Wednesday, August 31, 2016

'Mechanic: Resurrection' review

Mechanic: Resurrection was one of the strangest cinematic experiences I've had in recent memory. Let me break it down for you. For those who don't know the world of press screenings and audience preview screenings, here's pretty much the only thing you need to know- they're always crowded. I usually show up an hour early, and this time around was no different. But when I walked into the theater, something strange happened- literally nobody was there. The theater was about 1/4th full, and by the time the screening started, it was only about 3/4ths full. That's downright unusual for a preview screening. So the movie began, and a bizarre sensation started to set in. It felt like I was alone. It felt like I was the only person watching this movie. It felt like the rest of the audience had disappeared into the ether, never to return from their eternal slumber (or death). As the movie reached its conclusion, I found myself looking around, muttering questions to myself. "Is anybody else awake? Is this real? Am I in the Matrix?" popped into my mind, as I fought to keep myself awake. Then the movie ended, and the dull punch of Jason Statham's latest movie vanished before my very eyes.

Make no mistake- by no means was this a positive experience. Mechanic: Resurrection is quite possibly the worst movie of 2016 thus far, a mind-numbing, nonsensical, and hopelessly boring action movie that works best as a cure for insomnia. Seriously, this movie isn't even good in the "so-bad-it's-fun" kind of way. No, this is like being stabbed slowly with a dull knife. Mechanic: Resurrection is utterly baffling, a pain-staking burden to endure. I was thinking that my soul would exit my body at any moment. I don't know why this was made, I don't know what Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, and Tommy Lee Jones were thinking when they signed up, and I don't know why any reasonable moviegoer would pay to see it. This movie is garbage. Spare yourselves. 

Sigh. Alright, so where do I possibly start with this one? Mechanic: Resurrection continues the adventures of Arthur Bishop (Statham), an assassin who specializes in making murder look like an accident. When an evil mobster named Crain (Sam Hazeldine) comes knocking at his door with a new assignment, Bishop has no desire to work for his organization again. He kills some people (in this scene, he both presses a man's face into a grill and performs a Bond-style stunt- three cheers for tonal issues!) and escapes, moving to an island where he meets the lovely Gina (Jessica Alba). They fall in love, have a cheesy sex scene, etc.- the usual stuff. Several convoluted plot twists later, Gina is being held captive by Crain. Willing to do anything to fight for the woman he loves, Bishop agrees to do Crain's three kills. But with a man as dangerous as Arthur Bishop, does Crain really know what he's in for? Violence and sweet, sweet dullness ensue.

So what is the exact draw of this movie? Well, uh. Let me think about that for a second. I guess Jason Statham shoots quite a few people. And there's Jessica Alba in a bikini. Oh, and Tommy Lee Jones shows up for a few scenes. Throw in a few big stunt scenes, and you've got a surefire hit, right? Nope. The problem lies in the fact that nobody seems all that interested in what you're doing. Here's a basic rule with filmmaking- if you don't care, the audience won't care. Statham, Alba, and even poor Tommy Lee Jones just look like they're going through the motions. There's no emotion, no memorable moments, no energy, no grit. Everything is purely mind-numbing action trash with no purpose or reason to exist. And when even the actors seem to recognize this, you know you've got a problem on your hands.

Statham is the right actor when you give him the right material. He has the ability to be funny, fearsome, witty, and awesome in equal measure, and he has done great work in the past. His performance in Spy is killer, and he knocks it out of the park in the amped-up world of Furious 7. During the opening moments of Resurrection, I sorta thought that it would be heading in that direction. The stunts are outlandishly silly, and there's some dopey Statham-style action that works briefly in the way that I expected from this movie. But soon enough, this movie turns into bland action schlock and even Statham looks bored. He has no character to work with, and because of that, his work here just falls flat. Alba has even less to do, and there's no reason that any audience member should care about her character. Jones gets to drop a funny line or two, but there's a crushing sense that he was totally and completely wasted by the awful screenplay.

Dennis Gansel's direction is neither inspired nor competent. In fact, the directing of this film runs into numerous problems, including the consistently choppy editing and odd plethora of establishing shots. Resurrection's pacing jolts up and down throughout the relatively short runtime, delivering bursts of action and many periods where absolutely nothing is happening. Most of the problems with this film ultimately go back to the truly atrocious screenplay, written by Philip Shelby and Tony Mosher. The story makes no sense, there's no tonal consistency, and frankly, there's nothing to keep the audience hooked. It almost feels like the stars and director read the script, said "Eh, whatever," and just made the movie. The twists, turns, and motivations are thin at best and non-existent at worst, which is never a problem you want your movie to run into. This is just a dumb story, and nobody along the way recognized that they needed to spice it up with some cheesy flavor or goofy charm.

Look, you don't order a Big Mac at McDonald's expecting a gourmet burger. You want your two cheaply made burgers drenched in special sauce and iceberg lettuce. But if that Big Mac doesn't taste like the delicious guilty pleasure you want it to be, you'll probably be pretty upset. Watching Mechanic: Resurrection is like getting a bad cheeseburger from McDonald's. You know it's gonna be awful going in, but when you don't get that cheesy high from it, you're all the more disappointed. Just skip this one. Don't watch it on TV, don't watch it on a plane, and if someone offers the DVD to you, just throw it in the trash. It's awful, dull, and bland in all the worst ways, and there's no reason for me to waste any more time writing about it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  F                                                 (2/10)

Images courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Sunday, August 28, 2016

'Don't Breathe' review

Everybody has been complaining about the lackluster quality of the films in 2016 so far, and while, yes, it's true that many of the blockbusters (Suicide Squad, Independence Day, X-Men, Ghostbusters, Tarzan, etc.) were massive disappointments, this has been a banner year for many other genres. Animated films such as Zootopia, Kubo, Finding Dory, and Sausage Party have been spectacular, blending gorgeous animation with profound themes and incisive commentary. Big, broad comedies like Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Nice Guys, and Hail, Caesar! hit the spot, delivering smart, crude laughs at a whipsmart pace. And of course, there have been plenty of indie hits, including films like Hell or High Water, Everybody Wants Some!!, Indignation, and of course, Sing Street. But out of all the genres that have seen great success in 2016, the horror genre stands at the front of the pack.

Why? Because from the very start of the year, major studios and indie distributors alike have unleashed a hellstorm of thrilling, terrifying visions onto the big screen. Smaller films like Robert Eggers' The Witch (a haunting, profoundly strange New England fable) and Jeremy Saulnier's vicious knockout Green Room turned heads in the spring, and during that same time frame, we also saw the surprising thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, created by Hitchcockian directorial revelation Dan Trachtenberg. As summer gave way, the horror didn't stop. The Conjuring 2 emerged as the best horror sequel in years, The Shallows became a pulpy, low-key summer smash, and many found a lot to enjoy with Lights Out and The Purge: Election Year. With the summer winding down, Hollywood has one more awesome horror movie for us- Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe.

In terms of hype, very few horror films have had as much buzz surrounding them as Don't Breathe has over the last several months. The film received a rapturous response from the audience at South by Southwest, and critics felt the same enthusiasm- it currently stands at a jaw-dropping 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty much the equivalent of a perfect score for a horror film. Words like "masterpiece" and "brilliant" began swirling around and I braced myself for a horror event- along with a possible disappointment. I didn't want this to be another It Follows, a movie that everyone else loved while I merely thought it was good. Thankfully, Don't Breathe met and even exceeded my expectations. It's an instant horror classic, a shocking, thrilling genre picture that feels like a twisted amalgamation of Hitchcock and John Carpenter, with a little torture porn thrown in for good measure. A jaw-dropping slice of sheer intensity and terror, Don't Breathe is the real deal.

Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three teens with a skill for robbing houses. They break into nice suburban homes, steal watches, jewelry, and other valuable items, and re-sell them on the street for cash. They do this all in the hope of a better life, preferably one outside of the slums of Detroit, where they all currently live. One day, Money gets a tip on the street- an old blind army veteran received a settlement after his daughter's death, and now, he's sitting on $300,000. The three teens have never stolen money directly before, but with the chance to change their lives forever, they decide to rob the house. Things go smoothly at first, but the Blind Man (Stephen Lang) isn't such an easy target. During the most critical part of the robbery, he kills Money, unleashing a cat-and-mouse game between him and the two scared teenagers. As a simple robbery turns into a life-and-death situation, Rocky and Alex get much more than they bargained for, as the horrifying secrets of the Blind Man are revealed.

This will certainly sound hyperbolic to some, but I firmly believe that Don't Breathe will go down as one of the most iconic horror films from my generation. Like audiences back in the day were shocked by Psycho and Halloween, today's audiences will be absolutely bewildered by Fede Alvarez's intensely gross vision of terror. Running at a mere 88 minutes, the film moves by like a blur, engrossing you in its horrifying world where there is no escape. Don't Breathe just keeps pushing and pushing, increasing the pulse rate of the audience while growing the desperate atmosphere on screen. The premise and characters are simple and efficient, but the execution is simply masterful. It's an almost unbearably intense movie, a claustrophobic, disturbing vision of a madman.

Alvarez began his career with a remake of Sam Raimi's classic Evil Dead, which was praised for its gory attention to detail and frightening realism. Here, Alvarez changes things up a bit, borrowing elements from the some of the masters of suspense and horror while keeping his own spin on things. What results is a combination that feels both reverent and fresh, a unique melting pot of Hitchcock, Carpenter, James Wan, and Raimi so brilliantly concocted that it feels like the work of a revolutionary new voice. Don't Breathe is certainly a thriller, but it also features one of the most horrific scenes in recent memory. To me, that's the genius of what Alvarez has created here. It's both the most suspenseful and the most gut-wrenching film of the year. By mixing the high-wire tension act of a nerve-jangling suspense classic with the revolting gore elements of modern horror, Alvarez has created something crazy, stunning, and downright revolutionary.

Don't Breathe is Alvarez's film and he carries it all the way, but it also features some clear, concise, and remarkably simple character work that fits the nature of this film. To be clear, all of these characters are not good people. Rocky, Alex, and Money are criminals, kids stealing to get ahead in life. They have nearly no moral conscience, and any hesitation that they have is eventually disregarded in favor of their desire to reach a better life. Alvarez doesn't ask you to like them at any point, but by showing their desperation, you end up caring for them just a little bit. Horror movies have always centered around kids doing "bad" things, and the way that Don't Breathe twists that premise into an extended cat-and-mouse thriller is magnificent. Jane Levy joins the ranks of Jamie Lee Curtis, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and more as a kick-ass female protagonist, one who is put in an incredibly intense situation and creating crafty solutions to save the day. Levy is asked to do a lot in this film (some incredibly uncomfortable things included), and she carries it all well.

I also enjoyed Dylan Minnette, who broke out in Prisoners (which this film shares some eerie comparisons) back in 2013. Minnette has a charming, somewhat melancholy likability, and he generates the most sympathy out of all the characters by a long shot. And finally, you'll probably end up hearing the most buzz around Stephen Lang's performance. Like the teen robbers, Alvarez tries to get the audience to sympathize for this psychopath. It quickly reaches a point where his actions are so stomach-churning that nobody could possibly root for him, but Lang pulls it off with ease. Lang plays the Blind Man as a mixture between Michael Myers and Hugh Jackman's character in Prisoners, a fearsome killing machine and a man convinced of his twisted, sickening idea of "justice." He's terrifying in the role, and I can certainly see him going down as one of the great movie killers.

There is a scene in this movie that you've probably heard about it by now. You probably don't know what the scene contains (and it's definitely a spoiler), but if anybody you know has seen the movie, they've probably told you all about the extremely messed up scene that takes place near the end of this movie. Remember when I said a couple weeks ago in my Sausage Party review that very few mainstream movies are truly outrageous anymore? Yeah, well, I guess I spoke a little too soon. The gross-out conclusion of Don't Breathe is shocking, nauseating, and outrageous- in the best way possible. It is one of the gnarliest, most extreme setpieces I've seen in a modern horror film, or maybe any film in general. Some will love it, and for others, it's the point where the movie will lose them. For me, it was the natural evolution of the film's narrative into truly insane territory. All horror movies today have to go just a little further to shock audiences, and Don't Breathe takes it to a whole new level.

For one hour and 28 minutes, you will be on the edge of your seat. From the chilling opening shot to the haunting conclusion, Don't Breathe is ferocious, uncompromising, and ultimately, one of the scariest movies in a long time. Every noise, every movement, every breath- it's all fair game to terrify the living hell out of you. It's such a pure rush of adrenaline that I feel like I need to see it again just so I can catch all of the little details. It's a movie so good that I can already picture a bunch of hacks making a whole series of awful sequels to this incredible piece of filmmaking. Masterful, gripping, and utterly extraordinary, Don't Breathe lives up to the hype and more. Head to a theater, buy a ticket, and buckle up for one of the craziest rides of the year.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.3/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

Friday, August 26, 2016

First Oscar Predictions for 2016!

After a long four month stretch, the summer movie season is finally coming to an end this weekend. Next week, we're off to the races with the fall festival circuit and Oscar season. The Venice Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday with the world premiere of Damien Chazelle's La La Land, followed by premieres for Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Nocturnal Animals, and more. Telluride isn't far behind, and the biggest festival of them all, TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), is preparing to kick things into high gear. Not to mention the fact that several films with potential Oscar quality will begin to debut in the early goings of September. The Light Between Oceans, Sully, Snowden, and American Honey all seem like would-be Oscar players, and it could prove to be an interesting month at the movies.

But with all of that said, here's the truth as of August 26- we don't know how many of these films will turn out. Sure, there are a few contenders from Sundance, Cannes, and the summer months of the year, but most of the major players have not been seen yet. It's always fun to take a random projection right before the festival insanity, which is what I'm doing today. So here we go! Here are my first predictions for the 2017 Oscars!


1. Manchester by the Sea
2. La La Land
3. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
4. Moonlight
5. Loving
6. Arrival
7. Bleed for This
8. Fences
9. Nocturnal Animals
10. The Birth of a Nation

11. Lion
12. Allied
13. American Pastoral
14. The Light Between Oceans
15. Passengers

If you had asked me about this two weeks ago, The Birth of a Nation would have topped this list. After a rapturous reception at Sundance, Nate Parker's directorial smash seemed like a surefire contender to lead the Oscar pack, especially after last year's #OscarsSoWhite backlash. But in the course of a few weeks, things changed rather quickly. Parker's 1999 rape case during his time at Penn State came to light, and although that was common knowledge to some industry insiders in the past, the news of the woman's suicide came as a shock to everyone. The horrific details of the case were gut-churning, and honestly, I'm not sure that Parker's career will ever recover from this. I'll be seeing the film at Toronto (hopefully, this ticket situation could be fun), which is being billed as the new starting point for Fox Searchlight. But with such ugliness surrounding the film, I don't see how it has any chance of winning.

Which brings us to my current front-runner- Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan's family drama was highly acclaimed coming out of Sundance, and countless critics have listed it as their favorite film of the year. It's my #1 as of now, simply because it's the only surefire nominee that anybody has really seen so far. But while Manchester is leading the ranks right now, it comes with one small note- if La La Land is as mesmerizing as it looks, I'm fairly certain that it will win Best Picture. We haven't seen a big screen musical like this in years, and as The Artist proved back in 2011, the Academy sure does love their nostalgia. If the critical and audience reception meets in the middle to form a consensus that La La Land is one of the year's best, I think it will be very hard to beat. Plus, it's playing in the exact same festival slots as the last two Best Picture winners. That has to count for something.

La La Land is in very good shape, but there are plenty of other films that are filled with promise. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is shaping up to be the technical achievement of the year, with much buzz surrounding Ang Lee's attempt at hyper-realistic 120 frames-per-second camerawork. The film looks a tad sappy, but if anyone can pull this off, it's Lee. Moonlight is my dark horse pick right now, a buzzy title from A24 that popped up on everybody's radar this month after a sensational first trailer. It looks like a breathtaking achievement, and it'll be playing at Telluride and TIFF. If reception is good there, it'll take off. On the other hand, Loving already has a bit of a head start from playing at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received a warm reception. It looks very low-key, and I think it might be more of a performance player, but there's no doubt that it has a chance.

Arrival also looks terrific, and everything that I've heard points to it being one of the best films of the year. Denis Villeneuve has been in contention mostly for technical categories with Prisoners and Sicario, and I think this is his big chance to take a huge Oscars leap forward. Bleed for This is rather high on my list, but I think the one-two punch of Telluride and Toronto makes it a film to watch out for. Miles Teller looks superb, and the buzz is beginning to pick up. If there's one breakout that surprises everybody, it's going to be this one. Fences is being touted as a favorite based on its talent alone, which I totally understand. Denzel Washington is directing and starring in an adaptation of a hugely successful, Tony-winning play alongside Viola Davis, which follows an African-American family in the 1950s. It sounds fascinating, and if Washington gets it right, this will dominate. Nocturnal Animals rounds out my top ten (no need to talk about the aforementioned Birth of a Nation again), and it sure is a compelling flick. We haven't seen a trailer yet for Tom Ford's first movie in seven years, but the cast (Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and more) is jaw-dropping, and the double whammy of Telluride and Toronto is a good sign. It could be too dark or too genre-y for the Academy, but as of now, it's a favorite.

Finally, there are plenty of films on the fringe line that could definitely be players in the big race. Lion is being touted as Harvey Weinstein's big play this year, and with a world premiere at Toronto, the Dev Patel-starred flick is firmly established as one to watch (I might catch it in Toronto, but that's up in the air). Allied is on my list based on pedigree alone (Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Robert Zemeckis- need I say more?), and I must admit that I'm looking forward to it quite a bit based on the comparisons drawn to Casablanca. American Pastoral wasn't on anybody's radar a few months ago, but with good buzz and a world premiere at TIFF, this could be a genuine player. We won't have to wait long to get a look at The Light Between Oceans, which opens next week. My screening is on Monday night, and as a huge fan of Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, I'm excited. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are an unstoppable duo, so who knows? This could be a huge surprise. To wrap things up, I have Passengers at #15. Is it this year's Martian? Is it purely a commercial play? I don't know, because they won't release the damn trailer. But on paper, it's a contender.


1. Damien Chazelle, La La Land
2. Ang Lee, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
3. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
4. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
5. Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Even though Manchester by the Sea is my favorite for Best Picture, I'm fairly certain that Kenneth Lonergan won't win Best Director. Why? Because the Academy tends not to value understated directorial work. They like the flashy, daring, and dynamic stuff. Just look at who won the last two Best Director statues. Like Tom McCarthy last year, Lonergan will get the nomination, but he won't come close to a win. Right now, Damien Chazelle is the favorite, and he'll be riding off the Academy goodwill for Whiplash. La La Land has so much working in its favor, and if Chazelle proves to be just as thrilling of a filmmaker with his third film, Oscar glory could be headed his way. But before he can do that, he'll have to face down the always strong Ang Lee, who has won two Oscars in the past (but never Best Picture, oddly enough). The fact that he's a former winner might work against him, but the sheer technical genius of Billy Lynn might be too much for the director's branch to ignore.

Denis Villeneuve is a contender for Arrival as well. A nomination would firmly establish him as one of the premiere directorial voices in the world, and if Arrival lives up to the hype, this could certainly happen. Finally, I think that Barry Jenkins has a good shot for Moonlight. I'm not familiar with his previous work, but judging by the trailer and the word-of-mouth, Jenkins has crafted something both ambitious and intimate, a stunning epic that grapples with weighty themes. I'm imagining Moonlight as this year's Room- the smaller movie that comes out of nowhere to stun the Academy. If the film breaks out, Jenkins could find himself at the forefront of the Oscar race.


1. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
2. Miles Teller, Bleed for This
3. Denzel Washington, Fences
4. Joel Edgerton, Loving
5. Ryan Gosling, La La Land

So many people have praised Casey Affleck to no end for his turn in Manchester by the Sea that there was almost no way that I couldn't put him at the top of this list. 2016 is looking like a somewhat lackluster year for this category, although I could be surprised coming out of TIFF. I think that Miles Teller gets a nomination for his work in Bleed for This. The trailer centers around his performance, and it looks like a tough, gritty showcase. If the movie falls flat, he'll obviously be out of the race, but I'm bullish on this one. Denzel seems like a sure thing for Fences, a movie that could receive all kinds of acting nominations with the right push from Paramount. Joel Edgerton also has a strong shot for a nomination, especially if Loving catches fire in the next few months. And to be honest, Ryan Gosling is just a placeholder in the fifth slot. Nobody else stuck out to me as a strong contender, but I'm hoping that changes soon.


1. Ruth Negga, Loving
2. Emma Stone, La La Land
3. Viola Davis, Fences
4. Amy Adams, Arrival
5. Alicia Vikander, The Light Between Oceans

Critics enjoyed Loving, but coming out of Cannes, most of the attention was centered around Ruth Negga's performance. With roles in Warcraft and Preacher, her star status is growing, and as long as none of the nominees prove to be a dominating force, Negga could easily be this year's Alicia Vikander and win the Oscar. Emma Stone looks great in La La Land, and if that film ends up being as emotional as it looks, I can see Stone receiving another nomination. Everybody's talking about Viola Davis' role in Fences, and it's easy to see why many feel that she's due- after all, she should have taken home the trophy back in 2011. If Davis manages to deliver a performance that matches Negga's, she'll come out on top. To round things out, I have Amy Adams and Alicia Vikander in the #4 and #5 slots. It's tough to make these picks, sight unseen, but both are perennial Oscar favorites.


1. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
2. Kyle Chandler, Manchester by the Sea
3. Steve Martin, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
4. Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
5. Aaron Eckhart, Bleed for This

This category is tough to predict right now, but I have Mahershala Ali for Moonlight on top. In all honesty, the supporting star of Moonlight could end up being Trevante Rhodes, but until I see the film, I don't know how it will all play out. Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges are both in good shape for their work in Manchester by the Sea, although the Academy does seem to have an aversion to nominating two performances from the same film. Gold Derby's odds race is bullish on Steve Martin for Billy Lynn right now, and even though he's included in the list, I'm split on whether he's actually got a shot. Finally, Aaron Eckhart has two supporting roles in big Oscar movies this year- Sully and Bleed for This. My guess is that he'll get a nomination for the latter, going based on the trailer alone.


1. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
2. Naomie Harris, Moonlight
3. Rachel Weisz, The Light Between Oceans
4. Dakota Fanning, American Pastoral
5. Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Supporting Actress is a little easier to sort out, simply because I've heard a lot of talk about Michelle Williams and Naomie Harris' performances. They're the clear favorites in my mind, and ultimately, I firmly believe that one of them will walk home with the statue. Rachel Weisz could play spoiler for her role in The Light Between Oceans, which looks devastating and absolutely heartbreaking. Dakota Fanning looks pretty solid in American Pastoral as well, and after years of solid work in the aftermath of Twilight, Kristen Stewart is due for a nomination. Billy Lynn could be her big chance.


1. Manchester by the Sea
2. La La Land
3. The Birth of a Nation
4. The Lobster
5. Loving

The Screenplay categories are a tough nut to crack in the early goings. What's adapted? What's original? Who knows? However, I'm fairly certain that Manchester by the Sea is an original work from Lonergan, and I'm also fairly certain that it will win. This doesn't seem like the kind of category that La La Land could take, even though I'm firmly expecting a nomination. Birth of a Nation is another possibility, although I genuinely don't think that it will win anything (especially with Parker's co-defendant, Jean Celestin, serving as the co-writer). The Lobster will get the quirky nomination for the year, and as long as it wasn't based off of any specific material, Loving will be nominated in this category too.


1. Moonlight
2. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
3. Fences
4. Arrival
5. Nocturnal Animals

While Original Screenplay is looking kinda sparse at the moment, Adapted Screenplay is loaded. Look for Moonlight, Billy Lynn, and Fences to lock up nominations in the early goings. I think Arrival also has a very solid shot, as this is a category that manages to be pretty sci-fi friendly. Nocturnal Animals is a more shaky pick, but this kind of pulpy material often succeeds in this category as well.


1. Zootopia
2. Moana
3. Finding Dory
4. Kubo and the Two Strings
5. Sausage Party

It has been an outstanding year for animation so far, and I've seen and loved four out of the five films listed above. Zootopia, Finding Dory, and Kubo are sure things, and Moana almost seems like a shoo-in as well even though nobody has seen. I hope that the brilliant Sausage Party gets a nomination, but the directorial branch is notoriously fickle. Garth Jennings' Sing is certainly a contender, and I'm sure that some indie animated film (like The Red Turtle, set to play Toronto) will pop up and win a nomination. One thing is for certain- this category will be unpredictable.


1. "Audition" from La La Land
2. "Drive It Like You Stole It" from Sing Street
3. Whatever Lin-Manuel Miranda comes up with for Moana
4. "The Great Beyond" from Sausage Party
5. "I'm So Humble" from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

I don't really have a clue what is going to happen with this category. I mostly put this here because there are so many films this year that have featured amazing songs. La La Land and Moana haven't been seen yet, but with the talent involved, they're sure things. Meanwhile, you pretty much could fill up the entire category with songs from Sing Street, the best film of the year so far and one of the best big-screen musicals ever. "Drive It Like You Stole It" feels like the obvious choice from that film. Sausage Party has a shot based on the prestige of Alan Menken, but "The Great Beyond" is really, really filthy. And finally, if something from Popstar doesn't get nominated, I'll be sad. I've got "I'm So Humble" lined up for a nomination right now.

That's it for my first round of Oscar predictions. I'll be back after Toronto with more on the Oscar race!

Images courtesy of Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate Films, and Focus Features

'War Dogs' review

In the last few years, we've seen a lot of comedic and action-oriented directors take a turn towards more dramatic material to mixed results. Adam McKay's stock dramedy The Big Short was a brilliant deconstruction of what made the stock market fall apart, while Michael Bay's Pain & Gain was an ugly, unlikable, and idiotic story of American greed (I guess I get the acclaim, but I really despised it). Now, director Todd Phillips of The Hangover trilogy is trying his hand at more dramatic material with War Dogs, a Scorsese-inspired tale of two young hustlers in the middle of the Iraq war. Phillips is no Martin Scorsese (that almost goes without saying), and War Dogs is no Wolf of Wall Street. But when you're being compared to one of the greatest directors of all time and one of the best films of the 21st Century, that's kind of a high bar to hit, right? Even though it never reaches the heights of its equally morally horrendous predecessors, this energetically-told film is an entertaining portrait of two greedy men (played brilliantly by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) who would stop at nothing to take over the world of international arms dealing. For fans of the genre, War Dogs is another welcome addition.

It's 2005, and David Packouz (Miles Teller) is going nowhere in life. He's a massage therapist in Miami Beach, smoking heaps of weed in his car, living in a bland apartment with his girlfriend (Ana de Armas). With a baby on the way, David needs a way to make money fast. His plan to sell Egyptian cotton sheets to homes for the elderly fails, which is a plan that costs him thousands of dollars. Enter Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), David's childhood friend. Efraim was a loose cannon in middle school, who later went on to become a major arms dealer. Efraim and David reunite at a friend's funeral, and it's clear that they've ended up in radically different places. Efraim drives a BMW, fends off drug dealers with a powerful automatic weapon, and dresses in nice suits. You can sense his power and swagger.

Efraim feels David's desperation, and because of his devotion to his friend, he invites David to come work with him at AEY, a new weapons start-up. America is stuck in the middle of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and with new policies and a high demand for weapons and ammunition, the US government has allowed for smaller players to join the arms race. That gives AEY the chance to bid on high-level defense contracts. With the help of some crafty (but possibly illegal) solutions, David and Efraim work their way up the American defense ladder, eventually leading the way to one of the biggest contracts in history. But as the stakes grow higher, the endless greed of the pair of young arms dealers will cause things to come crumbling down in sensational, tragic fashion.

In a way, War Dogs feels like the first crime film made by people who grew up watching and loving crime films. Or, I should say, a specific type of crime film- the kind pioneered by the legendary Martin Scorsese, where there's a few too many freeze frames, lots of energetic music, and a bunch of douchebag characters. Todd Phillips imitates Scorsese's style throughout, and it goes so far that I would almost consider this to be an homage to films like Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas. But oddly enough, the influence of those classic films extends beyond Phillips' direction and the general craft of the filmmaking. Even the characters in War Dogs are obsessed with classic gangster dramas. Efraim and David talk about Scarface constantly, and they're the kind of people who watch that movie and see Tony Montana as a hero. Jordan Belfort, Henry Hill- those aren't anti-heroes to them, they're representations of the American dream.

I know people like that. I know people who saw The Wolf of Wall Street and found Belfort to be the role model of that story. Forget the fact that he screwed over thousands of hard-working Americans. Don't worry about his degenerative drug use. And don't even mention the part of the movie where he literally punches his wife, snorts a line of coke, and crashes his Ferrari with his daughter in the front seat. Nope. To some people, even with all of that nastiness, Belfort is the unquestioned hero of Wolf. The story in War Dogs is what would happen if one of those people got really ambitious and stumbled upon a $300 million dollar contract to supply the US army. It's what would happen if a couple of morally bankrupt people raised on a steady diet of gangster epics ever got any raw power. And that's why Todd Phillips' film succeeds so well at what it does.

Phillips has often injected crime elements into his stories, and with The Hangover Part III, it became clear to me that he really wanted to make a large-scale epic about criminals. He gets his moment to shine with War Dogs, and although some of his directorial choices veer a little too closely to the work of Scorsese and De Palma, he proves himself to be more than capable of telling this kind of story. Phillips' pacing is excellent, and this story always moves with good energy and flow. He has an eye for glossy style and color (this was always prevalent in the Hangover films), and it's on full display here. There's only one problem- the story in War Dogs just inherently isn't as grand or complex as it wants to be. It wants to be the newest definitive epic about American greed and it's not that. I'm not saying that this movie ever needed to come close to the level of Wolf or Goodfellas, but when your movie is constantly reminding the audience of those classics, it can be a bit of a letdown when the story is significantly simpler.

Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz's story does not span decades or feature immense changes in character. This is a pretty simple tale of two guys who screwed up their chance at success by becoming criminals. And while Phillips seems to struggle to cope with the limited scope of the story to some extent (it's not a flaw that defines the movie), it doesn't prevent Miles Teller and Jonah Hill from turning in some of the best performances of the year. Two years ago, Hill played Donnie Azoff, Jordan Belfort's dopey right-hand man in Wolf of Wall Street. He dominated the screen at every turn and stood toe-to-toe with DiCaprio, and for his performance as Efraim Diveroli, Hill rejuvenates every ounce of that despicable charisma. With a whiny laugh that sounds like Seth Rogen on helium, an obnoxious attitude, and an unrelenting drive for power, Diveroli's character is crystal clear- he's a wannabe crime lord. There's a scene about halfway through this movie where Diveroli is leading a board meeting at AEY, instructing a bunch of money-hungry dimwits on how to find defense contracts. It's a scene that was eerie in a way, as it finds Hill picking up DiCaprio's mantle as the leader of the wolfpack. Efraim is a one-note character in a way, but Hill manages to make him dynamic and fascinating. He's terrific.

While Hill plays off characters that he has done in the past, Teller's turn as Packouz almost feels like an inversion of his screen persona. In almost every role, Teller is the go-getter, the one recklessly running in pursuit of success. Andrew in Whiplash is relentlessly devoted to his drumming, Sutter in The Spectacular Now is the leader of his high school's party scene, and the list goes on from there. And while Packouz is an ambitious, relaxed man, he's never the first to jump on board for anything. Whenever Efraim has a big idea, David is the one who tells him over and over that it's crazy. David has limits, and although his desperate ambition always gets the best of him, he emerges as the only remotely moral character in the movie in a weird sort of way. He's a character that the audience can understand, even if he's making awful choices. Teller is very good in the role, even if he's outshined by hill.

War Dogs isn't a masterpiece like the movies that it takes its inspiration from, nor will it establish the talent of a new dramatic voice like The Big Short did for Adam McKay. But did it ever really need to be that? No, of course not. If The Wolf of Wall Street was a home run, then War Dogs is a solid standup double. It's a highly entertaining journey with one of the funniest performances of the year, some strong directorial pizzazz, and a fascinating whirlwind of a story that is quite a lot of fun to watch. But most importantly, as a cracked mirror look at the lives of two guys who would stop at nothing to live out their crime movie dreams, Todd Phillips' latest film is a provocative, absorbing success.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

'Kubo and the Two Strings' review

Laika has been on the scene for almost a decade now, and they've built quite the name for themselves. Established as a quirky, stop-motion alternative to the Pixar CGI style, the critically acclaimed animation house has released three films over the last seven years. And I must admit, based on the two films I had seen from the studio (Paranorman is still on my watchlist), I wasn't all that impressed. Coraline was gorgeously designed, but lacked a soul, while The Boxtrolls was a solid animated feature that lost itself at various times during the story. Laika has always created some of the most dazzling animation in filmmaking history, but I was still waiting for that movie from the studio that would combine great storytelling with exceptional craft. That movie has finally arrived.

Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika's fourth feature, and this time around, they're telling the story of a Japanese boy with magical powers and a complex family history. Kubo is coming into theaters as Laika's most critically acclaimed film yet, standing at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and 84 on Metacritic. And with good reason- this is another exceptional animated film in a year that has been great for the medium. Combining rich, vivid imagery with an emotionally powerful take on the hero's journey, Kubo and the Two Strings is a knockout and Laika's best film yet. Lyrical, elegiac, and exciting, this animated fable is stunning cinematic mythmaking and a powerful story that genre fans will return to time and time again.

As the film opens, we see a woman sitting on the shore of a beach. She's crying, and she looks bruised, beaten, and discouraged. Shortly after, the cries of a baby are heard coming from a nearby knapsack. It's her son. Along with her child, she walks up a nearby mountain and stays there, never to go back down. Cut to several years later, and her son, Kubo (Art Parkinson), is all grown up. His magical powers have grown, and during the daytime, he travels to the village to perform a show for the villagers. At night, Kubo returns to the mountain and listens to his mother tell stories of her past and his dead father, Hanzo. His mother tells stories of Hanzo's glory as a samurai, their intense love for each other, and the moment that Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), took his eye and killed his father.

Kubo struggles to reach his father through the spirit world, and is constantly grappling with his magical powers and the legend that creates his family ancestry. One day, he stays out just a little too late, and ends up coming face-to-face with his mother's dangerous sisters (Rooney Mara). To save Kubo, his mother uses all of her magic to fend them off and transport him to a distant location. When Kubo wakes up, he's in a snowy landscape, far away from anything he's ever known. With evil forces hunting him down, Kubo will be forced to assemble three pieces of his father's iconic armor and confront his grandfather. But he won't be alone- he'll have help from Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), two loyal, trustworthy friends. Over the course of one epic journey, Kubo will be forced to follow his destiny in order to maintain his humanity and the legacy of his parents.

I could talk all day about the animation in Kubo and the Two Strings. Every frame is immaculate, brimming with color, awe-inspiring detail, and a genuine sense of wonder. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful films of the year, and although there may have been a few animated films that I enjoyed more, Kubo is surely the most stunning. Laika keeps getting better and better with each outing, with their latest emerging as a sheer achievement of technical power. In the past, they've dabbled mostly in the absurd and the fantastical, and although Kubo is definitely filled with some crazy elements, there's a level of precision to it that is jaw-dropping. The real-world landscapes are incredible, and this is such a step up for Laika that I can't wait to see where they go from here.

However, there's an unfortunate truth about the world of stop-motion animation that many seem to ignore- great visuals can only get you so far. Oftentimes that's my main problem with these kinds of stop-motion films. At first, it feels like Kubo will fall into that exact same trap. The first act is very tedious (although patient might be a better word), and I can see a lot of people losing interest right away. The pacing drags for a while, and ultimately, this is the biggest flaw of the film. However, slowly but surely, things start to change. The narrative threads established in the opening act begin to take on more significance to the plot, and the story picks up big time. All of the characters are incredibly fascinating, and it's a joy to see them interact. As Kubo progresses, it gains momentum like a freight train before moving to one of the best conclusions of the year, a powerful thematic statement unlike any I've seen in animation before.

Essentially, I loved Kubo and the Two Strings because it simply is one of the most devastating movies of the year, a poignant ode to humanity and a heartbreaking statement on death. It's one of the most mature animated films aimed at children that I've ever seen, and I think that much of the essence of what this film is about will fly over the heads of the youngest audiences. Kubo's relationship with his parents over the course of the story is downright magnificent, and I love seeing the raw power and emotion of the interactions between these characters. Speaking of the characters, Kubo is one of the best "chosen one" heroes in recent history. This is a narrative idea that has beaten into the ground over the last few decades, and many probably believe that there's no film that could do it justice in a fresh way. Kubo will make you change your mind. Ultimately, in a year where animated films have tackled isolation, religious zealotry, and race relations, Kubo's treatment of more abstract ideas (like mortality and humanity) is a welcome shift.

The voice cast is also stellar, and they're one of the reasons that this film works so well. Art Parkinson has starred in supporting roles in Game of Thrones, Dracula Untold, and San Andreas, and I loved what he did here as Kubo. In a cinematic landscape where most young protagonists seem like mini adults, Kubo feels like a real kid. Parkinson conveys a sadness and vulnerability at every turn, which is even more impressive considering he was standing in the shadow of two acting giants. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey take on the biggest supporting roles, and I thought they were both mesmerizing. Theron is calm, collected, and intense, while McConaughey gets to inject his own dopey charm. Granted, the screenplay's twist with their characters is one of my favorite aspects of this movie, but they still knock it out of the park.

Kubo and the Two Strings is animated storytelling at its most creative and visually dazzling, crafting an entire universe from nothing but the imagination of the brilliant director Travis Knight. There are a few more problems than most seem to think, but there's no doubt in my mind that this is Laika's best film yet, and a film I will cherish for a long time. They're finally reaching their destiny as a darker, more philosophical rendition of Pixar, and I love that. If you're looking for a change of pace from the frenetic digital world of modern animation, Kubo will be a welcome antidote. It's a memorable and breathtaking journey, and another great film in an unusually strong August.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.6/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

'Pete's Dragon' review

Disney's on a roll with these adaptations of their former animated properties, and if the box office receipts keep coming in, I don't see any reason why they'll stop. Maleficent managed to be a box office bonanza despite its poor quality, Cinderella did quite well, and of course, Jon Favreau's vivid CGI depiction of The Jungle Book grossed nearly $1 billion dollars worldwide. David Lowery's re-imagining of the classic live-action/animation hybrid Pete's Dragon is coming in with significantly lower expectations with a budget of only $65 million, which means that even if it continues its modest box office success, it'll be fine. For me, Pete's Dragon looked like the first film in this new Disney trend that I could really connect with and enjoy. The trailers carried a distinctly Spielbergian vibe, and in recent weeks, buzz had grown around the film as critics embraced Lowery's sweet and nostalgic vision. If there was one that I would love, I figured that this would be it.

Sadly, I walked away disappointed once again. But the odd part is that Pete's Dragon is everything that has been advertised- it's gentle, sweet, and good-natured, with a kind, lovable dragon at the center of the emotional story. Lowery hits the right notes to make the audience cry, but in a strange way, I felt that he never earned those tears. The movie is aggressively slight, with underdeveloped characters across the board, a half-hearted 1980s setting, and musical cues that feel like a cross between John Williams and a mumblecore indie rock band. Something about Pete's Dragon just felt off to me and despite some moments of wonder and a steady directorial hand, I was never all that engaged by this classic tale of a boy and his dragon.

When he's just a young boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is on a vacation with his parents in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, when a deer runs out in front of their car, Pete's parents are killed, leaving the young boy alone in the wilderness. With no food, shelter, or anyone to protect him, things aren't looking good for Pete- especially with wolves and bears nearby. But then, something strange happens. A dragon, who Pete later names Elliot, befriends him and becomes his protector and guardian. Cut to nearly half a decade later, and Pete and Elliot are still living in harmony in the forest. Life is good and free until human interference begins to cut deeper and deeper into their land. A logging company led by Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) is cutting down trees like it's nobody's business, much to the disappointment of Jack's girlfriend, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who doubles as a park ranger.

Legends of a dragon in the forest have always been spread by Meacham (Robert Redford), Grace's father. Although his claims are totally unsubstantiated, it's still considered to be an essential piece of their culture. So when Grace finds Pete in the woods, and the young boy begins referring to his large, magical green friend in the wood, people take notice. But once Gavin finds out, things start to get a little bit hectic. The amoral businessman sees Elliot as a dangerous creature, and whose only future is to be a zoo animal (there's a little bit of King Kong here). As the human world tries to pull Pete away from Elliot, and with danger at every turn, they'll need the help of Grace, Meacham, and Jack's daughter (Oona Laurence) to save the day.

Like The BFG before it (the closest comparison to this film in the summer season), Pete's Dragon is very, very difficult to dislike entirely. Just like Steven Spielberg's warm and charming Roald Dahl adaptation, director David Lowery injects a lot of whimsy, emotion, and heart into this film. Even as someone who didn't find the movie as a whole to be all that good, the ending still hits pretty hard. But it's endlessly slight, constantly meandering, and in the end, more than a little tedious. Pete's Dragon and The BFG are films that keep hitting certain people in a spot of vulnerability, because they feel like a callback to the kind of movies that Hollywood "just doesn't make anymore." And that's fine, I guess. I just don't understand the appeal of a movie where the character development is thin, the plot is one-note, and the pace is sluggish.

Because those are all problems that Pete's Dragon runs into very quickly. On the surface, this movie is designed to elicit feelings of nostalgia and happiness. The comparisons to E.T. and The Iron Giant are valid (although I think I might have a heart attack if anybody considered them to be close in quality), and the 1980's setting feels like another extra layer to give you the sensation that this is a film from a lost era. But if you look under the surface at all, you won't find a whole lot. Where some found a refreshing simplicity, I found the movie's fatal flaw. Simply put, you just don't get to know much about Pete and Elliot's relationship. You see the young boy get rescued at the start of the movie, you see a few scenes of the two together in the first act, and that's about it. In the films that Pete's Dragon takes inspiration from, much of the runtime is devoted to the relationship between the principal characters. That's a cue that Pete's Dragon never takes. It's almost like they felt like the emotional sentimentality was strong enough that they didn't need to earn anything.

This problem extends to pretty much the entire cast of characters. Most of them could be defined by one adjective or description- there are no three-dimensional characters in this film. The performances aren't especially bad or lackluster, these actors just don't have much to work with. Despite being just as flat as the rest of them (his defining trait is that he saw a dragon a long time ago), I actually thought that Robert Redford was the standout here. He has an excellent monologue, and I even enjoyed his role in some of the action beats. Bryce Dallas Howard's Grace is a tougher nut to crack, because I would argue that she doesn't even have a trait that could be applied to the actual narrative of the film. Her motivation for being so nice to Pete and Elliot is.........minor, at best. She just doesn't have a lot to do, even with a few little things thrown around during the film.

Same goes for Wes Bentley's Jack, who barely qualifies as a character beyond the fact that he's a spineless wimp who won't stand up to his brother. That's his character. There's nothing else. No other reason to care if he lives or dies. And speaking of Gavin, he's a brilliantly one-note villain. He's portrayed as an evil logger from the beginning, and it's such a cliched bit that I rolled my eyes as Gavin emerged as the main antagonist of the film. Couldn't the screenwriters have given him some reason to hate Elliot? Or at least not make him such an unlikable jerk earlier in the movie? Did it really have to go this way? And finally, I'll just go ahead and say this- I didn't care about Pete that much. He's defined by his braveness, and yet, we only see this one time during the movie. And even though this is gonna sound mean, I must admit that I wasn't all that impressed by Oakes Fegley either. In a genre that thrives on character work, Pete's Dragon drops the ball big time.

Maybe I'm just too cynical for my own good, but for me, Pete's Dragon is a cute, occasionally whimsical journey without any real substance. It feels like I'm being really mean to this movie that I ultimately thought was okay, but this was a huge disappointment. I had been on board with this film as a quasi-Spielbergian adventure ever since I saw the first trailer, and I was enormously let down by how little I enjoyed this one. But that's just how it goes sometimes. Kids will probably have a decent time, some adults will be moved, and everybody else will be bored. David Lowery is definitely a director with a certain degree of talent, and with the amount of acclaim that this film received, he'll have a wide range of projects to pick from. I have no doubt that one of those movies will be great, but his attempt at folksy Spielberg falls well short of the mark.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                               (6/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo

Monday, August 22, 2016

Jared Leto joins the cast of 'Blade Runner' sequel

While the film was a pretty solid box office hit, Suicide Squad was a total disaster from a quality perspective. Choppy, completely unfocused, and devoid of any narrative momentum, DC's third film in their new cinematic universe was unquestionably their worst yet. Some people did find much to enjoy with the twisted version of Guardians of the Galaxy, but one of the most divisive aspects for everybody was Jared Leto's performance as the Joker. The Dallas Buyers Club star's role as the Clown Prince of Crime was massively diminished from director David Ayer's original cut, and Leto himself has revealed his displeasure with the amount of screentime he had in the theatrical cut (he claims that there's enough for an entire Joker film).

Even though his Joker was on screen for only about 8 minutes, I feel like there's more than enough to judge the look, feel, and tone of Leto's take on the Joker. He's a Scarface Joker essentially, a quirky crime lord who's more jokey and funny than truly menacing. He's fine, but he pales in comparison to Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson. Some really hated his portrayal, some loved it, and I fell right in the middle. Questions are swirling now about whether or not Leto will play the iconic character again in future Batman and Justice League movies, which is being fueled by the actor's own comments about the matter. But while DC gets their house in order, Leto will be turning his attention to another role in one of my most anticipated movies of the next few years.

On Thursday, the news broke that Jared Leto has joined the cast of Denis Villeneuve's untitled Blade Runner sequel. There is no information about his role beyond that, but many are suspecting that Leto will play a replicant or another villainous character in the film. Leto joins a stacked cast that already includes Ryan Gosling, Harrion Ford, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, and Lennie James. This move has been met with quite a bit of disdain by the filmgoing community, who seem to have an immediate disgust to Leto's legendary behind-the-scenes "method" antics. Personally, I have a near-admiration for Leto's wild and wacky style, and while he doesn't always produce great results, it's always an interesting process to hear about. He's a seemingly good fit for the Blade Runner universe, and I'll be interested to see what he does here. This film is still near the top of my list, and although plot details and character info are both scarce as of now, we'll surely hear more in the near future.

The Untitled Blade Runner sequel hits theaters on October 6, 2017.

Source: Variety
Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo

'Sausage Party' review

Why haven't there been more R-rated animated movies?

It's a question that keeps ringing through my head after seeing Sausage Party, one of the boldest and most outrageous American comedies in years. Films like South Park: Bigger, Long, and Uncut, Team America: World Police, and Anomalisa have proven in the past that funny, incisive work can be done in this genre, so it's almost amazing that it took so long to get around to this point. Sausage Party is a bit of a novelty because it's the first R-rated CGI animated film, which essentially makes it the Toy Story of food porn. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg spent years trying to put it on the big screen, and with a microbudget and the support of Annapurna Pictures and Sony, their gloriously raunchy animated food comedy has arrived. And boy, it's really something.

Sausage Party is brilliant. At this point, you're probably wondering- is that really the best word to describe an R-rated comedy with jokes about food sex? The answer is an unequivocal "yes." A breathtakingly anarchic and gutsy take on the kind of film that has made Pixar so popular over the years, Sausage Party is a thoughtful meditation on religion and stereotypes in our current society that also happens to feature a scene that gives a whole new definition to the term "food porn." After This is the End and The Interview revealed the more creative, innovative aspects of Rogen and Goldberg's filmmaking, their first foray into animation solidifies that they're among the best comedic minds in the business. An instant classic in just about every way, Sausage Party is a jaw-dropping journey that is unlike anything you've ever seen before.

It's morning again at Shopwell's, your average suburban grocery store. "Red, white, and blue day" is coming up, and all of the food is very excited to get the chance to go to "The Great Beyond." Frank (Seth Rogen), a hot dog, and Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a bun, are especially hopeful that one of the gods will pick their packages together. The great mission of a hot dog's life is to get inside of a bun, and well, you get the innuendo there. As the store prepares to close, Frank and Brenda are chosen together, along with Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera), Frank's other hot dog friends. But when they're in the cart, something strange happens- Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) begins acting very weird. He begins babbling on and on about how the gods are evil, the Great Beyond is a lie, and that Firewater has all the answers. Frank is enamored by him, but before he can answer any more questions, Honey Mustard jumps off the shopping cart to his death, creating a cart disaster that particularly resembles the Omaha beach scene in Saving Private Ryan.

Frank and Brenda are thrown out of the cart, along with Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton, doing a spot-on Woody Allen impression), Lavash (David Krumholtz), and Douche (Nick Kroll). The Douche was really looking forward to......well, doing his thing, and his mission throughout the film is to take revenge on Frank. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew must take a deep dive into the world of Shopwell's to find the answers to the burning questions that they've wondered all along. Are the gods malevolent? Is their reality simply an illusion? Are they all doomed to a fate that isn't in their hands? With the help of a possibly bisexual taco (Salma Hayek), this lost group of food will travel a multi-cultural world in the pursuit of finding the answers to these existential questions that could threaten their lives.

Very few mainstream movies these days could be classified as outrageous. Hollywood doesn't seem to be quite as intent on pushing boundaries these days as they did back in the 1970's or even as recently as the 90's. Scrolling through the list of films that I've seen this year, only three really stand out to me as truly button-pushing or outrageous- Deadpool, The Neon Demon, and Swiss Army Man. Two of those are arthouse movies that only hit between 600-800 theaters, and the other is an R-rated superhero movie that still felt like it was pulling its punches at times. Sausage Party is genuinely the most outrageous film to hit American theaters in a long time, one that will send your jaw straight to the floor. Everything lands with a knockout punch of "Oh, s**t, I can't believe they just did that." With the medium of animation, Rogen and Goldberg have made their most no-holds barred film yet- raunchy, profound, and shockingly distasteful, all in equal measure.

But after all, should anybody really be surprised by how utterly insane Sausage Party is? Rogen and his friends have made some pretty crazy movies before, including one that damn near started World War III. They made the most meta film to ever come out of Hollywood, the wildest frat comedy since Animal House, and an instant R-rated Christmas classic. These guys are comedic geniuses, and part of the reason that they do so well is that they're keenly aware of the genre that they're working within. They're reverent to the history of the movies that came before, and then they totally flip it around with their signature brand of filthy humor. It would have been easy for Rogen and Goldberg to do an awful animated movie, thrown in some pot and some dick jokes, and call it a day. But they didn't. They hired Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, two experienced directors in the genre, to create the sense that this was a real animated film. Sausage Party has a retro animated quality to it, and the progression of the narrative feels very similar to a Pixar movie. These might seem like small things, but as the story builds, this adds up to enhance the overall experience.

Sausage Party is a riff on Toy Story, but in all honesty, every animated movie since 1995 centered around "talking ___" has been a take on John Lasseter's classic. What makes this one different (beyond the obvious R-rating) is the film's devotion to an existential point, one that is both gut-bustingly funny and deeply thought-provoking. If you would have told me a few months ago that Sausage Party would end up being the best comedic take on religion since The Book of Mormon, I simply would not have believed you. Well, it's the truth. When the buzz surrounding Sausage Party began to shift to the religious themes, I was curious to know whether you had to look deep for them or if they were right in your face. The answer is the latter, as the first scene clearly makes the point that the failure and corruption of organized religion is not only quite obvious, but it's pretty much the entire basis of the movie.

Rogen and his crew clearly have a lot to say about this topic, and it permeates throughout every facet of the movie. I've listened to Alan Menken's opening song "The Great Beyond" more in the past couple of days and it's amazing how packed it is with brilliant religious subtext and cultural humor. In a world where the gods are malevolent and murderous, why can't we all just get along? That's the basic question proposed here, which brings me to cultural stereotypes, the other main topic of discussion in Sausage Party. Every single character that is based around ethnicity is a clear stereotype. Teresa the Taco prays to Saint Chimichanga, Sammy Bagel Jr. is neurotic and worrisome, and Lavash is insistent on receiving his 77 bottles of extra virgin olive oil in the Great Beyond. Yeah, this thing is far from politically correct. And while some may find these things offensive, in the context of what Rogen and Goldberg build to, it makes sense. Sausage Party's creation of a grocery store Zootopia leads to an end point of disturbingly epic proportions and it's quite fascinating how Rogen plays with racial humor, while ultimately promoting a message of unity in the goal of overlooking our stereotypical differences.

Beyond the bonkers subtext that only enhances the hilarity of the Sausage Party experience, this is just a hysterical movie made by some of the funniest men and women in Hollywood right now. Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig are excellent as our leads, but they're outshined by the stellar supporting players. I loved Michael Cera as Barry, the deformed weiner who becomes an unlikely hero over the course of his journey. David Krumholtz and Edward Norton play off each other well in their animated demonstration of the Israel/Palestine conflict, with Norton particularly standing out in his role. Nick Kroll crushes it as Douche, the appropriately douche-y villain of the story. Throw in a spectacularly raunchy cameo by Danny McBride (what is it with him and "jerking off" monologues in Rogen movies), a goofy turn from James Franco, Jonah Hill's sausage sidekick, Salma Hayek's bi-curious taco, and great work from Bill Hader and Craig Robinson, and you've got a cast that knocks it out of the park.

Sausage Party is one of the boldest comedies that Hollywood has delivered in a long time, and because of that, I think that plenty of audiences won't know how to respond. After the film's show-stopping setpiece near the end of the film, half of my audience was dying of laughter, and the other half seemed to be sitting in complete disbelief. I guess I can understand why, considering the subject matter. But for me, the entire film hit me right in the funny bone, and I was literally in tears from laughing so hard. Sausage Party is the funniest movie of the year, one of the better animated movies in a long time, and a dynamite satire of racial politics and organized religion. It's unlike anything I've seen before, and it joins the ranks of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, and Team America: World Police as an innovative and inappropriate comedic opus.

I hope that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg never do a "safe" movie. They're far better when they're pushing every boundary known to mankind, which is exactly what they do in one of the best movies of 2016 so far that also doubles as their most bizarrely terrific film yet.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

Sunday, August 21, 2016

'Anthropoid' review

World War II has been a fixture in the cinematic realm for decades now, and over the years, this time period has been used to explore a wide range of stories, characters, and tales of heroism. Some have been uplifting and inspiring (despite the unflinching violence, Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), and others have looked frankly at the total pointlessness and horror of war (David Ayer's Fury is a good example here). But few have been as bleak, grim, and hopelessly brutal as Anthropoid, a new thriller from director Sean Ellis. Don't come looking for an upbeat ending or cheerful optimism- this is a relentlessly gruesome and somber tale of an extremely dark period in history. And as long as you know that going in, this smaller-scale war movie is actually a pretty good ride. Led by emotional, deeply human performances from Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, some gritty filmmaking from Ellis, and one of the best shootouts in recent memory (it recalls classic battles like Scarface and Butch Cassidy), Anthropoid is a memorable journey.

It's 1942 in Prague, the capital city of Czechoslovakia. Before the war broke out, the allied powers simply gave the small nation to Germany, as part of the appeasement process that many hoped would keep the peace in Europe. Hitler soon invaded Poland, kicked off World War II and the rest is history. But for Czechoslovakia, the story didn't end with the Nazi occupation. In Prague, a small underground resistance managed to pop up, hoping that one day, the nation would be ready to resist the power of the Nazis. For the European powers, the assistance of Czechoslovakia was one that they desperately wanted and needed. To do that, they enlist the help of Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan). As Anthropoid opens, the two Czech nationalists (along with several others) are parachuting into the country, a dangerous task that could get them all killed.

One violent fight with a German later, and the two men are in Prague, searching for the leader of the resistance. They find Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones), a man who manages to assemble what little is left in Prague. Their task- Operation Anthropoid, a mission direct from London with the goal of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's third in command and the "Butcher of Prague." To pull off such a dangerous act, Josef and Jan will need the help of several ordinary Czech citizens and the entire might of the resistance, and even then, it may not be enough. With a highly treacherous mission, no easy solution, and the might of Nazi Germany waiting around every corner, these brave rebels will have to go to great lengths to start an event that could change the fate of the war.

Anthropoid is a fairly straight-forward film, and the style and tone reflect that sentiment. It's blunt, unflinching, and at its worst, a tad bit dull. The visuals are drab and dirty, the cinematography is gritty and realistic, and the costumes are dominated by relatively quiet colors. Inglourious Basterds, this is not. But while I struggled with the relentlessly dour tone and the occasionally plodding pacing at various times during the film, I ultimately came to realize that it all serves the narrative. There is very little happiness in Anthropoid. Every bit of joy or love is ended quickly by something horrific, whether it's the brutal torture of a teenager or suicide by cyanide. Everything builds to create a tone of noble dread, where we find ourselves fearing for the safety of our heroes, while simultaneously realizing that it's for a good cause. Anthropoid deals in the brutal pointlessness of war and the opportunity cost of rebellion, two potent themes that ring true far after the film ends.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan are terrific in the lead roles, and it's amazing what these actors (as well as screenwriters Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin) are able to do with so little exposition. Murphy's Josef and Dornan's Jan contrast each other so well, and part of the reason that Anthropoid works lies in the arcs that these two characters take over the course of the story. Murphy's Josef is steely and unrelenting, a man with fierce determination and uncompromising focus. His eyes are on the prize- and in the context of this film, that prize is the death of Heydrich. But while Josef is a calculating strategist, he also has a strong heart and I loved seeing that revealed as the film progressed. On the other hand, Dornan's Jan is a scared kid, someone who has an immense fear of death and of killing others. In fact, as the film opens, he can't even fire a bullet at a traitor. Like Josef, that changes quite a bit over the two-hour runtime, and I thought the choices Dornan made as an actor were excellent. He's best known for Fifty Shades of Grey, but I have a feeling that's going to change soon.

The supporting cast is strong as well, with Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, and especially Anna Geislerova taking on meaty roles. Le Bon and Geislerova essentially play pawns in the scheme that Josef and Jan are devising, and at first, it seems like they won't play too much of a role in the plot. But thankfully, they develop their own fascinating relationships with our lead characters and become important players in the story. Ellis and Frewin's screenplay doesn't create too many nuanced characters, but there's not an actor who doesn't make the most of their part. Ellis' direction is steady and efficient, introducing a gritty realism to the proceedings that bleeds through every frame. This is Ellis' biggest film so far by a country mile, and if Anthropoid is any indication, he has a bright future in the business. He has an exceptional eye for tone and mood, and he's also quite good at filming big setpieces.

Speaking of big action scenes, Anthropoid has one of the year's best. It's a shootout that drew comparisons to The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and Scarface, from top critics, my dad, and myself, respectively. It's an old-school setpiece, devoid of flashy CGI or goofy antics in favor of gripping tension and horrifying realism. Bullets and bodies fly in equal measure, as a creeping sense of claustrophobia sinks in as the scene goes longer. It's one of the most dazzlingly filmed scenes of the year, shot with verve, energy, and grit. If any moment in Anthropoid demonstrates Ellis' set of skills, it's the climatic showdown between the resistance and the Nazis. It's worth the price of admission alone.

While the final battle is the show-stopper, Anthropoid as a whole is certainly worth your time and money. Sure, there are a few aspects that could be improved upon, but in the grand scheme of things, I think Sean Ellis delivered a distinct, harrowing, and incredibly engaging war film. Dornan and Murphy are spectacular, the tension is palpable, and some of the best scenes are truly stunning. Audiences looking to come out feeling better about the world will probably want to skip this one, but if you're looking for a film with remarkable insight into a forgotten chapter of history, this is for you. It's a film that improves the more I think about it, and where many summer films will wind up being quite disposable, I have a feeling that I won't forget this one any time soon. Anthropoid never hits iconic status, but it still emerges as one of the most surprising films of the summer.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Images courtesy of Bleecker Street

Thursday, August 18, 2016

New trailer for 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' is flat-out awesome

We're just under four months away from the theatrical release of Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and before last week, I must admit that I really wasn't feeling the excitement at all. There was more of a weary feeling in the air- with reports of reshoots, tonal issues, and studio interference, the sense was that Disney was creating a Suicide Squad-level disaster. As Rogue One is the first stand-alone Star Wars film, this news was troubling for everyone involved. The studio would still have to convince people that non-trilogy Star Wars flicks could be good, the fans would be deprived of the gritty action flick they desperately wanted, and movie fans would be left with another butchered cut of a blockbuster. These reports were far from confirmed (in fact, they were often denied), but they came from mostly credible outlets with a track record of hitting the nail on the head. So with all of that said, there was a lot riding on last week's trailer debut during the Olympics. The anticipation was high, Disney had a chance to hit a mainstream audience, and they needed to knock it out of the park. And they truly did. Check out the trailer below!

What reshoots?

Yeah, this trailer is phenomenal in just about every way. While there's still reason to be concerned that Disney has toned things down here, this 2 minute trailer gives us plenty of gritty battle scenes and a darker mood. If there's one complaint I had about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was that the film didn't take us to many new worlds. Desert planet, ice planet, forest planet, Death Star- we've seen it all before. With Rogue One, Edwards and Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy seem intent on going to brand new places. The whole visual look is fresh and exciting, with beaches and temples and all sorts of Star Wars-y stuff. I love Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso so far, and that supporting cast is phenomenal. The news of a messy production will always be around in the back of my head, but after this trailer, Disney has sold me entirely. After all- who wouldn't get excited by seeing Darth Vader?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Alan Tudyk, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, James Earl Jones, Jimmy Smits, and Forest Whitaker, and will hit theaters on December 16.

Image Credit: IMDB