Towards the beginning of Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo, make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, says to CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), “Even a Rhesus Monkey can direct a movie.” This type of tongue-in-cheek word play signifies a new, and deserved, confidence from the actor turned auteur. Argo is formulaic at best in terms of Chris Terrio’s screenplay, but its Affleck’s direction and the performances from his cast that raise Argo above the bar he set with his previous film, The Town.

Argo is set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when a group of Iranian militant revolutionaries storm the US embassy in 1979. However, this film actually recounts a previously unknown and confidential story of six Americans who escaped the embassy and were given sanctuary by the Canadian ambassador. These six are in a unique and treacherous situation of being unknown escapees who, if caught, could be made examples of by irate militants without complicating the heavily observed hostage crisis at the US embassy. Their story becomes the focal point of Argo as the White House, State Department, and CIA all spitball ideas on how to rescue these six trapped Americans before they are discovered by the Iranians. Eventually they settle on a long-shot idea from Mendez, which involves posing the escapees as a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a fake movie by the name of Argo. Terrio’s screenplay does a great job of building tension in all the right places, but it does so in a sort of Screenwriting-101 kind of way. In other words, it’s predictable.

Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film. Just because we laugh when we’re supposed to laugh, and we cry when we’re supposed to cry, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Instead, Argo is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core. Additionally, it is expertly cast with terrific performances from John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Alan Arkin who steals scenes as the cantankerous Lester Siegel. Arkin and Goodman head up the fake film studio needed to validate Mendez’s plan to disguise the escaped hostages as a film crew. Here, the film adds an enjoyable layer of film-geek enthusiasm. Finally, Affleck outdoes himself as director. Argo has a deliberate and even pace, some historically iconic staging, and camera work that enhances the tone of the film. In fact, Affleck even shows some side-by-side comparisons between historical photos and some shots from his film in the closing credits. His attention to detail brings dimension and realism to the film in a time where real decisions had to be made without the luxury of our modern digital age.

Argo is the first great movie of the fall season and delivers as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. This is a very strong effort that succeeds beyond any Rhesus Monkey’s wildest expectations. A-

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the closest thing we’ve seen to a John Hughes movie since Cameron Crowe channeled him to make Almost Famous. That film felt more epic than the traditional Hughes film, in part due to Crowe’s drawing from his experiences with Rolling Stone. Author/Director Stephen Chobsky also draws from experience to create Perks, however his film has the more intimate feel of a Hughes movie (The Breakfast Club), and that makes it great.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is set in or around Pittsburgh, PA in the early 1990s. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is the aforementioned wallflower; a high school freshman with light heart, but a heavy soul since his best friend recently committed suicide. He finds fitting in and making friends a challenge and instead chooses to lose himself in the novels of equally awkward, soul-searching literary protagonists supplied by his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). Charlie’s awakening comes as a result of being accepted by a group of like-minded upper-classmen. It is here that Charlie’s coming of age journey into adolescence finds its stride.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower seems to unfold effortlessly. We learn more about Charlie as he learns more about himself. This surrealist approach to self-discovery allows the viewer to be both surprised by and understanding of Charlie’s decisions and actions. His closest friends are Sam (Emma Watson) and Sam’s step-brother, Patrick (Ezra Miller), and they shape the heart of this film. Sam’s confidence, charm, and beauty complement her romantic and impulsive attitude towards life, which spellbinds and captivates the sullen but passionate Charlie. Ezra Miller as Patrick deserves special notice as he steals every scene he’s in. This character is miles from his ultra-disturbing performance as Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin, but is even more impressive. Patrick’s story reveals him to be somewhat of a foil to Charlie as both have similar struggles of adolescence and deal with them very differently. The supporting characters all have their moments as well, allowing secondary characters to be purposeful and not artificial. The film’s best line is given to Charlie’s dad, played Dylan McDermott, in an amusing exchange about borrowing money for a date.

The success of Perks also lies in Chobsky’s handling of his own source material’s tone. He never lets us, or Charlie, get too comfortable, hinting that something more sinister is lying beneath the surface, yet he never allows the film’s youthful spirit to suffer. This balance illustrates the volatility of teenage years with that same touch John Hughes had. The film also allows music to play a major part in the characters’ lives, which was a classic Hughes trademark.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is very successful at what it sets out to be. Many recent films of this genre either feel too self-important and preachy or they go the other way and seem shallow. This film strikes out a balance and while not treading new ground, deservedly treads proudly. B+

Looper

Every fall season a movie comes along that lacks the hype and pandering for an audience. Instead, it is released and looks to succeed by word of mouth. Last year that film was the still under-appreciated Drive; this year my top contender is Looper.

Looper begins by introducing us to Joe, a barely recognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt who performs the title task as a “Looper.” Looper is a time-travel story, but roots itself firmly in a mostly-recognizable version of the near future. The only major difference is that time travel is invented soon after the present setting of the film, which allows for a somewhat confusing, but well executed, original story. Loopers are hired guns who kill for a futuristic mob that sends their hits 30 years into the past before time travel was invented. This allows for mob enemies to simply disappear in their present time and be disposed of in an earlier time when they wouldn’t be investigated. Loopers are paid well to shoot first, ask no questions, and most of all be punctual as hits will suddenly appear in a predetermined location at an exact time. Allowing a “loop” to “run” results in some very unsavory consequences. The downside to Looping is that one day, every Looper’s loop must close, which means the future version of yourself will be sent back for immediate execution. When this happens, a Looper gets a big final pay day and 30 years to enjoy it before the inevitable.

The premise for this film is imaginative and dealt with in a surprisingly cohesive way by director Rian Johnson. As with all great time-travel films, rules must be established so that the viewer may understand exactly what the limits are within these multiple dimensions. I provided a short discussion about some classic time travel theories in a previous blog post that you can read here. In short, this particular film’s view is similar to the Back to the Future variety where you can co-exist with multiple versions of yourself and events that affect the younger version will also impact the later version. Thus, when Joe finds himself face to face with his older self, played by Bruce Willis, he inadvertently allows him to run. However, Willis’ character can not simply run since he knows the consequences against Gordon-Levitt will affect him too.

The story’s arc is much more far-reaching and complex than a cat-mouse chase between alternate versions of Joe. As we learn more about Joe’s future from Bruce Willis, our sympathies are toyed with and our moral centers are jarred endlessly. Johnson’s screenplay and direction provide powerful and conflicting motivations for both characters, making the movie deeply engaging and surprisingly fresh. Additional story lines regarding a futuristic crime boss (Jeff Daniels), a fellow Looper (Paul Dano), and farmhouse mother and her son (Emily Blunt and an Oman-esque Pierce Gagnon, respectively) all flesh out this film and give it real dimension and pragmatism, regardless of its sci-fi, time travel plot.

Looper is a tightly wound, entertaining film that has something for everyone to enjoy. There is a slight dragging feeling at the close of its second act, but this perceived lull is making way for a strong and dominant conclusion. In summary, this review only touches on the surface of what Looper accomplishes; there are multiple surprises in store for all audiences who see it, so let the word of mouth begin! A-

The Master

ImageTwo things can be said with certainty about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master. First, Anderson definitely knows his way around a camera; second, Joaquin Phoenix emphatically knows his way around appearing ‘disturbed.’ Both of these elements are used to their absolute potential in order to challenge and entice the audience to look a little closer at this film than, perhaps, Anderson has asked in the past.

The Master is Anderson’s sixth stop on his cinematic journey through American culture and it may be his most polarizing one to date. Director, Anderson has mesmerized audiences with triumphantly engaging dissections of American culture in films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and of course 2007’s There Will Be Blood. The Master returns Anderson to his role as writer along with being director after his singular exception, adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will Be Blood. This time Anderson takes an isolated and cold look at specific segment of post-World War II 1950s America. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran who struggles with alcoholism, anger issues, and repressed memories of a troubled upbringing which partially manifest in unhealthy sexual obsessions. After the war, Quell finds himself in a series of odd-jobs that he is in no way suited for, including one that results in his being chased off after one of his “home-made” alcoholic concoctions seemingly brings about the death, or near death, of one of his co-workers. It is here that Quell finds himself a stow-away on a yacht commanded by a charming, yet nefarious character by the name of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who stars in four of Anderson’s six films). Dodd is at sea to officiate and celebrate the wedding of his daughter, but upon the discovery of Quell his interests turn to him and his story. Dodd’s compassion for Quell unveils to reveal his role as leader of a cultest group known as The Cause. Dodd uses his wit, intellect, and charm to pray on the affluent, which in turn results in additional wealth, appreciation, and power for him and his group. He is quick to accept compliments, but resorts to shouting down and conceivably condoning violence against his critics. Quell, who has been wrestling with his uncertain future, is easily drawn in by their hypnotizing appeal.

What follows is a slow-burn of a drama that gains all of its leisurely paced momentum from the conflicts that arise between Quell and Dodd. It is also a challenging film for the viewer. It is a cinematic puzzle on par with enigmatic films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in 2011. We are forced to pay close attention as we constantly question a look, a question, or an action in an ongoing battle to understand these characters’ true motivations. A follow-up to There Will Be Blood, it is hard to ignore the similarities between Blood’s Daniel Plainview and Master’s Lancaster Dodd; the names are iconically memorable for starters. Furthermore, Dodd’s methodical and meticulous effort to distort and corrupt the psyche of Quell in order to vindicate or authenticate himself certainly rings a bell.

The Master is not an easy film to understand, nor is it an easy film to watch given its 140 minute running time. What it is, is a beautifully acted and orchestrated character analysis filmed on 65 mm film stock. Anderson takes endless risks here and while the film drags, his criticisms on some of the supposed motivations of those who promise answers, faith, or comfort do stay with you after the credits role. C+

Celeste and Jessie Forever

ImageIt seems like you can boil romantic comedies down into two distinct categories. First, there is the wildly exaggerated and romantically super-charged type (The Proposal, The Wedding Planner, He’s Just not that in to You). Then, there is the down-to-earth, subtle, more realistic type (When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, Love Actually). Both of these styles of “Rom-Com” can be tremendously successful or abysmally awful. Celeste and Jesse Forever can be described as a decent stab at the second type or a failure at the first.

Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg play Celeste and Jesse, a cute, happy, seemingly perfect couple with one surprising blemish, they are about to be divorced. The reason for their decision to separate remains somewhat unclear as we are introduced to them six months into their post-separation, pre-divorce limbo period. It seems Celeste is convinced that Jessie, while a great guy, lacks any form of motivation to be the husband she feels she deserves. This ambiguity about why they are breaking up allows the film to explore the minds of the characters as they struggle with the decision to either try again or be the first to move on. Both are determined to not hurt each other, but find that this is impossible as they exist in this touchy gray area of their relationship.

Writer and star, Rashida Jones deserves some credit for attempting to breathe life into a genre that has been, for the most part, rather weak as of late. Celeste and Jessie works pretty well when we are following the couple’s lives as they try to understand if and/or how they are supposed to love each other; these scenes are clever, cute, funny, and emotionally dramatic at times. That strength is tossed away when the film shifts focus towards Celeste’s silly rivalry with Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), a Ke$ha-like pop star at her media consulting firm. It is here that Celeste and Jessie Forever tries to tip-toe unsuccessfully into the other sillier type of romantic comedy with clichés abound like the gay friend, going on bad dates, and the perfect guy who’s right under her nose. Unfortunately, all this transition does is make the audience feel a bit manipulated and uneasy. In the end, Celeste and Jessie Forever feels a bit uneven. The film does make us care about these characters and there is a resolution that is somewhat satisfying. Emma Roberts’ vapid Riley Banks mentions in the film, “It’s about being who you are…unless who you are sucks.” Celeste and Jessie tries so hard not to suck that it loses what it could have been. C+

Lawless

ImageIn an attempt to revitalize the integrity of his career, Shia LaBeouf has recently stated that he is done making blockbusters.  Many see this as a snobby, unappreciative remark, but is it really?  It is fairly common for working professionals to have stories about having to pay their dues before they experience true success.  This makes it an intriguing statement since, according to LaBeouf, his vision is stifled within the studio system.  Granted, LaBeouf’s “dues” were mega-blockbuster hits, but those must not have been his idea of success.  This statement comes on the heels of some curious and ambitious career choices, including Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac where LaBeouf is rumored to perform an unsimulated sex scene.  Still, his first effort in his new “visionary” direction is this summer’s Lawless, which LaBeouf also helped produce.  It may not be a great movie, but it’s a strong enough exercise of “life imitates art” to prove LaBeouf’s point.

Lawless is set in Prohibition-era Virginia where the legendary and infamous Bondurant brothers dominate the hillside bootlegging trade.  LaBeouf plays the youngest of the three brothers, Jack, who is appropriately performing grunt-work as the driver, while trying to convince his older brother, Forrest, played with stoic minimalism by Tom Hardy, that he can do more.  It’s important to note that this is not just another drama about bootlegging.  Director, John Hillcoat and writer/musician Nick Cave have taken Matt Bondurant’s source material and created a story about man’s continuous struggle to prove himself in difficult times.  Prohibition is an appropriate setting, given its supposed goal of neutering American society’s men who were being deemed too wild.  As history has shown, this obviously led to unexpectedly violent results; consider the scene involving a particularly nasty form of revenge as an obvious homage to this “neutering.”  This element allows the film to rise slightly above its notable flaws.

As business grows for the brothers, the Bondurants eventually attract the attention of Chicago Special Deputy, Charley Rakes who is depicted with tyrannical evilness by Guy Pearce.  What unfolds from here is a nasty, brutal journey through the male psyche where empathy and forgiveness are abandoned for honor and pride.  This, understandably, leaves the audience wondering why one must come at the cost of the other, a good question that both Hillcoat and Cave do not entirely address.  Benevolence is constantly seen as disadvantageous, feminine, and weak.  This masculine insecurity is most strikingly portrayed when one character violently attacks another for being called a ‘nance” or effeminate.  Meanwhile, female characters are present, and they work hard at not being dragged down with the men they, for some reason, love.

Unfortunately, Lawless begins with the feel of nothing more than a dramatized history lesson, which it must then work hard to shake.  However, it does eventually get its wheels spinning.  As strange as this film’s thematic agenda is, we are eventually on board as we are once again in the grips of the classic American cinematic paradox where the heroic outlaws wage war against the power hungry, malevolent authority.  Effective turns from supporting roles by Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman don’t hurt either.  By and large, Lawless scores points for trying to be a little different, as odd as those differences are. B-

Premium RushPremium Rush

Director: David Koepp

Screenwriter: David Koepp

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon

Once upon a time, August was considered the dumping ground for mediocre films that, for whatever reason, have lost the love and support of their studios and were left to duke it out for the “end of summer” scraps. Lately, this has seemed to change. Sylvester Stallone brought The Expendables in 2010, which grossed over $100 million. It’s sequel, Expendables 2, is enjoying a strong reception by audiences, bringing in $28 million in its opening weekend. Last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an August release and made $176 million with a sequel slated for 2014.

This year’s August releases are no exception. First, Bourne Legacy, then ParaNorman and Expendables 2, and now the electrifying Premium Rush. Premium Rush puts a microscope over the lives of NYC bike messengers. This is a very misunderstood and under-appreciated microcosm of modern civilization, which makes it ripe for a brilliant, late-Summer action flick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt returns to his indie roots as Wilee, a thrill-seeking bike messenger who’s steel-framed bike is custom equipped with no gears and no brakes. Wilee’s philosophy on bikes is like his philosophy on life; “I like to ride…can’t stop, don’t want to.” With the introduction of a McGuffin in the form of an envelope, this movie is off and it doesn’t want to stop either.

The envelope entrusted to Wilee for delivery is also desired by corrupt NYPD officer, Bobby Monday, played on full-tilt by Michael Shannon. The cat and mouse chase format is kept fresh with a tricky non-linear timeline, some imaginative multi-dimensional stunts, and enjoyable supporting characters like Wilee’s girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) and his jealous pumped-up rival, Manny (Wole Parks). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Premium Rush, but this is a film that is quite aware of its escapist qualities and goes to great lengths to protect them and not exploit them. Writer/Director David Koepp keeps the pace quick and the audience cheering. I hope August continues to see fun, exciting movies like Premium Rush, so that movie studios have no dumping ground, but rather an obligation to simply release good movies. B+

The Campaign

CampaignTea Party politics, Citizens United condemnation, politicians for hire, under-qualified candidates, corporate espionage, election fraud, voter ignorance – what is missing from this list? How about Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis? That’s right, The Campaign is surprisingly topical given its genre and cast. Director Jay Roach has seemingly left behind Austin Powers and the Fockers for political aspirations. His previous political endeavors found success on the small screen with HBO’s Recount in 2008 and Game Change earlier this year. Now Jay Roach brings his satirically bitter sass to the big screen and he does it with surprising poise and fun. Will Ferrel plays Cam Brady, a comfortable, hypocritical, and unopposed representative of a small North Carolina district. However due to a thinly veiled conspiracy headed by the billionaire, ahem, Motch brothers, played with Duke brothers-Trading Places vitriol by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, Galifinakis’s Marty Huggins is entered into the race as a clueless pawn. With this premise set, the film then begins to parade through a string of mostly successful gags as the two warring candidates continue to attempt to one-up each other, consequently losing sight of their obligations to the public. The film is fast and fierce; the 82-minute running time and the R rating are indicative of this. It is also very funny. Ferrell plays a sleeker, slimier, variation of his classic Geroge W. character while Galifinakis plays his foil. Together, the two of them tap dance around many of the imperfections of modern day democracy.

Yes, this film is incredibly critical of the American political system, and no it does not offer any real solution. The public is often depicted as absurdly unaware and, well just plain stupid; frequent references are made to buzzwords like “America,” “Jesus,” and “Freedom” as ways to garner a political following without even making a statement or discussing a platform. In this regard, I think this movie bites off a bit more than it can chew, and I’m not sure this film will hold up over the years. However, there is no doubt that this film is much smarter and ingenious than the trailer would have you believe. For this reason, along with its decent track record of laughs, I give The Campaign my vote. B+

BourneDirector: Tony Gilroy

Screenwriter: Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, and Corey Stoll

The key question for this film is “Can Jeremy Renner cut it?” The answer is a sensational “Yes!” Tony Gilroy takes the reins from Paul Greengrass who directed the previous two films. Ironically, Gilroy’s film seems to be inspired more by Doug Liman’s film, The Bourne Identity than either of the two recent entries in the series. Unlike Greengrass’s kinetically charged pair of films, Gilroy slows things down a little bit and gets back basics with an in depth expose on all of these CIA programs that have been plaguing Jason Bourne since he was dragged out of the water in 2002. That is not to say this movie lacks action. The chase scene through the streets of Manila is nothing short of breathtaking. In addition to a change in director is a change in protagonist. Aaron Cross (Renner) is being victimized this time as we are given a little more transparency on how these genetically altered agents are trained, conditioned, and dropped in various places throughout the world. For example, we see that these agents are tethered to the CIA through rationed medical provisions where green pills are dispatched to agents to supplement their increased strength and blue pills are given to enhance cognitive ability. Consequently, Legacy does not make it its intention to try and match the expert stunts of Greengrass’s Bourne movies. Instead, Gilroy puts down the green pill and gives us a dose of the blue one, which may disappoint some fans.

The plot is complicated, as expected, and it is not really to any benefit for me to lay it all out here lest I give something away. Simply understand that the CIA is still on damage control from the events surrounding Jason Bourne. Many of the events, operations, and characters from previous films are shown and referenced often, at times at a lightening quick rate. I stumbled upon this Bourne Legacy Primer, which I fully recommend if you are interested in seeing Legacy without refreshing yourself on the previous films. Renner does display the chops for this role. Moreover, there’s room here for depth and a furthering of this story. This film does tread dangerously in Bond territory by having Cross swoop in multiple times at the right moment to save the damsel in distress as well as introduce a rare human villain to the story, an expertly trained assassin named LARX. These elements can seem out of place or desperate, but I feel they worked. The Bourne Legacy succeeds at providing some truly terrifying moments in a story about a guy who should have all of the advantages. This along with some interesting locations and a great cast make me feel confident that we’re not done with Bourne yet. B

The Bourne Legacy is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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