So, here is round two of my 2014 Movie Cram. I've been going back through the ones I missed in theaters. This list is a total mixed bag. All of them had something to admire.
Here we go:
Chef ★★★ 1/2
Writer/Director Jon Favreau's return to independent cinema is right up my alley. Favreau plays Carl Casper, an L.A. chef working in a stiff, classical fine-dining establishment run by a maniacally stuck-in-his-ways owner played by Dustin Hoffman. After a bad review from a famed food critic, Casper heads with his young son (Emjay Anthony) to Miami to rediscover his roots and start over with a food truck, currently trending right now in foodie land. The movie treats social media, especially Twitter, in the most realistic way I've seen yet. And that food, though! With supporting work from a great ensemble, featuring Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, John Lequizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and Robert Downey, Jr., Chef is the crowd-pleaser of the year.
The Immigrant ★★★
So, this is my entry point into the films of James Gray. He's one of those I've certainly heard of but never given a shot until I kept seeing this title pop up on a bunch of ten-best lists. The Immigrant is the story of a new arrival to Ellis Island and New York from Poland in the very early 1920s. She is Ewa (pronounced Ava), played brilliantly by Marion Cotillard. When she is taken under the wing of a self-glorified pimp (an always excellent Joaquin Phoenix), she is left with choices to make about what her life may be in America. With a sister being held at Ellis Island with tuberculosis and a family that refuses to take her in, she is left with Phoenix's Bruno until a second-rate, yet charming magician (a miscast Jeremy Renner) enters her life and changes everything. The cinematography in this film is of the best of the year. There are some mind-bendingly beautiful shots in here. However, it never came together for me. I found myself zoning out, even at critical moments.
The Gambler ★
Mark Wahlberg's latest passion project, a remake of the original 1974 under-seen classic starring James Caan, totally falls flat. The trailers had me so excited, then The Rolling Stones didn't play on the soundtrack. Seriously, there is much to like here that sadly never goes anywhere remotely entertaining or believable. It tells the story of Jim Bennett (Wahlberg), a college professor, who spends most of his spare, and even working-, time making outrageous bets at the blackjack tables and roulette wheels of an underground L.A. casino. He owes money to hard men, including a scary, bald John Goodman and an incredibly convincing Michael Kenneth Williams (HBO's Boardwalk Empire). He also gets in deep with his own rich mother played by a show-stealing Jessica Lange. Added to the craziness, also, is the budding relationship between Bennett and one of his students (the always great Brie Larson). The movie totally sidesteps the fact that this guy is a degenerate gambling addict and just slowly develops into nothingness. It's a technically well-made movie, and I really loved the ending. The only problem is: How in the world does this movie and it's one-note lead character deserve such?
Under the Skin ★★★
There's an audience for this movie. I sometimes like to think that I am that for this kind of thing, but, as it turns out, I'm not. The funny thing is, though, is that I was captivated by it. I even understood its themes. I enjoyed the incredible visual style taken on by the film's director Jonathan Glazer and his director of photography, Daniel Glandin. The score is original and haunting. Everything about it is oddly beautiful and unique and sometimes frightening. The real kicker is how good Scarlett Johansson is in the leading role of an alien in the skin of a human, who drives the streets of Glasgow and small-talks men into going home with her. It is miraculous how toned down she is here, how much she owns and even disappears into this role. It's a master-stroke of casting. While I didn't love this movie, I think it should be seen by those who want a challenging, original piece of filmmaking. Be warned. This movie gets real weird and stays that way.
Blue Ruin ★★★★
Jeremey Saulnier's small, low-budget revenge thriller, Blue Ruin, is one of the best of its kind. In story, it draws comparisons to classic revenge flicks, sort of. It also has a sort of Southern Gothic thing going as well. But it's all original. A vagrant named Dwight (Macon Blair) rushes out of a house he's been squatting in, gets picked up by a police officer, who seems to know him and gives him the news that this guy is getting out of jail. Dwight's eyes light up. He begins a mission, stumbles around trying to get a gun or some kind of weapon, there is almost no dialogue for the first third of the movie. Then the blood starts to pour. It turns out that some murdering went down in Dwight's past. His mission is simple: kill 'em all. But what's astounding is that, for the first time in a revenge flick, you don't have a hero with some superhuman skills or weapons training, but just a guy with a bone to pick. My heart pounded for most of the movie, but there is nothing like the end. I was shaking un-voluntarily as the credits rolled, reminding myself to breathe for several minutes before I could move a muscle.