MSPIFF14 Reviews: Proxy and The Animal Project

Happy Wednesday everyone! Ok, we’re down to the last two batches of MSPIFF reviews. Today we’ve got two from Josh  from JJames Reviews.

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PROXY

Review by Josh P.

Proxy-PosterProxy begins with Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen), who is nine months pregnant, at an ultrasound appointment, talking to a technician (Shayla Hardy). Rasmussen’s stunningly removed vocal and facial affect tells us that Esther is, at the very least, depressed. Co-writer/director Zach Parker’s decisions are just as unsettling. For instance, Esther’s pregnancy belly is shaped oddly; the sonogram never looks like a fully formed baby; the technician’s conversation is bizarre; and so forth. Everything about the opening scene tells us that something is wrong, foreshadowing the next development, when someone with skinny legs and a red sweatshirt brutally attacks Esther. The mother survives, but the baby does not, and so begins a series of off-putting conversations, culminating in Esther meeting Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins) at a support group. The two women form a friendship, but their relationship is complicated by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, Patrick (Joe Swanberg), Anika (Kristina Klebe), Peyton (Xavier Parker) and Melanie’s own mental instability. 

In the early going, Proxy is atmospherically mind-bending, featuring considerable tension that causes confusion without frustration. It helps that the two featured characters, and the actors who play them, are compelling. Esther and Melanie are disturbed but still interesting, especially Esther, whose mental illness we do not understand until it’s too late.

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Throughout, Parker’s artistic decisions—including a slow-motion sequence and an odd fantasy in the picture’s climax—build tension. Rasmussen’s entrancing performance helps just as much. In her hands, Esther might be a psychopath, a broken victim or something in between. 

Unfortunately, Proxy does not sustain such quality, largely because many of the twists make Melanie less believable, but mostly because Patrick and Anika are not as interesting as Esther and her new friend. Swanberg plays Patrick with, more or less, a single facial expression, one that makes a would-be complex character decidedly one-note. As such, whenever Proxy focuses on him, it suffers. Ditto that for Anika, though for different reasons. Klebe’s performance is fine, but the character she plays is poorly written, so poorly that Anika is archetypal, unexplained and unbelievable. 

Parker and Donner’s portrayal of women doesn’t help either. The three primary females are, to varying degrees, insane, and the minor characters are either insensitive or weak.  Would I call Proxy sexist? Probably not, but, at the least, I can understand why some (including Slant magazine) have. And, whether or not the film is biased, such characterization means we never genuinely empathize with any of these characters. In turn, we never feel Proxy’s would be emotion (I am aware that Slant’s review makes this point, as well).

For all of that, Proxy remains interesting enough to warrant a tepid recommendation, if only because, it does successfully buy our interest. We want to know what will happen next.

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2.5 out of 5 reels


The Animal Project

Review by Josh P.

The-Animal-Project-PosterWhat with simple focus on a small acting class, The Animal Project is not the most complex movie at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, but it is nonetheless a solid, character-driven dramedy.

In centering her Canadian film on Leo (Aaron Poole), a father, widower and acting teacher, writer/director Ingrid Veninger wisely chooses a complex and likable protagonist. Leo contends with considerable baggage, not the least of which is a positive but strained relationship with his eighteen-year-old son, Sam (Jacob Switzer), and muddled interaction with one of his students, Saul (Joey Klein). Eventually, Leo devises a plan to challenge his students by having them dress up in costumes and walk around town, offering free hugs to people they meet. 

That is, more or less, the extent of The Animal Project’s plot, which is why it proves meritorious that Veninger develops some interesting characters. Leo, Sam and Saul are all multidimensional. Even better, Leo and Sam’s father-son relationship forms a terrific emotional core, one that produces several moments of intense feeling, both when the two argue and when they reconcile. 

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The relationship between Leo and Saul, however, is less skillfully written. Though Leo probably is not gay, the two men share odd, underexplored sexual tension. Even by the end of the movie, we do not fully understand how these two men relate, or why they do so. Perhaps that is why The Animal Project is best when it focuses on Sam or Leo.

Or maybe it’s because the rest of the acting class characters are all undeveloped. Of them, Pippa (Jessica Greco) is the best, but that’s mostly because she’s intimately connected to both Leo and Sam. Ray (Emmanuel Kabongo) is worst. Alice (Hannah Cheesman), Jason (Jonathon Sousa), and Mira (Sarena Parmar) fall somewhere in the middle. In the end, even Pippa is underwritten, which means none of the secondary characters resonate, and The Animal Project stumbles every time it focuses on one of them, which it does semi-frequently. The film probably would have been better if it had been less ensemble and placed greater priority on Leo, Sam and Saul. 

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Still, The Animal Project is far from bad in its current form. With several laugh-out-loud funny moments and terrific acting performances all around (especially from Poole, Switzer, Klein and Greco), it is entertaining and occasionally moving. Not to mention worth viewing. 

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3 out of 5 reels

JJamesReviews


What do you think of these two films? Intriguing enough for you?

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Question of the Week: Which films with great ensemble cast that fail to deliver?

It really pains me that the movie that *inspired* me for this edition of Question of the Week is one I’ve actually been looking forward to for some time. When I first blogged about it in January 2013, I was super duper excited about the cast. The movie is called The Deadly Game in the UK, complete with an even cheesier poster. I much prefer the Paul Shipper version on below right, if only the film itself is even half as intriguing.

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I never thought a British thriller starring Gabriel Byrne, Rufus Sewell AND Toby Stephens be so insufferably dreary. Even the actors look bored here, only Rufus seems to be having a bit more fun than the rest. My hubby actually fell asleep halfway through and I didn’t bother waking him up. If it weren’t for these three of my favorite Brits, well four if you count London which is practically a character in itself, I would’ve turned it off within 10 minutes. I don’t really feel like reviewing it, but I agree with these reviewers:

All Things to All Men is the latest attempt to make a British Michael Mann-style crime epic based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Michael Mann actually does as a filmmaker. – The Scotsman

“Despite Sewell’s laconic ruthlessness, Stephens’s steely taciturnity and Byrne’s world-weary arrogance, there’s an all-round lack of conviction.”Radio Times

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Now this one sums my feelings exactly:

“[George Isaac's] dizzying array of double-dealing gangsters, cops, hoodlums and hit men seem to be weirdly obsessed with taking in the sights. Issac describes his film as “a love letter to London”. Seriously, they should just get a room.”

So the only *character* that’s not wasted is London, but even so, the setting seems has no purpose. There’s a great shot of Stephens inside the London Eye but all he does is take a phone call! There is really no reason to have that scene shot there other than for pure visual spectacle. It’s a shame really, this could’ve been so much better and more gripping when you’ve got THIS kind of talents involved. It made me think of other movies that didn’t deliver despite the great cast, in fact you could say the cast is completely wasted. And I’m talking terrible films here, not just middling. Just from the past couple of years alone, we’ve got Gangster Squad, Now You See Me, The Monuments Men. Fortunately I skipped some of those Love, Actually copycats like Valentine’s Day or New York, I Love You (which I turned off after about 5 minutes). Oh and I avoided Movie 43 like the plague, I mean I don’t think ANY actor could’ve possibly saved such a movie.


So now your turn… what’s the worst movie(s) you saw with a great ensemble cast?

Weekend Roundup & MSPIFF14 double reviews starring Juliette Binoche

Happy Monday everyone! Hope you all had a lovely Easter weekend.

I took a bit of a break from blogging this weekend, but this week has been pretty busy in terms of movie watching. It’s the last week of the MSPIFF 2014 and I saw three more films, one short of what I intended to see but fortunately there’ll be a press screening of Locke next Monday. As the film fest continues with Best of Fest screenings all week, there’ll be more reviews coming from both me and Josh ;)

Here are the three new movies I saw over the weekend:

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I’ve blogged about All Things To All Men quite a while ago and finally it’s available on Netflix streaming. Remember how I always say some movies are well worth seeing just for the cast. Well, in this case, the ONLY thing worth seeing is the three actors: Toby Stephens, Rufus Sewell and Gabriel Byrne in that order [I'm having a serious crush on Toby, didn't you notice?] Alas, the film itself left so much to be desired, and leaves me scratching my head why these actors signed on to do such a project. Did they lose a bet or something? I’m not sure I could even review it, but let me just say that unless you’re absolutely in love with any of the cast, I can’t exactly recommend it.

These two from MSPIFF, on the other hand, is well worth a look.

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A Thousand Times Good Night

Rebecca is one of the world’s top war photographers. She must weather a major emotional storm when her husband refuses to put up with her dangerous life any longer. 

This is one of those dramas that at times play out like a thriller. Even from the first moments when the protagonist is witnessing a ceremonial custom of an Afghan suicide bomber being prepped for self sacrifice, it’s quite an emotional roller coaster all the way to the very last scene.

For Rebecca (Juliette Binoche), covering the war is not just a job, it’s her way of life. When she comes home injured from Afghanistan, it’s apparent that it’s just as tough for her family to deal with her dangerous job. It’s apparent that her husband Marcus is constantly worried sick for Rebecca and this incident puts him over the edge which compels him to give her an ultimatum. It’s her family or her job. At first I felt that it’s not fair of him to do so, but as the film progresses, we’re shown how her two young daughters are dealing with her absence whilst she’s away in a war zone. It’s a tricky dilemma that I find myself grappling with as I watched this film. I read that this film is semi-autobiographical as Norwegian director Erik Poppe was a war photographer himself. No doubt this story is quite a personal one for him.

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The main quibble I have with the film is the slow pace. I don’t mind quiet moments on film, but at times it felt a bit too indulgent that it threatens to grind the film to a halt. The metaphor of Rebecca drowning/suffocating by her life dilemma also grows repetitive. But the cinematography is simply stunning, nearly every shot is like a work of art. It’s also very atmospheric and the conflict felt genuine. The sense of authenticity comes from a committed performance from the always-reliable Binoche, as well as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau who plays her sensitive & caring husband. I’ve always been a big fan of Nikolaj from his short TV stint in New Amsterdam, long before he played Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones, and he proves himself once again to be a capable and versatile actor. Lauryn Canny as Rebecca’s eldest daughter Steph is also quite good. When they’re in Africa, something happened that was quite traumatic for Steph. Some of the most emotional scenes in the film feature the two of them.

The heart of the film is no doubt Binoche. She conveys so much even in scenes where no words are spoken. This is the first of two films I saw her in and she’s absolutely excellent in both of these. There’s a certain aura of mystique about her that seems unreachable, and she’s very convincing as an fiercely idealistic woman. There is a fine line between bravery and recklessness and I think this film often blurs that line. There is a hint at the finale where Rebecca is back in Afghanistan that perhaps she’s a changed person after what happened between her and Steph, but the film lets us interpret that for ourselves.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


Words and Pictures

An art instructor and an English teacher form a rivalry that ends up with a competition at their school in which students decide whether words or pictures are more important.

Romance that’s sparked out of rivalry has been done many times before, but with the right cast, it can still feel fresh. The pairing of Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche is what intrigues me about this film and they’re still the reason to watch to movie.

Owen is Jack ‘Mr Mark’ Marcus, a gifted English teacher at an upscale prep school. His best days as a published author seems to be behind him and he’s got a drinking problem. Perhaps that’s a result of his disillusionment with his life, as he seems to have lost his mojo, as well as in danger of losing his job. Meanwhile, a renowned painter Dina Delsanto (Binoche) has just been hired at the school. Her nickname is icicle for obvious reasons, but her coldness seems to also stem from her disappointment that she can no longer paint as much as she did due to her server Rheumatoid arthritis.

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The two couldn’t be more different from each other, but as they say, opposites attracts. It’s fun to watch Owen in a softer role like this where he’s not firing a gun every two seconds, but his intensity is still there as he bud heads with the school principal and board members. He’s a deeply flawed character and in the most vulnerable moments, especially between him and his estranged son, is where I enjoyed his performance most. I wish the film would focus more on these two characters, as all the drama with the students are not as intriguing to me, and they don’t really add much to the story. The whole school competition of Words vs Pictures is more of a personal *war* for Marcus and Delsanto, and though it’s predictable that they’d end up together, it’s still fun to watch their banters. I personally like the pairing of Owen and Binoche more than him and Julia Roberts in Duplicity, which I find rather contrived. The only other actor I like in this movie is Bruce Davison as one of the more sympathetic faculty members.

Binoche is lovely here and it’s a testament to her versatility that she is also very convincing as a painter. I didn’t know that she’s an artist herself but in the credits I noticed that the Delsanto’s work is by Binoche, wow! I think out of the two films I saw last week, her dramatic chops perhaps suits something like A Thousand Times Good Night better. I like the idea of two broken people finding each other and to see a romantic film between people over the age of 40. Alas, I think the ending is almost as rough as Owen’s unkempt stubbles. Even the finale of the competition just didn’t have the oomph needed to make the story soar. Overall it’s an enjoyable dramedy though, eons better than a lot of the rom-coms are churning out these days. If you’re a fan of these two actors, this one is definitely worth a look.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


So what did you see this Easter weekend? Anything good?

Easter Special – ‘God is in the Movies’ Blogathon

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Today is Maundy Thursday, a few days before Easter Sunday. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for such a blogathon. Well, Andrew has planned this since mid March but he was gracious enough to extend the deadline, bless his heart!

I was actually planning to do a similar post for Easter anyway so I just had to participate!

The concept is simple. I want you to rack your brains for the film that, to you, defines how the Bible (and all of its facets) should be presented in film. Do you like your scripture presented in a grand, sweeping epic like 1956’s The Ten Commandments? Do you like your scriptures tampered with, as in Scorsese’s polarizing The Last Temptation of Christ? Do you want to see an artistic approach to God’s book, like with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?  Or, do you prefer your faith handled in a more provocative and less direct way, as in the many works by Ingmar Bergman?

So Andrew’s assignment is to pick a movie (or style) and write a post explaining WHY it is your preferred dip into the Bible.

It’s a simple question but I’m going to expand on that topic a bit. as I was planning to do a post on that before I saw Andrew’s blogathon, I’m including my commentary about how Biblical movies as well as Christ’ portrayal in the movies.

I was actually re-watching Ben-Hur (1959) as I started this post… and I always rewound the Jesus scene as the enslaved Judah was bound and chained en route to the Roman galleys. He was dying of thirst when he fell to the ground and whispered, ‘God, help me…’ Almost instantly, someone came to him and gave him water.

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That scene alone is wonderful, but the BEST part is when one of the Roman soldiers scolds the stranger for giving Judah water and is about to whip him. The man stands up and simply looks at him.

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The soldier’s thunderstruck expression is priceless. It’s as if he knew that the stranger could see through his entire being, and that makes him uneasy. He then starts backing away. Later Judah too looks up at the stranger and is rendered speechless. The end of the scene shows Judah looking so revitalized and full of hope that he barely noticed being whipped. He can’t take his eyes off his Savior as he’s led away, still in chains but somehow free.

So by mentioning that scene, I guess you could say that is my preferred way of God being depicted in Hollywood movies. It’s subtle but powerful and undoubtedly moving. I’d think that people who have no idea about God nor Christianity would be intrigued by the long-haired man in ragged clothing and why people react to him the way they did. Even without his face being shown, his presence is certainly felt and that’s truly one of the most memorable scenes in the entire 4-hour film. In fact, Ben-Hur is my Easter film of choice, yes even over Charlton Heston’s equally epic adventure The Ten Commandments. 

Truth be told, I felt that even with the sparse appearance of Christ in Ben-Hur, I was far more moved by those scenes than the entire film of Son of God. Now, as a Christ-follower, obviously I love films that glorify God and speak of His love for humanity. But even with the best intention of bringing the story to Jesus to mass audiences, the acting and dialog of the Mark Burnett’s film leave much to be desired and overall it just wasn’t as emotionally engaging as I had hoped. Cut from the TV-miniseries version of The Bible, the film was more of a Cliff-Notes chronicle of Jesus’ life. It also lacks any sense of mystique and grandeur, barely scratching the surface of His life on earth as uniquely extraordinary figure who’s both man AND divine. One of the main issue I had is with the portrayal of Jesus himself, which brings me to …

Christ Portrayal on Film

When we’re talking about how Christ is being depicted on film, it seems that Hollywood always subscribes to THIS classic drawing of Jesus that I often saw growing up in a Catholic household. Having seen Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told as a kid, Christ was always portrayed as tall and blue-eyed European figure. Slowly though, seems like Hollywood’s starting to concern themselves with authenticity, at least how the studio honchos see as authentic anyway. The latter portrayals of Christ is starting to look more Jewish, even Jim Caviezel wore prosthetic nose in The Passion of the Christ and had to wear brown contact lenses for the role.

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Jim Caviezel, Henry Ian Cusick, Diogo Morgado

But to me, it’s not just about what Christ look like that matters. There’s a delicate sensitivity combined with screen charisma required of any actor portraying Jesus. Out the three most recent feature film about Jesus: The Passion of the Christ, The Gospel of John and Son of God, Jim Caviezel‘s portrayal is my favorite. He has the right mix of otherworldly compassion, eternal wisdom and commanding gravitas as a leader. I often wish we got to see more of his portrayal in an extended look into Christ’ ministry instead of just the last 12 hours of his life. The brutal violence made it tough for me to revisit that film again, I was literally in agony watching it, it shook me to the core. But that was the point, Mel Gibson wanted to illustrate the extreme passion that Christ had for humanity, the length He went through to atone for the world’s sin, which was in line with what the Bible said about how Christ became horribly disfigured that he was barely recognizable as a human being.

GospelOfJohnDVDcoverAs for Henry Ian Cusick in The Gospel of John, I was skeptical about his casting at first as he seems too tough for the role. But he’s certainly got the charisma and screen presence, and portrays a more virile but also more relatable and approachable version of Christ. The adaptation itself was unique in that the dialog follows the Good News Bible, word for word, in sequential order from beginning to end. The excellent production quality + Cusick’s engaging portrayal made The Gospel of John my favorite Jesus feature film biopic so far.

In Son of God, we got a former Portuguese model Diogo Morgado, who despite his best effort is the least convincing of the three. He may look the part and has a serene and kind look about him but to me he lacks the gravitas and that effortless magnetism to make me believe he could inspire so many people to drop everything and follow him. His beatific smile seems more superficial and proved to be distracting rather than inviting.

So to answer Andrew’s question of

What movie/style is your preferred dip into the Bible?

I’ve already partly answered my question with Ben-Hur and the reason is the subtle way Christ is depicted actually made a greater impact as we saw how an encounter with Him changed a person life. At the start of the film, Judah Ben-Hur was not a believer and he became consumed with hate for Mesala after what he did to him and his family. Here we have a flawed man, just like the rest of us, being touched by God in the most unexpected way. Through a direct act of kindness (Jesus giving him water in his desperate hour), as well as seeing Him set an example of practicing what He preaches (forgiveness and loving one’s enemy) as Judah witness him being crucified, Judah’s heart is softened.

Judah Ben-Hur: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Esther: Even then.

Judah Ben-Hur: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

We later see his mother and sister were also miraculously healed the day Jesus died on the cross. But even before that, Judah has already let go of his hatred, which is a miracle in itself. The film never overtly displays Judah’s conversion but his transformed heart is palpable and that is deeply inspiring. We’ve all struggled with faith at one point or another, and that to me makes Judah so relatable and his story made a lasting impression to me.

Bale_Moses_ExodusI think more than the style of how God is being depicted is the intent or the essence of the film in question. It’s not just about Christianity, it applies to other Deity being depicted on screen. I feel that a filmmaker ought to at least treat a story about God or faith with care even if they don’t believe in that viewpoint. That’s why I choose NOT to watch films that I feel is deliberately blasphemous (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Da Vinci Code) or show obvious contempt for the subject matter (Religulous).

So naturally I have mixed feelings about Biblical movies that are on the rise again in Hollywood. Creative license being taken is one thing, but taking something from the source material and turn it into something else entirely (i.e. Noah) is another matter. Just in time for Christmas, we’ll have Ridley Scott’s retelling of Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt in Exodus: Gods & King. Well, according to this article, [Scott] has chosen an unconventional depiction of God in the film,” and in Total Film April issue, it’s said that Christian Bale as Noah is more Maximus type warrior than the Charlton Heston’s deliver in The Ten Commandments. So it seems God is to be overlooked once again in His own story [sigh]

So pardon the elaborate essay, but some of these topics have been on my mind for some time. So back to the burning question, my favorite depiction of God in cinema is the kind that presents Him in a respectful and authentic way. I don’t think the [borrowing Josh' statement here] ‘hit me over the head with your belief’ approach appeals to me and I don’t think it rarely inspire people anyway. Subtlety paired with firm conviction can work wonders and as with the case of Ben-Hur, it proves to be quite powerful. The genre itself doesn’t really matter to me, whether it’s a grand, sweeping epic or a small indie about someone struggling with their faith, what I’d like to see is a stimulating and thought-provoking story of how God relates to man that makes me pause and reflect on our own belief, whatever that may be.


So there you have it folks. I welcome any comment you may have, and feel free to give your own answer to Josh’s question on your preference of God being depicted in cinema.

MSPIFF14 Reviews: Paulette & The Life of Riley

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The film festivities continues! Today we’ve got a couple more MSPIFF 2014 reviews courtesy of Josh from JJAMES reviews.

Paulette (2013)

Paulette-PosterPaulette is a French comedy with a simple plot and simple characters to match. The titular protagonist (Bernadette Lafont) is an unpleasant elderly woman who, along with her late husband, once ran a successful restaurant. Now, however, she lives on minimal pension and cannot afford to pay her bills, a fact that inspires her sell marijuana. When other dealers take offense at her success, Paulette opens a bakery, with the narcotic as her central ingredient.

To be certain, Paulette is initially hilarious. For the first thirty minutes, or so, we are aghast that this woman dares tell her black confessor (Pascal Nzoni) that he deserves to be white, that she steals food from the homeless, that she tells her bi-racial grandson (Ismael Drame) she hates him because he’s black, or that she ignores her son-in-law (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon), who happens to be a police officer investigating drug trafficking. Paulette’s behavior is despicable, but it is also funny, no doubt owing to Lafont’s skill in playing the character. We laugh even more passionately when Paulette chooses to sell drugs, and then all the more when she is good at it. Quickly enough, however, the humor grows stale, because writer/director Jerome Enrico and his four credited co-writers replay the jokes too many times.

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How frequently does Paulette dodge detection by her son-in-law, who is supposedly good at his job but can’t pick up on the incredibly obvious clues she spills? I lost count. How many times do her friends seem aghast at her new behavior? Again, I lost count. Eventually, of course, the friends learn the truth, but then instead of being as appalled as their previous behavior suggests they ought be, they help Paulette. Why? How many times does Paulette’s daughter drop off Leo, the aforementioned grandson, even though Paulette is a terrible caretaker? Again, I lost count. How many times does Walter (Andre Penvern) seek Paulette’s romantic affection? You already know my answer to that question.

Poor character development doesn’t help. The villains and other secondary characters are basically trait-less. Even Paulette is in-complex, no matter her changes. Simply put, she has one note early and a different one late.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh. Thanks to its sense of humor Paulette isn’t a total failure. I just don’t think it successful either. Here the comedy isn’t enough to overcome poor character development, simplistic plot lines and repetitiveness.

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2 out of 5 reels


The Life of Riley (2013)

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The Life of Riley occurs in and around Duluth, Minnesota, sometimes venturing northward to the Lake Superior shores that surround it. In many ways, the film is a love letter to its setting; director Carrie Boberg, cinematographer Mark Hartzel and writer/co-editor/producer/star Jason Page present Duluth such that it seems equal parts calming, fun and beautiful. Boberg’s wide angle and static exterior shots prove especially effective in that regard. Like Mystery Road, another movie I saw at MSPIFF, The Life of Riley has a superlative sense of setting. All viewers, even those previously unfamiliar with the city, will fall in love with Duluth.

The central characters are lovable, too, especially Maggie (Jessica Manuel), who enters Riley’s (Page) life as he is languishing at a job he hates, so much so that he lacks inspiration to finish the novel he has been theoretically writing for years. Maggie and Riley’s first date is to join Elliot (Peter Ooley) on a trip to Minneapolis where they see Martin (Zachary Stofer) headlining a rock concert with one of his bands. The date goes well, so well that Maggie seeks out Riley the following day, whereupon the two begin a passionate relationship, one that vitalizes Riley and brings about significant changes in the ways he lives life.

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In the early going, The Life of Riley is hilarious, largely owing to the witty banter between Riley, Martin, Elliot and Maggie. The mostly amateur performers help, as well, especially Page and Manuel who play their characters with such charismatic aplomb that we almost don’t notice Riley or Maggie’s flaws.

Approximately two-thirds through the film, Page’s screenplay takes a surprising turn, one that instantly transforms The Life of Riley from hilarious to emotional. For the most part, the shift is handled adeptly, except in the moments immediately preceding it when Boberg’s directorial decisions and Page’s screenplay too directly foreshadow what is to come and thereby temporarily make the project melodramatic. In the final third, the cast stumbles a bit, too, not quite accessing proper gravitas to suit events. Finally, some of the dialogue is a little too on point.

All of these flaws are dismissible, however, because the characters are complex and captivating. Moreover, enough of the film is laugh out loud funny that we are always entertained, and, perhaps most importantly, The Life of Riley makes several interesting observations about life. The film mightn’t be perfect, but it is quite good.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


JJamesReviews
Thanks again Josh for the excellent reviews!


What do you think of these two films? Let us know in the comments!

MSPIFF14 Reviews: Breathe In & The Grand Seduction

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Breathe In

BreatheInPosterI have to admit I’m usually not into films about infidelity as it often gets glamorized on film and those getting cheated on often appear as if they deserve what happen to them. Luckily that’s not the case here. It’s more of a character study on temptation and the fragility of people who are deeply disillusioned with their lives.

The film opens with a seemingly happy family in an idyllic suburbs in upstate NY. The dad Keith (Guy Pearce) is a music teacher who is an aspiring orchestra cellist, the mother Megan (Amy Ryan), is a housewife who sells cookie jars on the side. Their daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) is a swimming champion, blond and vivacious. They were all anticipating the arrival of Sophie, an exchange student from Britain who’s coming to stay w/ them. That part reminds me of an exchange student from Denmark who came to live with us when I was in high school. Fortunately there was no such drama like what happens to this family. But then again, the student at our house was not in the form of an attractive girl like Felicity Jones and there was no married male in my household.

The attraction between Keith and Sophie is inevitable and palpable. As soon as Keith helped her with her luggage at the airport, exchanging quick glances in the car or at dinnertime, all the seemingly innocent acts have an electric undercurrent.

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The naturalistic style of Drake Doremus‘ direction lends itself to an atmospheric and intimate setting, as well as an authentic performance from the actors. Not that their behavior is excusable in any way, but neither Keith or Sophie seems powerless to stop their attraction from getting the best of them. In Keith’s part though, it seems that it’s more about him chasing his dream of a Bohemian life, something he felt he gave up when he took on the job and move out of Manhattan. There’s no real friction between him and his wife other than the fact that she sees his aspiring career as a concert cellist as a mere hobby. Keith’s motivation in the whole affair seemed more visible, for a lack of a better word, whilst Sophie’s much more of an enigma. And that to me, felt like a crux that prevents this film from being truly compelling. The way Lauren and her teenage friends is depicted here seems rather simplistic and generalized, it certainly puts teen life in a very unflattering light.

What I do appreciate is the lack of sensational & unnecessary sex scenes which I think would cheapen the story. As my friend Ashley astutely pointed out in her comment, anyone can grind and moan but to create a real sexual tension with just the touch of a hand or even a look across the room is far more challenging. As I’ve mentioned briefly in this piano moment post, there’s not one but two memorable piano scene brimming with sexual tension. Pearce and Jones certainly have a scorching chemistry despite their 16 age gap and the build up to their first moment together was almost as tense as a suspense thriller! Pearce is one of today’s finest actors and this performance further cements his amazing versatility. Even at 30, Jones still looks believable enough as a teen, and her character is supposed to be much more mature than her age. Having seen Like Crazy, I feel like I have seen Jones in a similar role as a girl who recklessly puts desire and passion above reason.

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I have to give props to Amy Ryan for delivering a memorable supporting role to a thankless role as Keith’s wife. She somehow makes her character sympathetic and I’m glad the film didn’t turn her into nothing but *scornful wife* here. There’s also a droll, albeit creepy, scene with Kyle MacLachlan pointing out the elephant in the room to Pearce’s character.

I think people might call this film tedious or underwhelming as there’s barely anything happening. I can see where they’re coming from, and for me, if it weren’t for the excellent performances I’d probably think the same way. I do think the script is so sparse and the vague finale barely give us anything to grasp on. What happened to Sophie in the end? Is the family beyond repair at this point? There are gaps that seem to be intentionally left open here which can be frustrating. All the exquisitely shot and breathless moments are memorable in and of itself, but ultimately the film itself feels too indulgent and even morose for its own good. One thing for sure though, it’s quite a sobering picture of infidelity that temptation may be sweet but remorse never is.

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3 out of 5 reels


GrandSeductionPosterThe Grand Seduction

I almost missed seeing this as I couldn’t get an extra ticket for my hubby on Friday night. Fortunately there’s a second screening on Sunday night and I’m glad I made it! This is one of the most delightful and sweet comedies I’ve seen in a long while.

The tiny Newfoundland harbor called Tickle Cove was once a thriving fishing village. But now that they’re prohibited from fishing to make a living, the community is living off welfare check. So when there is an opportunity that might land a contract with a big oil corporation to build a factory, a petrochemical byproduct repurposing facility to be exact, the town realize this is an opportunity of a lifetime to save their town from complete financial ruin. What’s the catch? In order to have the factory built on their premises, the contract specifies that the town needs a permanent doctor. And that’s where the grand seduction comes in.

At first I was wondering why they choose such a sensational title but once I see the movie it perfectly makes sense! The doctor in question is a young, cricket-loving Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), is only assigned in that town for a month. And so the new mayor Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) gets the entire harbor community to seduce the doctor to stay. The length to their seduction is the heart of the story and it lends itself to grand hilarity! I think the funniest bits are when the hockey-loving town has to learn the game of cricket, from creating the uniform & paddles, building the cricket field AND of course learning the rule of the game. As soon as Dr. Lewis arrives in town, he’s welcomed by practically the entire male population in a [faux] game of cricket. That’s just a fraction of the other schemes the entire town is in on Dr. Lewis, who’s so deliriously oblivious I feel like he deserves being pranked in this way.

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I LOVE comedies that aren’t gross, foul-mouthed or just plain silly and this movie fits that description. As director Don McKellar said during the Q&A after the film, he’s drawn to the project as it’s the kind of social comedy that has a certain dignity, a certain respect for the people being depicted. There is a purpose to every gag, down to even the smallest comic scene is not a waste. There’s an obvious ethical issue with what the town is doing, I mean they’re tapping his phone and stuff, the NSA has nothing on them, ahah. Yet it’s not done in a mean-spirited kind of way and you can’t help but root for the town as well as for the young doctor.

The name of the harbor town is perfectly appropriate as it tickles your funny bone. There are plenty of gut-busting, thigh-slapping hilarity to be had from start to finish and having real life townsfolk definitely makes it feel authentic. Gleeson and Kitsch seem like an odd match and it is, but that’s kind of the point and it’s played to great effect here. Both of them are the only two actors who aren’t from easternmost province of Canada. Gleeson is Irish (which fits perfectly to the town’s Irish heritage) and Kitsch grew up in Vancouver. Gleeson is such a great actor, but I really like him in comedies [he's much softer here though than his character in The Guard which I saw recently]. He’s is joined by Newfoundland’s most famous celebrity Gordon Pinsent (Away From Her), and the rest of the supporting cast, including comedian Mark Critch are from the area as well. All of them are so hilarious and by the end of it I fell in love with the Tickle Cove community!

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The ending is pretty predictable but in no way that it lessens the charm of the story. In fact, I don’t mind it at all that it ends on a hopeful and cheery note. I’m still gleeful just thinking about some of the funniest bits from this movie. Not only is it delightfully funny, it’s also heartwarming and beautiful to look at, it could practically doubles as a tourism video for Newfoundland. I definitely will watch it again as soon as it’s available on dvd or streaming.

four and a half stars out of five
4 out of 5 reels


Have you seen either one of these movies? I’d love to hear what you think!

Weekend Roundup: The Machine (2013) Review

Happy Monday everyone! I’m slacking off a bit here, I was hoping to get my Breathe-In review this weekend but just couldn’t find the time to do it. But I was supposed to catch the Brendan Gleeson/Taylor Kitsch comedy The Grand Seduction on Friday but I made a snafu that I didn’t order an extra ticket for my hubby so I have to go to the Sunday night screening instead. So I’ll post my review of Breathe-In together with that one as soon as I get around to it :D

Well, this weekend I got to see a pretty cool sci-fi indie The Machine: TheMachinePoster

This British dystopian sci-fi has obvious nods to Blade Runner. In fact, it says right on the synopsis and the marketing itself. As a fan of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, I was naturally intrigued. Instead of a story of a cop hunting down replicants aka robots, The Machine‘s protagonists are two artificial intelligence (AI) engineers who are working together in a futuristic era where a world is in an economic crisis and a cold war with China is brewing. Their boss is the Ministry of Defense Thomson (Denis Lawson) who’s hellbent on winning the arms race by creating a robotic soldier. The main scientist, Vincent (Toby Stephens) is morally conflicted about his job, but he does it because it’s the only way he could have technological access to help his ailing daughter.

The meat of the story takes place after Vincent’s new science partner Ava (Caity Lotz) is brutally murdered and he then created a cyborg in her likeness. Soon Thomson’s real motive is quickly revealed and Vincent’s life is endangered as he becomes a potential victim of his own creation.

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Despite the low-budget production (less than $2 mil), I think writer/director Caradog W. James‘ did a nice job in creating a thought-provoking film that’s also visually arresting. The homage to Blade Runner is evident in his stylish visual style with the bleak futuristic setting and use of neon lights, as well as its use of synthesizer music that evokes Vangelis’ theme. I like sci-fi films that’s more atmospheric and even a little bit moody, instead of an all-action extravaganza like Elysium, and that’s partly why I enjoyed The Machine. There’s a lot of heart in the relationship between Vincent and his daughter, as well as with Ava even in robotic form. The developing relationship between a human being and an AI is nothing groundbreaking and foreseeable, but when done well, it’s still fascinating to watch. The love story is also not overblown which adds to its realism.

Both Stephens and Lotz did a nice job in their respective roles. Stephens’ got that brooding, tortured soul thing down pat which works well for this role, and Lotz whom I’ve never seen before is especially impressive. Her transformation from a curious scientist to an AI with childlike vulnerability but deadly power is quite convincing, and I find her struggle with the loss of her humanity pretty moving. She obviously looks more robotic than any of the replicants in Blade Runner, and Lotz gets the mechanical mannerism perfectly. Action fans would certainly appreciate her dance-like but lethal kickboxing moves. The film is rated R for some brutal and bloody action sequences from start to finish.

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The story is not perfect though, it gets predictable as the film progresses and some things are not explained too well. The side effect of the sensor-restoring brain implants on the fatally-wounded war veterans *recycled* for the project is that they render them mute as they become cyborgs. For some reason they can still speak in intelligible robotic voice to each other, though later they regained their speech ability and it’s never fully explained why. Despite that, it’s pretty darn entertaining and I highly recommend it if you’re into this genre. The intimate feel of the story gives a nice lingering effect after I watched it, and the ending is perfectly eerie as we imagine what a plausible future shared with an AI could be. The Machine proofs that you can still make an engaging film even on a shoestring budget, I’m curious to see what James would do with more resources at his disposal.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


Has anyone seen this film? Curious to hear what you think.

MSPIFF14 Reviews: Hotell & Mystery Road

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Happy Sunday everyone! We’ve got a couple more MSPIFF 2014 reviews courtesy of Josh from JJAMES reviews.

Hotell_posterHotell (2013)

A Swedish film written and directed by Lisa Langseth, Hotell follows Erika (Alica Vikander), a beautiful and pregnant young woman with an almost idyllic life. Already moneyed and apparently successful, she and her husband, Oskar (Simon J. Berger), have a plan for including an infant in their lives, one that begins with a pre-arranged Caesarean Section.

But their plan falls apart when their son’s birth goes horribly wrong, a fact that mandates the couple adjust. Oskar manages well enough. Erika does not, instead slipping into deep depression, because of which she joins a support group that includes Rickard (David Dencik), Pernilla (Anna Bjelkerud), Anna-Sofi (Mira Eklund) and Peter (Henrik Norlen). Each of Erika’s new friends are, in their own way, ill, and, like Erika, tired of feeling conflicted, so when she proposes an unconventional plan to collectively escape their lives, for an indeterminate duration of time, they accept. Along they way, they informally try to help one another.

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Hotell has many merits. First, and most notably, Langseth portrays mental illness exceptionally well, never playing it for laughs or forced sympathy, but rather showing its complexity and potentially debilitating consequences with acute empathy. It might be the best such portrayal I have ever seen, in any motion picture or television show. 

Moreover, Erika and Rickard are complex, vibrant characters. Oskar could be one, as well, if he had received more focus. Plus, all of the performances are top-notch, especially Alicia Vikander’s Her every expression shows a veneer of reserve and composure, but also underlying vulnerability mixed with grief and guilt, facts that are praiseworthy enough, but become all the more so when considering Vikander’s two most explosive scenes. She is award-worthy good. Mira Eklund, who plays Anna-Sofi perfectly, is almost her equal.

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Yet, despite its many merits Hotell is not as emotionally moving as it could have been, largely because Langseth doesn’t develop her secondary characters well. Oskar all but disappears for most of the movie’s last three acts, and Peter, Pernilla and Anna-Sofi are too simplistically drawn. Just as their illnesses are not given enough attention.

It is doubly disappointing, because Langseth daringly bucks genre expectations. Here the therapy group is not particularly good for each other, and none of them are necessarily ‘cured,’ facts that help solidify Hotell’s themes. And would have done so even more powerfully if some of the characters had been better developed.

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3 out of 5 reels


Mystery Road (2013)

Mystery-Road-PosterMystery Road is ostensibly a police procedural about Australian outback Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), who investigates the murders of indigenous girls. In that sense, the film is predictable, opening with Swan being assigned a murder case and following him through his investigation. Eventually, of course, he learns the truth, and then must grapple with the personal consequences of his new, and dangerous, knowledge. If we only consider the plot, Mystery Road is borderline formulaic and certainly not inventive. On the other hand, if that is all we consider, we are unfairly pigeonholing this complex movie. 

Because, in a master-class display of showing not telling, filmmaker Ivan Sen (the picture’s writer, director, editor, cinematographer & composer) ensures the story is tertiary, important only as a vehicle to represent setting and characters, in that order. Therein is why Mystery Road opens with sweeping, late-night aeriel shots of the rural outback. The wide angles are impressive, but made all the more so by their juxtaposition with close-ups of a truck driver (Hayden Spencer) using a flashlight to check his rig’s tires and then, after hearing a howling dog, to light his walk through nearby terrain. The sequence is wordless and slowly paced, meaning our focus is on the location, not the trucker himself and certainly not his actions. Perhaps that’s why we’re startled when he finds the first body, that of Julie Mason.

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At that point, Sen cuts to protagonist Jay Swan. Now we watch the detective, becoming intimately connected to him at the same time we learn more about Winton, a rural town. Swan asks his Sergeant (Tony Barry) for extra manpower to help him investigate Julie’s death, but he’s rebuffed. So he works alone, encountering racism aplenty. Some of the residents he meets are indigenous, like Swan’s ex-wife, Mary (Tasma Walton), and his daughter, Crystal (Tricia Whitton). They live in small houses. Others are white and own farms with larger homes. Still others, including Johno (Hugo Weaving), are morally obscure, leaving us to ponder their objectives. All of which contributes to Mystery Road’s greatest strength: neither Sen’s filmmaking technique nor his screenplay tell us what to think; he shows the conditions in which his characters live and trusts that we’ll understand his message.

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That Jay is well developed and that Pederson is captivating helps, as well. As do the strong supporting performances (special mention to Weaving and Walton), and the interesting secondary characters, most of which make sense. Johno is the lone exception. Even in the movie’s climax, we do not comprehend his motives. Johno is Mystery Road’s biggest misstep, but it is easy to overlook. As is the film’s other mistake: having so many characters that tracking them is difficult. 

The flaws do not limit the picture’s effectiveness, because Sen’s minimalist filmmaking is entrancing. He uses his simple score infrequently and powerfully, punctuating scenes and cementing emotion. Ditto that for his almost tangential dialogue, and his camera work and editing cuts, each of which are reserved. The director’s decisions immerse us in his setting.

As if it isn’t sufficiently clear, Mystery Road is almost magical and surely one of the best movies at MSPIFF.

four and a half stars out of five
4.5 out of 5 reels


JJamesReviews
Thanks again Josh for the excellent reviews!


What do you think of these two films? Let us know in the comments!

Scene(s) Spotlight: Nic Cage as Castor Troy in Face/Off

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Happy Friday everyone! I don’t usually post about the same actor back to back, but y’know what, I’ve been wanting to highlight some scenes from FACE/OFF. I’m an unabashed fan of this John Woo movie, and it’s no doubt one of my favorite 90s action flicks. Ok so technically John Travolta plays Castor Troy as well as they switch roles in the film, but for the most part I prefer Nic Cage in the role than Travolta, save for that one scene in prison in the last clip below.

I know it’s got its haters and some people can’t stand its over the top action sequences with all the quintessential Woo‘s stylized action with the slo-mo and of course, flying doves! But for some reason I loved everything about it, the performances, the action, the music, everything just works. I have to mention that Joan Allen is also brilliant here against both actors. Even after re-watching it recently, I still love it and embrace the preposterous ‘in order to catch him, he must become him‘ plot and everything that goes with it :D

I always think of Face/Off as my guilty pleasure but y’know what, I’m not the least bit guilty for liking it. Apparently the critics did too, I was surprised to see it got 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

Though we’ve seen Troy in the opening scene but THIS is the grand intro to the bad ass Castor Troy. The whole cape blowing in the wind, the twin golden guns, Troy shows his minions who’s boss. But he’s also got a softer side with his kid brother (Alessandro Nivola), as you’ll see later in the film, and that shoe-tying scene is repeated again later in the movie.

The famous line uttered in classic Nic Cage fashion. “I’d like to take his face… off” to the utter bewilderment of his drug dealer BFF. Ok so technically Cage is playing Sean Archer in this instance, but he’s pretending to be Troy to his enemy’s friends so he’s sorta playing both. Psychotically brilliant if ya ask me.

The soundtrack by John Powell is fantastic here. I also love this anachronism use of the classic Somewhere Over the Rainbow song in this bombastic shoot-out scene. The contrast between such a wholesome song with something so brutally violent somehow just works beautifully.

I have to give credit to both actors for convincingly play both good and bad guy convincingly. In this scene, Travolta is chewing all kinds of scenery in his first appearance as Castor Troy, and that character seems to lend itself for over-the-top ridiculosity [yep, I just made up a word, he..he..] Clearly the bad guy is having way more fun!


Did you love Face/Off? If so, what’s YOUR favorite scene(s)?

Question of the week: What’s your 10 Favorite Nic Cage Roles?

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Happy Thursday everyone! I’m kind of in a list-y mood so I’m doing yet another list post today, with the collaboration of my friend Josh of JJames Reviews … AND also all of you fine friends of FlixChatter!

Inspired my our recent viewing of JOE featuring the inimitable Nicholas Kim Coppola, aka Nicolas Cage was in top form, I thought we’d collaborate on this post. Ever since his feature film debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High back in 1982, the prolific actor has done nearly 70 films, more if you count the ones that are not yet released! So I’m guessing most of you have seen at least 10 of his work. Love him or hate him, he’s made quite a name for himself in Hollywood, with perhaps the most erratic role choices that seems to be as mercurial as his temperament, on and off screen.

So, let’s get on with the list, shall we?

JOSH’s picks:

First, a word on how I made these selections. I did not select the ten best movies in which Nicolas Cage has appeared; instead, I considered whether or not a given performance demonstrates range. For example, Moonstruck (1987) is certainly a better film than Con Air (1997), and, strictly speaking, Cage is likely superior as Ronny Cammareri than as Cameron Poe. Yet, Poe made my list and Cammareri did not. Why? I submit that Con Air solidified Cage as an action star, something at which we had only hints in the late nineties, whereas Moonstruck showed us what we already knew: Cage can be funny, romantic and dramatic, capably shifting between the three seamlessly.


10. Cameron Poe – Con Air (1997)

9. Grug – The Croods (2013)

8. Charlie Bodell – Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

7. Frank Pierce – Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

6. Seth – City of Angels (1998)

5. Damon McCready, AKA Big Daddy – Kick-Ass (2009)

4. Charlie & Donald Kaufman – Adaptation (2002)

3. Joe Ransom – Joe (2014)

2. Ben Sanderson – Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

1. H.I. McDunnough – Raising Arizona (1987)

One last word: Please, Joel and Ethan, please cast Nicolas Cage again. He was pure gold in your hands, gentlemen. 

 

RUTH’s picks:

JOE was the first film since Kick-Ass in 2010 where I saw Nic Cage on film. It seems that in from 2007 and on he’s hellbent on making a string of crappola movies. Yes I know an actor is allowed a few bad films in their career but Cage seems to make it the norm instead of the exception! Yet for me, I think there’s a certain charm (or whimsy) about him that made him so watchable even in laughable material [ok, maybe with the exception of Ghost Rider which is just ghastly].

Now, like Josh said, my picks aren’t exactly about his best movies or best roles, but it displays his versatility and I think that’s part of his undeniable appeal. Whether playing a saintly cop or a devil-incarnate villain, he seems effortlessly convincing playing them. Please note that I have not seen some of his earlier work like Peggy Sue Got Married, people’s favorite Raising Arizona or his Oscar-winning role in Leaving Las Vegas. As with any list, these are by no means comprehensive as it’s based on the ones I have seen.


10. Damon McCready, AKA Big Daddy– Kick-Ass (2009)

9. Stanley Godspeed – The Rock (2009)

8. Seth – City of Angels (1998)

7. Cameron Poe – Con Air (1997)

6. Ronny Cammareri – Moonstruck (1987)

5. Joe Ransom – Joe (2014)

4. Charlie & Donald Kaufman – Adaptation (2002)

3. Charlie Lang – It Could Happen To You (1994)

2. Jack Campbell – The Family Man (2000)

1. Castor Troy – Face/Off (1997)


So what’s YOUR favorite Nic Cage roles? Even better if you can share your top 10!