Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"Legend" Is Good Because What's Better Than a Tom Hardy Performance? Two Tom Hardy Performances.


Tom Hardy seems to be an actor always looking for a challenge, which is what makes him one of the more interesting actors out there. While most of his impressive performances were physical in their difficulty (Bronson, WarriorThe Dark Knight Returns, Mad Max: Fury Road, the upcoming The Revenant), Legend presents possibly his biggest challenge: playing the real life London gangster twins, Reggie and Ronnie Kray. Hardy's two performances (which end up being impressively different) for each brother elevate what could have been a very forgettable gangster movie. 

Legend has been accused of being derivative of other gangster films, but that is not really the case. True, it is about gangsters, and it is told from the perspective of a gangster's wife (Emily Browning, who was hired to apparently look constantly scared and sad), but this is not like other gangster movies because you don't get to see very much gangster activity. Sure, there are the typical violent scenes, and there are plenty of meetings in bars and hotel rooms discussing gangster activity, but you never really get to see exactly what the Krays did to become a "legend." Ronnie, the more unbalanced of the two, talks about being a gangster in nearly every scene he's in, but we don't get to see it. 

Instead, Legend focuses more on Reggie's marriage. It's not that the marriage plot isn't interesting; it's just something we've seen so many times before, even if it is based on a true story. So Legend is like portions of other gangster movies because we've definitely seen the gangster's wife struggle with her husband's work. But in films that include that plot, there is also a compelling main plot involving...gangster stuff. 

This is not to say Legend is a bad film; it's just disappointing because there are great scenes between the brothers that will leave you wishing that was all the movie was about. The relationship between Reggie and Ronnie is much more interesting than Reggie's relationship with his wife. Reggie is trying to be business-like gangster while Ronnie wants all out war. This, again, is not exactly new territory in a film, but to see two Tom Hardys argue and fight about it makes it much more entertaining. 

Hardy devotes himself completely to both brothers. Ronnie, at first glance, is the more impressive performance. Ronnie is an openly gay paranoid schizophrenic. There's more to do there in a performance and Hardy makes the most of it. But that performance only truly becomes impressive when you see Hardy as the more controlled (though not that much more) Reggie. Hardy's performance as Reggie is the less flashy, but there's more struggle in it. Reggie cannot figure out what he is or really wants to be, whereas Ronnie seems to have always known he wanted to be a violent gangster. The performances are so impressive because they look better when compared against each other. 

Hardy's dual performances make Legend worth watching. In fact, they make it worth watching more than once. Hardy single(or should I say double?)-handedly saves Legend from mediocrity. It's hard not to imagine what might have been, but what is is still pretty great.

Legend receives a:

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Even though Reggie is the more nuanced performance of the two, Ronnie is my favorite. His upfront dialogue and general awkwardness led to the film's funniest moments. 

This is definitely near the top of my favorite Hardy performances, but Bronson is still the best. I'm not sure he'll ever top that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Aaron Sorkin's "Steve Jobs" Is Elevated by Michael Fassbender...That's at Least Two Too Many Names for a Review Title.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs is very much an Aaron Sorkin movie. It's not just because Sorkin wrote the script; it's because every second of it seems so calculated. Sorkin's scripts are famous for their rapid fire dialogue, and that's great, but sometimes they call attention to themselves because no one has actual conversations like the ones you see in Sorkin material. That's fine, but it can get distracting, especially when a film is pretty much a nonstop conversation.

Steve Jobs is structured around three launch events in Jobs's career. The film plays out in real time as he deals with a number of relationships: with his daughter (and her mother), Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). The film effortlessly moves from one chaotic confrontation to another, all while painting a complex picture of Jobs's character. It's all very effective and perfectly cast. Fassbender is sure to be nominated for Best Actor (he might even win), and Winslet could sneak in there as well.

So why does it seem like this review is leading up to one big "But..."? Before I get to that, let me make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and it could possibly be in my top ten at the moment. That written, Sorkin's material just feels too structured. This feels too pretentious to type, but the film calls attention to how perfectly made it is. I was too aware of how much sense it made for flashbacks to be intercut mid-conversation, and how perfectly timed out each conversation was. I suppose it was the real-time factor of it. It came across more like a play than a film. Not that that is a bad thing. And the more I think about it, the more I like it. This is not what you expect when you watch a biography, and that's a good thing, because biographies have become incredibly boring at this point. This film, which focuses on Jobs's tumultuous interactions with those closest to him, shows so much more about who he really was through conversation than any other film could do through a factually accurate timeline.

Beyond the Sorkin-ness of the film, Fassbender elevates the entire film. He doesn't look or sound like Jobs, and that's fine. A performance should not be an impression. He's playing the role as a character, not as a person. That is important because is presenting Jobs's character, not necessarily his actual life. That might seem very troubling, but it is not in this case because Jobs does not need another proper biography after the Kutcher film (which actually isn't that bad), not to mention the documentaries. Fassbender made the role his own rather than try to impersonate Jobs, and the film is that much better for it.

Steve Jobs could easily be called a perfect film, which is not necessarily a good thing. Perfection calls attention to itself at times and takes you out of the experience. That happens at times with Steve Jobs, but it is forgivable because everything about it is so good: the dialogue, the editing, the acting, the pacing. You might be aware you're watching an Aaron Sorkin film the whole time, but that's not a bad thing.

Steve Jobs receives a:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" Is Worth Watching If You Consider Yourself a Movie Buff

*Note: As awards screeners have shown up, it's time for me to kick my reviews into high gear and cover as many movies as I can before the end of the year. I'll try to write about every single one I see, whether it's been out for a while (as Me and Earl... has) or if it hasn't been released yet (though since I'm a lowly Midwestern critic, so far I've only been sent screeners for movies that have been given at least a limited release). Also, I plan on keeping these a bit short, unless they flat out blow me away. 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I didn't watch The Fault in our Stars, but I can't imagine I will like it more than Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which appears to have roughly the same premise. The title definitely sums up the movie as it is about a narrator, Greg, who spends time with his friend (or "co-worker") Earl and a dying girl. In its own quirky way, this is the story you would expect about an awkward teenager and his encounter with a terminally ill girl. It's not a complete tearjerker or anything, though. In fact, it contains quite a few laughs. What sets this apart is the hobby of Greg and Earl: taking films they love and making crappy versions of them. It's similar to Be Kind Rewind, but Greg and Earl aren't trying to replace these films; they're paying homage/making fun/goofing off. Their gimmick is that they change the names of each film, and then change the story based on that name. For example, A Clockwork Orange becomes A Sockwork Orange, which is basically just a sock puppet version of the film. 

The titles get more and less inspired than that, but the movies aren't the focus of the film. They are just window dressing for the main story. For someone like me, who obviously fancies himself a movie buff, that window dressing alone made the film unique and interesting. I spent most of the time looking closely at their movie collection and trying to recognize what movies they were watching. It was interesting just trying to spot all of the references. The film got bonus points from me for all of the Werner Herzog references. 

A movie with so much interest in classic cinema needs to be a bit stylish, as well, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does not disappoint there, either. The camerawork, animation, and overall style of the film is all over the place, paying homage to multiple films. It jut makes what could have been a very depressing film turn out to be a surprisingly layered, funny, interesting work.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl receives a:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"The Hunger Games," the Young Adult Franchise That Ended Up Being a Very Dark Treatise on the Effects of War, Comes to Fitting Conclusion.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

The Hunger Games series has been a pleasant surprise (both the books and films) because it started out as a knockoff of Battle Royale but ended up becoming a meditation on war and revolution. The final two parts, while too blatant in their message, do not glory in the war, but rather analyze it. The first part was about propaganda, which made it interesting, if a little on the boring side. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) spent the bulk of the film as the symbol of the rebellion, which meant she filmed a bunch of promotional videos for the war, but spent very little time in the actual war. It felt like a cheat, both for the audience and for Katniss. In Part 2, however, Katniss gets involved in real war.

If Part 1 was about the effects of propaganda and symbols in war, Part 2 is about actual war. An early scene has Katniss arguing with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) about bombing a compound and the collateral damage it could cause. Katniss worries about every death since she had to kill so intimately during the Games, but Gale thinks that even people mopping the floors of a Capitol compound deserve to die. The film actually leaves it up to the viewer who is right as innocent people do die, but positive results ensue. What is notable is the fact that such an issue is brought up at all. In most films, especially young adult films, there are simply good guys and bad guys. In The Hunger Games, it’s more of a gray area. It’s important that a franchise aimed at young people contains such a debate, because war in the real world has collateral damage. But in most popular movies and videogames aimed at young people, there is none.

Despite Part 2 being a meditation on war, it is still an action movie for the most part. Director Francis Lawrence (who has helmed the series since the second film) has an eye for action, and things are kept fresh rather than letting them devolve to nothing but bombings and shootouts. The best sequence of the film is reminiscent of Lawrence’s work on I Am Legend as the heroes spend a tense night in tunnels, fleeing mutated horrors that would have been right at home in Legend (this time the CG is a bit better, though).

While there is plenty of action, the film keeps focusing on the characters’ reactions to it. Katniss is the reluctant warrior, only fighting because she must. Gale is the bold warrior, willing to do whatever it takes to end it. And Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), newly released after being tortured and brainwashed, is the damaged warrior. Peeta’s condition foreshadows nearly every major character: this rebellion will leave you damaged, but there is hope. Once again, The Hunger Games is a franchise that, for better or worse, does not shy away from the effects of violence and war. The heroes do not celebrate, even when they win.

As for that “better or worse” part, any film that wants to get big ideas across runs the risk of becoming preachy, and Part 2 definitely falls into that trap a few times. The amount of speeches about war and rebellion in this film is staggering. It seems like every five minutes someone is giving a speech to remind us what the movie is about. It makes you want to yell, “I get it! This movie is about war and its consequences!” The film, which is a bit long, probably could have shaved ten minutes off its screen time by nixing a couple of these redundant speeches. Also, just like in Part 1, characters spend too much time watching screens. It’s hard to not feel silly watching a screen featuring characters staring at a screen.

Despite these minor squabbles, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is a fitting end to the series (which probably won’t really end and will be expanded upon within a few years). The series truly found its tone and look in the last few films, ditching the glitzy Capitol of the first two films and flooding the last films (quite literally in one scene) in darkness. The colorful world gives way to concrete and despair as the series focuses on war. Hats off to The Hunger Games series. It could have easily been fluff spoon fed to the masses of young fans, but ended up being a surprisingly dark, if not heavy handed, treatise on war and its effect on everyone.           

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 receives:

Random Thoughts - SPOILERS

I couldn't help but think about Dante and Randall's conversation about the Death Star in Clerks. Turns out Gale and the contractor have the same view of laborers for evil empires...

I don't know why Gwendolyn Christie is in this film. She has maybe two minutes of screen time. 

The treatment of Philip Seymour Hoffman was handled as deftly as possible. He's reduced to a series of reaction shots here and played up as the silent plotter behind it all. I suppose it works.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Goofy James Bond Is Back in the Uneven, but Still Very Enjoyable, "Spectre."


Daniel Craig's tenure as James Bond has been a series of extremes. His initial casting angered many fans while others approved. His four films as Bond have been varied, as well. The critical response to Casino Royale and Skyfall was incredibly high (95% and 93%, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes) while Quantum of Solace and Spectre saw huge drop-offs (65% and 63%). Fan reactions generally followed the critics, but Spectre is different. The people who dislike Quantum of Solace (I am among this group as I found the story a bit random and the action subpar) hated it for typical reasons regarding plot and action. To be fair, there are plenty of people who dislike Spectre for those very same reasons, but Spectre is different because it marks the first time Craig has portrayed a more traditional Bond; traditional in that he makes more jokes, experiences some physical comedy, drives a car with gadgets, has a special watch, and jokes around with Q. 

A more traditional Bond is probably what a lot of Bond fans have wanted for a while. If so, they will love Spectre above all others. For others (like myself) who don't mind if Bond is more like Jason Bourne than, well, James Bond, then Spectre will be viewed as a lesser entry. While the goofier aspects of Spectre do feel out of place in what has been a super serious franchise as of late (not to mention that this film begins with the ominous, not funny at all, line, "The dead are alive"), it doesn't ruin the film. It just makes it more like a James Bond film, for better or worse. This is actually what Bond should have been the whole time anyway. There are enough Bourne movies to go around, why can't Bond stay on the goofy side? We'll see if the franchise keeps up the goofiness in the next film. Here's hoping they keep it to a Spectre-type minimum and don't go all Moonraker on us just because Star Wars is popular again...

Spectre, judged by itself, is certainly inconsistent tonally, and it is a bit too long (it is the longest entry in the franchise), but it still contains all the stuff that made Casino Royale and Skyfall great. The action, while bordering on the nonsensical, looks great, and certain sequences, like the opening camerawork in Mexico, the shadowy meeting in the middle, and a brutal fight on a train, work great. The problem with Spectre is that the series has asked you to take it so seriously in the last few films, and now it seems to say, "Nevermind! We're going to have helicopters do barrel rolls! Bond is going to chase SUVs with a plane for some reason! There will be physical comedy now too! Like Bond falling off a building...onto a couch!" Once again, all of this is perfectly fine in previous Bond films. It was just jarring to see it in a Craig-Bond film. 

Aside from the inconsistency in general, Spectre is definitely worth watching. Director Sam Mendes has made another great-looking Bond movie, and he knows how to film action. And if Spectre is as silly as Bond gets now that the series is back in traditional Bond mode, then fine. There is something to be said for Bond movies being different by being themselves. Bond trying to be like other modern action stars might make for a better movie in general, but it does not necessarily make for a better Bond movie.

Spectre receives a:

Random Thoughts - Spoilers

My personal ranking of the last four goes like this: 1. Casino Royale 2. Skyfall 3. Spectre (and at a distant)4. Quantum of Solace.

The fight with Bautista on the train was great. I love how it came out of nowhere and ended up being the most brutal action scene in the film.

The opening was easily my favorite part of the movie, and not just because of the one-shot gimmick. Bond in the Day of the Dead getup made for a cool visual.

Waltz being Blofeld is a mistake for the franchise, in my opinion. After Dr. Evil, the character simply does not work. Not to mention, it was way too much like the Harrison=Kahn reveal from Star Trek into Darkness. I like Waltz, but I wish they would have made him a unique villain. And did they really need to give him a cat, too?

Speaking of Blofeld, I don't really buy that he was behind everything in the last few movies. I don't need all the Bond movies to connect like that. I prefer them to be one-offs each time. 

All spy movie franchises need to ditch the plot line about spies being irrelevant in the modern world. We get it, surveillance is everywhere now, but we still need individuals to make it all work. Message received, screenwriters! Just have the spies do stuff without having to battle bureaucracy. I've seen this play out in Mission Impossible and the Bourne movies enough already. 

That said, I did like every scene with Ralph Fiennes, but I think they can find something for him to do without turning the plot into old vs. new.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"The Martian": The Anti-"Alien"

The Martian

Director Ridley Scott’s recent return to sci-fi, Prometheus, was not very well-received (though I really enjoyed it) partially because it did not live up to the expectations created from Scott’s early sci-fi classic, Alien. Scott returns to science fiction again with The Martian, a film that could be called the anti-Alien.

Comparing The Martian to Alien simply because they are both sci-fi films directed by Scott is not fair. But the opening credits and score invite the comparison. The film begins with ominous music very similar to Alien as the title appears and then fades away one piece of a letter at a time, which is the reverse of the title reveal of Alien. That subtle nod lets the viewer know this is not going to be like Alien.

The difference is important to note because Scott’s filmography is filled with dark, ultra-serious movies. It would be easy for Scott to take the novel The Martian is based on, which is actually quite light-hearted despite the serious situation, and turn it into a much darker film. The intro makes it clear that Scott is venturing into new, nearly opposite territory, meaning The Martian is going to be fun, which is not a word typically associated with Ridley Scott.

The Martian has a setup that should be devoid of fun, however. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead while his team aborts a Mars mission to return to Earth. It turns out he is still alive and must figure out how to survive on an inhospitable planet, alone, for four years. That alone sounds more like a depressing survival story than a fun movie, but add to it the logical higher-ups at NASA constantly discussing how impossible it will be for him to survive, and it sounds downright miserable. This is why tone is so important in writing and filmmaking. The source material (written by Andy Weir) deserves the most credit, as it is filled with sarcastic humor. Screenwriter Drew Goddard retained that comedy, and Ridley Scott finalized it with a bit of help from a great cast, many of whom are known for comedy. So instead of a depressing slog of a movie, we get a fast-paced space movie in which a funny astronaut solves every problem thrown his way.

The casting of Mark Watney is critical, and Matt Damon is the perfect choice. Watney needs to be someone you want to see saved, and Damon is very likable (despite his recent brushes with controversy in interviews and on Project Greenlight). He is also capable of carrying a film by himself for long stretches of time. Part of this is thanks to the fact that Watney is constantly talking to the NASA cameras tracking everything, which allows Watney’s portions of the film to be more dialogue-heavy than you would think. The other part of that is Damon’s abilities as an actor. This performance might get dismissed later in the year since the film is light-hearted at times, but he is truly impressive with seemingly no effort. But when you consider that he has make you laugh, cry, and care about him in general, all while talking to himself and reacting to typed messages, it becomes much clearer how great a performance this is. The rest of the cast is great and impressive, but this is definitely Matt Damon’s movie.

Performance and tone aside, any film that takes place on Mars needs to look great to work. This is where Ridley Scott truly shines. Say what you will about his less popular films, but Scott’s movies always look amazing. The sets look so intricate and realistic it’s easy to buy into this near-future of manned Mars missions. And Mars, created with a combination of a practical location (the Wadi Rum in Jordan) and CG, looks beautiful.

All of these elements combine to make The Martian the most exhilarating movie about space exploration in years. In fact, it almost felt like a promotional movie to get people interested in manned Mars missions (and with NASA’s obvious cooperation, I think it’s safe to say they see it that way too). But that doesn’t take away from the film at all. It’s refreshing to see a movie set in a world where space exploration is done for exploration’s sake rather than as a quest to save the world or escape a dead world or (insert depressing plotline here).

This is not to say The Martian is just some fun, empty, forgetful experience. Ridley Scott cannot make a film without plenty of thematic elements. The most dominant theme concerns how important a single human life is. The movie spells it out in no uncertain terms that every life is worth saving, and saving one person on a distant planet can unite everyone on this planet. Is this true? No. Of course not. If this were to happen in the real world, there would be an entire subsection of the population that would doubt that there was actually a mission sent to Mars at all. But The Martian is not the real world, which is why it’s a great, fun film. Alien is still the better film, but it’s hard to compete with the feeling you will have after watching The Martian.

The Martian receives a:

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Hats off to Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain not being too afraid of doing similar projects to accept this role. Chastain's role isn't all that similar to Interstellar, but Damon's is. In fact, Interstellar works as an alternate ending. A kind of "This is what could have happened" warning.  

I loved that they kept the Elrond joke, especially since Sean Bean (Boromir) was in the scene. Speaking of Sean Bean, good for him for not dying in this one.

I'm getting pretty sick of seeing China pandered to in movies, but at least in this one, it was part of the book, and it makes much more sense as they do have a space program. In other movies (like Transformers: Revenge of the Returned Fallen or Whatever) the characters almost randomly end up in China. And the China stuff paid off in this film as we see a Chinese astronaut on the next Ares mission during the credits sequence.

Didn't see this one in 3D, but I can imagine some of it might have looked great. Visually speaking, it was plenty impressive in 2D. 

Finally, the ending is nearly sappy with optimism, but I still liked it. There was a time that maybe the "good" ending would have bothered me, but not anymore. I love darker sci-fi films like Alien, Blade Runner, Interstellar, etc. but sci-fi movies that honestly make me feel good for humanity at the end are so rare that I was okay with it. Plus, I truly wanted Watney to make it, and the tone of the film does not allow for a down ending.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"Sicario" Is the Dark, Tense Film the Drug War Deserves.


Director Dennis Villeneuve has recently established himself as a master of tension, mood, and atmosphere. His two most recent films, Prisoners and Enemy set the tone for what to expect from his latest film, Sicario. Villeneuve’s ability to take basic establishing shots of arguably mundane settings and make them foreboding and intense is impressive. It’s a way of creating an effective style without calling too much attention to itself.

With Sicario, Villeneuve has the deserts of Mexico and the American southwest to play with. Lengthy establishing shots (renowned director of photography Roger Deakins impresses yet again) paired with a menacing score (by Johann Johannsson) let us know that this film about the drug war is going to be dark, intense, and disturbing. Mood isn’t everything in a film, but it certainly helps draw the viewer in. Working with a script from Taylor Sheridan (best known as an actor from Sons of Anarchy), Villeneuve is able to take what could have been a cookie-cutter action-thriller and make it into something special.

A movie about the drug war needs to be elevated because this is a story that has been told before, in a way. There have been movies about the drug war in Mexico for decades, but Sicario rises above the rest thanks to Villeneuve’s direction. That is not to say Sheridan’s script is weak. It is not terribly original, but it is interesting thanks to the perspective Sheridan chose.

The story is told from FBI agent Kate Macer’s perspective. Macer (Emily Blunt) is asked to join a joint task force made up of vague government types including Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. Neither one wants to tell Macer much, so we do not know much. The most Macer, and the audience, is told is that the mission is to shake things up for the cartel and “dramatically overreact.” There is more to it, of course, which is the mystery of the film. The title itself is a bit of a mystery as “sicario” means “hitman” in Spanish, but we are not told who the hitman is. Having the main character be the new member of a group is a standard ploy of screenwriting to give the viewer someone to empathize with, but it is interesting here when you consider that Macer may represent the typical American’s reaction to the drug war. Not to get into spoilers, but Macer’s story arc is much more powerful when you view her as a representation of America in general.

While the character of Macer may be a bit plain, Blunt is still able to show her impressive range. Even though she plays a successful FBI agent, this is not your typical strong independent female role. Normally, a female character like this would be shown overpowering every man in her way, but Sicario takes a more realistic route. Macer can hold her own in a raid, but in a hand to hand fight with a man who has fifty pounds on her, things do not go so smoothly. While Macer is physically capable of her job, she struggles with the moral implications of her work with the task force. It is a role that requires Blunt to show equal parts strength and weakness, and she is great at both.

Brolin gives a fun performance in his supporting role, providing some much needed comedic relief to an otherwise joyless film. But it’s Del Toro who steals the film. As Alejandro, a mysterious and deadly soldier, he is able to make a menacing character surprisingly sympathetic. Del Toro comes across as the true star of the film. And Macer (and we the audience) are just there to watch him work.

Since this is a film about the drug war, there is a bit of action, as well. Villneuve does not glorify any of the violence, instead making most of the action scenes quick and brutal, showcasing how savage the situation has become. Each “action” scene is an incredibly tense moment that is much more effective than anything you will find in traditional action films of late.

Every positive element of the film is amplified by the style Villeneuve infuses into the film. Perhaps this is giving him too much credit, but mood and atmosphere cannot be undervalued when it comes to films about serious topics. Villeneuve’s style demands your close attention. And your close attention is rewarded with a tense, atmospheric “action” film that will have you contemplating a real world issue. In short, Sicario is what every serious film should be.

Sicario receives a:

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I really liked the dark ending of the film, with the whole mission being about supporting one cartel to take over the entire drug trade. It's hard to fault Brolin's reasoning, especially when he points out the impossibility of getting Americans to stop using drugs. It's not a nice solution, but maybe it's a realistic one. 

I liked Sicario quite a bit because of my interpretation of Macer's character. By the end of the film, I saw her as representative of America in general because of her inability to bring real change to the situation. When Alejandro visits her at the end to coerce a signature that will legalize all the illegal things they did, he tells her she isn't strong enough for the war. She is not a wolf. So she should move away from it. I feel like that sums up most of America's citizens in regard to the drug war. Most people can't handle the brutality of what's going on, but their drug use or lack of attention allows it to continue. We are not wolves, so rather than do something about it, we "move" out attention elsewhere, hoping someone else fixes it. This interpretation was solidified for me when Macer retrieved her gun, aimed it at Alejandro, but was not able to pull the trigger. She was left on the balcony, powerless. That symbolizes the typical American regarding the drug war. We're above it on the balcony in America, and we have the power to stop it, but we can't pull the trigger. I really wish the film had ended there, rather than ending up at the kids' soccer game in Juarez. The ending makes a powerful point (that was also made in Traffic, by the way), but the theme of the film would have been more evident if the film had ended with Alejandro walking away as a powerless Macer stands, defeated, on the balcony.

After watching this, it is clear why Villeneuve is directing the next Blade Runner. This film is actually quite similar, stylistically. Blade Runner featured lengthy establishing shots set to a unique score that solidified the mood and atmosphere of the film constantly. I am not officially excited for what I previously thought of as a needless sequel. I know Villeneuve will keep the new Blade Runner just as dark as the original.

Finally, hats off to Sicario for that brutal dinner scene at the end. For a second, I thought Alejandro would prove to be sympathetic to the innocent woman and children at the table, but he turned out to be just as brutal as he had been the entire film. He was truly a man on a mission. I have not found Del Toro this interesting in years. Hopefully he keeps this up with his role in the next Star Wars film.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why Watch "Everest"? Because It's There!


Every few years disaster strikes on Mount Everest and multiple debates about climbing the tallest mountain in the world begin. The most basic question that is always at the heart of Everest is, “Why?” The film, Everest, directly posits this question as well, and the characters, in unison, shout George Mallory’s famous line: “Because it’s there!” The characters give serious answers afterward, but that line gets to the root of most reasons why people climb and also why the film exists. Everest is there, and such an imposing example of nature will always fascinate climbers and viewers alike.

There is no shortage of disaster stories from Everest’s deadly history, but the 1996 climbing season was possibly the most documented making it the obvious choice for source material. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is the most famous account of the climb, but Everest went with a more broad scope in an attempt to present more viewpoints of the event. This makes Everest more accessible, but the lack of focus also leads to some characters receiving short shrift. That said, enough character building is done to make the human drama a very effective counterbalance to the visual spectacle of the film.

The draw of Everest is definitely the spectacle, though. Any film about Everest needs to be about the beauty of the deadly mountain and the general experience of climbing it. In that regard, Everest is extremely successful. The shots of the mountain are stunning, but, more importantly, the actors seem to be truly struggling as they make their way higher and higher. The film shows how brutal the climb truly is, even when climbers are paying to be shepherded up the mountain. The climbers are basically dying the last few thousand feet since humans aren’t meant to survive at such altitudes. Director Baltasar Kormákur said in an interview that he’s “fine” with putting actors through “a little bit of pain” and it definitely shows.

It’s important for the film to hammer home the difficulty of the climb to make the major question of the film more pertinent. Why put yourself through this? Why risk your life? This question is doubly relevant when you add in the weather conditions that led to the 1996 disaster. Is it worth losing your life for the glory of reaching the top? Everest does not presume to answer this question, but the characters obviously think that it is very much worth it. It’s important that the film ultimately leaves the answer up to the viewer since it is a real world question that is still relevant, especially since Everest’s deadliest day occurred this past April. The bigger question then becomes about commercial climbing. In other words, should less-experienced climbers be allowed to pay professional guides to get them to the top? Multiple times in the film, money is mentioned, and the guides clearly want to get people to the top so they can stay in business. Would the disaster of 1996 have happened if the guides didn’t feel that pressure to get more people to the top, especially with a journalist in two who was going to write about it? The film’s screenwriters (William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) wisely stop short of blatantly demonizing the practice of guided climbing, leaving it ultimately up to the viewer.

The question of Everest then becomes, “Why recreate these terrible events?” That is difficult to answer. Much like any film based on real, tragic events, there is a tricky line that is toed between reverence and exploitation. “Everest” does not come across as exploitative, but there are moments near the end (which did actually happen) that felt too personal to be recreated, much less witnessed by millions of viewers. (This is a slight SPOILER so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t know the true story and don’t want any part of the film spoiled.) Near the end of the film, one of the main characters, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), has a conversation with his pregnant wife via a walkie-talkie/satellite phone hook-up as he is dying. It felt too personal to read about it in Into Thin Air, and it felt even more personal watching it recreated. The film seems aware of this, however, as there are multiple reaction shots of characters listening in on the interaction. Everyone is crying, and most people watching the film will be crying as well. This moment is so important because this is where the film might lose the audience. It feels a bit too manipulative, but it actually did happen this way. It’s hard to fault a movie for being melodramatic when it’s based on a real moment. The scene proved to be a double-edged sword for me. It made the film much more emotional and powerful than I expected it to be, but it also convinced me that I never wanted to watch it again.

Any emotion created in a scene is also the product of the actors involved. Clarke is great throughout, but he is truly heartbreaking at the end of the film. Keira Knightley, as Hall’s wife, gives an effective performance as well, especially considering that her scenes were just her talking on the phone. The rest of the cast of Everest is equally impressive: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, and Emily Watson. Brolin is given the meatiest role as Beck Weathers, a man whose experiences could have been a movie on its own. The rest have their moments, but the only weak point of the film is that some of the cast is underutilized, specifically Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal portrays Scott Fischer, who was known as kind of a rock star mountain climber. This reputation leads to a slightly strange performance as Fischer seems to be constantly drunk and/or angry, but it’s never explained completely. It seems that once Gyllenhaal was cast, the screenwriters wanted to beef up the role, but couldn’t devote enough time to create a fully fleshed out character. That said, Gyllenhaal brings enough charisma to the role to justify his appearance; you’re just left wanting more.

If anything, the main issue with Everest is that you’re left wanting more. It’s a true story with so many characters it’s impossible to feel like the full story has been told in two hours. Thankfully, there are multiple books and articles that delve deeply into the individual experiences. So Everest is more of a snapshot of Everest and all the human drama that comes with it. It is a very effective film that makes you appreciate (and question) the struggle people go through to achieve their dreams. As a short glimpse into the world of commercial climbing and the tragedy it can bring, Everest works on every important level. It won’t (and can’t) answer the question of why people climb Everest, but it does present a fascinating example of people who took up the challenge and paid the ultimate price.

Everest receives a:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Plot of "Black Mass" Has Been Told Before ("The Departed"), but This Time, Johnny Depp Is in It, and He Isn't Playing Jack Sparrow, but He Does Resemble a Vampire...

Black Mass

Gangster movies have tended to glorify (intentionally or not) their subjects since the creation of the genre, but it is rare when there is a film that actively tries to make you hate the gangster. In the rare film in which the gangster is truly the antagonist, it is the law enforcement agent(s) that then get glorified (Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables comes to mind). Black Mass goes the extra mile making both the gangster and the main FBI agent terrible people.

Black Mass is based on the true story of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and an FBI agent, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who formed an unholy alliance with him. The true story is extremely complicated, mainly because nearly everyone involved is still alive, and nearly all of the gangsters have testified against each other. It is hard to tell who is being honest in reality, which adds an extra layer of confusion to the film. But Black Mass is a movie, not a historical document. While there will be detractors who bemoan it as pure “fantasy” (as former Bulger confidante Kevin Weeks labeled it), it’s hard to deny that director Scott Cooper has crafted a dark, atmospheric gangster film that features Depp’s most interesting performance in years.

Depp is the true draw with this film because it marks a return of sorts for the actor. After a serious of bombs intermingled with increasingly boring Jack Sparrow joints, Depp returns looking just as crazy but definitely changing things up a bit with a truly effective performance. Depp, who looks nothing like Bulger in reality (though at this point, it’s hard to tell what Depp’s natural look is), features white blond hair receding into a slicked back helmet, piercing blue contact lenses, and a dead front tooth. The appearance is so jarring that it’s distracting at worst, menacing at best. At times, Depp would not have looked out of place in a vampire film. Oddly enough, it works for the film.

Black Mass is just as much Joel Edgerton’s film as it is Depp’s. In fact, the focus is arguably more on Edgerton’s Connelly character than on Bulger. This actually makes the film more interesting as Connelly is the more complex character. Bulger is not very complicated; it is painfully clear that he is a terrible person, and he is okay with that. Connelly, on the other hand, is pretty awful, morally speaking, but appears to be a bit delusional about it. You get the sense that he truly believes he is doing a good deed by protecting Bulger. Depp is the draw that gets you to the movie, but Edgerton anchors the film.

The supporting cast is nothing short of amazing, featuring the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown. They each have their moments, making this one of the most impressive casts of the year.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) takes a close up approach that gives the film a more intimate, grimy feel that fits with the time setting. That setting is what also makes Black Mass unique. Bulger comes across as the least glamorous gangster of all time, which adds to the character. He seems to simply enjoy the things he does. The money is inconsequential. In fact, Connelly seems to be enjoying the money more than Bulger.

Gangsters, crooked cops, murder, etc. is familiar territory, though, even if much of the approach is unique. It doesn’t help that Bulger’s story was the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, making the plot something many viewers have literally seen before. Some might be exhausted by this particular story even if it has not technically been told yet. If that is the case, Black Mass might not be unique enough to garner your interest. But if you are always up for a gangster movie (like me), and you yearn for another great performance from Johnny Depp (like me again) then you will find plenty to keep you interested in Black Mass. Just don’t expect to end up rooting for the bad guys, because this time, they’re actually bad.

Black Mass receives a:

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"Fantastic 4" Is So Plain I Almost Forgot to Review It.

Fantastic 4
You've surely heard by now that Fantastic 4 didn't work out so well. I don't want to dwell on the film or beat a dead horse, but I do want to point out that the film is not the trainwreck that the hyperbolic fanboys of the internet want it to be. Instead, it is utterly forgettable. So forgettable, in fact, that it occurred to me a few days after watching it that I hadn't written a review for it. I'm usually pretty late with my reviews (I don't watch most new movies until Sunday), but I'm always reminding myself to get the review written. This time, I simply forgot. 

Fantastic 4 had all of these behind-the-scenes problems, but despite that, the film is a coherent work. It's when it decides to shoehorn in a "save the world" plot in the last twenty minutes that it loses people. In fact, many have praised the first two-thirds of the film. I disagree. Yes, the "save the world" plot is rushed and not very interesting, but the first two thirds of the film isn't exciting either. It's your standard origin story, but told even more slowly than usual. Maybe it's just that I'm utterly sick of origin stories (Ant-Man might have been the last one I can stomach, but that was because it was a comedy, not a deadly serious movie like Fantastic 4). I get that you have to show how they got their powers, but could you speed it up? The characters aren't presented interestingly enough for the slow plod the film makes to their inevitable transformation. 

That is really all I have to say about this one. There's no need to get into performances because the cast is fine; the characters are the problem. It was all so bland. Heroes get powers. Most don't want powers. Military wants powers. Military bad. Bad man shows up. Beat bad man. Set up the sequel. Granted, that's how most of these movies work, but other movies have more likable characters or humor or life or anything. Despite my vitriol, I still don't think this movie is as bad as people make it out to be. It's simply boring, which is kind of worse than it being outright bad. At least a pathetic attempt at a movie (like the first Fantastic 4 that was made just to keep the rights [incidentally the same reason this one exists]) is fun to make fun of. But this one isn't bad enough to joke about it. Now that is truly bad.

 Fantastic 4 receives a:

Monday, August 3, 2015

In "Rogue Nation," Tom Cruise Proves That He Is Truly the Last Action Hero

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Of course, I went with this picture. Do you see his face? That's really Tom Cruise doing that!
When Last Action Hero, the underrated Arnold Schwarzenegger action-comedy that you should definitely watch now that its meta approach to action movies can be appreciated, came out back in the 90s, it served as a prediction of the future: no more action stars to singlehandedly get you to go to the movies. Part of the joke at the time was that it seemed silly that people would eventually stop blindly going to the new Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, etc. movie. But it did happen, and not just because those stars got old. There are no new automatically bankable stars anymore. Even people that appear to be bankable, like Chris Pratt, are only truly successful because of the franchise they are in. Jurassic World would have been popular with a no-name in the Pratt role. His presence added to the film, no doubt, but no one can claim that the film was a Chris Pratt vehicle. But there is one man still fighting the action star fight: Tom Cruise.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is obviously a franchise film (the fifth in the series), but unlike a Marvel movie or Jurassic Park sequel, it is driven by the presence of Tom Cruise. This is because Cruise has become obsessed with practical stunt work. The last three Mission movies would have been mediocre without Cruise in the Ethan Hunt role. The series would undoubtedly end without him. His presence, and need to do his own stunts, make the films an entertaining spectacle. More importantly, he makes them better action movies.

Today’s action environment suffers from too much computer generated material and/or nausea inducing shaky cam/quick cutting techniques. Because Cruise is the one doing the stunt, the camera needs to stay focused on him so the audience can tell he really did all the crazy stuff, such as the heavily promoted scene featuring him hanging from the side of a plane during takeoff and flight. So we can tell it’s Cruise, but we can also tell what’s going on in general. This is what makes all of Cruise’s action films so watchable.

Obviously, as far as action goes, Rogue Nation is great. There are multiple impressive sequences that adequately up the ante from the previous films. The series has become much like the Fast and Furious franchise, but better. The Mission films are better because they amp up the action while still making it very real through practical stunt work while the Furious films have amped up the action while throwing logic and practicality completely out the window. (Both series are enjoyable, I just prefer the “grounded” [I use that word very lightly] action of Mission: Impossible.)

All the action is great, but one thing that has suffered with each subsequent film is the story. Not that anyone comes to a Mission film expecting a groundbreaking plot, but it does get old seeing Ethan Hunt disavowed, on the run, rogue, etc. every single movie. At this point, shouldn’t everyone just trust him? Screenwriter/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) does what he can, but these movies can only cover so many different ways to save the world. To the film’s credit, one character at least acknowledges that the situation will never change by pointing out to Ethan that there will always be somebody out there creating chaos. The question is how long will Ethan (and Cruise) keep it up? The answer seems to be at least one more time since the sixth film in the franchise has been given the green light.

With the plot in the background, there needs to be good supporting actors, especially since some people don’t care for Cruise (because of his real life persona). Rogue Nation has this covered with Simon Pegg basically becoming Cruise’s comic relief sidekick. Pegg definitely keeps things light and fun throughout. Rebecca Ferguson is a bit of a standout as a female double agent who can hold her own against Cruise. But really, this is Cruise’s movie, and if you’re not on board with that, you’re not going to enjoy it.

Rogue Nation is exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Mission: Impossible movie, and that’s a good thing because you should be expecting a lot at this point. McQuarrie does what he can with the story, but he does shine as an action director here, picking opportune times to use unique camera placement within the action. And, most importantly, he knows to leave the camera on Cruise so everyone can see the crazy stunts that he is actually doing. Honestly, though, McQuarrie is expendable here. Mission: Impossible used to be a franchise for each director to put his personal stamp on it. DePalma brought his split-screens and atmosphere to the first film (still my favorite). Woo brought his trademark gunplay and inexplicable pigeons to the second (still my least favorite). And Abrams reinvigorated the franchise with his Spielberg-esque fun and action for the third. With the fourth, things changed. Cruise took over (not directing, but in general), and the series is only getting better and better because of it. Here’s to Tom Cruise, our last action hero.

Rogue Nation receives a:

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I like Simon McBurney (the head of MI6), but he needs to allow himself to go bald or wear a wig. His hairline was distracting in his first scene in the film. It was mostly due to the lighting, but it looked ridiculous. Someone should have at least realized this and changed the angle or the lighting or something. 

Alec Baldwin's character was mostly worthless in the film, but at least he didn't end up being the villain.

Renner was a bit of a nonentity for most of the film, due to his other job as Hawkeye, no doubt. Most of the film requires him to hang out in an office and look mildly annoyed.

The obligatory heist of the film was decent, and I really enjoyed that they brought up wearing a mask only to dismiss it. I only wish they hadn't ended up using a mask later in the film. I'm just sick of the masks...

As far as villains go, Sean Harris was all right, if not a bit too raspy/Bond-villainish. He looked a bit too much like Simon Pegg, though. If a mask was to be used, I thought for sure they would go that route, but they didn't.

The titles of these movies really makes you appreciate punctuation. It's not every day that a movie requires a colon and a dash. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Even Without Edgar Wright, "Ant-Man" Turned Out Pretty Good


Ant-Man, along with last year’s wildly successful Guardians of the Galaxy, definitely shows that Marvel is digging deep for new heroes to introduce. Audiences don’t seem to mind the B- and C-listers getting their own films because the movies wisely take a more comedic route. (By the way, I know Ant-Man is not consider

ed a B- or C-lister in the comic book world, but he definitely is in the movie world.) Guardians was easily the goofiest film Marvel has ever made, and Ant-Man often plays more like a comedy than a superhero action film, which is precisely the tone this movie needed to have to succeed.

This film has been a huge question mark for Marvel not only because of the lesser known main character, but also for some behind the scenes trouble. Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) was well into the process of making this film when he dropped out. He realized he wasn’t going to be able to make the movie he wanted to make because Marvel has such a strict plan for the next few years. So Peyton Reed (Yes Man) was brought in. Nothing against Reed (especially since the movie turned out all right), but it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence to go from the director of Shaun of the Dead to the director of Yes Man. It would definitely be interesting to see what Wright would have ultimately done with the film, but it appears he left his stamp on enough of it so that what we see on the screen is a Wright-like film.

Most likely, the visual style of the film was sacrificed when Wright left (more on that in a bit), but the comedic tone of the film remained. Much like Shaun of the Dead, Ant-Man is about a very unlikely hero in Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a convict who can’t seem to catch a break. Returning to a life of crime leads him to Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and the shrinking suit Pym has made. Then more comic book stuff happens, and Scott has to try to save the world, and you’ll probably see him again in other Marvel movies, and you get the idea.

Ant-Man sets itself apart from other Marvel movies by having a stronger emotional core than other comic book films. The emotional theme focuses on parents, specifically fathers, and how complicated it can be to protect their children, or in this case, daughters. Scott’s main goal is to get his life back on track so he can see his daughter, who sees him as a hero already. For Scott, it’s all about living up to an image his daughter has for him. Hank Pym, on the other hand, has kept his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) so far away that she now resents him. Each man needs to prove himself to his daughter to have peace. These subplots were a welcome distraction from the save the world plotline, which is getting a bit tiresome in the Marvel world.

The emotional scenes never get too heavy, though, and the film in general is quite funny. Paul Rudd has a lot to do with that. He’s a natural for the reluctant hero part. But the comedy comes more from the gang of idiots he pals around with. The standout is Michael Peña, whose rambling stories are the comedic highlight of the film. They are also the scenes that felt the most like an Edgar Wright film.

Comedy aside, this is still a Marvel superhero movie, so the action and visuals have a lot to live up to. In this case, the visuals actually lead to comedy at times. When we’re zoomed in on the action, for instance, a child’s trainset turns into a real train bearing down on someone. Pull back and it becomes a pretty goofy sequence. When the action is taken seriously, it’s par for the course for Marvel. There’s nothing that stands out, aside from the goofiness of pulling back during action scenes. Edgar Wright could have possibly created some action scenes that would have stood out from the rest of the Marvel pack, but we’ll never know. The miniature stuff looks great, though. Overall, Ant-Man boasts some great visuals with decent action.

 Ant-Man could have been Marvel’s first big misstep since it started this takeover of Hollywood. But like Guardians, the risk paid off. Sure, the save the world plotline is flat out boring at this point, but that comes with the territory in a comic book movie. Ant-Man simply had to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack with comedy, and it completely succeeded. 

Ant-Man receives a: