The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “Dramas”

New On The Shelf – Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a 2014 psychological crime thriller directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. The films screenplay is written by Gillian Flynn, adapted from her novel of the same name. The movie revolves around a missing persons case that starts when Nick Dunne (Affleck) finds that his wife Amy (Pike) has gone missing from his house in what appears to be a violent kidnapping or possible murder. The film alternates between following Nick’s cooperation with the police as they conduct their investigation, and flashback sequences told through Amy’s diary about the couple’s somewhat troubled history.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is an excellent suspenseful human drama, perhaps not at its best, but certainly very close. Even though it clocks in at just around two and a half hours, I think most people will find it incredibly engaging. The plot is full of twists and turns and keeps the audience second-guessing at every turn. We are lead to believe quite a few things and it is difficult to tell what is really going on, but it is certainly a captivating story about the dark side of love and marriage. This does make it arguably the worst movie to watch on a first date. Or any date. Unless you are a mature adult in a healthy relationship where a movie isn’t going to make you think your spouse may be planning to kill you.

Gillian Flynn’s story and her script are definitely highlights of the film, but this is a case where a really good story has the right director to tell it. David Fincher is extremely talented and this movie is a perfect example of that. The color palette, the editing, and the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are all used to help create tension. Fincher is also unafraid to push the envelope with the crazy stuff we see in this movie, allowing scenes to truly rattle us. it’s another worthy edition in a distinguished filmography hat includes Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and The Social Network (2010). And I daresay that even with the same story and script, this movie probably wouldn’t have been as good in the hands of most other directors. They are a perfect match for each other.

Pike

With a great story and a great creative team, the only thing that could have been this movie’s downfall is the acting. Fortunately, that may be the best thing in the movie. Ben Affleck gives what may be a career best as an actor. He’s perfectly cast as an “every man” who is clumsily making mistakes, and really sells the anger that the situation makes him feel. I think my favorite scenes with Nick are whenever he addresses the media; seeing him start as a timid, awkward victim to the more confident speaker he becomes is a real treat and proof that Ben is a better actor than a lot of people give him credit for.

Rosamund Pike gives an extremely charismatic performance as Amy Elliot-Dunne. She impressively excels in the role of a narrator, which is not something that’s easy to do. She lures the viewer in to make us connect with her and hope that she is safe, and… well, I won’t spoil anything. Those who have seen the movie know just how good she is. Since I don’t want to get to into detail about Pike’s performance, I also want to recognize the work of of Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris and especially Tyler Perry. This is genuinely the only time where I found myself that there was more of Tyler Perry on my screen; his character is fantastic and provides some much needed comedic relief in a movie that gets very dark and unpleasant.

Lawyer

Gone Girl was one of favorite movies of 2014, hitting pretty much every note that I want in a pure drama film. Everything in this movie is well done, and I especially respect that Gillian Flynn was allowed the chance to adapt her book into a screenplay. Movies have been adapted from books for well over a century now, but it isn’t all that often that an author gets to be so in charge of the process. Flynn has proved that she has a lot of talent as a screenwriter and I hope that she continues to contribute in the future. Affleck gives one of his career best performances, Rosamund Pike genuinely breaks through as a star to watch out for, and David Fincher continues to prove how good of a director he is. If you haven’t gotten around to giving this movie a watch, I definitely recommend checking it out.

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New On The Shelf – Whiplash

Whiplash is a 2014 drama film telling the story of an exceptionally driven drummer named Andrew Neiman, studying at the prestigious jazz school Schafer Conservatory. His drumming skills attract the attention of Terrence Fletcher, the conductor for Schafer’s competitive studio band, and Neiman is added as the alternate drummer. While it is definitely an opportunity for Neiman, it soon turns into a nightmare as Fletcher is the most abusive monsters to ever take a teaching job.

The movie is directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Miles Teller as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to great critical acclaim and rode the momentum of good buzz all the way to five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Though it failed to secure that award or Best Adapted Screenplay, it was recognized for its editing and sound mixing. J.K. Simmons was the heavy favorite to win Best Supporting Actor and was able to win.

Whiplash

Terrence Fletcher may be role that J.K. Simmons was always meant to play; the character actor was probably best known for his portrayal as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy where he stole the show in every scene he was in. But here he brings his charisma to a meatier role with more of a spotlight, and creates perhaps the most despicable villain to grace the cinema in 2014. He doesn’t have super powers or a desire to take over the world like the bad guys in blockbuster films, but he has absolute control of his little kingdom and rules over his students as an abusive tyrant. It really is hard to put into words just how vicious and brutal Simmons is in this role; his verbal and physical abuse is so well done that many viewers walked away from the film feeling a certain degree of trauma. While that probably isn’t the most positive memory one might want to have associated with their film, it is a tribute to just how effective Simmons is as Fletcher.

While Simmons’ performance has deservedly gotten most of the hype, Whiplash is not a solo performance, but a duet. Miles Teller is a young actor who hasn’t done many roles that were on my radar; his most notable film besides this one is probably the commercially successful Divergent movie. But with this performance Teller has gotten himself on my radar as a talent to watch. Andy is a character that at first seems relatively normal and likable, but as the pressure from Fletcher and his own desire to excel mount, he shows an ability to explode just as loudly as Fletcher. He’s got moments of arrogance and blunt cruelty that smartly make him more than just a hapless victim.

Drums

I have read some reviews that criticize the film’s attitude toward music or art in general. Fletcher in particular makes a comment saying that the worst thing anybody can tell a musician is “Good job.”. Why people act like the movie is trying to offend their sensibilities is beyond me; Fletcher is clearly the villain and while he might make an interesting point or two, everything he says has to be approached from that lens. He’s the bad guy; he’s supposed to say things that aren’t true or healthy. I have also seen some criticism towards the actual quality of the music, which I have to admit isn’t my area of expertise. This is a blog about comic books, professional wrestling and movies; I never claimed to know good music when I hear it.

What I do know is that Whiplash is an excellent drama with two phenomenal characters, played by actors who are clearly sinking their teeth into the role and riffing off each other’s performances. Teller and Simmons are able to tell so much of what their characters are going through with their body language and their eye movement that it was impossible for me not to be captivated by them. Another thing I greatly appreciate about the movie was that it didn’t overstay its welcome; at just 106 minutes it feels refreshingly quick and devoid of pointless filler. I saw this movie in the same week that I saw Christopher Nolan’s three-hour Interstellar and I can’t express how thankful I was for tight editing after that. The movie’s pacing is perfect, almost as relentless as an action film, and builds to a brilliantly executed climax. The final scene is deeply satisfying and may actually be worthy of the cliched “you will cheer” comment you’ve probably seen on bad movie reviews.

Fletcher

Whiplash was one of the best films of 2014 and I don’t have anything but praise for it. However, I cannot give it a universal recommendation. If you are somebody who has suffered through verbal, physical or emotional abuse, think very carefully before seeing this film. Simmons won an Oscar for playing one of the cruelest, most sadistic characters I’ve ever seen, and that isn’t the easiest thing to sit through. With that caveat out of the way, Whiplash is definitely a film I recommend to fans of great acting and really good movies.

New On The Shelf – The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is a 2014 historical thriller and biopic of Alan Turing, the inventor of what would eventually become our modern computers and one of the most unsung heroes of World War II. Directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, the film’s primary focus is on Turing and other cryptanalysts working to decode the Nazi’s “Enigma Code”. While most of them pursue more traditional means of decryption, Turing creates a spectacular machine that will be able to calculate and decipher the code faster than any human could ever hope to.

The movie also recounts Turing’s personal history, from his childhood with few friends to his life as a persecuted gay man in a time when simply being homosexual was considered illegal in the United Kingdom. Turing is a man of startling intellect but considerable social awkwardness, as well as obsessive compulsive tendencies. As a viewer with Asberger’s Syndrome, I found myself deeply relating to Alan’s personality quirks and that personal connection has helped to make The Imitation Game one of my favorite films of 2014.

Doomed Couple

The best way I can describe The Imitation Game is “nothing you haven’t seen before, but it is exceptional well done.” I mean that more in the movie sense; it is a historical biopic thriller and they all have a certain degree of sameness to them. Fortunately, Turing’s life and his accomplishments are fascinating and tragically unappreciated. His work helped save the lives of millions and shorten World War II, yet had to be kept a secret until very recently. Instead of being celebrated as the hero he was, his country rewarded his existence by chemically castrating him simply because he preferred men. And while nobody can ever undo that injustice, this movie at least brings attention and honor to a remarkable and important man that history books have forgotten until recently.

Another reason for the film’s quality is the spectacular acting of Benedict Cumberbatch, who has already put together an impressive resume of impressive roles. But it is in this film that he gives his best performance to date. I have heard some refer to it as simply an exaggerated version of his take on Sherlock Holmes in the BBC crime thriller series Sherlock. I personally find this opinion insulting at worst but simply uninformed at best. The character of Sherlock and this adaptation of Turing’s life have very little in common outside of their brilliance; Sherlock is a borderline sociopath and narcissist. Turing is simply socially unaware and insecure. Benedict’s performance as Turing brings raw vulnerability but also unflinching brilliance to Turing’s personality; whatever Turing is saying, Benedict is able to completely sell the sincerity of it.

Broken

Benedict’s performance is the standout of the film to be sure, but most of the other actors turn in good work as well. Perhaps most surprising is Kiera Knightley, an actress who has shown flashes of talent in other roles but seems to elevate her game for this movie. I’ve never seen her so consistently good as she was in this and I hope it is a sign of things to come. Her character is tasked with delivering some of the most important and inspiring lines in the film, words that could have easily become cheesy and insincere if delivered poorly.

The Imitation Game is a movie that succeeds on multiple fronts. Those who enjoy learning about history’s unsung heroes will definitely find much to love here, as will any fan of World War II films. But there is also a very human drama going on as well, and those who are looking for a movie with great actors portraying inspiring people are likely to walk away satisfied. For me, I was deeply affected by this film and even thinking about it still makes me tear up a bit. That is the mark of a movie that has done its job well.

Alan Turing (1912-1954). Artist: Anonymous

As a special aside, this post is dedicated to the memory of Alan Turing, in recognition of his brilliance and his heroism. If you have not heard the story of this remarkable man, I recommend starting with this film and then doing further research.

New On The Shelf – Nightcrawler

When I heard that there was going to be new movie in theaters called Nightcrawler, I got extremely excited. After all, what’s not to love about everyone’s favorite blue-furred, elf-eared, demon-tailed teleporting X-Man? I love that guy!

Kurt Wagner

Sadly, Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir crime thriller has nothing to do with mutants. Fortunately, it is one of the best movies of the year and one that I’m very glad that I went out of my way to see. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a character that I believe will come to be revered as one of the greatest villain protagonists in film history as the movie gains more awareness. Louis is one of the more unsavory characters I can recall in recent film; he is a thief, a manipulator and con-man, and a murderer. Sociopathic and narcissistic, he is a character that is incredibly easy to dislike, but Jake’s performance and natural charisma also make it almost impossible to keep one’s eyes away from Bloom.

The film is set in Los Angeles and has one of the more original plots that I can recall. When Bloom is unable to scrape by with thieving and cannot secure an honest job, he is suddenly hit with a bolt of inspiration when he sees a freelance film crew documenting a car crash. Their intent is to sell the footage to the highest bidding local news channel; after all, violence and crime draw people’s attention and thus ratings. Realizing that he can strike a goldmine with this method of self-employment, Lou steals a bike and sells it for a camcorder, cons a desperate young man named Rick into becoming his assistant, and starts his career as a “stringer”, or as the movie indirectly titles him, a Nightcrawler.

Gyllenhaal

I think what sets this film apart from others is that it is unafraid to play against audiences expectations of morality. Generally, a protagonist is somebody who is essentially a good person; they may be rough around the edges but they have some line that they will not cross. Louis Bloom is the protagonist of this movie, but he is not a hero and not even an anti-hero. This is just a story about a horrible but captivating person who is willing to cross any line in order to be successful. That isn’t entirely new ground for a film, but I can’t think of many where a villain protagonist doesn’t endure any consequences whatsoever for his actions. Bloom is never arrested or killed and he doesn’t have anyone he cares about to lose; this is the story of his success. It’s just an ugly, reprehensible road to success.

The movie even cleverly uses swelling, triumphant music to manipulate the audience into rooting for Louis at his most vile moments. The film’s mood is established early on; it is clearly a neo-noir film that actually would probably be very effective if watched in black and white. Stylistically and narratively, it has most of the trademarks; only the femme fatale is missing because one of Lou’s defining characteristics is his own seductive nature. He’s able to coerce people into helping him and that just makes him all the more devilish. Watching Lou’s career as a stringer play out before us is not unlike the car crashes he is filming; horrible and tragic, but captivating in a morose way.

Camera

I do feel that Nghtcrawler is lacking in some critical areas though. As a character study, the main character is well defined and memorable, but most other characters are one dimensional and uninteresting, serving more like plot devices than actual people. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it is a noticeable flaw in the screenwriting and directing. Gilroy is a first time director and will likely improve in this category, but he should still be applauded for making a movie as good as Nightcrawler in his debut as a major director.

The one word that I would use to describe this film is “fresh”; it isn’t the best movie I have ever seen, but it feels new and different and is thus more engaging and thrilling than some other films that may be better put together. Gyllenhaal’s performance with the character is clearly the best thing in the film, and I feel that he was majorly snubbed by most award committees who should have at least nominated him. If you are in the mood for something different, or just want to see a great actor sink his teeth into a meaty role, Nightcrawler has you covered.

New On The Shelf – Selma

Selma is a 2014 historical drama film documenting the protest marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other prominent civil rights leaders of the times. Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., the film has received critical praise both for the entire film and for the performance of its leading star, with many award nominations thrown its way. Since this is a blog that tends to focus on things that I like, you can probably guess that my opinion doesn’t differ too far away from that.

Mostly.

Protest March

I believe the single strongest creative choice for this film was to not back it an autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Biopics that try to capture the entire life of a person can sometimes fall short, exchanging depth for breadth. Selma focuses on a single important event in the life of its main character and allows us to look into what is going on in Martin’s head at the time. While events like the CIA’s investigation into Martin’s life and the effects his life has on his family, all of the focus is on the protest marches. I really like this because I think MLK, Jr. would rather be remembered more for what his work helped to accomplish than for his winning personality.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t have one. David Oyelowo’s performance as the civil rights leader is easily the best thing about this movie. Oyelowo has said in interviews that he felt like God was pushing him to play the role, and that conviction is largely what sticks out about his performance. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most gifted public speakers of the last century and having bits of his speeches to use in the script certainly helps, but if Oyelowo’s delivery wasn’t spot on it would have been hokey and a detriment to the film. When he is preaching it feels like preaching should feel; it is easy to believe what he is saying and to be moved by it. Oyelowo also does very well with some of the quieter scenes and says a lot with only his facial expressions. The fact that his performance was not recognized by the Academy Awards this season still baffles me.

Selma

Not all of the cast is able to hold up to David Oyelowo’s standard of excellence though. Actually, that’s a little too kind; most of the other actors are just there. Most are fine and functional, but when David isn’t on screen the film does seem to falter quite a bit. The only other performances I can distinctly recall are Tim Roth and Tom Wilkenson. Tim Roth is a treasure in my opinion, an actor who always elevates whatever he is in. Portraying a racist like George Wallace is not an easy role for anyone and I always have respect for people who are willing to sink their teeth into a role like that knowing that it could hurt their reputation to some viewers. I unfortunately remember Tom WIlkenson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson for negative reasons. Wilkenson is a fine actor and has had several roles that I have enjoyed, but this isn’t one of them.

While most characters other than Martin Luther King, Jr. are more functional than genuinely interesting, the film does succeed on other levels. It manages to avoid the traps that some of these types of films by not portraying its main character like a complete saint or trying to get too inspirational. It just feels raw and real and that’s infinitely more powerful than forced sentiment. One of the biggest reasons this mood is achieved is the score by Jason Moran, which allows the truly horrific moments in this film to resonate without distracting from the emotion of what is going on. On the other end of the music spectrum is “Glory”, a song by Common and John Legend that plays at the end credits which is absolutely spectacular and deserves all of the praise it can get.

King

Selma is a very good film that doesn’t quite reach greatness in the traditional film making sense. But it is an extremely important film, and is surprisingly the first theatrical film with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its focus, which is really sad to me. This is a movie that I believe deserves to be watched and will probably hold up several years from now. It is definitely recommended both for being a good movie and for covering a topic that deserves more attention.

Always On My Shelf – The Shawshank Redemption

It is somewhat difficult to imagine a world in which The Shawshank Redemption isn’t one of the most universally celebrated movies of all time. The 1994 Frank Darabont drama film about an innocent man’s imprisonment and eventual escape is generally regarded as having one of the best screenplays ever, and has characters that have become iconic and defining roles for the actors. Andy Dufresne is easily the definitive role of leading man Tim Robbins and has come to be a symbol of perseverance, making the best out of terrible situations, and ultimately refusing to led the evils of the world tear you down. And while the distinguished Morgan Freeman has had many iconic roles in his career, Ellis Boyd Redding (better known to us as “Red”) is certainly one of the roles that helped define him as the master of charismatic, wise mentor figures.

Andy and Red

Similarly, Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown play two extremely memorable antagonists in Warden Samuel Norton and Captain Byron Hadley respectively. They have absolute power in their little section of the world and it has corrupted them; Hadley is a vicious bully to the inmates and Hadley uses Andy’s skills as a lawyer to carefully build an illegal fortune. These roles have definitely stuck with me; Brown has done a lot of voice work for animated projects and I still hear Hadley, and when Bob Gunton showed up as Leland Owlsley in Marvel’s Daredevil I immediately got an itch to watch this classic again.

So it is kind of weird to know that this film was not a box office success; poor promotion and a title that isn’t exactly clear hurt the film’s initial financial success. Critics loved it however, and those who did see it went out of their way to spread the word about the film’s quality. Perhaps the most important was Ted Turner, who loved the film and constantly had it played on his various television channels; this led to many people seeing it and wondering how such a great film sneaked under the radar. The film is now so popular and so respected that many have called it a great injustice that it did not win Best Picture at the Oscars despite stiff competition from Pulp Fiction and the eventual winner Forrest Gump.

Warden

The film enjoys such a high level of esteem that some who haven’t seen it might actually be underwhelmed from the hype. But I can’t imagine that would be a large section of people. The film has absolutely gorgeous cinematography, memorable characters and a wealth of great lines that engage the audience for its long running time. All of these elements work so well that even though I’ve seen this movie several times I still find myself becoming completely engrossed each time I watch it. And while there have been some very good prison dramas, I don’t think any has truly been able to recreate the magic of this one. Andy and Red are in Shawshank Prison for decades and we get a feeling for the passage of time.

One of the film’s brightest spots is a look at Brooks, an old jailbird who has been at Shawshank for fifty years when he is granted parole. Brooks has become institutionalized and finds himself unable to adapt to life outside of prison. He mentions that he saw an automobile once as a child but now they are all over the place. The world has passed him by and he has no place in it. This is a haunting idea that makes us even more sympathetic towards Andy when we find out he is truly innocent.

Brooks

But I think what ultimately is most memorable about this scene is the escape sequence. The movie is harsh and cold and sucks the viewer in to such a degree that one almost feels like they are in prison with these characters. So when Andy is finally able to escape and steps out into the rain a free man, it resonates with us deeply. It’s a powerful tribute to the human spirit and one of the greatest moments in film history. At least in this reviewer’s opinion.

There really isn’t much else to say. The Shawshank Redemption has a reputation and a legacy for a good reason; it is one of the very best movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it before, you owe it to yourself to see it before you die. And if you have seen it, I’m willing to bet that just reading about it has made you want to see it again. It’s one of those rare movies that I can watch over and over again and never be bored with.

Redemption

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