“The Imitation Game” tells the heroic story of brilliant mathematician Alan Turing and his incredible effort to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, helping to turn the tide of World War II in a way nobody else could’ve achieved. It’s also the tale of Turing’s homosexuality, and how such a secretive life was punished severely by a government that would’ve been toppled without him. There are two distinct speeds to “The Imitation Game,” and they don’t gel as successfully as director Morten Tyldum requires. However, performances are fiery and committed, successfully communicating the brain-bending decoding mission and its many areas of paranoia, deception, and dark confession. Read the rest at

Film Review - Unbroken


“Unbroken” is the second directorial effort from superstar Angelina Jolie, but her brand name is eclipsed by the screenwriters. Credited to Joel & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, the screenplay has been worked over by the some of the best in the business, so it’s confusing to see how “Unbroken” has turned out to be a one-note, thoroughly vanilla take on personal endurance. Perhaps Jolie, in her tireless quest to capture the essentials of dignity and the human spirit, was blinded by the potential to make the most uplifting portrait of forgiveness of 2014. The tale is there for the taking, but miscasting, violent repetition, and a lack of character depth make the picture feel forgettable, even during its most evocative and emotional moments. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mr. Turner


Mike Leigh doesn’t make movies, he crafts cinematic illness. He’s the rare helmer to invest in misery, and while “Mr. Turner” aspires to understand a brusque man, it’s also comfortable with extended displays of discomfort. Richly observed but not a film that’s simply attended on a whim, “Mr. Turner” is game to understand the particular psychology and social irritants of its subject, painter J.M.W. Turner, filling a whopping 150 minutes with scenes of artistic confidence and intimate dealings. Leigh always brings the pain, but such bulging agony is throttled for this bio-pic, which largely avoids melodrama to cut into the man and feel around for what remains of his soul. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Inspector Lewis: Series 7

Inspector Lewis Series 7

When we last left Detective Inspector Robert Lewis (Kevin Whatley), he entered retirement, shutting down decades of police service to live a life of love and leisure with his girlfriend, forensic pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman). The last episode of the previous season almost felt like a series finale, putting its lead character out to pasture as Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) was promoted to Detective Inspector, thus paving the way for some type of spin-off following the icier partner as he takes over all criminal investigations. "Inspector Lewis: Series 7" thankfully reinstates the old dynamic between the cops, with all teases pointing to the conclusion of the show shooed away for this cycle of three episodes, quickly returning to Oxford evildoing with particularly educated suspects. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Samurai Cop


There has to be a story behind "Samurai Cop." There are always stories when movies are this insanely bad. B-cinema welcomes a new contender with this 1991 endeavor, which attempts to marry martial arts cinema with buddy cop clichés, hoping to give birth to a new action hero in star Matt Hannon. With glam rock hair and a gym rat body, Hannon is a force of one in "Samurai Cop," doing his best to generate screen mayhem while writer/director Amir Shervan botches every possible technical challenge of the movie. The result is no-budget, brain-dead thriller that doesn't contain a single scene of filmmaking competence. To some, it's bad movie heaven, huffing the fumes of a botched effort that doesn't even bother to make sense. For everyone else, the feature is merely acceptable as a curiosity, permitted a rare chance to view futility in motion as Shervan labors to hold the whole wacko thing together. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Coming Home

Coming Home Jane Fonda

Films about post-war life are relatively common these days, openly exploring the mental strain of combat and the demands of civilian life on those who've endured hell. However, in the 1970s, such a topic was difficult to approach, especially when discussing the Vietnam War. While not a groundbreaking feature, 1978's "Coming Home" was a key piece of the Vietnam conversation, striving to provide a look at lives stained by distance, violence, and guilt, using the conventions of a romantic movie to help ease viewers into challenging ideas about a conflict that was only beginning to be dramatized by Hollywood. Directed by Hal Ashby, written by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones, and starring Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, and Bruce Dern, "Coming Home" offers incredible talent to bring tension to life, creating a potent look at fresh wounds and broken hearts, sold with unusual sensitivity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wild


A year after making a directorial splash with the Academy Award-winning “Dallas Buyers Club,” Jean-Marc Vallee returns to screens with “Wild,” a similar effort concerning a tortured protagonist working toward enlightenment while facing the possibility of a physical and mental breakdown. Sustaining his reputation as a thoughtful helmer with an interest in the enormity of the human spirit, Vallee captures intimacy in the middle of nowhere, guiding star Reese Witherspoon to one of her best performances. Tending to the nuances of memory and the suffocating weight of guilt, Vallee makes “Wild” very real and periodically profound, allowing a full understanding of motivation and realization behind Cheryl Strayed’s punishing 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Read the rest at

Film Review - Annie


There’s room for interpretation with the 1977 musical “Annie,” but perhaps the 2014 adaptation is a little too far removed from its source material. Given a pop music makeover and a populated with a cast of non-singers, the new take on “Annie” is missing the charm and Broadway bellow of previous incarnations, resembling more of a music video than a major league song and dance effort. Borderline obnoxious and terribly miscast, the picture struggles to drum up moxie and sentiment, working through the familiar and unfamiliar in mechanical fashion, highlighting director Will Gluck’s inexperience with movie musicals and his suspect appreciation for music in general. Read the rest at

Film Review - Night at the Museum: The Secret of the Tomb


It’s telling that “Night at the Museum: The Secret of the Tomb” is arriving five years after the franchise’s last installment, “Battle of the Smithsonian.” Clearly, there’s some hesitation from the money people concerning the future of these expensive pictures, with the previous chapter grossing less than the original. To help restore some pluck to the fatigued series, “The Secret of the Tomb” elects rehash over innovation, once again pitting hapless security guard Larry against a community of magically animated museum displays. While director Shawn Levy isn’t one to push himself as a filmmaker, it’s disheartening to see how mediocre the movie is, essentially repeating itself to emerge likable again, encouraging an already dreary screenplay. Read the rest at

Film Review - After the Fall


While “After the Fall” isn’t the timeliest movie about the economic collapse of the United States, it does capture a sense of frustration with the pressures of unemployment and the humiliation it brings. Editor Saar Klein makes his directorial debut here, and it’s strong work despite a script that doesn’t capture the complexity of the premise, often giving in to sympathy when a more robust examination of the characters is necessary. Still, pressure points are crisply executed and star Wes Bentley is offered a chance to break his habitual screen iciness, contributing to an unusual take on financial ruin that teases criminal exploits, but somehow retains its interest in matters of personal responsibility. Read the rest at