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TBT: Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)

A remarkably astute stage-to-screen adaptation, David Mamet’s self-adapted collaboration with director James Foley is a quintessential ’90s gem if only because of its performance-driven charisma. Set in and around a real estate agency that specializes in resort properties, the agents themselves are pitted against one another for the sake of securing their jobs and very livelihood. Intent on obtaining the titular Glengarry leads that promise imminent profitability, the individuals in question go to increasingly desperate and seedy lengths to one-up their competition.

Barring abortion-esque, cash-grabbing contemporary musicals, there’s something to be said about how competently translated some plays truly are. In the case of Glengarry Glen Ross, the film consciously compensates for its limited spacing in terms of setting via whip-smart and engaging dialogue. It’s crass, sure, however the vulgarity is assuredly warranted in the face of each man’s impending fate as a career professional. Functioning as personality-driven light switches, the key players – despite their obvious sole impetus – are unique and unpredictable enough to push past conflictual banality.

Having mentioned what I already have, there really isn’t much else to laud the film in question for. It’s appealingly steadfast by nature, involving as such and a longstanding model of the pitch-perfect stage-to-screen adaptation, however the proceedings aren’t particularly thick with substance. Unavoidable simplicity aside, Glengarry Glen Ross is a worthwhile piece of well-acted entertainment that thrives thanks to its character-driven and palpably attitudinal atmosphere.

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Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2014)

Despite conceptual simplicity, Snowpiercer is far and away one of the most effortlessly captivating sci-fi yarns in recent memory. Seventeen years after a global warming-induced apocalypse, humanity’s lone survivors are situated aboard the titular locomotive, forever circling the globe if only to live out the remainder of their predetermined existences. Given a particularly oppressive caste arrangement, one Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) and a bulk of his caboose-residing, lower-class cohorts take it upon themselves to initiate a revolt if only to violently achieve equality. Throwing the Snowpiercer into a state of uncertain disarray, Curtis and the gang steadfastly circumvent car after car in pursuit of the infamously unattainable goal.

As I embarrassingly admit my failure in familiarizing myself with Bong’s preceding works, Snowpiercer‘s abundant and palpable technical proclivity very much brand him as an assured master of his craft. Initially slow-going, the film consistently breezes past typical dystopian tropes via its sheer uniqueness of presentation and vision, the tail-riding populace’s familiarly grime-covered facade taking a backseat to general engagement. Once the proceedings chug past bare-boned, synopsis-heavy exposition, it becomes startlingly clear that nothing’s sacred in the wake of the tail-end’s actions; something that’s rather suitable given the gravity of revolting against the literal remainder of the human race.

Amid all of the appropriate grimness, Snowpiercer confidently flaunts awkwardly effective comedic tendencies. Juvenile as it may be, things like a cartoon-sized hammer landing smack in the middle of a group of bloodied and grappling tenants strike the right chord, as does cheeky dialogue, a pregnant, gun-toting schoolteacher and a caricature-esque Tilda Swinton functioning at full throttle. Humor aside, the film’s fully and fascinatingly realized aura balance everything near-perfectly, including but certainly not limited to the fantastical steampunk aesthetic complimenting the strikingly unique personalities of each and every car.

All things considered, let it be known the film in question is one of this year’s few consistently impressive efforts. Although others have rivaled its excellence, for Snowpiercer‘s genre-specific trappings to overcome rote archetypal exposition as confidently as it does is remarkable. Its assured, breathtaking aesthetic, tangible humanistic tendencies, technical proficiency and corresponding presentation are truly felt from start to finish, and to come across something in this vein that’s this multifaceted – in 2014 especially – is the polar opposite of a dime a dozen.

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TBT: The Immigrant (James Gray, 2014)

While not typical Throwback Thursday fare because of it’s recent and still-expanding theatrical release, I still felt compelled to convey my thoughts on James Gray’s latest and near-career best effort. Enjoy!

James Gray is not your average American auteur. Like I stated somewhat recently in my review of The Yards, the man’s films explore human nature in a decidedly complex light, what with central characters often playing a dual morality card as illustrated through differing narratives. In the case of The Immigrant, we’re offered an earnest prohibition-era tale of female Polish hopeful Ewa (Marion Cotillard) as she and her sister Magda arrive on Ellis Island, the latter of whom does so in a noticeably poor state. Forced apart due to unavoidable circumstances, Ewa soon avoids impending deportation thanks to the enigmatic Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) – a volatile individual that provides her with a means of supporting her ailing sister if only by way of prostitution.

Although its first act noticeably employs stilted era-afflicted narrative and performances, The Immigrant more than saves face once its able to delve deep into the central characters’ moral compasses. Simultaneously illustrative of Ewa’s circumstantial misfortune and her aspiring suitors’ mutual interest in her, the film takes pride in its humanist spin on an obviously bleak historical timeline. Beyond what drives Phoenix’s Bruno and Renner’s Orlando’s respective professional ups and downs, we’re offered valuable insight into their relationship and how their falling out adds (dramatically) to Ewa’s ever-present struggle.

The ensuing conflict is what propels the film past historical familiarity, what with Gray and co-scribe Minello’s creative nuances steering clear of stock key player tropes. Despite The Immigrant‘s initially decided branding of Bruno as its antagonist and Orlando’s obvious foil, it becomes clear that these gentlemanly books aren’t meant to be judged by their covers. Like most people, these men possess discernibly muddy track records that paint them as imperfect individuals. While they’ve both made mistakes, it’s still entirely possible that either one’s possession of Ewa’s sentiments wouldn’t be in her best interest and, because of this, The Immigrant soars above the typical insipid period piece.

Barring the safely-played first-act portrayal of Ewa’s plight, James Gray’s latest thrives on its subsequent humanist excellence. The proceedings become as much about the titular transplant’s struggle as they do the people she meets and, coupled with an excellent era-specific aesthetic, it’s this distinction that effortlessly solicits engagement. Even if you’re not entirely familiar with Gray’s palpably personal style of filmmaking, The Immigrant is both well-made and unique enough in scope to outlast the qualms some may have with similar subject matter.

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Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

An insipid biopic unworthy of its source inspiration’s good name, Jersey Boys is director Clint Eastwood’s go with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ inception, rise to fame and eventual falling out. Spanning the literal entirety of their legacy, the film dully bounces from one era to the next as we’re gleefully serenaded with the group’s most popular musical numbers. As shown through partially effective behind-the-scenes tidbits, the titular focal points’ clashing egos and personal demons are to blame as the four-piece, pre-Beatles sensation falls victim to circumstantial misfortune.

First and foremost, I won’t lie to you – I’m not an avid Broadway enthusiast. Having only seen an off-Broadway production of Stomp some years ago, I’ve come to terms with my subsequent inexperience with stage productions, even as I attempt to dissect this sub-par translation from source to screen. This in mind, it’s no surprise that said productions carry with them a sustained level of talent and vivacity, of which benchmark long-standing heavy hitters in the vein of Hairspray, Rock of Ages and so on. In the case of the latter’s 2012-released atrocity, anyone can wear a wig, don a leather vest and lip-sync a fucking Whitesnake song, however Broadway takes pride in the aforementioned talent on display.

In the case of Jersey Boys, the proceedings rarely resonate beyond the fan service-heavy employment of its subject’s music. In other words, if you like Frankie Valli, you’ll like what you see, even if “The show was better!” are the first words out of your mouth should they apply to you. Much like Rock of Ages, it’s rare to witness something so bloated and one-track-minded in this day and age but, needless to say, I haven’t seen the latest high-grossing Transformers debacle. Harsh and perhaps unfair, but true nonetheless.

Even despite the apt presentation of decade-specific aesthetics and factoids, Jersey Boys‘ appeal is directly proportionate to how loudly you snap your fingers along with “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” It’s astonishing to witness how safe Eastwood plays it here, what with traditional and lifeless biopic tropes playing out like a bland, long-running television serial. It has its charm, however the bulk of an overlong run time seems to merely aim to pin a large budget to a familiar and familiarly popular inspiration.

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Franchise Friday, Vol. 1: Rambo

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Welcome to the first installment of Franchise Friday! What began as a mild-mannered effort to catch up on lauded anthologies of decades past quickly morphed into this – an earnest tackling of previously unseen cinema via long-winded ranting. As always, I plan on making this a weekly feature until something inevitably comes up, but in the meantime, take my word for it. Enjoy!

Rambo

Highly representative of the testosterone era of typically mindless cinema, Stallone’s John Rambo is the quintessential fictional war hero – battle-hardened, nearly infallible and an advocate of letting actions speak louder than words. Capitalizing more on the blood and bombast that permeated First Blood amid commentary on America’s post-Vietnam sentiments, the second and third entries into the fabled Green Beret’s legacy don’t hold a candle to the one that started it all. Schlocky to a fault and wildly exploitative of character, First Blood Part II and Rambo III aren’t necessarily worth anyone’s time, but hey, the franchise’s longevity is hard to ignore, and continue to discuss it I shall.

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22 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014)

For all intents and purposes, 2012’s 21 Jump Street yielded more than satisfactory comic relief thanks to an all-encompassing, exceedingly R-rated gusto, of which helped the film transcend typical genre trappings. Keen on maintaining a thoroughly “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, 22 Jump Street is an effective conceptual retread for the now college-bound Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), what with an early act fuck-up forcing them into a scenario identical to their previous exploits. Despite well-intentioned jabs at thwarting yet another hallucinogenic drug ring, the non-dynamic duo typically stumbles from Point A to B amid many a forehead-slapping personal and professional misstep.

Ringing delightfully self-referential to a (mostly) high degree of success, Lord & Miller’s steadfast sequel to their agreeably surprising hit goes where very few have dared. As commentary regarding the obviousness of its mimicry doesn’t go unnoticed, the film takes pride in committing to the uncreative creative choices it makes. In taking direct inspiration from itself technically, 22 Jump Street‘s recycled components find consistent solace in chemistry between leads and timely comedic prowess.

Despite the overbearing sub-thematic bromance, the film’s sense of humor does the trick, delivering when and where it’s expected to. Like all overachieving R-rated endeavors in this day and age though (i.e. Neighbors, This Is the End), 22 Jump Street‘s reach exceeds its grasp in some respects but remains mostly entertaining for entertainment’s sake. While some running gags outstay their welcome, the palpable well-made aura sported by a bulk of the proceedings outweighs the gripes of the uninitiated.

Barring its intelligently self-aware tendencies, 22 Jump Street plays out exactly as you’d expect a purposefully-structured sequel of its type should and would. Opting to take the high road in terms of subsequent execution however, the film still employs the skillful talent at its helm to craft a silly and highly likable effort worth viewing. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but then again, it decidedly doesn’t have to. Instead, it takes what works and runs with it to a laudably successful degree as sharp chemistry and execution do wonders for it all.

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TBT: Death Sentence (James Wan, 2007)

An oppressive exercise in thematic redundancy, Death Sentence focuses on white collar archetype Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) – a lovable and loving everyman, husband and father of two sons as unfathomable tragedy strikes, claiming the life of his oldest boy. As Nick continually reels in the aftermath of the responsible hoodlum’s acquittal, he foolishly takes matters into his own hands, thus sparking an increasingly violent and entirely avoidable blood feud. Who will prevail and, more importantly, who cares?

From the get-go, the proceedings reek of basally cloying exposition, all of which is meant to build a sympathy stash for us to tap into following the loss of Nick’s son. Key relationships fall flat in the wake of sheer cheese and – unfortunately – emotionality takes a backseat to heavy-handed eye-for-an-eye impetuses. Following the delivery of initial deathblows, the film awkwardly employs a muddled dual-sympathy card – one that alternately brands both now-vengeful parties as monsters in each others’ eyes. Is Nick becoming the type of monster that took his son? Is Billy (Garrett Hedlund) merely a gangland-abiding victim of circumstance? Either/or, we all know the answers we once sought as the events that transpire speak for themselves.

In the realm of technical proficiency, director Wan finds solace in several key sequences benchmarked by a particularly involving and, oddly enough, appropriately overlong parking garage set piece. Putting aside the qualms one might have with Nick’s surprising physical finesse and previously absent killer instinct, Death Sentence‘s brutality becomes more resonant than the driving force behind the aforementioned motives of everyone involved. It’s at this point that the entire production falls to shit whilst banking on a wafer-thin man-with-nothing-left-to-lose mantra, you know, the kind that’s employed in a jarringly bombastic attempt to hold viewers’ interests.

While I’m not denying that people gravitate toward and subsequently like this type of film, I personally had a hard time figuring out the reasoning behind its existence. Are Nick Hume’s actions justified? Yes and no – an uncertain answer that’s destined to spark the sole discussion you’d expect to have at such a juncture. Technical proclivity aside, Death Sentence‘s motives are too transparent, its commentary on the fine line between right and wrong ringing entirely ineffective as Kevin Bacon’s efforts pale in comparison to an all-encompassing ineptitude. If anything, it’s an uncharacteristically grim affair that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities procured by its characters’ actions.