Thursday, April 30, 2015

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

 The calendar may still say Spring, but the traditional start of the Summer Movie Season is about to begin. Here is a look ahead at the notable films of the monstrous month of May. 

It all assembles with: 

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON – Joss Whedon (AVENGERS, SERENITY) returns to direct the 11th film in Marvel Studios’ unprecedented ongoing and expanding universe of superhero films. The ensemble cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, Andy Serkis, Cobie Smulders, Don Cheadle, James Spader…and a few more surprises. Read Reel Speak's review HERE

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD – This is the fourth film version of the 1874 novel by Thomas Hardy. Stars Carey Mulligan (DRIVE), Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, and Juno Temple. 

HOT PURSUIT – Reese Witherspoon (WILD) headlines this action comedy film with Sofia Vergara. 
Directed by Anne Fletcher (THE PROPOSAL)

MAGGIE – Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a departure from his usual dumbassed action roles in this independent horror film. Co-stars Abigail Breslin (SIGNS, ZOMBIELAND).

PITCH PERFECT 2 – Anna Kendrick (INTO THE WOODS) headlines the sequel to the 2012 smash hit. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. 

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – George Miller, who brought us the cult-hit franchise MAD MAX/THE ROAD WARRIOR, continues his own saga in this loose reboot. Stars Tom Hardy (WARRIOR, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

GOOD KILL – Andrew Niccol, director of the magnificent THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998), returns with this drama in which Ethan Hawke plays a U.S. Air Force pilot charged with flying drones. Co-stars January Jones, Zoe Kravitz, and Bruce Greenwood. 

SLOW WEST – A British/American action thriller set in the Old West. Stars Michael Fassbender (SHAME, PROMETHEUS), Ben Mendelsohn (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (THE ROAD, LET ME IN). 

EVERY SECRET THING – Based on the crime novel of the same name. Stars Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning, and Nate Parker. 

TOMORROWLAND – This highly secretive science fiction/mystery film is directed by Brad Bird (THE INCREDIBLES), and has roots in Walt Disney’s original fantastical vision for Disneyland. Stars George Clooney, Britt Robertson, and Judy Greer. 

POLTERGEIST – A remake of the 1982 classic. Directed by Gil Kenan (CITY OF EMBER, MONSTER HOUSE), it stars Sam Rockwell (MOON), Jared Harris, and Rosemarie DeWitt. 

SAN ANDREAS – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson headlines this disaster thriller in which he combats an earthquake. Co-stars Carla Gugino (SIN CITY). 


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of June. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Perhaps one of the many reasons why Marvel Studio’s roster of superhero movies work so well is that they cross over into other genres; IRON MAN was a tech thriller, THOR and THE INCREDIBLE HULK delved into fantasy and sci-fi, and CAPTAIN AMERICA explored the world of war and espionage. Marvel’s 11th film in their ongoing series, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, takes a page out of all of those books…while adding in one more; horror

After toppling the last remaining fortress of their long-standing enemy, the Avengers (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner) encounter a new foe in the form of superpowered teenage twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), and discover a power to create a new method of defense against their enemies; a power which turns on them in the form of a powerful artificial intelligence named Ultron (voiced by James Spader). 

After a thrilling opening battle (one of many breathtaking set-pieces), AGE OF ULTRON moves into a version of FRANKENSTEIN; with a powerful theme of creating life out of hubris and the consequences it can bring. As Ultron gains consciousness and becomes a threat to the world, writer/director Joss Whedon begins to weave an intricate tale around his band of heroes and villains; focusing on friendship, family, personal relationships, and ethics. Characters move into some unexpected places, and AGE OF ULTRON delves deeper into the psyche of these heroes than any previous Marvel outing.

With six main characters, a handful of surprise cameos, a fair amount of newcomers, and a scene-chewing villain with his massive robot army, AGE OF ULTRON could easily have become cluttered with characters getting lost. But Whedon balances the many pieces and parts nicely. Every character gets an arc and something significant to do, and anyone can walk away from the film with a new favorite hero. While Ultron’s plot for dominance may be simple, there is a lot going on underneath; a love story, family tragedy, a morality tale, and the right amount of inner turmoil. You cannot help but to appreciate how the many elements are weaved together. Aside from the FRANKENSTEIN influence, Whedon’s old roots in the horror genre sneak in here and there (there are some truly creepy parts), and he also draws from other places to give AGE OF ULTRON a classic feel; familiar cinema in a new setting. 

Whedon’s writing is sharp and witty without being showy. Scenes move on briskly even when things slow down, and there is a 100% dedication to embracing each of the characters. Humor comes at the perfect times, and the script is not afraid to draw attention to the more ridiculous situations the plot moves into. Ultron’s method for pulling off his nefarious plot may be silly at first glance, but the reasoning behind it is rock-solid; and his army of killer robots have a purpose for existing other than target practice for our heroes. Action scenes are a coherent blast and the 3D is outstanding. The score by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman is magnificent.  

The main cast have been doing their parts for so long that each actor settles into his or her parts better than they ever have; and the chemistry between them all is a joy to take in.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are outstanding as the tragic, Russian-born twins, and Andy Serkis turns in a nice role as an illegal arms dealer. James Spader is magnificent as the voice of Ultron. The real surprise of the film is Jeremy Renner, whose Hawkeye character gets a true backstory which ultimately serves as the moral centerof the entire film. Renner handles the complex role perfectly and is one of the many joys. Paul Bettany appears as an offspring of Ultron, called The Vision, and turns in a remarkable performance as one of the most fascinating characters put to screen by Marvel.  The rest of the surprise cameos from the Marvel Universe are handled perfectly by the cast. 

With a running time of 2.5 hours, over a dozen main characters, and a final battle which lasts nearly 30 minutes, AGE OF ULTRON certainly gives you your money’s worth, and for as much as they throw at you, the film is so much fun and rich in character you can’t help but to ask for more. The finale leaves our heroes right where they should be while opening the door for even bigger things to come, making AGE OF ULTRON a vital piece of the overall Marvel series. It is a visual spectacle on an epic scale, a true character study, and an overwhelmingly satisfying super-sized adventure. 


Friday, April 24, 2015

A Reel Review: EX MACHINA

From books to comics to film, the subject of artificial intelligence (or A.I) has been explored over and over in many different approaches and settings. It always seems that the same questions are asked; such as (but not limited to) what does it mean to be human, and when does A.I. stop being manufactured intelligence and become real? In EX MACHINA, the directorial debut from screenwriter Alex Garland, these same questions are asked…only this time the answers are coming from the other side of the table. 

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is a talented programmer who wins a competition to spend a week at the secluded home and workshop of his company’s brilliant CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, Caleb discovers that he was actually chosen; chosen to run a series of test sessions on Nathan’s remarkable and stunning new creation…an A.I. robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). 

In scientific circles, the Turing Test (named after famed inventor Alan Turing), is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit behavior equal to or indistinguishable from a human. This is the test that Caleb is sent to perform on Ava in a series of secluded sessions, with Nathan watching closely via video monitors. As the two poke and prod each other, a virtual game of chess develops, with each player testing the other to uncover motives and intentions. It is a fascinating match to watch as the two learn from each other…and the lines between who is really the subject of the Turing Test suddenly becomes blurred. 

There is constant sense of mystery surrounding the story. Even though EX MACHINA doesn’t tip its hand early, there is always a feeling that something is not quite right with Nathan and his beautiful machine. This is confirmed around the halfway point when Ava finds a way to communicate to Caleb in a way in which they believe Nathan can’t see or hear. A large cat-and-mouse game is then created, as even the audience is left to guess who knows what about who and when did they know it. Even after all the circling, Alex Garland’s script still allows time for the characters to explore Ava’s intelligence and possible soul. Some incredible discussions about A.I. take place…while still allowing for the relationship between Caleb and Ava to grow. 

Ava herself (itself?) is a cinematic miracle. Played in part by the beautiful Alicia Vikander and brought to life by some of the most convincing CGI in ages, she is amazing to see as she moves and interacts with her co-actors and her environment. With only her face, hands, and feet in a flesh color, the rest of her is put together out of artificial means with her glowing innards exposed. Breathtaking to take in, she becomes a real character with feelings and it doesn’t take long for the audience to love her. 

As beautiful as Ava is, she is matched equally by the incredible set design and lighting. Nathan’s house has a perfect mesh of futuristic sci-fi and old fashioned craftsmanship, and the soft lighting gives the film a constant eerie feel which keeps you on edge. 

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac headline the small cast and both are excellent as opposites of each other. Isaac nearly steals the show as the eccentric genius, but the film really belongs to Alicia Vikander. She creates a character who, even though we know is made up of wires and plastic, is very much flesh and blood at the core. 

Just when EX MACHINA feels like it’s an easy one to figure out, a series of major twists and reveals turns everything upside down; as if all the secrets going on weren’t tricky enough to figure out anyway. This is a true thinking-man’s sci-fi film, with an amazing amount of intelligence, wit, thrills, and heart. This is a special film that needs to be seen. 


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Big Screen Rises

Earlier this month, as explored by Reel Speak HERE, Disney announced a new deal with IMAX which would put many of their major releases onto the oversized screens. Not to be left behind, this week Warner Bros. inked a similar deal, which would put nearly 30 of their upcoming slate of films into the large-screen format. 

The list of films from Warner Bros. to see a big-big-screen release includes Ron Howard’s seafaring adventure IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, the DC Comics films BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, the Batman spinoff SUICIDE SQUAD, Guy Ritchie’s KNIGHTS OF THE ROUNDTABLE, the Harry Potter spinoff FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, Jon Favreau’s live-action adaptation of THE JUNGLE BOOK, the sequel to THE LEGO MOVIE, and the sequel to GODZILLA. 

The IMAX format has the ability to capture and display images of far greater resolution and size than traditional film (35mm and digital). In the past decade, many feature films have been upgraded into the IMAX format. Looking at Warner Bros. interesting roster of films, it seems that many of them would certainly benefit from being seen on a really big screen. Ron Howard’s IN THE HEART OF SEA is a MOBY DICK-ish tale in which sailing ships battle whales, so the large format would certainly bring the size and scope of whales and the mighty sea to life. GODZILLA of course means everything is bigger; there is perhaps no better way to watch the king of the monsters than on a screen five stories high. And in DC Comics’ upcoming superhero matchup, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, director Zack Snyder has filmed certain scenes of the film in the large IMAX format.

The rest of the films you have to wonder how they would benefit from being made bigger. IMAX offers directors an opportunity to really convey a sense of scale to the viewer, which is the very last thing that comes to mind when thinking about Legos. Some movies do not benefit at all from being enlarged, and studios just use the heftier price tag of an IMAX ticket as an opportunity to bring in a bit more moolah. 

While the business side of the minor renaissance IMAX is going through is an easy one for studios, the opportunity for directors to explore the big-ass screen is getting better. Ever since director Christopher Nolan filmed more and more of his DARK KNIGHT trilogy in the large format, engineers have been striving to make the large and clunky IMAX cameras more portable and less of a monumental feat to take out on location. This is a great step for the film industry, because if the IMAX format is to survive a label of a gimmick (like goddamn 3D), then it needs to be done right. Directors need to start filming in IMAX instead of just having their work blown up on an oversized screen…where instead of looking at a beautifully framed shot which utilizes its entire environment, you’re looking up a two-story high nostril. 

It is important for audiences to know the difference between a true IMAX screen and what cinema multiplexes try to pass off as IMAX (often called LIE-MAX). While a LIE-MAX screen may still be bigger than the five-story height of true IMAX, it is still bigger than the standard screen in any given theatre. Audiences are often confused and don’t know what they’re seeing, and the standard-issue laziness of the average movie-goer won’t care enough to look into it. This Blogger begrudgingly is OK with that, because any incentive to bring people to the big screens, where movies are at their best, is a good one. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Reel Facts & Opinions: A Tale of Two Trailers

Last week, trailers for two extremely high-profile films were released to the world, each with different approaches and very different results…

The Earth was tilted on Thursday, when Disney unveiled their second trailer for the upcoming STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. This trailer was played at a live event; the biannual Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, CA…with a live audience, director J.J. Abrams, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and the main cast in attendance. The event, and the trailer debut, was also broadcast live across the internet for rabid fans to see. Within minutes of that live broadcast, the trailer was officially released onto YouTube and other social media outlets for endless viewing. 

The response for the trailer was overwhelmingly positive; it was high-energy, gave a peek into what the seventh STAR WARS film would be about, and gave the fans a long-awaited return of two of the most beloved characters in the franchise’s long history. The word “tears” was often used to describe the wave of emotion the trailer sparked. 

On the other side of planet was the comedy of errors made by Warner Bros./DC Comics with their  upcoming superhero showdown, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. The first misstep happened on Wednesday, when director Zack Snyder tweeted out a five-second preview of the trailer (yes, a teaser for a trailer, which seems to anger everyone automatically). That tweet also included a link which you were encouraged to click on to see if the full trailer would be playing at an IMAX theatre near you on MONDAY…which of course you were then encouraged to pay for a ticket to go see.

The second mistake came when the decision was made to show the trailer at a public event the very next day in front of a small crowd, at which the inevitable happened; some bloody pirate filmed the presentation (presumably) with a cell-phone, and uploaded the bootlegged footage to the internet. Within an hour, the footage was dispersed all over creation…and WB/DC was left scrambling in a vain effort to pull the bootlegged trailer off thousands of websites; essentially trying to fix the barn door after the horse had bolted away. They eventually surrendered and released the trailer properly on the internet. 

On top of all that, the long-awaited first look at BATMAN V. SUPERMAN (BvS for short) was not met with a lot of enthusiasm. It was a very divisive trailer which broke DC Comics’ fanbase and the general public into camps of war; some loving it, some hating it, some greeting it with a yawn and a shrug. The contrast between the events of the two days was stunning; where STAR WARS united everyone in song, BvS sent everyone back into bitter bickering.  

To be clear, the purpose of this blog isn’t to fan the flames of battle by over-analyzing the trailers and turn the discussion into STAR WARS v. BvS, but to instead look at why one trailer sent people soaring and the other sent them shaking their heads. Disney’s approach was very straightforward in the release; no overthinking, no pretense…just throw a party and invite your friends. And the icing on the cake was the trailer gave fans everything that they wished for. Clearly the best of times. WB/DC on the other hand became a victim of their own overthinking; pissing people off with having to pay to see the trailer and ultimately having their big debut spoiled by having a public showing where the opportunity for piracy was given. And the polarizing nature of the trailer did not help them in the least. Clearly the worst of times. One year from now, after both movies have been released and the smoke has cleared, it will be of great interest to add some hindsight and to see how these two approaches will factor into the long-run; either an interesting footnote or a first step off the yellow brick road. 



BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE arrives March 25th, 2016