Sunday, November 29, 2015

'Spotlight' review

Certain films scream Oscar bait immediately when you hear about the subject matter. This year, some great examples of that include Eddie Redmayne's transgender drama The Danish Girl, the Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep-starred women's rights drama Suffragette, and Spotlight, the story of the journalists who investigated the sex scandal inside the Catholic Church. Oftentimes, Oscar bait has a negative connotation- it's the term used for films that are simply screaming for awards. But every once in a while, a film with subject matter that is very Oscar-y rises to the occasion to become a masterpiece in its own right. Spotlight is one of those films. An All the President's Men for a new age of moviegoers, Spotlight is an instant classic drama that works as both an indictment of a terrible system of abuse and a celebration of the men and women who broke the story. Led by great performances, a wonderful screenplay and a sense of pacing unparalleled by most movies, Spotlight is truly magnificent.

Boston 2001. The Boston Globe's new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), is arriving and there's a general sense of discomfort over how he'll be. The Globe's top investigative team is Spotlight, which focuses on long-term pieces about different aspects of the community. After a brief meeting with Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Spotlight's team leader, Baron finds a story that just might require the team's skills. In Boston, there were many sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church and Cardinal Law that ended up settled and pushed under the rug by the team of lawyers. Baron knows that there's a story there and he wants Spotlight to pursue it. Robby and Spotlight members Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) dive into the shady world of Church sex abuse, encountering neglected victims, lawyers with questionable motivations and a massive cover-up. What they'll find is a scandal beyond what they ever could have imagined.

In all honesty, Spotlight is a pretty flawless film. I can't find anything, even the smallest of nitpicks that I would really say detracts from the film. Does that mean that it's my favorite film of the year? Not necessarily, although it's certainly in my top ten. Spotlight is spectacularly efficient, steadily engrossing and deeply haunting, with a true master craftsman at the helm in Tom McCarthy. His career has been a series of ups (the acclaimed indie comedy Win Win) and downs (the critically panned Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler), but with Spotlight, McCarthy has found a film that may finally bring him to the big leagues. By using the newspaper classic All the President's Men as its thematic and stylistic basis, McCarthy has created a new journalism classic. It's a story that is so compelling and important and it's told so well that I can't see anyone walking away from this movie unsatisfied.

McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer are probably the main reason for the movie's success, but they were both blessed to score one of the year's most spectacular casts. This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with no single actor stealing too much of the spotlight (pun intended) from the others. If I had to pick one star of the film, I would say Michael Keaton, the anchor of the Spotlight team and one of the more developed characters in the movie. Keaton, hot off his Oscar nomination for Birdman, is stellar here, with a steady, assured performance as Robby that has been praised by the real Walter Robinson for its accuracy. Keaton's Robby is persistent, but there's something going on under the surface and it makes for a really compelling portrayal.

For me, Mark Ruffalo gives the most thoroughly impressive performance as Mike Rezendes, the determined and good-natured workaholic who will stop at nothing to tell this story right. Smart, frenzied, and just a bit clumsy, Rezendes is an instantly likable character that also succeeds in being deeply cynical. Ruffalo has an exceptionally powerful monologue and some other great moments too, and he should undoubtedly get an Oscar nomination. Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James round out the Spotlight team and both give solid performances- McAdams as the sensitive, intrepid journalist and James as the caring parent, someone with a real connection to what's happening in the story.

But beyond even those four actors, there are many others who deliver top-notch performances. Liev Schrieber is noticeably muted in this flick, which is a change of pace from some of his previous outings. But there's something strong about Schrieber's portrayal of Marty- it's very subtle, yet simultaneously meticulous. Stanley Tucci has some funny moments as the dynamic lawyer Mitch Garabedian and some moments of true poignancy. Mitch fits into one of the recurring themes of the movie- whatever is happening on the surface, there's something deeper. Billy Crudup's shady Eric MacLeish fits into this quite well, and Crudup gives an admirable performance. Finally, John Slattery is superb as Ben Bradlee Jr., the son of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who broke the Watergate story in the 1970s (the elder Bradlee was played by Jason Robards in All the President's Men). Slattery echoes Robards well, and is another stellar addition to a near-perfect ensemble.

Spotlight may have the best cast of the year, but it is far more than a mere acting showcase. This is a great film, and to be a great film, you need great writing, directing, music and cinematography, among more things. Spotlight has all of that. The cinematography is rather subdued, but that style reflects All the President's Men well, continuing the parallels between the two films. In additon, Howard Shore's music is calm and quiet, but it reverberates throughout the whole film and makes an immeasurable impact on the overall film .

Ultimately, this movie belongs to Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. The two men co-wrote the script, with McCarthy handling directorial duties, and without the two of them, I don't know if Spotlight would be as great. Singer and McCarthy's screenplay is smart and it's one of the true writing miracles of the year. Each character is so finely detailed, with their own fears, loves and motivations. On top of that, the pacing is steady and effortless. As the film continues, the story builds naturally to its terrific, cathartic conclusion. McCarthy's direction isn't showy or dynamic, but it is constantly effective, with McCarthy adding a significant amount of gravitas to what could have been a rather dull procedural.

Despite all of the top-notch fundamental ingredients, there is something extra in Spotlight that turns it into a great movie. For me, it's the fact that every character is so finely conceived and expertly crafted. There are no tedious stereotypes or stock characters in this film. Every character who seems to be going in one direction will suddenly change course in an unexpected way and it makes Spotlight an irresistible watch. It's that level of depth that separates it from other films.

A brilliant movie through and through, Spotlight is accomplished cinema. There isn't anything innovative or radical about this film. It is simply an important story told with precision, immediacy and depth. Keaton, Ruffalo and Schrieber are absolutely terrific in what could very well be this year's Best Picture winner at the Oscars. Directed by Tom McCarthy with expertise, Spotlight is one of the first slam dunks of the holiday season.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.6/10)

Image Credits: Variety, The Guardian, Vulture, EW, Joblo

Saturday, November 28, 2015

'The Good Dinosaur' review

If The Good Dinosaur had come out in June, I have a feeling that its long-term reputation in the Pixar canon would be much better. Unfortunately, it's debuting in the immediate aftermath of Inside Out, Pete Docter's masterpiece that is, as of now, the best film to debut in American cinemas in 2015. Funny, innovative and touching, Inside Out is one of the most revolutionary films in years and one of Pixar's absolute best films. And there was simply no way that The Good Dinosaur could ever live up to that. It's still a very good movie. It looks gorgeous, features some really strong character work and makes some intriguing choices that are pretty bold and strange. It feels very much like a Western disguised as an animated movie, which is an interesting conceptual choice. But there are many times where The Good Dinosaur feels quite tedious, and ultimately, it isn't as complete of a film as some of Pixar's best. Undoubtedly still a step above the quality of most animated films these days, The Good Dinosaur is satisfying, but forgettable.

The basic premise of The Good Dinosaur is cute and quite interesting (although there's a completely different story that I wish the movie had told)- What if the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs had missed the Earth? At the beginning of the film, this idea is briefly displayed before jumping ahead 10 million years. We meet a dinosaur family led by Momma (Frances McDormand) and Poppa (Jeffrey Wright), who live on a farm and sustain themselves by growing their own food and building their own shelter (one of the more bizarre ideas that the film displays). Soon, their three children are born- Buck, Libby and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Buck and Libby are great dino farmers, but Arlo is a total coward who really can't do anything right. One day, his dad gets frustrated by Arlo's inability to kill the critter who is terrorizing their farm and tries to get him to overcome his fear. Unfortunately, Poppa gets killed in the process by a terrifying storm.

More dead parents in Disney movies. Shocker.

Later, Arlo is on the hunt for the critter- who just so happens to be a little boy named Spot- when he falls into the river near their farm, and is sent downstream into unfamiliar territory. Scared and far from home, Arlo must join up with Spot to make his way back to the family farm. During their journey, Arlo and Spot will encounter a wide range of dinosaurs, both friend and foe, and become closer than they could have ever imagined.

The Good Dinosaur is a weird movie, man. And going in, I certainly didn't expect that at all. But weird it is. There's a drug trip scene halfway through the movie where Spot and Arlo eat some plant that causes them to hallucinate. There's an unusual amount of darkness and violence for a Pixar movie- and let's not forget, Pixar isn't completely adverse to scary content in their films. But from mentions of blood drowning to intense dino fights to dead parents and crazy pterodactyls, this is an unusually vicious flick. And while some parents might not be pleased by that, there's something admirable about just how different this movie is.

I don't know if any other critics have said this or if other people have noticed, but The Good Dinosaur is a Western, through and through. The film's structure, its stylistic elements, the phenomenal music by Jeff and Mychael Danna- everything feels like a throwback to classic Westerns. And that's definitely a net positive for the film. It gives The Good Dinosaur a distinct sense of style and tone that is hard to replicate in the Pixar canon and in the animated canon in general. There aren't too many dinosaur Westerns and that uniqueness gives this film its charm.

Beyond just the stylistic and auditory influences of the Western genre, the pacing and leisurely attitude of this film is quite interesting as well and clearly connected to the Western motif. There's no strict plot that the characters follow along; it's more of a series of situations and characters that Arlo and Spot encounter. Cowboy dinos voiced by Sam Elliott and Anna Paquin, crazy bandit-esque dinos voiced by Steve Zahn and other wild creatures all pop up during the story, allowing The Good Dinosaur to give a vibrant and kaleidoscopic view of this prehistoric era.

The Good Dinosaur is also immaculately designed and a truly beautiful film to behold. The vistas are stunning, all the way from the snowy peaks to the rivers. Sometimes the animation is so stunningly realistic that I would have easily mistaken the animation for real life. So, in this aspect, major props should go to director Peter Sohn and the team of animators at Pixar. This is undoubtedly the most beautiful piece of work that Pixar has put on the screen ever and the new bar for animation quality.

And like most Pixar films, The Good Dinosaur has its heart in the right place. There's an element of familiarity at play here, but I did feel that there was a genuine connection between Spot and Arlo and it shows during some of the more intensely sad moments of the film. This isn't a movie that will make you cry for days like Inside Out or Toy Story 3, but there are some good old-fashioned pull-on-the-heartstrings moments in this film. But the thing that makes the impact slightly more muted is that you know they're coming, and the filmmakers try a bit too hard for them. But hey, the two kids in front of me started crying pretty hard at the end.

With beautiful animation, a unique sense of Western style and a good heart at its core, The Good Dinosaur should be a complete knockout. It really isn't. Almost instantly forgettable and with supporting characters that aren't as brilliantly defined as they were in other Pixar movies, The Good Dinosaur feels like a slightly lesser achievement. The pacing gets a little slack at times as well, and there's a fair amount of wandering that goes on. It isn't fair that a very solid animated film gets compared to a studio's great ones, but that's the curse of being a Pixar movie.

A tad disappointing, but a fresh, interesting and consistently gorgeous animated film, The Good Dinosaur should sufficiently delight kids of all ages and please the parents as well. The animation is phenomenal and I like the way that Pixar continues to experiment in different genres that allow for visionary directors to do interesting things. The Good Dinosaur might not be the best thing that Pixar has ever made, but there's plenty of good stuff here.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)

Image Credits: Fandango, Screen Rant, The Guardian, Joblo

First trailer for 'Captain America: Civil War' promises intense, emotional journey

Much to the surprise of some box office prognosticators and critics, Marvel had a down year in 2015. While Avengers: Age of Ultron grossed $459 million in the US and made $1.4 billion worldwide (the sixth-highest total of all time), critical reception was noticeably muted, and there were rumblings around the internet that Disney considered the sequel to be a disappointment. Ant-Man surprised some fans, but in my mind, it's the worst Marvel film and the box office wasn't very strong for Marvel either- only $179 million in the US and $518 million worldwide. None of these totals are anything to balk at, but coming off a year that featured the very successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the sleeper hit Guardians of the Galaxy, this was a rough year for Marvel. But starting on May 6 of next year, they're right back at it with Captain America: Civil War, the third installment in the Captain America franchise that will also feature Iron Man, Black Widow and several other Avengers (essentially making it Avengers 3). The first trailer for the film premiered on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Tuesday, much to the delight of fans. Check it out below.

I do love the sheer crowd-pleasing entertainment factor of The Avengers, but the more that I think about it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel film. Gritty, thought-provoking and topical, The Winter Soldier took Marvel to a new level of quality, thanks mostly to the terrific direction of Joe and Anthony Russo. The Russo Brothers are back for Civil War and that makes me very happy. This trailer is fantastic and I love the way that it mixes spectacle with some really fascinating character work. The Russos know how to film action sequences and craft an interesting political story, so I can't wait to see what they've come up with here. Captain America: Civil War stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Sebastian Stan, Paul Rudd, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Tom Holland, Martin Freeman, Emily VanCamp, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Bruhl, Frank Grillo, Don Cheadle and William Hurt and debuts in theaters on May 6, 2016. Consider it one of my most anticipated films of 2016.

Image Credits: Screen Rant

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

'Spectre' review

Following up Skyfall was never going to be easy.

In 2012, Skyfall was a renaissance for the James Bond franchise. For me, it was the first time that I truly understood James Bond. I understood the mythos, I understood the appeal, and I became steeped in the cultural history of the character. After Skyfall, I watched several of the Bond films and amassed a rather large collection of the flicks. Today, I still count Daniel Craig's third outing as James Bond among my favorite films. After the hard-edged fiasco that was Quantum of Solace (even compared to some of Roger Moore's cheesiest outings, Quantum is one of the worst Bond films), Skyfall combined everything that I ever wanted in an action film with the classic elements of James Bond that we've come to know and love. The setpieces were phenomenal, Javier Bardem made for a terrific villain and most importantly, the movie had its heart and its soul in the right place. It's one of the best Bond films ever made, it made $1.1 billion worldwide and is pretty much universally loved by fans. Sometime between the immediate aftermath of Skyfall and the commencement of filming on Spectre, Craig and director Sam Mendes had to have asked themselves: "How the hell do we follow this up?"

While Spectre will surely continue to be a divisive film for Bond fans, in many ways, it's exactly the film I wanted to see in the aftermath of Skyfall. It's as slickly made as any of the modern spy flicks, but it maintains the classic Bond feel that we all know and love. This is Daniel Craig's most fun outing for sure, and there's plenty of wit and charm to go around. The action is intense, the pacing impeccable and everyone fills their role perfectly. So why are so many fans and critics unsatisfied by this outing? I'll get into that later, but I'll cut to the chase for now- Spectre is a legitimately great action film.

Spectre takes place some time after the events of Skyfall, which saw the death of Bond's old boss M (Judi Dench). When we find Bond, he's in Mexico City, tracking down Marco Sciarra as one final assignment from M. Bond takes out Sciarra, but in the process, he makes a big mess out of Mexico City. His new boss, M (Ralph Fiennes, formerly known as Mallory in Skyfall), grounds him, but Bond his other ideas. During his fight with Sciarra, he acquired a ring that leads him into a web of terror and deceit. One thing leads to another, and Bond ends up in the clutches of SPECTRE, the world's leading terror organization.

Meanwhile, Denbigh aka C (Andrew Scott), the new addition to the Whitehall Brigade, is attempting to kickstart the Nine Eyes program, which would give England and eight other countries access to unlimited surveillance information. M, Q (Ben Whishaw) and Mrs. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) keep everything at bay on the homefront, while Bond finds himself running from bulky henchmen, having sex with beautiful women and moving closer and closer towards the leader of SPECTRE. Y'know. The usual Bond stuff. All of this leads to a showdown between Bond and Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), SPECTRE's mastermind, who may have a connection to Bond's past.

If you find that synopsis to be incredibly vague, that's because it is. Everything in Spectre is so twisty and possibly revealing that I figured I might as well avoid any spoilers. But that's the general gist of the plot, and it plays out in a very Bond-y way. The structure of Bond films is well known at this point, but the cool thing about the previous Craig films was that they completely avoided that structure. And it's equally refreshing that the film returns to the tried-and-true formula this time around. Opening scene. Rendezvous with the Whitehall Brigade. Sex with the first Bond girl, who is never to be seen again. Intro to the main villain and henchman. Action scene. Meets second girl. Flirting, investigating. Sex. Finds way to villain's lair. Torture scene. Escape. Final action scene. All of the pieces are here and director Sam Mendes executes them with precision. What I've always admired about Mendes' take on Bond is that he knows how to mix the bombast and grit of modern action films with the classicism of the Connery films. And that means that Spectre has the element of absurdity that was missing from the recent installments. Which is why some of the fans and critics turned on this one.

In today's modern action world, everything is taken pretty seriously. Unless something is intentionally tongue-in-cheek, like Kingsman, we expect a certain level of intensity from our blockbusters. And with franchises, people expect each installment to be true to the ones that came before it, unless it's explicitly pitched as a reboot. In reality, Spectre is a throwback to the Bond films of Sean Connery and Roger Moore. But people were expecting Skyfall Part 2. This is not Skyfall Part 2. There are callbacks to Casino, Quantum and Skyfall, and there is a strong connection between all four films, but tonally, this is something very different. And for me, it's exactly what I expected at the end of Skyfall.

Let's think about the end of Skyfall. Bond has just been through hell. Over the course of the film, he gets shot, is told how he's not up to speed anymore, faces off against his worst villain and witnesses the death of the woman who has practically been a mother to him. But in the final scene of Skyfall, notice the difference. There's a new M. Q is back. Moneypenny is back. It's all in place. Bond is Bond again. Gone are the pseudo-Jason Bourne days. Moody Bond is done. He's back to the old school. Daniel Craig has become the James Bond that we all imagine in our mind. At least that's how I always interpreted the ending.

Some have complained that if we were finally seeing the James Bond that we know and love, why does Spectre make such a desperate attempt to connect all of the previous films? Well, that's a fair point. Spectre does have some big stretches here and there and some things that don't make sense. But the great thing about this film is that it strikes that perfect mix between fun and serious. There are intense themes here and some pretty good stuff about our surveillance state and the post-Snowden age. But unlike something like The Dark Knight, it's not all doom and gloom. Spectre is outlandish and crazy, with some truly ridiculous action scenes and some absurd twists. But that's what James Bond is about. Sam Mendes has struck the ideal mix of classic Bond and modern sincerity to create the action hero that fits this time.

It doesn't hurt that Mendes is an incredible director who has assembled a terrific ensemble of writers, actors and technicians to create one of the most visually striking Bond films ever. Let's just start with the opening scene. It's one long, uninterrupted tracking shot and it's legitimately exhilarating. After that, we move to the action scene in a helicopter, which is pretty incredible in its own right. It's a brilliant way to open a movie and it just shows how deeply Mendes and writer John Logan understand Bond and the appeal of the character. The action is great throughout, but nothing quite reaches the heights of the opening scene. Beyond that, the technical elements are all strong, and from Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography to Thomas Newman's score, everybody is at the top of their game.

Craig delivers an effortless performance as the superspy, which strikes the perfect mix between suave, debonair and intense. I love how the Whitehall Brigade is more involved this time around, and while some have complained that M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner still don't have much to do, it's better than anything that they got in the previous Bond films. The Bond girls are solid this time around, with Lea Seydoux's Madeleine Swann getting the most screentime. Seydoux is a good actress and Swann is an interesting character. I'm not sure if her relationship with Bond is developed as well as it should be, but it was serviceable for this film. And finally, there's Christoph Waltz. When he was announced as the villain for this film, I was so excited. And unfortunately, he's underused. Still great, but underused. But for now, I'm hoping that we get to see a lot more of this character in the future.

Spectre is not without its share of flaws. At 148 minutes, it's a very, very long film and one that runs into some slow patches. The scene at Oberhauser's lair is tonally odd and the torture scene that follows is pretty poorly done. And in addition, Oberhauser's relationship with Bond is undercooked, never quite having the impact that it should. Basically, this movie is a little rough around the edges, with certain elements that don't work as well as needed.

That being said, I'm not going to find any more nitpicks. Because I absolutely love Spectre. It's not nearly as good as Skyfall and it's deeply flawed, but it's classic Bond and is filled with everything that you love about the character. Mendes, Logan and Craig understand Bond and inject Spectre with such a defined flavor that makes it fun to watch. The story has its share of problems, but for every misstep, there's a great moment or an exhilarating setpiece or a terrific one liner that redeems the mistake completely. The lengthy runtime flies by and no matter how wild things got, I was constantly entertained. If this is Craig's last run as Bond, he's gone out on a high note. But there's room for him to do one more. And all I can say is that I sure hope he does.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                            (8.6/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, Variety, Business Insider, The Guardian, Joblo

'Room' review

Room came completely out of left field at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but it sure did make an impact at the festival. The haunting and intense drama, which stars Brie Larson and young actor Jacob Tremblay, garnered immediate critical acclaim and injected itself as the indie, offbeat choice for the Oscar race. Now on every awards list, Room has slowly become one of the fall's must-see movies. I always maintained some level of skepticism for the film, simply because I really wasn't a fan of director Lenny Abrahamson's Frank. Having now seen the film, I can certify that I was both right and wrong. Room is an immensely moving film led by two phenomenal performances that, in the end, fails to come together in the way that it should. It will definitely please audiences looking for a challenging fall pick, but it isn't nearly as captivating as it should be.

For seven years, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) has been imprisoned in a single, solitary room. With only one window to the outside world, Joy has been raped and beaten by a creepy man known only by the name of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) for years. However, Joy is kept alive by the company of her five-year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). For years, Jack is raised without any contact with the outside world, and in his view, there is no world besides the room that he and his mother live in. Joy, often called "Ma," and Jack live together for five years before they hatch a plan to escape. Once they re-enter the real world, Joy and Jack re-accustom to life with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) as they deal with the guilt, loss and sheer insanity of moving from life in a confined space to a wide world of danger and happiness. 

Room is one of those weird movies where there are two very distinct halves. The first half takes place inside the limited space of the room, and the second half displays the jarring change that Joy and Jack experience when they enter the real world. And I think that the fundamental problem that Room runs into is that the two halves don't gel together. There are two movies fighting each other in here and neither one comes out on top. The scenes in the room are claustrophobic and grim and the scenes outside of the room are bright, but exceedingly depressing. Larson and Tremblay are good enough to almost carry the movie to extraordinary success, but the second act just didn't work for me.

I've been trying to put my finger on why I walked away from Room compelled, but unsatisfied. On a performance level, it is phenomenal in every way. Brie Larson is currently Gold Derby's 11/5 favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar and there's good reason for it. We've heard the terrible kidnapping stories on the news before, but I don't think I've ever seen a motion picture or an actress capture it with such vivid detail or intensity. You can see Larson trying to be a rock for her young son, who knows nothing about the world, but at the same time, she's completely falling apart. And even after they leave the room, Larson perfectly captures what it'd be like to leave a life of captivity and re-enter the world. While I disagree with some of the directorial and screenplay choices along the way, Larson is consistently mesmerizing.

The same can be said for Jacob Tremblay, who is without question the film's breakout star. Tremblay is a natural actor and is captivating whenever he's on screen. Under a mop of hair and a sweet attitude that goes dark at times over the course of the film, Tremblay captures what it would be like for a kid to grow up without knowing the world, before being thrust into a crazy universe. This performance is much less likely to gain awards attention, but with Tremblay and Beasts of No Nation's Abraham Attah, it's clear that child acting is getting much better.

In addition, the supporting cast is very strong. Joan Allen doesn't arrive on the scene until the second half of the film, but she does spectacular work with what she's given. Her performance as Nancy, Joy's mother and Jack's grandmother, is tender and heartbreaking, and there are times where she almost steals the movie. Sean Bridgers is appropriately terrifying as Old Nick, Joy's creepy captor. Their relationship is quite fascinating and I sometimes feel like an examination of the dynamics between the kidnapper and their victims would have been more interesting. And finally, William H. Macy pops in for a quick scene as Joy's father and does some good stuff, but I feel like he wasn't served well by his character.

Lenny Abrahamson doesn't have a ton of experience as a director (he only has a few indie credits to his name), so he definitely reached for the sky with Room. And for the most part, he does a pretty fine job. During the scenes set inside the room, you feel the claustrophobia and it's unsettling to say the least. Once the action moves from the room, I felt this odd sense of relief. I felt like I could breathe again. It was a very, very bizarre moment and one of the most oddly moving things that has happened to me in a movie theater this year. But the one problem is that Abrahamson's direction still has this faux-indie stylistic quirk that becomes so incredibly annoying. Close-ups on small items, forced voiceover- it all feels cliched at this point and there was something that was off-putting about Room at times.

And despite how beloved the source material is, I still think that the screenplay lets the movie down. There's no suspense to the second half of the movie, and worse than that, there's nothing of intrigue or interest on screen. Jack's escape from room is such a magnificent scene and such a finely executed setpiece that the movie simply can't recover from it. The second half of the film bounces around from subplot to subplot, without much focus. In its essence, Room is Jack and Joy's story, but when the film splits them apart, it doesn't know which character to focus on.

Is this the story of Jack's entry into the world? Is it about Joy re-accustoming to life after being captured in a room for years? Or is it about the impact that this all has on her family? Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donaghue might answer "Both" but the problem is that having all three stories going on simultaneously becomes difficult on a tonal level. And tone is a big problem in Room, as this is a movie that struggles between being deeply depressing and extremely pessimistic. I know that this is meant to reflect the mental state of the characters, but for me, it made the film much less enjoyable.

Ultimately, Room is a film that I didn't particularly like, but at the same time, I have a deep respect for the filmmaking behind it. It is relentlessly downbeat, and at times, the film almost slows to a complete stop. Larson and Tremblay are magnificent and the film has moments of brilliance, as well as surprising emotional poignancy. But there's something missing from Room- a deftness of touch, a more compelling visual palette, a stronger sense of urgency. The injection of any of those elements would have made this decent film turn into the masterpiece that it had the potential to be.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Business Insider, The Film Stage, Joblo

Sunday, November 22, 2015

'Steve Jobs' review

Going into the fall season, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more anticipated prestige picture than Steve Jobs. A script by acclaimed Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin. The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, Danny Boyle, in the director's chair. A cast led by Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Seth Rogen. This is the stuff of dreams for most cinephiles. After its premiere at the Telluride International Film Festival, where it debuted as a surprise screening, audiences and critics went bananas. Alex Billington gave the film a 10/10, comparisons were made to Birdman, Fassbender was said to give an iconic performance, and the buzz went on from there. And when it hit select theaters on October 9, the film had the biggest limited debut showing of the year. But then it all fell apart.

When it went into wide release on October 23, facing off against a plethora of mediocre wide releases and the fourth weekend of Ridley Scott's The Martian, Steve Jobs completely imploded. It made $7.1 million in its opening frame and is barely pacing ahead of Ashton Kutcher's poorly received 2013 biopic Jobs. All within a few weeks, Steve Jobs went from being the talk of Hollywood, to just another awards drama that may or may not make the cut when Oscar nominations are announced in January. And that, my friends, is a true tragedy. Steve Jobs is one of the few films this year that deserves the title of "masterpiece." With an urgent, smart and energetic script from Sorkin, great directing from Boyle and a wonderful ensemble that surrounds Fassbender, who gives the best performance of the year so far, Steve Jobs is pure brilliance.

Undoubtedly one of the best decisions that Sorkin made was taking the traditional biopic of an important historical figure, and deconstructing it to create something fresh and innovative. Steve Jobs takes place over the course of 14 years, finding Jobs at the launch of three important products- the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT in 1988 and finally, the iMac in 1998. This immediately distinguishes it from many of the other portraits of Jobs over the years and makes it more compelling. Sorkin also keeps a laser focus on six supporting characters and their relationships with Jobs over the years- Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), Chrisann Brennan (Katharine Waterston) and most importantly, the daughter that he denied for years, Lisa Brennan (played by multiple actors at different ages). By setting the story over such an expansive period of time but with such a limited scope, Sorkin is able to create a film that feels grand in size, but also intimate and personal. It's a savvy choice and one that defines the movie.

Steve Jobs does have the setup of a stage play, but in this case, I wouldn't necessarily say that's a bad thing. Sorkin stages the dialogue and the conflicts between the characters with such a raw, visceral intensity that this movie practically raises your heart rate. And the best thing is that the actors know how to use the dialogue. Every line has the impact that it should and the verbal sparring between the characters never gets old. That intense impact is mixed with Boyle's assured direction, the grainy mix of 16MM, 35MM and digital film captured by cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler, and the terrific use of editing and music, which makes for a very powerful and stunning film experience.

The technical elements all work perfectly, but this movie absolutely doesn't work without the commitment of every actor in the cast. Michael Fassbender's performance is stunning, iconic and certainly Oscar-worthy, capturing the good and bad of Steve Jobs. One of the best things about this movie is that it isn't afraid to shy away from an important fact- Steve Jobs was kind of an ass. He made life miserable for his closest friends and confidants, refused to credit all of the work that his team did on the Apple II, and probably worst of all, did not acknowledge his own daughter for years. These are things that a good person usually doesn't do. Fassbender is able to channel Jobs' brilliance and his flaws, making for a performance full of gusto and swagger. Loud, proud and commanding every bit of your attention on screen, Fassbender's performance is one that I think we'll be talking about for a very long time. The mannerisms, the voice, the intensity- everything is absolutely perfect.

Kate Winslet will also be receiving some Oscar attention for her portrayal of Joanna Hoffman, Jobs' loyal assistant for years. Winslet's Eastern European accent fades in and out at times, but there's no denying how good she is in this film. Throughout all of the highs and lows, Hoffman is right by Jobs' side, trying to weather the storm and make Apple run. Winslet smartly treats Hoffman as the audience's window into the Jobs universe- she's likable, friendly and isn't in a constant competition to race to the top. It's a great performance and one that should get some major love.

Michael Stuhlbarg does great work as Andy Hertzfeld, a programmer who often receives the brunt of Jobs' hateful intensity. Stuhlbarg is a terrific character actor, great at playing sweet characters who are easy to love. Hertzfeld is a very likable character and Stuhlbarg deserves to be in the conversation for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Seth Rogen does a good job as Wozniak, but he really isn't given much to do in comparison to the rest of the cast. But I will say, it was odd seeing Rogen in a role that didn't involve him spewing lots of vulgarity. It was a nice change of pace for Rogen, and I hope that he takes more of these roles in the future. Jeff Daniels gives a bittersweet performance as Jon Sculley, and Katharine Waterston portrays just the right level of damaged crazy as Chrisann Brennan. All around, this is a terrific ensemble and one that deserves a lot of praise.

"You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be." This is the closing line of Aaron Sorkin's masterpiece The Social Network, which takes a look at a good, regular guy who is caught up in a world of greed and politics. The difference between Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs is pretty clear and defined, and in my mind, it is the critical difference in theme between the two films- Zuckerberg is a good guy, Jobs is not. Visionary, yes. Revolutionary, sure. Good family man and friend- absolutely not. I think that it was really critical for Aaron Sorkin to take a hard, intense look at who Jobs really was and what he did to people.

And here's where I think that Steve Jobs sets itself apart from many other standard, Oscar-y biopics. Steve Jobs is a deeply sad film. Crushingly, heartbreakingly sad. In fact, despite my hesitance to make this comparison, I have to say that this film is in many ways comparable to Citizen Kane. Will it be remembered the way that Citizen Kane is today? No way, the film isn't nearly as revolutionary as Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece. But both films are about a great man, someone with vision, brains and power. Both are damaged by what happened in their childhood. And they both self-destruct because of their arrogance and ego.

Granted, Jobs gets his triumphant comeback in the end, but Sorkin is smart enough to not inject the film with too much sentimentality. I think that, for the audience's sake, Sorkin closes out the story of the daughter-father relationship with enough of a happy ending for people to be satisfied. But don't mistake that for a happy ending. At the end of the film, his friendship with Woz is still pretty contentious. Hertzfeld and Jobs don't exactly end on good terms. And the final scene between Sculley and Jobs is devastating- I can't remember the exact quote, but it basically says that if Jobs and Sculley could have worked together, nobody can even dream of the results. Jobs may have atoned for some of his sins in the end, but it didn't all end happily. Through all of this, Sorkin is able to capture Jobs' personality and I really think that this might be the defining portrait of the tech mogul.

The failure of Steve Jobs at the box office is one of the most frustrating things to happen this year. This is fantastic, entertaining cinema filled to the brim with electric pacing, wonderful performances and the year's best script. The technical elements are all exact and precise, leaving Michael Fassbender to dominate the screen as the iconic tech giant. Without a doubt in my mind, Steve Jobs is one of the year's best films and a movie that history will look back on very favorably. Entertaining, smart and sad in equal measure, Steve Jobs is an instant classic.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                            (10/10)

Image Credits: The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, The Guardian, Screen Rant, Joblo

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Oscar Update: 'Spotlight' and 'The Martian' surge, while 'Joy' and 'The Revenant' hold strong

It's November now and that means that Oscar season is starting to really heat up. An infinite amount of Oscar contenders will be shuttled into theaters over the next few weeks and for many studios, it'll be a rush to see who can make the cut and who ends up getting the short end of the stick. The last time I did an Oscar update for the Best Picture category, it was in the immediate aftermath of the Toronto International Film Festival, and although I still had Leonardo DiCaprio's The Revenant on top, I knew that Spotlight and The Martian were surging. Now, they're even higher up in the ranks and it's going to get interesting. Also becoming quite competitive are the Best Actor, Actress and Director categories- all of which I will examine today in this November Oscar update. Let's start with Best Picture:


Before I get into the movies that are contenders and will be around for a long time in this race, I need to get a few movies out of the way. These are films that entered the year as Oscar hopefuls, but now have a next-to-zero chance of making it into the race. That list includes:

-99 Homes
-Pawn Sacrifice
-The Walk
-Our Brand is Crisis
-The End of the Tour
-Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
-By the Sea

All of these movies either were big hits that peaked too soon, critical favorites that flopped at the box office, or highly anticipated films that disappointed everywhere. I'm calling it now, not a single one of them has a chance. In my mind, there are only about 27 films that have an even remote chance of getting a Best Picture nomination. Those films range from art house dramas to big blockbusters, but all of them have an equal chance of getting a nomination.

Right now, the only sure thing is Spotlight. That film will get a nomination, no questions asked. It has all of the hallmarks of an Oscar hit. The Martian is 99% of a sure thing, but there's still the chance that it could fall apart completely. I don't see that happening, but you never know- the history between the Academy and science fiction is pretty bad. Below those two favorites, Room and Carol have held a significant amount of momentum, and Brooklyn is in a pretty good place as well. Steve Jobs' poor box office performance is certainly going to hurt it, while Bridge of Spies seems like a pretty solid pick for a nomination at this point. Inside Out is slipping in the Gold Derby polls, partially because of the insurgence of Anomalisa, another animated film that has driven attention away from Pixar's latest classic. Mad Max: Fury Road still has a pretty good shot, and so does Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga's stark Netflix drama.

Below that, there are quite a few contenders that will need a big push to make it into the top ten. Films like Sicario, Straight Outta Compton, Black Mass, Son of Saul, The Danish Girl and Youth have support, but it just may not be strong enough.

However, there are several question marks left in this race and they will honestly determine the results. Joy and The Revenant are the big ones, of course, two highly anticipated dramas from Oscar-nominated filmmakers. Joy recently received a PG-13 rating, which is somewhat baffling, but maybe director David O. Russell has made more of an Academy-friendly pick- even friendlier than American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook, which received a combined 18 nominations. It will certainly be a force to be reckoned with if it's good. The Revenant is the opposite of Academy-friendly, a graphic, hard-R bit of frontier violence that will throw Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in some terrible situations. But the filmmaking on it looks astonishing and director Alejandro G. Inarritu is a favorite after Birdman last year. It might not win, but if it's as terrific as some have said, expect plenty of Oscar attention.

But in terms of unseen contenders, those aren't the only two. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight cannot be ignored, simply because of the storied director's recent track record with the Academy. In addition, The Big Short premieres tomorrow night and I just have a feeling that it's going to sneak up on a lot of people. The buzz on Creed from those who have seen it is fantastic, and Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea was moved to Oscar season from March and I have to presume that there was a reason for that. Finally, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the billion dollar elephant in the room, and I know that many think it will receive a Best Picture nomination. For right now, we need to just wait and see.

With all of that said, here is my current top ten, with the five below that just missed the cut.

1. Spotlight
2. The Revenant
3. The Martian
4. Joy
5. Brooklyn
6. Inside Out
7. Room
8. Steve Jobs
9. Bridge of Spies
10. The Hateful Eight

11. Carol
12. Mad Max: Fury Road
13. The Big Short
14. Beasts of No Nation
15. Creed


This category is a little trickier, simply because in recent years, the Best Picture and Best Director categories haven't seemed to line up. But I'm starting to get a sense here, and after listening to a podcast from Tom O'Neil and Pete Hammond, I think that my mind is made up pretty well on who's going to be victorious in this category. As much as Spotlight is beloved by critics and voters, Tom McCarthy won't be getting the win. A nomination is a sure thing, but most seem to think that the film is too subdued and workmanlike. Alejandro Inarritu would be a favorite because of how intense the shoot was for The Revenant, but he just won last year. In my mind, this is a year where the Oscar voters bring in the consolation prizes. I do think that both Ridley Scott and George Miller get nominated, and as of right now, Scott is going to get the win. David O. Russell is the main competition, but I can't see the Academy turning down the opportunity to honor a 77-year old director who made a film as good as The Martian.

1. Ridley Scott, The Martian
2. David O. Russell, Joy
3. Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
4. Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
5. George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road


Best Actor has been fiercely competitive in years past, but thankfully, it's cooled down a bit this year. The question of who will win is still intense, but the sheer volume of candidates isn't as high. In my mind, this category will play out like this. Eddie Redmayne will get nominated because of how topical The Danish Girl is and because of his physical transformation. Matt Damon will get nominated because everybody loves that movie, and he's fantastic in it. And Johnny Depp will get nominated for doing "serious" work again. But the race will be Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Fassbender all the way to the end. Fassbender is next-level brilliant in Steve Jobs and it looks like DiCaprio has pushed himself to his physical limits for The Revenant. This will get interesting.

1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
2. Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
3. Matt Damon, The Martian
4. Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
5. Johnny Depp, Black Mass


Finally, we arrive at the Best Actress category, which seems relatively empty- again. Seriously, we need more big films with female protagonists, this is getting kinda ridiculous. Brie Larson is at the top of most prognosticator lists, with Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence falling shortly behind. Saoirse Ronan is in contention too, but that fifth spot is up for grabs. And that's where Charlize Theron comes in. She gave an iconic performance in Mad Max, and I hope and pray that the Academy recognizes that. But we'll see. Gold Derby has Charlotte Rampling in that position and Theron all the way down at 9, so I might be way off.

1. Cate Blanchett, Carol
2. Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
3. Brie Larson, Room
4. Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
5. Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

That's it for this time. Next time, I'll get a bit more comprehensive with a look at the Supporting and Screenplay categories! If you want more awards info, check out Gold Derby, which is my favorite source for everything that's going on in the Oscar race.

'Mississippi Grind' review

Ryan Reynolds is one of the most puzzling actors in Hollywood to me. He's charismatic, he's funny, and he has a major presence on social media, yet his films just never seem to stick. Every time that I think he's going to catch a big break, something goes wrong. Green Lantern was a massive failure, R.I.P.D. barely even registered on the Hollywood Richter scale, and the list just goes on from there. However, with Mississippi Grind, this may be the first time that I truly felt like Reynolds was a natural fit for a role. In the Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck-directed gambling comedy, Reynolds plays Curtis, a roaming stranger who seems to possess a sort of energetic magic. Alongside Ben Mendelsohn's Gerry, who suffers from a strong gambling addiction, the two will travel down the Mississippi river in search of a high-stakes poker game that will allow them to fix all of their problems. The laid-back, mellow nature of the film allows for the story and the characters to naturally unfold, giving Mendelsohn and Reynolds plenty of great material to work with. It's a vivid and rich film and an extremely satisfying character comedy, and despite a lack of attention, Mississippi Grind is one of the hidden gems of the fall.

In Dubuque, Iowa, Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a down on his luck gambler, a man seemingly destined to never win or amount to anything. But then one evening, Curtis (Reynolds) walks into the room. The young, smooth and tricky player forms an immediate bond with Gerry. But there's just one problem for Gerry- he owes a lot of money, and he owes it to everybody. In order to pay off his debts, he needs a big score, and Curtis thinks he can provide it with a high-stakes poker game in Louisiana. Searching for riches and a sense of purpose, Gerry and Curtis travel down the Mississippi river, stopping at every racetrack and poker room along the way. In addition, Gerry attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife, Curtis tries to make it work with his love (Sienna Miller) in St. Louis, all while in the search for a gambling score that will save their lives.

A24, the distributor of Mississippi Grind, is a studio that continues to fascinate me. The studio has set themselves up as the hip, indie home for Hollywood films, but there's a seemingly arbitrary system for what goes to theaters and what goes straight to VOD, with only a very limited platform release. Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year and The End of the Tour all became very solid hits for the studio in theaters, but other interesting films have been sent straight to the vacuum that is the current VOD system. Mississippi Grind is one of those films, and I can honestly say that I don't understand why. It's not esoteric or bizarre, but simply a strong character study with two great performances and a story that I think a lot of people will enjoy. Mendelsohn and Reynolds are brilliant and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck bring a maturity and poise to the film that constantly carries it. Mississippi Grind is one of the indie classics of the fall and one of the best films to come out of this year's Sundance film festival.

The best thing about Mississippi Grind is its complete and total resistance to being showy or overly stylistic. This feels like a movie that could have been made 20, 30, 40 years ago. It has a grungy, 1970's feel to it, but it's also a terrific road picture accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack filled with classic rock, country and blues hits. In all honesty, the soundtrack is probably the second most invaluable asset that the film has, next to the performances. The songs are great, and they set the mood for every scene. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh also captures the down-and-dirty nature of the casinos, gambling rooms and racetracks that Gerry and Curtis visit throughout the film, and it adds to the atmosphere of the movie.

But without Mendelsohn and Reynolds, this film might not be as profoundly entertaining or affecting as it is. Australian star Mendelsohn, one of our finest character actors, has been appearing in small parts in American films for some time now. From Killing Them Softly to his terrific turn in The Place Beyond the Pines to his roles in blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises, Mendelsohn has been making an impact. And here, he finally gets his chance to shine as a leading man. His performance as Gerry is funny and lively, but there's something soulful and heartbreaking at the center of it. Throughout the course of Mississippi Grind, we learn a lot about Gerry- we see his desperation, his charm and we find ourselves questioning the man he could be if he just learned to quit. Part of the kudos should most certainly go to Boden and Fleck for their terrific script, but Mendelsohn deserves a large share of the credit.

On the other hand, Reynolds finally finds a way to make his natural Hollywood charisma shine through. Curtis is the most likable character in the film, and Reynolds injects him with a whip-smart spirit. Reynolds is assured, confident and cool, but there's a guilt to Curtis that I think he portrays perfectly. He can't fix his love life, he can't get Gerry to stop gambling and in many ways, he feels stuck. Reynolds is able to portray all of that, while simultaneously delivering an entertaining performance. Mendelsohn and Reynolds' performances are great in their own right, but together, it makes for a dynamic pairing. The two actors play off each other and work with the script very well.

In terms of the characters, Gerry is a natural loser, someone who nothing goes right for. He's shy and quiet in most circumstances, but his most defining trait is that he just can't quit. And if he ever did win, for most of the movie, I'm not sure that he would know what to do with it. Curtis is the definition of a roaming gambler- he gets little scores here and there and is the brightest guy in the room. But he's constantly reaching for something higher. He always talks about how he wants to go to Macchu Picchu and have all of these epic adventures. I think that the most magical part of Mississippi Grind is seeing how Gerry and Curtis change, and seeing how deeply they care for one another. And by the end, they might just be the ones to set each other free.

I have not seen any other films by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, but with this one, they put themselves firmly on the map as a directing team to watch. The pacing here is superb, the character work is fascinating and the spirit of American road movies is on full display. At 108 minutes, Mississippi Grind has some slow patches, but never falls short of completely captivating, simply because of the realistic and calm settings and the characters. If there was ever an example of how important characters are to a movie, Mississippi Grind is it.

In my view, the fact that Mississippi Grind wasn't seen by more people is the biggest travesty of the fall season. Throughout September and October, it wasn't like the arthouses were overflowing with options and if A24 had managed to put this in more theaters, I feel that it would have broken out. But so it goes. I saw it, and for me, that's all that matters. Mississippi Grind is a fresh and richly written and directed character drama that works as both a great road movie and an entertaining showcase for Reynolds and Mendelsohn. Unless some other film comes down the pipeline in the next few months, I have no doubt in my mind that this will go down as the most underrated film of 2015. And it's up to you to change that.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Daily Mail, Daily Mail, Hollywood Reporter

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Japanese trailer for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' unveils tons of new footage

I never expected to be writing this post. When J.J. Abrams and Disney revealed the final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens with Monday Night Football on October 19, we were told that this was it- this would be the final trailer and we wouldn't see a whole lot of new footage between now and December 17. Well, obviously they didn't take into account international trailers. Yesterday, out of nowhere, a new Japanese trailer dropped for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Japanese trailers are notoriously spoiler-ific (watch the one for Avengers: Age of Ultron- if you've seen the movie that is) so some fans were sharpening their knives when they heard that there was plenty of new footage in this trailer. And while there are a few more clues and hints as to what is in store for us in six weeks, Abrams and Disney have managed to make sure that even the foreign trailers don't spoil anything for us. In regards to plot and character, this trailer is spoiler-free. Now, if you're asking yourself- do I need to see this trailer? No, probably not, and in all honesty, I think that I might be done with seeking out every little frame that I can find. But this is another great trailer so check it out below!

This isn't a completely new trailer, but thankfully, there are plenty of new shots, and some interesting dialogue. It's very much in the same style as the U.S. trailer, but we see Rey and Finn introducing each other, a bit of the initial meeting between BB-8 and Rey (she asks the little guy "Where do you come from?), some more dialogue from Rey ("I know all about waiting...for my family."), more Kylo Ren and finally, we get some shots of Chewie, Leia and C-3PO in action. But for me, this trailer emphasized just how brilliantly shot this movie will be. The sands of Jakku, the gorgeous sun shots, the practicality of the action- all of it is on full display in this trailer. Kylo's fiery lightsaber is also exquisitely done and I love the shot of it igniting. But I think the highlight of the trailer is Chewbacca detonating the bomb in that room and the faint Wilhelm scream in the background. That was pretty spectacular. All in all, I'm sold. Another great trailer as we approach the final stretch. Rey says she knows all about waiting. At this point, I'm feeling pretty knowledgeable in the subject myself.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is directed by J.J. Abrams, stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Gwendolyn Christie, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Domnhall Gleeson and Max von Sydow and will debut on December 18.

"Hope is not lost today. It is found."

Image Credits: Star

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

'Beasts of No Nation' review

The most disappointing part about Beasts of No Nation is the way that it was released. Not that the Netflix premiere did anything to harm the film- there is virtually no way to change the haunting power of Cary Fukunaga's war masterpiece- but it distracted from the movie itself, instead focusing all of the attention on the revolutionary way that the disturbing drama was being distributed to audiences. As you probably know, Netflix acquired the rights to the film earlier this year, promoting it as the first original motion picture from the streaming-based studio. Major theater chains revolted, Fukunaga seemed conflicted and the entertainment media jumped on the news as another development in the ever-changing film distribution environment.

But little has been said about the film itself, and even less about how it is certainly one of the best motion pictures of the year. Beasts of No Nation is set in an anonymous African nation and tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), an enslaved child soldier, stuck under the reign of Commandant (Idris Elba), a terrifying, yet occasionally benevolent ruler who seems to take Agu under his wing. Both excruciating and mesmerizing in equal measure, Beasts of No Nation is one of the most gorgeously shot and brilliantly performed films in recent memory and manages to stand with the best war dramas of all time. It is truly a unique filmgoing experience and one that will not be easy for audience members to forget.

At the start of Beasts of No Nation, Agu (Attah) is a very normal child living in incredibly unfortunate circumstances. He's young, healthy and happy and ventures around his anonymous African home with his friends, attempting to sell unique and imaginative products to the soldiers of the Civil War that has torn his country apart. Unfortunately, Agu's innocence cannot be preserved forever. In a series of events, the Civil War hits closer to home. His mother escapes on a caravan of over-crowded cars and buses. His father receives a bullet to the head. His older brother is shot trying to escape from the soldiers that have marched in. Agu runs off into the wilderness, crying the whole way. Shortly after, he is discovered by an army, led by Commandant (Idris Elba), a powerful speaker who will strike fear into the hearts of anybody around him. Agu is immediately thrust into a position of leadership as a child soldier in Commandant's army. The horrific results will haunt you to your core.

Beasts of No Nation is one of those films that nobody wants to see, but is so good that it simply cannot be ignored. Its brutal, stark and unforgiving portrayal of African child soldiers is raw and terrifying, and when contrasted with the sharp beauty of Fukunaga's direction and cinematography, makes for a thoroughly bizarre and grim experience that is unshakable. Elba is the human embodiment of power, fear and sexual terror, leading an army of impressionable young men with hypnotic charm and devilish anger. His performance is completely Oscar-worthy, but in an amazing turn of events, it's his younger co-star that outshines him. Abraham Attah's screen debut is a performance of maturity and poise beyond his years, and most likely the most impressive showcase by a young actor ever. Attah, along with his other young co-star Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, carry this film and deliver two phenomenal performances that will be talked about for a very long time.

But make no mistake- Beasts of No Nation is not a leisurely stroll in the park. This movie is almost impossible to watch. The one advantage of a Netflix release is that it allows the audience members to pause, take a breather and digest the sheer horrors that they've just witnessed. I watched the film in solid 30-45 minute chunks over the course of two days, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I feel like it's a testament to Fukunaga's filmmaking power that he made a film that feels so real and so visceral that it's almost unbearably intense.

Beasts of No Nation is also a film of profound sadness. Fukunaga certainly highlights the horror, the despair and the dread of being a child soldier torn by civil war, but I think that his finest hour comes in the final stages of the film (mild spoilers ahead). In the film's conclusion, Agu must re-accustom himself to a society away from the life he lived under Commandant, and it's as hard and as painful to watch as some of the film's most violent moments.

This stretch of the film is where Fukunaga turns Beasts from a very good film into a great one, possibly one for the ages. For 90% of its runtime, Beasts of No Nation is a gut punch. You see children put into horrible situations. Shooting people in the head at point blank range. Hacking away at an innocent man's skull with a machete. Implied sexual assault at the hands of a role model. Agu watches all of his friends die around him. It's horrific and as intensely graphic as you'll see in an American film this year. But for the conclusion, Fukunaga turns the camera to Agu's world and evaluates the true damage that this has done to his mind and to his soul. He can't ever be a kid again. Once you've taken a man's life, it's not exactly an easy road back. And that's the true sadness of Beasts of No Nation. Thankfully, despite all of the doom and gloom, there is a tinge of optimism at the end of the film that makes for a perfect ending. But still, don't expect anything easy.

Oddly enough, the film goes down a little bit easier simply because of how well made and splendidly shot it is. Fukunaga, who last created the critically acclaimed first season of HBO's Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson noir thriller True Detective, serves as director and cinematographer here. And I have to say, Beasts of No Nation has the most stunning, the most beautiful and the most captivating cinematography I've ever seen in an indie film. Vibrant, unique and awesome, the colors pop off the screen similar to how they do in Apocalypse Now and more recently, Mad Max: Fury Road (different films, but the color palettes are nearly identical). The greens are lush, the reds bleed off the screen and the intense muddiness of the browns is stunning. If Fukunaga doesn't get some cinematography attention at the Oscars, I'll be stunned. 

Fukunaga's brilliance extends to the director's chair as well, where he alternates between multiple styles with grace and ease. The mix of handheld shaky cam and steady, sustained shots creates the atmosphere of the film and works perfectly. There is a terrifying and wonderful tracking shot towards the end that I think will go down as one of the best sustained shots of the year. Agu stands near a machine gun before an another man tells him to go off and get more bullets. The camera pans around and follows Agu as he dives into the muddy water of the trenches. It follows him as he wades through a sea of disease, sick men and bright red mud, all as the bullets and artillery shells reverberate around him. Simply masterful.

You have to know what you're getting into with Beasts of No Nation, but if you can stomach the horrors put on screen by Fukunaga and company, you'll be rewarded with what is, hands down, one of the best films of the year. Despite his youth, Attah deserves Oscar attention and Elba will undoubtedly be in the conversation for months. And even if Fukunaga and the actors end up getting snubbed, I have no doubt that this film will stand the test of time. It's an incredible film, a profound one and it's an important one.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)

Image Credits: Slash Film, Flickering Myth, Hollywood Reporter, EW, Screen Rant

Monday, November 2, 2015

'Steve Jobs' star Michael Stuhlbarg joins Marvel's 'Doctor Strange'

Despite the wild success of 2014, Marvel's 2015 was slightly less successful. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the second highest-grossing film of the year in the U.S. ($459 million) and the third highest-grossing worldwide ($1.4 billion), but according to some inside sources, many at Disney and Marvel still considered it to be a failure. In addition, Ant-Man ranked as the lowest-grossing film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe domestically since Captain America: The First Avenger, topping only that film and The Incredible Hulk. Thanks to China, overseas numbers were a bit more robust ($513.7 million and counting), but there was a general sense of disappointment with Marvel's 2015 offerings. However, no small misstep is preventing the studio from moving forward into the future with plans for several more films over the next decade. 2016 will feature two more efforts from the acclaimed superhero studio- the much-anticipated Captain America: Civil War, which will feature the showdown between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, and Doctor Strange, the debut of Benedict Cumberbatch into the MCU. The latter has had significantly less buzz, but with production starting soon, the cast is beginning to fully take shape.

Character actor Michael Stuhlbarg is the most recent addition to the Doctor Strange cast, as reported today by Heroic Hollywood among other sources. Stuhlbarg is rumored to be playing Doctor Nicodemus West, a rival of Stephen Strange and a possible villain in this new film. Not much else is known about the plot or Stuhlbarg's possible character, but he will join Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen in the cast of the hotly-anticipated film. Stuhlbarg has been acting in films and TV shows for years, but he seems to have really been gaining some traction recently. He starred in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man back in 2009, and has been featured in prominent roles in films such as Hugo, Steve Jobs, Trumbo and Men in Black III in recent years. Sometimes I've been a big fan of his work (he's terrific in Hugo) and other times I'm less enthusiastic (Men in Black III but I had more problems with the character than anything), but I think that he's a terrific character actor. He has great presence and he's someone who can do a lot with the material that he's given. It will certainly be interesting to see him in the MCU and it's a phenomenal addition to an already stellar cast. This is definitely on my must-see list. Doctor Strange is directed by Scott Derrickson and hits theaters on November 4, 2016. 

'Bridge of Spies' review

It's almost surreal to think that we haven't had a film from Steven Spielberg in nearly three years. But if you look back at Spielberg's filmography, that seems to be the general trend- a large burst of productivity followed by a few years of nothing while he builds up for his next set of films. And indeed, that trend will continue now. Going into October, he had three films set to release over the next couple of years and the first one up is the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies. Another collaboration with Tom Hanks, this is a talky, methodical drama that works right into Spielberg's Lincoln wheelhouse. A film of two distinct halves, Bridge of Spies alternates between an almost preachy quality to tense negotiations, all set during the height of the Cold War. It's a respectable effort, but it lacks the power of something like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List or the extraordinary performances of Lincoln. Not that every Spielberg film should be a masterpiece, but sadly, Bridge of Spies will likely go down as one of the director's lesser efforts.

In the tense and masterfully constructed opening scene of Bridge of Spies, we're thrust immediately into 1957 New York, where Soviet undercover spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is being pursued by several government agents. After his capture, Abel becomes a figurehead for the evil spirit of Communism seeping into American homes leading to mass hysteria and hatred from the public. In order to give Abel a proper defense, the government and attorney Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) recruit insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend the Soviet spy. Donovan is hesitant at first, but quickly accepts the challenge and the opportunity to defend Abel, and in his view, the Constitution. Nobody besides Donovan seems to want to give Abel a fair trial, and because of this, the lawyer must fight an uphill battle to win the case for his client.

But everything changes after a series of events that puts an American spy in direct danger. Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is a bomber pilot for the U.S. Air Force instructed to perform a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Russia. If anything goes wrong, he is to go down with his plane. Unfortunately, Powers doesn't quite cooperate and ends up imprisoned by the Soviets. In addition, a grad student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is taken into custody in Germany leaving the U.S. leaving the U.S. with quite a dilemma. The U.S. feds want their two hostages back and the Soviets want Abel. They send Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the swap leaving the humble lawyer in charge of the negotiations that could change the fates of the countries forever.

Bridge of Spies is an interesting film in the Spielberg canon because of how unmistakably small-scale it is. There's no grandiose action or flashy story or critical historical events- this is very much a low-key, dialogue-driven film about a series of court cases and negotiations. It is workmanlike and efficient, clocking in at 142 minutes with ease, and it attempts to shoehorn in some traditional Spielberg sentimentalism, but it ultimately ends up being a very quiet film. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance make for a formidable on-screen duo, the script is sharply and humorously written and the attention to period detail is impeccable, leaving viewers satisfied in the end, despite the film's many shortcomings.

The first thing to notice about Bridge of Spies is that it is distinctly a film of two halves. When I was in a theatrical production of Willy Wonka back in middle school, my theater teacher noted that the show was very bizarre because of the two act structure and how drastically different the two halves were. Bridge of Spies features the same style, with the film's first half focusing mainly on Abel's trial and the surrounding chaos that impacts the Donovan family, and the latter half turning its attention to the negotiations in East Berlin. And when reflecting on the film, I couldn't decide if this was a bad or a good thing. It didn't necessarily hurt the content or the storytelling in any way, but there is a strong tonal difference between the two halves and it becomes a problem at some points.

However, one thing remains consistent: the performances of Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, who are the true anchors of this film. Sure, Amy Ryan and Jesse Plemons show up and give pretty solid supporting performances, but the two constants of Bridge of Spies are Hanks and Rylance. Hanks isn't as stunning here as he was in something like Captain Phillips or Forrest Gump, yet he stands out as the moral center of the film and everything rests on his shoulders. Rylance gives the better performance as Abel, and he had the much more difficult task to accomplish. The famous theatre actor needed to make a Soviet spy likable for the audience, and he does it with ease and grace, making Abel a respectable and lovable human being. It's a terrific performance and one that will easily get Oscar attention.

The script by the Coen Brothers is also flavorful and fresh, adding some depth, warmth and humor to what could be a rather ho-hum subject. Because let's face it- negotiations over hostages between two countries, even during a time as tumultuous as the early Cold War. Thankfully Joel and Ethan Coen, acclaimed writers of dark comedies like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, inject quite a bit of life into this potentially dusty subject matter and what emerges is a film that I think most people will find something to like about. The one downside of the screenplay is that it does get a bit didactic and preachy at times, but I feel like that may have been more of a Spielberg addition to the plot.

Speaking of Spielberg, he does a pretty marvelous job directing this film. You could give this man any material and he would turn it into something pretty great. That's not a knock against the material here, but I'm just saying that he elevates Bridge of Spies beyond what it could have been in the hands of another director. Scenes carry a certain tension and a level of mystery that is incredibly impressive. Sure, there are moments where it's a little rough around the edges and I feel like some fat could have been trimmed, yet even at a lengthy runtime that approaches 2.5 hours, Bridge of Spies never slacks.

But there's something missing from Bridge of Spies. Despite all of its writing and acting perfection, there is a sense that this movie could have been better. Maybe the film was missing John Williams' magic touch. Thomas Newman's score is solid, but it never approaches Williams-level brilliance. Maybe Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, where every scene is drastically overlit, really did take me out of the film. Or maybe, Bridge of Spies was so incredibly rock-solid that it forgot to reach for something higher. There feels like a lack of vision in this film- it's admittedly small-scale and it never tries to go for anything more than a solid stage drama.

Bridge of Spies is a very good film and one that I think a lot of people will enjoy. But it feels so safe. This feels like the type of movie that Oscar voters will eat up like crazy and without the slightest bit of hesitation. It checks all of the right boxes, it preaches all of the right messages, and it is right in the wheelhouse that it needs to be. But by being so effectively and purely good, it sometimes forgets the elements that have made Spielberg daring, bold and uniquely incredible in the past.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Image Credits: Screen Rant, Variety, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Joblo