November Summary

Once again, I haven't gotten around to seeing as many movies. So here are the links to this month's reviews.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Abres Los Ojos
Dear White People
Death to Smoochy
Sálo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
The Imitation Game
The Matrix

Best: "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and "Wetlands"
Worst: "Interstellar
DON'T WATCH WITH MOM AND DAD: "Sálo"...just don't.

The Matrix (1999) (R)

"The Matrix" is an innovation in both its style and its story. No other movie before and none since have quite managed to bend the viewer's mind with philosophy—"There is no spoon"—and placate the masses with blindingly great action. It's the story of computers and hackers and programs, of angels and demons and it remains almost as inspired as the moment it was released.
The movie begins with Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a computer programmer who goes under the alias "Neo" when he's in the more technically minded spheres, getting a message from his computer telling him to follow the white rabbit down the hole. What ensues is a series of odd clues that lead him to bar where he meets a woman calling herself Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who tells him that his life is in danger. She knows what he's looking for: The Matrix.
Right off the bat, "The Matrix" nails its neonoir style down so firmly that you believe in everything you are seeing. Its crystal cinematography and wonderfully rendered gritty feel have yet to fade.
As Neo starts going about his day, he is interrupted by the presence of phone calls and mysterious agents who seem to want his every compliance. They want to know the identity of a super hacker named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who holds the key to something vastly important; but what that is, we don't know yet.
"The Matrix" has a great sense of timing if nothing else, letting the viewers stay confused for just the right amount of time before making a clean revelation and restoring some sort of order. But the movie is not without its major problems...more on that later.
After being pursued by what we can only deem as "malignant forces", Neo finds himself in the company of Trinity once more who them takes him to meet the infamous Morpheus who offers him two choices: ignorance or truth.
Should he choose truth, he will never be able to return to his life again and should he choose ignorance, he will never be able to remember the things he has seen.
What ensues because of his choice is a science fiction thriller that has become one of the most influential pieces of film in recent years. "The Matrix" had huge cultural impact and motivated parody after parody, none equalling the blistering success of the original.
Yet the movie, for all its inquisitive philosophies and its great visual effects which still look pristine even today, has some major plot holes that are skated over and discarded carelessly when all it would have taken to fix them was a few moments of clarity. Motivations for characters are entirely subjective and not defined enough and the climax of the story abandons its science fiction groundwork in lieu of a more fairy tale atmosphere.
Still, the film did more for culture than just opening the door for visual effects to become a part of story telling in unique ways. "The Matrix" solidified the "brain in a vat" philosophy and inspired many a nerd to inject crazily unexplained truths and fictions into their new stories. An explosion of science fiction now wanted to capture the intellectual prowess and blockbuster capability of "The Matrix" and not many did. The movie's filming, its score, its look, its visual effects have changed the film world forever and this can be seen in movies from "Inception" to "The Bourne Identity". The Wachowski siblings have always strived to reach the high watermark of "The Matrix" with their followup pieces "V for Vendetta" and then "Cloud Atlas". They have all had the similar thought: dazzling visuals and intense story telling mixed with philosophy; but "The Matrix" stands as their highest achievement and the most lasting work among them.
It's not perfect and I despise certain aspects of it, how it blithely ignores gaping holes; but its entertainment value is too high for any criticism to really do any good.
"The Matrix" is just what you want from a smash hit: smart, sleek, thrilling, and dazzling.

Score: ★★★½

Death to Smoochy (2002) (R)

"Death to Smoochy" sometimes comes across as the kind of movie that A-list stars throw time into to make money for more ambitious projects. It could look like a collective failure of agents; and yet the sheer number of big talents held within the movie is nothing if not an odd coincidence or a stroke of sheer genius. It's up to you to decide which.
At the movie's opening, we are introduced to a children's show host named Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) who is riding the high life of embezzlement and bribery. He takes people's money to ensure that their children make it on screen with him during some of his more peppy song moments. Unfortunately for him, his reach into the pockets may have gotten a bit too deep. At the beginning of the movie, he is arrested for accepting bribes and is immediately axed from public television.
Now the executives at KidNet are placing the crunch on Marlon Stokes (Jon Stewart) and Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) to find a clean replacement. This new host must have no blemishes, a real diamond in the rough.
With no alternative, Marlon decides that KidNet should try to employ Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) probably better known for his alter-ego Smoochy the Rhino. This loser plays at meth-clinics and hospitals with parodies of popular songs that have a more morally appealing message. Nora is not a fan of Sheldon and thinks that his cheery, goodie-goodie attitude is almost too much to handle; but her hands are figuratively tied so she approaches Smoochy with a proposition of national television.
Sheldon is the diamond in the rough, this zen-obsessed, health food freak is ecstatic at her proposal because he thinks that television has finally changed and popular audiences now want wholesome morals and lovely songs that teach kids the hard truths of life without all the blood and tears. Nora is not so sure; but as soon as he assumes the filler position left by Rainbow Randolph, the ratings go through the roof and KidNet starts to see the potential for marketing.
While Sheldon struggles to always to the right thing and "not change the world, but make a dent", Randolph is in the worst mental spiral imaginable. He flies into rages of anger, jealously, and sabotage and does his best to ruin Smoochy's image and return himself to the small screen.
Meanwhile there is the mob. The Irish mob, let by Tommy Cotter (Pam Ferris) is the fearsome rulers of the city and they find interest in Smoochy's new show. Then there's Burke Bennett (Danny DeVito), who slimes his way into Sheldon's naive life and sets himself up as a smarmy agent. He has ties to Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein) who is the other leader of the mob in town. Tommy and Merv are the two kingpins that don't want to topple.
Immediately you can see how ridiculous "Death to Smoochy" is. I mean, it's a movie about kid's television that has not one but two gangster crowds involved in it. What the story's implausibility contains in spades, so does the movie's sense of sheer fun. While not as hilarious as I thought it might be, the movie is never dull and never too much.
Still, it has massive problems, most notably with how it treats Randolph and Sheldon and how the two story lines carry themselves. There is a sense of confusing momentum that becomes radically bizarre towards the end of the movie; but even that is forgivable.
Danny DeVito also directs this movie, which seems to be your worst nightmare of "Barney". It's a spoof of noir and a clumsily handled Coen-esque shaggy dog story that would have worked better with more capable hands. You can see this as a film which really wants to be "The Big Lebowski".
But all its faults don't stop it from being wonderfully mind-numbing and very watchable. It's easy entertainment, and what more do you want?

Score: ★★½

Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) (Not Rated)

Horrible, unbearable, evil, pornographic, political, masterful, beautiful, fascinating, confused—Pier Paolo Pasolini's final feature has been called many, many things and it embodies each subsequent one of them with more ease than the former. It is a dichotomy of a movie and should never be viewed by any other than the strong of will and stomach. You know a movie is gritty and unusually vile when even the critics you look up warn you of the triggers found within this movie that could sen you into a mental tailspin or to the bathroom, perhaps both.
And yet..."Saló, or the 120 Days in Sodom" is considered to be one of the quintessential Italian movies of modern cinema and it is deemed as 'must-see' on several lists which now seem incomplete with its absence. But make no mistake, you will not be finding this film on many "top 10" lists. Instead, there seems to be some love/hate relationship with "Saló" that people realize. It is too important to ignore and too much itself to be anything less than repulsive.
Branded by many, including Pasolini himself, as a commentary on Fascism, "Saló" begins in Italy in 1944 right as the world is about to crumble in at the close of World War II. Boys and girls are rounded up from their families and even struggling as hard as they can, they are subdued at brought to a house out of sight. From here a group of four rich men come and size them up, literally and figuratively. They are plucked over like apples at a grocery store—felt up and groomed over before any decision is made.
Yet at this point the viewer would still be unaware of what was happening if they hadn't heard anything about the film, which is highly unlikely. This isn't a movie that you just stumble across and, without any knowledge, pop in and start watching. I would wager that everyone watching "Saló" knows exactly what they're getting themselves into.
The boys and girls selected from the preliminary group are taken and placed on a militarized set of buses and cars and taken to an estate in the middle of the country where they are read the rules. They will not engage in any sexual activity besides those acts supplied upon them by their hosts, and they will not cite any religion whatsoever, the punishment for failure of either of these rules could result in the loss of limb or life.
Somehow, even with this, the viewer is still trying to understand what they are about to witness as far as sexually nightmarish carnage is concerned. Don't worry, that comes later.
Still, it should be said that "Saló" is not a film about its hundreds of degradations of the human body and mind. It is not anti-fetish or anti-sadomasochistic, yet it appear as both on many occasions. Instead, the film stretches itself and covers a wider area: social commentary and this is actually where the film fails, not the sex scenes.
There may be spoilers ahead...warning.
If the film is really about Fascism, then it beats this thought of oppression into the viewer's head mercilessly. We understand from the scene in which the young adults are stripped down and forced to walk on all fours, woofing like dogs and begging for food (one of the men places metal nails inside a piece of bread for his own amusement), that the power of the oppressor is something that Pasolini abhors with such a burning passion. And yet this scene is tame in comparison to some of the more gory instances portrayed on screen later.
By now, you may just see this review as a list of the many times you can be sure to be squirming and nauseated; but "Saló" deserves more than that. It is a fascinating work and it is inspired in moments. Pasolini's treatment of the giddy oppression towards the twisting of sexuality is nothing if not chilling and here the film see its greatest success.
We know more about the torturers than we know about their victims, who all but remain nameless for the entire movie. It would be pointless to list the characters, because Pasolini polarizes them into two groups: those with power and those without.
As an audience it would be so much easier for Pasolini to let us empathize with the victims, a little string-pulling music and there you have a hard to watch but compelling movie. He makes no such move. We rarely have time to know the victims, and then our insightful view of them is often skewed.
Shot with an intensity unrivaled in any modern-day movie, "Saló" knows how to get under your skin. It will haunt you; but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Again, you should know what you're getting into and then watch the film.
What remains after the shock factor is a movie made by a man struggling with his own identity as a human and a filmmaker and his violent hatred to the government crushing down on him.
It's sensationally unashamed and bloodily circular. Be prepared for the descent.

Score: ★★★

Snowpiercer (2014) (R)

There are a lot of things that "Snowpiercer" gets right simply as a thriller and an action movie. It is keenly aware of itself and even takes the time to mock its own predictability and with this takes a step towards the unexpected...I would hazard to say that Bong Joon-ho escapes a lot of the cliches that we thought were coming as he descends into the bloodbath of the movie's second half. "Snowpiercer" also solves the 'haunted house' problem that "Alien" did. You eliminate the possibility of just leaving when everything outside your setting is death. voila! 
Set in the early years of 2031, we are told by the beginning credits that global warming became such a huge issue that a highly controversial method of conservation was put into operation: release a gas known as CW7 into the air, the scientists of the day assumed that it would cool the Earth's temperature down....and it does, but to a degree that is inhospitably for human life.
Thus the Snowpiercer was built, a train that circumnavigates the entire world in a year and is self-sustaining. This steam-punk setting gives the greenscreen plenty of appearance and more often than not, this is plainly visible to the viewer. This movie didn't have the budget for convincing visual effects and I would argue that it really doesn't need them.
So we have a nastier version of "Titanic" with "Snowpiercer", simply on the thought of "lower deck" vs "upper deck". The caboose of the train houses the renegades and the lower class-people. They are served a gelatinous "protein bar" for food and they are planning a revolution.
Curtis (Chris Evans) is the rebel of the lot, the one who wants to barrel through the closing gates and make his way to the front car where he can confront the elusive and mysterious, god-like Wilford who made the train. We aren't really sure why he wants to do this, but it would make sense that he naively assumes that his actions will bring equality to the passengers of "Snowpiercer".
There is a great injustice to the train and my mind is cast back to every other dystopian movie made, because in this sense, "Snowpiercer" has no great originality.
The tension between the rich socialites and the poor vagrants is so high even though neither have seen each other's face. It's the sheer resentment by the system.
Yet the people on the "Snowpiercer", who have been aboard the train for almost eighteen years, act as if their civilization is being built up from scratch and the audience is forcibly led through many unnecessary hoops. We understand the setting as soon as we see it, it's post-apocalyptic-meets-1984. Got it! No, apparently Bong Joon-ho doesn't think we do because his script forces us to hear again and again about how (insert noun) is the last of its kind in (insert years). We get it, resources are being depleted for the last train folks. It's not hard to comprehend.
Moving on...
There is a general type figure named Mason (Tilda Swinton) who comes and gives commands/deals out punishments to the last train people. She is the preacher of the train, the one who tells the people of the "sacred engine" and how it will always run and how it is perfect and how Wilford is a deity. This childlike wonder directed at the train itself is a little hard to choke down just for sheer stupidity's sake. I mean, this train is operating in 2031, are we assuming that no real intelligence survived the great freeze?
Moving on...
Curtis and cohort Edgar (Jamie Bell) start to form the blueprints for a coup and they are in need of the information bullets that arrive in the protein bars, given to them by an engineer in prison, who claims that he knows how the train's gates work. His help is essential for the Curtis and his fellow rebels because they will only get so far before a simple steel wall blocks them off.
The complexities of the characters are reduced to stereotypes to fill out, most obviously seen by Tanya (Octavia Spencer) as the sassy black woman who is actually stronger than we assume. Even the repentant hero Curtis is just one long cliche, but somehow that's okay.
The action of the movie relies on shaky camera and quick edits to make sure that the littlest amount of true blood and gore is seen by viewer's eyes. This too works by itself.
But then...there's the curiosities. We are thrown the oddest of visual cues and the most random of scene climaxes that make literally no sense and the defensive critic might chalk this up to "Asian cinema influence" but what I see is just giant plot holes and ridiculous extravagance of genre.
Now this being said, "Snowpiercer" is surprising and I'll go ahead and say worth a watch for the culmination of the story, because it never loses its intrigue, even if some moments are both eye-rolling and head-scratcing.
Filled with an incredible cast, though no stellar performances, "Snowpiercer" is an interesting turn on a long beaten history of work. It's religious and social commentary are the movie's weaker points, watch the movie for the third act.

Score: ★★½

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) (Not Rated)

One of the first (if not the very first) Iranian vampire movies, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is a staggering work and perfect from the moment it opens to its final frame. The debut feature film from writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour, "A Girl" encompasses its own fictional setting with such veracity that it sucks you into its dark world.
There are many figures seen in the movie, and most of them appear to be unconnected from the next. In the obviously titled Bad City, the first character we see is Arash (Arash Marandi) who appears to have the only nice car in the town, and he's very proud of it. Not one to delve into charity, Arash cites the exact number of days he had to work to pay for his sleek ride.
Arash lives with his father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh) who is a drug addict and in the pocket of the local drug dealer, Saeed (Dominic Rains). It seems like Arash is trying to recreate the aura of James Dean, from the car to the tight white t-shirts and it's this drug dealer who pops that idealistic bubble. Hossein can't pay his debts and Arash has to give up his car for his father, something that makes him so angry he punches a brick wall and breaks his hand.
Then there's Atti (Mozhan Marnò), a prostitute who also has to deal with Saeed and his violent tendencies. She gets the blunt end of Saeed's temper in their interactions.
And lastly, there's the mysterious girl (Sheila Vand). This caped walker cuts an imposing figure even for being so small compared to the rest of the cast. Remaining unnamed for the entire movie, the girl is easily seen as the equalizer to situations, without ever trying to right some sort of ethical wrong. The first person she goes up against in Saeed and here is where we first see the creative genius of Amirpour. Utilizing every single aspect that she can, most notably the sound editing, the suspense for these scenes is actually tangible. It's a very well-paced work, never once trying to rush itself and never trying to push the limits farther than they deserve to be shoved. 
Shot in blindingly beautiful black-and-white (one of the only films in the recent years that actually deserves its film style) I can't help but make references to Fellini, simply by the opening scene.
Yet Amirpour crafts her own style, her own genre if that's even possible. There is a large range of emotions portrayed in "A Girl" and each one is hit right on center, something I think any lesser director would have struggled with. You can also make parallels to Tarantino, but I think that Amirpour supersedes both comparisons in this case.
As a main character, Arash is likable and yet the audience longs for the scenes with the girl in them, simply because Vand brings such a curious intensity to the character that we can't help but be drawn to her. Shot mostly at night, "A Girl" is so stylish that begins to feel like its own music, specific and moving yet impossible to define in words.
There is something happening in this movie with commentary on oil, though that is just a facet of a larger picture and never takes away from the emotion of the piece. Most scenes segue into the next with shots of the oil fields and steam billowing from factories. This adds to the deserted and polluted feel of Bad City. It's almost too good to talk about.
Amirpour takes the unthinkably bizarre and makes it feel natural, like a pit in the middle of the city where dead bodies are thrown.
For all the things that "A Girl" is, a vampire movie is the least of them. It never tries to rationalize or further define the parameters of the myths surrounding vampires like "Let the Right One In" did; but it also never lets us forget the humanity of the vampire, with more ease and success than Herzog ever managed *snob alert*.
A rock-n-roll, sad, beautiful, romantic, attractive on every level movie, "A Girl" is by far and above the most original, most satisfying, and most unique film in recent months.
From Arash's more shallow moments to the fervor of the vampire's rage, "A Girl" is chilling in many scenes and so effective at skipping from one high to the next. It's a perfect running time for its tale, and it features a cute cat, so what's not to love?
Seriously though, "A Girl" is a powerful work, incredible to watch, and a tribute that there should be no gender roles in the director's chair of film. Amirpour never preaches feminism and yet makes a feminist work wrapped inside a romance inside a horror movie—all these layers set her apart as an individual director, not as a woman.
"A Girl" is just stupid good. I can't say enough good things about it, so I'm going to stop trying.

Score: ★★★★

The Imitation Game (2014) (PG-13)

"The Imitation Game" is an easy success. It hits all the right notes, plucks all the right strings, shows all the right emotions, and has just the right amount of tears. Unfortunately, this is also what sinks it down to just an ordinary level of drama, never managing to escape the tropes already established. But they are good cliches and this movie utilizes them quite well, which is why it's a crowd-pleasing easy success.
The movie operates in three distinct times: during WWII, after WWII, and during the schooldays of Alan Turing. Because of this ever shifting back and forth from "present day"1951 back to the 40s and then further back still, we get a very obvious look at Alan Turing's life and the problems that arose thereof.
The British army is hiring cryptographers for an uber-secret mission. Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of "Game of Thrones" fame) is the military head of this operation, which seeks to crack the Nazi code-generator, named "Enigma". Enigma is a simple looking machine and impossible to solve, so say the skeptics. But Alan Turing loves a good challenge and he sees the 159 million million different possibilities not as futile; but as an exercise in brain stimulation.
Turing is not that popular among his cohorts and the head of the small team of code-breakers Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) does his best not to become physically violent towards Alan. Alan knows how to push buttons, and he does this quite unintentionally. A simple conversation about lunch turns into a frustrating dialogue in which Alan assumes that everyone is there to serve him. It doesn't help anyone's friendship that Alan demands to work by himself and constantly insults his coworkers.
There is this campy humor that underlies the entire movie, a quiet witticism that does not really belong in a heavy drama about the second world war. An example of this would be Alan writing to none other than Winston Churchill himself, asking to be placed as Hugh's replacement, heading up the team that will try to crack Enigma. The audience loves a good Benedict Cumberbatch one-liner and "The Imitation Game" is filled with them.
After replacing Hugh, Alan decides that he should make a contest of sorts to see who should help round out the rest of the team—in doing so he comes in contact with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). The movie makes obvious pains to show what it was like for a smart woman in a man's world in the 1940s. Constantly belittled, the viewer cheers as Joan soars to the top of the proverbial class of code-breakers. It's quite unrealistic, but fun nonetheless.
Enigma is a puzzle that changes daily. There is an 18 hour window that the group has before the radio communication ceases and the machine is reset with a new set of codes.
It's impossible to solve this with just a man's mind, so Alan is convinced. He begins to construct "an electronic brain" that will analyze the incoming code and translate it into something tangible.
While the rest of the team is still toiling over the incoming messages, Alan has walled himself off in another building, while he constructs his machine. He calls it "Christopher" and the fate of the war depends on its success.
"The Imitation Game" does not do anything that a plethora of movies haven't done before. We see a wounded genius figure with a troubled past, rising above the criticism and achieving something that could only be described as "heroic". This is one such example of a movie whose ending we know before we even go into it. Do we really expect Alan Turing to fail at building his machine and the Nazis to win the war? No, the audience has a sense of comfort as they enter the theater, knowing that good will prevail. Any real suspense disappears.
And the "genius sections" are all typical. We see juxtaposed images of Alan running and then sprinting, giving his all, next to scenes in which he's sketching the blueprints for his code-cracking machine. We see his mental process as a physical thing, something arduous and draining and Alexandre Desplat's inspiring score only helps to make us sympathize with Alan. But it's all very typical and hard to view with anything but jaded eyes, since we have seen it so many times before and often from the Weinstein Company.
The largest problem with the movie is that it is both keenly interested and uncaring towards Alan's life. The film tackles the issue of Alan's sexuality with class, never trying to cover up the fact that Alan was a homosexual. Here there are critiques of the government and the threat of what could happen to Alan horrifies the audience. But there is a scene in which Alan likens humans to machines and we begin to see homosexuality as a difference in code instead of something human.
For a man who ended up killing himself, it's almost offensive that "The Imitation Game" ends as happily as it does, with the Oscar-bait end synopses and the slow motion parade of stereotypes. Like I said, the movie does them well; but Alan Turing's life doesn't deserve to be made this comical, this stereotypical, nor this uplifting.
In the end, "The Imitation Game" is a movie about a group of people racing against time to solve Nazi codes, and that intensity is never conveyed to the screen. There is a distance from the war that they all experience and the film does as well. It's claustrophobia without the phobia. At some times, even when horrible decisions that carry the weight of hundreds of people have to be made, it's almost a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders that the viewer gives because we have been given no reason to feel the horrors of the war.
Solid performances (Charles Dance is wonderful in this, as is Mark Strong), though nothing up to the caliber of previous biopics similar to this like Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind", nice sets, believable's all almost there, yet it doesn't quite stray from the norm enough to be anything other than a condensed and watchable version of what was surely a desperately complex situation.

Score: ★★★

Wetlands (2014) (Not Rated)

The people sitting in the theater behind me were trying to come up with a way to describe "Wetlands" before it even began. I heard the phrase "German perversion movie" thrown out and I think that this is a common conception of what "Wetlands" entails. And yes, it is German...and yes, there are some who could easily call it perverted. Incredibly NSFW, "Wetlands" is so self-aware that it begins to feel like a person is genuinely talking to you instead of a movie.
Helen Memel (Carla Juri) is a young girl who has an interesting family and an interesting sex life. The first thing she tells us after the movie's opening is that she has had hemorrhoids for as long as she can remember. The second piece of Helen's life that we are told is that her opinion on hygiene has shifted hugely in the last few years of her life. Her mother always told her that if she didn't keep good care of her lady bits then she would get infections and die...that's only slight hyperbole. Her mother wasn't the loving type and her father was gregarious but not present enough to make up for the cold shoulder that her mother gave her. Her parents divorce and Helen starts to think independently.
So Helen decides to begin the "great p**sy experiment" in which she doesn't care how bad it gets, cleaning will only occur with a lick and a promise. Naturally, this viewpoint played out visually for the audience can cause major moments of grotesque horror and many people sitting next to me in the theater were covering their eyes multiple times as "Wetlands" crossed a line with more confidence during each passing scene.
This movie is incredibly sexual, don't think anything else of it when you go in to see it. But for those of you who don't have any morals (shame shame) and who do elect to see "Wetlands", you will be pleased to know that you will be transported to movie bliss-dom. Seriously, this is one of the wackiest, funniest, most original pieces to come to theaters in a very long time. It won't be seen that often, so if you get a chance, jump on it. This movie shouldn't be missed.
Helen explains in a Wes-Anderson-meets-Quentin-Tarantion fashion about her life. The film is colorful and full of vibrant and unique moments that the running time flies by and you end up wishing you could start it all over again.
Yet the climax of the movie is something quite nasty, something quite bloody, and something that should have been expected.
"Wetlands" is told entirely in the mind of Helen. We spiral back to memories whenever she feels the need to tell us something about her past. In this regard it helps the movie feel like a conversation.
Helen tells us about her sexual curiosities, including random parties at the beach and grooming habits.
We are informed that Helen doesn't like to shave, so she does a quick dirty job of it; but one of her more recent experiments include shaving around her anus and right as she shows us how she does this, the razor slips. If there was a more cringe inducing moment, I would like to know what it is because the audience at the theater I was at, collectively pushed back in their seats.
After trying her best to make it through the day, Helen heads off to the hospital and an odd doctor concludes that they will have to operate.
Then we start to see the real Helen. For a movie that consists of Helen sitting in a hospital for two days, it's amazing that "Wetlands" feels as varied as it does, this is largely due to the flashback and the commentary.
We are introduced to Helen's best friend, Corinna (Marlen Kruse) who shares much more than just memories with Helen. Some of the scenes that these two have together are cringe worthy too; but hey, you knew what you were getting into.
Then there's Robin (Christoph Letkowski) who is the attractive male nurse who Helen decides to try to shock into submission; but she may have met her match with this one...their interactions, as expected, are funny and sexual.
For some, "Wetlands" could come across as just a movie that tries to push the boundaries; but that hardly does the film any justice, because at its core, it is more sentimental and romantic than Spielberg. Without the zany narrative or the flashy sex references, the movie would just be a piece of puff nonsense. Since the cringes and the horrified gasps accompany the movie, it makes us a little more accepting to the outcome.
Helen is a dangerous mind, a playful mind, and a sexual mind. I appreciate the fact that "Wetlands'" lead character was a female and that she has no problem with being sexually free. Here we have to commend Carla Juri for her courage and her sheer perfection in a role. As Helen, Juri not only stuns with her physicality, but also lets us glimpse a little something darker beneath the cheery exterior of this sexually frank young adult.
"Wetlands" is a movie in which you see a lot, you should know that before heading into it. Then again, it's sheer likability is so intense that it warms your heart while making you occasionally gag. That in of itself is a huge accomplishment.
Simply put: it's almost perfect.

Score: ★★★★

Foxcatcher (2014) (R)

For a movie about wrestling, “Foxcatcher” is anything but a sports movie. Director Bennett Miller has proven that he enjoys delving into unexplained psyches more than he enjoys a thrashing good action movie so here again we have to balance the violence and action of wrestling with the long, dry drama associated with Miller.
But this doesn’t mean that he can’t make a damn good movie, because his previous works say otherwise. With his breakout, “Capote” he rocketed Philip Seymour Hoffman towards his only Oscar and with “Moneyball” he almost landed Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill statues. 
He is a man’s director, for men only, by men only and it comes as no surprise how “Foxcatcher” plays out like a boy’s party only. Still, the trifecta of acting that comes from Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carrell (who seems like a shoe-in for an Oscar) is almost overwhelmingly good and it makes up for the minor faults of the picture. 
At the opening, Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an overlooked Olympic gold medalist wrestler. In the first scene of the movie, we see him speak at a small school to a group of maybe forty kids. He gets twenty dollars for this. His brother, Dave (Ruffalo) is not doing that much better in monetary terms, though he seems like the happier of the pair.
Mark seems a bit unhinged, even by his own terms. When we see him wrestling with his brother, he seems to get frustrated easier and even smashes Dave’s nose in, simply because he seems a little tense. But he’s trying to get it together, trying to help himself as the world championship is looming over his head.
And then...he gets a phone call.
John du Pont (Carrell) is an incredibly wealthy self-described patriot and he has taken an interest in Mark. Wrestling is this ornithologist and philanthropist’s hobby and passion. He lives with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) on their estate...she owns horses that compete in competition. He owns men.
John “Golden Eagle” du Pont, lobbies for Mark to move to the du Pont estate and live for wrestling. Offering a position that lays and a life of almost opulence, John hooks Mark as soon as the dollar signs start floating around. But this isn’t a movie about wrestling, even though the training and the competition scenes are by far the movie’s best...instead, this is a movie of dueling, warring, and compatible personalities. As the movie’s embodiment of the point of contention, John du Pont is a character who seems more than a wee bit odd. He obviously has mommy issues and is longing for some sort of irrational and complete (though probably unobtainable) independence. He finds a small slice of this with wrestling.
So Mark moves to the du Pont estate and then the pressure starts being put on him to bring his brother to the estate as well.
Dave is not so eager to throw his life away and move to Pennsylvania to the Foxcatcher wresting center; but John is so intent on getting him there that he intends to name any price for Dave’s presence; but Mark tells John: “You can’t buy Dave.”
Here’s the largest problem with the movie: the audience.
We are so used to seeing Steve Carrell as the comedic actor and we’re used to him making us laugh. When John, who is completely socially inept, starts to unravel a little under the slightest duress and beings to be painfully awkward, the audience laughs. Hey, it’s Steve Carrell he’s funny, we should laugh! No, that’s not the appropriate reaction. For me, it’s uncomfortable to see John start to become even more unbalanced—the spiral down didn't exactly surprise me. Then again, it's in the trailer, so why should I be shocked?
The issue is of Bennett Miller’s prowess and handling of the drama. It’s so un-sentimental and so rigid in its structure that the few moments that break out of this are spectacular while the rest of the movie remains flat...a good flat, but flat nonetheless.
For as showy of a role as John du Pont is and how Steve Carell really does a great job with it, he is seen better in “Little Miss Sunshine”. In terms of this movie, it has to belong to Mark Ruffalo who gives the best performance of his career. Also, surprisingly, Channing Tatum is remarkably good. When you bring together minds that are not in their full capacity and then you but them under stress, you cannot expect the results will be good; but they will be good for the story.
Beautifully shot, “Foxcatcher” does remind me the most of “Capote”, lacking the analysis of a complex main character.
Bleak in the best sense of the word, “Foxcatcher” tracks Mark’s start of training through some of his more major competitions. The relationship between John and Mark becomes very close and John starts to want to form the wrestling team for the United States to take to Seoul for the 1988 Olympics. “Foxcatcher” is more interested in the individuals than it is about the plot, and this works for most of the movie. Still, Miller evokes such strong emotions that are left unresolved; but purposeful.
It could have been a masterstroke, but it is lacking something essentially gritty. Blood, sweat, tears, violence, physicality—”Foxcatcher” should have been even more suspenseful than it was; but something was lacking and I can’t quite put my finger on what that was.
It still remains a stirring work and very calculated. Certainly one of the year’s best and filled with marvelous performances.

Score: ★★★½

Mommy (2014) (Not Rated)

"Mommy" is a gut-wrenching movie. It sits quietly, stomps loudly, swears humorously, and blindsides you with its intensity. The way that director Xavier Dolan handles the movie (with so much maturity and poise, as he always has) one can only make comparisons to "A Streetcar Named Desire"; yet if anything, this is the harder piece to handle.
In his debut piece, "I Killed My Mother", Dolan made it absolutely clear that maternity is something fascinating and even volatile to him. There is an intense love for mothers in both movies; yet in "Mommy" we see an even darker side to the tale and here I think Dolan starts parting from his own life/beliefs and is starting to simply make glorious cinema.
Like "Laurence Anyways", "Mommy" is a hefty and laborious movie, one that takes your energy.
At the movie's opening, we are introduced to a fictional Canada, one that has certain laws that influence the way that parents and trouble children interact (to be honest and with the intention of no spoilers, the majority of the film does not hinge on this; but the knowledge of it is crucial). Diane Després, or "Die" (Anne Dorval) is called in to a center and told that her son can no longer stay in the facility for violent and disturbed/troubled teenagers. He set fire to the cafeteria.
Right away, Dolan firmly grounds his characters. Die is just a wee bit like white trash. She struts around in clothes meant for someone half her age and she finds bizarre ways to fix her hair up. Always the life of the party, she loves to flirt and show off if it helps her get her way.
Die's son, Steven (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a handful, and that's putting it mildly. Die takes him and his incredibly foul mouth back to their new home, in a semi-suburban neighborhood. Steven is all over the place and Die confides in a friend half way through the movie that he has been diagnosed with ADHD and is still reeling from his father's death three years ago.
Steven is someone to be afraid of and someone to love, Die does both of these; but the latter more. When he flies into his tempers, Steven can become horribly violent, one scene shows him pressing his mother up against a wall and choking her with very hazy intentions. Yet when it's good, it's really good and these two's relationship is one of the oddest and perhaps most original seen in film thus far. They scream and fight and smack each other, but their emotional bond is almost too much. Die will walk in an Steven masturbating and not blink an eye, throwing his used tissues away and grabbing his dirty clothes and Steven will grope his mother when they dance. It sounds like red flags should be firing off in the audience's head with every passing scene and they do; but not as much as you would suppose.
Because Dolan makes Steven incredibly vulgar, spastic, and unexpectedly violent it make us sympathize with Die so much; and Dorval's performance is filled with love...that love, we can somehow relate to.
Kyla (Suzanne Clément) lives across the street from the odd family and she eventually gets pulled into their lives. A timid and shy woman, she has a speaking problem that is trigger by some sort of anxiety attack and has been haunting her for a few years. Steven's blunt social ineptitude leads him to start mocking her for her stammer (Die, of course, scolds him for it; but controlling Steven is much like controlling a volcano). Kyla starts to visit Steven and Die more and more often and Die pulls Steven out of school and loses her job. Now with no job and bills starting to pile up, Die has no choice but to make drastic decisions. Lucky for her, Kyla is present.
This woman was a former teacher before she developed her speech impediment and Steven is now being home-schooled so Kyla begins to help him with his schoolwork. One of the key scenes of violence, drama, and chilling acting comes when Kyla and Steven attempt to have their first lesson together.
Dolan is right to never completely spell his characters out with long monologues that reflect their every inner thought. The inspiration of Woody Allen and Gus Van Sant can be seen in the movie, though I doubt either director ever had a story quite as intense as this one. 
"Mommy" is a long movie, but it never ceases to dazzle.
Shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio, the boxed in feeling of just the screen itself makes "Mommy" feels even more pressurized. Dolan's ability to manipulate the audience with how he presents the film itself is unfairly talented. 
But this is not a pleasant movie, which I knew when I went into it; but I don't think anyone else in the theater did. It has an innocuous name and it seems like a hard-hitting but safe family flick, right? Well, not really.
Here, we have to talk about the acting, because the entire cast is so sensational that it rivals a lot of more famous movies. Dolan's particular script-writing techniques (most notably the way the characters switch from French to English and back) lead us to almost hyperbolic explosively emotional scenes. There is something spectacular about the way that he treats the buildup of anger and resentment. Anne Dorval played the mother in Dolan's first movie and here she is given more room to spread her acting skills. She commands the movie. Pilon (who was featured in Dolan's music video "College Boy") is the antithesis to Dorval, always what she isn't and vice versa. The two together are unrivaled in intensity. But the movie truly belongs to Suzanne Clément who was also given a lot of room to shine in "Laurence Anyways". Dolan's regulars have shaped his intimate movie into a vast piece that begins to resemble literature. Clément's tactile way of speaking comes close to how good Colin Firth was in "The King's Speech"; yet her outbursts are far more devastating than anything Tom Hooper could dream up.
"Mommy" is not for the faint of heart. It has a keen mind and a ruthless hold on what love really is. Dolan does subtle things to disrupt the viewer, like displacing time (not narratively, but very subtly, with references to what year the characters are living in). It's so beautiful, so terrible, and so appropriately watchable. It's quite incredible.

Score: ★★★★

Dear White People (2014) (R)

The complexities of racism and political correctness can hardly be condensed down to a single movie, let alone a sentence. There are so many intricacies to it that sometimes it feels like it's spiraling out of control. This is "Dear White People" for you in a simple, yet unjust, synopsis: a movie that overwhelms itself with its own subject matter. Sure, you could make a whole movie on who gets to say "the n-word" and yet you still wouldn't manage to pacify all the parties involved.
But "Dear White People" doesn't try to satisfy every single aspect of "the black agenda" just as "Pride" doesn't do this with "the gay agenda" and yet it can't help itself sometimes.
Set in an Ivy league school, "Dear White People" structures itself around college students trying to wrestle with ideas of identification, both that of self and that of imposed. Yet more than that, the film tries to strike some sort of balance between intellectual stimulation and character drama and somehow it manages to not quite meet both of these; but it gives such an audacious attempt that its end result is nothing if not admirable.
The movie begins with clicks and houses. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell) has been the face of the "black house" at Winchester and he's about to be replaced by a more controversial figure. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is the voice behind a radio show from which the movie gets its title. She's a catalyst for arguments and quite witty when it comes to zany one-liners. "Dear white people, the number of required black friends has now increased to two."
Now replacing the gregarious and very unoffensive Troy, Sam finds power in her hands and doesn't quite know how to deal with that. She never really wanted to rule, she only wanted to reform.
Then there's Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) who is struggling to escape every possible stereotype of black culture that she can, and is failing at all fronts. She tries to be passive, to fit in, to not stir the pot; and yet she wants her name remembered and the easiest way to do that is to stir said pot.
Lastly, but not leastly, we are given Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) a boy who gets hot-potatoed around from house to house, trying to settle into the blurred lines in between black and gay. Here, writer and director Justin Simien makes his best move. Lionel is not only one of the most intriguing people in the film; but he also manages to raise questions and problems without the need for dialogue or explanation, which is all we get from Sam's head.
Still, there is so much complexity to this movie that it's almost impossible to soak it all in on the first view. It's offensive, it's funny, it's chilling, and it's far and beyond one of the more important works that has come out in recent years.
Comparisons to Spike Lee don't really deserve to be made because Spike Lee is featured in the dialogue of the movie as one of the chief black icons. There are references made to Oprah and Tyler Perry and the like...all with such curious commentary. "Dear White People" covers a plethora of issues from biracial couples to homophobia to slurs and back. With so much going on, it's kind of amazing that the film doesn't completely fall apart at the edges.
The movie's beginning lulls you into a false sense of security. Everything feels like a comedy and a very precise comedy too. It's somehow nails the college life in a preppy school, where students have more concern about politics than real issues at hand.
Politics runs deep throughout "Dear White People" as does profiling. The film is so aware of race, as it would have to be to work properly; but to what end? Are we all just people? Is the answer really as cute as all that?
Unfortunately, I find that the film's female characters fall somewhere between the lines of powerful and predictable. I think it was unintentional; but somehow there is a slight overplayed female nuance to the film that, when it does surface, is never pleasant to see. For a film that is about being politically correct or the pointlessness thereof, I would have liked to see that stretch to further boundaries besides only two minorities; but maybe that's me wanting Simien to be too ambitious.
The college life, the hardships of relationships, and racism.
"Dear White People" could have worked as just a social commentary piece, a documentary if you will; but it chose to make a character drama as well and I think this was the right decision. It gives weight to certain events that you may not have considered.
Yet the film could also give its viewer a hyper-sensitive monitor. You notice everything. Coming home from the theater, I was keenly aware of the white man in the Jeep next to me blaring Jay-Z...but what did that mean? "Dear White People" never gives a clear answer; but I don't think it could have.
Still, you need to see this movie because it is not only important, it's a well-constructed movie through and through. Solid acting, a bizarre score, and tangible drama—as a movie it operates as its own; but it always wanted to be more than that. I'm unsure of how successful it was on that level.

Score: ★★★

Interstellar (2014) (PG-13)

Save the planet.
Christopher Nolan's newest movie is a work in science, it is a work of family, and it is a work of love. It's a story cosmic in scale, yet always and overbearingly intimate in its emotion. Fathers and daughters, symbiosis with nature, and the paranormal—all are featured in what was billed as Nolan's most complex movie to date. The science, if there was any whatsoever, dissolves as the movie unsteadily rockets towards its zenith and in its place we get nothing short of magic...and I mean that in the worst possible way.
This is really hard for me to say because I am such a huge Nolan fan-boy and I was so afraid that sooner or later the director would come up against something that was too much for him—"Interstellar" is just this movie. Yet I don't even commend Nolan's ambition for the movie, even though by all means the space sequences in the film are some of the more dazzling moments included. Instead, I fault his campy script, his excessive need for sentimentality, and his worst plot (completely with enormous holes) to date. At its running time of almost 170 minutes, "Interstellar" is both far too long and too short.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer, because that's what the Earth needs right now. It is some indiscernible time in the future, perhaps fifty years from now, and the technological wave that we are experiencing has ceased. Why? People started to run out of food since the soil has become too toxic for some crops and that's why we now need farmers more than we need engineers. A single father of two children, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet), Cooper seems to struggle under the weight of parenting without his wife present. Don't worry unless you were concerned that we wouldn't get the details of her death, because we do when Cooper attends a parent/teacher meeting and the principal discusses his daughter, Murph. It turns out that she got in a fist-fight with her schoolmates over whether or not the moon landing was faked. Cooper applauds his daughter's spunk, works in some awkward lines about how his wife died (totally unnecessary), and then takes his family to a baseball game. 
But life can't always be about cracker-jacks and home-runs...there is a storm brewing. There is a finite amount of time left on Earth's biological clock and it's quickly fading. Through long and strenuous and stupidly insane ways, Cooper finds himself as part of a mission to save the Earth. The mission is headed up by stereotypical bearded wise-guy and astrophysicist Dr. Brand (Michael Caine). Brand's daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway) is also part of the actual crew who are looking for a suitable planet to relocate Earth's population to.
Yet this comes at a price: Cooper is going to have to leave his daughter, who despises him for going away. They part on harsh terms and Cooper prays that he will be able to see her again, even as he is whipped through space towards some distant galaxy.
Wormholes, black holes, time relativity—there's a lot of science going on here that is actually quite enjoyable and somehow the film manages to make us not believe anything that's going on. Why else would there be the excessive need for cryo-sleep without explanation, or the distortion of quantum mechanics to suit a story? These are typical of science fiction movies and Nolan does not manage to achieve even a slight edge over his competitors.
What is key to keep in mind is that Nolan is a huge fan of Kubrick and "2001: A Space Odyssey. "Interstellar" is a buddy-piece to "2001: A Space Odyssey" (though, ironically, it owes more to "Signs") and it proves that some movies never age and never falter from their original power. There are HAL references, silent sequences in space, and (very surprisingly) the degradation of the human mind under duress. Nolan can't pull off a theme like the madness lying underneath and yet he tries to so hard and he fails even harder.
As much as Nolan admires Kubrick, he also admires Malick and here is actually where the film suffers the most. Abandoning the sleek and sophisticated, simple yet complex style of storytelling seen in his previous movies, Nolan tries to do what only Malick can do: make the audience surrender to the emotion. There is too much science, too much coherence for this to work; yet Nolan blindly stumbles into the vacuums of his making and paints the film with blood, sweat, and lots of tears.
Sorry if I snobbed out there for a minute.
Because this is movie with such an enormous scale, you would expect a certain shock and awe to be included; but Nolan is more concerned with his characters. He likes to make us wait, to let some silence sit in and I applaud him for that. What doesn't work in these situations is that what the characters are saying is complete and utter insanity. There is backstory we don't need, random character development, and certainly a lot of "red shirt" moments.
It's in the personal relationships that the movie fails (also in its plot, but that's another story). For instance, Cooper does have two children; yet for all intents and purposes, Murph is the only important character here. Tom is written in as a sympathetic hook for viewers and as a set piece, he serves no purpose whatsoever.
The conversations between Murph and Cooper are all too ideal and cutesy-cutesy and they made me long for the scenes in "Inception" when parents and children had no contact.
Robots, surprise cameos, and the power of love (bleh)—"Interstellar" throws everything and the kitchen sink into the film.
I mentioned it before, the film turns into magic. Nolan backed himself into a corner and it seems like he just threw caution to the wind. The science goes out the window, the character development serves no purpose, and we can get the picture-perfect Nolan ending.
It's vomit inducing, because it could have been so good and it is far from anything of the sort.
Hans Zimmer's organ-inspired score is beautiful and at times it seems way out of place.
Cooper's journey is episodic, with fade-outs adding chapters to his saga and each section is more bizarre and erasable than the next. McConaughey does an excellent job and shows up his co-stars (something I never thought that I would say); but when you're working with a script this bad, it's surprising that these actors will most likely escape unscathed.
Just because of its visual prowess, its colorful scenes, some people have defended the film. It doesn't deserve this. Nolan is far too talented to let flash-and-bang moments be the only redeeming quality to his film.
There are so many cliches and so much stupid dialogue, that eye-rolling ensues.
If it's been unclear, Nolan's movie is a "2001" homage, a fault in its own stars, and a complete miscalculation. It seems it divided itself by zero.
Loud, beautiful at times, and highly faulted, "Insterstellar" burns up on re-entry.

Score: ★★

Abres Los Ojos (1997) (R)

There's a lot going on in "Abres Los Ojos" or "Open Your Eyes". It's a movie that was re-introduced to an American audience as "Vanilla Sky" and it starred Penélope Cruz as the original did; but all that said, you don't really get a firm idea of what the film is really about. I'm not here to talk about plot or surrealism, in fact, I don't think it's possible to actually talk about a great deal of the film without accidentally divulging something.
The movie begins and introduces us to our main character: César (Eduardo Noriega). He's rich, good-looking, and a player. Rarely seen with the same woman twice, his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martínez) often makes comments about ruing both César's charm and his good looks.
But we know that something isn't right just from the first scene in which César strolls down a vacated street, wondering why it looks as if the apocalypse has come. Then he wakes up.
"Abres Los Ojos" is a movie about self, it's a movie about love, and it's a movie about impossibilities and dreams—paranoia and nightmares. There are times when director and writer Alejandro Amenábar makes the oddest seem malicious and the most innocuous, deadly. Yet the film is not supposed to terrify its viewer, and it does. It is poetry and it is also firm evidence that if you craft a movie with sincere emotions and powerful performances, you are able to get away with pretty much anything. 
César has wooed another girl who gets added to his collection; but this one seems to have her claws out. Her name is Nuria (Najwa Nimri) and she knows all the bedroom secrets that keep the boys coming back for more; but she doesn't use them for all the other boys...her eyes are set on César.
On his birthday party, César meets Pelayo's potential girlfriend, Sofía (Cruz), and is understandably drawn to her immediately.
Some awkward flirting and a few drinks later and he feels pretty good about his chances with the girl; but that isn't the end of the story...oh, no.
Taking a fairly innocent feeling setting (a party, an office, a club) and turning it over on its head, "Abres Los Ojos" is a puzzle-box true and true. It's a movie that you never truly know what to expect as it fades from one scene to the next. But this is also a slight downfall for the movie. It's oddity and drama is so strong (and so well handled, I might add) that it demands the tightest ending possible and sadly, we don't get that.
For a "third act reveal" flick (though I would argue that this hardly qualifies), "Abres Los Ojos" is a joy and a disappointment and a well-kept secret. Its fan base have tight lips and for that, I am very glad.
The real star of the movie is Noriega who makes us love and hate his playboy nature. He transforms, physically and emotionally and with each passing transformation he balances his two sides: the cocky rich boy and the unsure depressed creature.
A lot of the movie's success rides on the drama that paints itself onto the film. Yes, it's a thriller and yes, it's sometimes very sexy; but that doesn't match the simple repeated phrases that ring back through the movie like "Do you believe in God?" and "What is happiness for you?"
To the more attentive viewer, there are hundreds of little instances that make "Abres Los Ojos" a treasure-filled view. For everyone else, it's just a film worth seeing for its intrigue.
Yet after its all over, "Abres Los Ojos" is remembered not for its intense scenes, when hypnotism meets hallucinations, but for the loss of everything. Borrowing and paraphrasing from the film itself, while watching the movie, you are suspended in its emotion, even if that emotion is false. What hit me the hardest was how actually sad the movie is and how little hope there is to see. Dissatisfaction, that's the end of it all; but this is ironic because the end is also beautifully rendered and audaciously constructed.
As its final frames fade, what does "Abres Los Ojos" leave you with? Maybe just one more reminder: open your eyes.

Score: ★★★½