argo_xlgArgo, the latest film from director Ben Affleck, tells the true story of the rescue of six American citizens working in the Iranian embassy in 1979. When Iranian civilians, upset that the United States is granting asylum to the recently deposed Shah, storm and capture the embassy, the six embassy workers manage to escape to the house of the Canadian ambassador. A rescue mission must and does follow, in this tense thriller written by Chris Terrio and Joshuah Bearman. Continue reading


The Master

The Master is the latest work from director Paul Thomas Anderson. The film looks at a disconnected wayward soul who wanders into the path of an enlightenment preacher and self-help guru.

The Master, in my mind, can only be described in one way: it’s beautiful chaos. Joaquin Phoenix plays the wayward soul Freddie Quell. Freddie is very much an alcoholic and makes his own hooch in 1950s America. He is also quite sexual and disallows any notion of getting personal with anyone.

Freddie’s existence completely hinges on being no one from nowhere. He meets a man named Lancaster Dodd, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd is a charismatic leader of a group only known as The Cause. The Cause promotes the idea that a human being can recall his or her past lives and become empowered and even enlightened by those memories. Freddie ends up working for Dodd as the muscle behind The Cause. He protects Dodd when people doubt his methods, but it remains unclear whether or not Freddie believes in the ideals that Dodd thinks society should live by.

The Master is essentially about two human beings who have no direction. Freddie Quell has no direction because he’s an alcoholic sexual deviant. Lancaster Dodd has no direction because he is a fake hiding in plain sight, working to feed his family through his work as leader of The Cause. This film is also about control. Dodd controls Freddie by trying to get him to buy into The Cause. Freddie controls both women and his environment through his creation and use of homemade hooch. Freddie can’t be controled, so the fun for the audience becomes in trying to guess what he’ll do next, and how that will affect The Cause.

The main strength of The Master, outside of the acting from Hoffman and Phoenix, is the cinematography. That’s right, I said it. How the film is shot is a selling point of the movie. This film is absolutely gorgeous. The ironic thing is that most of the beautiful scenes in the movie aren’t shot outside; rather, they are conversations that include close-ups of people’s faces and steady shots involving motorcycles speeding through open desert land. 

While this film may be confusing for some narratively speaking, something the audience can grasp onto is how beautiful it looks throughout.

My main problem with the film is that we never see Lancaster Dodd admit to his failings during the creation of The Cause. He never admits that what he is trying to teach others and build for himself is not working. I suppose that represents the integrity of the American spirit: trying to push on when no one else believes in what you do. I wanted Lancaster Dodd’s faith to be shaken.

The Master is a film that deserves multiple viewings. It should definitely spark conversation between moviegoers, and that’s what makes going to the cinema worthwhile.



Replay Value:


The Expendables 2

During the middle of a fight scene in The  Expendables 2, Sylvester Stallone and his group shoot a single enemy to death and then Stallone says, “rest in pieces.” The phrase used by Stallone in that specific scene is exactly what I want this particular action franchise not to do. The Expendables 2 stars Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Liam Hemsworth, and Chuck Norris.

The plot is that Barney (Stallone) and his team have to stop Villain (Van Damme) from stealing a very expensive computer that has a blueprint to mines filled with plutonium, which Villain intends to sell to the highest bidder. If you think that sounds kind of thin, you’d be very wrong; it’s downright weightless. The characters who are part of The Expendables group are given no way to grow and change as people in this film.

The film is a chain of action scenes cut together as one very disjointed film, which pays homage to the 80s and 90s action stars who are the leads. Liam Hemsworth (Billy) is a new addition to The Expendables group, but he really isn’t given anything to do other than be the good soldier and the new kid in the team. I wanted his character to make choices that were different than the rest of the group in terms of what strategy he uses to take out the enemy. I didn’t believe Liam Hemsworth as a soldier and he really has no personal life other than the fact that he has a girlfriend in Paris who he is hoping to provide for as part of The Expendables team.

The main problem with this film is the dialogue. The screenplay, written by Sylvester Stallone and Richard Wenk was chalked full of catchphrase parodies by the action stars in the film. Bruce Willis says something about Rambo and Chuck Norris makes a Chuck Norris joke. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a Terminator joke. This film is full of winks and nods and I hate it because it is almost as if these actors are trying to say to the audience, “look at all the great movies we made. Remember how great we are?” It’s a mistake for this film to be so self-serving and indulgent.

Another problem for the film is that while the gratuitous violence in the opening scene is fun, the shooting of all the guns gets boring and repetitive very quickly. As a fan of action films, I think a way to make this sequel genuinely interesting would have been to find many more creative ways for enemies to die or, better yet, have The Expendables team make multiple mistakes that jeopardize or compromise their mission. Having multiple serious mistakes made by the main characters would make this group seem flawed and vulnerable and would give audiences reason to root for the mission to succeed.

One positive of this film iss that the final fight between Stallone and Van Damme, which is all hand-to-hand combat, is superb. These guys may be old, but they certainly know how to throw down when they need to. The fight is genuinely brutal, and I found myself rooting for it to continue another few minutes.

The Expendables 2 is an all right action film with numerous problems but, if you grew up in the era in which these men were popular, you will enjoy reminiscing and watching your favorite stars saying their signature lines. That being said, this franchise is definitely expendable.



Replay Value:


Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar is one of those rare films that grabs you from its opening moments and doesn’t let you go, no matter how you feel about what you’re seeing on screen. It tells the story of a man who comes into a school in Quebec, Canada, as replacement for another teacher who has passed away and left the imprint of her death on both her class and the school where she taught.

Monsieur Lazhar is a deeply moving and sad film about the effect that teachers can have on children. Bashir Lazhar is one of those teachers who seeks to inspire and encourage the children. The children initially and predictably hate him because of his Algerian background and the fact that he cannot, in their minds, replace the teacher they loved. This film lives in reality. Nothing in it feels fake or contrived, and the children will break your heart with their constant, genuine reactions to the pain they feel deep inside. Lazhar’s life is further complicated because he may not be granted permanent asylum in Canada, which is what he desperately needs so that he can escape the war torn area of Algeria where he used to live.

The performances from the cast really boil down to three very gifted actors. Sophie Nélisse who plays the main female student, Alice L’Écuyer, in Monsieur Lazhar’s classroom is an absolutely magnetic presence on screen despite being about 11 years old at the time she made this film. Alice forms a bond with Lazhar because she barely gets an opportunity to see and spend time with her mom (a flight attendant) for most of the film. Alice’s moments in the film show her maturity and her sadness at not being cared for.

Sophie Nélisse’s acting talent is equaled by newcomer Émilien Néron, who plays Simon (Alice’s friend). Néron has the thankless task of portraying a character who is constantly blamed for anger issues that he cannot control. Simon also blames himself for the death of his teacher, which causes him an enormous amount of stress — a stress that he eventually crumbles under, which is illustrated in the film’s standout scene.

Monsieur Lazhar simply asks the question: how do people deal with the loss of someone important in their lives? The film offers no easy answers to this question and instead offers up the idea that death is never supposed to make sense. I would also add that because death doesn’t make sense, its profound and lasting impact will not make sense to us either. The fact that it means something at all shows us that people matter to us.

And Monsieur Lazhar is a film that matters to me and despite its painful subject matter I am more than happy that it made me feel something. I would recommend this film to anyone, as its plot is ageless and its characters manage to demonstrate a form of humanity that I have not seen in film since viewing A Separation at Ebertfest 2012.



Replay Value:


The Campaign

The Campaign stars Will Farrell and Zach Galifianakis as political opponents running against each other for congressman of North Carolina. Will Farrell’s character, Cam Brady, is used to running unopposed, but this changes when his financial supporters Glenn and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) decide that he doesn’t reflect their long-term interest anymore. The Motch Brothers decide to ask Galfianakis’ character to run against Brady and he agrees because he knows it will make his father Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox) proud. The two political rivals square off and chaos ensues as each character seeks to try and prove he is a better leader for the state of North Carolina.

The Campaign is a simple and predictable movie. Stupid and funny things are bound to occur in any movie in which two high profile comedic actors are pitted against each other in a political setting. The problem is that this film didn’t take the idea of politics in comedy in any new or unique directions. In fact, if you have seen any of the trailers for The Campaign, you already know most of the funniest jokes in the film, so if you do choose to see it, there will be very few surprises.

Another of the film’s issues is that anyone who’s watched the television show Saturday Night Live within the last two decades will know that Will Farrell’s bread and butter is parodying political figures. Cam Brady is basically a cocktail mix of U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This concoction of political personalities failed to impress me most of the time. I know that I was technically not supposed to believe that Cam Brady could exist in reality, but believing in him as a person would have made the physical jokes he used much more plausible.

Zach Galifianakis’s character, Marty Huggins, is someone for whom I could feel sympathy. Galifianakis works hard to become a strong political figure and his effort really shows despite playing such a dim-witted character. I think The Campaign could have worked as a film if it focused solely on the character of Marty Huggins and had cast an unknown as his opponent. Having an unknown actor counterbalance Marty’s stupidity would have made the film more interesting and given Galifianakis someone to really play against.

The biggest surprise in this film is an actress named Karen Maruyama. She plays Raymond Higgins’ maid and she does something that is both funny and simultaneously very offensive in the film. If you are easily offended you may actually hate this character. I found myself laughing hysterically at her actions. However, aside from Maruyama’s surprisingly funny performance, there are few “laugh out loud” moments.

The Campaign goes for very easy laughs and makes spending $7.50 at the theater a mistake for anyone who enjoys comedy. This is one campaign I can’t recommend financing.