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.