Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Reel Review: CONCUSSION


 
Football is a dangerous sport, and it is at its most dangerous on the professional level, where bones and ligaments and muscles are smashed and torn and shattered. Today, we know that the most important muscle, the brain, is the most vital to a player…and also the most vulnerable, and that it would foolish to deny that smashing heads together would never cause a problem inside the ol’ coconut. But it was only a short time ago when the National Football League (NFL), the biggest sports league/corporation in the world…did exactly that.

After Hall of Fame player Mike Webster (David Morse) passes away, his autopsy is performed by Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) who discovers a new deteriorating disease of the brain caused by years of impacts. With the support of his new wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), boss (Albert Brooks), and former team doctor (Alec Baldwin), Dr. Omalu publishes his findings, and is immediately attacked by the NFL.

CONCUSSION sets itself up as a David vs. Goliath story, with the relatively unknown (but very well educated) Dr. Omalu going up against a corporation which, as the film says, owns a day of the week once held down by the Church. Dr. Omalu, who is Nigerian born but knows next-to-nothing about the business or the cultural impact of football, has all the good intentions behind him and only wants the truth to come out to protect players…and kids who are playing the game. In retaliation, the NFL fires back by discrediting Dr. Omalu, even going as far as hiring their own doctors to offer differing opinions. In addition to being David vs. Goliath, CONCUSSION morphs into a look at doctors who are on a corporate payroll and where their loyalties really are.

While the material is perfect for a good drama, CONCUSSION stumbles around like a cold-cocked player in the telling of its story. The film is assembled of scene after scene after scene of big, long speeches; often with Dr. Omalu long-windedly telling (or yelling at) people how the truth must be known…or of other people even more long-windedly telling or yelling at Dr. Omalu to let him know that the NFL is going to crush him. It’s an entire film of big speeches, most of it redundant, giving CONCUSSION a very dull feel. Director Peter Landesman, working off his own script, does way too much telling and not enough showing.

If not for Will Smith, CONCUSSION would be a disaster on the field. Smith nails his accent perfectly, and displays the emotions of compassion, confusion, and the weight of the sporting world on his shoulders in a great performance. Smith vanishes into the role in one of his best outings. The lovely and talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw keeps up with Smith as good as he is, and goes through her own set of tough emotions. Albert Brooks is once cast as a grumpy old man, but it works and he is once again very funny despite the harsh makeup job he has to act through. Alec Baldwin gets a lot to do but his Louisiana accent only shows up every once in a while. Luke Wilson has the odd job of playing the well-known NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but only gets a few lines (during press conferences) and is smartly used sparingly. The show is nearly stolen by David Morse, who as the rapidly deteriorating Mike Webster shows just how frightening this newly discovered disease really is. Morse is so good, the film could have survived on him alone.

There is a very long buildup headed towards some sort of expected showdown which never happens, and although the history books don’t call for it, as a film there is very little climax. There is a very important story to be told here, but despite a great performance by Smith, CONCUSSION feels like a football team which moves the ball all over the field, but never crosses the goal line.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Reel Opinion: A Merry STAR WARS Christmas


 
THE FORCE AWAKENS, the first STAR WARS movie ever to be released in December, has come to us as a Santa-sized gift. It’s a good movie which is blasting box office records, heralded by critics, and praised by fans. New characters have made a splash, and the old characters kept us all in smiles with warm feelings and good memories of beloved faces we first met nearly 40 years ago.

One of the many remarkable storylines of THE FORCE AWAKENS is that its arrival mirrors what happened in 1977, when the first film, sub-titled A NEW HOPE, was released to an unsuspecting world. Prior to A NEW HOPE, it was (ahem), a dark time for the movie industry, when theatres were dominated with dark,  pessimistic, and nihilistic films such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE GODFATHER, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and TAXI DRIVER..all fine films but not quite filled with the type of characters or environments we would want to spend more than five minutes around.  The first STAR WARS film changed all that with its expressed purpose of giving pleasure by embracing a full sense of fun. The simple ideas of good vs. evil were relatable, and the finale which included an arm-raising victory topped off by a medal ceremony with triumphant horns…opened up everyone’s eyes to the light side of filmmaking; fun, yet maintaining enough intricacy to be taken seriously as true cinema.

Much like its predecessor, THE FORCE AWAKENS comes to us at just the right time. Aside from the usual stock of animated kiddie flicks and the occasional Marvel superhero romp, in the past decade or so we’ve been treated to a similar age of filmmaking that the 1970’s was stuck in. Recently, we’ve been introduced to miserable superheroes (MAN OF STEEL), self-absorbed characters (BIRDMAN), and yes…more nihilistic characters (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). THE FORCE AWAKENS counters that by once again embracing the spirit of adventure, hope, heroism, characters who believe, and the type of whimsy that only celluloid magic can deliver.

Just like in STAR WARS, the industry needs a balance of light and dark. It’s okay to have movies that are tough to watch (life is tough, so the art can’t hide from it), but Hollywood in this current era tends to be a copycat-land; if Studio-A finds something that works, you can bet that Studio-B and Studio-C will follow suit. Whether or not THE FORCE AWAKENS wakes up the good-feelings in Hollywood, only time can answer. It is certainly a feel-good film with its emotion-tugging nostalgia, thrilling setpieces, and a return to the old spirit of STAR WARS. It’s the type of movie long-time fans of STAR WARS needed and the world deserves. It is a reminder that movies can be fun while retaining dignity, that there is always light to counter the dark, and that there is always hope.

Happy Holidays, and may the Force be with you.
 
 
 
 

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Reel Review: STAR WARS EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS


 
A long time ago (40 years, to be exact), when STAR WARS creator George Lucas began to piece together his galactic opus to the world, he did so by being heavily inspired by the power of storytelling and the intricacies of myth. The long-running behemoth of a franchise has veered away from those humble beginnings in the past decade, but with the seventh installment, THE FORCE AWAKENS, director J.J. Abrams gets things back to the origin, bringing STAR WARS back home at long last.

Thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke Skywalker has vanished and the galaxy is facing a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. A young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) discovers a droid (BB-8) which may have Luke’s location, and she enlists the help of a defected Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), and an old space-smuggler, Han Solo (Harrison Ford).

THE FORCE AWAKENS is a film which embraces the idea that going backwards is sometimes necessary to go forwards. Gone are the progressive-thinking storylines of political turmoil and forbidden love stories, and in its place is a true commitment to galactic adventure.  It’s a back-to-basics approach, as AWAKENS borrows a little from the 1977 film by using the every-person who stumbles upon a key to saving everyone…but it’s not exactly the same. Director J. J. Abrams, working off a script by STAR WARS veteran Lawrence Kasdan, gives everything a clever spin which makes it all feel new. The usual and expected beats are there, but the re-working makes it all feel very fresh.

Abrams knows what the fans want, and he delivers all that and more. The old characters such as Solo, his pal Chewbacca (once again by Peter Mayhew), and the now General Leia (Carrie Fisher) not only get to bring back waves of memories and nostalgia for long-time fans, but are also given important tasks to do; the stakes are very high this time around, and as the plot unfolds every character is given a storyline. AWAKENS has a lot of humanism going on despite the magnificent space battles and locations. Real human stories are happening, making EPISODE VII the one film in the long series to have the most amount of life.

Abrams keeps the pacing brisk and the plot moves from planet to planet at light-speed, but things are organized well and never get confusing, nor do they bore. Visual effects are a treat with some well-realized CGI…which seems to be used sparingly as the practical sets and real-life locations are used often and well. For the first time in a long time, we’ve got a STAR WARS movie which is photographed beautifully; perhaps the best-looking of the series and by far the best-looking Abrams has produced. John Williams’ score soars with a beautiful mix of the old and new. The droid BB-8, an actual working model, is a revelation and conveys emotion despite communicating only in beeps and boops.

Acting is superb. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega get a ton of screentime and a lot of emotional baggage to get through, and they both pull it off brilliantly. Harrison Ford steps back into his old boots with ease and gives us a nice balance of the older Han and the old Solo. Carrie Fisher returns to Leia nicely…and Adam Driver, as our new galactic villain, is a perfect menace and a baddie that the world would now love to hate. The supporting cast of Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Domhnall Gleeson, and Lupita Nyong’o are all excellent.

There are some well designed twists and turns throughout THE FORCE AWAKENS, with plenty of moments to laugh, cheer, cry, and weep over. With everything that Abrams had to accomplish in one movie, he overall finds a way to explore the power of storytelling and forging a myth all on his own. Just as it did in 1977, that far, far away galaxy has exploded onto the big screen as a beacon of hope; lush with adventure and the magical whimsy that only cinema can provide. STAR WARS has returned home.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need To Know About STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS


 
This weekend, arguably the most anticipated film in the past several decades finally arrives in theatres in a major worldwide event; the 7th episode in the STAR WARS trilogy, entitled THE FORCE AWAKENS. If you’re been a fan of the franchise through all of the ups and downs, most of this blog-entry will probably be nothing new, so let it be a refresher…and for the new generation, everything that needs to be known.

What is this about? – THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place 30 years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983); the film which wrapped up the Original Trilogy of films which started in 1977 with A NEW HOPE, and the first sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Unlike the Prequel Trilogy, which told of the events prior to A NEW HOPE, THE FORCE AWAKENS has the advantage of bringing back the original cast which started it all.

Who is in this? – As stated, the original cast of A NEW HOPE is back, which includes Harrison Ford (as Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (as Leia Organa), and Mark Hamill (as Luke Skywalker). They are joined by other STAR WARS veterans such as Anthony Daniels, (C-3P0), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca). Rounding out the cast are a strong group of newcomers such as Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS), John Boyega (ATTACK THE BLOCK), Adam Driver (LINCOLN), Andy Serkis (THE LORD OF THE RINGS), Domhnall Gleeson (EX MACHINA), Lupita Nyong’o (12 YEARS A SLAVE), and Max von Sydow (THE EXORCIST). You can read more about the cast (here) from last year’s casting announcement.

Who is making this? – This is the first STAR WARS film to be made without the total involvement of series creator George Lucas. Taking over the directing duties is J.J. Abrams, whose directing credits include STAR TREK (2009), SUPER 8 (2011), and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III (2006). The script is written by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), and what is currently considered to be the best of the STAR WARS movies, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Also contributing to the screenplay, in the early stages of production, was Michael Arndt, who won an Oscar for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Fun Facts – The STAR WARS franchise was sold over to Disney by George Lucas in 2012. Part of the deal was Lucas’ written treatments for three new STAR WARS movies * During the course of production, Disney, along with executive producer and head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy, veered away from Lucas’ original vision for the new trilogy * Lucasfilm is now run by Kennedy, who has produced nearly all of Steven Spielberg’s films, including JURASSIC PARK (1993), E.T. (1982), and LINCOLN (2012) * John Williams is back to compose the score * Mark Hamill was the same age (63) as Sir Alec Guinness was when he filmed A NEW HOPE in 1976-7 * This is the first STAR WARS movie to be released in December. The previous six were all released in May * This is the second film Harrison Ford and J.J. Abrams have worked on together. Ford appeared in REGARDING HENRY (1991), which was co-written by Abrams *

What to expect? – The first frame of reference to look at is J.J. Abrams’ work in that other big sci-fi franchise, STAR TREK. His films in that universe where slick and clean and loads of fun, and his touch for big adventure and high thrills was on full display. Those films stumbled from clumsy scripting, which is why having Lawrence Kasdan back in the cockpit is a major win. The old cast is sure to bring up loads of nostalgic feelings, as every fan of STAR WARS has long been in love with Han, Leia, and Luke…the true principal characters in perhaps the entire franchise. We can expect a high-thrill adventure, which is something the Prequels lacked, and a strong sense of the good old days being back.

*

STAR WARS EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS opens in full December 18th, with limited showings on the 17th.
 
 
 
 

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Reel Review: THE DANISH GIRL


 
 
In 2010, with his Oscar-winning THE KING’S SPEECH, director Tom Hooper took an obscure and nearly forgotten-about moment in history and turned it into a very human story which felt epic. With his newest, THE DANISH GIRL, Hooper returns to that time period to tell another story which has fallen to a victim of the past; the story of the world’s first transgendered woman.

Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are two artists living in London in the 1920’s, with Einar the successful landscape artist and Gerda as the struggling portrait painter. When Einar poses in a dress for Gerda for a new series of paintings, nicknamed Lili, he awakens something in himself which begins his journey to becoming a woman.

There is a theory in filmmaking, and in storytelling in general, that there is only one plot that all stories have: Who Am I. THE DANISH GIRL is very much that, as it follows Einar’s painful struggle to find his true self. The film follows the happily married couple, who are very much in love; through the steps of what is at first a playful game which turns into Einar adapting the persona of Lili in full. Their marriage is put to the test, and things are compounded when the Lili portraits become their only true source of income, and Gerta’s only long-awaited reward of being recognized as an artist.

On the surface, THE DANISH GIRL feels like it would be just a step-by-step journey of a man becoming a woman…steps that include the harsh treatments by an un-educated medical community, the common bully on the street, and right up to and past the very scary surgical procedures (the first of its kind at the time). But director Tom Hooper, not content with the heroine’s journey alone, turns the film on its end as a true love story. This is a journey that Gerda and Lili take together, and Gerda’s storyline of a woman who must watch her husband disappear before her eyes, practically a living wake, gives the film a tremendous heartbeat. What it means to have loved and lost is a theme that Hooper explores in full and makes THE DANISH GIRL a very deep and complex story.

Hooper’s excellent talent for framing a shot is on full display. His screen is exquisitely filled with faces and objects which aid him in telling his story, and there is not one wasted shot in the entire film. His gentle and loving touch handles matters which could have been crude and insensitive in the most tasteful of ways. Alexandre Desplat’s score is magnificent. The makeup job on Eddie Redmayne to turn him into a woman on film is stunning, and there isn’t much disbelief to be had when looking at his character.

Eddie Redmayne puts in the performance of a lifetime as Lili. There is a wealth of emotions that the character must endure, and Redmayne nails every one of them. There is an amazing level of depth at work, as the actor is playing the part of a man trying to be a woman and he is always convincing. As good as he is, Alicia Vikander matches him perfectly. She too must go through a lot, and her performance is by the far the best of her young career. The supporting cast of Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, and Matthias Schoenaerts are all excellent.

Considering the subject-matter, THE DANISH GIRL is certainly not a film for anyone with a frat-boy mentality or with the dismissive and barbaric notion that all transgendered people are insane. The film does have its awkward moments, but those brave enough to look past it will easily find one of the most exquisite films of 2015.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 


Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Reel Review: TRUMBO


 
In the late 1940’s into the 1950’s, Dalton Trumbo was one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. He was king of his domain, but because of his political beliefs, he and his colleagues, nicknamed the Hollywood Ten, were blacklisted from working in Hollywood. It is one of the darker, and more interesting times in not just Tinseltown but in America itself, and comes to life in TRUMBO.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of Hollywood’s top-paid screenwriters, refuses to testify in front of a congressional committee investigating communism in America, and is blacklisted from working in Hollywood. Undeterred, Trumbo and his team of writers begin writing under fake names in secret, and wind up writing some of the best films of the decade.

It was a turbulent time for America. The Second World War was over, but the fear of communists working in secret in the U.S. with the intent of overthrowing the government was growing, and one of the targets, and tragedies in that time was Hollywood. TRUMBO for the most part is how Dalton and his friends, who considered themselves members of the Communist Party simply as a way of expressing their freedom of speech, are persecuted for their beliefs. As Dalton begins writing in secret, the film becomes a joy ride through Hollywood of the 1950’s, showing how heralded films such as SPARTACUS and EXODUS came to be with a writer who could not attach his name to the work. Fans and students of the history of film would find TRUMBO to be a joy.

Where TRUMBO stumbles a little is with the family dynamic. Once things get difficult for Dalton to earn a living, naturally his family life begins to suffer, specifically with his wife (played by Diane Lane), and oldest daughter (Elle Fanning). While the acting is superb, there are too many sub-plots and moments within the family that go nowhere; Dalton’s over-reliance on popping pills to stay awake during overnight writing sessions is given time but never goes anywhere, and a huge blowout-fight between he and his daughter is given a lot of attention but is apparently resolved off-camera, as it is never mentioned ever again. TRUMBO gets the story behind the motion picture business perfectly right, but has little idea what to do with the family life.

Director Jay Roach films a colorful looking movie in bringing back to life the whimsy and innocence of 1950’s Hollywood. The tone is light, the pacing is brisk, and the moments of humor are true knee-slappers. Archival footage is mixed perfectly with the movie, and TRUMBO never bores.

Bryan Cranston is fantastic as Dalton and completely vanishes into the man himself. Diane Lane is her usual magnificent self, and is still a stunner on-screen. Elle Fanning also turns in a very good performance, as does John Goodman…who plays a B-movie producer who hires Dalton in secret. Helen Mirren appears as a gossip columnist who aligns herself with the anti-communism portion of Hollywood, and comes off as a fantastic screen villain. Louis C.K. pops in as the angry writer providing comic-relief and is very entertaining, and Alan Tudyk is his usual brilliant self. The cast of actors playing famous faces are also excellent, including Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson), Dean O’Gorman (as Kirk Douglas), and David James Elliott (as John Wayne).

After a finale which is not as emotionally rewarding as it thinks it is, TRUMBO finishes off with a nod towards history and perhaps a wink towards our present day, where people are persecuted for what they believe in, and not for what they actually do. It isn’t preachy, and it works…but TRUMBO still feels like a very un-even film. It is a fascinating look at a dark time in Hollywood; it just needed a little more soul.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it
 
 
 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2015, Episode XII


 
The final month of 2015 brings with it the most anticipated movie of the year if not the last decade. And while all eyes may be turning towards that far, far away galaxy…there are still plenty of other Oscar contenders and notable films to pay attention to.

It all shakes out with…

MACBETH – William Shakespeare’s classic gets another shot at the big screen, with Michael Fassbender (SHAME, 12 YEARS A SLAVE), playing the role of Macbeth. He is joined by Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, and David Thewlis.

KRAMPUS – Based on the ancient legend of a hoofed beast who steals naughty children from their beds on Christmas Eve, this black-comedy horror film stars Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA – Director Ron Howard (APOLLO 13), adapts the book of the same name which tells the true story which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Stars Chris Hemsworth (THOR), Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Wishaw, and Brendan Gleeson.

THE BIG SHORT – Also based on the book of the same name, Adam McKay (ANCHORMAN), moves over to drama with this story about the housing and credit crash in the 2000’s.  It has an all-star cast of Christian Bale (THE DARK KNIGHT), Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Karen Gillan, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS – Director JJ Abrams (STAR TREK) brings back the beloved franchise with an adventure taking place 30 years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI. The original cast of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher reprise their roles as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia…and they are joined by Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, and Anthony Daniels. The script is written by Lawrence Kasdan (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) and Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE).

JOY – Director David O’ Russell (AMERICAN HUSTLE, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) is back with his annual appearance with Jennifer Lawrence (AMERICAN HUSTLE, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), in this true story about the single mom who invented the miracle mop. Co-stars Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT – Quentin Tarantino (PULP FICTION, KILL BILL) returns to the Old West with this little yarn about a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) who winds up in a cabin during a snowstorm surrounded by strangers. Co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, and Channing Tatum.

CONCUSSION – Based on a true story, Will Smith (MEN IN BLACK, ALI) plays the doctor who fought against efforts by the NFL to suppress his research on the brain damage suffered by football players. Co-stars Alec Baldwin, Arliss Howard, Luke Wilson, David Morse, and Albert Brooks.

THE REVENANT – Oscar winning director Alejandro G. Inarritu (BIRDMAN) takes his actors out into the frigid wilderness to film this true story about a man seeking revenge while battling the elements. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson.

ANOMALISA – Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), directs this stop-motion film about a man and his inability to connect with people. It features the voice-talents of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan.

*

Next month, Episode I will preview the month of January.

 

 

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Reel Review: THE GOOD DINOSAUR


 
For over 20 years, famed animation studio Pixar has built an empire of stories and characters by never being afraid to ask the “what if” question; such as, what if toys had feelings, or what if a robot was stranded alone on Earth, and what if the world was populated entirely by toys and trucks? For their second feature film in 2015, another “what if” question is explored; what if the dinosaurs were never made to be extinct?

65 million years ago, the asteroid which would have ended the dinosaur’s reign on Earth misses the planet, allowing the dinos to evolve into talking, farming, and family-raising creatures. On this world, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), is the youngest of a family of brontosauruses who is easily frightened. When a tragic circumstance whisks him away far from home, he befriends a cave-boy human, whom he nicknames Spot, and begins the long journey home.

There is an old axiom in storytelling and in the movies that states that the higher the concept, the simpler the story must be. THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a high-concept world in which dinosaurs are building houses, planting and harvesting crops, and raising families…while the few, seldom-seen human beings walk around on all fours, growl like animals, and are treated as critters (evolutionists would have a field day with this film, for better or for worse). With such a hard-sell concept, the story is kept simple much in the spirit of THE WIZARD OF OZ; get the main character home. As Arlo begins his journey back with Spot, the two new friends go through a learning curve of trusting each other while making new friends and encountering many dangers.

It sounds almost too simple, but THE GOOD DINOSAUR works because of the great amount of heart that is injected into the story. This is very much a family film, with the lessons of the meaning of family up front and center at all times. The stakes seem low and the overall tone is very light (despite some shocking twists and character deaths), but the film never bores even when the lessons and steps along the journey seem a little familiar.

The design of the dinosaurs resemble a balloon-animal, which is obviously done for contrast as the environment they inhabit is the absolute most stunningly beautiful and realistic the famed animation studio has ever done; trees, dirt, skies, and especially water look like they were shot in a National Geographic special. Computer-generated animation has never looked better.

Newcomer Raymond Ochoa, providing the voice of young Arlo, does a fine job in bringing life to his character. Veteran actors Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand are excellent, and the show is nearly stolen by the great Sam Elliot who voices a T-Rex.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR swings for the fences in bringing about an emotional close and connects on most of it. This is probably the first film in Pixar’s vast catalog which many adults will find forgettable, but will connect easily with younger audiences. It’s a serviceable and enjoyable movie which may not reach the iconic status of Pixar’s past adventures and characters, but its face-value is more than worth waiting 65 million years for.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


A Reel Review: CREED


 
In 1976, Sylvester Stallone captured the hearts of the world with his Rocky Balboa character; a Philadelphia boxer with the heart of a lion, and altered the pop culture and sporting worlds forever. After five sequels spanning nearly 40 years, Stallone moves Balboa to a supporting role in the first ROCKY spinoff, CREED.

Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the late famous boxer Apollo Creed, a former opponent and friend of Rocky Balboa (Stallone), seeks to make a name for himself in the boxing world. Adonis travels to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky for training, while Rocky himself faces his toughest challenge yet.

Famous mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell once wrote about the connection that is often found between people at the end of their lives and people at the very beginning of their own. It is a gold mine for storytelling that the cinema world has mined extensively, and that is the heart and soul of CREED. With Adonis seeking out his own identity with a desire to know the father that he never met, and Rocky now alone with his old friends now passed on and his health not what it used to be, the stage is set for the two men to find common ground. It’s an old matchup, but director Ryan Coogler, working from a script co-written by Aaron Covington (this is the first ROCKY-involved film not at least co-written by Stallone), does not allow his film to all into any old and tired clich├ęs. Instead, a great amount of conflict and emotion is injected into the story, and as Rocky and Adonis circle around each other like fighters, some great drama unfolds both in the ring and out.

CREED is a film which is saturated in nostalgia, but never leans on that like a crutch. There are plenty of homages and winks towards the past, and Coogler uses them as building blocks or launching pads for even further storylines. Even though CREED feels so very familiar, it avoids any cookie-cutter type storytelling and is certainly its own beast. The culture of Philadelphia is on full-display, and the score by Ludwig Goransson uses some of the old ROCKY themes while bringing some new ones…much of it sounding like an Old West theme. The fight scenes are brutal and realistic…and an early bout which is an un-interrupted, single-shot from the locker room to the end of the fight…has to be seen to be believed.

Michael B. Jordan is fantastic as the son of Apollo Creed. He doesn’t channel any of the flamboyance that his fictional father once had, and he isn’t asked to either. His character is a troubled and lost soul, and Jordan plays it perfectly. As good as he is, he is clearly upstaged by Stallone, who puts in the performance of a lifetime at long last. This time ol’ Rocky is going through some serious shit, and Stallone puts on a display of equally serious emotion. The supporting cast of Tessa Thompson (as Adonis’ love interest), Phylicia Rashad (Adonis’ mom), and real-life boxer Tony Bellew (as the final opponent) are all excellent.

As a boxing film, it is necessary for CREED to have a final fight, and it delivers with perfection. It is rousing and powerful, and then leads into a quieter wrap-up which is sure to have viewers reaching for the tissues. CREED is a powerful and beautiful film, worthy of a champion’s belt.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Reel Opinion: The Legacy of George Lucas


 
In the rich and vast history of cinema, no other person’s legacy and reputation is as reviled and revered than that of STAR WARS creator George Lucas.

In a recent interview with CBS News, Lucas explains his separation from the massive empire of STAR WARS, the series that he had created in 1977. When Lucasfilm was sold to Disney in 2012 with Lucas’ ideas for a new trilogy of films in hand, it turned out that Disney had a different direction in mind than what the creator wanted to do. Lucas was asked to leave.

George Lucas leaving the STAR WARS universe was a notion that would have been unheard of during the era of the first three films. Starting in 1977, STAR WARS (later sub-titled A NEW HOPE), and it’s two sequels, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), were three films which not only captured the imaginations of legions of young fans, but also launched thousands of film careers and literally changed the way movies were made and marketed; a lot of the industry today owes a lot to the castle that George built.

But the cracks in the castle began to show in 1997, when Lucas re-released the original trilogy in theatres with each film receiving edits and alterations to scenes and characters. The new films, titled SPECIAL EDITION, were met with excitement at the theatres, but many fans furiously objected to the edits that were made.

Things did not improve going into the new millennium, when Lucas delivered his long promised Prequel Trilogy, which told the story of all that happened in that beloved galaxy prior to A NEW HOPE. The films were met with good-to-mixed-to-bad reviews, and with even more anger from a fanbase that objected to decisions made with characters and plot, and were flat-out disappointed in the overall quality of the films. And just like that, Lucas’ once-worshipped name became a launching-pad for a million vile insults from fans, and the empire became a case of following a religion and cursing the creator.

The new CBS interview is the most revealing look we’ve had at the 2012 Disney acquisition of the STAR WARS franchise, and expanded upon what was reported in the June 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. The Vanity Fair feature reported that Lucas’ original treatments for the new trilogy had a strong focus on younger characters, which for Disney executives flew a little too close to Lucas’ own Prequels. The head in-charge of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, insisted that the development process was the same as any other film, and Lucas was politely asked to relinquish control of the property that he had created and lived with for nearly 40 years.

With Lucas out of the STAR WARS picture, the question of where his legacy stands is a grand debatable topic. His contributions to the film industry are remarkable; STAR WARS ushered in a new era and led the industry down its current path of marketing, CGI, digital cinema, surround sound, and high-definition. Lucas also had a part in the making of classic films such as APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), the INDIANA JONES franchise, THE GODFATHER PART I and II…along with Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH (1986), Ron Howard’s WILLOW (1988), Francis Ford Coppola’s TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (1988), and THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988). His contributions to society outside of film are also notable, with innovative programs in education, art, and various charities. But still, it is difficult to ignore the vitriol his name flares up among STAR WARS fans, and his decisions in some of his films are very questionable. Lucas’ name is unfortunately similar to the fates of names like Nixon and Paterno; men who did a lot of good but will always have that but then tagged along. Much like his very own Anakin Skywalker, George Lucas is perhaps a fallen hero; loved and hated…and tragically inspiring.

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The full interview with George Lucas will air on CBS in December. The 7th Episode in the STAR WARS series arrives on December 18th.
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Reel 20: TOY STORY


“You are a TOY!”
 

This month marks the 20th anniversary of John Lasseter’s TOY STORY.

A computer-animated, buddy-comedy adventure film, TOY STORY was the first feature-length film from Pixar Animation Studios. Following the adventures of toys, specifically the relationship between a cowboy-doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), and a space-ranger action-figure named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), TOY STORY was a landmark film in not only computer-animation but the overall industry.

The road to TOY STORY began in the late 1980’s, when John Lasseter, then a young animator, was working for Walt Disney Feature Animation; a studio with a rich history of animated film from SNOW WHITE to BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. An innovator, Lasseter was inspired by Disney’s own film TRON from 1982, which used computer-generated animation intermixed with live-action. Lasseter pitched the idea of a full feature-length film done completely by computers, which was seen as a threat by Disney, which had built an empire by producing traditional, hand-drawn animated films.

Lasseter was dismissed from Disney, and then went to work at Lucasfilm and later as a founding member of Pixar, which was purchased by Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs. Lasseter would produce a handful of animated short-films, and his TIN TOY, a short which told a story from the perspective of a toy, would become the first computer-animated short-film to win an Oscar in 1988. Disney then re-entered the picture and became a working partner with Lasseter and Pixar.

Inspired by TIN TOY, Lasseter, along with Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, would begin work on TOY STORY, which would become Pixar’s first full-length film. The screenplay went through many revisions, and would employ the talents of Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, and Joss Whedon to craft the script into a family adventure. After several starts and stops, TOY STORY finally went into production in early 1994. A team of 27 animators began work using clay models and Lasseter’s storyboards, with every shot in the film passing through eight different teams working on color, lighting, modeling, framing, and motion. To keep things cinematic, the animators decided to stay within the limits of what a traditional movie camera could do. This would give TOY STORY, despite its new stunning visuals, a very classic cinematic look and feel.

With a well-respected cast of Hanks, Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, and R. Lee Ermey, TOY STORY came together nicely. Randy Newman composed the score, and developed the film’s signature song, You’ve Got A Friend In Me. As suggested by Steve Jobs, TOY STORY was released in November; a break from the tradition of animated films being released in the summer months.

The results were spectacular. TOY STORY was the highest grossing film of the year, easily beating out BATMAN FOREVER and Ron Howard’s Oscar-darling APOLLO 13. Among the many awards it won, it was nominated for two Golden Globes and three Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay; the first animated film to be nominated in that category. John Lasseter would receive an Academy Special Achievement Award in 1996. The film would interest many other studios in computer-generated movies, and would sadly begin the end of the hand-drawn era. TOY STORY would begin an industry boom for animated films, which were now seen as legitimate cinema and not just for kids, and would prompt the eventual creation of the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars in 1991.

 The film’s success would put Pixar on the map of movie-making giants, and become the pillar of the now famed studio’s large catalog of films and characters. TOY STORY would live on in massive merchandising, two sequels, and various spinoffs…and Woody and Buzz would become instant pop-culture icons.

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In the fall of 1995, this Blogger was only a few months out of college and into his professional career in broadcasting and the creative services. TOY STORY arrived in this Blogger’s life like a space-ranger landing from another galaxy, instantly inspiring and re-enforcing how wonderful the power of creativity can be. This Blogger may have been launched with STAR WARS, but it was TOY STORY which helped it along. It is a film which works with adults and kids; telling a familiar story in a new setting, and it explores themes that everyone can relate to. Its legacy is ongoing, and will for many years to come.

“To infinity, and beyond!”
 
 
 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Reel Review: SPOTLIGHT


 
In 2002, a team of “spotlight” reporters for the Boston Globe newspaper investigated and ran a series of stories concerning Catholic sex abuse cases and cover-ups. The coverage pushed the scandal into the national limelight and inspired other abuse victims to come forward. It was an historical and important event for journalism, and here in 2015, the story is dramatized for the big screen in Thomas McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT.  

Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) starts a new job at the Boston Globe as Editor, and immediately assigns a team of reporters (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, and Rachel McAdams) to investigate allegations against a defrocked priest accused of molesting over 80 young boys. The investigation leads to a much bigger picture involving a cover-up at the highest levels.

SPOTLIGHT is the second of two films released in 2015 centering on true stories in journalism which challenged the responsibilities and ethics for reporters. SPOTLIGHT unfolds as a procedural, as the team of reporters connect the dots by digging up witnesses, interviewing victims, playing legal games with lawyers, and most of all…going up against a formidable opponent in the form of the Catholic Church of Boston; an organization with deep roots in the community and enough power to make anything go away. It very much is a David vs. Goliath story, and as the shocking revelations come about, SPOTLIGHT puts the audience in stunned silence and in awe of the enormity of the cover-up and the crimes.

SPOTLIGHT on the surface feels like a mystery flick, but as the slow reveal of truths comes out, the film goes into another gear and is a true examination of very talented investigative journalists doing their jobs very well. Director Thomas McCarthy doesn’t waste any time having his reporters endlessly debate over whether or not they should be doing this; the ethics debates are shelved in this movie, and instead lets his characters do their jobs. The importance of good journalism is up front, and after a few stunning twists towards the end, puts the reporters in the position of looking at their profession in a new light. The characters that make up the team are always up front, and their personalities shine through during every stage of their investigation. This is a very compelling film which shocks as much as it grips.

The cast is very inspired. Michael Keaton has a fire in his eye as the leader of the team, and although his Boston accent comes and goes and he’s perhaps a little too grumbly, he definitely gives off the vibe of a seasoned news-man who’s seen some stuff in his career and lifetime. Mark Ruffalo is the reporter on the team who is affected the most emotionally out of the story he’s uncovering, and handles his work very well. Rachel MacAdams and James d’Arcy get equal screentime (it’s very much an ensemble piece) and are both very good. Liev Schreiber turns in a great role, and the supporting cast of John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup are excellent.

Despite all of the digging around and interviewing, SPOTLIGHT actually becomes a bit of a thriller, and by the time the credits roll, the importance and massive impact of the story they break is really felt. This is an important movie in style and substance. It owes a lot to the classic journalism film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN from 1976, which also told the story of reporters uncovering the truth in a nation-wide scandal, and rightfully earns a place on the shelf right next to it.

BOTTOM LINE: See it
 
 
 

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Reel Opinion: The Future of Bond


 
Let the mad speculation begin.

The word franchise gets tossed around a lot these days. Hollywood latches onto the concept like it’s the only game in town; after all, a connected series of films is guaranteed to bring in business, and a rich industry is a happy and healthy industry. The term is often related to superhero properties and behemoths like STAR WARS and STAR TREK. One of the most longest-running franchises out there is often overlooked as one, and that’s only because it’s been around for such a long time…50 years and counting, and it’s about to enter a major transitional phase; the JAMES BOND franchise.

This past weekend, the 24th official entry into the BOND franchise, SPECTRE, thunderballed into first place at the domestic and worldwide box office; a clear indication that the world has not had enough of the martini-guzzling, woman-hopping, global-bouncing, sexy-car driving secret agent codenamed 007. The film, which has received very mixed reviews (read Reel Speak’s review HERE), was the fourth outing for actor Daniel Craig in the role of Bond, and it is with Craig where the transitional phase begins.

Craig, who had signed on for five films but has publicly stated that he’s done with it, has been praised by many critics for adding more depth and vulnerability to the character; something that has been missing for many years. Despite Craig’s insistence (and somewhat and grumbly comments) about being done, we should never say never, and there is that possibility that he may be back. The first issue to contend with is that SPECTRE offered a wrap-up to a four-film storyline for Craig’s Bond, so a fifth film may feel like an after-thought; cinematic-wise, the character feels finished. If he is forced to return due to his contractual obligations, he may not be happy about it…and no one wants a Bond who doesn’t want to be there. Craig acted just fine in SPECTRE, but there was that feeling of a man who just wanted to get it over with.

If Craig goes, then the Bond-universe that he populated goes with him, as has been the case nearly every time a new 007 is cast. There’s nothing like a fresh start, especially for Bond, and that opens the question of where the franchise needs to go next. Craig’s first three films were set in a very realistic world; very little comedy, no over-the-top characters, no ridiculous gadgets or situations. SPECTRE took a step back and embraced some of the more comedic and silliness of the earlier Bond films (such as the Roger Moore era from 1973-1985), and although most of it worked, it reeked of indecision of how a JAMES BOND film can work in the real world. When Bond comes back in a new form, what kind of adventures will he have, silly, or grounded.

There is also the minor (ha) issue of the distribution rights for Bond movies going up for grabs. MGM and Eon Productions have currently been weighing offers as Sony’s deal expires with SPECTRE, and major players such as Warner Bros. and Paramount are expected to make a play for the franchise more than worth its weight in gold.

This Blogger hopes that Sony gets out of the picture, as their mishandling of Bond is unforgiveable (their meddling with SPECTRE’s budget and scripting and production has been well documented), and again, there’s nothing like a fresh start for 007. Craig has done a fine job and deserves to be in the conversation concerning the best portrayals of the character, but it does feel like it’s time to move on. Whoever gets the job, there also needs to be a focus on the character; the man-on-a-mission is always fine, but the man who has to pull off the mission shouldn't be forgotten. When the franchise does restart, this Blogger firmly believes that a grounded Bond works best in today’s day-and-age. After all, Bond must be relevant and to do so he must battle real-world enemies who exist in the real world. A comedic approach would seem like a parody, although this Blogger would welcome a series of Bond films set in the 1950’s or 1960’s. The sky is wide open for the franchise, and anything can happen.

Let the mad speculation begin.
 
 
 

 

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Reel Review: SPECTRE


 
SPECTRE; the 24th film in the 50-year old James Bond franchise, is not only a sequel to its predecessor, SKYFALL (2012), but it also serves as a grand finale to the four-film arc populated by Daniel Craig’s turn at the super-spy character. A standalone film it is not and it demands knowledge of the last three films. But not content to be just a piece to the puzzle, SPECTRE does manage to be its own thing; for better and for worse.

A message from the past leads secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a hunt to discover the business of a worldwide sinister organization called Spectre, which is led by the mysterious Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile back in London, Bond’s boss M (Ralph Fiennes), his quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw) and assistant Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), fight off a political attempt to abolish the secret agent program; an effort led by Denbigh (Andrew Scott).

Long-time fans of the 007 films will lap up SPECTRE faster than a thirsty mutt in a creek. Where the first three films of the Daniel Craig era danced around the old Bond mythology and never quite felt like the old days, SPECTRE makes an earnest effort to embrace it fully. The old gadgets and silliness are back, along with the standard template that the series of films followed for decades. As Bond bounces from country to country (and woman to woman) in his pursuit of Spectre, director Sam Mendes, in his second outing helming 007, uses every opportunity to saturate his spy-adventure in all things Bond with many winks-and-nods, all while keeping Bond in the sights and offering peeks behind the rough exterior of the master assassin.

Where SPECTRE starts to lose its grip is in the telling of the bigger picture. The script, which is credited to four different writers, is a wee-bit of a mess as it spews out a convoluted path for Bond to follow which requires a road map for the audience. So much is unclear, that it’s easy to forget exactly why everyone is shooting at and punching each other, or exactly what Spectre as an organization is supposed to be after. The script also takes some major shortcuts to move the plot along, which results in Bond making some incredibly dumb decisions. The narrative is a jumble of wooden pegs looking for a round hole.

Mendes still gives a lot to be pleased about. His action and fight sequences are a thrill to take in, and an opening tracking shot has to be seen to be believed. The film looks great, and the exotic locales are stunning…but not even Mendes’ mastery of the technical side can get away from that damn script he has to work with. There are major leaps in logic and characters get rushed to places way too fast, and overall the stakes never feel that high, even though we’re told one too many times that they are. Thomas Newman’s score takes advantage of some of the classic Bond themes but is generic filler outside of that, and Sam Smith’s opening theme song is torture on the ears and should be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

Daniel Craig puts in a fine performance as Bond, and does let us know that underneath his rough exterior there is more going on, although his charm doesn’t seem to be on much of a display. Christoph Waltz is his usual cartoon-like self, and as a super-villain doesn’t have much to do other than seek power and is as one-note as they come. The Bond Girls, consisting of the very beautiful Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux, both act their parts well although the former isn’t given much to do other than provide exposition. Bond’s office staff of Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, and Naomi Harris handle their roles very well as they are given actual things to do, and the show is nearly stolen by Dave Bautista, who as a hulking master assassin, gives Bond a true run for his money.

As a James Bond film, SPECTRE does fit in the overall series just fine and gives fans a lot to enjoy. As a movie on its own, it feels way more complicated than it needs to be, and the screenwriting-by-committee becomes very clear in the last hour. That sort of imbalance does make SPECTRE unique, but not in a great way.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it
 
 
 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2015, Episode XI


The race towards Oscar is about to enter the homestretch. Here are the notable films for the packed month of November.

It all blows up with…

SPECTRE – The 24th film in the James Bond franchise is the fourth time out for Daniel Craig as 007. This time the super-spy battles a global criminal organization. Craig is joined by Christoph Waltz (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS), Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), Ralph Fiennes, and Monica Belluci. Sam Mendes, who directed SKYFALL, returns.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE – Charles Schultz’s beloved comic strip returns in a 3D animated form. It is the first feature film based on the characters in 35 years, and is wrtten by the son and grandson of Charles Schultz.

SPOTLIGHT – This heavyweight contender of a movie is about the Boston Globe’s historic coverage of the Massachusetts Catholic sex abuse scandal. It stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci. It is directed by Thomas McCarthy, who wrote Pixar’s UP (2009), and directed THE STATION AGENT in 2003.

BROOKLYN – Based on the novel of the same name, Saoirse Ronan (ATONEMENT), plays a young Irish immigrant in 1950’s Brooklyn.

TRUMBO – Bryan Cranston (TV’s MAD MEN), plays screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted from Hollywood because of his political beliefs in 1947. He is joined by Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Alan Tudyk. Jay Roach (MEET THE PARENTS, AUSTIN POWERS), directs.

BY THE SEA – This romantic drama is written and directed by Angelina Jolie. She stars in it along with her hubby, Brad Pitt.

THE 33 – Antonio Banderas leads the way in the true story of the 2010 mining disaster in which 33 miners were trapped underground for two months.

LEGEND – Tom Hardy (WARRIOR, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), pulls double-duty by playing two roles; that of the Kray Twins…twin brothers who were gangsters in London in the 1950’s. Hardy is joined by Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston, Paul Bettany, and David Thewlis. It is directed by Brian Helgeland, who directed the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42 in 2013.

THE NIGHT BEFORE – If you need a break from the Oscar hopefuls, there is always this holiday comedy about three idiots who go out on the town on Christmas Eve and have everything go wrong. Stars Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie.

SECRET IN THEIR EYES – This is a remake of the 2009 Argentine film which won Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards. This crime drama in which FBI investigators re-open an old case stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 YEARS A SLAVE), Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Michael Kelly, and Alfred Molina.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2 – Another break from the awards contenders comes in the form of the second part of the third book which is the fourth movie of people dressing weird for no reason. The finale to the series (thank God) stars Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the kid who looks like a Lego-man, Josh Hutcherson.

CAROL – Cate Blanchett (ELIZABETH, THE LORD OF THE RINGS), and Rooney Mara (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), play two women in 1952 New York City who fall in love. Co-stars Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler. It is directed by Todd Haynes, who helmed FAR FROM HEAVEN in 2002.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR – What would happen if the Earth never was hit by an asteroid and the dinosaurs survived? That is the question posed by Pixar Animation Studios in their second film of 2015. It features the voice-talents of Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, and Raymond Ochoa.

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN – In what may be the 879th adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1918 novel, James McAvoy (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) plays the doctor who plays God by bringing a stitched-together corpse to life. Daniel Radcliffe (HARRY POTTER himself), plays Igor.

CREED – Sylvester Stallone returns as Rocky Balboa again, only this time he’s befriending and training the son of his old friend Apollo. Michael B. Jordan (FRUITVILLE STATION) plays that son.

THE DANISH GIRL – Our reigning Best Actor, Eddie Redmayne, plays one of the first men to go through gender reassignment surgery in the 1920’s. He is joined by Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastain Koch, and Amber Heard. It is directed by Tom Hooper, who directed the Oscar-winning THE KING’S SPEECH in 2010 and the Oscar-nominated LES MISERABLES in 2012.

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Next month, Reel Speak previews the final month of 2015.

 

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Reel Review: TRUTH


 
James Vanderbilt’s TRUTH is the first of two major releases in the Fall of 2015 looking to explore ethics and integrity in journalism. Both are based on true stories, with the first one taking a look at the reporting job which led to the downfall of a network news giant.  

Controversy erupts around broadcasting giant CBS and around veteran news-anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) after the network airs a report about President George W. Bush’s military career.

At first glance and in the early goings, TRUTH feels like it’s a film that is out to take a side and tell the story as it really happened; to dispel any myths or lies and to just get it all straight. After a while, for better or for worse, it becomes clear that TRUTH doesn’t seek to take any sides, but to instead offer an examination of just how damn difficult it is to weed truth out from the lies.  The first half of the film is concerned with Mary and her team of investigators (played by Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss and Topher Grace) going through the steps of uncovering documents for what they consider to be the story of a lifetime. Once the story airs, it is a satisfying accomplishment for all and it is pleasing to watch.

Once the validity of their report becomes questioned (mostly around documents), things being to fall apart in a hurry for the team, and most especially Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes character. As the producer and de facto leader of the team, she gets most of the blame for the problems, and as her career and family become under fire because of the possible screw-up, TRUTH becomes a story about a person becoming unraveled. It becomes Blanchett’s film, and the destruction of a once-confident person becomes a fascinating watch.

First-time director James Vanderbilt has a lot to work with in TRUTH. Aside from the personal story of Mary Mapes, it also takes a long hard work at journalism in this current age, along with the importance of trust. Vanderbilt doesn’t go very deep with this material and smartly avoids any long debates between characters over what they should and shouldn’t do. But instead presents many open-ended questions that linger long after the credits roll.

Cate Blanchett is magnificent as always. Her breakdown is very convincing and it is a very powerful performance. Robert Redford has the hardest task of them all in playing the well-known newsman Dan Rather. Redford oddly only occasionally nails Rather’s unique mannerisms and accent, but when he does it’s like seeing that old newsman back on the set again. The supporting cast of Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, David Lyons, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, and Dermot Mulroney are all excellent.

The final act of the film isn’t as fun as the early goings once Mary and her team start going through the grind of being questioned by lawyers and investigators, and things nearly grind to a halt. Seeing the process of building their story and having it fall apart around them was definitely more interesting, but by the time the smoke clears and people have lost their jobs over the whole thing, it makes TRUTH a very worthwhile look.

BOTTOM LINE: See it

Fred Thompson 1942 - 2015


 
Fred Thompson; actor, politician, attorney, columnist, and radio host…has passed away at 73.

Born Freddie Dalton Thompson in Sheffield, Alabama, Thompson was the first member of his family to attend university when he entered Florence State College (now the University of North Alabama). He earned double degrees in philosophy and political science in 1964, and earned his Juris Doctor degree from Vanderbilt Law School in 1967. After working as an assistant U.S. attorney, he would be named minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in the investigation of the Watergate Scandal.

His acting career began before he even knew it. In 1977, Thompson won a wrongful termination suit, and in 1985 was asked to play himself in a film adaptation of the case. His towering and husky frame, matched with his booming voice and southern-gentleman demeanor, made him perfect for authority-figure roles with a touch of paternal love. In 1990, he was cast as the head of Dulles Airport in DIE HARD 2, an Admiral THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, and the president of NASCAR in DAYS OF THUNDER; all in the same year. Moving over to TV-land, he portrayed a fictional President of the United States in LAST BEST CHANCE (and educational DVD), and two historical Presidents; Ulysses S. Grant in BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE (2007), and the voice of Andrew Jackson in RACHEL AND ANDREW JACKSON.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994 representing Tennessee; winning the race by campaigning in a red pickup truck. His busy schedule in the Senate, which included the Council on Foreign Relations and the Department of State, did not keep him from acting. In the final months of his term in 2002, Thompson joined the cast of the long-running TV drama LAW AND ORDER, playing Manhattan District Attorney Arthur Branch until 2007, and would reprise the character in several LAW AND ORDER spinoffs. Off the screen, he had a short run for the U.S. Presidency in 2008.

Back on the big screen, his list of credits included NECESSARY ROUGHNESS (1991), CURLY SUE (1991), CAPE FEAR (1991), ACES: IRON EAGLE III (1992), THUNDERHEART (1992), WHITE SANDS (1992), IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993), SECRETARIAT (2010), and SINISTER (2012).

He was an accomplished columnist for the magazine Townhall, and served as an ABC News Radio analyst.

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Everybody liked Fred Thompson on the big screen. His gentle southern mannerisms made him the type of character similar to everyone’s grandfather or uncle; the type of guy with a huge lap and a bigger heart who tells stories and spins yarns until the cows came home. And going along with that gentleness was a strong sense of authority; you don’t dare cross him or else his voice would boom like a rolling thunder across the wide open plains. It was that type of persona which made Fred Thompson so likeable on the screen. It didn’t matter if he was a NASCAR chief, attorney, or Admiral at sea, he was the guy you went to for the final word. In March of this year, Reel Speak celebrated the 25th anniversary of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, (here) one of this Blogger's favorite films. Thompson's presence in that movie, and all of his films, was always a comfort, and not many actors and actresses can pull that off. Everybody liked Fred Thompson.