The Year That Was: 2014 in Film

Check out ALL of the PDC end of year lists!

Review: Ava DuVernay's 'Selma'

Starring David Oyelowo

Review: Rob Marshall's 'Into The Woods'

Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick

Tim Burton's 'Big Eyes'

Starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams


Sundance Review: 'Z for Zachariah' starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine

In 2012 Craig Zobel's impressive but difficult to endure directorial debut Compliance looked with dim-colored glasses at the ways power can be used to control others. His follow-up, the sci-fi flavored Z for Zachariah also looks at authority, albeit a much higher one, and how one's faith can be manipulated by others to achieve their ends, but also how we use it to lie to ourselves about our own desires.

Only three characters occupy space in this intimate but gripping thriller set in the wake of a disaster that has destroyed the human population and rendered much of the planet uninhabitable.  Margot Robbie trades in the glamorous characters we're accustomed to seeing her in for the role of Ann, the lone survivor in a pocket of unaffected land. More than capable of surviving on her own, although her trusty dog is by her side, Ann hunts and farms to eke out a meager, lonely existence.  That changes when she encounters Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the first human she's seen in ages and a lifeline out of her despair. It's clear he's been in much the same boat, and after an accident leaves him sick with radiation poisoning the two set aside their mutual mistrust to take care of one another.

Anytime two lonely people are placed in such close proximity the spark of romance is probable, but it's inevitable given the extreme nature of their circumstances.  And while Zobel slowly builds to that passion through their work to build a sustainable life, he's more interested in the ideological differences that could derail everything.  She's driven by the power of her religious convictions, believing to the core of her being that God has done all of this for a reason. Loomis, while not an outright atheist, is a scientist who has no qualms about tearing down her father's old church to build a power source to survive a harsh winter. While there are no pointed, heated debates, the film is too elegantly constructed for that,  it's never far out of mind as new temptations creep into their lives. The arrival of a shady but charming drifter named Caleb (Chris Pine) awakens the passion in Ann, while also providing her an outlet to express her faith. Naturally it doesn't please Loomis to nearly the same degree, and soon the pressure builds between both men as they subtly one-up each other to win Ann's love.

Rich with themes of jealousy, contempt, and lust, Z for Zachariah explores the internal conflict between the needs of the flesh and of the soul. It's a powerful follow-up for Zobel, and he's proving to be a director capable of pulling the best from his actors. It's refreshing to see Robbie in a complicated, vanity-free role like this as she was already getting pigeonholed as a screen vixen. As Ann she gets to show a vulnerability we've yet to see from her before, and at this point one has to recognize how integral she's been to the success of every film she's been in. Ejiofor is simply amazing once again, and perhaps has the most complicated, wide-ranging role to play. Once again Ejiofor is placed in the role of a man forced to endure hardships, both great and small, for a chance to live the life he imagined. Pine's role is less defined than the others but its good to see him outside of a larger ensemble for once.

While predicting which films will go on to greater things outside of the festival is always tricky, Z for Zachariah is a masterfully done film of deep complexity that everyone would be wise to seek out.
Rating: 4 out of 5

Teaser for Eli Roth's Sundance Horror 'Knock Knock' with Keanu Reeves '

Fresh off last night's premier here at Sundance in the Park City at Midnight section, Eli Roth has released the teaser for his latest horror, Knock Knock. Starring Keanu Reeves, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, and Ignacia Allamand, the film centers on a successful family man who opens the door to chaos when he invites two wild girls into his home. The result is something that looks resembles Funny Games, only given Roth's twisted touch.

Check out the official synopsis followed by the teaser.

Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) is living the dream. Just look at his beautiful, successful wife, his two wonderful kids, and his truly stunning house—which he designed himself. Of course he did. Things are going so well, Evan doesn't even mind spending Father's Day alone while the rest of his family heads out for a beach weekend. And then there’s a knock on the door.

The two young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) standing on Evan's doorstep are where Evan's dream takes a nightmarish turn. Given co-writer/director Eli Roth's well-deserved reputation for creating cinematic discomfort, it should come as no surprise what happens next: Things get weird, and then dark, and then much, much, much darker. But this is no splatter film, so Roth keeps the horror nice and psychological as Evan's life—and house—get ripped apart, piece by beautiful piece.

Sundance Review: 'Stockholm, Pennsylvania' starring Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon

The return of a kidnapped child should be a happy thing, and in the movies or some TV drama perhaps it is. But the reality is that's only the beginning of the story and the road to recovery for the victim and her parents alike. Nicole Beckwith's directorial debut Stockholm, PA begins as a powerful look at a family whose lives were ripped apart by such a tragedy and the continued pain of reforming that familial bond once it has been severed, but then the film devolves into ugly, useless histrionics that are more laughable than meaningful.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Leia, although her actual name is Leanne. That's what her parents (Cynthia Nixon as Marcy and David Warshovsky as the barely-present father) named her, before she was kidnapped from them 18 years earlier. Now she's suddenly returned, but having lived a life under the "loving" care of her captor  (Jason Isaacs), trapped in a basement with no exposure to the outside world, Leanne is basically beginning again from scratch.  She has no memory of her life before; all she's ever really known is the life she had in that basement, taught oddly-cultist teachings about the universe and the supposed destruction of humanity.

At first it looks as if Beckwith intends to take a We Need to Talk About Kevin-type look at what happens when the maternal bond is either nonexistent or destroyed. Both women have no idea how to move on beyond the tragedy, and being stuck in the past has left them incapable of coming together. Marcy sees the daughter she loved as a child and treats her as she used to, but Leanne sees her parents as complete strangers.  Complicating the matter is that Leanne's abductor was never cruel; he loved her as his own child, and her feelings for him haven't dimmed even as he rots away in prison. She doesn't understand why others think of him as a monster. As the two women fail to connect, a schism forms between Marcy and her husband who doesn't understand why everybody can't just move on. It's not that simple, and Beckwith  treats the issue with the nuance it deserves.

But's like a light flips and the whole thing goes skidding over the cliff. Perhaps Beckwith didn't have faith in the material, or didn't know how to resolve it, but soon Marcy becomes increasingly demanding and possessive. Locking Leanne away and basically keeping her captive, her mental state spirals out of control until she becomes kind of a joke. Fed on a strict schedule and kept away from the prying eyes of others, Leanne becomes prisoner to an entirely new captor, but another who claims to do so out of love. There's an ugly cycle being spun and Beckwith's attempts to explore that are lost as the film becomes a complete joke of cornball theatrics and angry tirades, the kind of which you'd see on some bad telefilm. Nixon, looking thin and twitchy and less Miranda than ever, is forced to match the incoherence of the screenplay. For Ronan it's at least the fourth time she's played a character with a limited view of the world (Atonement, Hanna, The Host being the others) and she again taps into that innocence in another great performance.

Stockholm, Pennsylvania deals with complicated subject matter, and while there was no easy path to finding a satisfying resolution it doesn't excuse the crucial mistake in tone Beckwith commits.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Andy Serkis' Rumored Role in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'; Mantis could Appear in Key Role

Ever since the first Avengers:Age of Ultron trailer debuted speculation has been running rampant about the unspecified role played by Andy Serkis. When rumors surfaced that Black Panther could make an appearance, the popular theory was that Serkis would play his nemesis Ulysses Klaw. Now a new rumor from Schmoes Know backs that up, while the site also has word on a female Avenger who could turn up in a major role.

The site's trusted source says that Serkis would play a sort of combination of Klaw and his father, Fritz Klaue.  Klaw is obsessed with the rare sound - absorbing metal Vibranium which can only be found in the Panther's nation of Wakanda. He eventually becomes a costumed villain made of pure sound. It's possible Fritz could only be mentioned in passing rather than appear on screen, but it sounds like either way we'll be seeing Klaw,  likely as a setup to a future Black Panther film with Chadwick Boseman.

Plus it's possible the incredibly convoluted female Avenger, Mantis,  could have a role in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Schmoes Know, who seem to be speculating a great deal on this one, claim the character could show up because of her ties to Scarlet Witch, Vision, and The Guardians of the Galaxy, which is all true but the same could be said for others. Mantis was a young girl who was trained to be an assassin by the Priests of Pama, a small sect of the alien Kree. She was also believed to be the Celestial Madonna, but after having her mind wiped she goes out to experience the world and becomes an Avenger. She fell in love with the Vision at one point, and has used her marital arts and telepathic abilities to battle Thanos, the big-bad of the Marvel cinematic universe.

Mantis is a relatively minor character and its doubtful Marvel would bother including her in any major way when there are so many others who would fit in better and carry less baggage. But you never know. Avengers: Age of Ultron opens May 1st 2015.

Sundance Review: David Robert Mitchell's 'It Follows' starring Maika Monroe

Chances are if you want to survive pretty much any slasher film the wisest course of action is to keep your pants on. The familiar patterns of sex-crazed teens meeting a grisly doom in horror movies is given a fresh twist in David Robert Mitchell's buzzed-about horror, It Follow, which has been the talk of genre fanatics since debuting at Cannes last year. While some of the chatter amounts to a great deal of hype, there's no denying the ingenious premise that plays around with genre conventions. It's just a question whether horror enthusiasts will find it scary enough to fit the bill.

The film begins in disturbing and confusing fashion as a young girl races from her suburban home, chased by some kind of spirit. Her grisly fate is basically a giant warning against running in stiletto heels, but before we have time to fully process what just happened we're introduced to another beautiful young woman. Jay (Maika Monroe) is extremely popular with the boys, or so suggests her younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and it's easy to see why. She's gorgeous, fun, and the kind of girl her poor, lovelorn pal Paul (Keir Gilchrist) would love to be with. But she's got a new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), and after having sex with him for the first time he does worse than become distant like many guys do. Instead he chloroforms then kidnaps her, tying Jay to a chair so he can explain that he has just given her what amounts to a sexually transmitted haunting. Basically, she will be forever followed by some kind of demonic spirit, always seen walking towards her in slow but determined manner. If it reaches her, it will kill her, and it can take any human form it wants, usually one that will cause the most emotional torment. The only way she can help herself is to have sex with another and pass it to them, just as Jay did to her.

Naturally, Jay thinks this is all a bunch of b.s., even as she begins to see strange people following her in places they shouldn't be. At first it doesn't seem like a big deal because the entity moves so slowly, but the steady persistence of it is what can be so unnerving. But that's about as far as Mitchell takes it as the film rarely aims for outright scares. Much of the time is spent with Jay, Kelly, Paul, well-read buddy Yara (Olivia Lucardi), and the sexy neighbor boy Greg (Daniel Zovatto) as they lounge around waiting for something terrible to happen. It takes some convincing, like the entity's physical assault on Jay and Paul, for them to believe any of this is real but even afterwards they seem at a loss to do anything about it.  The slow pace of it will turn many off but the nerve-racking, surreal cinematography by Michael Gioulakis is enough to cause a mental breakdown. Rarely has the long camera shot been used to such great atmospheric effect, and when paired with Rich Vreeland's fantastic ear-splitting score it makes one wish there weren't so many lulls in the action.

Fortunately the strength of the concept and the aesthetic touches are more than enough to carry it through. The idea at it's core is simple genius and explores all of the ways sex can be a nightmare in and of itself. One could easily draw parallels between the haunting and the spread of STDs, but also the social stigma that follows when one's sexual endeavors become common knowledge. That reputation can follow and spread to others like a disease, with no real cure in sight. Mitchell touches upon these themes expertly but doesn't always seem to have the entity completely figured out. Is it real or some kind of phantom? Ultimately the plan they hatch to defeat it is divorced from the paranormal realm and thus is completely unsatisfying.

With moody atmospherics, an ingenious premise, but shaky execution as a true horror, It Follows is a lot like sex; even when it's kind of bad it's still pretty good.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Sundance Review: '99 Homes', Starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon

When the recession hit, the majority of the population really felt the housing and real estate plummet. Many middle class families got stuck with banks who told them to stop paying their mortgages while they adjusted their rates to something more affordable. Suffice to say that they got screwed over big time while the banks got bailed out. Is it fair? Hell no. And director Ramin Bahrani turns this reality into a theatrical thriller with superb performances from Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon.

Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a struggling father and caretaker who fell into hard times after every construction job he takes building homes falls apart because there is no money to do so during the most recent recession. This means that Nash doesn't get paid if the job doesn't go through. After trying to adjust his mortgage rate via the bank, they tell him to stop paying his mortgage while they sort all the paperwork out. Essentially, he gets screwed over by the bank and they foreclose on his home.

Enter Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real estate broker who is involved in evicting people and cheating banks out of their money. While many fall on bard times, Carver is raking in the cash. After evicting Nash, Carver, knowing Nash is desperate for money and not having any luck with jobs, he takes him under his wing in a strange turnaround. Nash struggles with the ethics of what he's doing but relishes in being able to provide for his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax).

The film opens with a strong scene in which a man has committed suicide and the police are on the swarm, trying to find out what happened from no one other than Michael Shannon's character. So from the onset, the film is extremely intense, and if you've ever known anyone who's gone through something like a foreclosure or a short sale like I have, the topic at hand will most likely touch you in a very personal way. 99 Homes not only makes a statement about the recession, banks, and the world of real estate (and a very powerful one at that), but also speaks to the fact that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, but at what cost? 

Ramin Bahrani really knows how to keep the momentum going. The pacing moves at a wonderful pace, not too slow, and not so fast that anyone can't keep up with some of the technical lingo within the plot. There are moments when I hoped we'd get more of a real conversation between Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern's characters about what was happening, because he hides it from her for the same reason you hide anything from a parent: You know they'll be upset. We get some of the major repercussions for that, but nothing really concrete, as it's more focused on Garfield's character. 

Bahrani commits himself to the story and to painting these characters in gray at every turn. Since Garfield's character is at the forefront, we really sympathize with him, question some of his actions, but ultimately understand where he's coming from. He understands himself too, as he's always questioning himself ethically, and Garfield portrays this in a fantastic emotional portrayal, because this is where his character's head space is. He isn't being logical, but his decisions are made in an emotional manner. These decisions are the ones that bring in the most tension-filled scenes and also the most emotionally-triggering ones. Garfield is superb in this and really cements himself as a great actor, no questions asked. 

And since Bahrani knows how to get the best out of his characters, this is also one of Michael Shannon's best performances in recent memory. He's terrifying, a ruthless businessman who isn't into emotional attachments at all, and through helping Garfield, he's really helping himself, though I don't believe he's completely without a heart. He too is also fantastic in his role and whenever he and Garfield share a scene together, there's a palpable chemistry and spark of underlying tension in the air between their characters. Laura Dern does an excellent job as well as Garfield's mother, though my only complaint, as mentioned before, is that there wasn't all that much for her to do, her character in an extremely limiting supporting role. However, when there was something for her to do or to express, she was great.

99 Homes is one of those films that is sometimes hard to watch. The topic alone is close to home for many and the idea that this could even happen is hard to wrap your head around. Ramin Bahrani is a gifted director, knowing how to tell his story both technically and emotionally. There are moments where the film could have expanded on personal relationships (i.e. Garfield and Dern's mother/son dynamic), but this largely plays more of a role in the end and doesn't affect the film in a necessarily negative way. There's a lot to like in the film. There's drama, suspense, great storytelling, powerful performances, and an emotionally riveting tale of consequences, lawlessness, and piggybacking off of the people who are used and abused by the system. Solid and well worth watching.


Trailer for Star-studded Comedy 'She's Funny that Way' with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston

It has been more than a decade since acclaimed director Peter Bogdanovich's last feature, but clearly he hasn't lost an ounce of clout. He was able to gather Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Jennifer Aniston, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, and many more for the screwball comedy She's Funny That Way, and now the first trailer is here to show how he puts all that talent to use.

The film centers on a prostitute/aspiring actress who has a fling with a very married Broadway director, then complicates matters by showing up to star in his new play which has his wife in the leading role. Does it all come together? Early reviews have been mixed but this trailer makes it look pretty stale.

She's Funny that Way opens April 10th.

Sundance Review: 'The Witch' starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson

There's a reason why the Salem witch trials remain such a frequent touchstone in the horror genre; religious paranoia and hysteria is terrifying in its resonance. While Robert Eggers' directorial debut The Witch  is set some years prior to the trials themselves, it expertly uses genre tropes and ancient folklore to create an ominously detailed backdrop upon which those future horrors will be committed.

Set in 17th century New England, the film is largely set on the wooded outskirts of a Puritan village where William (Ralph Ineson) and his family have been banished . The reasons for it are kept a tantalizing mystery, but the religious schism between him and the church is clear.  Building a life in the blight-ravaged farmland proves more than a typical hardship. Something, possibly supernatural,  is amiss that defies the bounds of common logic. William uses scripture as strength to persevere but his harsh wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) is spiraling slowly into madness. Full blown panic ensues when the youngest son Samuel vanishes while in the care of eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Whispers of a terrible witch living in the woods don't take long to be confirmed as we see the child's bloody and disturbing fate.

While Katherine makes Thomasin the target of her rage, the family's situation grows more dire, with Eggers piling on threats both real and imagined to keep them and us off balance. Their strong, brave son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), nearing the age of sexual desire, encounters a beautiful woman who is not as she seems. Between his sudden, deathly illness, the foreboding cries of witchcraft by twin siblings Jonas and Mercy, plus the worsening living conditions it becomes a test of their faith against the evil right in front of their eyes. As the family begins to turn on one another, crumbling that foundation by which faith takes root, Eggers ratchets up the tension more while piling up the body count. With its use of religious imagery and paranormal thrills, plus the icy chill of Jarin Blaschke's cinematography, it combines some of the best aspects of The Crucible and The Exorcist while a tense musical score always keeps you on edge.

Bringing it all together is the strength of the performances, most notably Taylor-Joy as the blossoming but tormented Thomasin. Dickie brings a similar mental fragility as she did as Lysa Arryn on HBO's Game of Thrones, and chances are those who follow that show will feel the same about her character here. Eggers remains ambiguous throughout until a questionable conclusion that threatens to be a little too on-the-nose, but The Witch remains a frightening look at what happens when one's unshakable faith collides with a frightening reality.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Review: 'Mortdecai,' starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ewan McGregor

So look at here: We are starting out 2015 with a new Johnny Depp as a crazy character movie, huh? This time it’s supposedly for adults with the whole R-rating thing. I guess he just has no interest in playing someone regular again. Oh well, he was quite good at it at one point in time.

So what is this movie? It’s called Mortdecai. It’s based on a series of comedic thrillers from author Kyril Bonfiglioli that I clearly have not read. Also starring in this is Gwyneth Paltrow as Johanna Mortdecai, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, and Olivia Munn. I guess their goal was to make a really funny British style comedy for American people but it seems like they failed on both sides here.

So what is Mortdecai about? It’s about this dandy-like British art smuggler by the name of Charlie Mortdecai (Depp). He bubbles around as he’s trying to get money to pay his 8 million pounds in taxes. A famous art restorer is murdered for this famous Goya painting and his old Oxford rival Inspector Martland (McGregor) asks him help them find the murderer and the painting. This takes Mortdecai and his manservant Jock Strapp (yes that is his name, and he's played by Paul Bettany) all over the world trying to find this painting. Total hijinks ensue ... I guess. The B-plot is Mortdecai having marital issues with Johanna, his wife, because of his new mustache that he loves so much and she hates.

You know the thing with this movie is that it’s not good but it really doesn’t suck enough to hate. Mortdecai just washes over you in uninterestingness. It seems like they were trying make something in the old Peter Sellers Pink Panther lane of comedy but it never catches on. In a lot of ways the pacing and the structure feels like it would be a really good animated movie. I’m thinking with the way the performances are and the costuming being so over the top, this would’ve been great as a cartoon. The movie really relies too much on weird facial expressions and goofy pratfalls. The cinematography really isn’t anything to talk about other than these silly over-CGI-ed transitions from city to city.

The real saving grace to this whole thing is Paul Bettany as Jock Strapp. He’s hilarious during the whole movie as Mortdecai's tough guy/ladies’ man manservant. Watching makes you think this story would be a lot more interesting if it were from his perspective rather than Mortdecai's.

Another funny thing with this movie is the two stars of it are American actors doing English accents, whereas everyone else is actually English; it's a bit disjointing. I don’t know if Gwyneth Paltrow’s accent always works.

But seriously, this movie really isn’t something to go out and see in the theater. It might be something fun to watch at home. As I said earlier, it isn’t good enough or bad enough to even get a real reaction. I think Mortdecai is something to pass on and instead just go catch up on Academy Award nominees.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Guttenbergs

New Trailer for Sundance Drama 'Partisan' starring Vincent Cassel

Day one of the Sundance Film Festival has come and gone, and while it doesn't really kick into high gear until today, some movies are already starting to emerge as ones to look out for. One of those is Ariel Kleinman's Partisan, which stars the always-commanding Vincent Cassel in the story of a young boy trying to become a man in a community that doesn't value free expression. Here's the official synopsis:

"The charismatic Gregori (Vincent Cassel) saunters into a hospital maternity ward and charms new mother Susanna. Eleven years later, she and her son Alexander live in Gregori’s closed community, sheltering vulnerable women and their brood in a haven isolated from the outside world. Alexander is Gregori’s prize pupil, eldest son, and star employee in the cottage industry—in which the kids are trained to run dangerous errands to provide for the group—but Gregori feels threatened by the boy’s inquisitive nature, struck by the fear that his child might not love him anymore. Meanwhile, Alexander begins to think for himself."

A new trailer for the film has been released ahead of its premiere this weekend. Check it out below!