Reel Opinions


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Eddie the Eagle

With a movie that so desperately wants to be sweet and uplifting like Eddie the Eagle, you almost hate to criticize it.  But, criticize it I must, because the movie simply did not work for me.  I found myself resistant to its charms.  You may enjoy it, especially if you like a good sports underdog story.  I've enjoyed many of them, but found this one a bit hollow and overly cutesy.  It's one of those movies that is so filled with good feelings and warmth, it started to feel a bit overpowering to me.

The movie is based on the true life story of Michael "Eddie" Edwards, a working class young man from Britain who defied all odds, and became a professional downhill ski jumper in the 1988 Winter Olympics.  He had no real athletic ability or training, and was basically seen as a joke by his fellow athletes.  However, through sheer determination and skill, he managed to make it to the Olympic games.  And even though he placed last, he still managed to win the hearts of many, and personified the belief that winning isn't everything, it is the journey and the determination that makes the athlete.  Based solely on that description, you probably have figured out every story beat the movie goes through, as Edwards becomes determined, faces some bullies who say he can't do it, maybe has some family issues with a father who doesn't believe in his dreams, and ultimately overcomes it all.  And yet, predictability is not the issue here.  What prevented me from getting behind the film is that we don't learn anything about the man at the center of the film, other than he was full of pluck, and always had a smile on his face.

We follow Eddie (played by Taron Egerton from Kingsman: The Secret Service) from childhood, where he had dreams of competing in the Summer Games in Track and Field, despite suffering from some leg ailments in his youth.  But, at some point, his interests changed, and he decided to switch his dreams over to downhill ski jumping.  His parents represent two completely different steadfast ways of thinking.  Eddie's father (Keith Allen) is completely against the idea of his son competing, and wants him to go into the family business of plaster.  His mother (Jo Hartley), on the other hand, is sweetly supportive in every way, and has no character traits other than to smile and tell her boy to do his best.  When Eddie does start to pursue his Olympic dreams, he is stopped at every turn by rival skiers and those snooty British Olympic representatives, who don't want Eddie to participate, and even go so far as to change the qualifying rules in order for him to compete.  Of course, none of this gets Eddie down one little bit.  There's not a single moment in this movie when he questions his own abilities, or has second thoughts.  Sure, he gets worried once in a while, or maybe a bit hurt when his father brushes him off.  But, seconds later, he's smiling again and ready to go.

Eddie is drawn so simplistically and sweetly by the screenplay that he never came across as a real person, and therefore never became someone who I could get behind.  He's all smiles and determination all the time.  It would be nice if he was given something to talk about other than competing when he meets and teams up with Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a former American Olympic ski jumper who could have been one of the greats, but naturally was just too wild and out of control.  We know that Bronson is a "bad boy", because he's never seen without a cigarette or his flask of whiskey.  He decides to help Eddie with his training, but no real relationship is formed, since most of their training is represented in montages with cheerful and inspiring music.  Jackman is charismatic as always, at least, and Egerton and him do have some chemistry together.  It led me to wish that the movie had given their characters more development. 

Look, I knew walking in that this was not going to be a hard-hitting docudrama about the sports world.  I was ready to be carried away by a cheerful underdog story.  And yet, my better judgement prevented me from giving in, because it kept on reminding me that I wasn't enjoying the movie.  Eddie the Eagle is a sweet movie, but it offers absolutely nothing of substance.  It almost seems to be afraid to challenge its main character at times.  Sure, his dad rolls his eyes at him when he talks about his Olympic dreams, or maybe a teammate will laugh at him.  But that's about as deep as this movie goes in showing the hardships the real Eddie had to go through to get to the 88 Winter Games.  There is never a sense of success or overcoming the odds, because the movie never goes all that deep into the odds he faced. 

The story of Eddie actually happened at the same time as the Jamaican bobsled team, which shares a lot of similar uplifting notes, and was made into its own inspirational underdog movie, Cool Runnings, back in 1993.  That movie at least understood the absurdity of its story, and had fun with it by making it a comedy.  Eddie the Eagle tries to be a light drama, but it's too light for its own good, and ends up not making much of an impression.

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Triple 9

Triple 9 is a crime thriller that takes an all-star cast, and then places them in shadowy and dimly lit scenes so that sometimes we can barely see them.  The plot is pretty shadowy too, filled with dirty cops, double crosses, the Russian Mafia, and Latino gangsters.  For all of its twists, turns and tragic elements, the story here ends up being pretty lightweight.

The movie is set in Atlanta, but don't expect the tourism committee to be using this film to bring in vacationers anytime soon.  In this movie, tattooed criminals pretty much lurk on every single street corner, and the Russian Mafia do their business in broad daylight without anyone noticing.  The Mafia runs a slaughterhouse front so they can ship their bloody cargo without the police noticing...Well, the police who aren't in their pocket or being blackmailed by them, anyway.  This is one of those movies where nearly everyone is corrupt, or a terrible person.  I have nothing against this.  I've enjoyed plenty of movies about terrible people, such as Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal.  But you see, Gyllenhaal's character in that movie wasn't just immoral, he was fascinating.  We became entranced by him and the world he lived in, and we wanted to know more.  The people here are simply awful, vindictive and murderous with no intriguing personalities to back them up.  Triple 9 so clearly wants to be a movie in the style of Michael Mann or Quentin Tarantino, but the script isn't up to the level it wants to be.  It doesn't help that the movie is frequently under-lit and just kind of muddy to look at.

The people at the center of the plot are a group of military and crooked cops who are under the thumb of the Mafia, which is represented by Vlaslov, a Russian black widow woman who is played by an unconvincing Kate Winslet speaking with an equally unconvincing accent.  Her sole character trait is that she is Jewish.  Just in case we miss this, she wears a large Star of David necklace at all times.  She wants these guys to steal something from a safe deposit box that will free her husband from prison somehow.  It's not really explained very well.  The military criminals are Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russel (Norman Reedus), while the crooked cops are Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Gabe (Aaron Paul), who is Russel's brother.  All of these guys have some ties to Vlaslov, but the one most important to the plot is Michael, who has a young son with Vlaslov's younger sister (Gal Gadot), whom he previously had a relationship with.  The villains are preventing him from spending time with the kid, and if he wants him back, he has to pull off a job.

The guys pull off a job in the opening scene, which is easily the most thrilling moment in the film.  But after they're done, it turns out Vlaslov wants them to pull one more heist before she will give them the money she's promised them all.  This new job is much harder than the last one, and they don't know how they're going to pull it off without getting caught.  That's when they get an idea - They'll kill a cop, and this will distract the Atlanta police long enough that they can do this last heist without any interruption.  This is where the title comes from, as the code for "officer down" is 999.  Marcus volunteers his new partner, Chris (Casey Affleck), to be the cop they'll gun down.  Chris is one of the few decent cops in the city of Atlanta apparently, so he naturally has an invisible target on his back as soon as he walks on the screen.  While all this is going on, we get a subplot about a police detective (Woody Harrelson) who is investigating the heist that opened the film, and feels that the ones behind it are not done yet.  Harrelson gives an odd performance here, as if he's not sure he's supposed to be playing his part straight, or as an edgy comic relief.  How else to explain the inexplicable scene where someone walks into his office, and he's sitting at his desk wearing a werewolf mask over his head for no reason.

In order for a movie like this to work, we need to care about these characters, and we simply don't.  The human elements that the movie tries to add in, such as Michael's relationship with his young son, or Chris having a concerned wife back at home just aren't fleshed out enough to make these people interesting, and instead come across as a halfhearted attempt to add character.  Except for Chris, these are all terrible people in one way or another, but that's not enough to make them interesting.  They need engaging personalities.  When things start to go wrong for these people, and the various double crosses and plot twists start to reveal themselves, I found that I just didn't care, because the movie had given me nothing to feel about these people.  The characters involved with the plot are thinly written and contain little personality, so when the bullets and bodies start to fly along with some rather graphic violence, there's no connection with the audience.  We can admire how some of the action is being filmed, but there's nothing to it.

Instead of being interesting, Triple 9 simply chooses to be grisly and dark, both in its tone and in the way it's been shot.  This movie is made up of a lot of shadows, and sometimes the actors almost seem to disappear within them.  Why pay extra for such big name talent if you're not even going to let us see them?  We get shadowy bars and restaurants, abandoned buildings, dark alleyways, and grungy streets, but it doesn't do much to add to the atmosphere.  It just makes us wish that certain scenes were lit better.  The only thing that does end up holding our attention are a few good scenes and a couple strong performances, but they never allow the movie to become a successful whole.  They're just scattered pieces of enjoyment in the middle of a very long and dreary drama.

Movies about heists and crooked cops can be absolutely thrilling and a lot of fun, but this one has a curious lack of energy.  It's the kind of stuff we typically get early in the year, and likely will be forgotten by most viewers by March.  This movie gathered a great cast, but didn't find the time to assemble a movie worthy of their talent.  Too bad.

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Gods of Egypt

Hollywood doesn't make B-Movies anymore.  They simply take what would be considered a B-script, and throw as much money as they can at it in hopes to hide it.  Gods of Egypt is the single most goofiest movie to hit screens since Jupiter Ascending.  It's intentionally campy and corny, it's filled to the brim with CG effects that would have been dated in 2001, and it features giant monsters that would be right at home in an episode of Power Rangers.  The movie doesn't take itself seriously for a second, and that might have been fun, if only the movie had been allowed to have a knowing sense of humor to itself, instead of only being intentionally silly.

This is one of those movies that captivates us not with its plot or characters, but with just how ridiculous it is.  We stay in our seats to see what director Alex Proyas is going to throw up on the screen next.  One minute, it could be Gerard Butler turning into a cheap looking CG monster.  Next, it could be Geoffrey Rush, his entire body blazing with fire, as he flies through outer space in a cheesy looking airship.  Proyas, you may remember, started out his filmmaking career with interesting films like The Crow and Dark City.  These days, he's more well known for making disposable special effect epics like this.  You can see what he's trying to do.  He wants this to be a big, silly adventure.  Maybe something along the lines of The Mummy films with Brendan Fraser.  But what made those movies kind of work (at least the first one from 1999) is that they had humor to go along with the silliness.  This movie is just bizarre.  It has the mentality of a live action cartoon, but none of the fun and charm.  I suppose little kids will find a lot to like here.  But even judging on that level, there's better stuff out there.

The plot is set in the time of ancient Egypt, when mortals and gods live among one another.  The air god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is about to be crowned king, when the spiteful and jealous god Set (Gerard Butler) shows up with his army, kills Horus' parents, and demands that he be Egypt's new ruler.  The two gods sword fight for a while, then decide to turn into not-so-impressive looking CG monsters, and continue fighting.  This of course begs the question as to why they didn't just turn into monsters in the first place when they started fighting.  Horus is eventually defeated, and has his eyes stolen from him by Set, causing him to go blind.  With Set now the king of Egypt, the people become enslaved to his mad wills, and Horus is banished to a crypt out in the middle of the desert where he generally spends his days moping.

Enter our other hero, a young thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites), who seeks out to find Horus after Set's soldiers kill his girlfriend, Zaya (Courtney Eaton), sending her to the afterlife where she awaits her eternal fate.  Bek has heard that the gods have the power to return the souls of the dead back to the land of the living, so he seeks out Horus in the hopes of gaining his support in taking down the evil Set.  So, we have a buddy action film with a one-eyed god (Bek found one of Horus' eyes, which was being kept in a booby trapped treasure chamber) and a nimble young thief.  Some other gods also join in on their ultimate mission to seek help from Ra the Sun God (Geoffrey Rush), who spends all his time floating around in space, fighting off a giant worm-like creature that wants to eat the Earth.  Meanwhile, the devious Set sends various beasts and battle amazons who ride on giant fire-breathing snakes in order to stop our heroes.  And no, none of this makes any sense when you're watching the movie, either.

At the very least, Gods of Egypt knows exactly what it is, and never once pretends to be anything but that.  By all accounts, this is the kind of movie I would usually watch with a big silly grin on my face.  But, there's something missing here, and that something is a sense of fun.  Just being intentionally dumb and goofy is not enough.  If there were some rousing action sequences, or perhaps a strong sense of humor, I could actually see myself recommending this.  But, there's simply something just uninspired about this.  Even trash has to be entertaining.  Some more action and narrow escapes would have gone a long way to making this stuff work.  Also, the one liners tossed back and forth between Horus and Bek are forgettable, and don't bring about a response from the audience.  We don't get an "odd couple" relationship from these two that I think the film wants us to have.  They simply look like two actors walking across a desert, or sometimes badly inserted against an unconvincing CG backdrop.

Let's talk about those special effects, which are generally very bad, but not in a charming or goofy way.  They simply look like the artists just didn't care, and could barely be bothered to create convincing visuals.  Doing some research after I got home, I learned that the film's budget is estimated to be around $140 million.  This is simply impossible to believe.  Oh, I have no doubt this was an expensive movie, as just about every shot in the film contains a special effect of some kind.  But did anyone take a look at these effects, and approve them?  I find it hard to believe that they could spend this much money, time and effort, and end up with creatures and backdrops that look worse than some films that cost considerably less than this.  In this day and age where effects can do just about anything and make it look convincing, this movie is a reminder of what happens when those same artists just get lazy.

It really makes you sad to see a movie like this.  Here is something that could have been so much fun if it had just been allowed to truly let go and embrace its silliness full heartedly.  Instead, it embraces its goofiness, but never allows itself to have fun with it.  Gods of Egypt is simply dumb for the sake of being dumb, and that's not enough.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Best Films of 2015

Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year" list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and get one out also, shouldn't I?  As always, I have a good excuse.  As a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I can see as many of the year's films as I can.  And since many of the big end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by what I felt were the great films of 2015.  The great films can be anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever.  Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year.  Aside from Best Film, all of these choices will be listed in no particular order.

So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.


THE BEST FILM OF 2015

THE BIG SHORT - As 2015 drew to a close, there were three films that I was considering putting at the top spot of the year.  It was a close call, but in the end, I chose The Big Short, because it was the most original film I saw last year.   Here is easily one of the most entertaining movies I've seen all year, and it's about a subject that should in all fairness leave the audience feeling sad and angry - the 2008 global financial crisis.  The Big Short does succeed at informing us on what happened behind the scenes at the banks, as well as the small handful of people who saw the housing market crash coming up to three years before it did.  But, it does so much more than succeed at being informative and well-researched.  It's also surprisingly the funniest film I've seen in 2015.  Director and co-writer Adam McKay has not just chosen to make a factual drama about the events, although he does succeed at that when he needs to.  He has also thrown in some gallows humor, some amazing performances, as well as some unconventional film choices, such as having characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, or use celebrity cameos who suddenly pop up for no reason to explain some of the technical jargon that Wall Street people use in their everyday business.  The unorthodox approach is what makes the film so memorable and engaging to watch.  Yes, we can sense that McKay cares very deeply about the subject matter.  This was most likely a passion project for him.  But he also goes out of his way to entertain as he informs, and ends up creating one of the smartest Big Studio films of 2015.  Not only is this a great comedic drama, but it will leave you with a little chill at the end when you realize that nobody has learned their lesson from the events that are portrayed here.  That's a scary note to end on, but a necessary one.  This is simply a brilliant movie.



THE GREAT FILMS OF 2015 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

CAROL - Some critics have accused Carol of being too cold and distant with its romance between its two central female figures.  In fact, some have said that very issue is why the movie, despite getting many Oscar nominations, missed out on the big prize of Best Picture.  I would challenge that notion, and say that this is not a cold movie, but rather an intentionally reserved one.  Its two characters are forced to be guarded with each other because of the era they live in.  They are not so much cold, as it is quiet, restrained and absolutely beautiful.  In the film, the two women who fall in love are afraid, and a lot of that fear comes from the culture, and how no one would accept them.  But the brilliance of Carol is that the emotions can be felt by just about everyone, and it doesn't just have to be because of social prejudices.  There is always a fear of misunderstanding in every relationship, and that movie taps entirely into that nervousness during the early going.  Are you going too far with your emotions?  Will the other accept?  You feel like you are constantly being judged, and I think a lot of that is felt by the younger of the two women, played by Rooney Mara.  It's this quietness and intimacy that really appealed to me.  The movie does have its moments of passion, but it doesn't need to shock or throw in our faces these heavy feelings that these characters are going through.  These building emotions, mixed with the tension that they could be caught at any minute, creates a more gripping sensation than some recent thrillers that I could name.  It is a movie filled with passion, anguish and triumph, but it never rubs our face in it, or feels like it is playing it for dramatic effect.  Carol juggles the joy and anguish of relationships better than just about any recent movie that I can think of, and it does so without any forced moments or scenes that feel staged.

EX MACHINA -  Here is easily the most challenging and thought provoking film covering the subject of artificial intelligence, and how technology starts mimicking human emotion..  While a lot of the movies covering the subject rely on special effects to captivate the audience, this film takes a quiet, claustrophobic and unsettling approach, and truly makes us wonder if the human characters, or the robot at the center of it all, is truly in control of the situation.  Ex Machina not only asks these kind of questions, but gives itself and the audience time to truly think about what it is asking.  And yet, this is not a movie that is so challenging that it alienates its audience.  The narrative is straightforward, and doesn't veer off the central premise.  What makes the movie fascinating to watch is how both of the human characters react to Ava, the robot at the center of the story, and brought to life in a remarkable performance by Alicia Vikander .  To Nathan, the creator, Ava is just another machine, and a step to a much more advanced model.  Once he has gotten the information from Caleb (the man doing research work with the machine), she will most likely be destroyed, and he will start working on his next more advanced model.  As for Caleb, he sees Ava almost as a prisoner.  He begins to sympathize and perhaps even relate to her.  He becomes lost in the illusion that is Ava.  For almost its entire running time, writer-director Alex Garland creates a tense atmosphere with very little.  As we watch Caleb and Ava's conversations through a glass wall that separates them, we almost start to share Caleb's sense of wanting to set this robot free.  Much like the experiment that Nathan is performing, the film asks us the audience to let go of our preconceived notions, and see Ava as a living being.  This is the kind of movie that quietly gets under your skin without you noticing it.  As you think back on the film, you start to see the movie's manipulations and how it has played you, and you are grateful for the experience of having a movie that truly took you by surprise.

THE GIFT -  Very few movies have the ability to surprise me with their plot, but The Gift surprised me greatly.  This is a tense feature directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton (who also wrote the screenplay, and co-stars in the film), and it shows that he not only has the ability to build tension, but also genuinely throw his audience for a loop.  This is a movie that pulls the rug out from under us in the best way.  It starts out effective but predictable, and about halfway through, turns into something truly exciting.  The Gift starts off as a well-made thriller about a down on his luck man obsessed with a well to do couple (one of them an old acquaintance from his high school days), but becomes a completely different movie just when we think we've figured it out, and are certain it's going down a predictable route.  I frankly was caught completely off guard.  I'm going to have to be very vague here at the risk of spoiling things, but the direction that Edgerton's screenplay goes is a very dark and disturbing one that turns everything on its head.  Even when I thought I knew exactly where the movie was going, I was still greatly enjoying the film thanks mostly to the performances.  I seriously don't think I have seen Jason Bateman give a better performance than here as the increasingly frenzied husband, Simon.  While mainly known for comedic roles, this is not his first shot at a dramatic part, but it is easily his best effort yet.  He's great at expressing the frustration his character feels as his life slowly but surely falls out of control all thanks to this man from his past that he wants to stay buried in his past.  This was a small thriller that not many noticed during the past summer, but those who did got an experience like no other. 

INSIDE OUT -  Pixar's Inside Out is not the first movie that has attempted to visualize abstract mental ideas, but it's easily the best at doing so.  It's appropriate that the movie is filled with a range of emotions, and will likely have audiences laughing one minute, and tearing up the next.  In fact, the movie is so complex and rewarding in its emotions, I have a feeling that this will be a much bigger hit with adults than with kids.  Oh sure, kids will enjoy it, and there's nothing here that's inappropriate for them.  They just will get a much greater appreciation for the film when they watch it with their own children years from now.  At its basic core, Inside Out could be labeled as a buddy road trip movie, with Joy and Sadness having to work together to get home.  But that would be selling this particular movie short, which is filled with originality and complexity.  The film's director, Pete Doctor (Up), is not just making a simple adventure film, although that is how it will come across to small children.  He has essentially created a visual metaphor on how people handle depression, as well as what happens inside us all when life uproots us from what we are comfortable with.  This is a very different film for Pixar, which are usually rooted in some kind of reality.  Yes, the world outside of Riley's head is mundane and normal, but the outside normal world serves as a subplot at best in the film.  The focus here is on the dream-like world inside the mind.  There are no villains obviously, since everyone inside the world of the mind wants Riley to be happy.  But at the same time, the movie continues the virtues that all the great Pixar films have, and that is to entertain just about everyone in the audience.  Adults will find themselves laughing at the same jokes as their kids, but for different reasons.  Ultimately, the movie tells children that it is okay to be sad sometimes.  So many parents tell their kids to be happy, or that things are not as bad as they seem.  They try to suppress any other emotion besides happiness, which in a way, is what is happening in Riley's control center during the first half of the film.  Looking back on the film, I realized that this is almost a representation of how most children are raised, or how parents encourage their children to be.  We fear or perhaps do not understand feelings like sadness, and so we push it aside.  Inside Out teaches us the valuable lesson that there is to be a balance within us.  Not only is this a wonderful message for children, but it's an even better one for adults who are struggling with depression, or may feel life piling on top of them and they cannot handle it.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD - This is not just a successful reboot/sequel of a franchise that's been dormant for 30 years, it's the very definition of high octane summer entertainment, mixed with some of the most stylish direction I've seen in a blockbuster in a while.  For those of you who were wowed by the implausible and downright ridiculous CG-aided car stunts in Furious 7, this is the real deal, and you have no idea what you're in for.  Here, at long last, is a non-stop action movie that doesn't come across like a hyperactive video game, or an extended technical demo.  In returning to the characters and world that he created with the original Mad Max film back in 1979, co-writer and director George Miller gives us a vast world that seems real and lived in.  It's full of imagination, wonder, interesting characters, and action sequences that put pretty much everything that compares to it to shame.  The movie is essentially a nearly two hour long chase (with a 15 minute sequence in the middle where the characters stop and rest), but what keeps the movie fresh is that Miller has filled his movie with enough visual wonder and stunts we haven't seen before to fill two summer blockbusters.  And unlike your typical Michael Bay film, there is weight, consequence and a sense of drama to the characters involved with the action.  This movie is a true cinematic miracle - It's the fourth entry of a film series, and yet it feels as vibrant and alive as the first film in many action franchises.  Mad Max: Fury Road feels gritty and raw, because the movie was done with practical effects, instead of CG animation.  This gives the film a sense of realism you just do not get in most big budget movies.  Even more stunning, even though the movie is rapidly shot and edited, every image is crystal clear.  There's not a single instance where the audience finds themselves trying to keep up with the action, and wondering what they're looking at.  This is a downright beautiful film, filled with some of the best stunt driving and stunt work I have ever seen, and a sense that the action is taking place in a world that is lived in and fleshed out.  I don't know quite possibly how to stress just what a rush of adrenaline Mad Max: Fury Road is.  It's the kind of action movie where you just forget about everything around you, and are completely absorbed.  It's thrilling, visually amazing, and exciting as hell.

THE REVENANT - This is not just one of the great films of 2015, but also possibly of the decade.  It's a harrowing film unlike any other, because of the way that co-writer and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2014's Best Picture winner, Birdman) has decided to shoot and tell his story.  In order to film his "one man vs. the elements of nature" survival story, Inarritu went against the odds and shot the entire movie in difficult settings.  Rather than recreate the harsh winter landscapes with studio sets or CG, he filmed everything on location in some of the most barren and bitter landscapes he could find.  He shot the film using only natural lighting, and drove the cast and crew almost to the edge of their efforts.  The effect pays off in spades, as the audience is completely transported into the action.  This movie feels completely real.  We see Leonardo DiCaprio up there on the screen, struggling for survival, and we believe it.  The tone of The Revenant is quiet and almost dream-like.  The dialogue is very sparse, as DiCaprio says very little at all in the entire film, giving a powerful physical performance.  He is driven by flashbacks of his son, as well as his wife, who also died a few years ago when their village was attacked and their house burned down.  Equally dreamlike is the cinematography by  Emmanuel Lubezki, who films the vast winter landscape with a clear eye for beauty, but never forgets the danger as well, which leaves us constantly on edge.  This is one of those movies that makes you feel cold just by watching it.  The towering and shadowy trees of the dense forests that Hugh trudges through in his quest for survival also seem to take on a life of their own through Lubezki's camera work.  They seem to blot out the sun and the moon at times, giving the audience a sense of total isolation.  DiCaprio's performance shows so much courage and intensity.  We see his determination to survive, and it inspires us as well.  The reason why his character does not say much is because he spends a majority of the film in a state where he simply can't form comprehensible words.  And yet, his performance shows us everything we need to know.  The movie is also never depressing.  Yes, it can be brutal and extremely violent, but it never becomes a slog or a torture to watch.  There is always a small glimmer of hope, and that's what keeps the film from sinking into a pit of despair, and keeps the audience riveted and wanting to know what will happen.  Anyone who wants to study successful minimalist storytelling should view The Revenant.  It's so skillful and masterfully made, I wouldn't be surprised if it became important to study for future filmmakers.


ROOM -  I did not read Emma Donoghue's 2010 best selling novel that inspired Room, and for once, I am glad I did not.  This is a movie that deserves to be seen unspoiled.  It is a small film of tremendous power, wonderful performances and high emotion.  This could not have been an easy story to bring to the screen, and Donoghue (who wrote the screenplay as well) deserves praise for writing such a successful adaptation of her own work.  This is an up close and personal film that brings us into the world of Joy (Brie Larson), a woman in her mid-20s who is raising her five-year-old son Jack (a wonderful Jacob Tremblay) alone.  The movie depicts them leading a fairly normal life of cooking, playing and watching TV together, but something is immediately off about their surroundings.  As we quickly learn, they are both prisoners in a soundproof shed that rests in the backyard of a man known only as "Old Nick" (Sean Bridges).  This is a movie divided in two parts, the first where Joy and her son are in captivity, and the second set somewhere I will not reveal for the sake of spoilers.  It is at this point that Room becomes a very different movie, but one that is still effective.  It is no longer about Joy trying to create a normal life in captivity, rather the focus turns almost entirely to Jack.  He has served as our narrator for the first part of the film, but when it reaches the second, we see what's happening entirely from his point of view.  A new opportunity and life opens up for both of the characters, and the film becomes a dramatic evaluation of how these two characters handle the change in everything around them.  From the unforgettable performances of Larson and Tremblay, to the way the movie allows us to see most things through the eyes of the innocent Jack, this is an unforgettable and absorbing film, and one that deserved more attention than it got during its short run in theaters.  Hopefully Larson's almost inevitable win for Best Actress this Sunday will give the film the attention it deserves.

SPOTLIGHT - What surprised me the most about the film is that this is not so much about the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal surrounding the Massachusetts Roman Catholic Church, as it is about the process of that investigation, and the process of journalism in general.  The real threat here that the characters face are deadlines and roadblocks that stand in the way of these characters uncovering more of the truth.  What I appreciated is the small, realistic touches that the movie puts throughout.  The main characters in the film seem like regular people doing their jobs.  This is a story that easily could have led to a lot of melodrama and courtroom scenes in the Hollywood telling, but co-writer and director Tom McCarthy plays things much simpler and honest.  The movie hardly ever leaves the newspaper building, except for when one of the reporters has to interview a former victim or a lawyer.  While the abuse scandal is constantly the subject of conversation, it is not the focus of the film itself.  This movie deals more with the frustrations these reporters faced during the investigation.  The interest and drama that Spotlight creates is about the process of getting the story, and the interviews.  Even with big acting names like Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in the cast, nobody really ever gets to take more of the attention from anyone else.  This is an ensemble picture through and through, and each member of the investigative team gets a number of individual moments.  It's a fantastic cast, though, and definitely one of the best acted films of the year.  Spotlight is a pitch-perfect drama in just about every way you can think of.  This movie is one of those small cinematic miracles where everything truly comes together to create a satisfying film.  It's always a wonder to see it happen, and you find yourself wondering why it doesn't happen more often when it's over.  Whatever the case, this is a movie that demands attention and deserves to be seen.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON -  Here is probably one of the most energized and entertaining movies I saw last summer.  Straight Outta Compton contains not one single action sequence or special effect, yet it is leagues more exciting than most of the action movies we've had so far this season.  Those who dismiss this as your typical "behind the music" bio-picture are missing the point.  This is as raw and as alive as any movie I have seen this past year.  The movie tracks the humble beginnings, rise, eventual break up and aftermath of one of the most influential gangsta rap artists, NWA, whose debut album (which shares the title of the film) not only helped legitimize rap music, but brought it into the forefront of controversy and media attention.  This is an eye-opening and ambitious dramatization which kicks off in 1986, when the founding members of the group were teens who dreamed of escaping their dreary lives, and the daily abuse and suspicion of the LAPD, which given some recent events, gives the film a sadly current tone, rather than the history lesson it should be.  Straight Outta Compton really does not deviate too far from the music biography playbook, but the energy of the performances and the direction of F. Gary Gray keeps things from feeling overly familiar.  This is a movie that feels like it has been well thought through in just about every area.  The casting is spot on, with many of the actors resembling the real faces of who they are playing.  The directing style is kinetic and energized, but never confusing or overly stylized.  Most of all, the movie just creates a wonderful sense of time and place.  Even if it's not entirely perfect, it works to such a high degree that we forget everything and just enjoy.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE - This animated import from Japan's famous Studio Ghibli is a mystery at heart, but it unfolds slowly and with a certain deliberate ease.  Like a novel you would read on a summer afternoon, the pacing is languid but engaging.  This is a haunting family film that, like the best films in the genre, can be enjoyed by adults and kids on a different level.  Much like the 2009 animated feature Coraline, or Studio Ghbili's own Spirited Away, the film deals with a young girl who is pulled from her own usual world, and into the supernatural.  However, unlike those films, the story here is not an adventure.  It's the somber, leisurely story of Anna, a lonely and isolated young girl who strikes up a friendship with the mysterious girl Marnie, who may or may not be an apparition, or perhaps a forgotten part of the past.  Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) is never in a hurry to give us answers to his mystery, except for the end, when the answers suddenly seem to come flying at us one after another.  This makes the film somewhat bottom heavy, and I do wish the answers to the mystery had been kind of spaced out a little bit more, but it does not hurt the film or the story he is trying to tell, which itself is based on a 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson.  The pacing is slow but never boring, and actually finds a way to build our interest by the way it rolls out the information a little at a time for most of the film.  And just like all Studio Ghibli films, the animation and attention to detail is absolutely stunning, making it worth seeing on the big screen just for the visuals alone.  Unlike the last Ghibli feature to be released in the U.S., the gorgeous The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, this is a more traditionally animated film, but that doesn't make the look of it any less stunning.  When Marnie Was There is a beautiful and somber film that I think children can really appreciate.  It speaks to the social anxieties that many children around the age of the main character face, and also delivers a compelling mystery that is sure to captivate them.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Paddington, Kingsman: The Secret Service, McFarland U.S.A., Focus, Chappie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Cinderella, It Follows, The Longest Ride, The Harvest, The Age of Adaline, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, While We're Young, Far From the Madding Crowd, Insidious: Chapter 3, Spy, Love & Mercy, Minions, Ant-Man, Trainwreck, Paper Towns, Southpaw, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Shaun the Sheep Movie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., American Ultra, No Escape, The Visit, Black Mass, Hotel Transylvania 2, Sicario, The Intern, Everest, The Martian, Steve Jobs, Goosebumps, Bridge of Spies, Burnt, The Peanuts Movie, The 33, Secret in Their Eyes, The Good Dinosaur, Creed, Krampus, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Sisters, Joy, The Hateful Eight


MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Christian Bale in The Big Short
Jason Bateman in The Gift
Steve Carel in The Big Short
Paul Dano in Love & Mercy
Johnny Depp in Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Joel Edgerton in The Gift
Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs
Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies
Jacob Tremblay in Room


MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Cate Blanchett in Carol
Emily Blunt in Sicario
Brie Larson in Room
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara in Carol
Rachel McAdams in Spotlight
Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina
Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs

So, those are my favorites of 2015 in a nutshell!  Hopefully, as we go further into 2016, we will get many more bright moments to come in the cinema.

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Race

Stephen Hopkins' Race is a movie that doesn't exactly do any one thing great, but it does enough right that I am recommending it.  It's a fairly standard biopic that sands off some of the rough edges of the story of Jesse Owens, in order to create a more audience pleasing movie.  However, for what it is, the movie is well made, and it features two fine lead performances in Stephan James (as Owens), and a strong dramatic turn from Saturday Night Live's Jason Sudeikis. 

A lot of the film's success hinges on Stephan James, and his portrayal of Owens as a vulnerable and relatable figure.  The movie doesn't play up the racial issues that he went through at the time as much as you would think.  It's still there, but it's not the main focus of the film.  Owens is seen as a man driven to succeed.  He has to be, because as the film kicks off, he has a lot riding on him succeeding.  He's the first in his family to go to college, and is going to Ohio State University as a rising young track star who has already made a name for himself.  Not only that, but he has a woman back home (Shanice Banton) that he wants to marry one day, and they already have had a daughter together, so he wants to provide for his future family.  When he arrives at college in 1933, there are some people who give him looks, or complain when he wants to use the showers at the same time as them.  But, for the most part, this part of Owens' life is mostly glossed over.

What Race does choose to focus on is the relationship he builds with his coach Larry Snyder (Sudeikis), a former athlete himself who fell short of his goals, and is now known for leading the school's track team to three straight losing years, and for his heavy drinking.  At first Larry sees Owens as a cocky young upstart, a "natural" who has gotten a lot of hype and attention, but most likely won't have the guts to go all the way.  Owens proves him wrong, and when he starts seeing what the kid can do, the two form first a professional relationship, and then a real friendship that has nothing to do with helping the team advance to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  This leads into the film's main subplot, which covers the U.S. possibly boycotting the '36 Summer Games, due to Adolph Hitler's rise in Germany.  Here, we get Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, the man sent to Berlin to make demands that Germany must meet if the U.S. is to participate in the Olympics.  This leads to Avery having to clash with Hitler's lead propaganda director, Josef Goebbles (Barnaby Metschurat).  

Just as the issue of the racism that Owens has to deal with, the movie somewhat glosses over what is really going on in Germany.  We only see it once (when Avery first arrives, and is being driven down the streets of Berlin), but outside of that, this movie is centered squarely on his accomplishments during the Games, and what it meant to both America and Germany.  It's uplifting for sure, and the sports scenes are shot well.  James performs his running scenes well, which is obviously key to the role.  If it looked like he wasn't fast enough, or if it were an obvious double, the movie would have been dead on arrival.  He not only gives us a convincing dramatic performance, but he also performs well athletically in the part.  And while the movie is obviously whitewashed, it does not lionize the man or make him flawless.  He has his moments of weakness and doubt, and there are some nice scenes between Owens and Coach Snyder about how to overcome them.

But at a far too long running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, this movie really should have and could have gone into more depth about the man.  We learn little about his relationships, both with his family (especially his father, which the movie keeps on hinting at some dramatic tension, but never really delivers), and with his eventual wife and daughter.  Mrs. Owens pretty plays the dutiful and supportive spouse, and we never really get a true sense of their relationship.  We learn at the end of the film that they remained married until Owens passed away in 1980, and that they had more children over the years.  Obviously, there was much more to their story than that.  There is also another subplot about a female German filmmaker who is hired to make a propaganda documentary about the Games, and when Owens starts winning, Goebbles demands that the camera stop filming, but she defies him and keeps on filming anyway.  This is an interesting story, one that is probably worthy of its own film.  Here, it's treated almost as a side event, and probably needed more time to truly stand out.

Race is an imperfect film, and probably could have been a lot better.  But, that's not what I'm here to judge.  I'm here to report on the movie that was made, and while I have some issues, I was entertained for the most part.  Owens' accomplishments are probably not as well known by today's youth as it was in the past, so the movie does at least serve an important role, and will hopefully inspire people to look into his real story.  It may not be exactly the movie I was hoping for, but for what it is, it does work.

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The Witch

I have a feeling that The Witch is going to be one of those movies that divide audiences, and creates a lot of discussion about its merits as a film, as well as what it is really about.  For his debut feature, writer-director Robert Eggers has created an eerily quiet horror story that would best be told by firelight.  It is a story of suspicion, isolation and religious superstition told against the backdrop of an early American wilderness.  There is clearly something out there in the woods, and it takes many forms in order to threaten a Puritan era family.  But those expecting a quick jolt would do better watching another movie.  This is a film about mounting dread, and in that sense, this movie is as captivating and spellbinding as any recent horror film.

The movie has been subtitled "A New England Folktale", and what is truly remarkable about Eggers' film is how he blends historical accuracy with the supernatural.  Everybody in the film speaks in an old English dialect, and a postscript at the end of the film explains that the dialogue was inspired by court transcripts from the 1630s when the film is set.  This is not an overwrought melodrama where actors walk around in period specific clothing, and speak a lot of overly scripted sounding dialogue with a lot of "thees" and "thous" added in to try to sound authentic.  Like a lot of stories set in this time period, it is set around the suspicion of witchcraft.  However, this time, there is something truly evil going on, and it takes on many forms during the course of the film.  With the suspicions of the family at the center of it all mounting, and the evil clearly lurking just on the outskirts of the forest that surrounds their home, it doesn't take long for us to get completely wrapped up in it all.  I don't know if the usual teenage horror crowd who are used to fast thrills will think much of this, but I personally was loving every minute.

As the film opens, a New England family made up of the father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickey) and their five children are forced to leave their village because their religious beliefs clash with those of the village council.  They set out into the wilderness to create a new home and lifestyle, and settle on a land just on the outskirts of the wilderness.  It does not take long for ominous events to start mounting, as their youngest infant son mysteriously disappears.  This will be the first of many mysterious tragedies that will befall the family regarding their children during the course of the film.  As things grow worse, William tries to stay pious and righteous, while Katherine silently fears that they are paying for their sins.  At the center of it all is the family's eldest daughter, Thomasin, played by bright young newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy.  As things get worse for the family (starting with dead crops, and leading up to more ominous and supernatural events, such as a goat producing blood instead of milk), they start to turn against each other, and particularly against her, due to her outspoken behavior.  Thomasin professes innocence, and it is Taylor-Joy's emotional and powerful performance that drives a majority of the film's intensity.

The Witch is in no hurry to get to where it is going, but it is never once boring, nor does it feel like the plot is meandering of wasting its time.  It sets up an atmospheric mood early on with the barren landscape and woods, and only grows from there.  From the shots of the family saying their evening prayers around the table by candlelight, to the mounting dread of what really does lie just beyond the trees, this movie creates a perfect tone of isolation and suspicion that sweeps over you as events build.  As the disasters facing the family mount, the movie builds at a deliberate pace, and finally reaches a climax that is as shocking as it is effective.  The performances also do a fantastic job of creating the mood of the film.  I've already pointed out Anya Taylor-Joy as giving one of the truly great young actress performances I have seen in a while, but the entire cast matches her every step.  As the family goes from close knit with secrets, to all out suspicions and accusations, we believe that we are watching a crumbling family unit, and everyone is sensational in not just delivering the Old English dialogue, but also creating tension and empathy for their characters.

Similar to the best recent independent horror films like It Follows or The Babadook, this is a movie that gets under your skin and stays there long after it is over.  You can reflect on the film, and wonder if the supernatural elements were real, or simply the nightmares of an overly suspicious Puritan family that is being torn apart.  There is something clearly evil going on, the movie makes no question on where it stands on that issue.  And yet, you also have to wonder if some of the events we see are being told by an unreliable narrator.  It can create some wonderful discussion, and honestly, when was the last time a horror film you've seen has done that?  As for how scary the movie is, that's obviously a matter of personal preference.  The movie made feel uneasy with its isolation and some of the images.  The fact that not everything we see is explained adds an even more chilling factor to them, in my opinion.  Like I said, this won't do it for anyone looking for a quick thrill, but if you're in the mood for a slow burn horror, this is one of the better examples in a long time.

The Witch shows a true sense of style and atmosphere, and I hope that is something that Robert Eggers will not lose when Hollywood clearly comes calling after this.  We have seen a lot of first-time filmmakers make brilliant debuts, only to fall victims to the Studio System.  I hope he holds out for something truly great for his follow up.  His debut feature shows great potential, and I can only imagine where he goes from here.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How to Be Single

Here is a romantic comedy that pulls off the neat little trick of being neither romantic nor comedic.  How to Be Single is one of the most aimless examples of the genre I have seen in quite a while.  It features multiple plots that go nowhere of interest, and multiple characters who are either underwritten or unlikable.  The movie obviously intends to be a lighthearted look at how to survive the single scene in New York City.  But given how little the screenplay cares about these characters and what's happening to them, the audience simply ends up waiting out the clock until the movie is over.

The central character is Alice (Dakota Johnson from Fifty Shades of Grey), a woman in her 20s who's been in a long term relationship with the sweet and reliable Josh (Nicholas Braun), but decides one day that she wants to take a break from their relationship, because she feels like she hasn't really lived life.  Alice heads for New York to experience city life, and quickly pairs herself up with an obnoxious paralegal co-worker named Robin (Rebel Wilson, horribly used and unfunny here), who becomes her best friend and shows her the ins and outs of the bar scene.  Alice quickly decides this kind of lifestyle isn't for her, and tries to hook back up with Josh, but he has already moved on and found another.  Now she's stuck in the singles scene, and has to find her way.  Luckily, she has her older sister to help her out from time to time.  This is Meg (Leslie Mann), a maternity doctor who is adamant about never getting pregnant herself.  Then, through forced contrivance, she's left alone with another woman's baby for five minutes, falls head over heels in love with the tyke, and wants to get pregnant immediately through a sperm donor.  Because this happens all the time.

There are a lot of guys who walk in and out of Alice's life, not really creating any romantic chemistry, though the movie tries desperately to convince us that something is going on.  There's Tom (Anders Holm) the noncommittal bartender, and a building designer named David (Damon Wayans, Jr.) who has a young daughter and is still grieving over the death of his first wife, but doesn't know how to face it or talk about it with his kid.  And of course, there's Josh who despite claiming that he's going to marry his new girlfriend, still seems to have feelings for Alice.  Meg gets her own romantic subplot when she meets a guy named Ken (Jake Lacy), who she likes a lot, but is afraid to tell him she's pregnant.  This leads to a lot of incredibly stupid scenes where the characters' problems could be solved if they just talked to each other, but they constantly avoid the topic at hand in order to drag the plot out.  Finally, we have a completely pointless side plot that goes absolutely nowhere about Lucy (Alison Brie), a woman who apparently has no job (though she does volunteer to read to children in one scene), and hangs out in a bar all day, meeting guys.  Tom the bartender has his eye on her, but she keeps on falling for wrong guys.  This plot and character goes absolutely nowhere, and the movie would be no better or worse without it.

How to Be Single commits many things you should never do in a romantic comedy, such as making all of the main characters have mush for brains.  If you can't make your characters smart, at least make them likable or interesting.  Apparently, this is too much to ask.  Nobody talks the way these people do, either.  At least I hope nobody has ever said "I'm sinking in 'dicksand' " in a casual conversation before.  Each line of dialogue clangs with a heavy thud.  Instead of inspiring laughter, it simply makes the audience think the credited screenwriters got paid too much to write this stuff.  This movie feels phony on every level.  The characters don't seem real, and neither do their relationships .  This is also a movie with no sense of time or place.  Aside from a couple scenes built around holidays like Christmas and St. Patrick's Day, there's no real way to tell how much time has passed as Alice apparently goes from one guy to the next, kicking things off and breaking things off over and over.  The scenes start to feel jumbled and scattered together.

And then there is Rebel Wilson, who may just be the worst female comedic performance I have seen since Sofia Vergara screeched her way to infamy in last year's Hot Pursuit.  I have enjoyed Wilson in other films, and have even found her to be a bright spot in some.  But here, she kills what little momentum the movie generates whenever she flops on screen.  She is supposed to be the comedic live wire of the film, the character that we go home quoting all of her lines as she constantly makes snarky and obscene comments about the action going on around her.  Yes, she plays no part in the actual movie, she simply shows up and says a lot of unfunny improvised dialogue built around sex, booze and drugs.  We have no idea why a seemingly nice girl like Alice would be best friends with her, as they share nothing in common, and don't even have any chemistry on the screen.  Her character is frequently hung over or on drugs, insults everyone around her, and everything that comes out of her mouth is a another word for sex or the female sexual organ.  In this movie, she's intended to be a cut up.  In real life, if she was hanging out with you, you'd be doing your best to get away from her while she constantly cracked up at her own jokes.

The movie obviously aims to be another one of those "girls gone wild" comedies that have been so popular lately.  But, it's not as naughty as it seems to think it is.  Aside from the four letter words and the off-color humor provided by Rebel Wilson, this movie is actually about as stock as you can get for a movie of this type.  It simply doesn't have the guts to truly be crude.  It think having one of the characters talking non-stop about booze and sex is enough.  It's obviously not, and it feels like a pathetic attempt on the part of the writers to put some color into a script that they know isn't really working.  If you want to see this kind of humor done right, you should go see Deadpool. (And judging by the box office numbers last weekend, you probably did.) That movie knows how to be crude without being desperate.

How to Be Single simply doesn't try hard enough.  It doesn't open up these characters enough for us to like them, or it makes them intentionally obnoxious to the point that we don't want to even know them.  If this movie was actually interested in what these people were going through and their feelings, that would be something.  This movie is a whole lot of nothing.

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