18 September 2015

Review: Black Mass

Watching Jack Nicholson in The Departed it would be easy to think "Wow, this guy can't be real" but that would be incorrect. Frank Costello was based in part on James "Whitey" Bulger, maybe the most notorious gangster in U.S. history. What viewers will also learn is the FBI and Bulger worked together for years before he was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) and Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) grew up together in South Boston, but years later Connolly, now a FBI Agent, makes a deal with the devil. More accurately, he tries to place a rabid dog on a leash.

Reporting to the FBI is a hard sell for Connolly because Bulger takes personal offense to playing informant. Bulger killed men for giving up much less, but Connolly manages to convince the crime boss a partnership would be mutually beneficial. Both men see this as an opportunity to rid Boston of the Italian mafia, but only one of them is honest about how this will all play out. Being an informant means giving up intel on occasion, yet it comes with no strings. Connolly--and by proxy the FBI--look the other way while Bulger deals and murders his way into mythic status. Meanwhile, Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) can’t explain why crime is still flourishing in Boston.

Black Mass spent several years in production while Depp and Edgerton both left the project, and now it has the unfair responsibility of being the movie that brings Depp back to relevance. Luckily the film shoulders that weight with ease. Yes, Depp is wearing another wig, but this isn't like his other Disney work. Depp layers Bulger with nuance, playing a man who would violently murder members of his organization for being rats when he himself reported to the FBI. Those contradictions would trip up a lot of actors, but Depp handles himself magnificently.

It would be easy for Depp to crank out every scene on 11, but there is a reserve present that couldn't be said for Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Take a dinner scene where Bulger needles a FBI agent for the secret family recipe. What seems like an innocuous slip on the part of the agent turns unbearably tense as Bulger questions just how easy he gives up information. Then Bulger punctuates the exchange with a chilling laugh. Too often films depicting criminals glorify the lifestyle, but if Black Mass is a testament to anything, it's what a sociopath Whitey Bulger was. That the FBI would team up with a maniac of that caliber to shut down the Mafia is an indictment not only of law enforcement, but the misguided native pride of Boston. A monster was unleashed on society only because Connolly was more comfortable with a crime syndicate run by white men.

The film presents a great deal of information, but everything is presented in a brisk fashion and aided by a stellar cast. Those who don't know anything about Whitey Bulger will be fine. Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) wisely surrounds Depp with the highly talented Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown and Kevin Bacon. As great as that cast is, sometimes Cooper focuses too much on his ensemble, leaving audiences wondering when Depp strikes next. A more present p.o.v. would definitely cement Black Mass as one of the defining crime films of the genre, but as it stands the film is a handsomely directed picture featuring a career resurgence for Johnny Depp.

04 September 2015

Review: The Man in the Machine

Real quick, does Alex Gibney ever take time off? Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Sinatra: All or Nothing At All both made their premieres this year, but Gibney still has one more documentary up his sleeve. The myth around Steve Jobs is known by everyone. He took a company that started out of his garage and turned it into a global powerhouse with products that people go into a frenzy over. No one would define themselves by their pager, so why does an iPod or iPhone so often serve as an extension of its users?

Steve Jobs' death in 2011 was met with a massive outpour of public grief, but the emotion on display didn't fit the man who passed. Jobs, for his outsized personality while he was promoting Apple, was fiercely private. Taking an approach inspired by Citizen Kane, Gibney starts his film at the mogul's passing, and works backwards through interviews and archival footage to get a sense of the man behind the smokescreen.

The film jumps around chronologically, tackling the early Apple years; NeXT; and the launches of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. It bears repeating that Jobs didn't personally design or engineer the famous items so closely associated with his name. The truth is that a lot of talented people surrounded Jobs, and he drove them to their limits. Apple is not represented in Gibney's film, but there is a good deal of interviews with those who worked with Jobs along with his friends and family, and the background information is revealing. The Steve Jobs who faced legal issues is certainly not the one we remember fondly.

Steve Jobs wasn't a perfect man, certainly, few are, but Gibney isn't interested in hagiography. At first The Man in the Machine gives the audience a lot of the personable Jobs that he presented himself as for years, then the darker side comes out. "Think different" was Jobs' method of creating a link between Apple and the noble ideals of icons like Martin Luther King Jr., and it worked really well. However, Apple didn't use "think different" to contribute to more moral business practices. The workers at Foxconn who make iPhones and iPods certainly don't have the luxury of using the products they spend all day building.

Gibney's documentary expands beyond Jobs--sometimes to its detriment--but the larger Silicon Valley scene that Jobs inspired, and the grime behind his technological benchmarks are integral to his legacy. Jobs was a master of branding: he created a narrative where customers bought not just a machine, but a reflection of themselves they could pour their identity into. The love story between Apple fanatics and their products is what Jobs is remembered for, but Gibney posits that we're all still buying into a myth. That Gibney himself can't explain why he owns an iPhone is cause for concern.

Gibney loses sight of Jobs in the wide scope of the documentary, but perhaps it is impossible to understand a man made up of so many contradictions. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine isn't a hit-job by any means, but it does encourage viewers to "think differently" about the man so widely revered.

03 September 2015

Win The Vampire Diaries and The Originals!

Take the "Are you Fit for Vampire Life?" quiz to find out if you have what it takes to be a creature of the night. Post your score in the comment section below and you could win the sixth season of The Vampire Diaries and The Originals (The Complete Second Season). Tweet using hashtags #TVD #TheOriginals, and be sure to mention @WordsbyCBiggs on Twitter. Contest ends on September 15th. U.S. residents only.

Each household is only eligible to win (1) The Vampire Diaries Season 6 or The Originals Season 2 chosen at random via blog reviews and giveaways. Only one entrant per mailing address per giveaway. If you have won the same prize on another blog, you will not be eligible to win it again. Winner is subject to eligibility verification.

24 July 2015

Review: Southpaw

All boxing films come down to three storylines, or all three wrapped in one—get beaten, get angry, get back to the top. Eighty years have passed since Wallace Beery made The Champ, and Southpaw doesn't try to rewrite the formula. It's not a surprise, Barton Fink broke himself that way. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light heavyweight champion of the world, but it wasn't always the high life. Billy was raised dumped from one foster home to the next because of his mother's incarceration, but he eventually met his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage and turned it all around.

Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't look like your typical boxing star like say Robert DeNiro, Mark Wahlberg or Will Smith, but doubts about his ability to perform disappear immediately as the film opens. Madison Square Garden roars as Billy, bloodied and bruised, batters his opponent to the ground, winning the title. After the fight Maureen looks on as Billy's eye has to be saved by doctors. She reminds him of the always present risk of brain damage and he responds "Why you gotta lay the truth right now?" He's content to bask in the title he just won.

Acting as Billy's manager and wife, Maureen knows that without his career they wouldn't have their comfortable lifestyle, but at what cost does it come? Without Billy learning to defend himself better in the ring, the fear is that he will die there. For that reason Maureen keeps their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), at home for Billy's fights. She receives texts from her mother telling her if Daddy won or lost. Before Southpaw dives too far into the consequences of professional sports, the formula comes back into play in the form of arrogant challenger Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Escobar taunts Billy at a black-tie event and the proceeding violence results in tragedy.

In short time Billy loses everything as his rage turns self-destructive. Billy punishes himself in the ring taking blow after blow, playing the martyr for thousands of paying fans. Left with only his guilt, his pain-seeking ways become more exotic. Surprising no one, Billy is forcibly separated from Leila by the court. Billy's fall comes relatively early in the film, only about 30 minutes in, and while we all know that a title match between Billy and Escobar is imminent, Southpaw finds its soul in a gym headed by trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker).

Cinematographer Mauro Fiore shoots Southpaw from outside the canvas, avoiding the in-the-ring combat of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, but his work in Tick's gym is superb. Fiore bathes the film in shadow during Billy's training in the early hours of the morning, lending a contemplative lens to the rehabbing of Billy's life and career. The machismo can get overwhelming, especially considering that the script is from Kurt Sutter, but Antoine Fuqua's interest in the rage that consumes Billy is worth following.

To discuss Southpaw is to discuss the lengths that Jake Gyllenhaal goes to authentically depict a pugilist. Gyllenhaal went through several weeks of training to bulk up for the part, and when it comes down to the fighting, Gyllenhaal is taking real punches instead of a stunt double. His choice would be easy to write off as an affectation for Oscar Gold®, but it's a necessity. If audiences don't believe he's capable, then the film won't work.

Southpaw certainly doesn't buck any of the conventions that have filled boxing films for several decades, but the cast makes the predictable elements worth watching. Tick is the type of role Forest Whitaker could play in his sleep, but he infuses the part with a great deal of heart. Rachel McAdams also leaves a lasting impression as Maureen. (Hollywood, take note, keep casting her in projects.) This is Jake Gyllenhaal's show though, and his effort to elevate the picture will likely see him rewarded come February.

17 July 2015

Review: Trainwreck

trAmy Schumer already cemented her place on my year's favorite entertainment list when she managed to loosely remake 12 Angry Men for the fourth episode of Inside Amy Schumer, but not satisfied wth owning television, Schumer decides to revive the romantic comedy for 2015. Lazy writing has cursed the genre for much of the last few decades and studios have responded in kind by not pursuing that market with the gusto they used to. A film this funny and engaging might change minds at some studios, because Trainwreck is a very good romantic comedy.

As soon as the film opens it's clear that the story will not be hitting the same beats that audiences are used to. Schumer eschews tradtional romantic comedy dynamics by opening with Gordon (Colin Quinn) trying to instill a paralytic fear against monogamy in his young daughters. Years later, it appears he was only half successful. Youngest daughter Kim (Brie Larson) is happily married, mother to a step-son, and expecting another child. Amy (Amy Schumer), however, took her father's words to heart and wasted no time indulging in a good deal of alcohol, pot and casual sex.

Quite a few comedies have featured the sexual exploits of their male leads, but the reverse has not been true. After one encounter she wakes up to find a Scarface poster on the wall and quietly pleads that she isn't in a dorm room. The revolving door of men she spends her evenings with is supposed to be a remedy for boring committment, but Amy is weary of this routine as well. Rather than continuing to sleep with her stable of guys, she gives dating a shot and the resulting aftermath with Steven (a very entertaining John Cena) at the movies is one of the film's more hilarious scenes.

When Amy isn't living it up she writes for S’Nuff, a men's magazine, headed by ruthless editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton). Amy's latest assignment is to shadow Aaron (Bill Hader), a surgeon to the stars of the sports world including LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire. Originally just a subject piece, Aaron blindsides Amy when their flirtation turns into something more. Amy has trained herself to bail at the first sign of trouble, but with Aaron she might consider hanging around. Bill Hader excels when given the chance to lead a film (The Skeleton Twins), hopefully he will be get more chances to do so again. Hader and Amy Schumer have great chemistry together and when they are on screen together, it's a blast. They constantly try to out-do each other and nearly every minute is filled with laughs. Surprisingly, the scenes that truly mark Trainwreck as a success are with Brie Larson and Colin Quinn.

Fleshing out strained family relationships should prove a challenge for an actress in her first outing on the bigscreen, but Ms. Schumer proves that the slide from stand-up comedian to actress won't be difficult. Amy Schumer shows off a very different side of herself from her show on Comedy Central. She doesn't refrain from going into sad material, in particular Colin Quinn as her father, who is in poor health and looking at assisted living. These moments work really well, but the running time is a little too stuffed with other subplots for them to stand out.

Trainwreck marks the first time Judd Apatow is directing a script he has not written, and while it's very much Schumer's show, the movie still lacks tightness. Apatow excels at putting together large groups of actors and then finding the characters that work best for them, but when the film gets to the editing bay, he can't bear to cut anything. Fortunately, Trainwreck has the best ensemble of any film in 2015. Any moviegoer would be hard-pressed to find a better cast. John Cena and LeBron James, plucked from the sports world, both possess terrific comedic timing on top of their athletic prowess and professional success. Life doesn't seem fair that way. And it isn't just these two athletes, Tilda Swinton would run away with the show if she were in the film more often. There is nothing that she can't do.

For all of the risks that Schumer and Apatow take with Trainwreck, it is still a rom-com, even with the leads gender-switched. Accordingly the final 20 minutes are spent dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. I certainly don't expect Amy Schumer to reinvent the wheel because when something works, it works. Comedy lovers anxiously await her next effort. A new star is born.

08 May 2015

From Ahnuld to Actor: The Transition of a Former Action Star

Maggie pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against zombies, but not in the way you’d expect. The titular character (Abigail Breslin) is infected, but Wade (Schwarzenegger) isn’t driving into the city to put down the zombie threat, he’s bringing his daughter home before the disease reaches its inhumane conclusion. Protocols are implemented to keep the virus contained to the small midwestern town, but doctors set aside regulations to let Wade spend time with his daughter before she is sent away to the quarantine zone.
The stage of Maggie’s infection is still in its infancy, but any sign of worsening symptoms will get her sent straight to a quarantine area. Wade’s second-wife (Joely Richardson) has sent her children to stay with family outside of town, so it’s just the three of them in a makeshift farmhouse as they wait for inevitable to come. Zombie films often rely on global catastrophe for stakes, but a family awaiting is the kind of tension that all viewers can relate to. Fans hoping to see Arnold buckle down with a shotgun and take on the entire zombie apocalypse might be disappointed, but this picture has ambitions beyond being another run-of-the-mill schlockfest, Maggie serves as an intimate two hour movie about a father losing his daughter amid the zombie apocalypse.

28 April 2015

'Noble' Trailer

When Irish woman Christina Noble flies into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 1989, 14 years after the end of the war, she leaves behind an extraordinary life story. But the best is yet to come. Christina lands in a country "that she wouldn't be able to show you on a map". With a few dollars, a dream and her own hard-won courage, she is about to make life better for thousands of people. Noble tells the inspirational true story of a woman who believes that it only takes one person to make a difference, and how she proved right.

Noble hits theatres May 8th

24 April 2015

Jared Leto's Joker Has His Grand Debut

Fan speculation about what Batman's archnemesis might look like can cease today because Suicide Squad director David Ayer has dropped the first official look at Jared Leto's interpretation of The Joker on Twitter. It's certainly unique, although tattooing "Damaged" on his forehead is a touch on the nose.

The famous feature are all present: the green hair, pale skin, and crazy eyes, but they are tweaked to look a little more unwholesome than in the past. The tattoos are a different touch, as are the replacement teeth that Batman (Ben Affleck) has likely knocked out in their interactions, so fans worrying that this next Joker would be a rehash of Heath Ledger's have little to worry about.

Well fans, you have finally seen Leto’s Joker. What do you think?

(Per David Ayer's Twitter)

26 March 2015

Win 'The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies' on Blu-ray

PartnersHub and Warner Bros. are giving away a blu-ray of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, all you have to do to win the copy is play the app below to find out if you're Brave like Bilbo. Once you have that, reply the answer  to @WordsByCBiggs with #TheHobbit. Leaving a comment below can't hurt your chances either.

Contest ends April 6th, so have all entries in before then.

Each household is only eligible to win One (1) Blu-ray The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies via blog reviews and giveaways. Only one entrant per mailing address per giveaway. If you have won the same prize on another blog, you will not be eligible to win it again. Winner is subject to eligibility verification.

20 March 2015

Win 'The Battle of the Five Armies' on Digital

PartnersHub and Warner Bros. are giving away a digital copy of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, all you have to do to win the copy is play the app below to uncover your Middle-Earth Weapon of choice. Once you have that, reply the answer  to @WordsByCBiggs with #TheHobbit. Leaving a comment below can't hurt your chances either.

Contest ends April 1st, so have all entries in before then.

Each household is only eligible to win One (1) Digital Download Coupon for The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies via blog reviews and giveaways. Only one entrant per mailing address per giveaway. If you have won the same prize on another blog, you will not be eligible to win it again. Winner is subject to eligibility verification.

15 March 2015

Review: Cymbeline

Cymbeline is director Michael Almereyda’s second Shakespeare adaptation set in modern day, his last being 2000’s Hamlet, also starring Ethan Hawke. The Bard’s late work tragedy, previously set in the Royal Court of Olde England, receives a face-lift, updated to a war between the Roman police force and the Briton Motorcycle Club ran by Cymbeline (Ed Harris). The King trades in a crown for an Uzi and a leather jacket as a drug kingpin troubled by familial strife. His second wife (the serpentine Milla Jovovich) despises Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson, proving she has acting chops not found in Fifty Shades of Grey), for not marrying her son, Cloten (Anton Yelchin).

In secret, Imogen has pledged herself to Posthumus (Penn Badgley), much to Cymbeline’s displeasure. Posthumus, like all men freshly betrothed, proceeds to make a bet that his friend Iachimo (Hawke) cannot steal his love’s chastity; Hawke is evidently having a ball with the part of a man of very little moral fiber, slithering through his scenes, abusing the trust of all those who place such faith in him.

Read the rest at Sound on Sight!

27 February 2015

Review: The Salvation

Westerns have never recovered from the oversaturation that killed off viewer interest decades ago, but every now and then a gem pops up. Recent successes like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma and the Coen brothers adaptation of True Grit all did well because they tweaked the genre slightly, but director Kristian Levring goes with an old school approach. A faithful recreation of those revenge Westerns made so popular in the 1970s, The Salvation envelopes many elements of previous Clint Eastwood classics and wraps it into a tidy package.

The Salvation starts in on the central dilemma, joining Jon (Hannibal‘s Mad Mikkelsen) at the train station where he awaits the arrival of his wife and son. Jon and his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), have lived in the United States long enough to build a hospitable life for their family back in Denmark. This homecoming should be a sweet moment to establish the family important to Jon, but fate plays out rather differently. A swap at the train station places two rowdy drunks in the same stagecoach as Jon and his family–and before audiences can really settle into their seats–his wife and son are killed.

Read the rest at Sound on Sight!