Friday, October 31, 2014

A Reel Review: NIGHTCRAWLER


 
There are two common catchphrases in television news which many in that business will often deny ever coining. The first, if it bleeds it leads…means that death and destruction will always be the lead story of any newscast. The second, never let the truth get in the way of a good story…means that the truth can be twisted or altered or omitted if it means getting a good story on the air. NIGHTCRAWLER is a film which embraces and examines both phrases, but that’s only part of its story.
Lou (Jake Gyllenhall) breaks into the world of free-lance television news journalism (called stringers), where he excels at rushing to a crime or accident scene to capture footage and sell it to the highest bidder. He develops a working relationship at a struggling news station managed by Nina (Rene Russo), and takes on the overnight beat while competing with a fellow stringer (Bill Paxton).

NIGHTCRAWLER is a film of two intertwining parts. The first being Lou’s meteoric rise through the ranks as he fine-tunes his skills, and the second being the lengths that journalists, both rookies and veterans, will go through to get that lead story before anybody else. The decisions that both Lou and Nina make border upon questionable to disgusting to a hot-topic of debate in any journalistic ethics class; from manipulating crime and accident scenes, omitting facts, and flat-out fibbing…NIGHTCRAWLER is a film that will certainly be discussed and debated and its fascinating to see the characters weave that tangled web.
But NIGHTCRAWLER doesn’t spend all of its time standing at the front of a lecture hall. At the heart of everything is Gyllenhall’s Lou, who is one of the most unlikeable characters ever to grace the screens. He is a bottom-feeder when we first meet him and he remains a bottom-feeder throughout the film. He doesn’t grow or learn any morals as a character, but what he does learn he does through his growing power and success. On top of that, Lou is basically a soul-less man. He communicates to people through catch-phrases and slogans he reads online, and his barrage of factual dialogue against his co-workers is as cold as ice. Director Dan Gilroy doesn’t want us to like him, but he does want us to be fascinated by him, and in that he succeeds greatly.

Another common catchphrase in the biz is nothing good ever happens after midnight. Lou spends all of his working time after-hours when the bloodiest crimes and accidents happen, and this gives Gilroy the opportunity to film some stunning night-time shots. The underground of Los Angeles is shown as ugly and beautiful; other-worldly but very real.
Jake Gyllenhall sells the character with his odd mannerisms, sunken-eye look and just plain-old great acting. There is a constant creepiness to him which gets under your skin but you somehow want more of it. Rene Russo seems more inspired than she’s been in years, and Bill Paxton makes good use of his limited time.

After a shocking climax and the eventual wrap, some viewers may feel a little frustrated because a certain character didn’t get what they deserved, but that may be Gilroy’s statement on the business that NIGHTCRAWLER explores. There are no real heroes in this film, and there is certainly no one to love…but it stands as a twisted version of the little-engine-that-could, and a way to make us really think about what we see on TV every night.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: Ladies First


 
Ever since the dawn of the superhero in the comic pages over 70 years ago, the world of superheroes has been a near-exclusive, little-boys club. It has been a male-dominated collection of characters and stories, and although female characters did come around and play a large role in the overall history and mythology, they never seemed to be able to get up front and center…and have often been left to figure out the secret knock to the clubhouse on their own.
This unfortunate trend has carried over into the many comic-to-film adaptations, although some minor strides have been made. Marvel has brought forward popular characters such as Black Widow and Lady Sif, while DC has had success with their female villains such as Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY. Fox Studios has been the most successful in developing their female characters in their X-MEN franchise (Storm, Rogue, Jean Grey, Mystique), while Sony has just made the girls of their SPIDER-MAN films screaming damsels-in-distress. Female characters have been playing second-fiddle in superhero films just as much as they have been in their comic origins, but all that is about to change.

Within the past few weeks, rival comic-book studios Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros. made some major announcements concerning their upcoming movies. First, DC unleashed a full slate of films, nine in total, up to the year 2020. Among those films is the first ever WONDER WOMAN movie; marking the first major studio production of a female hero-led film. The character, which is one of DC’s most iconic and long-lasting, will be played by Gal Gadot. Gadot will actually debut the character in DC’s BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE in 2016.
Not to be outdone, Marvel and Disney just this week announced their schedule of films to great fanfare; nine in total up the year 2019. Among the impressive and ambitious lineup was Marvel’s first female-led superhero film, CAPTAIN MARVEL. No casting announcement was made.

Both studios deserve major credit and a round of applause for committing to these films which would be the first of their kind. Both Marvel and DC have the chance to make a long-lasting impression in the same way Sigourney Weaver did in the ALIEN franchise, and Uma Thurman did in the KILL BILL films.

And of course, talk and speculation began over who should direct these two history-making films, and the opportunity for both studios to open up the clubhouse a little bit more seems to be presenting itself. Along with the lack of female superheroes, there has also been a lack of female directors working in the genre. Both Marvel and DC have the chance here to not only get some diversity behind the camera, but to offer a unique viewpoint that the overabundance of superhero films have yet to find. After all, no one understands a woman better than a woman, so maybe having that perspective at the helm will make both WONDER WOMAN and CAPTAIN MARVEL special movies for more than just the obvious reasons. Both studios should be open to this, but of course…the real goal is to find the best person for the job; what’s best for the movie comes first, and that’s what the decision must be based on. WONDER WOMAN and CAPTAIN MARVEL may be two of the most important movies in their respective universes and they need to be treated like a lady; with respect, care, and as if they’re the only lady in the world.
What say you?

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DC’s WONDER WOMAN arrives in 2017. Marvel’s CAPTAIN MARVEL lands in 2018.
 
 
 

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Reel Review: JOHN WICK


 
Shoot-em-up action movies often fall into distinct categories; men-on-a-mission, defeat-the-baddies, and the good old fashioned out-for-revenge movie. The newest asskicker of a movie by directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, JOHN WICK…goes for the path of revenge, and not much else.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hitman who has just lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan). When his newly adopted puppy is murdered by the Russian mob, Wick embraces his old self and goes on a revenge-fueled rampage.

Payback is a bitch, and JOHN WICK is a film which embraces that approach 110%. The trick to revenge films is giving the audience a reason to hope that the revenge comes about, and JOHN WICK spends a lot of time setting that up. A good portion of the film is spent with Wick as he loses his wife, and then his so-adorable-you-could-puke puppy to some very despicable people. A surprising amount of emotion and feeling is generated in the opening act of the film, and once the bullets and fists and blood starts to fly, you are certainly rooting for those despicable bad-guys to get what they deserve.
Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski stage some stunning and big-nuts fun action sequences surrounded by some glorious looking setpieces. The gunfights and fistfights are not only loads of fun, but they are easy to follow thanks to some fluid camerawork and editing. The battles are important, because with so little plot or script to work with, JOHN WICK hangs all of its hats on those action sequences…nearly to its demise. In presenting fight-after-fight, and bloodspill-after-bloodspill, the film falls into the redundancy of a Ferris Wheel; just the same thing every few minutes only under different scenery. The fight scenes begin to lose their peril because we already know what the endgame is, and none of the battles, as great as they are, move the plot (what there is of if) forward. With so much redundancy, JOHN WICK oddly feels a lot longer than its 96-minute running time, and it’s easy to zone-out once the 568th fistfight rolls around.

Keanu Reeves is magnificent in what may be the best he’s ever acted. The early goings of the film have him carrying a great amount of quiet emotion which is let loose in small bursts. Reeves shows great range in going from sadness to raging wrath in a blink. The physical and emotional demands of his responsibilities are massive, and he handles them with ease. The rest of the cast is solid as well; Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, and Ian Mcshane.
JOHN WICK spends a lot of effective time in building the universe that Wick and his fellow assassins inhabit, and the film gives enough to make us want to visit it again…only with maybe a little more story. One’s enjoyment of the film hinges upon their lust for guns and booms and asskicking, because that’s all the movie wants to be. It’s an un-ambitious effort, and that alone is a fault.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it
 
 
 

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Reel Review: BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)


 
When viewing BIRDMAN, the newest film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, it’s difficult to not take it as an autobiography of its star, Michael Keaton. Centered around a former action star who is trying to recapture his old glory, it very much is a large chapter out of Keaton’s career. But once you get your head around that, BIRDMAN (subtitled THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), has a lot more to offer.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a former action movie-star who hasn’t had a hit in 20 years, and is now hearing the voice of his old character, a winged superhero, in his head. Thomson is directing and starring in his Broadway play with the help of his manager (Zach Galifianakis), and angsty daughter (Emma Stone), and is constantly banging heads with the play’s star (Edward Norton).

On the surface, BIRDMAN feels a little like a standard superhero film, only put in reverse. Where the standard template has a hero struggling with his true self, BIRDMAN goes behind the scenes and inside the head of the actor who once was famous for wearing the costume. The Birdman persona he hears acts as an antagonist in the film, as it pokes and prods Thomson in all the wrong directions; where Thomson wants to move on with his life and have meaning in the world again, the Birdman persona wants to recapture the old glory. Reality merges with fantasy several times as Thomson’s imagination unleashes some wild and stunning happenings that we aren’t quite sure are real or not, and BIRDMAN soars as it tears through Thomson’s mind.
And under the surface, BIRDMAN has a lot more to say. Set in modern times, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu uses the film as an opportunity to say a few things about fame and its price, and what it can do to a person and his family. The film has a lot going on as Thomson struggles with staging his play, his daughter who hates him, a girlfriend on the outs, and the star of the play…whom he needs for the production to succeed, constantly mocking him. The many storylines converge together nicely, and Inarritu makes every character worthwhile. The writing is razor-sharp and full of wit, and the laughs come at you so fast you need a minute to catch up.

BIRDMAN is a technical marvel. Made to look like the entire movie is shot in one long take (you will never spot the edit points), most of it is an illusion with clever camera trickery but a lot of it is done in real-time…even with the film taking place over several days. BIRDMAN very much feels like a stage production, or even a live television event, as the fluid camera movement and on-the-spot performances by the cast gives it a very realistic feel. From start to finish, BIRDMAN is fascinating to behold.
Performances are spectacular and should serve as an acting clinic to all new up-and-comers. Michael Keaton is tremendous as he balances one emotion after another while shouldering the burden of an actor whose best days may be behind him. It would be dismissive to say that Keaton is just playing himself, as he works much harder and deeper than that. Edward Norton performs at an unbelievable level and is probably at his best ever. The supporting cast of Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan are rock-solid…and Emma Stone nearly steals the show with the best work she’s ever done.

BIRDMAN really shoots for the stars with its many plotlines and themes and statements, and it may not hit the bullseye on every single one of them, but it certainly gets close enough to earn a high score. Funny and dark, real and honest, this an unabridged look inside of a man’s head, and it is nothing short of a glorious flight.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: Everything You Need to Know About BIRDMAN


 
Now that Awards Season is gaining some momentum, one of the films flying just under the radar is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s newest film, BIRDMAN. Here is everything you need to know about it…
What is this about? – BIRDMAN (subtitled THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), is about an actor (played by Michael Keaton) who once played a superhero in the movies, but has struggled to find work since the role ended.

Who is in this? – Michael Keaton, who once thrilled audiences as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s BATMAN films, is joined by Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough (OBLIVION), Emma Stone (ZOMBIELAND), Naomi Watts (KING KONG), and Amy Ryan (GONE BABY GONE).
Who is directing? – BIRDMAN is directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who was the first Mexican director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director and the Directors Guild of America for Best Director. This feat was accomplished with his Oscar-darling film BABEL (2006). His other credits include 21 GRAMS (2003), and BIUTIFUL (2010).

Random Facts – This is the first leading role for Michael Keaton since 2008 * The film’s camerawork and editing were manipulated to give the appearance that the movie is one continuous long take * The continuous-take work in BIRDMAN is helped along by famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who did similar work in Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) and GRAVITY (2013). Lubezki has also worked on Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), and THE NEW WORLD (2005) * Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone have all played comic-book characters in their careers * Keaton, Norton, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts have all been nominated for Oscars in their careers * BIRDMAN won four awards at the 71st Venice International Film Festival this year.
What to expect? – BIRDMAN is listed as a black comedy, so right away expect some darkness with a fair amount of laughs. Michael Keaton has proven in the past that he has some serious range; the guy can go from funny to dramatic to batshit crazy in the blink of an eye…and with this being his first time in the spotlight in six years, expect him to give it his all. The geek-side of this story (Keaton playing an actor who once played a superhero on film), is the most interesting. BIRDMAN feels a little auto-biographical, as Keaton never really did maintain his A-lister status after his BATMAN role ended. You honestly have to wonder if BIRDMAN could have been a post-mortem BATMAN film if the rights could have been attained. Either way, this seems like a very brave role for Keaton to take, and this Blogger can’t wait to see what he does with it.

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BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) reaches wide-release October 23rd.

 

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Reel 30: THE TERMINATOR


“I’ll be back.”
 
 
This month marks the 30th anniversary of James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR.

A hybrid of the science-fiction, horror, and action-film genres, THE TERMINATOR dealt with a cyborg assassin sent back in time from the year 2029 to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, who was destined to give birth to a future resistance leader. The time-travel element was ironic, because THE TERMINATOR and its creator were both ahead of its time.

The idea for THE TERMINATOR came to director James Cameron not long after he wrapped production on his debut film, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING. It came to him in a dream, in which he saw a metal torso dragging itself from an explosion. Cameron immediately wrote a story around the vision, in which two Terminators were sent to the past. Cameron’s agent hated the idea and told him to work on something else. Cameron, confident in his material, fired his agent.
The project pressed on, and Cameron’s vivid imagination already began to leap past the limits of movie technology in the early 1980’s. His initial outline of the script had one of the two cyborgs composed of liquid metal, but the visual effects at the time were not up to the task, so THE TERMNATOR went to just one. It would take nearly seven years for the industry to catch up with Cameron’s imagination, as the liquid-metal cyborg would finally see the light of day in the sequel in 1991. The metal-torso vision would eventually play into the film’s climax.

During the casting process, the studio had suggested former football player O.J. Simpson for the role of the Terminator, while Austrian import/bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered for the role of Kyle Reese, the human soldier sent back in time to protect Sarah. Once Arnie took the role of the Terminator, the role of Reese went to Michael Biehn. The central role of Sarah went to Linda Hamilton, who just wrapped up filming Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN. The job of providing visual effects went to effects expert Stan Winston.
The results were spectacular. THE TERMINATOR was No. 1 at the box office for two weeks upon release and gained critical acclaim; acclaim that would only grow as the movie got older. The American Film Institute ranks the film on many of its lists, including Greatest Movie Quotes and 100 Heroes and Villains. Total Film named it the 72nd best film ever made, and Empire Magazine selected it in its 500 Greatest Movies of All Time list. In 2008, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States Film Registry. THE TERMINATOR would live on in three movie sequels and a television series, and its success would empower James Cameron to pursue his bigger dreams in film.

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As a wee-lad in 1984, this Blogger wasn’t really going to the theatre to see R-rated movies. The earliest memories of the film came from a good Uncle who hated the film to pieces. It wouldn’t be until several years later when THE TERMINATOR would come to HBO when this Blogger could experience it for himself, and the mind was instantly blown. Between the time-travel concept (which a person could go crazy trying to make sense of), the eye-popping visuals and the absolute feeling of dread and menace when Arnie/cyborg walked in the room…THE TERMINATOR was a perfect watch. It was a great balance of sci-fi (time travel), action (gunfights), horror (mysterious stalker), and even a little bit of a love story (Kyle and Sarah). But more importantly, THE TERMINATOR moved the industry forward. Cameron, whose visions almost always move too fast for the rest of the world, would capitalize on new technologies that THE TERMINATOR sparked…and would then change our movie futures.

“The future is not set…”

 

 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Reel Review: FURY


 
The Second World War seems like an over-used backdrop for movies to set their stories in, but the clear fact is…WWII was just too big an event which affected too many lives to ever run out of material. Director David Ayer’s FURY is another small piece of the gigantic WWII canvas; a canvas which is always worth looking deeper into.
In the waning days of WWII as the Allies make a final push for victory, a battle-hardened tank commander named Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank (nicknamed Fury) and her five-man crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal), which includes a rookie (Logan Lerman).

War is hell, and FURY embraces every last flame of it. The film is put together as an old fashioned, classic-Hollywood, blood-and-guts war story full of dirt, mud, explosions, and body parts getting blown to bits all over the place. FURY does not have much by way of plot, and is very much episodic as the crew goes from mission-to-mission, predicament-to-predicament. During it all we spend a lot of time with the characters who crew the tank…characters who we have a hard time caring about because they are the biggest bunch of assholes in all of Europe. With the exception of the rookie Norman (we experience the film through his eyes), the crew are animalistic and without souls. Maybe that’s the message that FURY is trying to get across…what war does to the men who fight it, but it makes for difficult viewing when you really don’t care about the characters. FURY is a very tight film with very little room for heart and soul, and although we do get a break now and then from the most-excellent battle scenes with some nice intimate moments, it will likely leave you cold.
Director David Ayer stages some stunning set-pieces with practical effects and very little to no CGI. Shooting on 35mm allows FURY to show the gory and muddy detail perfectly, and the film has a very classic feel to it. Ayer spends a lot of time inside and around the tank nicknamed Fury; so much that the tank becomes a character in the film, and we actually care about the tank more than the characters. Ayer doesn’t bother with any sort of morality tale and only occasionally tries to generate some tears, as he is too busy putting together a great-looking, pulse-pounding, bowel-moving war film.

Prior to filming, Ayer put his actors through a boxing boot-camp in which the cast basically fought each other to generate some hostility. This technique shows in the final product as the crew is just as hostile to each other as they are to the enemy. Brad Pitt gets most of the attention and shoulders most of the film. His character is kept distant and isn’t developed past the commander who needs to keep everyone alive. He is gruff and tough with small peeks beneath the thick skin, and Pitt sells it perfectly. Logan Lerman has a lot do, including keeping pace with Pitt, and does so very well. The rest of the cast is stellar, with Shia LaBeouf turning some surprisingly very good work.
After a tremendous final battle with an outcome that’s a little predictable, FURY wraps with a little bit of a “that’s it?” type of feeling. With no ultimate objective, no real narrative, and no heart-and-soul it’s likely to leave you cold, but maybe that’s the message FURY is trying to get across. This is a film about war and nothing else, and not all war stories have rainbows.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Curious Case of INTERSTELLAR



In the late 1990’s, STAR WARS director and creator George Lucas turned the cinema world upside down when he and his LucasFilm rolled out the latest STAR WARS film in a digital format. It would be the first shot in a revolution which would change the way we view movies in a theatre forever. Gone to the graveyard would be the old film projectors with their rollers, reels, platters, gates, and wheels…and enter the age of massive hard-drives and billions of gigabytes. The digital revolution not only infiltrated our theatres, but it also invaded the way movies were shot on set. Film cameras were replaced with digital, and while many filmmakers are still holding out on shooting on film, it’s been a slow decline for the old 35mm format.
This year, director Christopher Nolan (THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION), is flaring up a revolution of a different sort. The technical-savvy director is having his way with his upcoming, highly anticipated film INTERSTELLAR. In October, Paramount and Warner Bros. announced that theatres that could still project 35mm and 70mm film would receive prints of INTERSTELLAR two days early, on November 5th, which includes all 41 true IMAX locations. In short, if your local theatre still has an old film projector in service, you can see INTERSTELLAR two days early.

Many theatre owners are not pleased with the move. Most theatres across the country have spent millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities to digital, and many have scrapped or stowed their old 35mm projectors. For those who want to dust off the old equipment, it’s a logistical and technical nightmare. For others who have to wait two days before they get their digital prints, it’s a loss of income. Much like Lucas did in 1999, Nolan has turned the industry upside-down.
It’s difficult to figure out exactly what Nolan’s angle is with this move. He and other directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have been advocating shooting on film for years. It is their contention, and the contention of many others, that film is the superior format and digital cannot touch the clarity, resolution, or that special stylized “cinema-look” that most of us grew up watching for decades. But it is fair to say, that digital always has room to evolve, while film does not.

But the real issue here is the presentation. Shooting on film and projecting film are two different issues galaxies apart. A movie shot on film and presented digitally looks absolutely gorgeous. A movie shot digitally and presented digitally looks clean and crisp…and maybe a little cold to the eye (a common complaint). But what it all comes down to is quality. Film projectors, with their many moving parts touching physical film, always run the risk of breakage, scratches, dust, and a soft-looking picture. Digital, with no moving parts have no such issues, and apart from an occasional hard-drive failure (a rarity), will always present a clean-looking picture devoid of any defects that film was always susceptible to. So what is Nolan trying to prove? It seems the man is getting caught up on principle. Admirable, but in the long run he’s turning a shoulder on the technology we have to give us a perfect presentation. By all means, keep shooting on film, but don't forget that the final presentation, what we see in the theatre...is what ultimately counts. Even the most beautiful movie can be ruined by a single scratch on opening night.
This Blogger worked as a film projectionist for many years, and will always have that old love for film. But not all old lovers are worth revisiting. This Blogger will never forget having his final HARRY POTTER film ruined by a scratched-to-death print on opening night, and that was the day the old lover got kicked out of bed. Cheers to Nolan for giving us the options to view his new movie, but be sure to choose wisely.

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INTERSTELLAR arrives in select film-equipped theatres on November 5th, and wide-release on November 7th 







Monday, October 13, 2014

A Reel Review: KILL THE MESSENGER


 
In 1996, American investigative reporter Gary Webb stumbled upon, and uncovered CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking into the United States. It was the story of a lifetime which would ultimately undo his career, marriage, and possibly could have cost him his life. It was an important, yet often forgotten part of U.S. history, brought now to light by director Michael Cuesta and his new film, KILL THE MESSENGER.
Small-time investigative newspaper journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), travels the world to uncover the truth behind the CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking into the U.S., and keeps his investigations going despite attention which threatens his career, family, and life.

KILL THE MESSENGER is put together very much in the spirit of the king of journalist/espionage movies, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Only this time, the film goes a step further and shows the important aftermath of the big uncovering. KILL THE MESSENGER is basically divided into two parts; the first focusing on Webb’s relentless investigation, and the second on the unraveling of his career as his story and facts are called into question. The first-half of the film is incredibly engaging; a near-perfect procedural investigation story taking us to various corners of the world and introducing us to many shady characters in and out of our own country. The second-half is equally important, as Webb’s credibility is called into question as pressure from a denying U.S. Government mounts and his sources begin to deny ever talking to him. As well as the film operates in getting your attention and holding onto it, it stumbles a little in the character department. Director Michael Cuesta keeps his main character a little distant and just out of arms reach. Although a lot of time is spent on Webb and his family before and after the discrediting, the main character is only explored just enough. What we get does work, but it could have been a little more as we don’t once weep for him when his troubles rise higher and higher.
The lightness in character can be forgiven, because KILL THE MESSENGER clearly wants the plot to take precedence. A great deal of work is put into the factual occurrences to make what could have been a very hard plot to follow easy to understand. Great detail can be seen in the surroundings, and a lot of fine work is put into the usage of archival footage. From a technical standpoint, KILL THE MESSENGER is masterfully put together.

Jeremy Renner is outstanding from beginning to end. He shoulders the burden of carrying the film on his back perfectly in having to wear many hats; a father, husband, family man, reporter, and broken man. His character has many ups and downs through the film and he sells it every time. The rest of the large cast is balanced and perfectly cast; Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson,  and Michael K. Williams are all excellent.
KILL THE MESSENGER doesn’t have much of an emotional arc, nor does have a large climax. It’s an odd way to wrap the film and it feels like something is missing once the credits roll. But considering the true-story source material being explored, there probably wasn’t much that could have been done without putting a standard Hollywood-spin on it. KILL THE MESSENGER doesn’t seem to care if we go through an emotional journey, but instead wants us to take in a history lesson which should outrage and enlighten us…and that is a mission accomplished.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Reel Review: THE JUDGE


 
The responsibilities of a filmmaker is comparable to those of a good chef; having the best of all ingredients on the counter is not enough…you have to know what to do with them in order to make the total meal worthwhile and memorable. Such is the case of David Dobkin’s THE JUDGE.
Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is a successful Chicago defense attorney who comes home for his mother’s funeral, only to discover that his estranged father (Robert Duvall), a successful long-time Judge, is suspected of murder.

THE JUDGE is made up of some very familiar elements, or ingredients, that we’ve all tasted before. Estranged father and son, check. Family drama, check. Ex-girlfriend, check. Film projector which plays old family movies backed by piano music, check. Annoying ten-year old kid, check. They are the familiar parts in which director David Dobkin must add flavor to…flavor which he leaves on the shelf. THE JUDGE, despite its intricate courtroom proceedings, never moves past any of the old clich├ęs, and in fact embraces them so tightly the film feels like a parody or late-night TV skit. With the territory and characters so familiar and one-note, THE JUDGE becomes insanely predictable and very bland to taste.
David Dobkin is clearly working from a terrible script; the first 25 seconds of every scene basically telegraphs what’s going to happen in the coming minutes…and the family drama is composed of everyone yelling at each other followed by nice music and hugs. A few sub-plots are thrown in which lead nowhere; some drama with Hank’s older brother, a possible daughter he never knew he had, and a pointless sequence with tornado (groan). All this is added to seemingly beef up the drama, but it winds up just being fat and makes a long movie seem longer.

Robert Downey Jr. occasionally gets to flex his acting muscle with some serious outbursts of emotion ranging from rage to heartbreak, but for the most part he just sits in his comfort zone of the cocky guy who always has a wisecrack to make. He’s at his best when going up against Robert Duvall. As the father who knows how to push a person’s buttons, Duvall and Downey generate some serious fireworks on-screen, and it’s a travesty that THE JUDGE doesn’t spend more time with them. The supporting cast is excellent. Vincent D’Onofrio, as Hank’s older brother, is perfectly cast and matches Downey in stride. Vera Farmiga, as Hank’s ex-girlfriend is stunningly good despite her character not adding much to the overall story. Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney just seems to be going through the motions.
Although THE JUDGE does have a few laugh-out-loud moments and few touching quiet ones, by movie’s end it doesn’t feel like any sort of a memorable experience. It is made up of the best of ingredients but it comes out of the pot overcooked and tasting like ass. Despite what it’s made up of, THE JUDGE is only good enough for a stomach ache.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it
 
 
 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Reel 20: PULP FICTION


“What does Marsellus Wallace look like?”
 
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION.

A black comedy crime which was the 2nd film from director Quentin Tarantino, PULP FICTION was a highly stylized film which connected different storylines of Los Angeles mobsters, small-time criminals, and the mystery behind the contents of a briefcase. With a plot which was presented out of chronological sequence and considerable screen-time devoted to conversations and monologues which reveal the true nature of its characters, PULP FICTION reached into many different film genres; from black comedy to neo-noir, Tarantino dipped his toes in many influential waters.

The very first element of PULP FICTION was written by screenwriter Roger Avery. The original idea was to film a short, but that idea soon blossomed into a trilogy of films…and as the writing continued, that first element written became Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS in 1992. When that film wrapped, Tarantino turned his attention back to the notion of a trilogy, which would eventual evolve into separate, interconnecting storylines under one film. Drawing influences from many films and genres, PULP FICTION would become like a single house where many families of movies would live.
With a generous cast of stars which included John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, and Christopher Walken, PULP FICTION was an easy draw for the box office. With a limited release in September leading to a wider release in October, it was the top-grossing film in its first weekend of wide release; beating out the Sylvester Stallone action flick THE SPECIALIST, which was in its second week and playing at more than twice as many theatres. PULP FICTION would become the first “indie” film to surpass $100 million, and its sharp dialogue and mystery surrounding the briefcase would become subjects of movie discussions for the next two decades.

The film would electrify and rejuvenate the career of John Travolta, and launch the long-time working relationship Tarantino would have with Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson. PULP FICTION would be nominated for seven Academy Awards; (Best Actor, Picture, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Film Editing, and Original Screenplay), winning one…Best Original Screenplay. It would also dominate nominations at the BAFTA and Golden Globes, and win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2013, PULP FICTION was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
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To be honest, this Blogger has never been the biggest fan of PULP FICTION. The biggest trick the film pulls is making everyone believe that it is the most original film ever made…when the truth is farthest from. PULP FICTION is like a giant castle made up of a billion Lego bricks from a hundred different playsets. It essentially borrows characters and plots and filming techniques from several different films and re-purposes them. Effective, yes. But not wholly original. Quentin Tarantino has always been like a good cover band; very entertaining but never presenting an original tune. BUT…if one-hundred years from now, a newcomer stumbles upon PULP FICTION without having knowledge of all the different genres and films that the film is made up of, the film will work for them…and will work very well. Looking at PULP FICTION objectively (which is what we all should do anyway), and staying within the moment will yield some great cinema…made up of the best cinema has to offer.
“Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”       



  

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Reel Review: OPEN WINDOWS


 
OPEN WINDOWS is a film which is very much a product of the times we live in. It exists only because of this world’s fascination with social media, celebrity, and the easy access of electronic information. It is wrapped up tightly in the ribbons and bows of the 21st century; a wrapping which is enough to keep its troubled storytelling active.
Nick (Elijah Wood), is a webmaster for a fan-site honoring actress Jill (Sasha Grey), who has won a dinner-date with her via an online contest. When the dinner is suddenly cancelled, Nick’s laptop is hacked by a mysterious stranger, who gives him secret access to all of Jill’s personal devices…and plays a deadly game of manipulation with the both of them.

OPEN WINDOWS starts off simply enough; an evil person playing God by manipulating two strangers like puppets on a string. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but in the case of OPEN WINDOWS, the real selling point is the presentation. Taking the now-tired found-footage technique to the next logical level, the entire film is viewed through a laptop, cell-phone, or tablet-like device. It’s a clever enough approach, and the creative ways director Nacho Vigalondo and his team comes up with to present the film makes for a fascinating watch.
Unfortunately for OPEN WINDOWS, the novelty of the approach wears off after a while. The limits of technology are pushed beyond the realm of believability, and the film goes from a “wow” to a “yeah right”. After a while it becomes clear that Vigalondo isn’t interested in making a grand statement about over-reliance on technology or being obsessed with celebrities, but is instead focused on just showing off. Characters are one-note but still effective, but OPEN WINDOWS loses all its traction by eventually piling on way too much plot. Many sub-plots involving Jill’s love affair, a team of rebel-hackers, and the identity of the manipulating stranger come into the fold and wind up being either hard to follow or not relevant enough to make a splash.

Acting is very good. Elijah Wood has lost none of his boyish charm and yet maintains a very adult and mature demeanor. His character isn’t given a lot of room to stretch, but everything he is asked to do is handled perfectly. The real surprise of the film is former adult-film actress Sasha Grey, who gets to display a wide range of emotions and nails it.
The finale of OPEN WINDOWS is an odd one, and will undoubtedly leave viewers scratching their heads…it’s a wrap which should have been a lot simpler and speaks towards the convoluted and over-complicated script. OPEN WINDOWS is slick and clever and neat to look at for exactly one-half of its life.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it.
 
 
 

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Reel Review: GONE GIRL


 
Whether it’s based on fact or fiction, a film bathing in the true-crime genre always has its work cut out for it. The first order of business is to lay out the crime, unleash some mystery and let the suspicions rise by way of the facts of the case. The second order of business, and perhaps more important, is to not lose the human side of the story. Such is the challenge of David Fincher’s GONE GIRL.
On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) arrives home to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing and possibly abducted. As the investigation unfolds, Nick becomes a prime suspect, while the truth behind their picture-perfect marriage begins to come to light.

GONE GIRL sets itself up as a very simple mystery-thriller. The disappearance of Amy which leads to evidence pointing towards Nick, coupled with the changing loyalties of a gullible mass-media and overzealous law enforcement, makes for great drama as it is never quite clear if Nick really is the one behind the whodunit. All that mystery is not enough for GONE GIRL, as the film is smartly intercut with flashbacks which tell the story of the first five years of Nick and Amy’s marriage. The flashbacks are perfectly timed and coincide nicely with the goings-on of the present investigation. As GONE GIRL unspools, there is a lot to think about.
Director David Fincher as a lot of material to work with, and he handles it brilliantly. GONE GIRL has the potential to fall into a standard police-procedural drama, but the flashbacks offer the opportunity to explore the ins and outs of married life…and Fincher capitalizes on it. What it means to married, ups and downs, and the truths and lies couples tell each other to get by are explored fully. Through this, Fincher tells a very human tale of love and loss, and when weaved around the disappearance of Amy, GONE GIRL hits on every high-mark it shoots for.

While Fincher is putting together an engaging (and often mind-blowing) narrative, he also finds time to craft a fine-looking film. Everything is photographed in a tragic yet beautiful grimness; realistic but still artful…it is difficult to pull your eyes away from the screen. The stark pictures, when combined with a haunting score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross…makes for an atmosphere so think you could swim in it.
Ben Affleck turns in a great performance as the weight of the film is clearly on his shoulders. He has to play many roles here; a grieving husband, alpha-male jerk…all while going through a full range of emotions during his up and down journey. Rosamund Pike never breaks through her monotone and her face barely even moves, and it’s unclear if that’s just her or if her character is really that troubled. The biggest surprises come from Tyler Perry who comes in as Nick’s defense attorney, who is very good and shows that Perry can be a treat to watch on-screen with the right material, and from Neil Patrick Harris, who as Amy’s former lover turns in a great role as a creep. The show is nearly stolen by Carrie Coon, who as Nick’s sister has the mighty job of keeping stride with Affleck…and she does it perfectly. The supporting cast of Kim Dickens and Scoot McNairy are excellent.

After several twists and turns and punches to the gut and the brain, GONE GIRL wraps with a solid ending with a hint of ambiguity. While this may frustrate some viewers looking for more resolution, it’s clear that the film was shooting more for a life-lesson, and has no problems with putting the problems of the characters in the laps of the audience. GONE GIRL serves as many things but also finds time to be a morality tale; a perfect balance which will stun, and keep you thinking long after the fade.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 
 

 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: Everything You Need to Know About GONE GIRL


 
October is wasting no time in getting down to business and is ushering in one of the most anticipated films of the year in its first weekend. Here is everything you need to know about GONE GIRL.
What is this about? – GONE GIRL is a mystery/suspense thriller in which Nick Dunne reports his wife, Amy, has gone missing on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary. As the investigation shifts towards Nick, his portrait of a perfect marriage begins to fall apart in the public eye.

Who stars in this? – Nick Dunne is played by Ben Affleck, and his wife Amy is played by Rosamund Pike. Pike is known for her roles in JACK REACHER (2012), THE WORLD’S END (2013), WRATH OF THE TITANS (2012), and BARNEY’S VERSION (2010). She also played a Bond girl in DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002). Also tagging along are Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, and Kim Dickens.
Who is directing? – GONE GIRL is directed by David Fincher, whose directing credits include SE7EN (1995), FIGHT CLUB (1999), ZODIAC (2007), THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008), THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011).

Where did this story come from? – GONE GIRL is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. It was #1 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list for eight weeks. It was also twenty-six weeks on National Public Radio’s hardcover fiction bestseller list.
Random Facts – Trent Reznor and his creative partner Atticus Ross are providing the score. This is the third collaboration with Fincher with others being DRAGON TATTOO and THE SOCIAL NETWORK…with the latter winning them an Oscar. * Gillian Flynn, author of the novel, wrote the screenplay and changed the ending from the book to keep readers interested in the film version. * To research his role, Ben Affleck researched and studied several men who had been accused and/or convicted of killing their wives, and paid particular attention to Scott Peterson.

What to expect – David Fincher has become the go-to guy for adapting novels into films; his last five features have all been adaptations. But he hasn’t been just adapting airport-paperback books onto the screen; he’s been dealing with dense material and complicated characters and unfolding them for the masses to understand in a delicate and masterful way. In GONE GIRL, we can expect strong characterizations, a lot of atmosphere, and plenty of misdirection and mystery. Fincher also has a knack for getting strong, transformative performances out of his characters, so expect some great acting as well. GONE GIRL has all the potential to be another tall feather in Fincher’s cap.

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GONE GIRL arrives October 3rd.