Begin Again (2013) – This film is pretty much exactly what I expected it to be, based on the trailer. I didn’t realize until after watching that the writer/director of this film is the same man behind 2006’s Once, which I also enjoyed a lot. Mark Ruffalo’s performance is strong, the music is nice (most of it, anyway – I’m not a huge fan of Adam Levine’s voice), and the film has quite a bit of charm. The story doesn’t take too many unexpected turns, but it still makes for a good watch. It held my attention without a problem.
Beyond the Lights (2014) – The trailer for this film interested me, and I wanted to see it even more after watching Marya’s review in November. (She compares it to Gypsy, which really sold me!) I’m glad I finally got the chance to see it, because I loved it. The romance isn’t too sappy, and this isn’t just another “heroic man saves the girl” story, which I really appreciated. Noni only truly transforms when she’s able to stand up for and accept herself, which gives the film a lot of power. Romance is a part of the story, but Beyond the Lights is really a film about a woman taking control of her own life. The character dynamics are interesting, especially the parent/child dynamics, both Macy/Noni and Capt. Nicol/Kaz. The performances (from a perfectly-selected cast) are great. Gugu Mbatha-Raw in particular is a captivating actress — she’s been getting a lot of hype for her performances here and in Belle, and the hype is well-deserved. I hope she continues to snag great roles!
Camp Takota (2014) – Finals week… after spending eight hours of one day on a single final exam, I was ready to turn my brain off a little bit and watch an indie comedy. Camp Takota had recently been added to Netflix, so I decided to check it out. Previously, I’d seen a couple of videos from each of the film’s three stars (Grace Helbig, Mamrie Hart and Hannah Hart) but have never been a devoted follower of any of them, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this film (co-written by Mamrie) or their performances. I ended up enjoying the film quite a bit. The cast is likable, and Mamrie in particular is hilarious. The story doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but it’s cute and moves along at a decent pace.
Flakes (2007) – I’ll watch pretty much anything Zooey Deschanel is in, so I rented this from Netflix on DVD. I liked it quite a bit — quirky, and not the best film I’ve ever seen, but an enjoyable diversion. Like Begin Again, it was just what I expected it to be.
Happy Christmas (2014) – I enjoyed Drinking Buddies when I watched it in July of 2013, so when this Joe Swanberg flick popped up in my Netflix recommendations, I decided to give it a watch. I’m becoming a bit of a Swanberg fan. It may be because I feel an odd sense of kinship to him — we were both born in Detroit and partially raised in the South. But it’s more likely that he just makes interesting films. I love the heavy use of improvisation, and the way that his films are able to wholly engross the viewer despite their quiet tone and lack of huge plot developments. Not much happens in Happy Christmas, but the performances are great, and the characters feel very authentic. The scenes shared by Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey and Lena Dunham are particularly great. If you liked Drinking Buddies (or are into the genre that has apparently been dubbed “mumblecore”), you’ll enjoy this one.
The Gambler (2014) – This remake of the 1974 film of the same title is an alright film, but it’s got quite a few problems. The music choices are, often, just plain odd and very distracting. I’m not sure why the filmmakers decided to put so much emphasis on diegetic sound, but it isn’t successful. The story feels very shallow, the characters quite typical. (I enjoy the fact that Wahlberg’s central character is so unlikable, but all we ever really learn about him is that he has a rich family, a gambling problem, and a try-hard literary past.) And that ending! Is the audience supposed to accept — or, further, be happy — that Wahlberg’s character is just going to live out the rest of his life with his student? On the bright side, John Goodman, Michael K. Williams, and Jessica Lange are great, though their characters are just as shallow as the lead.