14 January 2016
After the box-office success of Lone Survivor and American Sniper, the cottage industry of military themed January releases continues to go strong. Whereas those films came from Peter Berg and Clint Eastwood, directors known for taking a backseat to the material when it was called for, 2016's entry, 13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, comes from a director with the least tact ever observed over a career. Early speculation around the film had it that 13 Hours would be Michael Bay's most grown-up film, but those rumors were incorrect.
As the screen opens with the text "This is a true story," Michael Bay wants viewers to know right away that 13 Hours is the truest account of the story we have all heard so much about since 2012. Pointed blame isn't passed around openly, but Bay still wants audiences to know who he thinks is at the center of what went wrong. For the purposes of this film, the person to be blamed is C.I.A. station chief, Bob (David Costabile). Costabile really mugs it up as the distrustful supervisor, who makes it clear that any advice the security contractors have to offer will be met only with scorn. Inadequate safety measures at the diplomatic compound are questioned, but never addressed, and the difficulty in identifying which Libyans are friendlies or adversaries also doesn't concern the higher-ups.
Just after landing in Benghazi, Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) engage a hostile gang on an ordinarily unremarkable trip back to the C.I.A. annex. Guns are pointed, threats are exchanged, but no shots are fired. The scene is justifiably tense, yet it also serves as a taste of the chaos to come later during the U.S. Ambassador's arrival. Ambassador Steven's visit to Benghazi was an effort to win over the Libyan people, but a few hundred armed militants saw it as an opportunity to strike. When the gunfire finally erupts, Jack, Tyrone and the rest of the contractors are left to watch the events helplessly from the roof of their base.
When Michael Bay is clicking on all cylinders, he can usually be forgiven for his errors in judgment, but he delivers a misfire in regards to the final act. During the long wait for permission to rescue the diplomat, Bay was eager to display his righteous indignation at the lack of value of human life, and that is never more clear than in one particular cut. During the assault on the compound, when all hell is breaking loose, Tyrone desperately calls for air assistance. The madness in Libya is contrasted with the dead quiet of fighter jets sitting on a runway in Italy. The requested air support never makes it to Benghazi. Bay isn't known for making statements in his films, so that cut is an excruciating indictment, but then curiously he undercuts his own message by turning an account of tragic loss into a slick actioner.
The film went to lengths to show that the contractors were a band of brothers with families at home that cared about their well-being. Later, in the middle of gunfire Jack is showed trying to call his wife (a clear tug to the heartstrings). Then, in a move that makes one question whether Bay even cares, he goes to a camera angle attached to an incoming projectile that kills one of the lead characters. A moment that should be treated with the gravity of a protagonist dying is replaced with "a cool shot." Making matters worse, the shot that followed a bomb down from the sky was a misguided reference to his own work from Pearl Harbor. The director is also not above portraying Ambassador Stevens, who died in the attacks, as a naive figurehead.
If 13 Hours is redeemed at all after the antics of its director, it comes purely as a result of the charm of the cast, headlined by John Krasinski and James Badge Dale. Krasinski proves that he is more than the affable guy everyone loved on The Office, and Dale continues to steal the show as a character actor is wont to due. It's a mystery why Dale isn't a star. He takes a total clunker of a line like “Payback’s a bitch, and her stripper name is karma.” Yes, that's a real line of dialogue from the film. So when I say that 13 Hours is Michael Bay at his Bay-est, you'll know it's no lie. And that it's not a compliment.
07 January 2016
Weird is rarely used as a good quality in film criticism, but few words so completely describe Charlie Kaufman’s work as weird does. All of his films are a window into his very particular worldview, and that p.o.v. is certainly unlike anything seen in pop culture. For that reason, Anomalisa became an entry on many most anticipated lists for 2015. That Kaufman chose stop-motion to tell this story made the picture an event. So it came as a disappointment when the film was one of the year’s more mundane efforts.
Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have an energy and heart at the center that is not present here. Previous collaborators like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were able to temper the overwhelming negativity Charlie Kaufman occasionally falls prey to, but, this time, the writer doesn’t have a director to rein things in. In all of his efforts to create an experience that is both familiar and alienating, Kaufman may have accidentally created something hostile.
The story centers around author Michael Stone (David Thewlis) and his overnight stay in Cincinnati on a business trip. He is due to speak at a conference and read from his best-selling book, “How Can I Help You Help Them?” and should be happy with his success, but Michael is deep in exploring all of the regrets in his life. How Michael became an expert in customer service is anyone’s guess, but roll with it. Michael has never been able to connect with anyone on a deep, personal level and when he reaches out to an ex-girlfriend, the results are typically disastrous, but his stay at The Fregoli Hotel turns fortuitous when he meets customer service representative, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Lisa is star-struck by meeting the famous author, yet it’s her voice that intrigues Michael. All of the other people present (all voiced by Tom Noonan) are literally the same, but ironically only Lisa believes herself to be an indistinguishable face in the crowd. A beautiful moment in a world full of ugliness deserves to be cherished, but the encounter doesn’t last long after the love scene (is there a prerequisite for any movie featuring puppets to include a sex scene?). From here, Anomalisa appears to gain a little philanthropic hope for Michael, yet those hopes are dashed in the harsh light of the morning after. Just one more instance of a middle-aged man using a younger woman to feel important again. Abandoning Leigh’s Lisa with time to spare was a mistake.
Everything that was beautiful about watching Michael and Lisa connect is ripped to shreds as Michael’s feelings for Lisa are quickly turned into dissatisfaction. Whatever he found special about Lisa the night before simply doesn’t exist at the end of their breakfast, and they part ways. Self-destructive protagonists aren’t new, but few are as eager to dive into the abyss as Michael Stone. David Thewlis’ turn in Naked, while also abhorrent, offered more than just misery. The narcissism on display left this viewer weary.
Kaufman has tackled alienation to greater effect in his other scripts, and a majority of the film feels like he’s repeated himself. If there were more scenes like Michael’s encounter with the hotel receptionist, some of the other stagnant transitions would have been alleviated. Dialogue for its own sake has a place in cinema, but it has to move the story forward or be pleasurable. Too often the words shared in Kaufman’s screenplay do neither. Perhaps keeping Anomalisa to the originally conceived running time of 40 minutes would have been best.
However, the choice to animate the film with puppets was still a fantastic idea. A live-action version of the film could be ignored for being a chore to sit through, but these dolls invite viewers to look closer. Short of the lines across the puppets’ faces, one could be forgiven for thinking that actors were delivering those lines. Great care was taken into designing the look and feel of Anomalisa, it’s just a shame that a more energetic Kaufman couldn’t have delivered something new to say. One wouldn’t go as far to call this picture a misfire, but Charlie Kaufman’s latest is only for a very small audience of moviegoers. And, for that reason, it’s likely that nothing like Anomalisa will be seen again.
04 December 2015
There have been countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, but with the exception of Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, Macbeth has largely gone ignored by cinema. Justin Kurzel, fresh off the success of The Snowtown Murders, may have delivered the definitive take on the Scottish Thane. From the very beginning Kurzel marks that his vision will be different, as the film opens on the funeral of a small child, then transitions to bloody combat. Usually set on the stage, depictions of war in Macbeth are avoided because of budget constraints and available space–a shame considering how influential those scenes prove to be. The violence and trauma of the warring tribes and his child’s death sets the stage for Macbeth’s lust for power later in the film. Blood begets more blood.
In this beleaguered state of mind, a prophecy from three witches becomes the driving force behind his madness. Left with no heirs of his own and a fractured relationship with his own wife, the crown is the only possession that will give Macbeth solace. Murdering the king in cold blood in order to take the throne only makes sense for a man consumed by ambition. Most of the talk regarding Michael Fassbender has been about his excellent performance in Steve Jobs, and while that is a solid piece of acting, it pales in comparison to the mentally scarred Macbeth that Fassbender creates. The first half’s whispers of self-doubt turn into the paranoid ravings of a man who has lost his mind by the film’s end.
Not to be outdone by her co-star, Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is as conniving as her husband is unraveled. Left bitter about the death of her children, her cunning seduction of her husband to to end the bloodlines of his competitors is absolutely Machiavellian. Now, a Lady Macbeth that is only presently evil is uninteresting- however, Cotillard dabbles in the despair with just as much conviction. A lot of actresses might be exposed by an unbroken close-up, but Cotillard relishes the spotlight of the infamous “Out, damned spot!” scene.
If this sounds like it may be a tough watch, it is. Make no mistake, this is certainly the grimmest interpretation of the Scottish play, but a true artistic vision unencumbered by the need to make it for everyone is something to be celebrated in today’s film market. Justin Kurzel manages the difficult task of being having to be faithful to the source material, while also offering new insights into a character that’s been around for centuries. Too often directors adapting stage plays let the prestige of the material overwhelm them, and leave out any stylistic choices. While Kurzel does set the film in the Highlands (and goes as far to accurately research the tribal colors for the soldiers’ face paint and kilts) for authenticity, he resists that urge to go prim and proper in staging the story.
The director, along with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, shoots the film in a deliberate horror style, utilizing yellows and grays to display the sickness inherent not only to the Lord and Lady Macbeth, but the hell present all around them. These are storytelling choices determined to set this Macbeth apart from the others, but none are as invigorating as the choice to paint the screen crimson for the finale.
Amidst a hugely talented ensemble (featuring David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki) Fassbender and Cotillard stand out for their lived-in performances. There is a long history of storied actors and actresses taking part in Shakespeare’s works, but the sheer intensity Fassbender and Cotillard deliver is unrivaled. Macbeth serves as a reminder that without all the frills of special effects and shared universes, great acting still mesmerizes audiences when given the chance. Don’t miss the chance to catch this in theatres.
18 September 2015
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
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
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
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
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.
28 April 2015
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
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
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 @ 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.