Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Reel 50 - 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY


“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever do.”



This month marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, 2001 follows a voyage to Jupiter after the discovery of a black monolith which mysteriously effects human evolution. It is a journey of discovery and a statement on what it is to be human…while exploring technology, artificial intelligence, and the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. The story is told with minimal dialogue, and uses startling visuals and ambiguous images to trigger thought and emotion, and raises questions that may never be answered.

After completing his comedy DR. STRANGELOVE in 1964, director Stanley Kubrick became fascinated with the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and set out to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie”. Kubrick met up with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, and the two began a journey that would take up the next four years of their lives. Clarke offered two of his stories to Kubrick, with one evolving into the sentient computer HAL, and the other inspiring the Dawn of Man sequence, set in the stone ages, which opens the film. Kubrick and Clarke originally wanted to develop a novel for 2001 first, and then streamline it into the screenplay, but eventually wound up working on both simultaneously.

Realism was vital for Kubrick and his vision of a thinking-man’s space opera, and wanted to avoid the more sensational designs of spacecraft in popular science-fiction at the time. Kubrick sought out educational films for details and inspiration, and heavy research was done on the mechanics and physics of space. Filmed nearly two years before man walked on the moon, the film would be heralded for its accurate depiction of spaceflight.

The cast was rounded out with Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL. Filming began in December of 1965, with live-action and the many special effects shots being overseen by Kubrick and visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull. Kubrick demanded that all effects shots to be done “in camera”, without the use of green-screen and matte techniques for sharper images. Professional mimes were used to play the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence, and a giant rotating set was constructed as an interior of the Discovery spacecraft to mimic zero gravity. Classical music was chosen as the score. Trumbull pioneered the technique of front projection and retroreflective matting…which was a huge step forward for sci-fi and filmmaking overall.

Upon release, it received polarized critical opinion, but has gained massive favor over the years. In that first year, it would win the Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation, as voted by sci-fi fans and published writers. It would earn Kubrick an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, as well as nominations for Best Director and Original Screenplay (shared with Clarke). Over time, it would be the ultimate source of inspiration for filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and many others…and would be ground zero for eventual space franchises such as STAR WARS and the STAR TREK films. The American Film Institute (AFI) ranks it 15th on their Top 100 list, and in 1991 was preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

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Long-time readers of Reel Speak are well aware that this Blogger got his introduction to space adventure through STAR WARS in 1977. Although creator George Lucas took influence from Kubrick’s work on 2001, his romp through the galaxy bordered on fantasy; taking cues from mythology and infusing a great sense of fun. Over time I would be re-introduced to the galaxies beyond by watching STAR TREK on TV with dad and that was my first clue that space was not limited to just blasters and lightsabers. TREK took a lot from 2001, and over time the influences could be seen more and more. As a wee-lad, A SPACE ODYSSEY was too mysterious, too scary (actually, it still is), and for a kid…too slow. It took me years to fully appreciate the film, and as time goes on…its influence can be seen in the works of filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Alfonso Cuaron. Before 1968, sci-films were low-budget affairs in the B-movie status, but 2001 made the genre legit cinema, and Kubrick's eye for detail eventually predicted future technology that we use today. Much of the film is undefined, but that works in its favor as it opens itself to interpretation by both believers and non-believers; almost a cinematic personality test. Film is certainly meant to educate, inspire, and provoke discussion…but a truly great film can and will enter our minds and stay there, because just like the universe it is fascinating and endless.

 “Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.”






Monday, April 16, 2018

Milos Forman (1932-2018), and R. Lee Ermey (1944-2018)




Two cinematic legends have passed away.

Director Milos Forman, who helmed two films to the Oscar for Best Picture, has passed at age 86. A native of the former Czechoslovakia who came to the United States in the 1960’s, Forman was a rebellious young filmmaker who brought the odd-man-out in his films, and rose to Oscar glory in 1975 when he directed the adaptation of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST to five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. A few years later in 1984, his adaptation of the stage play AMADEUS would again earn him Best Picture and Best Director along with many other honors. Over a decade later he was nominated for THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLINT in 1996.

His other notable film credits include HAIR (1979), RAGTIME (1981), the Andy Kaufman biopic MAN ON THE MOON (1999), and GOYA’S GHOSTS (2006).

Also passing away was actor R. Lee Ermey at 74.

A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and the Vietnam War, Ermey got his first break in Hollywood when he was working as a consultant in Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALPYSE NOW in 1979, and was cast as First Air Calvary chopper pilot. That same year he was cast as a drill instructor in THE BOYS IN COMPANY C.

In 1987 he would have a second try at playing a drill instructor when he was cast as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam war film, FULL METAL JACKET. The role would immortalize him in cinema, and provide cinephiles with endless quotes to pull from. The iconic role and performance would earn him a Golden Globe nomination.

His other notable roles, which included voiceover acting, included MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988), FLETCH LIVES (1989), TOY SOLDIERS (1991), SE7EN (1995), LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995), TOY STORY (and its sequels), THE FRIGHTENERS (1996), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003), WILLARD (2003), and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006).

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These two men leave us after making a long-lasting impression on the silver screen, and they both did so in unconventional ways. Milos Forman, as an immigrant, must have been drawing on his experiences in coming to a new country, for his focus on the odd-man-out, the reject, and the outsider fueled his best works and managed to speak to the outsider in all of us. R. Lee Ermey was a soldier at heart, and he was such a good one he managed to extend his military career long after he received his Honorable Discharge. His performance in FULL METAL JACKET cemented the image of the military drill instructor forever, and when this Blogger entered boot camp in 1991…that was the exact persona I expected, and that’s exactly what I got. Ermey, and Forman drew on personal experience to create, and the roots of all creation are what matters the most.





Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Reel Review: A QUIET PLACE



John Krasinski’s A QUIET PLACE is a film that crosses many genres. It is a horror flick, action movie, and family drama…sprinkled with a dash of old-school monster movies and a pinch of science fiction. It’s a lot to juggle for a seasoned filmmaker, and even more for someone making his only his third feature film.  

The year is 2020, and humanity has been nearly wiped out by blind aliens with super-hearing. Lee Abbot (Krasinksi), and his pregnant wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), scratch out a silent life of survival with their deaf daughter Regan (Millicent), and son Marcus (Noah Jupe).

A QUIET PLACE takes place just over a year, and in the early goings does great work in setting up the scenario. There are three creatures in the immediate area, and the family has to go through great lengths to keep quiet…for any sort of noise will draw the hungry and bloodthirsty monsters out of hiding; lengths such as always speaking in a whisper or sign language, always walking barefoot, pouring sand on pathways, and even cooking food under the floorboards to suppress the sound. Krasinski shows the hard life that the family is enduring, and the payoff comes in great doses when things go wrong and draws the creatures to dinner.

Once the monsters do show (they are in quick glimpses early, before going full reveal), it becomes a game of hide-and-seek with a blind creature and a terrified human who shouldn’t make a sound. The predicaments that Krasinski puts his characters in are a terrific build-up of tension; Evelyn going into labor with a creature in the room makes for one of the most terrifying scenes ever constructed, and the resolutions the characters find are clever and never come out of left field.

There’s not a lot of plot to the film, as most of its business is spent as a survival tale. With so little dialogue present and sub-titled sign language, there’s not much opportunity to dig deep into the characters. The idea seems to be that family love is all that matters here, and it works, but it does seem that things could have gone a little deeper in places.

Krasinski directs a great looking film, and the editing is sharp as a monster-claw; jump-scares are plenty and well-timed. The sound-editing and mixing is tremendous; from the shrieks of the aliens to the lightest footstep. For a film that is all about sound, it captures every creak perfectly. The creatures come to life via some effective CGI, and their design is grotesque and horrifying.

Acting is tremendous. Krasinski has a lot of heavy lifting to do in front of and behind the camera, and he handles the pressure very well. Emily Blunt winds up stealing the show; her labor scene while hiding from a creature is tremendously acted and more proof of how great she really is. The younger cast all handle their roles very well.

The bulk of A QUIET PLACE involves only the Abbot family, and only gives slight hints to what has been happening in other parts of the world. The resolution against the invaders is clever and makes sense, and although it doesn’t quite save the world right away, it does give humanity hope. Krasinski has delivered a gem of a film here, one that thrills and scares but also impresses with the amount of thought that has gone into the script and on the set. For a movie with so little dialogue, A QUIET PLACE gives us a lot to talk about.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Reel Review: ISLE OF DOGS



Of all the quirks and trademarks that writer and director Wes Anderson has invented and clung to over the years, perhaps his most important are his pairing of fantasy and reality. His films mostly take place in alternate worlds with fictional settings, but they are also saturated in the nostalgia of times long-past. Perhaps no other film in his catalog embraces that delicate balance as much as ISLE OF DOGS.

In the near future, a mysterious dog flu spreads throughout the canine population of Japan, and the mayor (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), banishes all dogs from the country to a remote island where trash is dumped. The mayor’s orphaned nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin), travels to the island to find his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), and earns help from a pack of dogs (Edward Norton, Bab Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum), who are led by Chief (Bryan Cranston).

The basic plot of ISLE OF DOGS is very straightforward; just a boy-and-his-dog tale (or tail, haha), in a journey across a treacherous island…driven by love and affection and the power of man’s best friend. The journey takes Atari and his new friends across the remote island of trash and abandoned structures, avoiding perils and slowly uncovering a possible plot by the mayor (a cat lover), to manufacture the dog flu and ignore the facts by prominent scientists. Things are also beefed up by diving into the characters of the dogs, with each one having his or her own unique story before they were exiled away from their masters.

There is a lot of sadness that hangs over the film, as we see first-hand how these poor pooches are affected from being ripped away from their homes and cast out to a place where they scrap for maggot-infested food to survive. But Anderson infuses his film with a lot of joy. The laughs are plenty, and the tone remarkably light. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the earnestness of the characters is something to love. There are also a few surprises and twists, keeping us on our paws at all times.

All of Anderson’s trademarks are present here, and it matches the odd nature of the film perfectly. His usual long camera pans and movements, superimpositions to identify characters and places, and well-placed pieces of pop music keep things fresh and interesting. The island is fictional, yet the film is set in and around Japan to offer grounding and familiarity. ISLE OF DOGS also feels like a story that we’ve seen before with classical film themes, but the surroundings make it seem fresh and new. The old-school, stop-animation puppetry and set construction/design is stunning, and the craft perhaps has never been done better. Alexandre Desplat’s score is greatness, using traditional orchestration and Japanese culture to great effect. Anderson also makes the brave stylistic choice of using no sub-titles over the Japanese language, relying on expression and the occasional translator.

The voice-over cast is impressive; Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Live Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Courtney B. Vance, and Yoko Ono (!). All perfectly cast and the film often becomes a game of picking out who is voicing what character.

For the first time in his career, Anderson takes a stand and delivers some messaging; mostly about those in power abusing that power and how they can never truly get away with it. It never distracts from the main story of the film about a boy and his beloved dog, and it is impressive how Anderson restrains himself in places where he easily could have gone further. ISLE OF DOGS is a sweet and charming film with a unique style that makes it timeless, and an absolute joy to behold.

BOTTOM LINE: See it






Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2018 - Episode IV



This year, movie discussions for the month of April will be dominated by Marvel Studios’ upcoming grand finale to their decade-long series of superhero films. But if saving the galaxy isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of noteworthy comedies and smaller films arriving in April; the last full month before the Summer Movie Season kicks off.

The notables are…

A QUIET PLACE – John Krasinski (TV’s THE OFFICE), stars and directs this horror film in which a family of four must live in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. Co-stars Emily Blunt (SICARIO).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK – Jason Clarke (ZERO DARK THIRTY) plays the late Senator Ted Kennedy in this drama which documents the 1969 incident where the Senator drove his car off the road and killed his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne…played here by Kate Mara (FANTASTIC FOUR). Co-stars Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, and Clancy Brown.

BEIRUT – In this political thriller, Jon Hamm (TV’S MAD MEN), plays an American diplomat trying to save a colleague from the group responsible for the death of his family. Rosamund Pike (GONE GIRL) co-stars. It is directed by Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST).

RAMPAGE – Dwayne The Rock Johnson stars in his second video-game adaptation this year. This time he teams up with a gorilla who grows to enormous size and battles an invasion of monsters. Naomie Harris (MOONLIGHT), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (WATCHMEN) co-star.

BORG VS. McENROE – This biographical sports drama focuses on the famous rivalry between tennis stars Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1980. Shia LaBeouf (TRANSFORMERS) plays McEnroe, and Sverrir Gudnason plays Borg.

SUPER TROOPERS 2 – The long-awaited sequel to the 2001 cult-hit comedy. This time out, five goofball state troopers set up a new highway patrol station near a disputed border of Canada.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – The beginning of the end of Marvel Studios’ decade-long journey. It’s all-hands-on-deck for their large catalog of heroes to assemble and fight off the super-villain Thanos (Josh Brolin), who has finally arrived to make trouble. The massive cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johannson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastain Stan, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Tom Hiddleston…and much more. It is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who delivered for Marvel the mighty WINTER SOLDIER and CIVIL WAR.

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Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of May.


Monday, April 2, 2018

A Reel Review: READY PLAYER ONE



The term “pop culture” is generally defined as a set of items that are dominant in a culture at any given point in time, with today’s modern version heavily influenced by the movies, books, music, and video games of the last 20 to 30 years. Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One is a loving homage to it all, as his characters journey through a virtual world populated by creatures, characters, places, and objects that have dominated popular films and other mass media. On paper, there was probably no other director to bring the story to the big screen better than the man who has influenced modern pop culture the most, the famed director Steven Spielberg.

The year is 2045, and with the Earth in disrepair, humans escape their misery and poverty through the OASIS, a massive virtual-reality program where anyone can be anything and go anywhere. Before dying, the program’s creator (Mark Rylance), obsessed with pop culture, placed hidden “Easter eggs” in the program with a standing challenge for anyone to find them, with the grand prize being complete control over the OASIS. Wade (Tye Sheridan) finds one of the clues, and earns the wrath of a corporate competitor, led by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).

Staying true to the spirit of the 1980’s, the era in which Spielberg made his most popular films, READY PLAYER ONE unspools as a loving homage (much like the novel) to the kids-on-a-quest adventure tale. Wade and his companions (wonderfully played by Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Phillip Zhao, and Win Morisaki), journey through the OASIS discovering clues, avoiding perils, solving puzzles, and gaining upgrades to their abilities all while the corporate villains stalk their real-life bodies in the real world. The adventures through the OASIS are a joy to take in for anyone who has been paying attention to the last 30 years, as characters encounter (for starters), King Kong, Godzilla, Freddy Krueger…and race around in vehicles such as the Bigfoot truck, the 1960’s Batmobile, and a certain time-travelling DeLorean. Every item, creature, and music cue is used to perfection, as Spielberg, through masterful editing, knows exactly what belongs where.

With such a fantastical world at play, effort has to made to add some sort of grounding material to keep the human side alive. Everything that happens in the OASIS has little effect to everyone in the real world, and even though Spielberg does some brilliant cutting back and forth between the two, the stakes in the real world seem very small; just an effort to thwart off a corporate takeover. Wade himself seems to have very little of a personal story to fuel his desire to win it all, which makes it very difficult for the audience to care if characters survive an attack by a giant CGI gorilla.

READY PLAYER ONE still delivers a massive wallop of entertainment. The energy is extremely high without feeling frantic, and Spielberg hits all the right emotional beats where it counts. Action sequences ranging from racing to hand-to-hand combat to large-scale battles are a joy. Pop culture items are used to great effect, and a sequence involving a certain haunted hotel from a certain Stanley Kubrick masterpiece is simply breathtaking. Visual effects are very good, and the number of items from the last 30 years of movies that are crammed in here almost demand a second viewing; there’s no way anyone can see them all the first time out.

The goddam 3D is very good.

Tye Sheridan plays his part very well, and his chemistry with Olivia Cooke…both in and out of the virtual reality world, gives the film a lot of heart. Ben Mendelsohn is brilliant as always. The rest of the cast is equally wonderful.

Throughout the course of the film, Spielberg seems to have a little bit to say about today’s society; specifically, how much time we spend online, and the dangers of letting a person on the other end of the internet mess with us too much. These are great themes that are only lightly explored, and cheat the film out of a deeper message. Despite this and a few minor flaws, READY PLAYER ONE still lands as a blast of entertainment. Much like the book, it is made for those of us who have learned all they need to know about life from the movies, video games, music, and books…and any child of the 1980’s will find much to enjoy.

BOTTOM LINE: See it





Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need to Know About READY PLAYER ONE



In 1993, famed director Steven Spielberg released two films which could not be more different from each other. In June of that year, he wowed the world with JURASSIC PARK; an action-adventure film which literally brought dinosaurs to life. Less than six months later, he brought us the WWII Holocaust drama SCHINDLER’S LIST, which won Spielberg Best Director and Best Picture. Today, the situation is similar. Less than three months ago, Spielberg was sitting at the Oscars being honored for his acclaimed political drama THE POST, and now this week he brings an sci-fi adventure which could not be more different in the form of READY PLAYER ONE. Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is this about? – READY PLAYER ONE is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. Set in the year 2045, humanity uses a massive virtual-reality called OASIS to escape the desolation of the Earth. A young man named Wade Watts takes on a challenge by the OASIS creator to discover hidden clues within the program, with the ultimate prize being complete control over OASIS.

Who is in this? – The main character of Wade is played by 22-year-old Tye Sheridan, whose credits include JOE (2013), and X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016). He is joined by Olivia Cooke, known mostly for her role in TV’s BATES MOTEL. The rest of the impressive cast includes Ben Mendelsohn (ROGUE ONE), Mark Rylance (BRIDGE OF SPIES), Simon Pegg (STAR TREK), and TJ Miller (DEADPOOL).

Who is behind this? – Anyone who knows anything about film knows that Steven Spielberg is one of the most influential filmmakers in history, having made some of the greatest films of all time…such as JAWS (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), ET THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). The script is written by author Ernest Cline, and Zak Penn. Penn’s writing credits include X2 (2003).

Random Facts – The virtual-reality world that Wade and his eventual companions venture through is populated by characters and items from pop culture, such as King Kong, the Iron Giant, and the DeLorean time machine from BACK TO THE FUTURE. More surprises have been promised * Before Spielberg took the job, other directors considered were Christopher Nolan, Robert Zemeckis, Matthew Vaughn, and Peter Jackson * Spielberg himself is mentioned in the novel, but the director has stated that he would be removing any references to his movies * The score was originally going to be composed by long-time Spielberg partner John Williams, but he stepped away because he was scoring Spielberg’s THE POST at the same time. This is only the third Spielberg film (out of 33), without a Williams score * This is Spielberg’s first science-fiction film since his lousy WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) * The novel gets its title from a phrase from the days of classic video games *

What to expect – It seems that Steven Spielberg is the perfect man for this job. Most of the pop culture references in the film seem to source from the 1980’s, and no other director influenced 80’s culture like he did. In a way it feels like he’s coming full circle by doing READY PLAYER ONE, and that alone is very exciting. The cast is very solid, and Tye Sheridan has proven that he can shine in large, big-budget productions as well as indie drama. The trailers so far have made this look like another CGI headache, but with Spielberg at the helm, we can expect some of his magic.

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READY PLAYER ONE opens March 30th in 2D and 3D formats.



Monday, March 19, 2018

A Reel Review: TOMB RAIDER



One of the most bewildering mysteries in cinema is why movies based on video games always turn out to be dead turkeys. With the advances in technology, modern gaming has become cinematic themselves, so the job of a filmmaker is to simply move things over from the small screen to the big. The latest version of TOMB RAIDER needed only to do that to succeed.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), is an orphan working as a bicycle courier in London who has never accepted the disappearance of her father (Dominic West). When she finds a hidden clue to her father’s final mission, she enlists the help of a drunken sailor (Daniel Wu), to a journey to an unmarked island, where she races to find a mystical tomb with rumored powers…before it can be found by a shadowy organization called Trinity, assisted by Vogel (Walton Goggins).

The bulk of the Tomb Raider video games has always been simple; run through the jungle, avoid perils, shoot the bad guys, solve puzzles to get inside an ancient tomb to find a mystical thingy. Even if a non-gamer goes into the movie clean, the title TOMB RAIDER implies that’s the movie to be seen. Right away, this version of the game stumbles right out of the gate by saddling everything with a dragging origin story. Cutting to the chase: Lara Croft isn’t really Lara Croft until the closing minutes of the film, and she spends the other 98% of the movie stumbling into one fix after another. She’s an onlooker, and becomes a hero by accident.

Action and adventure should have been priority, and director Roar Uthaug, whose name sounds like a video game monster, takes the material way too seriously. The film tries to be a self-important drama which sucks the life out of the adventure. Set-pieces such as a chase through the jungle, a waterfall escape, and solving a few puzzles in a tomb (when the film mercifully finally gets there) have very little sense of tension or dread, and a bicycle chase through London in the early goings is pointless and feels like it belongs in another movie. The film lacks a true heartbeat with no sense of fun, energy, or the least little bit of joy. There’s also a lack of balance between the practical stunts (which are very good), and the lousy CGI spectacle (which are very bad). This is one bland adventure.

But there is one great quality that this TOMB RAIDER has, and that is the magnificent and lovely Alicia Vikander. Vikander gives it her absolute best in every scene, and the physical demands that she meets are very impressive. The character goes through some pain, both physical and mental, and she sells it. The rest of the cast is as bland as the rest of the film, although Walton Goggins is spectacular as always.

Vikander’s performance isn’t enough to save TOMB RAIDER from the turkey label, but it’s close. She’s great to watch during the action and the dramatic parts, and what she does is enough to want to see her again in the role with a better script and director. This version of TOMB RAIDER exists to set up further sequels, which is common in blockbuster filmmaking these days, and that would be fine if it wasn’t too much origin and not enough hero. If there was any rule that video game movies need to follow to succeed, it’s Don’t Be Boring, and this one manages to break it. Worthwhile for the lead actress only.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it




Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Reel 20: THE BIG LEBOWSKI


“The Dude abides…”


This month marks the 20th anniversary of Joel and Ethan Coen’s THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

A dark comedy with elements of a crime novel, LEBOWSKI followed an adventure by Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski; a laid-back, White Russian-drinking, pot-smoking, unemployed bowling enthusiast who has the bad luck of sharing a last name with a local millionaire involved in a kidnapping plot. Dude is joined by his friends and bowling teammates Walter, who is an aggressive Vietnam veteran, and Donny, a neutral fellow who never understands what’s going on. The three casually try to unravel the mystery of the kidnapping, which may or may not be real, in a film that unspools in a series of episodes involving ransom money, bowling rivals, the porn industry, performance art, wacky dreams, and the theft of Dude’s beloved rug.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI was the 8th film by the producing, writing, and directing sibling team of the Coens, and their first follow-up to their Oscar-darling FARGO from 1996. The beginnings of the film go as far back as 1991, when the Coens began writing the script before abandoning it to work on BARTON FINK. When they revisited the project, the script was written with John Goodman (Walter), and Steve Buscemi (Donny), in mind, who had worked with the Coens before. The central character of The Dude was inspired by two acquaintances of the brothers, who had all of the traits from White Russians to going by “Dude”. That role would eventually go to Jeff Bridges. The rest of the outstanding cast would include Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, Tara Reid, David Thewlis, Peter Stormare, Flea, and the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

With the city and culture of Los Angeles being so prominent in the script, shooting took place on location over a period of eleven weeks, with Dude’s dream sequences shot in a converted airplane hangar. Sam Elliott, acting as a narrator and making two cameos, shot for only two days. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins gave the film a colorful look which popped off the screen.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI was not a hit financially and did not score well with critics, but over the years has earned a massive cult following. Fans hold festivals and the characters are the inspiration for cosplay at conventions across the country. There are over 450,000 ordained priests practicing a pseudo-religion called Dudeism, and the film has inspired competitions ranging from trivia, White Russian contests, and academic treatments. Entertainment Weekly ranked it 8th on their Funniest Movies of the Past 25 Years list, and the late, famed movie critic Roger Ebert added it to his list of Great Movies in 2010.

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It took this Blogger several years to really appreciate the art of THE BIG LEBOWSKI. As a film it is a joy to take in through its twists and turns, the dialogue is instantly quotable, and the chemistry between Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi is pure magic. The three characters benefit from holding to classic archetypes; the passive, the aggressive, and the neutral…and are executed so well that the film should be played and studied at every Film 101 class. It has elements of a Western, or even a Greek adventure through a series of perils and encounters…all while maintaining a sense of fun with a barrage of laughs (the gag with Donnie’s ashes cracks up this Blogger every time). After 20 years, The Dude is the role that the world relates Jeff Bridges to, and offers an important lesson; just take ‘er easy.

“All The Dude wanted was his rug back.”












Friday, March 9, 2018

A Reel Review: ANNIHILATION



The last time we saw writer/director Alex Garland, he brought us the brainy and most-excellent EX MACHINA, which was a closed-quarters paranoia sci-fi flick which shocked as much as it fascinated. Showing a knack for the genre, Garland returns to sci-fi, this time with ANNIHILATION, which is another closed-quarters paranoia story, only this time told on a grander scale.

Lena (Natalie Portman), is a doctor who has her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) return home from a secret mission with mysterious behavior. When his condition worsens, she and Kane are taken by a government agency to the outskirts of a “The Shimmer”, a quarantined bubble which is growing and taking over the Earth. Lena joins a team of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriquez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny), to enter the zone and discover the source before Earth is consumed.

Despite the grand stakes, ANNIHILATION is all Lena’s journey, which is two-fold. First, to find a way to stop The Shimmer from growing, and to solve the mystery of what happened to her husband Kane on his similar mission inside (spoiler alert – that’s what his secret mission was). Once inside, Lena and her team find themselves in a wild house-of-horrors, as they suffer from short-term memory loss, and are surrounded by revolting, mutated wild animals which take on the characteristics of anything they kill…including humans.

Garland is playing with a lot of horror elements here, as the team is stalked at night and attacked by the creatures. But at the same time he’s building a mystery in this fantastical little zone inside the bubble. With the stakes so high, Garland does manage to make it grounded; keeping Lena and her desire to save her husband always up front, while filling in the blanks of their marriage with some well-timed flashbacks. But on this journey, the mystery keeps on growing and growing, and the desire to over-explain things never bogs down the script to a fault; there’s a lot that’s left unanswered by movie’s end.

Garland flexes his muscle as a potential horror-film director with some truly frightening scenes, and the tension build-up is nicely done. The film looks beautiful as the team makes their way through the surreal landscape, and the creepy sound effects throughout the movie is unnerving. The landscapes are stunning, the creatures horrifying, although the beings we encounter near the film’s end suffer from poor CGI. With the exception of Lena, the team is all one-note and paper-thin and as disposable as a throw-away camera. And speaking of cameras, the old cliché of characters finding a video camera with a tape that explains things is used one too many times.

Acting is okay. Natalie Portman goes through a lot of torment, and her chemistry with Oscar Isaac is very good. Isaac’s role is an extended cameo, but what he does with his time is effective. The rest of the cast is forgettable with little to do.

The bulk of the film is spent building and slowly revealing, but in the last 20 minutes there is a lot of frustration to be had. The film goes for a shock ending that is very predictable and not as mind-blowing as it thinks it is, and there is way too much left unexplained; ambiguous doesn’t always mean genius. The wrap is very plain, and what’s odd is that there were hints throughout the film that there was something bigger going on, so it almost feels like the ending was changed at some point in production. It’s a frustrating destination because the journey was so good, and that type of imbalance earns ANNIHILATION a small recommendation.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it