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Against the Sun

Directed by Brian Falk




      During World War II, Harold Dixon (Garret Dillahunt), a U.S. Navy pilot, Gene Aldrich (Jake Abel), a radioman, and Tony Pastula (Draco Malfoy), a bombardier, struggle to stay alive together on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean after they're forced to land their plane when it runs out of fuel. Harold takes charge by volunteering to become Gene and Tony's leader on the raft. He has them empty out their pockets and bags to see what items they have to use as possible survival tools. With no water or food, their chances of surviving are pretty slim.

      Based on a true story, Against the Sun offers more thrills and engrossing drama than Life of Pi because the screenplay by writer/director Brian Falk and co-writer Mark David Keegan maintains as much realism as possible and stays focused on the struggles of the three men drifting at sea. It's equally fascinating and suspenseful to watch as the men find clever ways to find sources of food and to battle the elements, not-to-mention fighting off a shark. Gradually, you get to know their personalities and some details from their past. The dynamics of their relationship aboard the raft, though, remain the most intriguing and help to enrich the film even more, especially when a secret rises to the surface which might change the way you perceive one of the character (no, I won't be spoiling that surprise here).

      The solid performances from each actor help to heighten the sense of realism, and the same can be said for the special effects that look quite impressive given the low budget. Falk makes you feel like you're right there along with the Navy men. You feel happy when they're happy, sad when they're sad, and hopeful when they're hopeful. To be fair, you might experience a sense of tedium setting in eventually, but the three men also experience tedium at the same time. Their physical and mental strengths, which help them to persevere despite the odds, are both believable, as well as tremendously inspiring. Falk and Keegan deserve kudos for allowing the film to stay lean, and for avoiding the use of excessive schmaltz, preachiness, exposition and flashbacks while keeping the running time under 2 hours at 100 minutes. Against the Sun would make for a great double feature with the John Wayne film, Island in the Sky.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The American Film Company.
Now on VOD and playing at Quad Cinema.

Whiplash

Directed by Damien Chazelle




      Miles Teller delivers the best performance of his career as Andrew Neyman, a student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music who aspires to become a professional jazz drummer. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor at the school, conducts the jazz band at the school and picks him as a new member of the band. He leads Neyman through physically and emotionally strenuous experiences as he pushes him to his limits in his many attempts to acheive perfection. Meanwhile, Andrew has to deal with his not-quite-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and the challenge of balancing his fervent passion for jazz drumming with his blossoming romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist).

      Writer/director Damien Chazelle might change the way you look at drumming or at relationships between students and teachers for that matter. Andrew and Terence have plenty of talent, but, just like any complex human being, they're infallible. Terence instructs Andrew and other members of the band much like a drill sergeant would push a soldier. He's domineering, emotionally abusive and draconian. It's equally moving, fascinating and thrilling to observe how the dynamics between he and Andrew evolve over time. Moreover, the camera work during the drumming scenes, particularly the final scene, captures the intensity and helps it to emerge on a palpable level. Don't be surprised if you'll find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of awe and suspense throughout those scenes.

      Fortunately, Chazelle knows that the meat of the story lies in Andrew's stress-inducing journey as a jazz drummer, so the subplots involving Andrew's dad and Andrew's girlfriend aren't in the forefront or distracting, and it's clear how they affect and shape Andrew on an emotional level. It's also refreshing that Terence doesn't become a caricature or a villain/monster per se because there's more to him than meets the eye as you eventually learn about events from his past that haunt him. Much of the film rings true and feels organic except for one minor, unexpected scene toward the end that lacks plausibility given the consequences which seem too "Hollywood". Still, despite that minor flaw, Whiplash remains an emotionally-charged, captivating triumph brimming with powerhouse performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, both of whom deserve an Oscar nomination. Bravo to casting director Terri Taylor for selecting them. You've never seen them in roles like this before, and they truly hit it out of the ballpark while helping to elevate the film into greatness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at select theaters.

Boyhood

Directed by Richard Linklater




      6-year-old Mason lives with his divorced mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and 9-year-old sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), in Texas. His father (Ethan Hawke), an aspiring musician, shows up on occasion. As Mason grows into a teenager, many changes and events happen including a new home, an alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella), and his first girlfriend, April (Jessie Tilton).

      Writer/director Richard Linklater follows Mason over a 12-year span from the age of 6 until he goes off the college at the age of 18. For the first time in American film history, Linklater filmed the actors year after year for 12 years instead of using other actors or prosthetics/make-up/CGI as the characters age. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what makes Boyhood so extraordinary. Linklater infuses so much naturalism within his film that every single scene rings true, and every small detail becomes an essential part of the tapestry of Mason and his family as a whole. Are you expecting big Hollywood moments like car accidents, fist or gunfights that send someone to the hospital or, perhaps, flashbacks to key scenes to connect the dots thematically for you? If that's the case, our culture/society has probably conditioned you to respond in that way much like Pavlov's dog was conditioned in the classic experiment which Boyhood refers to in yet another small, but profound scene. Linklater gives you the task of connecting the dots and deciding how much weight each moment should be given and how it affects Mason; a Hollywood director would've spoon-fed you everything. After all, growing up can be a roller coaster ride of, among other things, angst, happiness, sadness, confusion as well as a sense of hope, and Linklater captures all of that more palpably and authentically than any American film director has captured before. To summarize the plot doesn't really do it any justice because, just like life, it's simply complex.

      Yes, Boyhood clocks at 165 minutes, but you know you're watching a truly great film because you don't feel the weight of its running time and you never want it to end. Every scene feels genuinely poignant and, at least to a certain degree, relatable. The acting all across the board is very natural, and, unlike most American films that fall apart by the end credits, Boyhood boasts a strong beginning, middle and end. Moreover, within all of the moments of gravitas, Linklater infuses the film with just the right amount of comic relief without any sense of unevenness that would've taken away from the film's momentum. For 165 minutes, you'll join Mason along for his emotional journey through adolescence, and laugh when he laughs, feel happy when he's happy, sad when he's sad, and proud of his achievements. He's the kind of character that you'll still be thinking about for years to come. If you were to watch Boyhood again 10 years down the road, you might perceive new layers of insight within its complexity. Ultimately, it's one of the most profound and human American films in years and, if it does well enough in theaters, it could crack the ice to begin a new Golden Age of American Cinema. Why can't Hollywood make films like this anymore? Now critics need only worry about their other 9 Best Films of the Year.



Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by IFC Films.
Now on DVD, VOD and playing at select theaters.
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Avi Offer
The NYC Movie Guru
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