HannaJoe Wright, USA, 2011, 111 min.

Hanna is a film that is good for very specific reasons: the craftsmanship, the execution, and the music. What keeps it from being a great film is the script, which inexplicably was listed on 2009’s Black List (the list of the best un-produced screenplays.)

The story is simplistic. A young girl (Saoirse Ronan in a solid performance), raised off the grid by her father, is trained to be the perfect killer. When she is old enough, she is set loose to get revenge on the organization, and specifically the agent (Cate Blanchett), who did her and her father harm many years ago.

It’s unsurprising, and the plot moves from A to B to C in a very straightforward manner. There aren’t any turns or questions and not much can be said about the story when all is said and done. But as I wrote in the opening to this review, the story is not the draw of the film. Joe Wright is a wonderful director. A real craftsman. And when he gets a hold of scene it’s wonderful to watch.

There a few in this film. Set-pieces that, when combined with the Chemical Brothers’ cool and unique soundtrack, elevate the film to something more than the sum of its parts. The scene in the underground bunker. The chase in the shipping yard. Eric Bana’s one-take fight scene. Watching the way Joe Wright constructs those scenes is a joy.

And that’s what makes this film unique. It’s almost like I can ignore what is going on in the film and just watch a master technician pull off his craft. It’s great to see. But the story and the characters failed to engage me in any other way.

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The Shawshank Redemption

ShawshankRedemptionFrank Darabont, USA, 1994, 142 min.

The Shawshank Redemption is a chilling portrait of a cold-blooded murderer and sociopath who manages, through patience and careful planning, to convince his fellow inmates that he is actually innocent.

Tim Robbins plays the wife-murderer in much the same way that Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lector: a man who is obviously unhinged and dangerous, but is still a joy to watch on screen.

Morgan Freeman plays the long-incarcerated Red, himself a brutal murderer, who befriends Robbin’s Andy Dufresne. The film uses Red as the classic “unreliable narrator”. There is no way to know if his recounting of the events is true. Red could possibly be making it up to paint himself in a better light. Or he may just be confused, his mind addled by age, a gullible old man falling for the outlandish tales of a gifted manipulator.

The film follows the story of Andy’s incarceration after being rightly convicted of his wife’s murder. It shows him using every ounce of self-control to appear a normal innocent man. We see him becoming useful to the prison guards by using his financial skills. We see him winning the affection of other inmates by doing favors and remaining violence-free. And of course we see him winning the sympathy of the audience by fighting off the brutal jail rape-gangs.

But we are never tricked for long. We can see the evil beneath the surface of the character. The casting of Tim Robbins is spot-on. Helped in no small way by the fact that he is a convicted murderer himself. It’s a case of art imitating life.

Through Robbins, we know what the character is capable of, and the absurd excuses he gives only reinforce how manipulative he can be. He even convinces a young inmate to lie for him, telling everyone that Andy was innocent and he knew the true-killer. As if anyone would believe such an outlandish coincidence.

In the end, Andy finally escapes from jail. In the process, framing the poor innocent warden for the crimes of money-laundering and theft. Just another victim to fall in his wake. But the story doesn’t end there. Unfortunately for Red, Andy is not one to leave any loose-ends lying around.

When Red finally gets out of jail we are treated to the sad spectacle of the old man bumbling his way through Andy’s sick puzzles and somehow finding his way into the clutches of the sadistic killer. The film ends before we see Andy murder Red. It’s implied that the murder will take place and the body will be weighed down and dumped into the ocean. A fitting end for Red, who at one point in the film says “I hope the Pacific is as blue as it is in my dreams.”

Well, Red, it turns out it is. And if you weren’t a cold-blooded murderer yourself, I would feel bad about the way you had to find that out.

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The Wind Rises

windrisesHayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013, 126 min.

The Wind Rises may be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. I hope that’s not the case. Miyazaki has been one of the world’s greatest animators for decades, and you can see a lot of the reasons why by watching this film.

It’s the story of boy growing into a man during pre-WWII Japan. He’s obsessed with flight (much like Miyazaki himself), but due to his bad eye-sight will never be able to be a pilot. But after having a shared dream with a famous Italian aircraft-designer he decides to becomes an aeronautical engineer.

The film follows him on his journey, touching on big events in Japanese history as well as his personal life. The Tokyo Earthquake, the stirrings of World War II, his schooling, his romantic life, and his dreams.

Dreams are a large part of this film. The dream-world he shares with the Italian designer has a big impact on his growth and decisions. He can see how his planes fly (or fail) in dreams, and he can see how his designs might impact the world.

The animation, of course, is beautiful. From the insert shots on a train of the Japanese country-side passing by, to the thrilling flying scenes. The things you’ve come to expect from Miyazaki are all here.

But the film is very Japanese. There are historic events and ideas that are probably ingrained in the psyche of Japanese citizens, but these were things I was learning about for the first time while watching this film. I felt left out, like I was watching a strictly personal story that I had no involvement in. It made the film film long at points, and a bit anti-climactic.

In many ways, I can see Miyazaki as the main character. And I can see how he might have made this film to explore experiences and ideas that he has had for his whole life. Of course, that’s just conjecture. But even if I did feel a bit lost at sea during the film, I was able to appreciate the supreme artistry and feeling that went into making it.

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The Girl Next Door

TheGirlNextDoorGregory Wilson, USA, 2007, 91 min.

The Girl Next Door is based on the notorious horror novel by Jack Ketchum. The film took advantage of that notoriety, arriving in the mist much discussion of the tough and brutal subject matter.

It’s the story of a mother who mentally and physically abuses her foster-daughter, locking her in the basement and having the neighborhood kids take turns doing horrible things to her. It’s tough to think about, and the film doesn’t shy away from putting you right in the midst of this horrible situation.

But there are many problems. I give low-budget films a lot of leeway, because making a film outside the studio system is hard and usually done for better reasons than making money. But the performances were noticeably fake, taking me out of the film many times.

And I usually don’t compare books to films. They are each their own unique form of expression with different methods for tapping into your emotions and creating stories. But what the book had, that was lacking from the film, was the one thing that elevates the story into something more than torture-porn.

The book gets inside the head of the narrator and helps explain how seemingly normal children could be sucked into a experience like this. How a single adult and the perceived authority to do something, can make them fall prey to their base desires. In the film, the evil acts come across as being perpetrated by evil children and the good children are the only one with a conscious.

It’s black and white, and the opportunity to explore the grey area isn’t taken. It turns the film into standard horror, and doesn’t touch or what I thought was the most intriguing part of the story.

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Lab Rat’s Top 10 Films of 2013

Just in time for the Oscars, our special guest contributor Lab Rat reveals his Top 10 Films of 2013.

Lab Rat and I have been discussing film for years. I may not agree with him all the time, but I have learned, unlike LCD, that he usually has good reasons for his opinions. And even though we did not share with each other our lists, they are surprisingly similar.

Let the Lab Rat know what you think in the comments!

The Lab Rat’s Top 10 of 2013

 10) Dallas Buyers’ ClubDallasBuyersClub

I would have never guessed that I would say I genuinely enjoyed any film with Matthew McConaughey, much less two in one year (technically, three). Dallas Buyers’ Club was extraordinary for more than just being the second “alright, alright, alright” film I enjoyed in 2013.

It also has an interesting, seemingly simple, and potentially cliché “based on a true story” story about a homophobic Texas man diagnosed with HIV. I use “cliché” not in the sense that it’s a story that has told too many times but when trying to summarize the plot it almost sounds like it was meant to be formulaic. But this film constantly reveals a new layer of depth with every scene.  The acting by McConaughey and Jared Leto is terrific.


9) HerHer

This film is anchored by an idea that could’ve come off as hokey and pointless in the hands of many of today’s “comedy” writers and directors; just think if the Farrelly brothers tackled something like this.  But with Spike Jonze at the helm it works mostly because the film has style. It has quite a vision and a goal too.  It’s a highly stylized film about a version of our future and what our operating systems could be like. That future is presented in a very subtle, artful way.

I’m not sure if it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s superb acting, Scarlett Johanssen’s intriguing voice-acting, the writing, the directing, or the combination of all of those beautiful little elements, but this film is one of the most inventive I’ve seen this year. There were some wise decisions made along the way when tackling the seemingly odd idea of a man falling in love with his OS.


8) The Way, Way BackTHE WAY, WAY BACK

Based on the trailer, I thought this might turn out to be one of the run-of-the-mill indie comedies we’re seeing more of these days.  It wasn’t. This film sets the mood right out of the gate and lets the viewer know how honest it’s going to be.  The Way, Way Back tells the story of 14-year-old Duncan, played by Liam James, who is struggling with extreme life obstacles.  His mother (Toni Collette) is divorced and dating an unlikable new man (Steve Carell).

The story takes off abruptly with Carell’s character digging at this obviously suffering young man’s morale on their way to his New England beach house. While much of the journey is about Duncan’s rocky coming-of-age summer as he meets an assembly of interesting characters, we’re subtly shown how life always provides new obstacles regardless of how well we think we’ve figured it all out.

This film really resonated with me on many levels and delivered a lot of laughs along the way.  Among the funniest of the characters are Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph.


7) MudMud

I’ve never been a fan of Matthew McConaughey.  Bernie had changed my mind slightly but his role as the mysterious Mud, a man on the run and driven by love, has solidified my trust that he is capable of being a versatile actor.

It doesn’t all hinge on McConaughey though; the success of this film is due in large part to Jeff Nichols’ story and direction. He chose to capture this remarkable tale from the unique viewpoint of a local boy from Arkansas who is motivated by the ideas of love, life, and family. Tye Sheridan portrays the 14-year-old, Ellis, excellently. The pace that Nichols sets allows the story to develop into wonderfully unexpected terrain.


6) The Spectacular NowSpectacularNow

For years now the independent film scene has been making waves.  This year truly seems to help amplify the voice these smaller pictures have.  Financially, they are smaller but in scope they really compete with the large, studio films. The Spectacular Now is a prime example of how to turn the typical teenager, coming of age type film on its side and deliver something deeper.

I went into this movie knowing nothing about the subject matter, the characters, or the actors.  The depth of focus subtly begins with the utterly self-involved and ever-popular Sutter Keeley (Miles Teller).  After being dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), he wakes out of a drunken stupor on the lawn of Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). Aimee isn’t popular.  She’s grounded, practical and normal with some unique and beautiful qualities.

Despite how Sutter’s friends and reputation may recommend that he not spend time with Aimee, he is drawn to her because he lives by his “in the here and now” philosophy.  As their friendship and relationship begin to blossom, we start to learn some deeper meaning behind Sutter’s ideas and who he really is outside of the public eye.  Likewise, the incomparably passionate Aimee discovers things about herself, Sutter, and life that make the Spectacular Now just that.


5) Short Term 12ShortTerm12

Similar to The Spectacular Now, this was another small film that was louder than most of its big budget brethren.  This film smacked me in the face and punched me in the gut with fists of emotional depth.  This year proves that the Academy Awards is lacking in taking notice of this amazing and beautiful occurrence that’s happening in the film world: great low-budget films.

My recommendation is to watch this movie. Short Term 12 is about a short term housing facility for at-risk foster children.  Brie Larson plays Grace, a supervisor and member of the facility.  Along with other staff members, including her co-worker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), she attempts to help these kids traverse a variety of big picture realities.  The result is a study of how these darker, stark truths effect everyone involved.  When a film can, perhaps, teach you something about yourself, I’d call it a success (Yes, I use this line twice).


4) NebraskaNebraska

At first glance, Nebraska appears like such a simple film: black and white, rural America, an old white-haired gentleman. But Nebraska didn’t need the extra commodities that other films use to propel the front of the press.  Alexander Payne has such an outstanding eye for beauty in simplicity. The stark black and white photography compliments this tale.  Bruce Dern’s character is on a journey from Montana to Nebraska to collect his supposed one million dollars in winnings from a “Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes”.

His family has seemingly given up on him, writing him off as a borderline dementia sufferer. However, his son, Will Forte’s character, decides to humor him and spend some time with his father on a road trip. What Payne and screenplay writer Bob Nelson bring to the screen is a remarkable cast of very real people with very real presence.

The ideas, actions, and conversations are so fluidly grounded in reality, this story becomes as poignant as if it were coming from a close friend.  There are plenty of laughs along the way.  June Squid and Bob Odenkirk are truly outstanding additions to this cast, among several others. Though Forte gives an excellent performance, Dern gives an outstanding one.  When a film can, perhaps, teach you something about yourself, I’d call it a success (Yes, I used this line twice).


3) 12 Years a Slave12YearsASlave

It’s tough to put a film like 12 Years a Slave on a top list. This remarkable tale follows Solomon Northup, a free black man, on his unsuspecting journey as a slave after having his freedom stripped and buried after he was deceived and sold into slavery.  Director Steve McQueen has an amazing, unyielding way of bringing difficult material to the screen.

It’s no different in 12 Years a Slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon Northup is brilliant. Much of Northup’s plight, confusion, frustration, etc. is delivered to us by only Ejiofor’s facial expressions and body language. There is a cavalcade of characters, a mix of wicked and decent, played by fantastic array of actors that makes Northup’s story a continuous series of inexcusable offenses.

Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, and Paul Dano are the highlights of this amazing cast.  While Brad Pitt’s character was intriguing, he felt a little misplaced to a very small degree. The actions of the character tend to overshadow this and I seemed to quickly overlook the awkward feeling I had.

This film highlights an extremely unique story in a terrible time in our history. Much of the film can be very rough to watch at times but that’s just what it set out to do and it proves undeniably effective.  The effects are forever resonant.


2) The Wolf of Wall StreetWolfOfWallStreet

Wow, this film’s script is overflowing with vivacity. This story of Jordan Belfort hones the 80’s and 90’s stock market lifestyle of larger-than-life speeches, general debauchery, and greed, leaving nothing to the imagination.  Historically, this in-your-face concept does not translate to film, or specifically the audiences, particularly well.  Moreover, leaving certain scenes to the imagination can prove more effective.  Scorsese has managed to go in the opposite direction and pull off something equally, if not more, effective.

There’s no reason to cheer for the characters in this story but in some odd way it left me intrigued to find out more hopeful that the next decision would be the better one.  Leonardo DiCaprio is unbelievably convincing as Belfort. His performance is as commanding as it is charismatic.  Among his companions, Jonah Hill’s performance delivers a weird character who plays a significant role in one of the oddest, most awkward scenes movie-going laughs I’ve experienced in a long time.

The film has been described as “over-the-top”, “excessive” and “raunchy” by many.  And, it is. That’s exactly what this film should be and what is was meant to be.  The brilliance in this film isn’t the excess that’s put on screen, it’s that we’re never really being shown one side; we’re never told which side to root for. At the end of the film, have we learned anything?  I know I have.


1) GravityGravity

This film left me with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever had on my face after seeing a film. It embodies what I consider to be a nearly flawless film, regardless of its scientific accuracy.  You’d literally have to be an astrophysicist to notice those flaws, by the way.  In that vein, though, it must be said that it’s a relatively rare occurrence when Hollywood delivers a space-related film that attempts to maintain some scientific realism.

Aside from the science, the scope of this film seems as vast as space itself yet the plot remains somewhat simple; a few astronauts are on a seemingly routine mission to make some alterations to the Hubble Telescope but an unforeseen and unfortunate accident, involving a rocket and a satellite, triggers a series of events that leaves our astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) to deal with extremely perilous debris moving in orbit around the earth at ungodly speeds.

From the moment the events begin to unfold, we’re treated to a constant thrill ride.  The script’s simplicity is part of the beauty of Gravity and the visual effects are most impressive.  The sound editing is absolutely genius and aides in carrying much of the tension. Alfonso Cuarón has really outdone himself with this impressive achievement in film-making.  This is the most gripping, breathtaking, and beautiful film of the year.  I feel like this is a film that will set the bar for future films for years to come.

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