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Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)

Distinct by way of the auteur at its helm, Only Lovers Left Alive chronicles the current state of a centuries-long romance between devoutly faithful vampires Adam (Tom Huddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). As long distance relationship woes peak, a mutual decision to reunite at the former’s dilapidated Detroit estate comes to fruition if only to be unceremoniously interrupted by Eve’s meddlesome sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

As I clamor to expand upon “vampires by way of Jarmusch,” let it be known that my loss for words reflects not the prowess of the singular proceedings. Shot through with characteristic, deadpan-heavy minimalism, the script deftly blends Adam and Eve’s aging hipster-esque personas with their logical self-educatory existentialism. Forgoing the typical run-and-gun bloodsucker mentality of well-worn vampire tropes, we’re instead graced with intelligent renditions of these creatures of lore, of whom are content with their eternal curse as they confidently evolve along with the times.

Predictably light on excitement, Only Lovers Left Alive still finds strength in its straightforward narrative trajectory, the sheer originality coinciding with a palpably restrained approach remaining admirable. Even despite the mundane repetition of their increasingly lonesome lifestyles, it becomes apparent that the nature of said existence is a result of society’s steady decay – something that’s made apparent through many an instance of nostalgic artistic appreciation and the like.

Although subject-fueled skepticism is inevitable, let it be known that Jarmusch’s gusto in weaving his trademark web shines throughout his latest. As it decidedly embraces subdued stylishness over tween absurdity, Adam and Eve’s exploits remain reasonably involving on account of their departure from the norm. Finding further solace in a pair of notable performances and their eclectic immortal counterparts, Only Lovers Left Alive is a mild subgenre-centric triumph and worthwhile as such.

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Afflicted (Derek Lee & Clif Prowse, 2014)

Determined to stay one step ahead of an inhibitive neurological ailment, Derek strategically fast tracks longstanding plans to backpack around the globe with best friend Clif. Extensively documenting said exploits via travel blog, not a single highlight will go unpublished – up to and including a one-night stand gone horribly awry. Harshly reeling from the aftereffects in increasingly bizarre ways, Derek must collaborate with his best bud to procure answers despite the duo’s unmitigated bouts of hindering stupidity.

Firmly grabbing for attention as it wholly embraces the timely aforementioned gimmick, Afflicted‘s seldom strong suits are benchmarked by this initial lead-in. Unfolding as you’d expect it to, the film succumbs to a semi-agreeable implementation of the notoriously rote found-footage approach, just to become completely hamstrung by a pair of clueless and naivety-stricken leads once shit hits the fan.

Taking pride in technical proclivity over narrative poignancy, Clif and Derek’s ignorance not once ceases to amaze as their nonchalant acceptance of the latter’s transformation remains exceptionally asinine. While alternating bits of actual horror and agile high-jumping hijinks exist to varying degrees of success, it’s made too difficult for us to care about, let alone sympathize with either of the key players in the story.

Maybe it’s my unfettered hatred for an obviously exhausted gimmick. Maybe it’s my distaste for the individual trying to make his vampiric friend drink a jar of his own blood in the dark. Either way, Afflicted does little other than reinforce negative feelings toward an ever-popular (and gratingly so) niche of filmmaking, its brief flashes of ingenuity overshadowed by hollow narrative inanity and general silliness. In giving credit where it’s due, Lee and Prowse manage to do the most with a presumably shoestring budget; it’s just a shame that the proceedings unjustifiably take themselves too seriously and procure too little gratification despite their out-and-out visceral proficiency.

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Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2014)

Steeped purposefully in cheeky and occasionally grating character-heavy bombast, Dom Hemingway tells the tale of the titular former safecracker’s pursuit of a luxurious post-prison lifestyle. Having spent twelve years in the joint on account of the fall he took for former boss Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), Dom sloppily attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter as making up for lost time tends to do more harm than good.

Walking the fine line between delightfully unhinged and behaviorally excessive, Jude Law semi-laudably carries the film in spite of unfocused narrative inanity. Borrowing one page too many from the “Goin’ Straight” handbook, our protagonist’s bouts of vulgarity-laden debauchery trump Dom Hemingway‘s jabs at ineffective emotionality, the moments spent in the company of his daughter, her husband and son ringing false as they pale in comparison to darkly humorous inclinations.

Finding greater solace in the realm of broader comedy, Shepard’s script can’t quite strike a competent balance between marginally affecting and gleefully abrasive. Touching upon but never delving deeper into Dom’s existential toxicity, we’re never offered more than a base-level glimpse at what we already know: Dom is his own worst enemy. From vehicular manslaughter to showing up bloodied and sweating booze on his daughter’s doorstep, it’s no surprise that the central character inevitably tries to atone for his wrongdoings following brief stints of self-realization.

While Dom Hemingway isn’t necessarily a failure, it’s writer/director Shepard’s conscious decision to play it safe that hinders a bulk of the proceedings. Opening as strongly as anything comparable preceding it, Jude Law’s performance remains the lone benchmark of a script plagued by tone-deaf banality – one that finds greater strength in crass vitriol than it does predictable soul-searching. With this in mind, and although everything borders on rote archetypal nonsense, Dom Hemingway still remains a serviceable bit of R-rated entertainment.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2014)

Trucking along ever-so-confidently, Marvel’s Phase Two initiative intermittently enthralls once again with the titular first Avenger’s second go-round. Steeped heavily in a narrative benchmarked by a wide-reaching, moreover world-threatening conspiracy, Cap and his cohorts must band together to fulfill their valiant ongoing obligations to humanity as a whole. Faced with one obstacle after another, things quickly appear as if they couldn’t get much worse until a shadowy sentimental figure from Cap’s past reemerges to throw a proverbial wrench in the works, of whom is unsurprisingly paired with the thought-to-be-defunct superpower powering the film’s central bout of conflict.

Like their comic book inspirations, each installment of the Marvel cinematic canon thrives on the establishment of the characters at their cores. Once a tangible human entity has been branded as an Avenger, it’s safe to say that critical and fan reception of their charismatic onscreen turns ensure the films’ success. This in mind, the aforementioned Phase Two initiative has competently ridden the coattails of 2012′s sprawling and exceedingly epic crossover event, what with each of the three films to follow transcending origins story trappings in favor of more compelling substance.

While this fact remains obviously agreeable, The Winter Soldier – more than anything preceding it – is an ostensibly “maximalist ” Point-A-to-B affair, more specifically one that employs personality and presentation in ways that trump the embarrassing simplicity of the plot. Through aptly expansive world-building and the like, the film often engages via identifiably grandiose set pieces and increasingly high stakes for all involved. Paired with an inherent air of intelligence and likability, the script unfolds at a nice clip despite its overindulgence in superfluous detail and, put plainly, you’d be hard-pressed to find multifaceted action-oriented entertainment like this anywhere but this particular licensed niche.

As charisma and sheer engagement rarely cease, you almost tend to forget that these films are almost destined to become one muddy amalgamation of each other for the sake of inoffensive continuity. Barring said theory surrounding a potentially infinite Marvel legacy, dexterous presentational and storytelling prowess transform The Winter Soldier into something mildly triumphant. Chock full of enough canonical jargon and substance to distract you from a bare bones world takeover scheme, the film plays its hand with ease as action-heavy proficiency, occasional emotionality and a requisite amount of fan service combine to put forth a mostly superior sequel.

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Nymphomaniac: Volume II (Lars von Trier, 2014)

Picking up right where Volume I left off, the latter half of von Trier’s at-times maddening descent into the psyche of a the titular addict is a considerably weaker continuation. Chronicling Joe’s ceaseless pursuit of sexual gratification as the physical possibility of it dwindles, Volume II occasionally embraces contrivance as the adult chapters of her life unfold before our eyes. Still confiding in the asexual Seligman, it soon becomes apparent that Joe’s insatiable desires and subsequent recklessness could, should and would land her in the battered state she’s currently in.

As Nymphomaniac‘s first installment played intelligibly as a more-than-worthwhile origins story – an exceptional, moreover involving dissection of Joe’s physio and psychological evolution – Volume II more often than not falls victim to rote predictability. Although this might ring a bit inevitable, von Trier noticeably and consistently ramps up the general air of discomfort coinciding with certain sequences, of which are collectively benchmarked by unflinching bouts of S&M. Do these moments serve a purpose? Surely, as Joe’s last-ditch mentality regarding her loss of sensation should conceivably plop her here, however it all reeks of von Trier’s typically sensationalist singularity, his imagination assuredly running wild as familiar scenarios are taken to gratuitous extremes.

This isn’t to say that the film’s intentions are in vain, especially considering what’s touched upon regarding the wide-reaching existential repercussions of Joe’s habits. From familial disintegration to denouncing sobriety, a palpable emotional heft does intermittently coincide with certain events until a question latter act career change occurs. Intrigue takes a backseat to these moments as Joe’s increasingly bizarre devotion to her new craft and adoption of P (Mia Goth) take a turn for the worse, her questionable relationship with said teenager throwing a proverbial wrench in the works as it proves to do more harm than good.

Despite von Trier’s imaginative and technical proclivity remaining front-and-center once again, Nymphomaniac: Volume II‘s glaring flaws outweigh that of its immediate predecessor’s strengths. Bloated in relation to the narrative’s straightforward trajectory, the situations presented serve mostly to shock as familiar subjectivity falls victim to the auteur’s maintenance of his reputation. There are still glimmers of modest genius here and there as the script devolves into alternating bits of absurdity and poignance, and while certain attributes are laudable based on their sheer inventiveness, it’s hard to look past the strained presentational excess they tend to provide.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

Too often have I referenced Wes Anderson’s filmography as something transcendent – a wholly unique body of work that never ceases to amaze in nearly every aspect of contemporary cinema, his honed and overtly singular, moreover all-encompassing panache doing wonders for each production. While I knowingly throw the word “singular” around a bit too frequently, redundancy is certainly not my aim as Anderson confidently epitomizes the term. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, we predictably find the auteur in top form as his tale involving one Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) – renowned concierge at the titular establishment – spans the duration of the individual’s at-first-tentative but eventually long-lasting friendship with lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori).

Rife with detail and benchmarked by a signature aesthetic, every second of every minute of The Grand Budapest Hotel oozes something of note, whether it’s an expected chunk of laudable set design or alternating bits of whip-smart and hilarious dialogue. For those familiar with a bulk of his contributions to the medium, Anderson’s world-building tendencies have always lent themselves wonderfully to his vision, an aptly implemented adherence to detail via composition, narration and the like perpetuating his notoriety with ease. In this case, the establishment of the Grand Budapest’s legacy in conjunction with its most revered concierge are ceaselessly engaging as charm compliments a multifaceted narrative worthy of  praise.

As outlandishness remains a constant and undeniably entertaining trademark, the film tends to venture into some noticeably dark territory as a core mystery involving one of Gustave’s late mistresses unravels. Eventually serving as the narrative’s sole impetus, Anderson’s finesse in presenting the ensuing and increasingly dire fiasco proves more than effective as sheer engagement rarely ceases. From chapter to chapter, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s eclectic mix of quirky, semi-broad humor, intelligence and tangible if latent emotionality rarely falter in achieving their admirable intentions.

Although specifics have perceptibly taken a backseat to my gushing, I can assure you that Wes Anderson’s latest will wholly satisfy any and all fans of his previous work. Whether you consider yourself a valuable part of said fanbase or not, there’s no denying the individual’s sheer creative prowess within the medium, more specifically one of such an astonishingly dexterous note. From obvious emotion in its addressing of the core relationship between Gustave and Zero to intended shock value, suspense and wit, The Grand Budapest Hotel is truly a welcome rarity in 2014′s still-sparse canon of theatrical do-wells, its creator’s aesthetically-inclined presentation of an alternate fantastical sect of history doing wonders for filmgoers of all types.

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Nymphomaniac: Volume I (Lars von Trier, 2014)

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Elegantly provocative in characteristic fashion, the first volume of Lars von Trier’s much-discussed Nymphomaniac finds the battered central Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the caring hands of passerby savior Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the latter of whom effectively prompting his guest to divulge the beginnings of her downward spiral in unfettered nymphomania. Determinedly self-deprecating in her agreeable opinion of herself, Joe recalls her youth and teenage years as her addiction’s severity visibly increases from one escapade to the next.

In peeling back the tarnished physical and psychological layers of such an affected individual, von Trier does so with predictable panache as Joe irons out the details of her exploits and subsequent motives in sating her sexual appetite. Shot through with an air of engagement brought about by von Trier’s singular creative flair, each chronicled encounter is particularly strong as key individuals and an admirable wraparound arc involving Shia LaBeouf’s Jerome are well-implemented.

Despite the suggested simplicity of the film’s title, Nymphomaniac: Volume I‘s beauty is in its presentation and air of artistic intelligence. As Seligman draws appropriate if occasionally silly parallels to things ranging from fly fishing to Fibonacci, a special combination of base-level entertainment, dark humor and thought-provoking, moreover sexually-inclined substance comes full circle. Even though said sex is front and center when it matters and as graphic as you’ve heard, the unflinching presentation provides an appropriate rawness that should very well coincide with an affliction such as Joe’s.

While not quite a contemporary masterpiece, von Trier’s first half of his latest opus is agreeably close to earning the brand. As it assuredly won’t make new fans out of his preexisting detractors, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is nonetheless a bitingly incisive and singularly passion-infused character study worthy of praise. Remaining uncomfortable as it should be as it rarely falters in the realm of sheer gifted filmmaking, the script’s involving chapter-divided structure never ceases to impress as it deconstructs both the individual and her sickness at its core.

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300: Rise of an Empire (Noam Murro, 2014)

300‘s ability to target and subsequently enthrall a particular demographic is uncanny beyond the word’s definition. Based on the titular and historically inaccurate graphic novel by Frank Miller, Zack Snyder wholeheartedly employed his then creative singularity in a manner that delivered exactly what viewers anticipated and received. This in mind, said film capitalized enough on its testosterone-heavy strengths to warrant a sequel, even if such a follow-up somehow rings even more exploitative, hollow and lazy than its predecessor in nearly every aspect.

As its narrative embraces the considerably less impressive endeavors of the Athenian Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the proceedings do little to engage outside of doing what they do best – bleed blood. Bordering on absurd excess, “style over substance” can’t quite explain away the amount of over-stylized, dismemberment-heavy gratuitousness that plagues the production. Sure, entering the theater expecting anything other than what I just described would be silly, what with narrative poignancy predictably taking a backseat to it all, however the overt blandness of director Murro’s mimicry is too hard to ignore.

Bathed in a visual cohesiveness reminiscent of its roots as it remains glaringly ineffective, impressionability is virtually nonexistent despite Rise of an Empire‘s best intentions. Instead, ineffectual camp laces every bit of dialogue and exchange as jabs at shock value prioritize themselves over meaningfulness. Granted, the exercise as a whole is meant to instill within its audience a sense of pretentious nostalgia, more specifically one of action-oriented note, however nothing the film showcases is particularly engaging.

Unfortunately, I find it almost impossible to recommend this long-gestating follow-up to the largely beloved blood-bathed blockbuster. While fans of the original’s visual prowess will undoubtedly appreciate what’s presented, the blatantly unfettered recreation of Snyder’s approach coupled with an especially uninteresting central storyline is a bit unbearable. For what it’s worth, Rise of an Empire is a basally entertaining visual effects showcase but, let’s face it, you already knew that it would be. It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be, and as for the purposeful 3D implementation, well, it’s nothing to write home about.