Aneesh Chaganty

Posts Tagged ‘2013’

The Place Beyond the Pines | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2013 at 8:40 PM

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The Place Beyond the Pines

(2013, US, d. Derek Cianfrance)

A cross-generational epic far different from its trailers yet far better than any expectations I had, The Place Beyond the Pines is a moving, thrilling, and thought-provoking film from Blue Valentine writer/director Derek Cianfrance.

To give much of the plot away woud be a disservice to what Cianfrance tries to accomplish. Told through three separate, but intertwining stories, The Place Beyond the Pines chronicles the complex, violence-ridden personalities in the small town of Schenectady, New York as well as the consequences of those characters.

Ryan Gosling plays Luke Glanton, a motorcycle stunt rider who visits Schenectady on a carnival tour. To his surprise, he receives a visit from Romina (Eva Mendes) – a woman we’re led to assume Glanton had a fling with the last time he was in town. It’s unclear what Romina’s intentions are with the visit – especially considering that she has a new husband and a son – but Glanton can’t get her out of his mind.

The next day, Glanton quits the carnival business, his mind set on creating a stable life for Romina. Jealous of her husband’s ability to provide for her, and torn by Romina’s conflicting emotions, Glanton is swayed into a get-rich-quick scheme proposed by Robin (Barry Mendelsohn), a shady and highly amusing local: rob a bank. What follows are some of the most high-octane and heart-stopping action sequences even Hollywood pros would swoon over.

To get into more of Glanton’s story would be giving away too much; be wary of any reviews that do. From there on in the film, we’re introduced to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious police officer forced to face the consequences of a police incident at the beginning of his story arc. As he tries to move on past the event, a series of obstacles – both internal and external – block his path to moving on.

There are a few other surprises here as well, but I don’t want to get into them as much. The most you’ll get out of this movie will only come from knowing the least about it, which sort of puts me into an uncomfortable position. But enough about the plot.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a touching, sobering, hypnotic and beautifully photographed experience, more lyrical than formulaic. Don’t let the marketing campaign fool you: this is a quiet picture, but it’s a picture with a lot to say. About guilt. About absence. About fatherhood. About love.

Derek Cianfrance seizes full control of the camera’s motion, taking overused tricks and employing them slowly and effectively to increase tension and illuminate character. His wide, repetitive sweeping shots capture immense arrays of emotion, underscore the mirror-relationships of the three stories, all the while still staying true to the heart of the constantly evolving picture. In fact, for as poetic as this film is, there are enough plot-twists to keep a popcorn audience coming back for more.

Powerfully acted, intimately told, and painfully moving, The Place Beyond the Pines marks a significant milestone for Derek Cianfrance’s career. Transitioning from the scale of Blue Valentine to this isn’t easy, but he makes it look that way. I guess that’s what happens when you spend 30 drafts and 5 years on a script. In any case: keep a keen eye out for this film. 

As early as it is, I have a strong feeling this may end up at on the higher side of my Top 10 of the year list. It’s just that good.

Snitch | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2013 at 5:14 PM

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Snitch

(2013, US, d. Ric Roman Waugh)

Sometimes, even January-release action movies have a way of surprising you. Take Snitch. From every poster, teaser, spot, or interview, Snitch comes off like a poor man’s version of last year’s Contraband. The ads feature a ripped Dwayne Johnson kicking ass, explosions, one-liners, and a “father save son” plot line that’s been recycled by Hollywood studios for years.

But then you actually see the movie, and all the trouble you went through of having to convince your friends to go to it because it was the only halfway-decent flick playing in theaters (sorry, Identity Thief) goes away. To be honest, I was a huge fan of this film, mostly because it was nothing like what I expected to be, and partly because it was actually kinda good.

Snitch tells the story of John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), a divorced construction company owner, who learns in the beginning of the film that his son, Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested. A brief opening scene has already introduced us to Jason and has given the details of his arrest: Jason nervously agrees to a favor – hold some drugs for a friend for a day until that friend can pick it up. When Jason receives the package, it turns out to have a DEA tracker placed on it, and pretty soon law enforcement has surrounded his house. Though Jason has never dealt drugs, his friend – who it turns out was already arrested at the time he made the request – was the one who set him up, in order to reduce his own sentence.

Jason, however, doesn’t want to turn anyone else in for a shorter sentence. So it’s pretty much praying at this point that Jason receives the minimum sentence he can, which is 10 years. When Matthews comes into the picture, we can see the guilt he carries with him on his face. He was never there for Jason growing up and hasn’t ever been, either. Matthews decides to do something about it.

Using his own connections, Matthews tracks down US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), a Congressional candidate running on a platform of strict anti-drug enforcement. Keeghan confides in him that, while there is nothing Jason can do now to reduce his sentence, if Matthews were to give information leading to the arrest of a higher drug dealer on the food chain, she could reduce Jason’s sentence to only a year. With the ghost backing of the DEA, Matthews begins to get into the world of drug trafficking.

By now, I’m hooked into the film. But it really wasn’t because of the content of it, but rather they way Waugh was executing it. Quiet, tense, and subtle, Snitch never allows its characters to drown underneath the heavy-handed plot or action. Rather, Waugh feels perfectly comfortable in letting performances evolve, breathe, and just marinate for 30 minutes before even introducing an element of action.

Minor spoiler: there’s one action scene in this entire film and it’s probably the most realistic vehicular derby scene I’ve witnessed in a very long time. The entire movie builds to it, and in any other movie, the scale of that kind of scene would be diminished so much, it would probably be placed in the opening 15 minutes of the movie. But in a movie like Snitch (believe me: I can’t believe I’m praising this movie, considering how bad I thought it was gonna be), it’d done right.

But it’s because Waugh pays close attention to his actors, to the tone, and to the material he clearly cares about (Waugh co-wrote the screenplay with Revolutionary Road scribe Justin Haythe), that he is able to transform this mainstream January release into an issue driven picture. 

This is the first time I’ve been able to call Dwayne Johnson an actor. He was subtle, carried the emotional weight of every scene on his shoulders, and listened to the actors and dialogue around him. But it’s not just Johnson that proved to be an exception. Film newcomer Jon Bernthal (from AMC’s The Walking Dead) turns in a power-house performance as a construction worked forced back into the drug business. What begins as a minor sub-plot and screenplay convenience to get Johnson a connection into the drug world turns into a complex and emotionally developed sub-plot, and it was probably the best surprise of the entire film. Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, and Michael Kenneth Williams all turn in fine supporting performances as well.

But at the end of the day, Snitch goes to Waugh’s credit. It’s hard to take something even studios see as a mindless, January release and turn it into a film of interest, real-life issue, genuine emotion, tension, and complex thematic content. And that’s exactly what he does here.

Broken City | MAD Review

In Uncategorized on January 19, 2013 at 8:24 PM

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Broken City

(2013, US, d. Allen Hughes)

Somewhere deep down under this film was a very good idea for a motion picture. It must have been the idea that got the likes of Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright and Kyle Chandler attached to Broken City, because I’ll tell you one thing: the script sure didn’t.

Broken City tells the story of Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg), a New York police officer forced to hand over his badge after a controversial shooting. However, New York City Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) believes Taggart, despite the situation, to be a hero so he keeps him out of prison. Now, seven years later, Taggart manages a private detective agency in the same city. Guess who comes back knocking on his door.

A week away from the mayoral elections, Hostetler believes his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is sleeping with the opponent’s campaign manager (Kyle Chandler) and hires Taggart to follow up on those hunches. Pretty soon, what started out like a simple case turns into chaos – nothing is as it seems and everyone is clearly hiding something.

A film noir craftily adapted for modern times by director Allen Hughes, Broken City falls apart not in the production, but in the writing. Newcomer writer Brian Tucker can never establish whether he wants to write a thought-provoking, adult drama or just a script that hits every plot point and marketable piece of material to appease any executive it’s read by.

There are moments when this film really works. The concept behind it is intriguing and the dilemmas the plot raises are more than enough to carry a film. Why then did Tucker feel the need to permeate the script with dialogue straight out of a Schwarzenegger flick? There were moments when all 7 members in the matinee audience cracked up and I’ll tell you something: it wasn’t because Tucker was being clever.

Another question is: “Why didn’t Hughes recognize the blatant flaws in the material?”. He already had the plot and the rich performances he needed (keep in mind, only great actors can make terrible, recycled lines come to life). It’s not that hard to snip away at the moments that don’t work. And there were a lot.

On top of everything else are the wasted subplots. I remember being partially invested in the story of Taggart and his actress-girlfriend, played by Natalie Martinez, but it’s just wasted space on paper that feels far longer than the 120 pages it must have consumed.

 In fact, if anyone was really paying attention to the material, they would have tried to explore the dilemma that is brought into the light in only the last 10 pages. If the rest of the movie were about that, it would have been far more interesting.

Broken City is a failed attempt to bandage a poorly-written story with crafty direction, strong performances (even thought it does feature a Russell Crowe who looks like he accepted the job offer in a tanning booth and reported straight to set), and a slick score straight out of The Social Network (the film was co-composed by Atticus Ross). It’s hard to watch a movie with such potential fall apart. But hey, at least the title will always serve as a great pun.

The MAD Challenge’s Top Films of 2012

In Uncategorized on January 1, 2013 at 2:54 AM

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Hey Readers!

First off, thank you for reading this. At every year’s end (this is my 5th time but first time on this website), I put together a list of what I consider to be the best films of the year. It’s actually one of my favorite things to do all year because I get to finally share a list I’ve been making since the first day of January.

2012 was an incredible year for American films. I don’t say this every year but if you look at the last 4 years, you’ll notice there’s hasn’t been this many good films on a large theatrical release at once since 2008. In fact, this awards season will be the most contenious – arguably – in a decade. Apart from a few real visionary directors, almost every major filmmaker released a film this year – which is rare and almost every one of those films was worth seeing.

The first section contains a description of the movies (in descending order) of the top 10 films of the year. It was extremely difficult making this list. Most of these films have cycled through every 1-10 position and it was all debated endlessly. The movies that got the 2nd, 3rd, or even 5th spots could have easily changed – but I do think this list represents a wholistic perspective.

The list after the Top Ten is an “Honorable Mention” (in alphabetical order). These are the films that came really, really close to making the Top 10, but didn’t.

The same goes for the third list – “The Best of the Rest”. These are the remaining stand-out films of the year. It’s a sort of runner-up list but don’t think these movies are any worse than the ones on the main lists. Some of these films will blow your mind away. Just keep yourselves open and give them a shot.

Finally, I end with two other categories: “The Most Disappointing Films of the Year” and, to be fair, “The Films I’ve Yet To See”.

Enjoy! And I hope you continue to check this site out in 2013!

The MAD Challenge’s Top 10 Films of the Year (Among Other Lists) 

10. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (d. John Madden) – The most pleasant surprise of the year comes disguised as a British movie about old people, when in reality, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is actually…well, it still is a British movie about old people – but it’s a very moving one. Most of the credit here goes to a very solid screenplay and an even better cast. Featuring the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy – Hotel tells the story of a group of senior citizens who all decide to “outsource” their retirement to the less expensive and exotic country of India (Fox Searchlight). By chance, they all end up staying at the same hotel. On paper, though a strong story, it doesn’t sound like this would be anything to write home about, but the elements all come together perfectly here. And I’m a very strong critic when it comes to foreign films that portray India. Funny and heartwarming, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a must-rent.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (d. Stephen Chbosky) – A film I really believe every teenager should be required to see, Perks is one of the most relevant and impactful films of the year. Treated with extreme sensitivity and honesty, Perks is really the result of the careful eye of director Stephen Chbosky. Easily surpassing the wannabe Hollywood coming-of-age stories, Perks of Being a Wallflower treats high school novelty, highs and lows, loneliness, depression, and pain the way it should be treated. Its result is an inspiring and universal tale we can all relate to.

8. The Impossible (d. J.A. Bayona) – It’s very rare that I weep during films. It’s even rarer that I admit I have. The Impossible is one of those films that really lives up to the promise of its trailer: It’s a film about the human spirit set against the most terrifying times. The Impossible chronicles the lives of 5 English family members (led by an incredible Naomi Watts, an underrated Ewan McGregor, and featuring a powerhouse debut from the young Tom Holland) vacationing in Thailand when a deadly tsunami hits the coast. This true survival story quickly overcomes a stitled beginning to become one of the most touching, breathtaking, and emotional films of the year. Grounded in strong thematic awareness, The Impossible is lensed beautifully and never lets the disaster sequences (which are terrifying) overshadow the heart of the piece.

7. Anna Karenina (d. Joe Wright) – Despite mediocre reviews and an average box office run, this fresh revisitation of the Russian tragedy is worth the price of admission. One of my favorite filmmakers of our generation, Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) and (godsend) cinematographer Seamus McGarvey infuse the world of St. Petersburg and Moscow with such rich color, movement, and interpretation, it’s very easy to be swept away by the melodrama in the piece. The story of Anna Karenina sounds like a bore – like an out-of-touch movie by a filmmaker who’s become far too emotionally irrelevant. But I promise you: the film is anything but. Relevant and moving, Anna Karenina also features a captivating performance by Keira Knightley.

6. Life of Pi (d. Ang Lee) –  As a huge fan of the potential of 3D, I was impressed to find Life of Pi a beautiful symbiosis between technology and storytelling. A film that’s able to use 3D as a means to tell its story and to convey the emotional arc of the chraracter at its core, Life of Pi is a very commendable adaptation of what you’d think to be an impossible book to adapt. Life of Pi is split into two parts: the first chronicles Pi’s upbringing and his religious enlightment; the second places that newly formed character into the most dire of circumstances: survival in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Though I still think the book is better, it’s a rare feat for an adaptation to be this good and to feel this original and honest. Ang Lee’s sensitivites lend a powerful hand to a film that, despite a huge budget and massive scale, never forgets what it’s really about.

5. The Imposter (d. Bart Layton) – One of the strangest and most horrifying true crime stories is the tale of Nicholas Barclay (or Frédéric Bourdin, depending on how you’d like to look at it) captured in the chilling “documentary” The Imposter. By putting the genre of documentary in quotations, I don’t mean to insinuate the story isn’t true, but it’s one of the most unique formats a documentary has ever adopted. And in doing so, the film completely feels like fiction narrative. To give any of the plot away would really be unwise or downright unbelievable. The trailer itself will give you chills; but the experience of watching the movie was unlike anything I’ve experienced because I had nothing to relate it to. The most original film of the year, The Imposter is a must-see for any fans of thrillers, horror films or action movies. Maybe even toss in absurdist comedies, too.

4. Silver Linings Playbook (d. David O. Russell) – Russell’s strongest addition to an impressive filmography, Silver Linings Playbook is a meticulously chronicled story of recovery set against the backdrop of a very dynamic group of characters. Though it could be dismissed as a feel-good romantic comedy, Playbook is anything but that. Bradley Cooper gives his best performance to date as Pat Soltano – a man who’s lost his job, his house, his wife, and for some time, even his sanity – and Jennifer Lawrence (in what I predict to be an Oscar winning performance) is really able to capture nuances in a very troubled woman. Bolstered by an even more impressive supporting cast (and featuring the best Robert DeNiro performance in 12 years), Silver Linings Playbook is uplifting, powerful, but most of all: painfully honest.

3. Zero Dark Thirty (d. Kathryn Bigelow) – Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most intense movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. It’s ability to objectively portray not only a seriously complex issue but also a morally ambiguous one was incredible and its discerning camera never shies away from exposing a harsh reality, even if it’s about the American people (one big difference between it and Argo – another action film based on a real life political event). The film is about catching Osama bin Laden. It begins on September 11th, 2001 and ends on May 2nd, 2011 – the day after bin Laden was killed.  It follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative working in the Middle East with the sole task of capturing bin Laden. The film’s timeframe perfectly captures its most basic emotion: frustration. For ten years, Maya follows lead after lead, name after name, and investigation after investigation – searching for the tiniest lead to bin Laden. But nothing works out. And for 2 and half hours, the audience is as frustrated as Maya. This is not an insult – it’s an incredible feat for Bigelow to achieve while keeping audiences as gripped as ever. I was enthralled. Every single person watching this movie knows what happens at the end, but the film is crafted so well, it doesn’t matter. We still fear for 2 whole hours. But the only thing that’s better than the first 2 hours of the film are the last 30 minutes, which showcase the true potential of American power. It felt real. It felt visceral. I had goosebumps the whole time. A gripping procedural anchored by a powerhouse and subtle performance by Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty is intense, risky, relevant, and moving.

2. Argo (d. Ben Afleck) – Argo has a lot in common with Zero Dark Thirty and it was a tough decision ranking them, but as a fan of films that balance popcorn entertainment with serious thought, I had to put this first. Argo is based on the recently declassified true story of how Hollywood and the CIA partnered together to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis. A finely-tuned script brought to life under the careful eye of director Ben Afleck, Argo is filled to the brim with high tension, action, and even humor. And though I would have loved to see someone other than Afleck in the lead role (it always seemed like Afleck cared more about directing the film than paying attention to his character), an exciting ensemble and rich story easily subdues any qualms about the story, or its blatant pro-American stance. The most emotionally accessible film to a mainstream audience, Argo blends history with the right amount of excitement, originality, and adrenaline to produce the most enjoyable ride of the year.

1. Django Unchained (d. Quentin Tarantino) – Once a year, you watch a film in theaters that reminds you of watching movies as a kid. It reminds you of movies in which every plot twist was treated with surprise, every swear word made us flinch, every tear touched our heart, and when every gun shot quickened our heart beat. It reminds us of what movies could do. That’s what watching Django Unchalned felt like. The film tells the story of a freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter named Django (played by Jamie Foxx) as he begins a journey to rescue his enslaved wife, Bromhilda (Kerry Washington), with the help of fellow bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Part western and part blaxploitation, Django walks a fine line between reality and fiction. And much as he did with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino uses the historical setting, in this case: the pre-Civil War period, as a backdrop to explore themes of vengeance, subservience, and survival of the fittest. Django Unchained is a wholly original film – and another masterpiece (albeit a highly controversial one) from Quentin Tarantino. Much like his other films, it borrows from a hundred before it, but is still able to create something new and gripping. Django Unchained is clever, hilarious, and horrifying – often at the same time. It’s the perfect blend of high style and confident storytelling and Tarantino’s signature, and developed maturity, is inscribed deep in every frame.

 Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order):

The Avengers (d. Joss Whedon), Chronicle (d. Josh Trank), End of Watch (d. David Ayer), Hope Springs (d. David Frankel), Hyde Park on Hudson (d. Roger Michell), The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson), Paranorman (d. Chris Butler, Sam Fell), Safety Not Guaranteed (d. Colin Trevorrow), Skyfall (d. Sam Mendes), Wreck-it-Ralph (d. Rich Moore)

The Best of the Rest (In Alphabetical Order): 

21 Jump Street, Arbitrage, Bernie, Cabin in the Woods, The Dark Knight Rises, Flight, Goon, The Grey, Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hunger Games, The Intouchables, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Killing Them Softly, Les Misérables, Lawless, Moonrise Kingdom, Promised Land, Rust and Bone, Sound of My Voice, Your Sister’s Sister

The Most Disappointing Films of the Year (In Alphabetical Order): 

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brave, Lincoln, Magic Mike, Prometheus, Rise of the Guardians, Seven Psychopaths, This is 40

Please Note: This is not a list of the worst films of the year. This is a list of the films with actual artistic credibility that severely underwhelmed.

Movies I Have Yet to See (In Alphabetical Order):

Amour, Bully, Cloud Atlas, The Deep Blue Sea, Frankenweenie, How to Survive a Plague, Holy Motors, The Hunt, Indie Game: The Movie, Keep The Lights On, Killer Joe, Middle of Nowhere, The Paperboy, Quartet, The Raid: Redemption, Robot & Frank, Savages, Searching for Sugar Man