In order of my preference....
Mad Max: Fury Road
This movie is absolutely as awesome and amazing as you've heard. Weird, thrilling, and filled with wall-to-wall action, this is one of the best theater experiences I've had in a long time. My usual problem with action movies is their muddled action sequences that exist just to have some cool tricks. Director George Miller does an incredible job of showing the stakes of each sequence and helping you know exactly what's going on, no matter how weird things get. Whether you rate Mad Max as groundbreaking feminism or just kick-ass girl power, it's great seeing Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as an amazing action heroine. I could go on and on about everything I loved about this movie, but it's best to go in fairly fresh.
I've thought about Ex Machina a whole lot since I saw it a few months ago. It's a parable about a eccentric billionaire (Oscar Isaac) testing his lifelike robot (Alicia Vikander) on a naive young man (Domnhall Gleeson). The movie has many twists and turns, and its expert in the way it plays with the expectations and sympathies of the audience. After some great indie and foreign performances (A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina), Alicia Vikander becomes a star here, absolutely nailing a tricky role. Oscar Isaac is more than her equal, playing a megalomanic as chilled-out-bro. See it with someone who like to talk- I promise you it will lead to many discussions!
As you probably know, Inside Out has the high concept of taking place largely inside the mind of a young girl going through a life transition. The main characters in her head are Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and they are joined by Fear, Anger, and Disgust. It's a great concept and Pixar has a lot of fun playing with the ideas of how emotions are formed and change as we age. I especially loved the forays into other character's minds and into the land of dreams. That said, it didn't quite hit the (admittedly high) Pixar pinnacle for me. I think the idea is so strong that it becomes a little harder to connect on a human level with all of the goings-on. While it was consistently funny and clever, I think the Toy Story films are a little more moving and honest about the process of growing up and letting go. You can probably ignore my criticisms, though, because it's still a really terrific movie. The standout for me of the movie was sadness as played by Phyllis Smith (The Office). Her voice is perfectly matched to the character, and she ends up being the most important character in the film. Another triumph for Pixar.
After winning both the audience award and the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, Earl seemed to arrive with weaker reviews and box office than expected. It's certainly a very "Sundance" movie, in the sense of being small, quirky, obsessed with other films, and a wee bit twee. Yet I think it owns its vibe and pulls it off with charm. Perhaps it's because I (or my teenage self) identified with Greg (Thomas Mann), a kid making it through high school based on his love of film. He and his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) spend their days making parody films of classics until they befriend Rachel, a girl diagnosed with cancer. It definitely has a young adult novel feel, but in a really entertaining and lovely way, touching without being overly sentimental. If the movie was called Me and the Dying Girl, I would have really loved it. Unfortunately the African-American Earl comes across as a two-dimensional character, existing more to teach Greg lessons than to be his own character. I also really loved the parental performances by three great TV performers, Connie Britten, Nick Offerman, and Molly Shannon.
As someone in my 30s, caught between the characters in this movie, I could easily relate to director Noah Baumbach movie's culture clash comedy of a couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) befriending a hipster couple in their 20s (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried). I REALLY LOVED this movie in the first 40 minutes or so. It absolutely nailed the way the character's talked, the idiosyncrasies of urban life, and the social anxieties of adult friendships. Unfortunately, the second half becomes pretty schematic, getting too tied up into a who did what story involving a documentary film being filmed by Driver's character. I wish Baumbach had the courage to just let his characters be and interact, just as he did in 2013's Frances Ha (one of my favorite films of the past few years). It's not that the rest is terrible, it's just not up to Baumbach's best work, including the first half of the movie.
Grade: B (First half A, second half C+)
This biopic of Brian Wilson is split into two halves, once with Paul Dano as Pet Sounds-era Wilson and one with John Cusack as post-300 pound yet still troubled Wilson in the 1980s. I'm often slightly underwhelmed by biopics, preferring those that get really abstract (I'm Not There) or focus on a finite part of the story (Lincoln, Capote). Love and Mercy lands somewhere in the middle. While it does only focus on two short periods of Wilson's life, its story of downfall and redemption is still easy to map from the beginning. While I liked Cusack as the older Wilson and especially Elizabeth Banks as his love interest, I did think the earlier scenes were more interesting. The movie does a great job of giving us a sense of how Wilson's unique mind led both to the creative musical experimentation of Pet Sounds and to his troubles surviving in the music business and the world. Paul Dano is really great as the young Wilson, digging deep into the character. A good movie you'll probably like even more than I did if you enjoy biopics.
Another hit from Sundance, Dope is a story of a trio of 3 nerdy smart kids, living in a troubled inner-city neighborhood. They inadvertently get caught up with some local drug dealers, and hijinks ensue! If you can picture a mash-up of Boyz in the Hood, Ferris Bueller, and Superbad, you'd be somewhat in the ballpark of Dope. That's fun in a lot of ways, but also a little disconcerting. The tone of the movie shifts so much its hard to really get your handle on it, even while you're enjoying the experience. I think I preferred it most in its Bueller moments, having fun with the heists without getting overly heavy or over-the-top with its teen gross-out humor. The best part of the movie is the central trio (Shameik Moore, Tony Revilori, and Kiersey Clemons). Whenever they're interacting on screen they have a natural chemistry that carries you through the movie. Let's see more movies like this that give great non-stereotyped roles to young actors of color. Let's just make the scripts a bit tighter.
Up Soon: My (Very Late) Top 10 of 2014
Up Soon: My (Very Late) Top 10 of 2014