Friday, December 30, 2011

A Reel Review: THE ARTIST

For the current short-attention span movie audience who needs everything spelled out for them in five minutes or less, sitting through a black-and-white silent film would likely be torture equal to nails on a chalkboard, and cynical audiences may look at a silent film made in 2011 as a gimmick to gain attention. THE ARTIST is neither; it is a silent film telling the story of the death of silent film in the 1920’s. That is its hook, its magic, and its gift.

In 1927 Hollywood, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. He meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a talented actress and dancer looking to break into the business, and the two fall for each other. George encourages her, inspires her, and gets the studio boss Mr. Zimmer (John Goodman) to give her a role. Peppy embraces the new technology of “talking film”, and her career skyrockets. George meanwhile sees the new “talkies” as a perversion of the art and turns his back on it, and his career plummets.

THE ARTIST occasionally flirts with making a statement about the art of filmmaking being lost due to new and evolving technology, but wisely lets it fall to the background to focus on the characters. George is a stubborn devotee to his art; Peppy is young and eager to embrace her new world. One falls, one rises, and yet their fates seem to be interlinked throughout. Peppy struggles to keep George from falling into a booze-fueled, self-destructive spiral as his career, money and success disappears, and that is the heart of the story in THE ARTIST; the old being helped by the new.

Director Michel Hazanavicius (gezhundite) executes the world of silent film so well you’d think he’d been doing it since the 1920’s. The absence of sound is never used as a gimmick, and is instead a major part of the storytelling. It is impossible to have the story of THE ARTIST told with sound, as its heart and soul lies in the art of silent film; the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is a sight to behold and love. The titlecards serve as dialogue and to move the plot forward in some very clever ways, and are augmented by a magnificent score that is true to the period and somehow sounds modern. Hazanavicius also employs some clever metaphors here and there; such as a powerful and emotional scene where George stares at a blank movie screen after his career ends.

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are perfect for the roles and also feel like they’ve been silent film stars for years. In a visual style where expressions and body language are so important, there is never a moment where we don’t know what the characters are feeling or thinking. It is perfect execution by the pair that is shared by the rest of cast, including John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller.

In a current Hollywood where loud noises seem to rule, THE ARTIST is an absolute breath of fresh air and a charmer of a story. The timing of it is also perfect as the current movie industry deals with another internal battle; film vs. digital. THE ARTIST uses an old style to sell the future, and that seems to be its genius. Outside of all that, THE ARTIST will charm your heart away.


Thursday, December 29, 2011


There is an early scene in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY that is quite the Tell; Benedict Cumberbatch’s young character gets agitated as he angrily and unsuccessfully swats at a fly while driving, and the problem is eventually solved when Gary Oldman’s elder character simply opens a window. The scene sums up the film in this way: TTSS is not a movie for the impatient young mind, but for the mature wisdom that comes with age. It is a dense and brooding international spy thriller requiring patience, making much of current Hollywood “thrillers” seem like child’s play.

In 1973 Cold War era, the Chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as Control (John Hurt), suspects one of the men closest to him at the top to be a Russian spy (mole). This includes his top lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), which he assigns unique codenames (hence the title of the movie). Control sends Agent Prideaux (Mark Strong) undercover to help extract the identity of the spy, but the mission ends badly, resulting in the resignations of Control and Smiley. After Control dies, Smiley is called out of retirement to secretly hunt for the spy again, this time with the help of disgraced agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and new agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

As long as that above plot summary may seem, it barely scratches the surface of the many maze-like layers TTSS has. The secret to the mole’s identity seems to lie in the undercover mission which ended badly; how it came about, the immediate aftermath, and the ripple effects that lasted years later. The film then unfolds through a series of flashbacks, not always in chronological order; spreading the pieces of the puzzle across the table for us to piece together.

But piecing together that puzzle is not easy. Even with strict attention, clarity seems to be lacking here. A second viewing may be required to see if there is a “a-ha!” moment which reveals the mole’s identity, but it’s possible that there isn’t one; for TTSS is dense enough that the puzzle only makes sense when all the pieces come together at the end. But even with the complex plot, the film is a great watch.

Director Tomas Alfredson creates a great atmosphere powered by terse and tense dialogue as powerful as any cinematic gunfight or explosion, and still makes time for the great characters to grow and develop before our eyes. This is also a perfectly-executed period-piece; a world full of cigarette smoking, whiskey flasks in the office with rotary phones flanked by trenchcoats. In this 1970’s world, the mystery cannot be solved by gadgets, but by the mind.

Acting is superb, and it should be considering the heavyweight-champion cast. The most credit goes to Oldman, Hurt and Firth, and the film really reminds us how great they really are, and always have been. Bringing up the rear and equally impressive are Toby Jones, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy, with Hardy being barely recognizable. Perhaps the one gripe about the acting is that there are very few scenes in which these great actors get to face off against each other in an adversarial way; the few that do are so darn good that we just want more of it.

The reveal of the mole’s identity isn’t done with an attempt at a clever twist with loud noises and over-orchestration, and is instead executed with the subtle intensity the film carries throughout. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is indeed a bit of a maddening labyrinth to trek through, but like any good labyrinth has a pleasant reward at the center for those hearty enough to make it.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Reel Review: WAR HORSE

It can be argued that Steven Spielberg has not put together a knockout of a film since his 1998 WWII tale SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Since then there have been noble efforts and outright disasters, all suffering some the same common problem of no real heart or emotion. A mediocre Spielberg can be better than most of the blockheads out there making movies these days, but the world has been missing the old Steven; the one that makes us laugh and cry all in one sitting. In his adaptation of WAR HORSE, Spielberg returns to the battlefronts of world war…and remembers to leave the Tin Man behind.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a teen growing up in England just before the outbreak of WWI. His father Ted (Peter Mullan) and his mother Rose (Emily Watson) are about to lose their farm to their heartless landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). Ted purchases and young and spirited colt to help plow the fields and Albert forms an instant bond with the animal. The horse, named Joey, is eventually sold to the military when WWI breaks out. Albert enlists in the army himself, with the hopes of one day reuniting with his beloved horse.

WAR HORSE is an emotional journey right from the get-go. Joey and Albert’s bond is heartwarming and never feels corny or cliché. The early pressure of the family losing the farm and all that they have rest upon Joey and Albert’s belief in him, and it’s easy to get caught up in the drama and root for them both to succeed.

When the war arrives and separates the two, the film hits a whole new gear. The heartbreak Albert endures in losing his friend gut wrenching, but WAR HORSE is at its best when focusing on the adventures of Joey. Joey is eventually separated from his unit, and goes through a series of owners across the countryside throughout the war. The many people he meets feels episodic, but it works very well as the common thread of survival keeps things from becoming disjointed. Joey’s encounters bring him to both sides of the battle lines; at one point he is in the hands of the German army…the same unit that is firing upon Albert’s unit in the trenches.

Spielberg’s direction has not been this finely tuned in a long time. Every shot is composed beautifully; looking very much like a great work of art. WAR HORSE has a classic look and feel to it, and it overall feels timeless. The real triumph is the great “acting” that is done with Joey and the many other horses present; the actions and deeds the cast of horses must perform are amazing to see, (how do you get fifty horses to all look in the same direction at the same time?) and Spielberg finds ways to weave them into the story seamlessly; it never feels like a circus act.

Spielberg also manages to find ways for the audience to connect instantly with Joey; just one simple shot of the horse just makes wonder what he his thinking. All of this is brilliantly brought together by a GREAT score by John Williams.

There are great performances in WAR HORSE, with the bulk of the human credit going to Jeremy Irvine; His connection and emotion with Joey is very convincing. The supporting cast is also very good; from the many German and allied soldiers to the quaint villagers that Joey encounters.

WAR HORSE has many other storylines going other than Joey and Albert being separated by war, and each plotline comes together neatly and powerfully at the end. Spielberg has found a very good story in WAR HORSE, and he made it his own while giving us reasons to care; enough reasons to have us all reaching for the tissues more than once. WAR HORSE is a bittersweet tale; one of the best Steven has given us in a long time.

Welcome back, Steven.


Friday, December 23, 2011


The movies of Steven Spielberg in the last 13 years or so have very much been like the Tin Man from Oz; nice and shiny with no heart. In his film adaptation of THE ADVENTURES OF TITIN, Spielberg ventures into the world of motion-capture animation in collaboration with Peter Jackson, and backed by his old pal John Williams the stage seemed set for a fine return to the heartfelt glory the Bearded One was once known for.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is an adventure-seeking reporter, who with his dog Snowy, comes across a model of the famed ship Unicorn; a famous ship in history which sank with a treasure. Tintin discovers that the model is one of three which contain clues to the treasure’s whereabouts. Tintin and Snowy are hunted by the diabolical Sakharine (Daniel Craig), and eventually run into Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis); who is the ancestor of the Unicorn’s captain on the night of her sinking.

So TINTN’s plot is not much more than a race-to-the-treasure tale. With a high-concept, mo-cap animation world, it was necessary to keep the main storyline simple for grounding. For the most part it works, although the many reveals are a bit clunky; one clue leads to another which leads to another, and in-between that are fantastic action sequences full of energy and wows. The action comes at you full-steam ahead, and only slows down to reveal another clue.

The hunt for the treasure and the big chase are just enough to keep TINTIN afloat, for in this adventure the characters are unfortunately left behind. Tintin the character is never explored; we never discover why he is the way he is or what his fascination is with adventure. With such a paper-thin main character, it’s difficult to really get caught up in the story. Younger audiences are likely to forgive this and see right past it, and it’s possible that older audiences will forgive it also…the film is just too damn fun to get grumpy over things like character development.

Spielberg is like a kid at Christmastime with his new technology. The worlds are rendered with astonishing detail; so lifelike they might as well just have shot it for real. As good as the world looks, it’s Spielberg’s talent to know what to do with it that makes TINTIN soar. His camera pulls off impossible real-world moves; ducking around corners, following our characters through city streets, and placing us dead-center into the action. The set-pieces are perfect for his imagination; pirate ships, cargo ships, deserts, airplanes, spooky houses and city streets are like a playground to him. John Williams gets to play too; providing a very fitting (albeit somewhat stock-sounding) whimsical score.

Motion Capture seems to have come a long way from the dead-eye look that the technology suffered through in its early days. The characters look great right down to the hairs on their arms. The astounding detail that went into the creation of the environments also goes into the characters; the faces of Haddock and Sakharine look just like Peter Jackson and Spielberg, respectively.

The voice talents are perfect throughout, with Daniel Craig and Andy Serkis stealing most of the show; what a treat it would be to see what those two actors looked like when they were recording their lines. Jamie Bell also does well with his lines, and smaller roles held by chums Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are also perfectly cast and played.

TINTIN is very much a delight to look at and live through; it is great fun and never bores. Tintin the character unfortunately gets lost in the TINTIN adventure, and that keeps any sort of heart coming out. TINTIN is another Tin Man for Spielberg, but unlike his others in the last 13 years, is worth seeing.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Director David Fincher’s adaptation of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a film that is saturated with the man’s prior works. It has the shock value of SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB, the whodunit-ness of ZODIAC, and the subtle character drama of THE SOCIAL NETWORK. It is a film that he couldn’t make until this stage in his career, when all that he has learned and accomplished in the past finally pays off in a magnificent, triumphant way.

Mikael (Daniel Craig) is a disgraced magazine journalist who gets into legal and financial trouble after a story he writes with his editor (Robin Wright) is proven in court to be false. Looking for some redemption, he accepts an offer from Henrik (Christopher Plummer), the head of a rich family who lives on their own private island to solve the 40-year old mystery of a missing niece. Mikael enlists the help of Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), a freelance private investigator with a photographic memory and remarkable deductive reasoning skills.

To say much more about the plot of TATTOO would take up a lot of time and space, for the film is a dense story with several layers of mystery. Mikael and Lisbeth’s digging into the family history is a slow and prodding watch, but Fincher manages to keep things energetic and intriguing throughout; there is somehow always a foreboding feeling going on. The atmosphere that Fincher creates (thanks in part to Trent Reznor’s incredible score) hangs over everything so heavily you just may catch yourself looking over your shoulder while viewing.

TATTOO is not only successful in building a creepy and suspenseful mystery, but also in creating a great character drama in Mikael and Lisbeth’s stories. The two run parallel to each other for most of the film, but when they do finally meet, TATTOO really hits its groove. Mikael is an accomplished writer and gentleman who just wants to get something right. Lisbeth is a heavily tattooed, bisexual, chain-smoking punk-rock Goth girl whose crazy hair changes to suit her mood. She is a tragic character who has been shit upon her entire life and is desperate to find any sort of kindness and good in the world, which she does in the form of Mikael. The two cannot be more different on the surface, and more alike underneath.

Lisbeth owns the film; so much so that things seem to suffer whenever she is not in the frame. She is a super-sleuth, and very much a modern-day superhero. Her powers are her photographic memory, computer hacking-skills and modern gadgetry, and she’s not afraid to be bold when the situation gets deadly. TATTOO certainly sets a mighty stage for further Lisbeth adventures if they decide to forge ahead with the remaining two novels; she is a tremendous character.

Rooney Mara absolutely vanishes inside Lisbeth; it’s difficult to believe that this was the same cute girl from Fincher’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK. She nails the Swedish accent, along with the cold and detached look and feel that sells the character. She also convincingly pulls off the horror her character has to endure, when Lisbeth must go through what no woman should ever have to go through. Mara nearly upstages Daniel Craig, who is solid if not just a tad wooden.

The finale takes a long time to come around, as there are a ton of different storylines to wrap up. It does wrap up good and tight, and leaves a bit of an emotional cliffhanger that makes us want more. TATTOO is packed tight with a lot of story and character and is certainly not for the simple-minded, but those looking for the work of a refined and mature filmmaker with a talent for gripping storylines need not look further.


Monday, December 19, 2011

A Reel Anniversary: The Fellowship and Beyond

In December of 2001, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING debuted in theatres.

The release of FELLOWSHIP, which was the first chapter in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Oscar-winning films, was a dream come true for us book and film geeks. Deemed as “un-filmable” for over fifty years, seeing the characters and fantastic environments come to life on the big screen was an unforgettable experience. It was the first film in a franchise that would win 17 of its overall 30 Oscar nominations, including THE RETURN OF THE KING's historic sweep (including Best Picture) in 2003. The three films would also gross nearly $3 billion worldwide, and become the most significant entry into pop culture since STAR WARS.

On a small scale, there was something that happened to this Blogger and his friends that we did not expect. On a cold night in December 2001, under a very Tolkien-esque sickle-moon, I and a group of close friends gathered together at the magnificent confines of Cinemark theatres in Northeast Pennsylvania to view FELLOWSHIP for the first time. We had all been friends and colleagues prior to that night, but what happened after walking out of that theatre was something that not even The Wise could have foreseen.

Our own Fellowship was born. It was a term that we all latched on to. As in the film, we all connected with the theme of “fellowship”; where several individuals out of several backgrounds and beliefs came together, and stayed together. We referred to ourselves as The Fellowship from that night on; it was a term built out of friendship, brotherhood, and love.

Over the next two years, FELLOWSHIP and the following two films played a major part in our geek-lives. The films stayed in the theatres until the spring, the summer brought along the first peeks of sneak-previews and trailers, and fall delivered the DVD’s and eventual next theatrical chapter. We scoured the internet for glimpses of the next film, collected memorabilia, re-read the books and lived the films throughout the course of the year. It was a year-long celebration that lasted three years, and an experience we had not lived through since the early days of STAR WARS. And through it all, Our Fellowship grew stronger. What made it all the more special is that we all came back together each December, at the same place to see the next film; the same company, at the same theatre, for the same thing…three years in a row.

Our Fellowship proved to be strong outside of the ring of movies and geek-stuff; we gathered for libations, helped each other out through unexpected changes, and never let one another fall into shadow. Over the winding road of time there have many comings and goings, but the core of it endures.

This Blogger remembers his Fellowship in his own way every year; in a near-vigil like tribute, watching the trilogy only once a year…always in December.

Today, as in the films, Our Fellowship stands separated by time and distance. And just like in those movies, stands strong and steadfast despite the passing years, increasing miles, and life-altering changes. It is something we were never able to wrap our minds around and define, which is perhaps the way it should be; for the most powerful and special things in life should not be answered easily. Many things have changed since 2001, but we now remember our Fellowship by passing down our love for these films to new friends, lovers, and children. One stage of our journey may be over, but another is just beginning.

Friday, December 16, 2011


One thing can be deduced easily when watching Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movie adaptations; he must have been the kid who was bored out of his mind when watching the various TV adaptations that have been made based on the character. Those early works, whether it be a BBC production or Basil Rathbone feature, were admittedly chock full of old men sitting around talking, but still offered plenty of thinking-man’s drama. Ritchie’s final solution to the problem of making Holmes relevant to the current simple-minded YouTube generation is to pack the film tight with action, while occasionally stealing a page or two out of the source material. The end result in Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS is a mish-mash of ideas that occasionally work.

Consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his best friend Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) embark on a world-wide chase of the notorious criminal mastermind Prof. Moriarty (Jared Harris), who has embarked on a scheme to bring about world-wide destruction.

SHADOWS starts off with a literal bang; there is a huge explosion in the first 60 seconds (don’t any of you lot dare to poke fun at Michael Bay again), and it’s clear right away that this is a film searching for an identity; not knowing whether to be a straight-up actioneer or a crime-solving mind-game. It tries to do both; SHADOWS spends a lot of it’s time focusing on Holmes trying to outthink Moriarty and his thugs, and for the most part is interesting to watch. But, just when things feel like they are taking a turn for the smarter, SHADOWS takes a left turn into DIE HARD land, with plenty of gunfights and booms and bangs and explosions; tons of action sequences that do little to move things forward. The few thinking-man’s elements are outnumbered by the loud noises, and leaves SHADOWS feeling unbalanced.

Ritchie is clearly not realizing that lots of action does not always equal good drama, and another fault of SHADOWS is a missed opportunity in the chemistry between Holmes and Watson, who are incidentally being played by massive amounts of talent in the forms of Downey and Law, respectively. The two characters are given few opportunities to clash and contrast, and while they are good, they are just too few to leave a lasting impact. The few personal moments between the old friends are very good; ranging from Holmes’ loneliness to Watson’s search for stability.
Unfortunately for SHADOWS, the moments are not capitalized upon and leaves untapped talent and opportunities in the dust of its many explosions.

In crafting the film, Ritchie does manage to do well. The landscapes of London and various locations across the world are brought to life vividly. The ten-thousand action sequences do manage to be of some fun; even the ones that are ho-hum CGI driven. The many looks inside the inner-workings of Holmes and Moriarty’s minds are well executed, although seldom. The score is fairly magnificent, but does lack a memorable theme.

Downey seems to suffer from the film’s confused state; he doesn’t know if he should play Holmes as a genius or an Indiana Jones, so he tries to do both with mixed results. Jude Law probably suffers the most from the lack of development; while he acts his part well, his poor character seems to exist only as an occasional counter to Holmes’ behavior. Jared Harris turns in a noble effort as the ultimate villain, but again suffers from an underwritten script; his character is paper-thin with absolutely no motivations hinted at.

The finale begins with a remarkable verbal-chess match showdown between Holmes and Moriarty; a battle of mental wits that is an absolute joy to watch. The final battle is nearly too good, and it becomes clear that the film could have, and should have embraced such psychological mind-games. SHADOWS is a fun ride, never really bores and is loaded with laughs, but anyone looking for something with smarts ought to search elsewhere.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions: Who the hell is JCM?

A lot of people have been asking, “who the hell is this John Carter guy”, and “what is with this JCM business” ?

FACT: Disney pictures is producing an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of novels, in which John Carter undertakes adventures on the planet Mars. The Carter character first appeared in A PRINCESS OF MARS in 1912, and followed up with seven other novels. The film will star Taylor Kitsch (Gambit in WOLVERINE) as Carter, and co-star Mark Strong and Willem DaFoe.

OPINION: Many Earth-dwellers have not caught on to fact that the upcoming film (set for a 2012 release) is an adaptation of one of (or many) of Burroughs’ novels, due in part to the marketing strategy the Mouse is taking. The trailers are pushing a title of JOHN CARTER, while many of the theatrical posters simply say JCM.

Why the departure? First off, Disney is likely avoiding reference to Mars to avoid any connection to the shitty films we’ve had in the past ten years dealing with the Red Planet (GHOSTS OF MARS, RED PLANET, or maybe even MARS ATTACKS!). The strategy will likely work; after all, all they really need to do is get people into the theatres. The flip side to this is any fans of the original novels might not even realize that the promotions they are seeing are for those early works. Disney clearly went with going for a broad appeal.

But what can be annoying is Disney taking an epic series like the Carter adventures and reducing it to the trendy acronym thing that’s everywhere now; the newest MISSION IMPOSSIBLE film is MI:4, the next MEN IN BLACK film is MIB3, etc. Such is the world of the YouTube generation; where these young whipper-snappers have to have the entire message spelled out for them in five seconds or else they are lost. The scheme does work as people are getting their asses into the theatre; but eventually all these titles like MI:4, MIB3 and JCM are going to blend together like alphabet soup. What good will that do?

What say you?

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Reel Review: SHAME

German/Irish actor Michael Fassbender made a huge splash on American shores in 2011, enthralling most of us Yanks with his portrayal of a young and vengeful Magneto in X-MEN FIRST (CL)ASS. In director Steve McQueen’s sexual drama SHAME, Fassbender gets to flex his muscles (and his buttocks) in proving that he has the chops that transcends any or all comic flicks.

Brandon (Fassbender) is a sex addict living in NYC. Addicted to sex much like a druggie or alcoholic, Brandon has sex with a different women nearly every night; either charming them with a simple smile or his wallet. When he is alone, he relives his tensions by surfing porn on the web or masturbating in the bathrooms stalls at work. Things get complicated when his messed-up younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his doorstep with nowhere to go. Sissy begins an affair with Brandon’s boss David (James Badge Dale), and seeing himself reflected in the situation, tries to cleanse himself of his addiction; a move which may or may not be the best for him.

SHAME doesn’t have much of a plot other than watching Brandon embrace and/or struggle with his addiction. His addiction is the story; the way it runs his life and determines his every move. SHAME could have easily been about the addictions of booze and drugs, but since sex is more fun to watch on-screen, why not? But where SHAME seems to really shine is in the contrasting characters. Brandon, Sissy and David have different personalities and traits that are a joy to watch on screen as they clash and rotate around each other.

Director Steve McQueen displays a directing style that takes a while to get used to. There are many, many unsettling and uncomfortable LONG takes; static shots that don’t move for what seem like forever. It’s a great tension builder, and the challenge is really upon the actors to pull off the scene in one attempt. SHAME has to set a record for the fewest cuts in a feature film, and it often feels like a good stage drama. But McQueen also shows talent with some movement; there are some endless tracking shots that have to be seen to be believed. The numerous sex scenes are not gratuitous, and are all a means to an end. Some love-making is filmed very bluntly and exposed, while others are composed beautifully.

Fassbender nails the role in a subtly powerful performance. He is clearly filled with tension throughout the film, and if that wasn’t convincing enough he lets it out in explosive bursts. As good as he is, he is nearly upstaged by Carey Mulligan, who in the often-seen role of the screwed up family member, brings new life to it and is never un-convincing.

SHAME spends a lot of time on its characters, but oddly lacks any sort of backstory to any of them. How Brandon got so addicted and how Sissy got so messed up remains a bit of a mystery. McQueen keeps his characters at a distance, which is a bit of a ploy to keep the audience hooked. Still, SHAME manages to hang with you long after you leave the theatre; it is a sobering lesson to all in re-examining life even when things seem great.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Reel 25

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of one of the greatest war-films ever made, Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning PLATOON.

Stone created PLATOON based upon his own experiences in the Vietnam War, and intended to counter the vision of war that was portrayed in THE GREEN BERETS (1968). Although Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCOLYPSE NOW (1979) was a harder look at the war, BERETS was widely accepted as the definitive Vietnam film; mostly due to John Wayne’s star power. BERETS however was slammed by the critics for glorifying the war and for being dull and absurd. Still, The Duke’s star made it a financial success, and was widely considered to be The ‘Nam film. Stone set out to change that.

Again, by drawing from his own wartime experiences, Stone was able to strip the Hollywood from Vietnam; while making it real, gritty, and most importantly, human at the same time. The realities of guerilla warfare and the themes of moral choices made PLATOON strike a chord with veterans and non-veterans alike. Audiences were disturbed, yet accepting of the notion of America’s soldiers turning on each other in the depths of hellish war.

Stone put together an ensemble cast in the form of Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem DaFoe, Johnny Depp (!), Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn (RIP), John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Corey Glover and Keith David. He put his actors through real-life boot camp to prepare them for their roles; adding heavy realism to the strong performances.

Powered by those strong performances and Stone’s excellent writing, PLATOON was a great success; it was nominated for eight Oscars (including two for acting), and won four (including Best Picture). The American Film Institute ranks it #83 in it’s AFI’S 100 YEARS…100 MOVIES.

This Blogger never had the opportunity to see PLATOON on the big screen (where’s that 4K big screen re-release, Oliver?), and only caught up with it years later on home video; the initial viewings cemented PLATOON in this mind as THE definitive ‘Nam movie. A recent viewing shows that the film has held up and aged very, very well; great characters and powerful themes tend to do that. And as a former U.S. Army Reservist, this Blogger consistently witnessed (one weekend a month) the characters Stone had created in real life; be assured that in every platoon, there is a Sgt. Barnes, an Elias, and a Chris Taylor.

The tag-line of PLATOON was, “The first casualty of war is innocence”, which was an adaptation of Senator Hiram Johnson’s 1917 quote, “The first casualty of war is truth”; both themes are heavy in the film, and perhaps no other war movie since 1986 has carried those messages better.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: Producer Neal Moritz has announced that he is moving ahead with plans to remake STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997). The new take is intended to stick more closely with Robert Heinlein’s novel, from which the campy sci-fi film was based on.

OPINION: Now before you lot get your asses into an uproar over the lack of originality in Hollywood these days (which wouldn’t be a bad idea), consider this; a remake of TROOPERS that would follow the novel (which was published in 1959) might be the best thing ever to happen to the franchise (which consists of one feature film, two direct-to-videos, and a TV series). The film was seriously hated by sci-fi fans when it was originally released, which traded in the books’ heavy-handed themes of philosophical aspects of suffrage and civic virtue for campy over-the-top action decorated with teenage angst and sex. The approach has worked before; when the Coen Brothers set out to remake TRUE GRIT a few years back, they intended not to remake the John Wayne rendition, but to stick closely to the original source material. The results were Oscar gold. So don’t cry blasphemy over a new TROOPERS just yet.

Would you like to know more?

FACT: After years upon years of starts and stops, the big-screen adaptation of ENDER’S GAME seems finally ready to get going for real. Asa Butterfield (from HUGO) is set to star as the main character, and Gavin Hood (of WOLVERINE fame) is to direct, with a targeted release date of Spring 2013. Harrison Ford is also rumored to be involved. The plot which follows a gifted young gamer who is recruited by the government to help battle an insect-like race.

OPINION: Having never read the book, this Blogger has no reason to be super-excited over the casting or the long-awaited green-light. It should be noted that the alien-insect thing has been done a LOT lately (STARSHIP TROOPERS, DISTRICT 9), and even though the ENDER’S GAME novel was released a long time before those films (1985), general film audiences are likely to shrug this one off as just another bug-hunt. It’s a shame all those delays had to happen.

FACT: The big-screen adaptation of 24 also seems to be finally getting rolling. Fox is looking to have a script ready by the end of this year, which would open up the possibility of cameras beginning to roll by next Spring or Summer.
OPINION: The writers will really need to have the creative juices flowing to separate this feature length films (which has to be at least called 80) from the countless plots/races against time Bauer has already faced. If not, then it will blend in with the horde of counter-terrorism films and be lost.

What say you?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Reel 20

This Blogger was very pleased to attend his 20-year high school reunion recently, and as any good movie-based mind should do, turned his thoughts to the films that were entertaining us way back in 1991. A look back not only jolted some fond memories and nostalgia, but also revealed just how important ’91 was in film history; with a lot of benchmark films and classical performances.

Starting with the moolah, James Cameron’s TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY was the biggest earner of the year; its $565 million at the box office is still good for no. 84 all-time in the worldwide rankings. The film was also a benchmark in CGI effects; ILM’s eye-popping work paved the way for a generation of digital wizardry. Other notable big-money makers were Oliver Stone’s controversial, yet Oscar-winning JFK, this Blogger’s favorite of the year in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, Steven Spielberg’s HOOK, Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST…which became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. BEAST’S nomination proved that animated films were not just for kids anymore; a trend that continues today with Disney’s collaborations with Pixar.

Speaking of the Oscars, ’91 was a competitive year, with LAMBS, BEAUTY, JFK, BUGSY and THE PRINCE OF TIDES duking it out for Academy gold. LAMBS wound up dominating the awards; pulling off the coveted sweep of the major categories, including Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins). Hopkins' chilling performance of Hannibal Lecter was a memorable one for the ages; he will always be remembered for it and movie-buffs quote the character daily. The ceremony was also memorable for Jack Palance’s set of celebratory one-handed pushups after winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in CITY SLICKERS.


Come to think of it, 1991 was one hell of a year.

What say you? What was your favorite of 1991?

Monday, November 28, 2011


As the title indicates, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is not a traditional biopic documenting the starlet’s entire life, and instead focuses on a nearly obscure timeframe in movie history. Still, the film manages to capture its main character, Marilyn Monroe completely; all thanks to sharp writing and a stunning performance by Michelle Williams that is guaranteed to take your breath away.

Marilyn Monroe (Williams) is off to London to film THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, which is being directed by Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who is married to Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond). Monroe struggles through the pressure of acting, and copes by leaning on countless of amounts of pills and booze; behavior that threatens to derail the entire production. Monroe finds solace and inspiration in the form of Colin (Eddie Redmayne); a young man who is on his very first job in the movie business.

MARILYN, for as much as it focuses on Monroe, is really a story about two lost souls coming together and finding meaning. Colin is a big-studio virgin; wide-eyed and innocent. Marilyn is the bigger-than-life movie and entertainment star; who wants only to be a regular girl and be a good wife to her husband, but must put on the act of Marilyn Monroe when the cameras are rolling. It is a fascinating watch to see Colin and Marilyn charm the hell out of each other before reality comes back to nail them both. Both characters are fleshed out perfectly, and the audience can’t help but to feel for, and love them both.

Marilyn Monroe absolutely rises from the dead in Michelle Williams’s outstanding performance. The mannerisms, facial expressions and body language are magic to see; it is as if the blonde beauty fell out of the screen and into our laps. She completely sells the character; she is the girl that we all want to hold tightly, even though we know she will eventually fly away.

Director Simon Curtis also gets excellent performances out of Redmayne, who never fails to convince us of the puppy-love innocence. Also astoundingly perfect is Branagh as Sir Laurence, who nails the screen legend’s vocal tone and even looks like the man. Curtis assembles a near-ensemble cast including Judi Dench, Toby Jones, Zoe Wanamaker, Dominic Cooper and Emma Watson…and gets sparkling performances out of them all. Curtis also succeeds in bringing the whimsy of 1950’s movie-making to life, packing things with a brisk magic that will have the audience smiling and laughing from beginning to end.

Despite the bitter sweetness of the ending, MARILYN manages to become one of the most feel-good movies of the year. It is funny and moody, entertaining and sad, and it is incredibly fitting that the most charming woman who ever lived is the subject of the most charming movie of 2011. If you don’t fall in love with Michelle Williams, you most certainly fall in love with Marilyn.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Reel Review: HUGO

Martin Scorsese’s HUGO is about a lot of different things; it’s a story about a boy’s love for his father, it is about childhood friendship and adventure, it is about redemption and self-forgiveness. On top of that, it is Scorsese’s statement to the world concerning the history and preservation of film. His first venture into the 3D world is the setting he chooses for telling all of these stories, and the blending is a stumble here, and a triumph there.

Hugo’s (Asa Butterfield) father (Jude Law) is killed in a museum fire, and the boy is sent to live with his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), who maintains the inner-workings of all the clocks in a Paris train station. When the uncle disappears, Hugo is left alone to run the clocks by himself while avoiding capture from the stations chief inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo sort-of befriends George (Ben Kingsley), who has an interesting connection to movie history, and his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Hugo looks to repair an automaton; a mechanical man discovered by his father in the museum’s attic, which when operational may or may not reveal stunning secrets that involve all characters and their lives.

HUGO’s beginnings set up the film as a story all about a boy’s love for his father. Repairing the automaton is Hugo’s last connection to his dead pop, and his motivations are clearly spelled out and loaded with emotion. Once the automaton starts to click, the movie (literally) switches gears. The focus shifts from Hugo and his love for his dad and over to Isabelle’s god-father George. The switch, while necessary for Scorsese’s intentions for the film, drops the emotion from the overall story and relegates Hugo to a solve-the-mystery movie.

Most of HUGO seems scattered; spending a lot of time on the many characters, some of which feels unnecessary. But where HUGO really shines is when Scorsese switches gears for a third time and gets into a specific and important chapter in movie history. The recreations of historical movies such as A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) are a joy to watch, and Scorsese pours his love of movie history all over the place. HUGO’s third switch is a history lesson in film, and it is an important one.

The 3D is hit or miss. It looks dazzling in some places, and un-noticeable in others. HUGO feels like it should be seen in 3D, as it is a story dealing with the magic of the movies. It’s a clever effort, but in the practical sense it’s an annoyance; the dimness of those blasted glasses dulls the vibrancy of the magnificent-looking world HUGO exists in.

Scorsese directs some great performances out of everyone, especially from his younger cast; younger audiences will connect right away with Hugo and Isabelle. Older audiences will be entertained as well, providing they can get by the slow pacing and switching storylines. HUGO succeeds a lot more than it stumbles.


Monday, November 21, 2011


FACT: With digital projection becoming more widespread, major studios have decided to get out of the business of renting out their original 35mm film prints to theatres for showing. This has put certain smaller movie theatres in great jeopardy. Houses such as the New Beverly Cinema in L.A., which runs only 35mm film, would eventually have nothing to show.

A passionate online petition is now circulating to try and save what they, and many others consider to be pieces of history. The archival 35mm film prints will be scanned into digital, and then destroyed. Countless cans of decades-old film will hit the incinerators. This is likely the first of many steps major studios will be taking to eventually switch to digital projection in full.

OPINION: For starters, let it be said that this Blogger has a deep love for film projection; having worked as a film (and eventually digital) film projectionist at a major theatre chain for nearly eight years. Reel Speak was born from that deep love; it’s what inspired the name.

However, that love for 35mm film has gradually become more of a nostalgic love than a practical one. This blogger has seen first-hand, both in and out of the booth, how fragile 35mm film can be. Now, a well-maintained projector when running a brand new print right out of the can will look spectacular. However, celluloid eventually will fade from the bulb, and let’s not forget that film projectors have many, many moving parts; all of which can lead to damaged prints, leading to defects on the screen. Defects like annoying black and green scratches, dust, and pictures that jump around and are out of focus are common symptoms. And then there are breakages, which can lead to film snapping in half and the spectacular image of the picture burning and melting on screen. The bottom line is an interrupted movie, which no one likes. Digital projection, while still evolving, avoids any of these defects in the picture and seldom break down. If you are paying good money to see a movie, you certainly deserve to see a perfect, uninterrupted presentation.

Studios know this, and they also know the cost of having to maintain thousands (hell, millions) of film prints over the years. From a practical sense, all of these 35mm film prints cost a lot just to store in a temperature-controlled climate and also take up a lot of space. Some years back, a fire at Universal Studios obliterated countless cans of film. How many original prints of DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTIEN (also 1931) were destroyed? No one knows. Digital can solve that problem; by scanning all of these films into data bits, they can be safely stored and preserved forever.

But what about all those 35mm film prints? Should they become ashes? It’s a sad thing to think so. If someone one day discovers a warehouse full of Beatles records on vinyl, should they be destroyed just because they already exist digitally? Hell no. Lots of people would want them, even if they never intend to play them.

This is where the passion of film lovers comes in, and where the studios need to listen. Undoubtedly, there are film collectors out there who would pay top dollar to own an original print of their favorite films. Yes they are space-consuming, but if they want it saved they might have to do it themselves. As for theatres such as the New Beverly, they are just going to have to get with the times. Their passion for 35mm film projection is admirable, but those 50-year old prints they are running have got to look like shit, and they will eventually have to deal with projector companies ceasing support of those old machines. They also must realize their contradiction: they want to preserve the prints so they can play them; but they must know that the more they are played, the more damaged they will be become. Want to preserve your original vinyl copy of LET IT BE? Don’t play it.

We are in an extremely important time in movie history; right smack-dab in the middle of two eras. Film projection has really not changed in a hundred years. That constant is about to end. It is with sad melancholy that this Blogger must side with the practical. By all means let’s save the film, but let’s save them for the right reasons.

What say you? Are movies meant to be viewed on film? Are we godless heathens for switching to digital? This may be the most important topic in “film” today…

If you are interested in signing the petition to aid in the New Beverly Cinema's effort, here is the link:

Friday, November 18, 2011


In directing his first film since the Oscar-darling SIDEWAYS, Alexander Payne does something to George Clooney that has never been done in the man’s successful and diverse career; he stuffs Clooney’s character full of emotional trials until it boils out, and the result is a redefining acting performance which is just one small part of a brilliant film.

Matt King (Clooney) is the owner of the last undeveloped land in the Hawaiian Islands which is worth a fortune, and must decide either to sell it or try to keep it while being pressured by his family. A month before the decision, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is involved in an accident which puts her into a coma, where she will remain until Matt decides to honor his wife’s wishes to pull the plug. Matt, who was often an absent parent, must now act as a lone parent to his brat daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley), with Alex finally telling her father his dying wife’s secrets.

THE DESCENDANTS is Matt’s story as he tries to bring what’s left of his family together. Pain and conflict are the themes throughout the film, and Payne positions them brilliantly like a chess master. In the early goings, the film feels like it would be another run-of-the mill family bonding story, but when Alex lets Matt know about his dying wife’s secrets, things change in a hurry. The daughters who were once Matt’s enemy are suddenly his allies as they charge into Elizabeth’s past; not to confront or cause trouble, but to find closure and try to get to know her better before she passes on. It is a very human story.

Payne does tremendous work in never letting the film become too dark and depressing; the film is very funny, but never gets carried away as it always remembers to bring things back to the dying wife and mom. Filming THE DESCENDANTS in Hawaii was a stroke of genius; it is a beautiful setting for a tragic tale.

Clooney is at his absolute best here, and anyone who thought they had the man completely figured out hasn’t seen anything yet. His character is burdened with emotion for the entire film, and when it finally boils over…whoa daddy. It’s a performance that a lot of people might not be ready for. Equally good is Shailene Woodley, who goes toe-to-toe with Clooney often and never misses a beat. Also surprising is a rare and well executed serious role by Matthew Lillard, and smaller parts by Beau Bridges, Judy Greer and Robert Forester are also directed and acted beautifully.

The finale has a bit of predictable turn, as the often-seen morality tale of what is really important in life is finally revealed. In this setting and with this execution, it really does work. THE DESCENDANTS is packed with real-world tragedy and drama, but never stuck too much in reality that we can’t enjoy it immensely.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Reel Opinion: Tim Burton Phones it in...

FACT: Tim Burton is in talks to develop a film adaptation of the Ransom Riggs novel “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” for 20th Century Fox. The book follows a 16 year old whose childhood was filled with stories from the orphanage, told to him by his grandfather.

OPINION: If this project does come into Burton’s hands, it will be the 4th film in a row for him that was an adaptation/remake, and the 7th in his last nine times out. Where oh where has the inspired mind that created BEETLEJUICE and EDWARD

Gone seem to be the days when the once-original genius of Burton gave us sights and stories that we had never seen before. Year after year it has been remake after remake after adaptation; all with the same predictable style over and over again that he tries to pass off on us as original. This is a classic case of a successful director getting too comfortable with himself and becoming reluctant to get his ass off the couch of originality.

Burton may want to consider his past as proof of his now lazy ass. In the past when he would become predictable, he would step outside of his own style and the results would be spectacular; ED WOOD and BIG FISH for example. Where is that guy now?

Now, his endless string of adaptations have been moderately successful, and they are entertaining and make enough moolah at the box office to keep the corporate studio stooges happy; but in an age where movie audiences are dying and screaming for something original, Tim Burton used to be the man people looked to for relief. Not anymore.

What say you?

Monday, November 14, 2011


It has been argued for decades that there are only two types of people who make movies: There are Directors (Singer, Cameron, Bay) and there are Filmmakers (Scorsese, Aronofsky, Malick). With the arrival of the stunning achievement that is MELANCHOLIA, Lars Von Trier may have created a new category all for his own; a film Composer. His MELANCHOLIA is like a beautifully composed piece of music, with soaring ups and downs on the way through an emotional journey.

Disguised as a movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are celebrating their wedding at the swanky home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). The wedding is a disaster, with family tensions and drama and Justine’s failure to be happy wrecking everything. Meanwhile, a wayward planet named Melancholia is on a path which may, or may not bring it to collision with Earth.

MELANCHOLIA is a film about the end of the world, but that is just the cover. It is really a film about depression and how the characters react to the pending disaster, which again may or may not happen. It is clear that both Justine and Claire suffer from depression, but in different ways; Justine is internally depressed and welcomes the possible disaster as a reprieve from this thing called life. Claire is externally depressed; fearing the absolute worst from that pesky planet. Adding more drama to the mix is John, who is impatient with Justine’s behavior, and as a scientist is excited and fascinated with Earth’s new neighbor. Von Trier does excellent work in throwing the characters into the mix and letting them react to the situation. There are character traits in Justine, Claire and John that everyone can relate to.

Von Trier composes a beautiful film here, with outstanding photography and tightly woven storylines; there is nothing redundant or unnecessary, as every long take and montage is important to the overall theme. The shaky-cam is used a lot, not to make confusing action but to create an unsettling feeling, and it works. Von Trier is not afraid to let the film unfold slowly with trudging pacing; and knows exactly when to wake the audience up using a few shocking visuals. One interesting choice Von Trier made is with the score; while it is magnificent and fitting, there seems to be only one short piece written for the entire film, and it is used about a million times. It’s a guarantee that the theme will be stuck in the audience’s head for days…

Kirsten Dunst won a Best Actress award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for her performance in this film, and it is well deserved. She sinks into herself so well there is never a doubt that her character is a deeply depressed person. Her maturity is evident here, and it is a role that will make many forget about the goofy films she’s made in her past. Her performance seems to rub off on everyone (except for Sutherland, who seems to be phoning it in), most especially Charlotte Gainsbourg who must counter her. Smaller roles by Stellan Skarsgard and the great John Hurt are also a joy to watch.

For a film that is dealing with the end of the world, MELANCHOLIA never shows the effect the possible disaster has in a world-wide scale; in fact, it never leaves the confines of Claire and John’s home. The possible Armageddon is not the focus as much as which of the two sisters has a firmer grip on reality. That approach brings the focus to the characters and the human side of tragedy, and brings MELANCHOLIA to the status of masterpiece.


Friday, November 11, 2011

A Reel Review: J. EDGAR

Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR is not only an attempt to tell the life story of the famed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but to also offer a large slice of American history. With those two goals, J. EDGAR is a triumph; America of the past is vibrantly brought to life, and Mr. Hoover right along with it. Unfortunately for Clint and his film, J.EDGAR forgets to do one important thing: it forgets to give the audience a reason to care about any of it.

J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells his life story to agents assigned to pen his memoirs. Leaping backwards and forwards in time, J. Edgar’s rise to power in the newly founded FBI is documented, along with his personal life, which includes his long-time secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), overbearing mother (Judi Dench) and life-partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film covers over 40 years of history as he battles through threats to the U.S. Government, his own agency, political scandals, and the historic kidnapping of the child of Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas).

Having the main character of a biopic dictate his own tale is an interesting, and mostly successful method. The story is being told through Hoover’s own eyes, and he exaggerates facts at will to build his own and the FBI’s legend. The fact that he is embellishing here and there is not known until the end, and can make the audience scratch their heads wondering exactly what it is they just witnessed in all the flashbacks.

Outside of that, the film is at its strongest going though important events in the FBI’s, and America’s history; History buffs would love this. But Eastwood always seems to be filming things at a distance; there is always the feeling that he could have, and should have gone a just a bit deeper. Hoover is there before us, and for the most part we can feel his motivations, but never given a reason to care.

DiCaprio is very good in the role. He manages to vanish underneath the ridiculous amount of old-age makeup and really sell the character; his old-man acting is more convincing than the makeup. Less successful is Armie Hammer, who in playing J. Edgar’s lover does little more than smile and look pretty, and he fails to act well enough through the awful mask-looking makeup he has to wear. The lovely Naomi Watts is underused, but at least she still looks good in her old-age getup.

Eastwood stocks the film with some well-cast celebrity look-alikes from history; everyone from Nixon to Shirley Temple. J. EDGAR is saturated in American lore, with endless monologues from its main character. But for as much as the film talks, it feels like not much is said. J. EDGAR is all glory, no guts.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Reel Morons & Opinions

MORON: Director Brett Ratner, attending a screening to promote his new film TOWER HEIST, was asked in a Q & A session if he was the type of director who held rehearsals. His response: “rehearsing is for fags”. The backlash was nearly instantaneous, and pressured Ratner to resign his position as Producer of the 2011 Oscars telecast. Hot on his heels, comedian/actor Eddie Murphy announced that he would not appear as Host to the same telecast.

OPINION: Ratner’s directing credits have ranged from mediocre (X3, RED DRAGON, TOWER HEIST) to absolute shit (RUSH HOUR 1-3). His hiring as Producer of an Oscars telecast was a bit of a head scratcher, but nonetheless it would have given him a chance to grow up and place his name on the top-shelf; but then he had to go and open his mouth. His slur either exposed him as a homophobic bigot, or reminded us all that he doesn’t think much before speaking.

And then we have Eddie Murphy. The once, great R-rated comedian has turned in a slew of F-rated films as of late; ranging from mediocre (TOWER HEIST, HAUNTED MANSION), to absolute shit (PLUTO NASH, NORBIT). His hiring as Host of an Oscar telecast would not only have made a huge stride in resurrecting his career, but would also have injected some much-needed excitement back into the big show. He chose instead to fall on his sword for Ratner, an action that could possibly line up a sequel to PLUTO NASH in (goddamn) 3D.

Ratner’s comment would have skated by without a thought thirty years ago, and does sound like something Murphy would have said during his RAW era. However that way of thinking does not fly in these modern times. Ratner, who made the remark, and Murphy, who seems to be defending it by quitting the show… have just torpedoed their careers. Morons indeed.

What say you?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: Sony Pictures and video game-maker Ubisoft have inked a deal to bring the wildly successful Assassin’s Creed to the big screen. The major news here is that Ubisoft demanded, and won an unheard amount of control over the project; everything from budget, cast, script, and release date.

OPINION: This can set a dangerous precedent. If the film flops, Ubisoft will not only have ruined their own property, but they would have sabotaged themselves in any future negotiations. On the flip side, if the film is actually good, then studios are going to have to contend with a long line of geeky gamers wanting total control in future films.

Ubisoft is clearly being very protective of their beloved franchise, and do not want some studio hack to butcher their love into another B-level turd in the long line of B-level turds that video game films tend to become; SUPER MARIO BROS., RESIDENT EVIL, PRINCE OF PERSIA, BLOODRAYNE…to name a few. Ubisoft may know a lot about making great games, but do they know anything about making movies?

The answer may lay in history, history that opens up the bigger question: Who should have control over the property; The Creator, or the Filmmaker?

Theoretically, no one but The Creator knows the property better. The Creator has spent time with the characters, the world they live in, and the things that they face. No one knows the source material better than the Creator. However, it is The Filmmaker who knows what works on screen, and what doesn’t. What works in a video game (or a comic book, novel, etc.) will likely not work in a movie, which is a completely different medium.

When Creators and Filmmakers put their heads together in a healthy way, great things can happen. Director David Fincher made sure author Aaron Sorkin was on set for every day of shooting in the making of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and the results won Oscars. Author J.K. Rowling worked closely with Warner Bros.’ directors and producers in the HARRY POTTER adaptations, and the results were (mostly) spectacular. Reaching back a bit further, the late great Irvin Kershner directed a masterpiece in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but be assured that series creator George Lucas kept a watchful eye on things during production.

Again, when the two sides come together and stir up each other’s creative juices, great things can happen. When one side or the other wants more or all, shit can happen. Ubisoft way want to remember that, before they go ahead and slay their own baby.

What say you?

Friday, November 4, 2011


THE SKIN I LIVE IN will be a film that people will automatically compare to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; with its creepy atmosphere, detached skin, captive women and a brilliant but deranged doctor. The comparisons would be fair, but SKIN is a film that still manages to stand on its own; on its own as one of the most disturbing films ever made.

Doctor Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant surgeon who has lost his wife in a fiery car crash, and his two daughters to suicide. Using the loss of his family as motivation, the good doctor throws his life into helping burn victims reconstruct their faces with brilliant muscle and skin reformation. Robert perfects his technique on Vera (played by the stunningly beautiful Elena Anaya), a woman that he is keeping captive in his mansion. Robert’s humanitarian efforts are a cover, as he has reconstructed his dead wife out of the person that Vera used to be.

SKIN begins as Robert’s story, as he uses his pain and tragic loss to fuel his medical efforts. The story unfolds using a non-linear method, as the past and present constantly flip back and forth. As the movie moves forward, the story (literally) changes. The focus shifts from Robert’s motivations to who Vera used to be, and who she is now. Vera and Robert’s stories run parallel, with Vera’s carrying a heavy and relevant weight throughout. Who she is/was unfolds slowly, and when the realization sinks in…..whoa daddy….

Director Pedro Almodovar makes some brilliant and interesting stylistic choices here. Not only is the non-linear method perfect, but the tension and creepiness is constant thanks to some well-timed music and clever camerawork. His eye fills the frame with hints and nudges towards the doctor’s motivations and secrets, and the film overall has the look of a 1960’s Bond; it is chock full of beautiful women, hot cars, and gorgeous vistas. Almodovar also manages to make the viewer squirm over simple things like the snapping-on of surgical gloves.

SKIN is sub-titled, so it’s difficult to judge the acting as far as line-delivery. But besides that it is clear that Banderas is perfect. He is evil but in pain, and he lets the viewer know that all the time. The stunningly beautiful Elena Anaya (has this blogger mentioned she is stunningly beautiful?) is also convincing; so convincing that we almost don’t notice when she’s nude for half the film. Almost.

The identity of Vera is not revealed by way of a boom-bang twist with loud noises and over-orchestration, and is instead slowly revealed in bites. In fact, a clever viewer may be able to figure it out around the three-quarter mark, or earlier. But let’s be clear that’s not a flaw in the film, for the filmmakers obviously intended who Vera is/was to be subtlety let out. That way, the viewer will have to look at the character in a new light for the last quarter, and be disturbed enough to want a cleansing shower right away. It’s that type of fucked-up-ness that makes THE SKIN I LIVE IN an unsettling, but great movie.


Thursday, November 3, 2011


Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen) puts her name on the grown-up actress map with a powerful performance in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (or 4M for this lazy typist); a disturbing psychological thriller with more tension than a drum head.

Martha (Olsen) is seduced into living and working on a farm run by a Davidian-like cult. The cult is led by Patrick (John Hawkes), who has sex with all the women so they can father his many sons. The women exist only to serve the men, and they even take their given names away from them. Martha (or Marcy May, as she is renamed by the cult), runs away and begins a new life with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha is unwilling (or unable) to reveal where she has been for the last two years, and becomes increasingly paranoid that the cult is watching her.

4M is smartly intercut in-between Martha’s new life and her old one. Not so much flashbacks as they are interesting parallels to her two lives (similar to GODFATHER II), they unravel some great drama as her present situation is closely tied to events that happened to her at the cult. Things get very interesting when her reality lines become blurred, and she cannot figure out if her life at the farm was just a dream or if it really happened. Things also get interesting when she realizes that her new life of freedom has just as many limitations as the one she had in captivity.

Director Sean Durkin builds an incredible atmosphere of tension with some long, quiet takes in which the camera never moves. Scenes are played out in long, single takes with occasional SLOOOOOOW zooms and fades that keeps the viewer pinned on the edge of their seat.

Olsen really sells the film. She is convincing throughout, displaying pain, fear and joy with simple facial expressions. She lets the emotion build and then powerfully erupt. She even handles a disturbing rape scene well.

As great as the film is, the ending is a bit of a stinker; wrapping in a stupid abrupt manner that offers no closure or absolution and is nearly infuriating. It is clear that the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner; having put their character into such a desperate situation, they had no idea how to get her out of it…so they just ended the movie. It’s frustrating after such an emotional journey we spend with her, but at least they didn’t let the film become just another run-of-the-mill flick where there is always a girl being chased around by a guy with a knife. Still, the finale is a head-shaker, and almost enough to derail everything. Almost.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Reel Review: ANONYMOUS

The premise of Roland Emmerich’s ANONYMOUS is that William Shakespeare did not write a single word of all that he is credited for. It is not a brand new theory; scholars and researchers have been going around in circles over the possibility for decades. Smartly, ANONYMOUS does not seek to offer clear and definitive answers to the debate, and instead elects to expand on just one of many conspiracy theories surrounding The Bard.

It is the late 1500’s, and Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) is nearing the end of her life without a named successor. Her former illegitimate lover Edward (Rhys Ifans), who is a gifted writer of plays and poems, decides to use his talents to influence the Queen to name a successor of his choosing. Edward seeks out Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), a struggling writer and theatre owner to produce his plays without ever mentioning his name. While Johnson struggles with the ethics of the situation, a young half-illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steps forward and takes the credit. Edward continues to write anonymously through endless political and royal turmoil, while Shakespeare benefits from the fame.

ANONYMOUS is less about Shakespeare and more about the thick and convoluted political maneuvering and scheming. In fact, Shakespeare is barely in the film. Emmerich focuses on the overall story loaded with illegitimate love affairs and backstabbing. That story is often confusing and convoluted, and makes for a frustrating watch. Emmerich throws a lot into the mix, including tons of flashbacks which serve to thicken the story and show the characters’ motivations. With so many storylines and so many different actors playing the same part, it is difficult, if not impossible to latch onto a single character, and root for them.

Emmerich has always had a great eye for visuals, and here he outdoes himself. The landscapes and sceneries are breathtaking, as is his cinematography. A lot of interesting choices are made, including a clever beginning and end; the film’s story is begun and ended in a stage production.

Acting is excellent throughout. Special credit needs to go to Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Queen Elizabeth in her elder years, and Joely Richardson, who plays Liz in her twenties. Both actresses keep the character consistent, and even produce echoes of Cate Blanchett’s iconic performance of the character.

Despite being heavy and complex on politics, ANONYMOUS still has a lot of Shakespeare elements to keep history and literary buffs happy. Seeing the famous stage productions come to life for the first time is a treat, and a lot of respect is given to the material. It is worth mentioning that many historical liberties have been taken, which makes the film feel like an alternate-universe type of yarn rather than a theoretical piece. By far, this is Emmerich’s most mature film (he must have been tempted to blow up the Sistine Chapel); he just tried too hard to make it complex.


Friday, October 28, 2011

A Reel Review: THE RUM DIARY

A few years back, a good friend of this blogger remarked about how great Al Pacino used to be; right up to and including THE SCENT OF A WOMAN. After that film, the good friend maintains, Pacino shed his career-long subtle intensity and traded it in for obtruding HO HA HUWAH in every role. This blogger reluctantly agreed. As of late, Johnny Depp seems to have fallen into the same trap. His boyish charm has seemed to go away in place of the eccentricity and dazed bewilderment of Jack Sparrow. The real question is whether or not that style of acting works in any given movie; in this case, THE RUM DIARY.

In the 1960’s, Paul Kemp (Depp) a rum (ahem) guzzling boozehound, is a struggling writer/journalist who moves to Puerto Rico to restart his career at a failing local newspaper, which is run by editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). Kemp befriends fellow journalists and drunks Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), before being recruited by shady real estate tycoon Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who wants him to paint a rosy picture of his dealings in the press. Kemp guzzles his way through the job, while falling in love with Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (a sexed up Amber Heard).

THE RUM DIARY starts off promising, but manages to get complicated. It never latches down onto a single storyline, and comes off as a very confused film. It begins as a man-searching-for-his-path tale, then forgets about it and switches to a lesson in journalistic ethics. It then forgets about that and goes to a real-estate swindle/mystery plot, with a love triangle wedged in just for good measure. Who to root for and why is the real mystery.

Director Bruce Robinson crafts together a film that feels like it would have been made in the 1950’s or ’60, with its snazzy music and beautiful, sweeping landscapes. He has a good eye for cinema, but a so-so ear for humor, as a lot of the jokes and gags are over the top and forced. The latter is forgivable, but his biggest sin is fumbling away the acting talent he assembled.

Depp channels Jack Sparrow all the way; he slurs like Jack, waxes philosophical like Jack, stumbles like a drunken Jack and yells like a scared Jack. Does it work here? For the most part yes; just don’t expect anything new from the man. Amber Heard is grossly underwritten; as a love interest for the protagonist, she’s barely in the film, does little, and the way her character finds closure at the wrap is weak and lame. Giovanni Ribisi is in his absolute worst performance of a lifetime; woefully miscast as a drug addict with way-over the top acting and a horrible voice.

The final act has a nice buildup, and feels like there may be a decent payoff; and then the movie ends with one of the worst, weakest, shittiest cop-outs ever put to film. It’s lazy and thoughtless. Overall THE RUM DIARY feels like a film we are supposed to like Just Because; we are supposed to like it Just Because it has Johnny Depp, a good cast, is nice to look at and is a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation. Sorry fellas, but it takes more rum than that.


Friday, October 21, 2011


TAKE SHELTER is a film that has been quietly cleaning house on the international film festival circuit in 2011, and rightfully so; between stunning photography, a powerful story and a knockout performance by Michael Shannon, the movie is a trip through dread and fear…all while being based upon love.

Curtis (Shannon) lives in a small town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their six year old daughter Hanna (Tova Stewart) who is deaf. Their money situation is tight as they make plans for ear surgery for their daughter. Curtis begins having nightmares about a cataclysmic storm; nightmares that are so powerful he believes them to be either true or an omen, and the visions and hallucinations repeat in the daytime. Keeping the nightmares and visions to himself, he channels his fears into building a storm shelter in their backyard; an endeavor that drains their bank account and threatens his job along with Hannah’s surgery.

So TAKE SHELTER is a little bit of FIELD OF DREAMS with the Noah’s Ark fable mixed in. The territory feels familiar, but it works because the focus here is not the question of Curtis’ sanity (although it does hang throughout the film), but on his love for his family. Throughout the movie, he risks everything he has worked for to protect his family which he loves deeply. In a film where his fantastical nightmares play such an important part, it’s that simple love for his family that the audience can instantly connect with.

Director Jeff Nichols’ directing style is perfectly suited for TAKE SHELTER. His careful eye meticulously frames each shot with stunning backgrounds, and his talent for tension, dread and horror come to life in the nightmare sequences. Nichols manages a constant forboding over the entire film which never intrudes, but the audience is always aware of its presence.

Michael Shannon’s performance is one of a lifetime. His near-silent method of conveying fear is always there and is convincing throughout. Jessica Chastain also nails it as the supporting and confused housewife; perfectly suited to play the loving mother trying to hold her family together.

On the surface, the finale feels a little drawn out and anti-climatic; right up until the mind-blowing ending which turns the entire film upside-down. It’s a turn that M. Night Shymalamadingdong might have attempted in his prime. Fortunately for TAKE SHELTER, the film does not hinge everything on that turn, and never wastes time playing guessing games with the audience. Its focus is always on love and family; and that’s never a little thing.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Return of River Phoenix

In 1993, actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in Hollywood. He was 23 years old. At the time of his passing, he had an impressive body of work with roles in STAND BY ME, THE MOSQUITO COAST, and a memorable turn as a teenaged Indiana Jones in THE LAST CRUSADE.

At the time of his passing, he was filming DARK BLOOD with director George Sluizer, and that film has remained unfinished for nearly 20 years. Until now. Sluizer has announced that he has re-edited the film and with additional voiceover work, believes it is good enough to be released. Sluizer has stated he plans to ask River’s brother Joaquin Phoenix to finish voiceover as River’s character.

Messing with an actor’s legacy can be a sensitive business. Many people tend to sentimentalize their movies and their actors, and want nothing to alter to that. Many circles on the internet are already calling for things to be left well enough alone, even going as far as crying graverobber. Many do not want to see this film, as they would rather keep their final memories of River…final.

Folk need to realize that it could be worse, and this gets into a larger issue. With the rapidly advancing CGI/Motion Capture technology, it would be a near-simple thing for filmmakers to resurrect ANY actor. There are certainly moral and ethical issues here (along with legal), but the possibilities would be absolutely endless. Imagine seeing a young River in another teenage Indy adventure, or one last look at him as Chris Chambers in the STAND BY ME universe.

And this can be taken a step further. How about seeing Christopher Reeves reprise Superman, or Marlon Brando reprising Vito Corleone?

Whether or not such approaches can work depends on how tastefully it’s done. And therein lays the rub. Motion Capture (at least for now) is often criticized for characters that look lifeless. Seeing a deceased actor in a poorly renditioned CGI blob would offend a hell of a lot of people.

So thankfully, this is not the approach that George Sluizer or anyone else is taking, and the aforementioned word, “tastefully” seems to be the key term here. Sluizer is mostly known in America (he is a Dutch filmmaker) for THE VANISHING, with Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland, which performed poorly financially and was reviewed even worse. But Sluizer does have a lot of years under his belt; he is 79 years old, which gives him the mature patience that a tender project like this would need.

If all the pieces fall into place, DARK BLOOD would be released sometime next year. This blogger would like to see that talented kid just one last time. As a lover of film, seeing a movie that was shot 20 years ago and never seen is just fascinating. Almost like finding buried treasure.

What say you? Is this blasphemy? Would you go see it? Should things be left as we remember them?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: Director Bryan Singer (X-MEN, X2, VALKYRIE) has confirmed that his planned remake of the epic EXCALIBUR has been scrapped. Warner Bros. apparently decided to go with another “King Arthur” type-film and didn’t want to produce competing films. Singer has decided to move forward with his BATTLESTAR GALACTICA adaptation.

OPINION: How much crappy news can we possibly cram into one Reel Speak FACT? First of all, Singer has spent WAY too much time doing remakes and adaptations as of late; all he has done is comic-book flicks in the form of the first two X-MEN films and SUPERMAN RETURNS (he also produced this year’s X-MEN FIRST CLASS). His WWII period-piece VALKYRIE proves that he can take a significant piece of non-fiction and make it worthwhile. Why is he hung up on remaking proven favorites? Both EXCALIBUR and GALACTICA have massive and passionate cult followings; the uphill battle he would be facing in pleasing the established audiences would be massive. Come on Bryan, come up with something on your own.

FACT: Matt Reeves has been named the director of the new upcoming TWILIGHT ZONE feature flick. Reeves has previously directed CLOVERFIELD and LET ME IN, and somehow beat out some heavyweight names in the form of Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay, Alfonso Cuaron, and Rupert Wyatt.

OPINION: Nolan seemed to be the best choice for a TWILIGHT ZONE feature, as his INCEPTION, MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE films played out like TZ stories anyway. Wyatt may very well surprise, but this blogger still feels that TZ stories are better off left as shorts, and that an “anthology” styled flick would be the way to go with a different director for each chapter. Besides that, Nolan is better off coming up with his own ideas (coughsingercough).

FACT: Speaking of Nolan, the LOS ANGELES TIMES is reporting that when his global production of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES moves to New York City this month, the Occupy Wall Street protests “may” be background for several scenes in the film.

OPINION: Before all you Occupiers start celebrating, please realize that Nolan is unlikely including the protests for the sake of pushing an agenda or a political point. The key term in the article is BACKGROUND, and it will be interesting to see how Nolan works the colorful and diverse background into his epic superhero film.

What say you?

Friday, October 14, 2011


Some people were just born to play cowboys; John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Elliott have always looked and felt right at home in the old west and made careers out of it. Riding under the radar all this while has been Sam Shepard, who only a few years after portraying Frank James, dons the gunslinger gig again. This time, in the role of another legendary outlaw, Butch Cassidy.

Decades after his alleged death, Cassidy (Shepard) is living quietly in semi-retirement in South America. Deciding to pack his life savings and head home to America to meet his son for the first time, he loses his house, and money in a shootout. He encounters Eduardo (Eduardo Apodaca), a former miner who promises to reimburse Cassidy all of his money (and then some), if he will protect him from the gang he stole the moolah from. Cassidy agrees, and he and Eduardo become targets for gangs and lawmen.

At the mid-point of BLACKTHORN, Cassidy thoughtfully says that there are only two points in a man’s life; when he leaves home, and when he comes back. BLACKTHORNE can easily be summed up in that neat little line. The film has a simple plot on the surface; find the money, get the hell out of dodge alive. But it is really the story of Cassidy’s life, intertwined with a morality tale; Cassidy is constantly faced with moral and ethical choices as he tries to find a new life with his old one just not far enough behind.

But what really makes BLACKTHORN shine are the flashbacks. Smartly intercut between present-day scenes, we get to see Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in all of their youthful, enthusiastic-about-life glory. They serve a purpose in showing how Cassidy wound up alone in South America, and they offer a stark contrast to youth and old age.

Director Mateo Gil knows exactly what he has here, and knows what to do with it. The beautiful landscapes of the old west are brought to life in vivid photography; who knew such vast places still existed? He also manages to shoot (photographically) Shepard in some gorgeous frames; the shots look like something you want hanging on your wall…classic and beautiful. Outside of some few outstanding gunfights, the pacing is slow, but appropriate (after all, ALL westerns should have slow pacing). The score alternates from some epic and classic guitar picking to some present-day folk-tunes; with the latter never sounding out of place.

Shepard IS Butch Cassidy. No one else on this earth could have pulled this off with the intensity and maturity that a veteran actor has. There is constant wisdom, melancholy and toughness that he shows just from a single look. And who knew he could sing a ballad so well?

Shepard is a real treat to watch. Equally pleasing are the flashback scenes with a young Cassidy and Sundance (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Padraic Delaney, respectively). The two have instant chemistry and pull off some real magic on-screen; magic not seen since two guys named Redford and Newman had the roles.

The finale has a bit of a twist that really puts Cassidy in a moral bind, and is a perfect way to end out the ride. The final few minutes may feel like things are unresolved, but further thought reveals BLACKTHORN to be pushing a message of the gift of youth, and wisdom of old age. There are a lot of smarts to be found here. BLACKTHORN is one hell of a film.