Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Eight is Not Enough: Quentin Tarantino's at it Again with “The Hateful Eight”

Chapter One
Director's Strut

He's only eight films in and yet it feels like Quentin Tarantino has been making films since they were invented. It's probably because he's tried every genre under the sun and pays homage and even copies film after film and yet every single movie he makes is undeniably his own. “The Hateful Eight" is no different. His third film set in the historical past might actually be his most ambitious yet for he has the cojones to set his nearly three hour film in a snow covered wagon and then in one room the whole time. He even doesn't mind that his characters spout out the N word over and over again. Of course the film is set just a few years following the Civil War. And the entire film can be read as an allegory of this country's complicated (and unfortunately still complicated) relationship with racism; obvious leftover sentiments from his slavery blaxploitation extravaganza “Django Unchained.” The film is of course extremely fun – once it's plot becomes clear it's essentially a whodunit mystery dressed as a western.

Chapter Two
The Plot Thickens

When you see a Quentin Tarantino film you should be prepared for several guaranteed situations: long scenes of talky dialogue and over-the-top violence. The Hateful Eight has those scenes in spades. It doesn't disappoint. What's so fascinating is how all of this remains so fascinating even though there isn't much changing scenery. Essentially Tarantino has delivered his most play-like film to date. Which feels ironic that it also feels like his most cinematic: he and cinematographer Robert Richardson broke out the old school film cameras and shot the whole thing in large format 65mm film. The film basically has two locations. The first hour or so is set inside a cold horse drawn carriage as bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell at his most Kurt Russelly) is escorting female prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) which has instantly become one of my favorite character names ever. They come across another bounty hunter and former Union soldier Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who's escorting some dead bodies. They're instantly suspicious of each other which sets the tone for the rest of the film. With a bad snow storm on their tails, they hole up at a local haberdashery and seek shelter with the other fellas there. It's a bunch of other fishy characters… and they're, also hateful.

Leigh instantly stands out for two reasons. First of all, she's pretty much the only female character in the film which feels weird since Tarantino does usually feature some pretty awesome women in his films. He puts all of his talented and bizarre energy into this zany character who speaks very little but yet says so much. Of course nothing is quiet coincidental in this type of film and soon a mystery brews and characters are picked off as if it were an 80s slasher film. There are surprises, crazy revelations, and in true Tarantino fashion a non-traditional narrative structure. Just because a character dies doesn't me they won't appear in the rest of the film. Every actor his is at the top of their game including past Tarantino staples Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and newcomers Walton Goggins and Demian Bichir who round out the hateful eight. Richardson's photography is gorgeous and Ennio Morricone's first Hollywood original score in years is delightful.

Chapter Three
This is the End

By now you know whether you like Tarantino's films or not. Odds are if you're a fan you'll most likely enjoy his latest offering. It feels like he's trying to do something different but it also feels like a comfortable pair of shoes. He's crafted another ingenious film that celebrates cinema in a way few other modern filmmakers are capable of. He always features top notch ensembles and this film is no exception. Everyone is great including a scene-stealing Leigh. I was also really impressed with Goggins who many people have enjoyed on TV's “Justified.” It's fascinating that Tarantino has so much to say in The Hateful Eight about modern society when it comes to race and he does it in a film that feels like a Western version of “Clue.” As a Tarantino fan it's a film that's hard to hate. Keep 'em comin' Quentin, eight films is not nearly enough.  GRADE: A-  

Trailer for The Hateful Eight on TrailerAddict.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bale Out: “The Big Short” is a Confusing, Boring Misfire

“The Big Short” can best be described as a Woody Allen film filtered through “The Wolf of Wall Street.” That sounds like a winning combination to me but since pretty much all of Woody Allen's films are talky and slow (even though he's one of my all time favorite directors) it makes sense that “The Big Short” is riddled with talky scenes of guys in suits jabbering off financial terms the film is well aware you don't understand. That's why it even condescends to its audience by defining words up on the screen for you and uses random celebrity cameos to explain things you may not otherwise understand. It's too bad the movie didn't also come with CliffsNotes. The film is about the “housing bubble” that occurred before the financial crisis that began back in 2008. It's a ripe area for irreverent, sarcastic filmmaking unfortunately Martin Scorsese already made a film that, while not specifically about the mortgage crisis, was basically a statement on it anyway. Here we have another great ensemble, who actually give it their all, wasted on an uninteresting and disorienting script and overly flashy direction.

Director Adam McKay is known for making silly comedies that star Will Ferrell. You know the ones: there's Anchorman, and Talledga Nights, Step Brothers, and even Anchorman 2. And now he's gone and made his own “Annie Hall.” Except that it's no “Annie Hall.” It's his attempt at more mature, “serious” filmmaking. He even employs lots of the same directorial tricks that have been used countless times before. He has all his characters directed address the audience. There's split screens and freeze frames and random insert shots that reflect the times. He even sneaks in his a clip of his own popular internet short “Pearl the Landlord.” In the end, none of this trickery works. You can give me the flashiest editing, the zoomiest, shakiest documentary-like camera but if I don't care about what the characters are saying or don't understand what they're doing, I’m not going to have a very enjoyable time.

It's not quite fair to compare “The Big Short” to “The Wolf of Wall Street” but it's hard not too. Martin Scorsese is a master filmmaker. He knows what he's doing. He can take dispicable characters and make them utterly fascinating to watch. No one in “The Big Short” is fascinating. Not the strange Asperger's suffering hedge fund guy played by Christian Bale. Not the overly tan, cocky guy played by Ryan Gosling. Steve Carrell isn't even funny in this supposed comedy. That's okay he's been taking on more serious roles anyways. Case in point his Oscar nominated dramatic turn in last year's phenomenal “Foxcatcher.” Brad Pitt is here in a supporting role and subplot that involves bright start ups played by Finn Wittrock and John Magaro; all of these guys might as well be speaking Swedish, it would have all made more sense.

It's obvious what the point of “The Big Short” is. It's an all-star cast with a meaty script and interwoven storylines that must be like catnip to actors. And this thing is filled with dudes: blink a few times and you'll miss Marisa Tomei and Melissa Leo. I think the film is supposed to be a comedy: I definitely didn't laugh. It's a film that certainly has something to say. I think it definitely does; it's too bad you need a financial degree to truly get anything out of it.  GRADE: C-  

Trailer for The Big Short on TrailerAddict.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Cool Hand Luke: “Star Wars The Force Awakens” is Everything You Want it to Be

Even the most casual Star Wars fans have to admit how much fun “The Force Awakens” is. It's one of the most hyped films of this or any year and is destined to break every conceivable box office record. At least the movie deserves it because it certainly lives up to the hype and is a flat-out rollicking good time. Is it the best movie ever made? No. Is it the best film of the year? No. Is it the best Star Wars movie? It's hard to argue against that: only the die hard fans who like ALL SIX previous entries would be hard pressed to argue against “The Force Awakens” at least being on the same level as the original trilogy. Though it's probably the thirty two years since “Return of the Jedi” that would make anyone salivating for a glimpse at original characters Luke, Leia, and Han that make the wait worth it. “Star Wars The Force Awakens” works because director JJ Abrams (who also successfully reinvented Star Trek for modern audiences) has given his film an equally old school and modern vibe that feels like a comfortable pair of shoes. Best of all the film is purely and simply fun, which is what George Lucas intended a long time ago.

No film review for a new Star Wars film would be complete without describing the plot but since it's one of the most secretive and hyped films ever what would be the point. Would describing the storyline really make anyone want to see the movie more than they already do? The plot is just fine. In fact it's not very far off from similar events we saw back in the 1977 original. We get a mix of human characters – who are all fantastic and instant classic additions to this world – and new droids and creatures who fit right in as well. One new character who practically needs no introduction is the spherical droid BB-8 who is one of the most charming and intriguing characters in quite some time. Like R2-D2 in the original series, BB-8 conveys such much personality and emotion without ever saying a word. All we get is a bunch of beeps, boops, and gestures. The practical mechanical effects are jaw-dropping. Most actors working these days should be severely jealous of this character. The new humans are great too there's Rey (Daisy Ridley) a longer scavenger, Finn (John Boyega) a storm trooper with a big heart, and Poe (Oscar Isaac) a top Resistance pilot. The bad guy is Kyo Ren (Adam Driver) leader for the nefarious New Order and this mysterious new character makes for a fascinating Darth Vader-like villain. The familiar characters from the original trilogy appear in varying roles. It's wonderful seeing them again. You'll probably cry just at the sight of them.

Enough of that. It must be said that many wondered what a Star Wars film would be like without the imput of its creator George Lucas. The torch has been carefully passed. Everything hear feels like something Lucas would approve from the look of the weird creatures who populate this world to the past references and allusions to the previous films. You get the sense of respect that Abrams has brought to the film. And it makes sense as one of Abrams co-screenwriters was none other than Lawrence Kasdan who also co-wrote Episodes V and VI. "Little Miss Sunshine" screenwriter Michael Ardnt gets credit as well. I was actually quite surprised at the overall look of the film. Abrams is known for his visual style that he brought to the Star Trek films like shakey camera, fast editing, and all those lens flairs. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel tones things down fittingly as if every executive was hovering over him the entire time. He somehow gives the film an old school look with modern effects that works magically. The 3D also adds another level of fun; there are so many ships, lasers, and lightsabers coming out at you the film not surprisingly feels like a Disney World ride. And let's not forget John Williams music which is probably half of the reason why Star Wars was so successful in the first place.

“Star Wars The Force Awakens” is pretty much everything you'd expect but offers enough surprises and entertainment even for more casual viewers. It's a reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place. It's exploits the idea that we can be taken to another world just by gazing at a light-filled screen. You're literally watching movie magic. Abrams has taken into account so much of what people love about these films and made something that's truly difficult to not flat out enjoy. It's fun, it's dramatic, it's funny, it has visual flair, the effects are amazing, the music soars, the acting is very good. It's hard to find much to complain about here... Ok, you can go about your business, move along. GRADE: A-  

Trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Ship Happens: “In the Heart of the Sea” is a Harrowing, Though Not Particularly Moving, Survival Epic

The auteur theory is a concept in film criticism that suggests a film’s director is solely responsible for a film’s creative vision. The theory holds true for many famous film directors whether it is Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick, etc. They had, or have in Woody’s case, a distinctive style that’s unique to them. If any popular Hollywood director working these days is the complete opposite of this this theory than Ron Howard is it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just means he works in so many different genres and with so many different crew members be it cinematographers, editors, or composers that no two of his films look, feel, or sound the same. He’s obviously doesn’t feel pigeonholed to one “type” of movie. His latest effort, the real life survival story “In the Heart of the Sea,” is another peculiar entry in Howard’s canon. He’s made true life survival stories (“Apollo 13”) and period pieces (“Far & Away”) but the last time he directed something having to do with the sea it was the mermaid comedy “Splash.” This high-seas survival, man vs. nature story is a first for Howard and he mostly succeeds.

As strange as it sounds, “In the Heart of the Sea” is most like Howard’s previous film the Formula 1 racing drama “Rush” in that d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle brings the film to life visually in a way that no previous Ron Howard film had been. Dod Mantle’s camerawork is simply stunning, and even if it’s dotted with obviously computer generated imagery, some of these shots are simply amazing. Howard’s film has always been mostly about telling a story that appeals to the masses with emphasis on character more so than fancy cinematography. “In the Heart of the Sea” almost relies too much on its look as we never fell too emotionally invested in the story or characters.

The film is set in Nantucket, Massachusetts circa 1820 and follows the whaling ship Essex as it hunts sperm whales for their pricy oil. First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) holds a grudge against young Captain George Pollard who’s only captain because he comes from wealth. This rivalry is soon overshadowed by that of a particularly enormous sperm whale that proceeds to wreak havoc on the ship and its crew. This story is told in flashback as dictated to “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) from a surviving crew member played by Brendan Gleeson. His younger self is played by Tom Holland from the fantastic film "The Impossible."  The film’s plot structure reminded me of “Lifeof Pi;” a story device that I didn’t especially care for in either film. The film quickly becomes a men stranded at sea survival story reminiscent of the most harrowing parts of last year’s underrated “Unbroken.” The film has distinctly gruesome moments probably because being stranded at sea without food or water can’t be particularly fun.

However, any attempt to become emotionally invested in these characters is squandered on Howard’s striking visuals. There’s nothing truly wrong with Charles Leavitt’s script but Howard seems more concerned with his visual aesthetics: this is of course the director’s first man vs. beast story and the distressing survival elements here do pack a wallop. I also enjoyed Roque Baños’ score though I would have loved to hear what Hans Zimmer or the late James Horner, both of whom regularly work with Howard, would have come up with. “In the Heart of the Sea” is a great story of survival; there’s nothing really bad about it but it doesn’t necessarily go above and beyond within the standards of the genre. It has plenty of the welcomed visual flair leftover from “Rush” which gives the period set drama a modern look that sort of just works. I wish I felt more by the film’s end but it’s another welcomed entry on Howard’s one-of-a-kind diversified filmography. GRADE: B

Theatrical Trailer for In the Heart of the Sea on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Boxing Day: The Emotionally-Charged “Creed” is an Enthralling Knock Out

I could care less about boxing. But I tend to love boxing movies. What's up with that? I guess there's something fascinating in the inherent drama associated with the intimacy of the sport of face-to-face fighting that makes for terrific cinematic fodder. Just look at the cannon: Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter. Rocky IV. All classics. Sort of. Add “Creed” to the list. It's a fantastic spin-off of the never-ending and ever popular “Rocky” franchise. It's movie series as American as apple pie. This time an unquestionably retired Rocky Balboa trains his friend Apollo Creed's son. It's a Rocky film for the modern age directed with style and flair by “Fruitvale Station's” Ryan Coogler and is every bit as rousing as any of the other films in the series. It might even be the best one.

The film follows a troubled young Adonis Johnson as he's custody of the state until Mary Anne Creed shows up and decides to take in the illegitimate child of her deceased husband Apollo Creed. Mary Anne is played by The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad and is unfortunately one of two main female characters. Sports dramas, even in this day and age continue to be male-centered. But I digress. Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) grows up and has a knack for boxing like his great father but he refuses to use his father's name as to be his own person. That doesn't stop him from traveling to Philadelphia to look up the great Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, in a surprisingly Oscar-worthy performance) in hopes of being trained by the former World Heavyweight Champion. Like the audience attending another Rocky flick, Mr. Balboa is extremely hesitant to go down that road again. It turns out to be worth it for everyone. The young Creed even romances a young female musician in his apartment and the two share a predictable but well-developed relationship.

“Creed” is a fantastic film from beginning to end. And it's a boxing movie with only two fight scenes. Both of which are not only both shot amazing well, but completely different. The first fight scene which consists of a two round boxing match is shot by cinematographer Maryse Alberti in one complete unbroken take. It's simply astonishing. The amount of energy, excitement, and intimacy she's able to capture is just amazing. The final fight is broken with edits but not with the overly flashy editing style movies are known for today. Coogler's film feels gritty and modern and yet completely classical all at once. Its also a testament to the script (written by Coogler and Aaron Covington) that feels by the books and yet transcends all of one's expectations for how well it's executed.

“Creed” is successful even though it follows the underdog story formula, but it's boosted tremendously by fantastic performances and an emotional connection between the characters. Rocky and Adonis share a father-son relationship that is so well-fleshed out and the actors have so much chemistry you'd think this was their tenth film together. Even a development later in the film which could have seemed overwrought, out of the place, and emotionally manipulative feels genuine and organic within the story. You shouldn’t expect to watch an underdog tale and not be moved to tears. Even Adonis' romance with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) never feels out of place or forced. And lastly the movie has plenty of references to the previous films for the fans but it also stands heavily on its own; one doesn't even need to have seen the earlier films to fully enjoy it.

Fans of the “Rocky” series are sure to love this new installment. It may not provide the cheesy thrills of the series' later entries but it features terrific performances, an emotionally charged underdog story, and terrific camerawork. It's certain to win over the most jaded film-goers who think they've seen this all before. It certainly packs a wallop.  GRADE: A

Trailer for Creed on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Slay Ride: The Decent “Krampus” is an Uneven Throwback Holiday Horror-Comedy

If “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation” and “Poltergeist” found each other on and had reproduced it would be “Krampus.” Unfortunately, it's not as, respectively, funny or as scary as it's parentage. That isn't to say that “Krampus” isn't a fun horror-comedy: it does feature fun special effects and a delightfully twisted and dark tone; but it's the comedy aspect that needed a little work. Oh and the characters. Like many horror films of the 80s the film features some truly despicable people that we're forced to watch kick the bucket in variously gruesome, albeit PG-13 friendly, ways. It's really a decent effort as films like this are a rare beast these days especially considering most of these movies are pathetically relegated to what Netflix calls its horror section.

You wouldn't be crazy if the film reminds you of the fun creature features 80s directors like Joe Dante might have made in his heyday. In fact, “Gremlins” comes so closely to mind that you sort of just wish you were watching that. And that's mostly because of some of the characters we're forced to identity with. Toni Collette and Adam Scott are likeable as Sarah and Tom and they have a teenage daughter and a younger son named Max (Chef's Emjay Anthony). Max is at that age where he still believes in Santa even if he has to deal with the naysayers. He's forced to spend Christmas vacation with his redneck cousins. They include Sarah's sister Linda (Fargo's Allison Tolman) and her husband Howard (perennial douche David Koechner) and their seemingly infinite brood of selfish children. These aren't the lovable doofs headed by Randy Quaid in “Vacation” films; Howard's family is full of deplorable people. You'll wonder why Sarah, who agrees that they're terrible, didn't disown them years ago, including her equally obnoxious Aunt Dorothy played by Edward Scissorhands' Conchata Ferrell. Not only are they horrible people, but worst of all they're not at all interesting, which is a shame because besides Max's immediate family they're the only characters in the film.

Max has a special bond with his grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) who tells everyone the tale of Krampus once some creepy things start going on: the power goes out during a particularly violent snowstorm. Beth goes missing after she sets out to visit her boyfriend who lives a few blocks away and then suddenly the family finds itself under attack by increasingly creepy and mischievous holiday creatures including a sadistic growing jack-in-the-box, wicked gingerbread men, and a particularly evil Christmas wreath angel. These creatures are brought to life in an amazing practical and computer-assisted detail; in fact they're way more impressive than any of the other characters writer/director Michael Dougherty (who co-wrote with Todd Casey and Zach Shields) has come up with. He also makes his film extremely dark; we're not talking particularly gory or bloody but this is stuff that is made of nightmares. Weak children will most likely be running for the doors.

“Krampus” feels like a film that's made to be more appreciated than actually well-liked. In this nostalgia-driven age of entertainment we long to watch films to be “made like the used to be.” You really get what Dougherty is going for her. Unfortunately, the horror is almost too intense without the comedy being funny enough to counterbalance the scares. Fortunately, it's all fun enough, especially it's inspired opening credit sequence and an ending that took I'm sure took guts to get green lit. Like another irreverent but uneven Christmas flick made this year “The Night Before,” I'd much rather watch this than anything with Bing Crosby.  GRADE: B-

Trailer for Krampus on TrailerAddict.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Holidazed & Confused: “The Night Before” is a Decent Christmas Stoner Comedy

If you want to see Seth Rogen playing another buffoonish, Jewish man-child stoner who is fearful about the prospects of growing up then “The Night Before” will certainly make due. Thankfully, there's a little more to it than Rogen's trademarked shtick which also includes great performances from his co-stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie. The three dudes play lifelong friends who have an annual holiday tradition of spending Christmas Eve partying it up while attempting to find out how to gain entry into an elusive, premier holiday party known as The Nutcracker Ball. The film is a mix of stoner comedy cliches and heartfelt holiday cheer that's all at once jarring and yet perfectly captures the anxiety of every thirty-something's feelings about his or her place in this crazy world. Oh, and there are ugly Christmas sweaters of course. 

“The Night Before” strives to be the filthiest and most perverted Christmas movie of all time. They basically succeed since the only other options before this were “Bad Santa” and “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” Gordon-Levitt is Ethan the emotional anchor of the film as we learn that his parents died tragically in 2001 and his best friends Chris (Mackie) and Isaac (Rogen) become like his brothers. They begin a Christmas Eve tradition of partying, drug-taking, and other debaucheries that would make Krampus blush. But now it's 2015 and Chris is a professional athlete and practically a celebrity while Isaac has settled down and is, hesitantly, expecting his first child with his wife (Jillian Bell, who's always a hoot). Ethan's life doesn't seem to be going anywhere: he recently broke up with his girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) and is working a demeaning job as an elf. Ethan comes across three tickets to The Nutcracker Ball and insists on one last glorious Christmas Eve night out with his buddies. Oh what a night it is.

“The Night Before” is funny. And none of it will be funny if you read about it here. But what I can tell you is that there are fun cameo appearances and lots and lots of pop culture references. Everything from “Die Hard” to “Home Alone” and even its sequel are referenced almost countless times. Most of this stuff is extremely funny, especially one bit involving mixed up cell phones, dirty photos, and an appearance from one of Rogen's regulars. Other times some of the gags feel forced or overdone. Rogen takes a lot of drugs in the film and many of the gags rely on him being drugged out of his mind. Many of the jokes are practically ruined by the film's trailers including a delightfully sacrilegious trip to midnight mass.

Like most of these Seth Rogen comedies, “The Night Before” has a soft, gooey, and sweet center. The friendship between the fellas is palpable and relateable to an entire generation who's afraid to become a full fledged adult. There's also a lot more to Gordon-Levitt's character than you'd initially think going in. That's probably because director Jonathan Levine also did such an amazing job capturing the male friendship in the cancer comedy “50/50.” And of course because Gordon-Levitt remains one of the most charming and delightful actors working today. Unfortunately the script itself is problematic; this movie boasts so many writers that you can practically feel the disjointedness of the entire production. The movie succeeds almost solely on the sheer likability of its cast. 

“The Night Before” is a solid effort. Anyone who is a fan of these guys is bound to have a good time. I'm not sure it's a holiday movie that's guaranteed to be part of the cannon of classic Christmas films but hey I'd certainly much rather watch this than “White Christmas.”  GRADE: B

Trailer for The Night Before on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dino-mite: “The Good Dinosaur” Isn't Pixar's Best Work but It's Still Emotionally Engaging

The the biggest flaw of Pixar's “The Good Dinosaur” is its release date: it arrived in theaters less than five months after “Inside Out” which is arguably one of Pixar's most accomplished and original films. And because “Inside Out” is so great, people's expectations for the next great Pixar film is unbelievably high. Having said that “The Good Dinosaur” is tremendously entertaining and emotionally charged film with stunning animation, funny characters, and a simple but involving story. It's certainly more of a traditional tale, but it's a fun adventure that is certainly to please anyone who enjoys a good family film in the vein of “Homeward Bound,” “The Land Before Time,” or the all-time classic “The Lion King.”

“The Good Dinosaur” begins with the interesting premise of Earth not being hit by the meteor that caused the dinosaurs to become extinct, which lets humans and dinosaurs evolve to share the planet. While nothing truly original is done with this concept it just allows humans and dinosaurs to co-exist. We're introduced to the shy, and always-afraid Arlo and his family. In true Disney form Arlo is “different” from the rest of his family and longs to feel wanted and needed and “make his mark” on the family farm. And since this is a film released by Disney, it's not long before Alro finds himself with less family members than when he was born and off on his own after a storm washes him away from his home. Lost and afraid he must make the journey back home.

To be perfectly honest: is the film perfect? Not by any means. This doesn't quote capture the magic of most of the other top tier Pixar films and story-wise it pretty much hits all the standard beats. But it's completely engaging and I found myself identifying so strongly with Arlo and his journey to reunite with his family that I got more way choked up than was probably necessary. The motion arrives as Arlo's “enemy” a small, dog-like human boy quickly becomes his best friend. The two bond over similar loses in their lives and become dependent on each other for survival in the wild. There's not clear cut villain here, it's mostly Mother Nature that seems to be the biggest threat though other dinosaur species make Arlo's journey more difficult including some nasty flying dinosaurs and a few raptors that are depicted as hick trailer trash. It's the t-rexes who actually turn out to be quite friendly.

“The Good Dinosaur” had suffered from production problems (the film was originally slated for release last year in 2014 but got pushed back) and you can tell. The story is a bit inconsistent, characters come and go and the film is rather episodic (like most road trip movies tend to be) so you can't help but feel that the film suffers from perhaps too many cooks in the kitchen. If this was a film released by any other studio it would certainly make no difference. You'd never really assume this was a Pixar film if you didn't know that going in; however, it's still quite fun and enjoyable for what is is. Why does ever Pixar film have to be so original and high-concept anyways?

Anyone who is a fan of good animated films will certainly find something to enjoy about “The Good Dinosaur.” It may not be Pixar's best but it's far from their worst. It's a pretty standard story but it has richly defined main characters features an emotionally engaging story about loss and the importance of home. And like any other Pixar movie, bring some tissues.  GRADE: B+

Feature Trailer for The Good Dinosaur on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

End Game: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” Improves Upon Its Predecessor

Fans of popular film series these days tend to get the shaft. The last book is always adapted into two films so that the studio can milk as much money out of the consumer as possibly. And we’re not talking Lord of the Rings sized books here: Mockingjay is 400 pages. It’s not War and Peace. Therefore, it becomes difficult to judge the Mockingjay films – both parts – without acknowledging that they are essential one unnecessarily long film that is cut in half. Luckily, Part 2 fares much better than Part 1. Unfortunately skipping Part 1 is also detrimental to getting the most enjoyment out of Part 2. So is “Mockingjay – Part 2” any good or what? The answer is yes, as long as you don’t compare it to series high-point “Catching Fire.”

The obviously highlight of the entire Hunger Games film series are the hunger games themselves. The immoral concept that children and teens are forced to battle each other to the death in a purposely controlled and dangerous environment for the entertainment of a disgustingly corrupt and malicious government and its richest people makes for fascinating discussion-worthy cinematic entertainment. Unfortunately, the hunger games went out the window at the end of the second film as the rebellion started in full swing. You get the sense that the rebellion is what author Suzanne Collins was getting at all along – this is a series that is about so much more than children being forced to kill each other. It’s also thankfully about much more than a girl having to choose between two guys, though it’s about that too. The hunger games themselves is what I personally find so fascinating about this series; the rebellion is the next logical step, yet far from the story’s most interesting ideas.

Part 2 picks up literally right where the last film left off with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) locked up and completely brainwashed. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, looking somewhat bored as if she could play the role in her sleep by now) and her fellow rebellious members of District 13 are ready to finally make their move to the capital to dethrone the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). We finally get to see two of my favorite characters get the screen time they deserve including Johanna (Jena Malone) freshly rescued from the Capital and Finnick (Sam Claflin) who gets married before setting out for battle. Effie and Haymitch around too but seem underutilized.

This film feels much like a war film with a small group of soldiers making their way across the booby-trapped rubble of the Capital. These scenes, reminiscent of the traps set by the hunger games’ sadistic gamemakers, are the definitely highlight of the film and feature some pretty successful sequences including an Aliens-like venture into the dark, pipe-riddled sewers of the Capital. Director Francis Lawrence doesn’t deviate much from the style he inherited yet made his own when he took the reins on the second film. And the film’s screenplay is thankfully less talky and way more action heavy than Part 1.

Most importantly, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2" is a fitting ending to this well-loved series. None of the other young adult novel-turned-film series have even come close to capturing the deserved success of this generally fantastic set of populist films. The film has it’s dark and grim moments and there are some shocking turn of events for those who haven’t already devoured the books but the film ends as positively as could come from such a gloomy story. Overall, Part 2 is a success though without any actual hunger games the champion remains “Catching Fire” as the defining film in a film series that has rightfully captured the hearts and minds of so many.  GRADE: B+
Trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 on TrailerAddict.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Paperman: “Spotlight” Features a Top-Notch Acting Ensemble and Engrossing True Life Story

It's not surprising that films directed by actors usually feature truly great performances. “Spotlight” is no exception. Tom McCarthy, who previously directed indie films like “Win Win” and “The Visitor,” hits it big with “Spotlight.” It tells the true story about a team of writers at the Boston Globe who uncovered the massive child molestation scandal that rocked the Catholic church. McCarthy has appears on screen in films ranging from Hollywood fluff like “2012” and comedies like “Meet the Parents.” He's arguably stronger behind the camera as he directs his actors who give fantastic performances.

“Spotlight” is one of those “true story” films that sort of works like a documentary (though isn't at all shot like one) in that it sort of drops you in front of characters and slowly unravel a story that becomes more and more fascinating as time progresses. We're introduced to various newspaper reporters at the Boston Globe who make up the investigative Spotlight team. There's Michael Keaton's Robby, Rachel McAdams' Sacha, Mark Ruffalo's Mike, and Brian d'Arcy James' Matt. The new boss at the paper is Marty (Liev Schreiber) who wants the Spotlight team to investigate some reports of local priests who have been accused to molesting local children in the past. Some reports had been published years earlier but nothing really came of it. But the team is about to uncover the disturbing truth and blow the lid off one of the biggest cover ups of our time.

McCarthy lets the story and his actors do most of the hard work. He isn't interested in fancy camerawork or fancy editing. Not to say there aren't some great shots here. As the Spotlight team is out and about interviewing witnesses and victims there are many shots of large churches looming in the background. These beautiful buildings are actually hiding the ugly truth. The victims' testimonials are discussed in many disturbing details; many of them now fully grown up, as it turns out these crimes have been committed for decades and decades. It's not news to us as viewers (the film takes places back in 2001) but we're fascinated to discover the details as much as the characters are determined to uncover the fully truth even if they don't really know how deep this whole thing goes. 

“Spotlight” is certainly destined for awards success. There is always room for the true life social justice drama. Films like Erin Brockovich, All the President's Men, Silkwood, and The Insider etc are all films that told similar stories. “Spotlight” is a really-well made docudrama that features great performances and an extremely strong screenplay (written by McCarthy and Josh Singer). The acting ensemble is great and the story becomes more and more engrossing as it progresses. Watching the ins and outs of newspaper journalism (which is going the way of the dinosaur) is really interesting to see. The film also tells an important story without ever being preachy, exploitative, or treacly; it deserves all the accolades that are sure to come its way.  GRADE: B+  

Trailer for Spotlight on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spy Games: Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is an Excellent Historical Thriller

If any filmmaker could make me like a movie about the Cold War, Steven Spielberg is the one who could do it. And he did. “Bridge of Spies” is a perfectly fine Cold War thriller. It's a film that is competently made and rather entertaining and thankfully leaves out the stuffiness that was so present in “Lincoln” and “War Horse.” Even if Spielberg hasn't made a film that's taken place in modern day since 2005's “War of the Worlds” I'm at least thankful that he's still a master of Hollywood filmmaking. All of his modern Spielbergian touches are there from beams of light in smokey rooms, family dynamics, to impeccably timed moments of cinematic suspense. The only thing here that stands out as something radically different is Thomas Newman's terrific score. At least we know we'll be comforted knowing another composer could easily fill John Williams shoes. “Bridge of Spies” feels like what the dramatic period pieces “War Horse” and “Lincoln” should have been but weren't: flat-out entertaining.

I don't know a lot about the Cold War, and not that I want to point the finger of blame, but I never remember getting much beyond World War II in any of my school history classes. The fifties and sixties were a somewhat fascinating and terrifying time in the United States. There was political upheaval eventually but mostly there was a level of fear in the country at the time. Fear of an unseen enemy: communism. People feared Russia and their political ideology. Unfortunately, not much has really changed today. There's still a high level of fear that permeates our society, though the enemy has changed significantly. Spielberg has crafted a glorious recreation of the time period right down to kids being shown how to prepare for a nuclear attack.

In “Bridge of Spies” Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel who is arrested in Brookyn, New York on suspicions that he's a Russian spy. Tom Hanks is James Donovan, a lawyer who's asked to represent Abel in a trial. Donovan and Abel have a fascination relationship in that both men respect each other even if they are both “enemies.” Later, after a US spy plane pilot (played by Austin Stowell) is shot down over enemy territory, Donovan is tasked with making a deal to make a prisoner exchange. “Bridge of Spies” is like two stories in one. The first half largely focuses on Donovan and dealing with representing someone seen as a traitor and enemy of his country. The second half of the film focuses on Donovan as he's forced to go into enemy territory to help facilitate the prisoner exchange, which brims with suspense.

Spielberg has easily crafted one of his finest films since 2005's “Munich.” The film has that prestige factor with big stars and its finely crafted period setting, but there's an entertaining air about it and a sense of humor and humanity that surprisingly pervades the film. Credit writers Joel and Ethan Coen for their top notch screenplay contributions to Matt Charman's script, which, like many films made today, is based on a true story. It's also one of those “serious” Spielberg films that isn't pervasively violent for shock value. This is a film you could show in a high school history class without parental objections; and best of all, it's actually entertaining.

“Bridge of Spies” was a film I wasn't quite looking forward to. I long for the “fun” Spielberg adventures that seem to be a rarity nowadays. It's no surprise that as Steven Spielberg ages and matures his films reflect that. Luckily, his latest effort is a showcase of everything that makes him such a great storyteller and filmmaker. The film has great performances, rich characters, striking cinematography, top notch production design, and a beautiful score. It's not your average stuffy period piece, it's way more than that; and it's almost disturbingly relevant even in the year 2015.  GRADE: A-  
Trailer for Bridge of Spies on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Legally Bond: “Spectre” is a Worthy Follow Up to 'Skyfall'

If you had asked me nine years ago what I thought of the James Bond series I would have first rolled my eyes in disgust and then immediately confessed to never actually seeing any of them. Then “Casino Royale” came out, and while I didn't absolutely love it, I definitely didn't hate it. It felt like a Bond movie anyone could like and it was a perfect introduction for those like me who felt indifferent to the entire franchise. When “Quantum of Solace” came out I could finally say I hated a Bond movie that I had actually witnessed in its entirety. And then in 2012, everything changed and “Skyfall” officially made me a fan. It changed the game arguably even more so than “Casino Royale” and instantly became one of the most beloved—critically and commercially—films in the series. “Spectre” continues that success in a way that is almost polarizing. It feels like the version of “Skyfall” that was made for fans of the series, which immediately isolates many people who loved watching the Daniel Craig films evolve the way they have. To put it simply, “Spectre” is a great, if flawed, modern Bond film; not as good as “Skyfall” but certainly one of the better made films in the series.

Does anyone really care about the plot of a James Bond movie? I can't even attempt to describe the plot here and not because it's confusing in a “Quantum of Solace” type of a way, but because it's almost pointless in describing whether a James Bond film is good or not. This latest entry, also directed by master filmmaker Sam Mendes is sort of the more “fun” version of "Skyfall." It has way more of the cliched Bond moments and has certain elements to specifically cater to the fans. But that's fine in my book because since I've spent that last few years catching up on the Bond films they're all fresh in my mind and it's always fun getting the references. It turns out the main baddie here played by Christophe Waltz was the true mastermind behind the other baddies in the previous three films. No reason to spoil who this character really is, though fans will not be too surprised. The Bond girl, is well played by Lea Seydoux and finally gadget man Q played by Ben Whishaw has a more important role. Guardian of the Galaxy's Dave Bautista is also great as a Jaws-like silent baddie called Mr. Hinx.

What makes Spectre, and for the record Skyfall, such great successful James Bond films, is how well polished they really are. Gone is the campy silliness that flowed through the Bond films of the 70s and 80s. When you watch a Roger Moore James Bond film you expect, and want, that silliness. Daniel Craig is all business. It's an almost entirely different portrayal – you either like it or you don't. It definitely works as a modern interpretation. And this more suave, and realistic, version pairs well with the fantastic production value and cinematic elements, like more realistic action, characters, and photography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins who has a goldeneye behind the camera was a godsend in the last film; here we get Interstellar's Hoyte Van Hoytema's camerawork with almost equally fantastic results. There's no more corny music; composer Thomas Newman grounds the film in a modern score that most likely won't sound dated twenty years from now. Cinematically speaking everything is just as good as “Skyfall;” including a standout opening sequence (featuring a great long take and thrilling helicopter fight).

“Spectre's” own worst enemy is that it's the first Bond film after “Skyfall” which immediately makes it subpar in most people's minds. Sure some of the script issues are apparent and some may decry that the film's third act isn't very strong. Go watch a Roger Moore entry and tell me that “Spectre” is a worse film. Even Moore's best movie “The Spy Who Loved Me” has boring parts and is unbelievably silly. Seriously go ahead, I dare you. I'll wait.  GRADE: A-  

Trailer for Spectre on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Big Apple: Danny Boyle's “Steve Jobs” is a Fascinating Character Piece

If “Steve Jobs” seems suspiciously like the Oscar-winning hit “The Social Network” you're not far off. Both films are about eccentric (read: jerky) computer entrepreneurs with scripts by Aaron Sorkin. Even if the films tread familiar ground, they couldn't be more different which is why directors' visions really set movies apart from each other. “Steve Jobs” is essentially shot as a three act play that take place during three product launches during Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' career. It's not new news that Mr. Jobs hasn't always been perceived as a saint, not every businessman is, though accepting a Hollywood depiction of a real life person should always be taken with a grain of salt. He was a man who revolutionized an industry, and is rightfully considered to be one of the most important and influential people of the 20th century.

Danny Boyle isn't exactly the name you'd expect to direct a talky and intimate film about a ruthless businessman. In all honestly, it doesn't always feel like a Boyle film, but his trademarks are definitely there. The film opens up in 1984 during the moments before Jobs (played ferociously by Michael Fassbender) takes the stage to unveil the new Macintosh computer. There with his cheerful and allegiant assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet, always hitting a homerun) Jobs gets confronted by several people from his past, including his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), his daughter Lisa (whom he refuses to believe is his), and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) years before he ever danced with the stars. They all want something from Jobs that he refuses to give them. The first act shows what a, for lack of a better work, jerk Steve Jobs is. Or at least how the script portrays him.

In the next act, it's 1988, and Jobs has left Apple to found a new company and launch the NeXT computer system. Even though it's been four years, all his old ghosts come back to haunt him: Steve and Chrisann are there and even current Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) who is confronted by Jobs who is still bitter about being ousted from the company. The final act, ten years later during the introduction of the iMac, is a chance for redemption and triumph after his two previous product launches don't quite achieve the sales Jobs had originally intended.

Unlike most of Boyle's other films, “Steve Jobs” doesn't exactly feel like a cinematic tour de force- it's more intimate. Besides the fact that each segment is shot on three different evolving film stocks, the film feels rather boxed in (like a computer?) though it's always masterfully composed. It's really a play-like character driven piece and that's not surprising. The film is more focused on the dialogue, which to the audience feels almost like a McGuffin: we know it's important to the characters but we're mostly just there to watch talented actors do their stuff. A the music feels more technical than the film itself with composer Daniel Pemberton offering a fun, modern sounding riff you might expect from a David Fincher film.

One doesn't go to see the movie “Steve Jobs” to see a portrait of a “great man.” You go to see the outstanding performances and unique structure of the screenplay. No one is denying what Jobs did for society and how it affects our lives to this day, but he's certainly not the most likable character ever put on film. And that's the way it should be. We're not watching “Forrest Gump” after all. He's aggressive, assertive, prickish, and a mastermind. Ultimately, Boyle and Sorkin want you to know that Steve Jobs did a lot of great things, but his personal life had a few technical glitches.  GRADE: B+  

Trailer for Steve Jobs on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Writer's Shock: The Ghoulishly Clever “Goosebumps” is Nostalgic Fun

You wouldn't necessarily look at the filmmakers' credentials for “Goosebumps” an expect anything truly amazing. If you look up the writer and the director you'll see titles like “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “Gulliver's Travels.” It's almost groan inducing until you realize the guys who wrote the film's story are the same duo who brought us “Ed Wood.” It's too bad “Goosebumps” couldn't also be a full-fledged Tim Burton film but it's close enough. It also wisely heeds closely to the formula established by 90s kids movies “Jumanji” and “Hocus Pocus.” It's a perfect mix of comedy and kid-friendly frights. Heck, it's almost as flat-out enjoyable as “Gremlins.” This is a movie Chris Columbus would have had his hands on if they decided to make a “Goosebumps” film during the books' heyday. And while we're in a comparison mode, as strange as it sounds, “Goosebumps” might even be the “Wes Craven's New Nightmare” of children's books-turned-family horror comedies.

How does one adapt a popular series of children's horror novellas to the big screen twenty years after hitting bookstores? In this day and age you take the meta route and have one of the main characters be author himself R.L. Stine. Comedy guy Jack Black takes on the role (though Stine does make a brief cameo). He plays Stine as a reclusive weirdo who's very protective of his teen daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). A new family moves in next door. There's single mom Gale (Amy Ryan) and her teenage son Zach (Dylan Minnette). As if moving to a new town is bad enough for Zach, his mom is his new school's vice-principle. He catches the interest of Hannah next door and her weirdo father who insists Zach stays away from her and his house. Eventually it's revealed that this guy is actually author R.L. Stine who has all his Goosebumps manuscripts locked away because the monsters inside them are in fact real. And then they get unleashed and wreck havoc on the entire town mostly because of evil dummy Slappy (also voiced by Black) who orchestrates the mayhem.

It's sort of a big risk for a studio film to write its author into the script but Darren Lemke's screenplay is surprisingly sharp, kooky, and twisted. Director Rob Letterman deftly balances humor and frights astonishingly well. There's nothing here that will frighten anyone over 13 but I'm sure little kids will get the willies. There's enough humor in the form of Zach's bucktoothed sidekick pal Champ (Ryan Lee) and Aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) to make kids laugh as much as turn away from the screen. There's nothing here particularly grotesque or mean-spirited. The visual effects are sufficient and the animators have obviously had fun bringing all of the creatures to digital life. Most importantly the movie is just plain fun, with a great Danny Elfman score.

“Goosebumps” is a fun and wild ride. I assume the more you're familiar with the books series the more you'll get out of it, but anyone with a hankering of some 80s or 90s family fun nostalgia don't have to look much further. It's a delightfully creepy romp that's much better than it had any right to be; in other words, it's thankfully just as fun for adults as it is for the kids. It won't necessarily cause goosebumps, but it certainly won't produce yawns.  GRADE: B+

Trailer for Goosebumps on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How to Survive a Slasher Film

Back in 1996 the horror hit Scream set precedence for what it takes to survive a horror film. You remember it – things like not having sex, not doing drugs, or not asking “Who’s there?” But times they are changing. Some modern slashers don’t care if you’re the horny frat guy or the virginal heroine. Just following the rules don’t necessarily apply. Sometimes you need actual things to survive the typical slasher movie situation. Not everyone is going to have access to the huge fire axe from off the wall but here are some things that would be necessary when trying to outwit and survive while being stalked by a masked maniac. The fine folks over at Man Crates (a site where you can buy and gift goodie-filled crates that have to be opened with a crowbar) asked me what I'd want if I were to survive a horror film. Here's what I would want in my crate if I was in a slasher movie situation:

A Working Smartphone. The main reason why slasher movies hardly work in this day and age is mostly because of better technology. How could any killer get to his or her victim if they’re just a phone call away from calling the cops? Of course since most slasher movies take place in remote locations it would be terrible to be stuck in a dead zone. Though, most cell phones will still send a 911 call when they’re in a location with poor cell service. And besides sometimes you’d be surprised where you might find free Wi-Fi… And for crying out loud take a portable battery charger!

Bunch o’ Booby Traps. If there’s anything late horror master Wes Craven taught us, is that some well-placed “improvised anti-personnel devices” could give the biggest maniacs a trip up. I’m talking about miscellaneous things like ropes, wire, and various sharp objects. An actual guide on how to set up the traps would helpful, though if you have a working cellphone (see above) then you’ve got it covered.

Energy Bars & Water. You need to eat and hydrate. How else will you have enough energy to run at top speed while the killer walks at a leisurely pace and yet still stays about 20 feet behind you? Since most killers seem to be active during nocturnal hours it’s best to caffeinate as well. Eat and caffeinate. You can do both, I hear caffeinated peanut butter is a thing now.

A Flamethrower. Sometimes you just need a badass weapon to get the job done. Of course this won’t work on dream demons, ghosts, or most other supernatural creatures, but we’re talking about masked maniacs of the human variety. Sometimes you just need to light them up. Knives and machetes require you to be close to the killer and bullets fired from a gun rarely work. Just ask Dr. Loomis (“I shot him six times!”)

What would you want to survive till the end credits of a slasher film? 

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Wire: Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” is an Astonishing Cinematic Achievement

Robert Zemeckis is the type of director who has made all types of films. He’s not comfortable in just one genre. He likes to push the envelope with what can be done visually on camera. His love of special effects is comparable to other directors like James Cameron or Steven Spielberg. But Zemeckis has worked in so many difference genres it’s almost surprising he has never made a film “based on a true story.” That is until now. Initially it seemed weird to conceive how a Robert Zemeckis biographical film would be like. He came close to the genre with his Oscar-winning hit “Forrest Gump.” With “The Walk” he presents the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit who famously walked (illegally) along a wire hung between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. It’s interesting to see Zemeckis work within the constraints of a real-life story, especially one that has already been told in the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.” What this big budget Hollywood razzle dazzle version has that the documentary didn’t have is the amazing special effects that literally put the viewer on the wire with Petit. To some it will be nauseating and unsettling. And rightfully so: it’s impeccably staged and features top-notch visual effects. The story's not half bad too.

“Man on Wire” was a documentary that played like a thriller. “The Walk” does the same. It has elements of a heist film, not unlike an “Ocean’s Eleven” and it really works for this story. The viewer amazingly sympathizes and identifies this strange and fascinating character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who at first sounds weird speaking with a French accent and looks odd in a bad hairdo, but he really sells it. He captures the weirdness and eccentricities of this man. Even though his idea to walk between the Twin Towers is completely illegal (and he refers to as “the coup”) you want to cheer him on. After all, he has no intention of hurting anyone, except for the possibility of himself. He has a vast array of “accomplices” including love interest Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), friend Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony), and random others; and then there’s his mentor in France played by Ben Kingsley.

One thing that stands out in “The Walk” besides it’s obviously big scale thrills, lies in Zemeckis and Christopher Browne’s script. They make Petit such a fascinating character (who narrates it from the Statue of Liberty of all places) and you really get a sense of who he is and why he has such a close relationship with his wire. It’s like a love story between a man and piece of steel. He has this obsessive spirit where he constantly wants to hang it up and walk across various voids, whether it’s the World Trade Center or Notre Dame. You get a sense of why Petit becomes almost obsessed with this absolutely crazy plan. Yes it’s crazy. and the fact that it really happened is almost a requirement in this story; if it were made up would the audience even believe it in a second? Probably not.

The film unravels in the perfect way until it leads to its triumphant final act where we’re rewarded with a firsthand view atop the towers as we’re placed onto the wire with Petit. The 3D imagery is vertigo-inducing and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the gigantic IMAX screen. Not only has Zemeckis created a delightful true life thriller, but a loving tribute to the Twin Towers themselves. There’s something about telling this story in a post-9/11 world that just makes sense. The World Trade Center as portrayed here with terrific special effects is as much a character in the film as the main character himself. Petit is such a bizarre and intriguing personality it makes sense that when he first arrives in New York he first touches his chin to one tower and looks up. You get the sense of connection his has with the structures and knowing what eventually happens to them gives the film an emotional weight that makes the whole thing a rewarding and altogether moving experience. There's just something cinematic about Petit's story and it works amazingly well-onscreen.  GRADE: A-
Trailer for The Walk on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sol Man: Matt Damon Triumphantly Breaks the Mars Curse with “The Martian”

What do the movies Red Planet, Mission to Mars, John Carter, and Mars Needs Moms have in common? Yes they have to do with Mars, but more importantly they were miserable box office failures. Sure some of them probably have their fans but with some rare exceptions (i.e. the original Total Recall) audiences just aren’t too interested in our red planetary cousin. The idea of going to Mars used to be cool when no one knew much about it, but once scientist probed the planet and discovered not much interesting there no one really seemed to car anymore. Even with something as significant as water being discovered there, I don’t think most people care that much. But finally, the movie gods have finally given us a fantastic cinematic version of Mars and only someone like Ridley Scott could make it happen.

The Martian has been described as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a more accurate description (though I’d throw Gravity into the mix as it shares similar themes). Returning to the sci-fi genre Ridley Scott gives us his first truly realistic science-fiction film. There are no aliens, creatures, or androids to be found here. What we do have is a rather impressive and likable performance from Matt Damon as astronaut and botanist Mark Watney. He’s part of the third manned mission to Mars but during a bad sand storm he’s mistakenly left behind when his crew believe him to be dead. Now he’s stranded alone millions of miles from Earth. Luckily, he’s practically a genius and we get to see him figure out how to survive on Mars’ desolate surface. Screenwriter Drew Goddard uses a smart script device by having Mark keep a video diary that informs us what he’s doing. While Gravity treaded similar territory about survival in outer space, The Martian actually cuts back to Earth to the scientists and engineers trying to bring him home (though they initially fear him dead).

For a film that relies a lot on the charisma and standout performance of its lead actor, the film also features a tremendously eclectic supporting cast. Jessica Chastain, also in the space-themed Interstellar, is great here as the commander of the Aries III who ultimately makes the decision to leave Mars without Mark. Her crew is filled with familiar faces including Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, and Kate Mara. Meanwhile, back on Earth the head of NASA is played by Jeff Daniels who has to make interesting decisions by announcing the death of Mark Watney and then following it up by telling the American public that he’s actually alive and living all alone on Mars. Others attempting to help bring Mark home include Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a mostly underused Kristen Wiig. What feels most refreshing here, however, is the absence of cliched scenes of Mark’s concerned family; we don’t have any unnecessary or mawkish scenes of Mark's concerned wife looking helplessly through windows. There’s thankfully none of that unnecessary crap.

Ridley Scott is the perfect guy to tell this story. Working on a sci-fi film that doesn’t consist of scares or creatures is a first for the director but he really sells the authenticity of it. This movie feels realistic. And that includes the mind-blowing shots sweeping above the Mars surface. This is a visually striking film that almost demands to be seen in three dimensions. And even though Mark is an extremely capable and resourceful guy, not everything goes exactly how he wants which eventually leads to some rather tense situations and a nail-biting final act. And to top it all off the film has a surprisingly fun sense of humor and a delightfully fun soundtrack.

The Martian is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the science fiction genre. It’s a thrilling drama with spectacular visual effects in the vein of Gravity or Apollo 13. It’s also a survival story. It’s the rare speculative fiction story from Scott that doesn’t involve a dystopian future or other a pessimistic outlooks at science and technology. It embraces technology as tools humans can use to overcome great obstacles. It’s thrilling, exciting, and ultimately moving; and it takes place on Mars of all places. GRADE: A-

Theatrical Trailer for The Martian on TrailerAddict.