Thursday, December 29, 2016

Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling to re-team for biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong

Damien Chazelle has only directed three feature-length films, but he's quickly becoming one of the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood. After starting his career with the decidedly low-key Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Chazelle burst onto everyone's radar with Whiplash, a Sundance breakout that was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and won a Supporting Actor trophy for J.K. Simmons. When a director catches their big break at Sundance, they tend to be swallowed up by the major studios, who employ their services for a massive blockbuster of some sort. Think of how Colin Trevorrow, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and even Rian Johnson to a lesser extent have all made the jump from the indie scene to some of the biggest movies around. That's not necessarily a bad thing for those directors or the films, but it certainly is a major trend in Hollywood. Thankfully, Chazelle opted for a different route, using his newfound clout to get a passion project produced. Of course, that project was La La Land, the miracle of a modern Hollywood musical that has taken the world by storm this year. It's currently the Oscar favorite, and it's looking like Chazelle has a pretty good shot of walking away with that Best Director trophy. But with the film now in theaters across the country, the question can be raised- what will Chazelle do next?

After three films, he's already one of the most acclaimed filmmakers on the planet and a potential Oscar nominee. Chazelle can pretty much do anything that he wants, and for his next project, he'll be heading to Universal to tackle a biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon back in 1969. And for this mission (pun intended), Chazelle will be turning to Ryan Gosling, the star of La La Land, to play the iconic figure. The film is entitled First Man, and it's based on a book by James R. Hansen, which follows the journey of Armstrong during the time of the space program. The script was written by Oscar-winning Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer, and the story will reportedly follow a "visceral, first-person account" of Armstrong's journey during the tumultuous decade that ended with the first moon landing in history. According to the synopsis in The Wrap's report, this will be another chance for Chazelle to explore the cost of personal success, although it will be in a much different format than his previous music-driven films. First Man will reportedly shoot in early 2017, with no release date in sight at the moment.

Chazelle has become one of my favorite filmmakers, and with good reason. Whiplash is a fierce, blisteringly intense film, a simple drama that carries so much weight and tension that it plays more like a thriller. On the other hand, La La Land is a gorgeous musical, a bittersweet ode to old Hollywood and the dreamers of Los Angeles that I feel has a chance to become one of the defining screen romances of this generation. Chazelle is a brilliant visionary who is able to channel both nostalgic and modern sensibilities, and any project that he boards will have my attention. I love the idea of a biopic of Neil Armstrong, and I'm honestly surprised that nobody has done it yet. And with the astonishing year that Ryan Gosling has had, thanks to his roles in The Big Short, The Nice Guys, and Chazelle's musical, this movie is even higher on my watchlist. This is only the beginning for what will surely be a hotly-anticipated project, and I can't wait to hear more.

Source: The Wrap
Images courtesy of Lionsgate

Debbie Reynolds has died at age 84

It was already a very tragic week for Hollywood after news broke on Tuesday that Star Wars actress and pop culture icon Carrie Fisher had passed away at the age of 60. Fans mourned the loss of a powerful voice in the industry, a fierce, funny woman who brought life to Princess Leia and expanded on a rich, storied Hollywood legacy. But just when many thought that the week had brought enough tragedy, some sad and troubling news was reported yesterday afternoon. Word began to circulate that Debbie Reynolds, the mother of Carrie Fisher and a Hollywood legend in her own right, had suffered a stroke and had been transported to a local hospital. There was nothing to confirm the initial TMZ report, but late last night, the news that many feared was confirmed by the family- Debbie Reynolds has passed away at the age of 84, just one day after her daughter's death.

Debbie Reynolds was born in 1932, and she broke into the film industry at a very young age. After several small roles during the early 1950s, Reynolds got her big break in the form of the lead role in 1952's Singin' in the Rain, which is commonly regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Reynolds played Kathy Selden, the young performer who falls in love with Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood and becomes a star in the early days of the talkies. After her immediate burst of fame, Reynolds also became famous for her tabloid relationship with Eddie Fisher, who later divorced her and married her close friend, Elizabeth Taylor (oddly enough, Taylor and Reynolds apparently remained friends). Reynolds received an Oscar nomination for 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and starred in other famous films such as Tammy and the Bachelor, The Rat Race, How the West Was Won, and Mother. To a younger generation, Reynolds is probably best known for Disney's Halloweentown franchise. Her last live-action appearance was as Frances Liberace in 2013's Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh's acclaimed biopic of famed performer Liberace.

In late 2011 and early 2012, I was 13 years old, and I decided that as a winter project, I would watch as many classic films as I could. I don't remember what exactly got me on this classic movie kick, but I watched a whole range of iconic films. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon- the list goes on and on. One morning, I decided that I would rent Singin' in the Rain on iTunes, opting to watch the film on my small little iPod screen. I knew nothing about it beyond that it was a movie musical and it was ranked #4 on AFI's list of the greatest films of all time. And at the time, that was good enough for me. I pressed play, and I fell in love with the greatest Hollywood musical in history.

Singin' in the Rain is one of my favorite films, a beautiful burst of joy that encapsulates everything I love about old Hollywood. When people ask me what my favorite films are, it's always near the top of the list. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor are magnificent in the film, but Reynolds is the real breakout star. She has such wonderful chemistry with Kelly and O'Connor, and her performance of "Good Morning" in the film is nothing short of a knockout. She was always a natural performer, and she was one of the last of the old Hollywood icons. Even after Kelly and O'Connor had passed away, it was always comforting to know that Reynolds was still around, keeping the spirit of that classic film and that famous era alive in modern Hollywood. This is a tremendous loss for the Fisher family and for everyone in the industry. Debbie Reynolds was nothing short of a legend, and she will be dearly missed.

Image Credit: IMDB

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Carrie Fisher has died at age 60

2016 has been an absolutely brutal year for celebrity deaths, and even in the final days of the calendar year, icons of the stage and screen continue to pass away. The year began with the death of David Bowie, and throughout the rest of the year, we lost performers like Prince, Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin, Muhammed Ali, Gene Wilder, and George Michael, whose passing was reported on Christmas Day. However, on December 23, TMZ broke the news that Carrie Fisher had suffered a massive heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles. Reports were swirling that Fisher was not breathing for nearly 15 minutes when medical personnel attended to her on the plane, and she was immediately transported to emergency care. No updates were given on her condition until later, when her mother, famed actress Debbie Reynolds, tweeted that she was in stable condition at the hospital. Many saw that as an encouraging sign and were hopeful that she would manage to survive such a major event. Unfortunately, earlier today, Carrie Fisher was confirmed to have passed away at the age of 60.

Fisher was the daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, one of the most famous Hollywood couples of the 1950s. Reynolds starred as Kathy Selden in the 1952 classic Singin' in the Rain, while Eddie was most famously known as a pop musician. Carrie Fisher was born in 1956, and two decades later, she became an instant sensation due to her role as Princess Leia Organa in 1977's Star Wars. Fisher's iconic role spanned four entries in the space saga, including The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and last year's The Force Awakens. In addition to George Lucas' classic franchise, Fisher appeared in films such as The Blues Brothers, Hannah and Her Sisters, and When Harry Met Sally..., while also having a recurring role on Family Guy. Fisher was also known as a talented script doctor, which is explored in this fascinating post over at Hollywood Elsewhere. On her Wikipedia page, Fisher is listed as the script doctor for The Wedding Singer, Sister Act, and Last Action Hero, three films that went on to reach different levels of success. Beyond her role in the movie industry, Fisher was an acclaimed author, publishing five novels and three non-fiction books.

In the aftermath of her passing, Fisher is set to appear in Episode VIII, which will debut on December 15, 2017. The film wrapped shooting in the summer, but it is unclear what plans Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow had for her character in Episode IX.

When I first heard the news on Friday, I feared the worst. Things certainly did not sound good, and passengers on the plane seemed to indicate that she was in very bad shape. But as the days went on, I became more optimistic, which turned out to be a sense of false hope. This is a crushing tragedy, the loss of a powerful voice and personality in the film industry. There was nobody out there quite like Carrie Fisher, and her unique presence was always deeply felt. Of course, she'll always be primarily known as Princess Leia, the strong, independent heroine at the center of the Star Wars universe. The energy and wit Fisher brought to the character was invaluable, and it's impossible to imagine Princess Leia in the hands of any other actress. Fisher was nothing short of pitch-perfect, and she turned Leia into an icon that will last for generations. Fisher was a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, someone who commanded your attention whenever you saw her. She was funny, she was fierce, she was all kinds of awesome, and she will be sorely missed. Rest in Peace, Carrie Fisher.

Image Credit: IMDB/Lucasfilm

'Assassin's Creed' review

I've never really been much of a video game player. Sure, I've played casually throughout most of my life, but I've never been an intense gamer, which is at least partially due to my lack of skills. I can play Madden and 2K all day, but ask me to beat a level in Halo and I will be totally lost. That being said, I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of video game movies, because I think they provide us with a unique opportunity to explore new worlds and bold ideas on a spectacular big-budget canvas. I honestly couldn't tell you a single thing about Bioshock or Halo or The Last of Us, but I do sincerely hope that these movies get made, simply to provide us with a change of pace in the blockbuster landscape. 2016 was originally supposed to be the year that video game movies would break into the mainstream, becoming critical darlings and box office success stories that would stick out in the current world of action cinema. Unfortunately, that hasn't quite been the case.

Duncan Jones stepped up to the plate first with Warcraft, a fantasy epic based on the best-selling World of Warcraft games. Expectations were high thanks to Jones' previous features, Moon and Source Code, but the film was one of the biggest misfires of the summer. While it did make a healthy amount of money in China, Warcraft was a resounding critical and financial disappointment. I was a bigger fan of the film than most, but there's no denying that it was a shaky debut for the Warcraft universe. Six months later, Macbeth filmmaker Justin Kurzel is taking a stab at making a video game adaptation of his own with Assassin's Creed, which is based on the hit series by Ubisoft. With a cast led by Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, and Brendan Gleeson a big budget, a prime Christmas release, and a daring concept, there was a chance that Assassin's Creed could be the first legitimately successful translation of a popular video game to the silver screen.

Instead, we've received a movie that is destined for a long life in the bargain bin at Walmart. If you thought that Warcraft would surely be the worst video game movie of the year, well, I'm afraid you were sorely mistaken. Assassin's Creed is utter nonsense, but worse than that, it's mind-numbing, soulless nonsense. Goofy concepts and ridiculous ideas can be fun if there's some semblance of recognition from the filmmakers, with maybe even a dash of tongue-in-cheek humor thrown in for good measure. But when a movie as dumb and incoherent as Assassin's Creed has everything play out in the most self-serious way possible, it's a recipe for total disaster. Despite not getting off to the worst start, Assassin's Creed soon becomes a tedious, exhausting experience. During one particularly insane moment in the film, our hero looks around the room and asks "What the **** is going on?" I trust that many audiences will be thinking the same during the latest video game adaptation fiasco.

The story begins in 1492 in Spain, as famed assassin Aguilar (played by Fassbender) is initiated into the Assassin's Creed organization. The Assassins fight the Templars, who search for the mystical Apple of Eden in an attempt to control humanity. The battle has raged for centuries, and it only grows more and more intense as the years go by. Flash forward to 1986, and young Cal Lynch has witnessed the murder of his mother at the hands of his father. Flash forward again, and it's suddenly the present day. Lynch (played by Fassbender as well) is on death row for capital murder, and we see his execution. After being killed, he wakes up in a strange hospital in Madrid. He's totally confused, but thankfully, the brilliant Sofia (Marion Cotillard) is there to give him answers.

Sofia tells him that he's been transported to the Animus, a place that harbors a technology that uses genetic DNA to view the events of the past. Sofia and her father (Jeremy Irons) need Lynch, mostly because he's the last descendant of Aguilar. They're searching for the Apple, and she tells him that the goal is to eradicate violence from the planet. Lynch reluctantly goes along with the grueling procedure, but as the other inhabitants (Michael K. Williams, Callum Turner) start to get suspicious of him, Cal realizes that something truly disturbing may be going on in the Animus. To stop a plan to destroy humanity, Cal will have to embrace his destiny and become an Assassin.

Assassin's Creed is one of those blockbusters where you have to resist the temptation to laugh at almost every moment. From the very beginning, this movie is almost hopelessly silly, and yet it prays that if the esteemed, "prestigious" actors look serious enough, maybe the audience will go along for the ride. It's painfully hilarious to watch actors like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard try to spin this garbage into something entertaining, something that the audience can be engaged by. Maybe there are some fans of the video game who will enjoy the mythology played out on a large scale, but at the same time, I have a feeling that they'll be bored by what's actually on screen. See, there's two problems with Assassin's Creed. The first is something that couldn't be changed- the mythology is ridiculous. It's goofy material, a weird blend of sci-fi and history that doesn't work. But the second problem is the execution, the direction of Justin Kurzel and the screenplay. Shake that up, and you might have an entirely different movie.

Kurzel has two stories to work with here- one set in the modern world, and one set during the Spanish Inquisition. Assassin's Creed clumsily bounces back and forth between the two tales, and neither one manages to feature any interesting characters or intriguing plotting. The two stories are threaded together by the general MacGuffin plotline involving the Apple, but it's clear that there should be other things going on in the film. There's another assassin character who interacts with Fassbender's Aguilar during the Inquisition scenes, and there are many other assassins who get minimal screen time in the modern pieces. We get nothing from any of these characters, and it all feels totally superfluous to whatever story the filmmakers are trying to tell. It doesn't help that Kurzel's direction is as dull and mundane as humanly possible, repeating the same action beat over and over while also giving us massive exposition dumps that are sleep-inducing. His direction is deprived of any flair, any energy, any sense of momentum to keep us engaged in the plot.

Assassin's Creed is also a hopelessly ugly film, one that is overwhelmed by both an absurd amount of dust and dirt during the historical moments, and a pristine, sterile look in the lab scenes. The fight scenes are some of the worst I've seen all year- the action exists without stakes, seeming content to be nothing more than a glorified parkour routine. But worst of all, Assassin's Creed is an incredibly forgettable film. It's awfulness doesn't overwhelm you- it sinks in deep, making you numb, giving you the sensation that you're a zombie watching total incoherence on the screen. I was thoroughly exhausted after this film, and not for a good reason. It just feels like a burst of nothing, a non-stop rush of bland action and copious amounts of world-building. Assassin's Creed is a movie where everything and nothing happens, which is indicative of a much larger problem in the sphere of Hollywood blockbusters.

Sure, maybe fans of the franchise will have a good time. I don't know the specifics of the games, so this could be seen as a faithful, entertaining adaptation. But as a standalone film, Assassin's Creed is miserable, dour, and nonsensical, another video game movie that will go down as a missed opportunity. I just felt bad for Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard while watching this disaster, a film that no amount of acting talent could save. Assassin's Creed is a film that will evaporate from your brain the moment you watch it. There are no memorable characters, no witty moments, no fun action scenes- this movie is a black hole. After all of this time, it looks like we're going to have to wait a little longer for the video game adaptation that finally brings the genre to life.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D                                                 (4/10)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Poster Credit: IMDB

'Jackie' review

Most audience members will go into Jackie expecting a traditional biopic of Jackie Kennedy, the former first lady who became an icon in the 1960s. They'll want a standard rise-and-fall narrative, the story of how she met JFK, how she created her classic style, how she handled life after her husband was killed. And when they see this film, they will be sorely disappointed. Pablo Larrain's Jackie is not your typical biopic, which is the film's greatest asset. This is a haunting, genuinely mesmerizing exploration of legacy, grief, and the American identity. By focusing on the immediate weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Larrain finds spectacular insight into the soul of a woman who created an alternate personality for the cameras, and discovers an astonishing sense of truth at the heart of the Camelot mythology.

Much of the credit will certainly go to Natalie Portman, who delivers a flat-out brilliant performance as the titular character in this film. But Jackie strikes a deeper chord. Yes, it's about Jackie, and yes, it's about the Kennedy family, but most importantly, it's a movie about our history as a nation and the creation of the legacy of our leaders. Larrain imagines Jackie as the creator of the Kennedy legacy, the woman who ensured that JFK would be remembered as one of the greatest presidents in history and the woman who molded the idea that Camelot was the last great dynasty in American history. By delving into these two fascinating, bold ideas, Larrain reaches new territory that few directors have ever explored. Jackie is an incredible film to dissect and discuss, but it's also a demonstration of sheer cinematic power. It's one of the best films of the year, and one that you simply can't miss in a very crowded awards season.

As I mentioned earlier, Jackie is not your standard portrait of a historical figure, instead opting to solely focus on the immediate aftermath of one of the defining events of American history. The film is framed around Jackie's interview with a reporter (Billy Crudup), who is attempting to get her unique perspective on the assassination. Through the course of this conversation, Jackie reflects on the course of the two weeks that changed her life, as well as the coping process that she used to push forward during a difficult time. Sure, the movie flashes back to the actual events, with individual scenes focusing on her relationship with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), but primarily, this is a movie about reflection. It's about the construction of a legacy, and how Jackie Kennedy pushed through during an incredibly tragic time to create something larger than life.

Jackie is a remarkable, distinct achievement, unlike any other biopic that I've ever seen. It unfolds in a docu-drama style, giving us a stark contrast between the behind-the-scenes world of the Kennedy family and the on-air appearance of decadence and smooth charisma. For most of the film, JFK exists merely as a shadow, an idea looming in the back of Jackie's mind as she finds a way to honor his legacy. This is a bold choice. Most filmmakers would feel tempted to show the interactions and daily life of the iconic First Family in a very personal way, especially when they're working with an actor who bears such an uncanny resemblance to JFK in Caspar Phillipson. But thankfully, Larrain knows that his film is not about him, and he restricts Phillipson's screen time to fleeting moments at the end of the story. In the world of Jackie, JFK is already gone, working merely as a presence that almost seems to haunt the former First Lady. But in his absence, Larrain seems to find an even more profound statement about the Kennedy dynasty, one that lingers in the mind long after leaving the theater. Jackie is a movie about its titular subject, but it is also keenly aware of the history that she created and the legacy that the Kennedy family left behind.

Of course, the movie is centered around Natalie Portman's towering, incredible performance as Jackie Kennedy. Here, Portman is tasked with essentially playing two characters- the version of Jackie that Americans saw on TV and the version of Jackie that existed behind-the-scenes. I'm not a historical expert by any stretch, but she nails the mannerisms and tone of an early 1960s television persona, very fake and meticulously controlled in her interaction with the public. But behind closed doors, Jackie's mind is a constant swirl of ideas, always laser-focused on the big picture. She lets others handle the minute details for the cameras, while she attempts to craft the legacy of her family. Portman gives Jackie a fiery command of her own, and her ability to convey both the vulnerability and strength of this famous figure is never short of amazing. She delivers one of the best performances of the year, and I would not be surprised if the Academy rewards her in February.

Most audience members will be surprised and thrilled by the way that Portman molds and re-shapes our perception of Jackie Kennedy, creating a portrait that is nothing short of definitive. Jackie exists as one of the most fascinating cinematic depictions of the Kennedy family and the assassination, which is no small feat. But what elevates this from being merely an exceptional exploration of a famous family to a compelling, dynamic portrait of the creation of American history is the terrific script by Noah Oppenheim and the outstanding direction of Pablo Larrain. These are two talented, intuitive filmmakers, and what they have done here is downright marvelous.

In one of the best scenes in the film, Jackie asks a limo driver several questions. "Do you know who William McKinley was?" The driver says he doesn't. "What about James Garfield?" He doesn't know him either. "Now, do you know Abraham Lincoln?" Of course, the driver knows him. Jackie sits back in her seat, almost with a half-smile on her face. All of those figures are American presidents who were assassinated. But only Lincoln has been remembered. Only Lincoln is memorialized in our nation's capital, only Lincoln is featured on our nation's currency. In the world that Larrain and Oppenheim create, Jackie wasn't going to let her husband's memory fade into oblivion like McKinley and Garfield. He was going to be remembered, he was going to be mourned, and he would leave a lasting legacy of strength and freedom. There needed to be a massive funeral procession, there needed to be horses and carriages and soldiers, and most importantly, the first family needed to be in the thick of it, leading the government and the country into the future. We've never seen a film that so keenly observes how history can become ingrained in our collective consciousness, and for that reason, Jackie exists on a totally different level when it comes to historical biopics.

But while Jackie manages to expand its horizons to examine the scope of American history at large, it never loses sight of the woman at the center of it all. The Kennedy/Camelot legacy was her doing, but why? Was it all because she wanted her husband to go down in the history books as the most iconic president of the 20th century? Was it due to the fact that "people need their history" as she says at one point during the film? Or was it for a deeper, more personal reason? Larrain certainly incorporates aspects of the former two, but the latter generates some interesting discussion and provokes quite a bit of thought. During the second half of the film, Jackie has several discussions with a priest, played by John Hurt. In one of their conversations, after most of the film centers on her desire to craft a lasting legacy for her husband and her family, Jackie finally relents and says that all of the excess was done for her own benefit. The elaborate funeral was a way for her to honor her husband and move on with her life, a fancy, sophisticated way of grieving a tragic loss. The fact that Larrain examines both legacy and grief so thoroughly in one relatively short film is a true accomplishment, making Jackie all the more impressive.

In addition to all of the fascinating subtext and historical analysis, Jackie is also an unforgettable cinematic experience. Much has already been said about Mica Levi's score, but let me heap on the praise some more. Levi's score wouldn't work outside the confines of the movie- it exists mostly as unnerving mood music, meant to underscore the horror and tragedy of the action. But while it probably wouldn't work as easy listening, it's impossible to imagine the movie without Levi's haunting chords in the background. The cinematography by Stephane Fontaine is extraordinarily well done, managing to feel both glossy and amazingly authentic. Jackie feels like a documentary at times, and that's due to a mix of Fontaine's beautiful images and the intimate camerawork of Larrain. The design elements are nothing short of perfection, with glorious costumes, beautiful locales, and breathtaking sets giving the film a sense of character.

But even with all of the carefully crafted design elements, Jackie will linger in your mind because of Portman's performance and the stunning examination of legacy, grieving, and America's past. This is the best film about America's history that I've seen in a long time, an essential watch for those hoping to gain an understanding of how legends and icons are created. And for those who admire Jackie Kennedy, I can't imagine any other film coming close to the level of depth and understanding that Jackie displays. Oscar season is crowded, and there are so many films that are competing for box office dollars. But even if it ends up falling out of the Best Picture race, Pablo Larrain's monumental work deserves your time and attention. Jackie is the real deal.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.4/10)

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Monday, December 26, 2016

Red band trailer for 'Alien: Covenant' teases Ridley Scott's gory return to the franchise

Considering the general disappointment that came with the film, I think it's easy to forget how highly anticipated Prometheus was back in 2012. People knew very little about it, and all Ridley Scott would say was that it had some kind of vague connection to the Alien franchise. The trailers teased a violent, scary sci-fi movie, but they also managed to make the connection to the iconic series all the more explicit. I was around 13 at the time, and I begged my parents to let me watch it (to no avail, of course). It was the R-rated spectacle that everybody wanted to see, and Fox did a great job of selling such a crazy, gory film. With such high levels of excitement from fans, Scott's return to the genre was almost destined to end in a massive letdown. The film received decent reviews from critics (72% on RT, 65 on Metacritic), but audiences were baffled by the philosophical questions raised, many of which were left open by the film's ending. I quite enjoyed the film myself, but it is a flawed, messy adventure. Five years later, Scott is returning with Alien: Covenant, which exists as a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus. On Christmas morning, Fox released the first red band trailer for the film. Check it out below!

Scott is certainly pulling no punches this time around, and this trailer drops us right in the middle of the gory, terrifying action. Covenant looks fairly brutal, and the shower scene at the end delivers the kind of blood-splattering action that fans love. Fox is clearly aiming to tease both the prequel and sequel aspects of the film- glimpses of face-huggers and Xenomorphs are seen, but there's also the return of Michael Fassbender's David. As for the cast, Katherine Waterston is an excellent actress, and she's the perfect choice to carry on the tradition of strong female leads in the Alien franchise. The supporting crew of red shirts is led by Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Callie Hernandez, Billy Crudup, and (possibly) James Franco, so I'd say we're in fairly good shape from a character perspective. If Scott is able to balance the simple thrills of Alien with the heady themes of Prometheus, Covenant is going to be nothing short of magnificent. The chilling mix of action and atmospheric creepiness in the trailer indicates that he's moving in the right direction, and the recent decision by Fox to move the film to May hints at high confidence levels. Overall, this is one of the movies that I just can't wait to see in 2017. Scott is coming off The Martian, one of the best movies of his career, and I think he's primed to give us an epic, vicious chapter in the Alien saga.

Alien: Covenant will debut in theaters on May 19.

Image courtesy of Fox

'Passengers' review

To lead things off, the marketing campaign for Passengers is a complete lie. That isn't the movie. The movie is based around an entirely different premise. If you wish to be "surprised" when you go into the theater, this review will contain SPOILERS. I'll try to keep it to the first act, but so many of my issues with this movie stretch into the final moments. You've been warned.

I first read the idea for Passengers several years ago, when the script was at the top of the annual Blacklist. The concept of the movie went something like this: "After his hibernation pod malfunctions, a male passenger decides to wake up a female passenger to avoid being alone for the rest of his life." This is still the general idea behind Passengers. It hasn't changed. But when Sony's marketing team tackled the film, they decided to skirt around this very important plot point. They merely positioned the film as a space-set romance between Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, a sweeping romance for the ages. Director Morten Tyldum even discussed how he wanted this movie to be the defining cinematic love story for this generation.

Passengers is a very misguided movie. I've seen some critics and commentators discuss the film like it's a total disaster, which isn't exactly true. There are some interesting elements in play here, as well as a pristine visual look that features some extremely strong design choices. It's a sleek, occasionally entertaining movie that has no idea what it wants to be. It's part romance movie, part esoteric space thriller, and part big-budget action movie, a strange combination that produces some bizarre and utterly baffling results. The decision to turn this into a grand scale romance movie (instant comparison is space Titanic) is so incredibly wrong, and the big action beats only grow more and more tedious as the movie plays on. Passengers could have been something great, but it ends up just being frustrating, and by the time the movie reaches its conclusion, you'll be scratching your head.

Passengers takes place on the starship Avalon, which is headed on a 120 year voyage to a colony planet. There are over 5,000 passengers on the ship, all hoping to start a new life on a brand new planet. One of those passengers is Jim Preston (Pratt), a mechanical engineer heading to Homestead II to discover a fresh world of opportunity. But during a disastrous meteor shower, something malfunctions with Jim's hibernation pod and he's woken up early. The Avalon is only 30 years into its 120 year voyage, which means that Jim is doomed to 90 years on his own. He believes that he may be able to go back to sleep, but it's no use- he fails and slowly accepts his fate. He spends a year on the ship alone, playing basketball and video games, talking to Arthur (Michel Sheen), the robot bartender, and wishing he was dead. One day, during a moment of extreme desperation, Jim notices a beautiful woman in one of the other pods named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).

Jim becomes enamored with Aurora, who it turns out is a journalist from New York who was heading to Homestead II to write a story about the experience of colonizing a new world. Jim is utterly obsessed, and after debating it for weeks, he decides that he needs to wake Aurora up. In his borderline suicidal desperation, Jim decides to throw away Aurora's life as well, just to save himself from being alone. But here's the catch- he doesn't tell Aurora. When she wakes up, she thinks that her pod just malfunctioned. Alone on one of the most beautiful space crafts in the universe, the two begin to fall in love, without disclosing the true origin of their relationship. But as other things on the ship start to show signs of danger, things may end up going in a slightly different direction.

It's hard to sum up the plot of Passengers past a certain point, because it gets into territory that sounds extremely confusing on paper. The second half of this movie is as mind-boggling as anything I've seen on the big screen this year, and it only grows more frustrating the more I think about it. And once again, it goes back to the basic concept and execution. While I've never read Jon Spaihts' original script, on paper, this is an unnerving thriller about morality, isolation, and certain death. This is not a light, poppy movie by any stretch of the imagination. For some reason that I just cannot explain, Morten Tyldum saw something different in Passengers. He saw an intergalactic love story, a movie about two people destined to be together under highly strange circumstances. He establishes such an interesting scenario, and then abandons it, settling for easy answers and Hollywood blockbuster cliches. It's disappointing and baffling in the worst possible way.

However, while many have said that the basic concept is the root of the movie's problems, I don't think that's the case at all. In fact, it's probably the greatest benefit. The idea of being doomed to a life of total solitude with the option of destroying someone else's life for your own selfish advantage is all kinds of intriguing, and there are so many fascinating directions to take this story. The problem is that the movie doesn't seem interested. Sure, it acknowledges the morality briefly, giving Aurora a time period to be mad at Jim when she finds out that he was the one who woke her up. But soon after, Laurence Fishburne shows up, everything on the ship starts blowing up, and we're back to "I love you, don't die on me!" The love story is so shallow, empty, and almost nonsensical, as there's genuinely no reason for Aurora to care about this guy at all. Whether we'd like to acknowledge it or not, Jim's character choice at the start of the movie is believable. Not correct or moral, but believable. A man driven to insanity through desolation would wake up someone to save himself. There's a realistic world where that happens. There is no realistic world where any of Aurora's character choices in the third act make sense. It just wouldn't happen and it's so thoroughly misguided that you'll probably be in utter disbelief.

In the days since this film was released, I've read any number of different takes on Passengers online. Some have positioned it as a thriller through the eyes of Aurora, a movie that would give off a vibe similar to 10 Cloverfield Lane. Some have positioned that it should be about the dynamics of living with someone who pretty much ended your life. Others have established it as a cyclical story, where Aurora is later faced to make a choice similar to what Jim had to do. But there's one similar thread running through all of these story ideas- anything is better than what's actually on the screen. Passengers doesn't make a lick of sense, and the ending is so monumentally dumb that it eliminates any prior goodwill that the film had. If anything, this film exists as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when heavy questions are tackled in a bad movie. Tyldum and the creative team took an interesting concept and turned it into a YA movie, which is bizarre on pretty much every level.

I've been laying much of the blame on Tyldum and the screenwriters, but I'm guessing there was some studio interference here as well. There's a moment in Passengers where it takes a sudden turn, setting itself up as an epic action movie without warning. The film ignores all of the previously established drama in order to tell a generic story about saving the dying spaceship. Laurence Fishburne's Gus Mancuso enters the story, they talk about the dynamics of the Jim-Aurora situation briefly, and then the movie turns into bland nonsense. There are no thrills or awe-inspiring moments of action in the final act, as it all feels forced and cookie-cutter, like every other space movie ever made. And while this feels like a conversation for another day, everything in the final act seems to be oddly justifying Jim's actions. Maybe I'm over-thinking the story, but there are plenty of little coincidences that seem to indicate that he did the right thing by practically ending this woman's life.

What makes the final act of Passengers all the more disappointing is that the build-up is......well, actually pretty good. I was into this film for a while, and I found it to be visually dazzling, uniquely original, and consistently engaging. The Avalon is wondrous and richly designed, bolstered by excellent effects work, the stellar cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, and some very impressive production design elements from Guy Hendrix Dyas. Passengers moves with an unnerving energy, and in the early goings, Chris Pratt is actually pretty good. The feeling of wasted potential hangs over this film, and when things go south, it becomes all the more devastating. In all honesty, you could probably walk out after 30 minutes and you wouldn't miss anything. When things get complicated, Tyldum goes generic, eliminating any impact that this film could have had on audiences.

Essentially, Passengers is a sleek, moderately entertaining film that should have never, ever been a love story. It's not a romantic story and it's not a grand space opera. It's a cold, scary morality play, one that tackles big ideas and themes on an epic stage. Unfortunately, Morten Tyldum didn't see things that way, so we get a movie that practically dissolves as it moves to its conclusion. You'll probably never be bored, but there's a sinking feeling of disappointment that's hard to shake, the idea that there are infinitely more interesting angles to take with this material. Passengers is a well-crafted failure, a movie that feels confused and ill-advised in the worst possible way.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.6/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

Friday, December 23, 2016

Denis Villeneuve in talks to direct 'Dune' reboot

I have a feeling that I'm going to be writing about Denis Villeneuve quite often over the next few years. After starting with an acclaimed foreign indie in 2010 (the Oscar-nominated Incendies), Villeneuve has steadily elevated his career to new heights on a yearly basis. He dazzled audiences with Prisoners, generated endless speculation with Enemy, and created one of the best white-knuckle thrillers in recent memory with Sicario, all before directing Arrival, an instant sci-fi classic that will go down as one of the best movies of 2016. The major studios have taken notice, and now, Villeneuve is getting ready to tackle bigger projects. Two days ago, the first trailer for Blade Runner 2049 sent cinephiles into a frenzy, reassuring any worried fans that the franchise was in good hands. Now, it appears that Villeneuve may be in contention to direct another science fiction property that could be quite enticing to fans of the genre.

According to an exclusive report from Variety, Villeneuve is in talks to direct Legendary's reboot of Dune, the classic series by Frank Herbert that failed to translate to the big screen in 1984. The story of Paul Atreides, the Dune series follows a set of adventures on Arrakis, a desert planet that has become the central point of conflict in an interstellar future. Directed by David Lynch, the 1984 was a failed attempt at creating a blockbuster franchise, and no Hollywood studio has tried to resurrect the series since. After acquiring the rights in a deal with the Herbert estate, Legendary producers Thomas Tull, Mary Parent, and Cale Boyter are going to take another stab at the classic property. There was no comment on the Variety report from Legendary.

Essentially, I'll just say that I trust Villeneuve with any project. He hasn't missed yet, and I love what I've seen from Blade Runner 2049 so far. I'm not familiar with Dune, but the idea of Villeneuve continuing to explore the sci-fi genre has my interest. Look for more info on that project in the near future.

Image Credits: Lionsgate, IMDB

Thursday, December 22, 2016

'Why Him?' review

Each year, there seems to be at least one dumb comedy released around the holiday season. This is an annual tradition, and it continues with Why Him?, a Christmas-themed comedy that pits James Franco against Bryan Cranston in a good, old-fashioned dad vs. boyfriend battle. Oddly enough, this is the fourth Christmas comedy of 2016, following in the footsteps of Almost Christmas, Bad Santa 2, and Office Christmas Party. I didn't see the first two on that list, but while the latter was good for a quick laugh, Why Him? doesn't do much good at all. It's a laborious, tiresome film, one that is just too long, too stupid, and too predictable. Sure, there's a funny moment or two, but in a film that runs a staggering 111 minutes, you're bound to find a needle in a haystack every once in a while. Ultimately, Why Him? is a film that is creatively running on empty, relying on shock humor, copious amounts of profanity, and sketch comedy situations to keep the audience engaged. It's a total miss, and a film that you can safely skip over the holiday weekend.

Ned Fleming (Cranston) is a regular, everyday Midwestern guy. He's a family-oriented businessman, with a loving wife (Megan Mullally), two beautiful children, and a printing company of his own. His oldest daughter, Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), is a successful student at Stanford, and she's the pride of his life. One Christmas, Stephanie invites the entire family out to California to meet her new boyfriend. Ned is initially reluctant to take the trip, as he prefers to spend his Christmas at home in Michigan. But out of love for his daughter, Ned decides to make the trip and meet her boyfriend, a development in Stephanie's life that comes as a surprise to everybody. When the family arrives in California, it turns out that things are even worse than Ned could have ever imagined.

Stephanie's new boyfriend is Laird Mayhew (James Franco), an internet multi-millionaire with an elaborate mansion and powerful tech company. Laird also has no filter, spouting off incessant amounts of profanity and sexual innuendo at every possible moment. Ned is taken aback that this is the man his daughter has chosen to date, and he develops an immediate distaste for Laird. After a series of awkward encounters, Laird asks Ned for his blessing to ask Steph to marry him. Ned laughs, and tells him no, much to Laird's surprise (he's not good at the whole social interaction thing). Over the course of the rest of the film, Laird tries to win over Ned, and then they eventually just spend time trying to screw each other over. It gets dumb pretty fast, I'm not gonna lie.

I don't know who the target audience is for Why Him?, and that's never a good sign for a movie like this. It feels like it was conceived as a family comedy, but at some point during production, the filmmakers decided that it'd be better if they went for a hard R rating. The result is nothing short of strange, a sentimental holiday comedy that is peppered with profanity (these guys love the F-bomb so much that it's practically part of the plot) and a wide range of gross-out gags. It's a comedy of contradictions, and if it wasn't so boring, maybe it would have been interesting. Instead, it's a movie that will work for nobody. It's far too raunchy for families, but it's too tame and sappy for the teenage and adult crowds. It exists in a void of nothingness, and I have a feeling that this movie will disappear quickly after its brief stint at the Christmas box office.

Why Him? is just an unlikable movie, inhabited by characters who are equally annoying and driven by a screenplay that feels sloppy and unnecessary. Even the combined charisma of Bryan Cranston and James Franco can't save this one. Well, for starters, it doesn't help that Cranston's Ned is one of the most insufferable comedic protagonists in recent memory. Director John Hamburg and co-screenwriter Ian Helfer really go out of their way to convey the divide between the Flemings and Laird, and it results in this weird stereotypical depiction of both mid westerners and Californians. Ned feels like a sketch of a human being- he's the basic idea of a suburban white dad without any semblance of a soul or any nuance. Cranston tries to make him charming, but it's so grating, and you just wish that he'd trust his daughter instead of constantly trying to deal with everything.

On the flip side, Laird is equally vapid and one-dimensional. Franco plays him as a puppy dog who's eager to please despite his unfiltered rants, but we never have enough reason to like or care about him. If Ned is what everyone thinks an everyday boring white dad is like, Laird is the essential cliche of a Silicon Valley tech mogul. He's brash and artsy, with ridiculous modern art, a totally paperless house, and a Japanese toilet system that results in some "hilarious" situations. The lead characters are both totally free of complexity or humanity, and their back-and-forth is never all that funny or entertaining, which is kinda the basis of the whole movie. The supporting crew is not much better, and the fact that very few actors can even pull off their character makes this hard to watch at times. Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, and Griffin Gluck are all wasted, and while Keegan-Michael Key has a bright spot or two, he's still stuck with a totally ridiculous character.

Why Him? is nearly two hours in length, and I have no idea why anybody involved with this film allowed it to get to that point. There are problems with the basic concept here, as well as the rote direction of Hamburg and the rather pedestrian execution. But maybe this thing would be more tolerable if it wasn't so absurdly long, extended to a length that just feels unbearable. The film has no narrative thrust or direction for the first hour, and by the time that it actually got around to moving the plot forward, I was just left hoping that it would end quickly (that didn't happen). Essentially, Why Him? is a movie that has both too much and too little happening. There's no engaging central story here, but there's a never-ending series of weird threads that continue to pop up at various points throughout the film. It's a slog after a while, and the lackluster pacing doesn't help matters.

But worst of all, Why Him? just isn't funny. It's stupid and lowbrow and lazy and it's predictable in both its comedic timing and its storytelling. This movie's idea of funny is having a dead moose be kept in a large tank of urine, having that tank later explode, and then having the moose's ballsack land on the face of a teenager. Yes, that's the kind of movie you're getting here. Look, I'm not opposed to gross-out humor. I'm a fan of raunchy comedies when they're executed well, but Why Him? is just poorly constructed on almost every level. So when a tiresome, humdrum comedy hits a low point like that, it just becomes time to give up hope entirely. This movie is a waste of time for everyone involved, and that includes the audience.

Why Him? is probably the most basic studio comedy imaginable, which most audience members will recognize from the very first scene. It's not offensive or aggressively awful, but the steady sense of tedium and the dull feeling of emptiness that this film provides is enough to justify heading to a different theater this holiday season. Despite the combined comedic talents of Franco and Cranston, this is a mostly unfunny, instantly disposable holiday film that has no idea why it exists or what kind of movie it should be. If you have to see one Christmas comedy this year, check out Office Christmas Party. It might not be high art, but at least there's a sense of fun and urgency. Why Him? is the total opposite of that- stale, forgettable, and utterly tedious.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.6/10)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Bloody, action-packed trailer debuts for 'John Wick: Chapter Two'

John Wick was one of the biggest surprise cult films in recent memory, taking the film world by storm in the fall of 2014. The hyper-violent action film received great reviews, and immediately became an iconic role for Keanu Reeves, who hadn't had a major success in years. The film didn't have much of an impact at the box office, grossing only $43 million in America and $86 million worldwide. However, that was more than enough to make a profit off the film's $20 million budget, and after a brief hiatus, Reeves and director Chad Stahelski are returning with John Wick: Chapter Two. Set to bring the dangerous hitman back into the world of organized crime for another adventure, Chapter Two has the potential to take the series to a whole new level. Check out the latest trailer for John Wick: Chapter Two below!

I only recently watched the original John Wick, which I had heard nothing but great things about for over two years. It's a good, pulpy action movie, schlocky trash elevated to a different level thanks to the steady direction of Stahelski and David Leitch, the icy charisma of Reeves, and the brutally stylish action scenes that almost feel balletic at times. Chapter Two looks to give us more of the same, and I'm more than okay with that. Not only have the filmmakers created a terrific character with John Wick, but they've created a universe that is fascinating and unique and a pure blast of fun. The addition of Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, and Common to the franchise feels perfect, and the operatic bursts of gory violence on display in this trailer look right on target for Mr. Wick. I don't have super high expectations for this film- after all, despite all of the hype and geek frenzy over the original, it's only a solid slice of gleefully violent pulp. But with all the pieces in place, I know that Chapter Two will deliver the goods.

John Wick will fight his way back into theaters on February 10, 2017.

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

'Fences' review

Fences is regarded by many as a full-blown American classic, so it was only a matter of time before August Wilson's iconic play made it to the big screen. Originally produced on Broadway in 1987 with a cast that included James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, and Courtney B. Vance, the play eventually won a series of Tony Awards, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Wilson. In 2010, Fences won even more Tony Awards for a new Broadway revival of the show, which starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. After nearly three decades, the show has finally been turned into a motion picture, and will be hitting movie theaters all over the country this weekend. A passion picture for Washington, Fences sees the Hollywood superstar reprising his role as Troy Maxson, as well as directing the adaptation. Billed as one of the hottest awards season contenders going into 2016, Fences is already generating plenty of Oscar buzz from critics across the country. But does it live up to the hype?

Absolutely. Sure, Fences does run into some of the issues that many have pointed out already in other reviews. It does feel confined by its stage origins, and the fascinating themes and dynamic characters can often feel slightly restrained by the limitations of the setting. But regardless of that, this is a compelling, rock solid film, one that relies on two show-stopping performances and a plethora of stellar dialogue to keep the audience's interest for well over two hours. The chemistry between the members of the small cast is apparent, and individual scenes carry a thought-provoking weight that sticks with you. Wilson's screenplay is outstanding, and the performances by Washington and Davis are nothing short of magnificent. This is the kind of film that delivers exactly what you expect, and it does so in an entertaining, thoroughly memorable way.

Fences tells the story of the Maxsons, an African-American family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy (Washington) is the patriarch of the family, a loud, brash, dominant personality who oddly lives his life in an understated, quiet manner. He works for a garbage company with his best friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), counts the days until the weekend, has a drink on Friday nights, and loves his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). But at the heart of this workmanlike grit, there's a seething discontent that eats away at Troy. He was a great baseball player, but because of the ugly racism of America, he was never given a chance in the major leagues. And despite the good things in his life, he's been stuck in the same place doing the same thing for almost two decades. In addition, his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), has a prickly, contentious relationship with him, and there seems to be a growing divide in the family. As additional drama pops up, Troy's life is thrown into total and complete chaos, while Rose, Cory, and the rest of the family attempt to pick up the pieces.

This a movie that is driven almost entirely by its spectacular cast, so it feels appropriate to start by talking about the wonderful performances in Fences. Denzel Washington will probably finish in a close second in the Oscar race to Manchester by the Sea's Casey Affleck, but he still delivers an incredible performance in this film. Troy is the center of the Fences universe, and everything that happens in the play revolves around him. It's a monumental role and a tough task for any actor, but if anyone can pull it off, it's Denzel Washington. With Troy, Washington finds a character who uses his larger-than-life personality to control the world around him and mask the inner discontent of his life. As things get out of hand quickly, you can see Troy trying to hold it all together. There's an odd mix of vulnerability, bravado, and insanity that comes with this part, and Washington does an incredible job of creating a complex, flawed character that audiences can empathize with and understand.

Viola Davis is the clear front-runner for Best Supporting Actress (while the fight over category fraud continues, she's in the Supporting race to stay), and in a particularly weak year for the category, she's going to walk away with the statue, especially after being shockingly defeated in 2011 by Meryl Streep. Davis is pretty muted during the first half, allowing Denzel to dominate the spotlight and control the progression of the narrative. But after one rather stunning plot development, Fences becomes Davis' film and she's a screen force to be reckoned with. Her "Oscar moment" has been on display in every single trailer and advertisement for the film, but that doesn't make it any less stunning when you see it play out in the film. The emergence of Rose as a strong, independent voice in the story is such an important moment, and Davis pulls it off with remarkable ease. She deserves the Oscar and it's not even going to be a contest.

Fences belongs to Washington and Davis, but the supporting actors have a chance to shine at every turn as well. Jovan Adepo has the largest part as Cory, who comes to blows with his father at many points during the story. Adepo is good at keeping his rage subdued, and every scene between him and Washington feels like it could boil over into a fist fight at any moment. Stephen Henderson is also excellent as Mr. Bono, the longtime friend of Troy and his co-worker in the sanitation business. Henderson is a warm, likable presence on the screen, and he has a scene late in the movie with Washington that is simply heartbreaking. Mykelti Williamson is great as Gabriel, Troy's brother who was permanently disabled in the war. Gabriel is a tragic character, but also an endearing one, and Williamson is able to successfully create that balance. Finally, Russell Hornsby is terrific as Lyons, although he's the only character who feels mildly slighted by the script. Nonetheless, his rhetorical back-and-forth with Washington is often hilarious. Audiences will be attracted to Fences because of the stunning cast, and they will not be disappointed by this truly impressive ensemble.

Washington's direction in this film isn't too flashy, preferring to execute each scene in a straight, workmanlike fashion. But while his film doesn't have the cinematic virtuosity of something like Chazelle's La La Land or Jenkins' Moonlight, Washington still finds creative, compelling ways to bring the themes of Wilson's work to life on the big screen. At its core, Fences is a story about a man who sees himself in a constant battle against God, against Satan, and against life itself. Troy's life is a simple one, but it's marred by tragedy, regret, and missed opportunities, and while he has fought off the demons in the past, he can't do it forever. Washington establishes the setting and the characters with precision, and slowly builds the plot to its shattering climax. I don't know if Fences ever hits an emotional tipping point, but there's an assured confidence to every moment, and the end result is nothing short of consistently fascinating.

Fences is an intense, well-acted movie with an astonishingly good screenplay that will keep you gripped for 138 minutes. It tackles some interesting ideas, features a few standout moments, and introduces some dynamic characters. For what it's setting out to do, Fences hits the mark and stands as an accomplished, exceptionally crafted film. The inherent issue of bringing this masterful play to the big screen is that it never really has the opportunity to live and breathe as a piece of cinema. Fences doesn't really have much in the way of cinematic flair, which is why I don't see myself revisiting this one in the future. It does just about everything right, but by adapting such a dialogue-heavy piece of work, Washington was always setting himself up for this. The film is still vibrant and engaging, but the basic limitations of the story prevent it from ever soaring to life.

Nonetheless, even though it does stick very closely to its Broadway origins, Fences is still a film that will connect with a lot of people. The audience at my screening was surprisingly lively, laughing, gasping, and even applauding at various points during the film. Denzel Washington hasn't created any kind of masterwork here, but he has taken an exceptional play and translated it to the big screen in an incredibly effective fashion. Led by the Oscar-worthy performances of Viola Davis and Washington himself, as well as Wilson's terrific adaptation of his own play, Fences is a spellbinding, endlessly captivating rendition of a great American saga. It stands out as a riveting Christmas treat in a season that has been defined by some truly lackluster movies.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                               (8/10)

Image Credits: IMDB

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Announcement trailer for 'Blade Runner 2049' showcases the return of Rick Deckard

The possibility of a Blade Runner sequel has been swirling around for years, with Ridley Scott continually expressing interest in exploring the dystopian adventures of Rick Deckard in a follow-up film. Scott seemed to finally get the project off the ground a few years ago, but as the director moved forward on his Alien/Prometheus sequel as well (next year's Alien: Covenant), Warner Bros. has enlisted another director to bring Blade Runner back to the big screen. That director is Denis Villeneuve, the man behind Prisoners, Sicario, and this year's Arrival. Villeneuve has become one of the breakout directors of the last few years, thanks to his intelligent, engaging thrillers. He went from rising star to household name in a matter of half a decade, and next year, Villeneuve will get his first chance to prove himself on the big blockbuster stage. In addition to having a talented director at the helm, Blade Runner 2049 has an exceptional cast, led by Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, and Jared Leto. Roger Deakins is shooting the film, Johann Johannsson is doing the score, and Hampton Fancher (screenwriter of the original) is penning the script. The pieces are there, and this movie has the potential to be something incredible. Check out the announcement teaser below!

This just looks incredible on pretty much every single level. I don't even have much more to say than that. Villeneuve has not only seemingly captured the futuristic techno landscape of Scott's original film, but he has also added an impressive, visually stunning element to the iconic world. Ryan Gosling has been on a spectacular roll with The Big Short, The Nice Guys, and La La Land, and he looks like just about the perfect fit to follow in Harrison Ford's footsteps as the lead of this franchise. The only other character we see in this teaser is Deckard himself, who approaches Gosling's LAPD Officer K with a gun in the final scene. The synopsis released yesterday has generated immediate comparisons to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. This initial trailer doesn't give us much in the way of plot or character, but it does a terrific job of recreating the feeling and look of the original Blade Runner film. The rainy atmosphere, the slow pacing, the steady musical beats- everything is so spot-on. It looks like Villeneuve has knocked this out of the park, and I can't wait to see more. I'll be honest, I wasn't even expecting a trailer until well into next year, so the fact that Warner Bros. has given us this brief look is very exciting.

Certainly one of my most anticipated movies of next year, Blade Runner 2049 will hit theaters on October 6, 2017.

Image Credit: IMDB

Sunday, December 18, 2016

'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' review

We've reached a new age with the Star Wars franchise. The release of a new film in George Lucas' iconic series will no longer be a monumental event, but simply a yearly occurrence. A year ago from this date, J.J. Abrams unleashed The Force Awakens, sending fans into a frenzy and breaking box office records around the globe. Next year at this time, Rian Johnson's Episode VIII will be hitting theaters, and in the subsequent years, new Star Wars films from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and Colin Trevorrow will be the focus of much speculation and discussion. Kathleen Kennedy has seemed to indicate that she hopes that Star Wars will be the "forever franchise," and judging by the extreme interest in each and every bit of news surrounding the saga, her wish may just come true. Simply put, the dynamics of the Star Wars franchise have changed forever, but there's no question that the excitement is still there for each and every installment.

While it never reached the heights of the buzz for The Force Awakens, there was still a healthy dose of anticipation for Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It wasn't an official chapter in the Skywalker story, but there was still plenty of reason to be pumped for the first stand-alone adventure in the Star Wars universe. Billed as a direct predecessor to Episode IV, Rogue One was finally going to be the epic, entertaining prequel that fans had been waiting to see. The return of Darth Vader, the promise of a grittier, more violent war film, and the continued emphasis on practical effects created a perfect storm of enthusiasm, and three dynamite trailers only pushed us closer to mass hysteria. Sure, the rumors of reshoots were troubling, but when positive reactions emerged from the world premiere, many were sure that we were about to witness something truly special and unique in the Star Wars universe.

There's a lot to like about Rogue One. It's a movie that makes some beautiful design choices, with a focus on retro technology, visceral action, and distinct locales. Star Wars fans cried out for more realistic, old-school effects after the CGI excess of the prequels, and Disney has more than answered their calls. Plus, there's a third act battle scene that delivers the geeky goods as a group of rebels make their final push for the Death Star plans. So yes, on the surface, Rogue One looks like a blast. But it's also one of the most disappointing movies of the year. The first spin-off installment in the new age of Star Wars may feel like a noticeable change of pace from our previous adventures in a galaxy far, far away, but that doesn't mean that its skill as a film matches its lofty ambitions. As great as Rogue One looks, it's a hollow, stagnant film, one that feels totally superfluous in the grand scheme of the Star Wars universe. Story cohesion, character development, and pacing feel like secondary concerns compared to the pristine visual look of Rogue One, and while the effects are a marked improvement, this movie feels like a slog. I'm a huge Star Wars fan, so it pains me to admit this- Rogue One is a major misfire.

Taking place just before the events of A New Hope, Rogue One follows the journey of a ragtag group of rebels who are in pursuit of the plans for the Death Star, the Empire's all-powerful superweapon. After a brief prologue that depicts how Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was kidnapped by Empire science director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and forced to build the Death Star, we flash-forward to the present, at a time of great desperation for the Rebellion. Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is on the hunt for some precious information, and he hears from a spy that the Empire has a major weapon and that the plans could be out there. On the other side of the galaxy, there's Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Galen's daughter who is currently behind bars. The rebellion breaks her out, hoping that she'll be able to help with the mission to find her father. She reluctantly agrees and travels with Cassian and his robot assistant, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), to Jedha.

Meanwhile, Galen sends rogue Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to Jedha to find Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an old Clone War fighter who has played an important role in the Erso family history. While Jyn and Cassian are on Jedha, they meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), two warriors who protect the streets. They're all arrested by some of Saw's men, but when he realizes that Jyn is among them, he lets them go, passing on Galen's message and encouraging the group of rebels to save the rebellion by recovering these plans. After a brief detour with Galen on the planet Eadu, the rebel alliance must come together to steal the plans and give some semblance of hope to the cause. With a depleted army and high stakes, can they pull it off? Well, you already know the answer to that.

For a movie with such a simple setup ("Rebels steal Death Star plans"), Rogue One sure is complicated. Maybe I made the plot sound more coherent than it actually is in that synopsis, but I literally had to go back and look up certain details to fill in the holes. In the first 20 minutes of Rogue One, the filmmakers cut back and forth between so many different planets in such a short time span that I had trouble keeping up. Oh, and keep in mind- I'm a huge Star Wars fan. I spent my childhood obsessing over the details of planets, ships, and characters, and I knew some pretty obscure figures in the Star Wars universe. Rogue One expects the audience to absorb too much information in too short of a time span, resulting in a film that somehow manages to feel both rushed and sluggish at the same time. Because despite the rapid fire pace of the info dump that occurs in the first half of this film, it's all exposition. It's a relentless barrage of character details and plot mechanics, and after a while, it just disintegrates into nothingness.

It'd be one thing if there was an excessive amount of backstory to establish character motivations and set up a payoff for later in the film, but Rogue One never builds to that point. It just drags and drags along until the movie decides that things need to happen. When our characters return to the Rebel base to discuss what they've learned from Saw and Galen, the movie just suddenly jumps into action after bumbling around for the past 90 minutes. So without fail, Jyn starts giving speeches, random rebels grab their weapons, her main friends gather around her, and the rebel alliance storms the beaches of Normandy (figuratively, of course, but this was certainly a deliberate decision by Edwards) to save the galaxy from certain destruction. What follows is a prolonged action sequence that delivers all the Star Wars goods, including an aerial battle, a brutal ground fight, and ultimately, a scene where Darth Vader just straight-up murders people. The third act is driving audiences wild, and it's not too hard to see why fans are leaving the theater on a high.

But does Rogue One earn any of this excitement? No, not really. Sure, that final battle scene is cool. As a Star Wars fan, it was probably the part of the movie that I enjoyed the most. However, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that the third act ends up being nothing more than a flashy, mildly enjoyable exercise in action filmmaking. There are no real stakes, because you know that they're gonna get the plans in the end. And more disappointingly, there are no real emotional stakes, because not a single character in Rogue One actually manages to be interesting. You don't have an investment in whether any of these people live or die, with the possible exception of Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe. I certainly have my fair share of problems with the film's story and the way that the narrative feels like a total mess, but the root of Rogue One's failure lies in its inability to create interesting, dynamic characters.

When discussing Star Wars, I often go back to the infamous Red Letter Media Plinkett reviews, a web series that condensed every issue that fans had with the prequels into one cohesive, hilarious argument. Over the course of three reviews, I think it's far to say Plinkett changed the future of Star Wars. If you watch those reviews and then watch The Force Awakens, it's clear that Abrams took many of their complaints to heart. They discuss practical effects, intimate lightsaber battles, and a focused narrative in their reviews, and the seventh installment of the saga reflects all of those changes. But one of their funniest bits comes in relation to the prequel's characters. In the review of The Phantom Menace, the character of Plinkett asks several of his friends to describe characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Padme Amidala without mentioning their race, gender, occupation, or what they look like. All of the friends fail miserably. Rogue One may have heeded many of the warnings of the Plinkett crew, but they didn't listen to this important grievance.

The characters in this movie are thoroughly uninteresting and it starts with Jyn Erso. As much as I like Felicity Jones, she can't pull off a paper thin character with scattered motivation. After that aforementioned prologue scene, we first meet adult Jyn when she's in handcuffs, arrested for some mysterious crime (the trailers seemed to go into more detail). She agrees to join Cassian because of her love for her father, but she's by no means loyal to the rebel cause. Jones is given nothing to do for nearly half the movie, until Jyn steps up to be the hero that the rebels deserve. Why? Because the movie needs her to, I guess. Jyn isn't a likable protagonist, and there's no real reason that we should care about her. She's defined by her utility to the plot, not her charm as a character or her arc over the course of the story. Jyn has no hidden dimensions, nor does she undergo a natural change over the 133 minute runtime. She's whoever the narrative needs her to be at the time, and that's a huge mistake that fundamentally undermines the film.

The supporting characters are no better, and while a few may become fan favorites, I doubt that any will have enduring appeal. The most likely to become a breakout star is K-2SO, the snarky robot voiced by Alan Tudyk. He has some funny moments, but sarcastic robots have been done better in other movies. Donnie Yen's Chirrut Imwe is a likable presence, though I still have no idea why he joins the crew or who his character really is. Yen has great chemistry with Jiang Wen, but the movie just left me wishing that Chirrut and Baze had more development. Diego Luna's Cassian Andor is pretty much an empty shell of a character, made worse by the fact that I saw glimmers of potential in the conflicted rebel spy. There was a real opportunity for Cassian to represent the murky morality of war, but all of those themes feel so forced in Rogue One that Cassian ends up just being another cipher in a cast filled with them.

Riz Ahmed has really broken out in recent years thanks to his roles in Nightcrawler and The Night Of, but here, he's given a thankless part that only exists to move the plot along. Bodhi is defined entirely by his respect for Galen, and I never understood why he was on this mission or why he defected from the Empire. Ben Mendelsohn is another great character actor, and while he has fun chewing the scenery as the big bad, Director Krennic isn't given much to do. It's equally disheartening to watch excellent performers like Forest Whitaker and Mads Mikkelsen existing purely as exposition dumps, but that's the nature of the franchise game. It's just tough to watch a cast of talented people struggle under the weight of a misguided script, searching for anything to inject passion into a boring story. There are so many points in Rogue One where the characters seem disinterested, and when they have no emotional investment, why should the audience?

This is the fundamental issue at the heart of Rogue One, and it's why even the crowd-pleasing third act doesn't work for me. It's a movie that is rendered completely pointless by its ending, and I still don't know why it had to exist beyond "Disney needs money!" I would criticize director Gareth Edwards or the screenwriters, but with all of the talk of reshoots, I don't really know who is responsible for this movie. But in the end, it feels cobbled and forced, cut in a way that pushes it forward limply even as the movie seems to resist any forward progress. Fan service elements pop up at various intervals to reinforce that, yes, this is a Star Wars movie, distracting from the actual plot that isn't all that compelling. Oddly enough, Edwards always said that he fashioned Rogue One as an ensemble movie, an old-fashioned war picture in the vein of The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven. Those movies are defined by two things- likable, well-developed characters and simple plots. Rogue One has neither, and thus, it falls apart.

Sure, it's not a painful movie to watch. It's never aggressively bad, but it is aggressively tedious. Star Wars movies should be fun and exciting, filled with energy, pathos, and humor, and driven by a mythological sense of storytelling. Rogue One is the antithesis of that. It's flat and surprisingly humdrum, dragging along at a snail's pace until a contrived jolt of intensity is thrown in during the finale. It delivers the action goods that everybody wants to see in a Star Wars movie, and I guess people are really loving the ending that leads directly into the main saga. But where others saw innovation and cinematic pizzazz, I saw a movie that was constantly trying to justify its own existence. Enthusiasm is high for Rogue One at the moment, and with stellar box office grosses, Lucasfilm's extended universe is off to a fast start. But when the dust settles, there's no doubt in my mind that this initial Star Wars Story will be viewed as a jumbled, disjointed miscalculation.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.8/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo