Big Eyes ★★★1/2


(This is based on a true story that happened in San Francisco during the 1960’s.)

When we first see Walter, we immediately like him. He’s upbeat, cheerful, and optimistic. Margaret is spellbound by his personality, falls in love with him, and they will have some happy times together.

Walter is performed by Christoph Waltz, a great actor, who adds depth to his likeability. He is able to evoke mystery underneath cheerfulness. We do admire Walter’s personality. But we also ask: who is this guy? Amy Adams, as Margaret, gives a compatible performance as a depressed divorcee and aspiring painter. In Walter, she has found a surge of inspiration to her life. The movie’s title is named after her paintings which all have children with big sad eyes.

It is best to know little more about the movie prior to seeing it. It contains narrative twists to be appreciated. The film is directed by Tim Burton and is not of his usual kind. Instead of over-the-top style (although the aesthetic is still pleasing and colorful), he focuses on substance. He pays more attention to character development which makes this movie one of his most intriguing pictures.

Big Eyes is nearly a great film if not for its predictable ending. In a way, the ending is inevitable. But if the writers Scott Alexander Larry Karaszewski had made it more complex or tragic, for instance, that may have helped complete a great cinematic experience. Otherwise, the film is very good, intriguing, and quite emotionally involving. The performances elevate this movie.

A Most Violent Year ★★★

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Abel follows his own way. Compared to Mafioso characters from other movies, he avoids violence. It’s unwise for business, he explains.

Abel’s immediate goal is an investment. He wants to own and run a gasoline plant. We believe that he will more than succeed. But he doesn’t have enough money to afford it so he makes a down payment to secure 30 days for full payment. He reaches out to friends and mafia connections to help borrow the difference.

A Most Violent Year is about Abel, his methods, his ambition. Abel is a man who gives respect and expects it in return. His wife is different, a bit more aggressive in terms of settling their business troubles. Conversations reveal that she may have connections to carry out the dirty work. But Abel stands fast and is not influenced by her methods.

Oscar Isaac, as Abel,  gives a subdued performance that is engaging. Jessica Chastain is not too recognizable as a seductive wife. But the best thing about the film would be the dialogue. Particularly in the scenes where Abel is negotiating with the characters that he loans from, there is a mesmerizing clarity in how messages are being delivered.

The film is directed by J.C. Chandor whose short filmography includes Margin Call, a movie with lots of dialogue, and All Is Lost, where there is no dialogue. A Most Violent Year is somewhere in between, a movie with articulate discussions but also depending on atmosphere. It’s a low budget picture as evidenced in the limited scenery and lack of characters in sight. But the film still works and it’s quite interesting. 

The Imitation Game ★★


Alan Turing invented a complex machine to decode German Morse codes during World War 2. In doing so, he provided the British with an important strategy to winning the War. Turing is a hero and The Imitation Game respects that.

The film details his personality and its  formation. We see his past and present, effectively interchanging to help us understand him. At present, he is a genius, outstanding among his work-peers in thinking and approach. Then in the past, we see a child who is a victim of bullies, inattentive at school, and already interested in Cryptology. It all makes sense, perhaps too much that the narrative begins to feel familiar. Geniuses, in movies, have been depicted as condescending characters that have endured some form of torment.

It’s interesting how The Imitation Game classifies as a thriller. There are only a few moments of mystery and deceit. There isn’t much apprehension. Turing’s decoding team are composed of intellectuals who are smarter than the rest of the characters. They even have an attractive female member who becomes Turing’s wife. An interesting turn is taken when Turing reveals that he is gay. The film depends on its characters, not action or momentum.

All the performances are good and they include Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Charles Dance. Benedict Cumberpatch, who was nominated for an academy award in the lead role, suits the part. As Turing, he presents the persona of a fragile narcissistic who we can sympathize with. It’s a convincing personification.

But The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum, is an elegant portrayal of time and place, of history. That would probably be its best quality. It’s a good looking picture, care of cinematographer Oscar Faura. It contains intrigue and the lead character is interesting, but as respectable as the subject matter is, this film isn’t much of a thriller. It is a familiar character driven story. Viewers, you decide on whether this would be your type of film.

Force Majeure ★★★


At a ski resort in the French Alps, an avalanche tumbles its way towards a patio where tourists prepare for lunch. At first sight, the people are unsure about the danger. Then as it comes incredibly close, a panic ensues and in the confusion, a father runs away from his family.

Force Majeure, a Swedish film directed by Ruben Ostlund, tackles the repercussions of that event in a confrontational way. It’s primarily a drama of insightful dialogue and evocative silent portions. There is subtle comedy and an artistic touch(The peaceful snowy landscapes are a contrast to the emotional turmoil of its characters). It is an unusual film.

The protagonists are Tomas(Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba(Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children. On the side, there is another couple who are Matts(Kristofer Hivju) and Fani(Fanni Metelius). In a way, Tomas is the main character because the story is about discovering his inner self. He denies leaving Ebba and their children during the avalanche and insists that Ebba misinterpreted his actions.

Ebba is naturally distressed, raising the topic even with friends, Mats and Fanni. They too get affected and with one another. The ripple doesn’t stop there- The entire film becomes a thought provoking experience for the viewer, maybe even uncomfortable for some. 

That’s because the films reflects on a question: How much do we care for our loved ones? Mats raises his own views on the primal instinct of self-preservation. However, he could be saying that to make Ebba feel better, by hiding the fact that Tomas acted selfishly at the avalanche.

It’s a sticky film that raises discussions. But that’s because it dwells on a nature that everyone carries – imperfection. And the conflict within Tomas could be his inability in accepting his flaws. There’s comedy in that.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ★★★★


If you want medieval battle scenes, then you got it, the best of the trilogy in that regard. Here is a first rate action picture that delivers with passion and enthusiasm.

The plot is simple: A group of armies do battle over a palace that hides an astounding supply of gold, the most ever shown in the movies. The palace originally belonged to the Dwarves who lost their ownership after a large fire breathing dragon named Smaug took over. In the previous chapter, it leaves the palace to attack  residents in Lake City, that wonderfully imagined small town where boats are the main form of transportation. In the dragons absence, the dwarves and Bilbo the Hobbit(Martin Freeman) take over the palace as it slowly begins to cast a spell on Dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage). Meanwhile Gandalf(Ian Mckellen), Elrond(Hugo Weaving), Galadriel(Kate Blanchett) encounter Sauron the evil spirit and his ghost knights in another location.

Now there are some movie reviews that complain about how Bilbo is not given enough attention. There are also reviews that complain about how the movie is not as good as the book. However with that said, shouldn’t a movie be appreciated for what is on the screen? The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is captivating escapism.

The computer graphic imagery continues to create fantastic landscapes with battles to paste them on. The scenery is grandiose with jutting mountains, creatures that burst out of the earth, pigs used like cavalry horses, and mountain goats with Dwarves mounted on them. Their motions are fluid, the action is creative, and it’s filled with excitement. One advantage that fantasy films have is that their violence can grow into surrealism. Instead of disturbing experiences, they are spectacles of art and graceful motions. Some are inventive and funny -this may be the only movie where a Troll intentionally uses his head to break into a city wall and then collapse unconscious afterwards. All this escalates into a final battle that takes on an icy lake where the Orcs prove how dangerous they can be.

This is a film of astonishing imagery. It is difficult to fault it based on comparisons with a book. It should be a simple matter of whether the subject matter attracts you. With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, director Peter Jackson demonstrates a mastery over his vision of the subject. And it is an engaging sight from start to finish.

Exodus: Gods and Kings ★★★1/2


Exodus: Gods and Kings is not getting the credit it deserves. Have audiences forgotten about the story of Moses? It is one of the greatest ever told and although Ridley Scott’s version may not win the award for best screenplay, it is still a magnificent retelling with effective acting.

The film runs at about 2 hours and 20 minutes. That might seem long but it’s because there are many important events. In fact, an extra 20 minutes or so of character development could have elevated this experience to excellence. As it is, it feels compressed particularly at some turning points of the story. It might have been appreciated if they had developed the inner conflict of Ramesses ll (upon discovering that Moses is not his real brother). The movie shortens that development and Moses is thrown into exile too soon.

But the performances are quite good. Despite some misplaced American accents, the portrayals of character behaviors are sound. Moses should be a very difficult part to play because of his wrenching inner-conflict. But Christian Bale evokes him quite impressively. Not many actors can combine multiple qualities in a character. Bale is able to evince a character who carries inherited pride, subtle mercy, logic, and spirituality. It is not an award winning performance perhaps. But it shows an acting range that is uncommon. Joel Edgerton as Ramesses ll is another good performance. As Rameses who becomes an enemy to Moses, his jealousy is challenged by a faint brotherly affection. He appears firm and merciless, but is still thoughtful. Other performers of this movie include John Turturro and Ben Kingsley in supporting roles where they are well placed.

Scott is a master of spectacles. The plagues that strike Egypt are executed with special effects that generate a lot of terror. The sea crossing is demonstrated with a lowering of the tides instead of a two-sided parting as depicted in other versions.  The kingdom of Egypt is given the grandeur scenery of large statues and tombs, with slaves working constantly under poor conditions of dust and dirt. Interesting so, the battles are not that interesting. Perhaps it’s because we have seen Scott direct them several times in other films. But yet, they are still well staged here.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an above average epic film. Like most films, it does have moments that feel less important. Some could have been replaced with character developmental moments. But Scott is known for fashioning his movies into action adventures. His style works here. After all, the tale of Moses is as much about external motivations as internal. And the film contains enough to explain character actions. It is both an involving and visually exhilarating picture.

Foxcatcher ★★★


Through a narrow view, Foxcatcher is about a man who was trying to live up to his mother’s expectations. Coming from a prestigious ancestry, the protagonist John du Pont silently bears their reputation like a weight carried in his mind. His mother only appears in a couple of scenes, looking at him with dissatisfaction, and we sense a powerful influence.

Du Pont, played by Steve Carell with a partly prosthetic face, is an observing character who holds his chin up in forced pride. It appears that he has a genuine interest in bird-watching although later it suddenly shifts to Olympic wrestling. He decides to start a training camp and employs a team of wrestlers to represent America in the next Olympic event. The trainer he hires is a former gold medalist named Mark Schultz.

Schultz (Channing Tatum) is another troubled individual. He’s a winner of his sport but doesn’t behave accordingly. Something is incredibly lacking for him and du Pont’s invitation to train and live in his estate provides him with an opportunity to be motivated. Like du Pont, Mark is seeking to be more than just reputable – his caring older brother is also a gold medalist and is played by Mark Ruffalo who gives the best performance in the film.

This unusual relationship between Mark Schultz and DuPont is what constitutes the movie. Mark grows to respect du Pont not only as a benefactor but also a friend. But what about du Pont? His ambition is to be responsible for creating team Foxcatcher, the wrestling team that would secure him with another accomplishment for his family’s legacy. Apart from that, he shows little interest in befriending anyone.

Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller and which is based on a true story,  is an absorbing drama that develops its events and characters at a creeping pace. It fails to maintain a consistent line of events (from the point when Mark and du Pont celebrate their victory at a convention, the next scene jumps too far forward to Marks degenerating habits). But it contains a lot of mystery and provokes thoughts on the misguided paths of human nature.