Category Archives: Movie Reviews

The Revenant

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Review:

The Revenant

***1/2 stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

The magnificent trailer for The Revenant that was released last year featured breathtaking visuals of the American wilderness inter-cut with harrowing action, a bearded Leonardo DiCaprio, the gruff-looking Tom Hardy and a harsh story-line of revenge, all underscored by the growing sound of breathing. It is this most vital intake of oxygen that serves as the key theme of this captivating and immersive film.

As anyone who has seen the trailer is aware, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass (loosely based on a real life fur trapper) is attacked by a bear and left for dead by his fellow outdoors-man John Fitzgerald (played by the always amazing and ferocious Tom Hardy). This is the basis for the film’s survival/revenge tale, which slowly unfolds before us with some of the most beautiful footage you will ever see on film. Visually this film is an unparalleled masterpiece which should net a third Oscar in a row for Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who is on an amazing hot streak (having received Academy Awards for last year’s Birdman and 2013’s Gravity) and will most likely produce a second in a row award for director Alejandro G. Inarritu (who collaborated with Lubezki on 2014’s best picture Birdman).

The Revenant may also win a best picture Oscar this year as well, especially given that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association made that very proclamation themselves at this past Sunday’s Golden Globes telecast. It certainly appears as though the blood, sweat and tears and apparent misery the cast and crew endured while making this film are paying off. The accolades, praise and award chatter the film has been receiving are understandable. There is so much excellence on display throughout the film’s two and a half hours that it is almost daunting to absorb.

The Revenant is definitely one of those films that will stay with you and linger in your mind for days, as the best moments are replayed all over again like a cinematic highlight reel. I was absorbed by the film’s ghostly atmosphere, with the vast expanse of the snowy mountains and bleak dark clouds overhead. I was sucked in by the tempered music, which featured the sound of a bell that rang softly in the background, underscoring the harrowing extreme conditions of our hero’s journey – both emotionally and physically. And I was awe-struck by the gorgeous photography that was painstakingly captured solely by natural light. No artificial lighting rigs were used to make this film, so you can imagine how long it took to get some of these amazing action sequences in the can – especially the scenes that featured long uninterrupted takes! Truly this is a feat of filmmaking if ever there was one and I would wager that not many productions can match this piece of work. The technical achievements of this film are the elements that impressed me the most, as the story is fairly simple. However, it is the way that Inarritu tells this story that makes it fresh and engaging to an audience that has seen everything – except nobody has seen anything like The Revenant. Few films have featured photography this stunning (except for maybe in a Terrence Malick film) or showcased the majesty of nature to such an extreme degree or delivered a grizzly bear fight that looked SO REAL that it is hard to fathom how the hell it was filmed. Everyone on this film pushed themselves and their creativity to the limit and each and every performer (both behind and in front of the camera) was one their game.

There is a lot of Oscar buzz floating around Leonardo DiCaprio for his work in this film and I expect it to intensify now that he has won the Golden Globe for this part. It was a deserved win for a terrific performance, but a fairly quiet one. DiCaprio did most of his acting with his eyes, speaking very little and carrying the film with a relatable determination of a man on a mission. DiCaprio surely gave his all for this part; having worn that scraggly beard for two years, slept inside an animal carcass and even ate a raw buffalo liver on-screen. That is dedication. This is definitely one of Leonardo’s best performances, but not THE best in my opinion.

I really felt he deserved the Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street. That was such a layered crazy performance that really showed a range and aptitude for comedy that we have never seen him exhibit before. If he does win this year I believe it will be a political win, given that there is a consensus that he has been overlooked and snubbed time and again. I do not disagree with that sentiment; the man is an incredible and reliable actor, who works his ass off on every film. I do not think anyone can ever accuse him of being lazy or phoning in a performance. I frankly do not get all the legions of Leo haters out there. You can’t rip someone apart continually because you did not like Titanic. The guy is a great actor.

Speaking of great actors, Tom Hardy, that powerhouse of a presence almost steals the movie, playing Fitzgerald, a ruthless rival fur trapper who cares only for himself, and manipulates the other members of the hunting party. One of his pawns is a younger naive man, Bridger (Will Poulter) who reluctantly goes along with Fitzgerald’s egregious act of abandoning Glass (DiCaprio) because he is not up to the task of standing up to the intimidating will of Fitzgerald, who is determined to get back to the fur trapping company’s fort to obtain his payment for this rough journey’s work. Hardy’s character is a guy who is not keen on authority and resents Glass, who has served as the company’s tracker as they travel through the wild in a six-month long quest for fur. Hardy’s Fitzgerald considers DiCaprio’s Glass a lousy guide who he alleges has led their party to considerable ruin and basically wants to cash out as soon as possible instead of traveling by foot through the mountains in an effort to avoid the Pawnee Indians who are in pursuit.

Fitzgerald also holds contempt for the company’s fair but stern leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who Fitzgerald believes is mistaken for placing the company’s bounty of fur and their survival in the hands of a tracker that he deems incompetent. It is this building tension followed by that amazing grizzly bear attack (and one other major event I will not spoil) that serve as the catalysts for the film’s second act and eventual bloody conclusion.

In closing, I will reiterate that this is a marvelously made film with a bounty of texture and beauty, where every shot is a painting and every moment nuanced to perfection. In essence The Revenant is an art house film with a studio budget – truly a rarity in today’s blockbuster-hungry film climate. As I mentioned earlier, the theme of breathing or staying alive in other words, is a major thread throughout this film. Glass instills in his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) the idea that “if you can breathe, you can fight.” And as Glass struggles to survive from one potentially fatal obstacle to another on his vengeful journey, those words are echoed all around him – especially as he sees visions of his late wife and hears her voice guiding HIM through the darkness. Perhaps we can all take that message to heart during times of crisis. There is a lot of truth to that statement. If we can breathe, we most assuredly can fight. So as long as air is passing through our lungs, no obstacles are too large. All we need is the drive to push ourselves to the limit. Just like the makers of The Revenant did.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Spoiler-Free Review:

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
**** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

All I can say is the following: WOW, AMAZING, INCREDIBLE and AWE-INSPIRING.

I will break the mold a tad here and present my thoughts on this film in a rather unorthodox fashion today. As a longtime fan of the Star Wars franchise I have been through a lot over the years, which I am sure the other millions of fans can identify with as we have watched our beloved film series (the originals) evolve from a staple of our childhood entertainment to a mediocre trilogy of films (the prequels) that were supposed to be so much more.

This very (dare I say) traumatic emotional roller coaster us fans have experienced with this hallowed franchise also speaks volumes to the strained relationship we have had with Star Wars’ iconic creator George Lucas. It is this relationship with Luca’s world that makes the highly-anticipated arrival of this seventh film in the series so welcomed and is the reason why I have chosen instead to compose a thank you note to The Force Awakens’ creators instead of a traditional review. Here goes…

Thank you J.J. Abrams for making a respectful, perfectly crafted film FOR THE FANS to enjoy and not just solely as a corporate money grab. I found myself just sitting there in the theater entranced at times, like I was 6 years old all over again. It is clearly evident that this long-awaited film was made for the fans BY a fan. Each note and moment was exceptionally crafted, from the first frame to the PERFECTLY chosen last.

Thank you Kathleen Kennedy first and foremost, for taking the reins of Lucasfilm, secondly, for steering the franchise in the right direction and most importantly, for entrusting this grand responsibility to the perfect filmmaker, J.J. Abrams. I know Steven Spielberg also had a hand in referring Abrams for this job and for this assist Mr. Spielberg; I tip my hat to you.

Thank you Lawrence Kasdan for coming back to the world of Star Wars to write this film with J.J. (with additional early writing by Michael Arndt). Your contributions to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were remarkable and with The Force Awakens, were again paramount to this newest film’s success. You are a master of character and your voice is heard through these legendary characters’ dialogue.

And I would be remiss to not say thank you to the man who started it all, Mr. George Lucas. Sure us fans have some gripes and axes to grind about your countless tinkering with the original films we hold so dear, but our opinions and outrage have come from a place of love. Love for the world YOU created and painstakingly crafted for the rest of us to enjoy. Your vision, that grand horizon of adventure and imagination was so vast and enthralling that we were captivated from the moment we laid eyes on that impending Star Destroyer chasing that tiny spaceship through the dark abyss.

I applaud your ability to wrangle up the best people to help hone your creative vision and for the technological advancements that have come from those early blossoming days of Industrial Light and Magic. Film itself owes you a debt of gratitude and I raise a glass to your efforts and to your wise decision to pass the torch (or lightsaber) to Disney and allow it to burn forever.

I am one VERY satisfied fan and I feel very confident in the direction this new trilogy is headed. I feel good about the groundwork that is being laid down for Episodes VIII and IX and have the utmost trust in what Disney has in store for us, now that they are in control of the greatest film franchise in movie history. It was truly worth the long wait and I am counting down the days to the next one.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

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Review:
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
**** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

There is no other way to say it, Mad Max: Fury Road is ABSOLUTELY MIND-BLOWING! This film is EVERYTHING you have been wanting and SO MUCH MORE! If you are like me and have been eagerly awaiting another installment of the iconic Mad Max franchise with baited breath, you can now rest easy because George Miller’s long-in-development opus has finally arrived for us to consume with glee.

Let me first just begin by saying that all the waiting and false starts on the road to this film’s completion have been totally worth it. George Miller has outdone himself with this incredible piece of cinema. He has orchestrated one of the GREATEST ACTION FILMS I HAVE EVER SEEN in my life! This movie is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride from the first scene to the very last. Stunts are pulled off on this film that I was jaw-dropped to witness. How people did not perish while making this movie is beyond me. The choreography and precision that must have been instituted to capture Miller’s grand vision must have been incredible. I would wager that each day’s safety meeting was comprehensive to say the least.

I imagine that during the pre-production meetings of the film, Miller was telling his creative team that no costume is too absurd, no vehicle too excessively impractical and no touch of oddity is off the table. ANYTHING goes in this wild vision of the worst future you can imagine. No director has had more fun executing his vision and who could blame him. This is the kind of movie director’s dream of making and the kind every actor wants to be a part of. George Miller has assembled all the right people and ingredients to bring his dream to life. The cast is spectacular, the cinematography breathtaking and the production design, costumes and vehicles SO OVER THE TOP that you will be salivating over your shirt through the biggest smile you have ever experienced. I found myself in awe whilst watching this movie and marveled at the amount of work that went into making such an extravaganza of excessive adrenaline. I wouldn’t even know where to begin such a process.

Miller is a genius and a true maestro of tension; having planned out every shot of this masterpiece over many years in his head and pasted together a moving freight train that keeps you glued to the screen for two hours. At one point I was ready to chew on my belt to get me through the intensity on screen.
THIS IS WHAT MOVIES ARE ALL ABOUT. Forget the “cause” films, the romantic dramas, the historical epics and the Merchant Ivory period pieces. THIS is why we happily allow theaters to extort our money from within our pockets. All those other genres are well and good, but this action-packed bonanza is why we go to the movies. Mad Max: Fury Road is ENTERTAINMENT in its purest form, and I have never been happier to shell out some greens.  I walked out of the theater feeling more energized, more entertained and more pleased than I can ever recall. And that is saying A LOT. Hours have passed since I left the screening and I can’t stop thinking about this movie.
GO SEE MAD MAX NOW!

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsmen the Secret Service

Review:
Kingsman: The Secret Service
*** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

Kingsman: The Secret Service is A LOT better than I expected. I must confess I was not that interested in seeing this film from watching the trailer. It just seemed like nothing I had not seen countless times before. But after giving it a chance, I was won over – mostly due to Colin Firth, who is always excellent. Here he was no different.

Without getting into the plot, it is basically a James Bond-ish group of ultra secret agents, whose members are dropping like flies. So Firth, a veteran agent, needs to recruit a new, younger agent to join the ranks of the other Kingsmen, which are led by the “Q”-esque Mark Strong and Michael Caine as the wise elder agent.

Firth’s character finds the son of a deceased agent who is of course a rough and tough street hooligan with grand potential, but lacking in couth and refinement. But his shortcomings are greatly overshadowed of who this kid COULD BECOME with the right guidance. So this punk is recruited to join a handful of other hopefuls in a winner-take-all competition to be the next addition to the Secret Service.

Here lies the second act’s training sequences and plot revelations – most notably the nefarious tech-world Billionaire played by Samuel L. Jackson, who is using his influence from the tech industry to basically create the world anew in a plan so complex and so over the top that it winks to us in a tongue in cheek fashion. Jackson plays the part with an odd lisp, which was more distracting to me than effective. But regardless he was good in the part.

There are some fantastic action sequences on display here – especially one set in a church, which features some astounding choreography and cinematography – a lot of which was ONE TAKE! Great stuff, albeit completely devoid of believability and riddled with some delightfully-violent deaths. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake and X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) handles the action swimmingly and peppers the film with his usual fast-paced style. The ending is a shout out to the early Bond films, with some ridiculous moments and some disappointingly cheesy special effects. Still, it was entertaining and worth a watch.

TUSK

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Review:

TUSK
*** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

I’ve seen a lot of movies in my years – some of which were gruesome and/or revolting, but NEVER have I seen anything quite like Kevin Smith’s TUSK, which manages to be grotesquely revolting while also provoking grand laughter.

I have wanted to see this film for some time and finally did so last night with my girlfriend. We both sat there wide-eyed and jaw-dropped at the display of creative barbarism on display here. This is a return to form for Kevin Smith – who is a filmmaker that can be hit or miss, but will always be a creative voice I admire and follow intently.

Mr. Smith is an inspiring and entertaining figure whom I respect a great deal. He is a genuine, down to earth honest guy who loves film and LOVES to talk – which may be his biggest gift in a career that has spanned 20 years now, since 1994’s CLERKS. But it is his return to film with TUSK – after a three year hiatus, that has reinvigorated him as an artist and I can see why.

TUSK is a ballsy and brave outing for a filmmaker who is best known for comedy (with the exception of 2011’s Red State) who with this film, GOES WHERE few people would choose to venture after twenty years in the film-making business. I applaud his efforts for orchestrating the madness of TUSK and for wrangling up a terrific cast to bring his insane script to life.

The film’s characters were both memorable and bizarre, with a creepy tour de force performance by Michael Parks as the film’s creepy story-telling villain and a BRAVE performance by Justin Long (who deserves special mention for enduring what must have been a grueling makeup process). Also look out for a surprise cameo role from an always bizarre actor we all love (who will remain nameless) in a fake nose! Yes, there are some very fun makeup effects in this film, which are vital to the story-line and service the BIG centerpiece and heart of the film.
TUSK features one of the most HORRIFYING images I have EVER seen in my life and much like The Human Centipede, succeeds in presenting a nightmare tale of depravity and sadism while impressing us with a top notch showcase of amazing makeup! This film will stay with you most definitely, but unlike Centipede, Tusk has many redeeming aspects – the least of which being the vast dark comedy that is peppered throughout the perilous circumstances on screen.

This is a horror film, yes, but not a scary one or one that uses gore as its main character. TUSK is in a way, a redemption story of a guy who is basically an asshole and through a life-changing (to say the least) experience, he ironically finds his humanity.

I would have given the film 3.5 stars, but there were some slow moments that brought its rating down a bit, but regardless it is one of Kevin Smith’s best efforts in a long time. Watch TUSK if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it. But if you do, just eat ice cream afterwards to make yourself feel better.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Review:

The Grand Budapest Hotel

*** ½ stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

With The Grand Budapest Hotel, as usual, Wes Anderson has made a quirky and enchanting film that immerses us in a world that is unmistakably his. With the usage of vibrant colors, clever camera movements, off-beat if not outlandish characters and elaborate set designs, Anderson leaves his unique signature all over his films that add a nuance and style which serve to further envelope the viewer in the story.

Wes Anderson is in a small club of film-makers whom have cultivated their storytelling style to such a recognizable degree that if one was to flip through the channels without knowing who a film’s director was, could almost immediately deduct the maestro just by the visuals, or the script and by the accompanying elements. Regardless of whether or not this particular film may be said director’s finest work, their fingerprints would be evident all over the place. Visionaries like Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, David Fincher and more recently Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron (I may have missed a few) have crafted works that are unlike their contemporaries, simply by employing techniques in such a carefully-crafted and deliberate manner that we recognize their brushstrokes with ease.

In other words, you know you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie and with The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is no different. At the core, this is a murder mystery/who done it story with layers of vast eccentricity and rich comedy – which is both subtle and slapstick, depending on the moment. The characters all have clear agendas and motivations, which when blended together create a crazy troupe of people all running either away from or after each other. Mad-cap would be one way to describe this film or “this is SO a Wes Anderson film” would be another. You know what you’re getting and it is usually highly inventive and ultra creative. Anderson just doesn’t tell the usual stories; he spins yarns that are unlike most films out there – stories that have a lot of heart and look at the world through an off-center point of view that is very playful and free of cynicism. In a way, Wes’ films have a very childlike innocence to them and I mean that as a high complement. It takes a very intelligent and clever artist to craft stories that can so vividly show us human behavior in both a cartoonish and deeply realistic fashion. Not an easy tightrope to walk, but Anderson finds a way. That is what makes him special.

The cast here is superb (as always), which is led by Ralph Fiennes as the Grand Hotel’s omnipresent concierge who takes Zero – an ambitious lobby boy (Tony Revolori) under his wing and on the adventure of his life (and for his life). The supporting cast includes Anderson regulars and newcomers such as: Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham (in his nicest work in years), Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman and many more (mostly in cameos).

The eclectic casting, which has become the norm in Anderson’s films, is a wonderful and exciting element that further grasps our attention and draws us into the story. I am so happy that the trend of piling a huge assortment of name talent in a single film; which was ubiquitous in 40’s, 50’s and 60’s cinema, has made a comeback of late – probably picking up steam in the mid – late 90’s (with films such as Heat, The Thin Red Line, Short Cuts, Boogie Nights, Pulp Fiction and HBO’s And the Band Played On) and gaining real momentum with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films in the early 2000’s.

Today large casts are in full stream – with actors lining up to work with pedigree directors, often in small parts because they believe in the film’s story or just want to be a part of a unique collaborative experience and sometimes, just want that paycheck. Regardless, it is to the film’s benefit and us the viewers get to reap all the benefits. Even when a film isn’t that great it is still fun to see tons of actors working together – sometimes much like a crazy recipe (Expendables for example). Who would have believed back in the 80’s that we’d actually get a film with Stallone and Schwarzenegger together?! It seemed like a dream that would never come true, but now we’re heading for our 4th collaboration of these two icons with this year’s Expendables 3.

I recommend The Grand Budapest Hotel for those seeking to see a nice, entertaining clever little movie that is original and fun which is not a sequel, a prequel or a TV/video game adaptation or based on a teenage book series. This is a film for real cinema lovers but one that is not pretentious or too avant-garde to follow. It’s almost a throwback to classic Hollywood – which given a lot of today’s films, is a welcomed surprise.

 

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

REVIEW:

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

***1/2 STARS (out of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

Ron Woodroof is a hero. Sure he’s also a drug-taking alcoholic with a penchant for unprotected sex with prostitutes who inevitably contracts HIV and AIDS, but if not for that laundry list of flaws, our protagonist would not have his mission and the other AIDS-addled citizens of Dallas in the late 1980’s would have never gotten the alternative treatments they needed to battle the most horrifying new disease of the 20th century.

Suffice to say, Woodroof (played brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey) contracting AIDS was a bitter/sweet and tragic push the fighting-AIDS movement received during that very scary time in America’s history. During those early years when AIDS first began popping up amongst mostly Homosexuals, people were terrified and confused – their heads muddled with rumors, misinformation and even for some, biased hatred towards those they assumed were spreading this plague via reckless debauchery.

Additionally, there are even conspiracy theories out there that the US Government created AIDS in a lab in an attempt to eradicate the Homosexual population in the wake of the free love movements of the late 1960’s to 1970’s. Those claims are still open for debate, but given the intense unbridled fear which populated large portions of America in the early 80’s – especially amongst right-wingers in Washington, not to mention the added immeasurable profits fighting this disease could garner for the big pharmaceutical industry – taking all that into consideration, almost anything is possible.

This engaging film tells the story of Woodroof’s own battle with AIDS, the perils of early AIDS-pharmaceuticals like AZT (which in early stages was being tested at dosages that became lethal in many patients) and Woodroof’s eventual enterprising idea of trafficking (for lack of a better term) herbal and alternative AIDS supplements into America from Mexico, which were deemed illegal by the highly-corruptible FDA and distributed to patients free of charge via a membership “club” with monthly subscription dues of $400.00 where they could then retain the treatment they needed as a safer alternative to the hospital’s guinea pig AZT testing.

Woodroof gains some allies who assist him in his operation: Rayon (exceptionally played by the always great Jared Leto), a male transvestite who is also an AIDS patient becomes his partner in the operation and Dr. Eve Saks (the very sympathetic Jennifer Garner), is Ron’s hesitant doctor who eventually sees how flawed the hospital’s testing is and decides to back him up in his quest. Steve Zahn is Tucker, a local police officer who sympathizes with Woodroof’s plight and seems to always show up just when Ron needs him. Griffin Dunne shows up as Woodroof’s expatriate doctor in Mexico who supplies him with the alternative medications and lastly Dallas Roberts as Woodroof’s thankless lawyer David Wayne who has to deal with Ron’s adversaries – such as the FDA lackey Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), the hospital’s imposing Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) and eventually the subjugating IRS.

This film is an amazing story of courage, rebellion and drive – all in the face of certain death and legal punishment. Most people faced with the diagnosis of AIDS would quietly just go with the doctor’s orders and hope for the best. Ron Woodroof was not one of those people and his tale was one of consistent strides in the other direction – a middle-finger to the establishment and a smoking gun highlighting the overreaching flawed hands of the Food and Drug Administration whom lost its integrity long ago. The FDA sold its soul to the pharmaceutical companies and today especially to the agribusiness industry (especially the monstrous MONSANTO), where regulation really just means profit-protection for corporations.

Woodroof was a prime example of a leader, a man igniting a movement who did not fear his opponents or bow to the status quo. He was a fighter who got past his own prejudices and banded together with others afflicted with the same debilitating fatal disease as him. Dallas Buyers Club is an excellent companion film to And the Band Played On, Angels in America and Philadelphia, for it underscores not only the physical plights AIDS’ victims endure, but also the bureaucracy of the health care industry and especially the negative stigma those afflicted carried on their backs daily like a Scarlett Letter.

You will surely be hearing more and more about this film as the awards season heats up. Its stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto will most certainly be shoe-ins for consideration in the top acting and supporting categories, but long-shots for the trophies at some of the bigger awards due to the film’s subject matter. Regardless of awards though, this is a powerful film with wonderful performances – with McConaughey and Leto giving their career-best turns (not to mention amazing physical transformations into emaciation).

It is utterly remarkable how effective and educational a film like this is. What could have been just a column in an old magazine is now told on the big screen in a way that completely envelopes the viewer and takes us to a time and place we were not necessarily privy to – an important time during a turning point in our culture. Films are about entertainment most of all, yes, but they also need to educate and enlighten its viewers. That is the true power of art and no medium accomplishes this better than film – it is THE art form of the 20th century and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The industry just needs to remember how powerful it really is and focus less on profits and more on integrity. More films should accomplish what Dallas Buyers Club has and more often.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Place Beyond the Pines

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Review:

The Place Beyond the Pines

**** Stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are the leading men in The Place Beyond the Pines, a very deep and unconventional crime drama that I cannot recommend highly enough. I got my ass out of bed at 8:30 this morning to catch a 9:45 am matinee, as I have been dying to check this film out since I first heard about it months ago.

In the film Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver who after learning he is a father, decides to rob banks in order to support his infant son. Not the world’s most noble fatherly decision, but admirable in a sad way none the less. Eventually his path crosses with Cooper’s Avery, a rookie cop who also is a new father. I will not divulge the plot any further, except to say that the story has a strong focus on what it means to be a father and the responsibilities that come with that ever so important privilege.

This is not your ordinary crime film, for it dives much deeper into many of the components this genre usually only brushes over. Much like Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece HEAT, The Place Beyond the Pines takes the time to examine the relationships between the characters – on both sides of the law. But unlike Heat, this story’s narrative structure unfolds in a manner that is rare and is executed perfectly. Everything about this film just seems right and by the end credits you are thoroughly satisfied.

The film was co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance who previously worked with Gosling in the wonderful, if not gloomy indie Blue Valentine (a personal best performance in my opinion for Gosling and an underrated one at that). Here Cianfrance tackles a much bigger film in terms of cast and scope and he gracefully orchestrates tense action sequences involving high-speed motorcycle pursuits and gripping bank robberies in a film that is as captivating dramatically as it is beautiful. The score is immensely haunting as well and it will stay with you long after leaving the theater.

Both Gosling and Cooper give dynamic performances – each actor carrying large sections of the film with just the right notes. Both of them are on an unbelievable hot streak right now and if they keep playing their cards right, they may become two of the best actors of their generations.

The supporting actors as well are all effective, with special shout-outs to Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Gosling’s disheveled co-conspirator Robin (who stole the film Animal Kingdom) and Harris Yulin, the veteran character actor who plays Cooper’s father (you may remember him as the judge in Ghostbusters II). It was nice to see him pop up, as I have not seen him in anything in years.

I definitely suggest people to seek this film out before it is lost in the crowded seas of the impending summer movie tsunami. You will not regret it.

Black Swan

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Review:

BLACK SWAN

Rated: R

**** stars (out of 4)

Black Swan is an intensely absorbing psychological decent into madness with Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballet dancer who is beginning to crack under the building pressure which comes with taking the arduous lead in a new production of Swan Lake. The pressure to be perfect is commonplace in the ballet; especially in New York City where after many seasons in the background, Portman’s Nina is finally given the chance to shine in two challenging lead parts, as the White and Black Swan roles respectively.

Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), an ex-ballet dancer herself-turned painter, is overjoyed by her daughter’s ascension to the top of the ballet food chain but adds a layer of unneeded pressure onto her daughter’s already heavy shoulders. This coupled with the stern bluntness of the production’s seasoned director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); an intimidating genius who is not shy about flaunting his sexuality to his dancers, makes for an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere for Nina. Additionally, Leroy urges Nina to be less rigid and uninhibited in the sexual arena to further immerse her in her roles. The film wades in sexual awakening and expression through most of the middle act, slowly building to a crescendo as Nina herself explores her primal hunger which has been dormant and very necessary for her to embody the essence of the Black Swan.

It is here that the film really immerses us in Nina’s mental spiral and we witness with her, the constant anguish of striving for perfection: the mental, emotional and physical discipline and constant fear of failure. The thrill and excitement of carrying the production on her shoulders eventually gives way as the pressure builds to growing anxiety and paranoia at the thought of being replaced by an understudy named Lily (Mila Kunis), who drops into the production out of nowhere both as friend and foe. Their relationship develops as adversaries, morphs into friendship and then jerks into darkness in ways I will not spoil but ones that will leave your eyes glued to the screen and in your thoughts well after you have left the theater.

All this weighs on Nina day and night as she pushes herself to be better with the looming production’s opening night just weeks and eventually days away. She dances, sleeps, bleeds and cries – that is her routine as she takes the spotlight. Nina knew it would be hard taking the lead after many seasons under the shadow of Leroy’s original prodigy and now retiring Beth (Winona Ryder), but as Nina slips deeper and deeper into mania, her grips on reality begin to crumble beneath her.

Black Swan features easily the best performance of the year by Portman and should ensure her the Oscar in a couple months. She trained for over a year for this film and it shows – physically and emotionally. She brings a heartbreaking realism to the role of Nina, a tortured girl whose desire to be perfect consumes her. Portman has come a long way since that little girl in The Professional (1994) and proves she is more than just a pretty young face. Like her performances in Closer (2004) and in last year’s Brothers, she shows us her vulnerability and her inner fire. I admire her dedication to the part and the discipline of training to be a ballerina. It is probably the hardest and most strenuous of the performance arts, as the physical toll your body takes alone is grueling, not to mention the constant mental and emotional turmoil that undoubtedly comes with it.

The supporting performances are all great as expected. The always cunning and menacing Vincent Cassel gives us another memorable character as Thomas; the sexier than ever Mila Kunis shows us another side of her we have not seen yet and Winona Ryder is powerful as Beth (it is good to see her back in films after several years out of the spotlight). And Barbara Hershey also delivers a terrific performance as Erica, an artist and mother struggling with lost dreams in light of her daughter’s realization of her own and as she lives vicariously through her daughter, she also sinks into the realm of madness in her own way.

This is another wonderful film by director Darren Aronosky who gave us the outstanding Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler a couple years ago (my favorite of Aronosky’s films) . He is one of the most absorbing directors working today; always different and inventive. He favors handheld camera work (The Wrestler was entirely handheld), vibrant imagery and stories about people rather than intricate plots (although his characters inner monologues can be very rich and complex). Here, he orchestrates the physical and mental world of a ballerina in turmoil perfectly and like in The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and π, Aronofsky gives us a likable protagonist with demons who descends into darkness.  He is obsessed with the mind and with human behavior and chooses to examine us as a species in diverse walks of life and afflictions. I read that initially a few years ago, Aronofsky wanted to make a film about a wrestler that falls in love with a ballerina. I am sure that would have been an interesting film, but I am happy things turned out the way they did.

Hereafter

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Review:

HEREAFTER                                                                      

**** Stars (out of 4)

Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s newest film explores the after life in a manner I have never seen before and he does it beautifully. The film addresses the moments immediately following death vividly, leaving us yearning for more but does not exploit it. We are given just enough to wet our pallet, with glimpses of what could happen after our time on this planet is over. God, faith and religion are all mentioned in the film but not for long and it is up to the audience to take what they have seen on the screen and decide for them self what they believe.

Eastwood does not preach but merely presents three stories of people deeply affected by the afterlife and as the film meanders through the lives of these distinct characters, we are slowly being connected to them and begin to care deeply for them, so when the film gets to its conclusion, we are cheering inside for each of them. At least I was.

As usual, Clint Eastwood has made a wonderful, poignant film with subtle nuances and gentle piano music to enhance each mood. The piano has become Eastwood’s signature which he includes with each subsequent film. He has cast his film very well, with Matt Damon as George (a reluctant psychic struggling to live a normal life), Cécile De France as Marie LeLay (a TV journalist who survives a near-death experience) and Frankie and George McLaren as Marcus and Jason (twin brothers who are deeply connected and tortured by the grips of death). The actors all do a fine job, each carrying the film on their shoulders in equal measures. It was an interesting role for Damon, who has become synonymous as an every-man; playing men that seem like someone you would meet on the street that often have an immediately-evident intelligence.

The film is thought-provoking and sensitive with some thrilling moments – like the film’s unreal opening sequence, which will leave you gripping the armrest with white knuckles. But even though the film opens in a grand way it is toned down for the rest of its running time, as this is a drama, not an action film. The story kept my attention and left me riveted, intrigued and moved as I walked out of the theater thinking to myself of the possibilities which lie at the end of my road. I just hope that day does not come for quite a long time. I’ve got stuff to do first.