Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Reel Review: The First Horror Film

Fall is in the air. It is a glorious time for film as awards contenders appear, and one of the most popular genres takes center stage; the horror film. With Halloween right around the corner, the air is ripe for old and new horror films to be revisited, reexamined, and re-debated. There are many classics to be talked about (read Reel Speak’s Top 10 list of Horror Films HERE), but one film that is often overlooked and sadly forgotten is the movie that is regarded as the very first horror film; THE HAUNTED CASTLE from French film director and pioneer Georges Melies way back in the year 1896.

Georges Melies, who is mostly known for his film  A TRIP TO THE MOON from 1902, filmed THE HAUNTED CASTLE (re-titled THE DEVIL’S CASTLE in Britain) in his backyard garden using painted scenery. The film, which ran just over three minutes (which was considered to be a long movie back then), is a sketch done in the style of theatrical fantasy which tells the story of an encounter with the devil and various phantoms. Not much of a plot is at work, and instead it is a trick-and-treat collection of images with supernatural beings (a first for the industry), a skeleton, and a man transforming into a bat. The bat transformation, done by a simple cut, was shocking for audiences at the time, making THE HAUNTED CASTLE the first film which scared people…and rightfully deserving of the title of the first of its kind.

Most of Melies’ pioneering work in the industry has been lost to time (this was explored in Martin Scorsese’s HUGO in 2011), and THE HAUNTED CASTLE was on the list of “lost films” up until 1988, when it was discovered in a New Zealand Film Archive. The discovery was an important one, not only because Meliles’ work should be preserved, but because the horror genre deserves to have its genesis available. Today, the film is not all that scary for adults (kids may get a scream out of it), but the film stands as an interesting examination of exactly what can scare us in film; images, ghosts, unexplained things...the creepy black-and-white presentation of THE HAUNTED CASTLE offers all that and more. From Freddie to Michael to Jason…they owe their existence to a three-minute film now in its 119th year.




Sunday, October 25, 2015


Director Guillermo del Toro has dabbled in many genres of film in his career; horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and comic books…sometimes one at a time and sometimes all at once. His newest original tale, CRIMSON PEAK, is a return to his roots as a horror director, while throwing in something new…

After the mysterious death of her father, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a struggling writer who once saw a ghost as a child, falls in love with and marries struggling inventor Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who takes her to England to live with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) at their ancient family mansion. Once there, Edith is visited by spooks and specters, while her father’s former doctor (Charlie Hunnam) becomes suspicious and investigates…

Early in the film, Edith’s character describes the story she’s writing as a love story which just happens to have ghosts in it. It is an on-the-nose description which Guillermo del Toro uses to tell the audience exactly what kind of film we’re in for. While there are plenty of scares inside of a creepy atmosphere peppered with some startling imagery, CRIMSON PEAK plays out like a feature-length soap opera more than a ghost story. The plot is thick with twists and turns involving family estates, histories, troubled childhoods, and a thousand secrets buried in the walls of the creepy and bleeding mansion. It is a melodrama to be sure, which just happens to have a few drop-ins by ghosts.

Despite not fully committing to being a ghost story, CRIMSON PEAK, even after all of its effective story-building and slow unraveling of mysteries, winds up falling back to the mistake that many horror films tend to take; all the intrigue gets let out of the room when the final act just turns into a knife-wielding psycho chasing the helpless around the room. Worse, the final mystery is a bit of a ho-hum, been-there, seen-that type of reveal. The final solution to it all is telegraphed very early, and when Edith discovers all of the grisly secrets, it isn’t very much of a gut-punch because the audience will have likely already figured it out long before.

There is still a ton to enjoy in CRIMSON PEAK. The real star of the show is the mansion itself, which is a marvel to look at and is a throwback to the old days of filmmaking. Spooky and gothic and wonderfully explored by del Toro’s camera, it is a true wonder to be seen. Del Toro makes great use of color, offering some eye-popping visuals with great contrast. The ghosts, which are all CGI, are effective only for as long as they’re concealed in shadow, and lose much of their creep-factor once they enter the light.

Acting is excellent all around. Mia Wasikowska does the most work as a troubled young woman trying to find her way, and it is the most emotionally-charged performance of her early career. Tom Hiddleston is a charmer as always, and Jessica Chastain nearly steals the show as the slightly un-hinged older sister with a lot of demons to hide. Charlie Hunnam is OK but doesn’t do anything remarkable.

By the time the predicable finale rolls around, the realization sets in that the goddamn ghosts in the movie really don’t play much of a part in the overall story other than to provide a few scares. If they were eliminated from the screenplay it wouldn’t have made much of a difference for better or for worse. In the end, CRIMSON PEAK is a very confused film, with one foot in horror and the other in soap-opera land…all while displaying one the most beautiful looking movies ever made. There is no real rush to climb this peak.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Reel Opinion: A Trailer Long Remembered

In one of the most unique events in cinema, last night’s Monday Night Football telecast became center-stage for the film industry, as Disney and LucasFilm debuted the third and final trailer for their upcoming STAR WARS – EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS during halftime. The premiere, which gave the game a ratings spike and enthralled old and new fans, was preceded by online ticket pre-sales which crashed major websites such as Fandago and AMC and shattered sales records. The trailer, which runs just over two minutes and thirty seconds, offered a galaxy-sized heaping of material to digest. Here are the notable moments…

The early moments of the trailer fully introduced the newest members of the STAR WARS universe, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). Backstories for both characters were given, and in a few short seconds established who they are and what they’re looking for. This was a smart move to begin the trailer this way. The STAR WARS universe is chock full of beloved characters, and the first order of business should be to properly introduce the new ones.

A shift in gears, and the new Big Bad of the galaxy is introduced, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). STAR WARS has always had a great villain in every film, and the early goings show that Kylo is on his way to establishing himself on that list. With an iconic look and an apparent obsession with the ultimate Big Bad, Darth Vader, Kylo appears several times in the trailer and steals every scene.

A shift in gears, and the true meat of the trailer, and perhaps the film, arrives. Rey and Finn appear again, this time in the friendly and familiar confines of the greatest spaceship of all time, the Millennium Falcon, along with one of the most popular characters of all time, Han Solo (Harrison Ford). In this short clip, the new characters are questioning Han about the past (episodes 1 through 6); a past which has now fallen into myth. In a nice move, Han seems to be taking on a mentor role as he provides some explanation to the two newcomers. And then, the surprise of the century comes. Han Solo, long a doubter of the mystical Jedi and the Force, comes right out and tells Finn and Rey that it’s all real, that it all really does happen. This was a pleasant shock to fans as Han has apparently turned a corner, and the unanswered questions of how or why he changed are fascinating.

All this is interspersed with some glorious shots of the Falcon in hyperspace and being chased by enemy TIE Fighters, some aerial dogfighting, new character Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) piloting an X-wing and going through some sort of trauma under the hand of Ren, some lightsaber action, a beautiful shot of Han Solo and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in embrace, Han and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) together again (not in an embrace), Finn facing off against Ren…and then a gentle ending as a voiceover, provided by Fisher, adds a warming quote which has already established itself as one of the best in STAR WARS lore. All this backed by John Williams’ new and glorious variations on the old themes, which sounds incredible.

The most talked-about element of the trailer is what’s not in there; specifically, the absence of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Hamill has yet to fully appear in any of the trailers or posters, as Disney and LucasFilm seem to be playing Luke’s storyline very close to the chest. While this has been frustrating for many fans, this is actually a brilliant move; when Luke finally does appear on-screen after all these years, perhaps wielding a mighty green lightsaber, the payoff will be tremendous. Good and great things come to those who wait.

Overall, the trailer is very effective and accomplishes a lot. It establishes characters and the new universe they inhabit while not giving away too much, answers a few questions while raising many more, and the footage looks stunningly gorgeous. The thirty-year generational gap between this episode and the previous is addressed directly, and that alone introduces a timeless and human element. The third and final trailer is a knockout, and now all that’s left is the wait.


THE FORCE AWAKENS on December 18th. See the trailer HERE

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Reel Review: STEVE JOBS

Danny Boyle’s STEVE JOBS is not the first film to try and crack the shell of Apple co-founder and innovator Steve Jobs, but it is the first to do so with a unique approach. Instead of following the age-old Hollywood template of birth, calling, rise, fall, rise-again, Boyle focuses on three significant events in the man’s life,  but while that seems a little limited on paper, those three events serve as a stage for some clever storytelling.

As Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) unveils his three major innovative creations in 1984, 1988, and 1998, he must deal with a host of personal issues including his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), his daughter (played by Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, and Makenzie Moss), his old boss John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his former colleague Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), and his personal assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet).

STEVE JOBS is a film divided into three distinct parts, or acts, with each one serving as a significant event in Jobs’ life. Each act takes place backstage at the unveiling of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXt home computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. During each of these elongated scenes, Jobs is confronted by his old girlfriend, friends, and colleagues over many issues…including Jobs’ reluctance to acknowledge his daughter, and to give into demands from his old co-workers. Every scene consists of Jobs trying to focus on his highly anticipated presentations to the world, all while being yelled at in 20 different directions from people who all seem to want something from him.

While there is a hint of contrivance in the air, the opportunity for exploring the man that was Steve Jobs is ripe. Director Danny Boyle, working from a script by Aaron Sorkin, uses every conflict to take a deeper look at Jobs, as the way he reacts to each person and problem winds up being very revealing. Flashbacks are used sparingly but effectively, and while Jobs may seem like an impossible man up front, he is instead portrayed as a complex and fascinating one, and there is never a dull moment in the film. There is a lot going on in every scene as Boyle and Sorkin explore themes of love, friendship, trust…and even better, the generation of ideas and how they can take over a person. STEVE JOBS may not portray events exactly how they happened in those specific years during those events, but it doesn’t matter…because the film serves as a clinic in writing and character.

Michael Fassbender is magnificent as Steve Jobs. At first glance he doesn’t quite look like the man we all knew, but after a short while we are sold. Every old mannerism and quirk from Jobs is brought back to life, and by the time Fassbender puts on the black turtleneck and blue-jeans, it’s tough to tell exactly who we’re looking at; the actor or the man himself. Seth Rogen puts in a ton of work as Jobs’ friend and co-founder of Apple and is very effective. It is the best and most grown-up work the funny fat-guy has ever done. As good as he is, Kate Winslet nearly steals the show, and Jeff Daniels and Katherine Waterston are also excellent. Jobs’ daughter is played by three different young actresses, all whom put in a great performance, and Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a great turn as an Apple tech.

By movie’s end, there is a lot that comes back around to make for a very satisfying and emotional wrap. STEVE JOBS is a very different film; innovative and bold…which is something that Jobs himself would have loved. Its commitment to a unique structure demands that liberties be taken, and the film often feels like a stage production, but that doesn’t matter because the entertainment value is high and the characters are just so darn fascinating. Simply put, it just works.


Friday, October 16, 2015


In the 1950’s, there was war raging between the United States and what was the Soviet Union. Not a war of bullets and bombs and rockets, but a war of information with each side spying on each other in an endless world-wide chess match; trying to figure out who was going to do what and when. Known as the Cold War, it is an often overlooked, yet fascinating chapter in the history books; a chapter now opened by Steven Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES.

Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance attorney in New York City who is asked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is suspected of spying on the U.S. for the Russians. Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U.S. Air Force pilot, is shot down over Russia in his U2 spy plane while covertly photographing. Donovan then travels to Russia to negotiate a trade.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is a film of two acts. The first act deals primarily with Donovan’s efforts to provide a fair trial for Abel. The odds are stacked against him, as most of the country, which includes the press and the presiding judge, have made up their minds about the man accused of spying for the enemy. Donovan’s decisions to tirelessly defend his client puts himself and his family in danger, and in this act some early groundwork is laid concerning his resolve and commitment as a lawyer.

Once the plane is shot down and the Russians now have an American prisoner, the film shifts into another gear. A much lower gear, in fact. With Donovan in Russia now stuck as a human ping-pong ball between the U.S. and Russian governments, BRIDGE OF SPIES becomes a talk-a-thon with all interested parties chatting away, looking to see which side blinks first. It’s a slow-burning film with no fistfights or cliffhangers, and it feels like it should be a very dry experience, but it’s far from that. Director Steven Spielberg, working from a script with contributions from Joel and Ethan Coen, somehow makes the negotiating table, and the eventual exchange, seem like the most interesting thing ever to grace the screen. Tensions are high but the pacing is brisk, and the endless dialogue exchanges crackle off the screen. There is a lot going on in BRIDGE OF SPIES with many interested parties over the prisoners and a lot of characters to keep track of, but it is clear and concise, and all the while the focus is never taken away from Donovan and his commitment to his client.

Spielberg photographs 1950’s New York beautifully. Despite using his newly preferred de-saturated look, the film is always interesting to look at thanks to his exquisite camera-work and talent for resurrecting an America that has been lost for ages. BRIDGE OF SPIES is a true trip back in time, and those who remember the 1950’s with great fondness will devour this movie with a lot of love.

Tom Hanks is at his best as Jim Donovan. Although he doesn’t break any new ground, his frustrations in his insurmountable task are always felt, and at his age, makes a very entertaining grumpy old man. Speaking of old men, Alan Alda shows up as Donovan’s boss, and even though it’s a treat to see Hanks and Alda share the screen, Alda doesn’t have much behind his voice and seems struggling to keep up. Amy Ryan turns in a nice performance as Mrs. Donovan, and Mark Rylance is excellent throughout.

The finale, in which Spielberg somehow makes the simple task of two men walking over a bridge one of the most pulse-pounding moments in spy films, ends the film on a very satisfying note. BRIDGE OF SPIES is wildly entertaining despite not one shot being fired, and as an often-overlooked and nearly obscure moment in history, shows its significance. Steven Spielberg, here in his 27th feature film, shows all of the talent and patience that his years have given him, and is a wonderful bridge to cross.



Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need To Know About BRIDGE OF SPIES

Steven Spielberg, one of the most influential directors of our time, returns to the big screen this weekend for the first time since 2012 with his new spy-thriller, BRIDGE OF SPIES. Here is everything you need to know about this highly-anticipated film.

What is this about? – Based on true events, a Brooklyn real-estate lawyer is thrust into the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union when he is tasked with negotiating the release of a pilot; whose U-2 spy plane was shot down.

Who is behind this? – As mentioned, legendary director Steven Spielberg (JAWS, E.T., RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, SCHINDLER’S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) is directing. The script was written by Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen; often referred to as the Coen Brothers…the directing team of siblings responsible for THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), FARGO (1996), O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? (2000), and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

Who are the actors? – The role of James B. Donovan, the Brooklyn lawyer who feels over his head in his task, is played by Tom Hanks, who has won Oscars for FORREST GUMP (1993) and PHILADELPHIA (1994). Hanks is joined by Amy Ryan, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2007 for GONE BABY GONE, and has also appeared in CHANGELING (2008), and last year’s BIRDMAN. Also tagging along are Mark Rylance and Alan Alda.

Random and Interesting Facts – This is the first Spielberg film to not be scored by John Williams since THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) * The score will be provided by Thomas Newman (SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, SKYFALL) * This is the fourth time Hanks and Spielberg have worked together; SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), and THE TERMINAL (2004) * This is Spielberg’s 27th feature film, and his first since LINCOLN in 2012 * Spielberg served as Executive Producer for the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT in 2010, making BRIDGE OF SPIES their second collaboration together * Many scenes for the film were shot in the actual location where the real-life events took place *

What to expect? – Ever since 1993, the Spielberg that many of us grew up with, the one who played with kids and aliens and sharks and fist-fighting archeologists, transformed overnight and became a serious filmmaker, one that would explore the ins and outs of war and conflict. The change is still felt to this day, but that doesn’t mean the storytelling has suffered. Despite the large landscapes that the stories of war tend to take place in, Spielberg has always managed to find the human side of it, and specifically, the everyday-person who is caught in a conflict that they would rather have no parts of. It’s a theme that Spielberg doesn’t seem to be tiring of, as that’s where BRIDGE OF SPIES seems to be headed. Maybe Spielberg isn’t quite done exploring that theme, and that makes this film a very interesting venture. Having Tom Hanks in the lead role is a big plus, and the script by the Coen Brothers is sure to crackle. BRIDGE OF SPIES has all the potential to be a major notch in Spielberg’s axe.


BRIDGE OF SPIES opens October 16th.



Friday, October 9, 2015

A Reel Review: THE WALK

In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit accomplished an astonishing feat; he and his friends, never meaning any harm, covertly and expertly strung a high-wire between the World Trade Center Towers, on which Philippe performed a breathtaking high-wire act complete with one-legged salutes and laying on his back. The often-forgotten story has been the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, but never brought to life in a feature film. Enter Robert Zemeckis and THE WALK.

Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a French high-wire artist, conspires to perform a high-wire act over the World Trade Center Towers with the help of his mentor (Ben Kingsley), girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon), and a rag-tag group of friends assembled from France and New York City (played by James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, and Clement Sibony).

Every man’s journey has thousands of steps, and the journey to Philippe’s walk is worth every one of them. The early goings of THE WALK are a slow stroll, as it goes through the (ahem) steps of Philippe’s early life and eventual inspiration to perform over the towers. The first act of THE WALK is a bit of a slog, as the steps are very familiar and somewhat perfunctory as Philippe discovers his talent, has ups and downs, and eventually finds his calling by way of what could be considered divine intervention and help from his father-figure and friends. For the most part it works because director Robert Zemeckis injects a lot of charm and heart into the story, and from the early goings it is clear that bigger things are on the way.

Once the story shifts to America and Philippe and his assembled band of yahoos start to put together their plan, the film somewhat transforms into a caper-flick. The planning, spying, and eventual execution of the master-plan in secret is very reminiscent of an old fashioned MISSION IMPOSSIBLE storyline, and it is a lot of fun to take in. As good as that is, it is nothing compared to the huge payoff in the walk on the wire a quarter-mile above the ground. The effects work is absolutely dizzying, and for those afraid of heights…stomach-turning and chilling. Zemeckis gets full use out of the 3D; never before has such towering heights seem so real or so scary…but yet still beautiful. Zemeckis composes an elegant sequence (nearly 30 minutes) of the high-wire climactic performance; it is heart-warming and awesome enough to induce tears. In a film which is so heavy on visual effects, the exhilaration is overwhelming.

New York of the 1970’s looks better than it probably did in 1970. The feelings of style and free-thinking are on full display, making for a very fun experience. The Twin Towers are recreated beautifully with all of their elegance and intimidating demeanor on full display. To be sure, THE WALK is a proper tribute to the Towers just as much as it is to Philippe.  

Philippe is brought to life beautifully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Although his French accent seems a little heavy-handed and forced, he executes a great character which is a true inspiration to take in. French actress Charlotte Le Bon lights up the screen, and Ben Kingsley kind-of hams it up as Philippe’s cranky mentor. The rest of the cast is performed well.

By the movie’s emotional end (and what an end), it certainly feels like a spectacle has been seen, but also a very human story about art and the lengths artists will go through to achieve it. There is magic in their work, and there is magic in THE WALK, as Zemeckis has created a film which feels like a fable; the type of yarn that would be spun around a campfire or at a toddler’s bedside. The film does have a touch of melancholy around it, but it is a sweet one…and perhaps strong enough to leave a final wonderful memory of what once was.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Reel Opinion: Reel Speak's Top 10 Horror Films

Horror movies are not for everybody. Not only do a lot of people dislike being scared or being exposed to grim truths, but as a whole the genre asks the audience to buy into a lot; supernatural elements involving ghosts and demons and witches, guys with machetes or knives who never die, gruesome creatures, and the accepting of leaps in logic outside of reality. Horror fans accept all this and more, and from the outside looking in, the most objective of viewers should judge a movie not on its large leaps, but on the basics; story, character, acting, technical merits.

This blogger has always been neutral on the Horror genre; neither an avid fan nor a disbeliever, but that doesn’t mean some good and great films can’t be found and enjoyed. Outside of the standard items by which we judge a Horror movie, the genre demands that a few more get thrown in; scariness, rewatchability, and how iconic it is.

This list is a combination of objectivity and of this Blogger’s favorites over the years, and that opens the creaky door for WITCHBOARD (1986). A story about a woman who gets obsessed with a spirit (or two) connected to a Ouija Board, this film scared the pants off this Blogger when the ultimate evil baddie, called Malfeitor, shows up out of the shadows in the form of a creepy old guy with a white beard, followed by a bowel-moving evil laugh. Mostly forgotten and basically obscure, WITCHBOARD is a night-terror for this Blogger and an easy entry into his Top 10.

M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) gets a little too much attention for its big-wow twist at the end which turns the entire viewing experience upside-down. It’s great, but it often overshadows how good of an old-fashioned ghost story it really is. Heavily influenced by the great Alfred Hitchcock, M. Night creates plenty of scares, and most of all, a mystery…which keeps the audience engaged at all times.

It may not be the scariest film ever made (although it has its moments), but Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) has a lot of strong points as a film. It is visually stunning, beautifully scored, has an iconic look in Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula…and as a Dracula/vampire story it draws heavily and faithfully from the book, and also pulls material from nearly aspect of the vampire legend. Above all, it serves as a love story…which also makes it one of the most unique entries in the genre.

Often considered to be the granddaddy of all Horror, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) is standard viewing for all fans of the genre every October. Carpenter’s iconic villain with the hockey mask, Michael Myers, stands as one of the most memorable baddies of all time. The film’s score is perhaps the greatest in the genre, and it was the movie that re-invented a sub-genre; the slasher flick. It takes place in a real-world with a real-life situation, and that’s what makes it all the more frightening; this could happen in your neighborhood this month.

Isolation is a scary thing. But what’s even more scary is being isolated with a killer beast hunting you. And what’s even more scary is being isolated with that killer beast in a place where there is nowhere to run or hide…and that’s makes Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979) a perfect horror flick. A nice mash-up of sci-fi and Horror, ALIEN brought about some of the most memorable scares and gut-bursting scenes in history.

Prior to 1984, there was Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman…and then the late and great Wes Craven introduced Freddy Krueger to the world in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. A killer who only exists in people’s dreams, Craven capitalized on the isolation factor, while inserting some real scares (Freddy’s creepy stretching arms and the body bag moving on its own scared the shite out of this Blogger) and a character which stands the test of time.

If HALLOWEEN is the granddaddy of Horror, then Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) is the great-granddaddy. Based on the best-selling book, Hitchcock solidified his legend as the master of suspense with some chilling scenes involving a staircase and a shower (simple things masterfully turned frightening), and is the earliest example of the slasher-genre. Coupled with a mystery and some shocking twists and turns, PSYCHO is a scare-fest and an exquisitely crafted movie.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of THE SHINING (1980) often gets criticized for not being faithful to Stephen King’s book of the same name and for having an ending which Horror fans and cinema buffs debate to this day. These criticisms don’t mean much, because Kubrick creates an atmosphere which creeps those shivers down the spine at all times. From a creepy little kid, ghostly twin-girls, spectral bartenders, a gut-twisting score…and a performance by a young Jack Nicholson, who exerts pure evil with just one glance, THE SHINING is a finely crafted film which still has a presence in pop-culture.

Pop-culture may have been forever altered by Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975) as well, but that’s not the only reason this film, about a killer shark which terrorizes a resort town, makes the list. JAWS is often overlooked as a Horror movie because it takes place during the bright summer and doesn’t involve slashers or any supernatural elements. But the scares are genuine. Earlier this year this Blogger celebrated the film’s 40th anniversary by seeing the film on the big-screen, and the crowd, which contained many newcomers, jumped out of their seats in all the places Spielberg intended 40 years ago. JAWS hasn’t aged a day.

Having grown up in a religious family which truly believed that the Devil existed and could arrive at any moment, this Blogger was not allowed to watch William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1974) as a child, and that was probably a good thing. THE EXORCIST, which tells the tale of a young girl possessed by the Devil and does battle with two priests, taps into that primal fear deep inside…that feeling and knowledge that pure evil does exist. The film takes that feeling and gives it a body, a face, and a voice…making for a frightening experience as good tries to do battle with the ultimate evil in the universe. Faith is shaken, beliefs are tested, and pants are pissed in as the scares come in doses. Friedkin somehow creates a film in which even during the quieter times, there is always a feeling of something being off, of something being wrong. It is un-nerving, disturbing, and gets everything right in Horror, and in film. THE EXORCIST is the top of terror.


Monday, October 5, 2015

A Reel Review: SICARIO

In the old days, the lines between cops and robbers were always very clear; the robbers robbed, and the cops did their best to stop, or marginally disrupt the robbing. In life, and in the movies, those lines have moved around a lot, and that is painfully clear in the ongoing drug war between the United States and the Mexican Cartel. The newest crime thriller from director Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO, is a direct examination of those lines and those who have to dance around it.

FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by mysterious government official Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his even-more mysterious partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) to participate in a series of illegal operations with the intent of taking down a major Mexican drug lord.

SICARIO (that’s hit-man in Spanish) begins with a literal and bloody bang for Kate, and immediately sets up the gruesome methods the cartel would use to stay in business. Despite this, Kate is fully entrenched in doing the right thing in fighting this war no matter how many times the bad guys move the line and get away with it. Her morals are at a constant battle with the fuck-it-all and grey-area methods of Graver and Alejandro, even when they do produce results and minor victories. Adding to Kate’s frustration is the great amount mystery surrounding Graver and Alejandro; who or what they are working for isn’t apparent right away, and their motivations and true goals are revealed slowly throughout the film. Kate becomes just as nervous around her cop-friends as she is around the bad guys.

While director Denis Villeneuve is playing head-games with his characters and the audience, he is also constructing a maze of a film with many twists and turns. Big revelations for characters come in big gut-punching doses, and an early side-story involving a Mexican cop (played by Maximiliano Hernandez) feels like it’s existing in its own film before its shocking purpose comes around. It’s a constant guessing game for the audience, and the maze leads to some very unexpected places.

When he’s not creating a vast atmosphere of mystery and questionable ethics, Villeneuve is lacing together a pulse-pounding and breathtaking movie of stunning action sequences. The build-ups are slow burners; often bringing us to the edge and waiting just a few seconds more, and maybe just one more before the big boom drops. Two sequences involving a night-vision midnight raid and a prisoner-transport convoy have to be seen to be believed. Villeneuve takes full advantage of sticking his camera in a helicopter and showing us the large landscapes we’re dealing with, and one has to wonder exactly how he managed to get so much property and people to cooperate with him making the film. The photography by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins is out-of-this-world. Deakins makes pure art out of every sunset, sunrise, sun-kiss, shadow and silhouette; cops and robbers have never looked better.

Emily Blunt is excellent as the FBI agent stuck between good evil. Her British accent is buried, and her inner struggles are well displayed. Josh Brolin as the shady government-man is as charming as he is quietly dangerous, and Benicio del Toro puts in excellent work as well. The rest of the cast, which includes Jeffrey Donovan, Daniel Kaluuya, and Victor Garber are all excellent.

SICARIO does a lot of exploring of the issue of doing bad things for the greater good, but in the end (after a whopper of a finale), it doesn’t bother to take a hard-stance on one side or the other. This is not a film out to make a statement, and it seems perfectly content in unabashedly presenting the ugly world we live in as it really is. It’s a film that isn’t concerned with winning the war as much as spending time looking at the battle, and it leaves plenty of food for thought by the time the credits roll…certainly great material for lecture-hall debates and late-night arguments over ethics. Beyond that, SICARIO is a masterpiece in the cops and robbers genre; expertly shot and constructed, brilliantly acted, and above all, unforgettable.


Friday, October 2, 2015

A Reel Review: THE MARTIAN

Three decades ago, Ridley Scott launched his name into the stratosphere of directors when he helmed two of the most iconic science-fiction films of all time. Since then, Scott has dabbled and played with nearly every filmmaking genre to varying degrees of success. His newest, THE MARTIAN, is a return to the sci-fi world which got him going, and is also a return of that director who once made space so fascinating.

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after a wicked sandstorm, and is presumed dead by his crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie). While Watney tries to survive on his own with very little food and supplies, NASA (led by Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor), tries to coordinate a world-wide rescue mission.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, THE MARTIAN in its early goings sets itself up as an old story in a new setting. It’s a stranded man trying to survive while fighting boredom; a story which shares DNA with Robinson Crusoe or CAST AWAY. But with the setting being the red planet, a place where crops don’t grow and water never falls from the sky or rises from the ground, THE MARTIAN transforms into the ultimate problem-solving movie. Watney, using only his wits and smarts, has to figure out how to make crops grow in a place where nothing grows, and make moisture come out of the air on a planet with no clouds. It’s a science-lover’s dream.

Back on Earth, the film takes an extra step in setting up the dire circumstances Watley is in. NASA, even with all of its resources and scientists, can’t simply launch a rocket the next day. Literally hundreds of days pass as the teams of scientists and administrators tackle the massive logistical problems of sending a rescue mission, all while racing the clock…as they must launch and land a mission before Watney runs out of food. Things go wrong a lot, and THE MARTIAN turns into one hell of a cosmic roller-coaster.

Even with all of the ups and downs and thick science-talk in the script, THE MARTIAN never loses sight of its characters. Watney especially, who obviously gets most of the screen-time, and in a clever move of having him keep a video diary (for his own sanity and for the official record), we learn a lot about the man. His crew, which eventually factors into his rescue and the people back on Earth, are also developed well enough that we can care about how hard they’re trying to bring him home. For a movie that is mostly about one man, it still manages to hold its own as an ensemble piece…all working together for a common goal.

Ridley Scott makes the Martian landscape look deadly and beautiful at the same time. The visual effects are stunning, and the Red Planet looks as real as it ever did. Pacing is brisk, the humor lands in all of the right places, and the sequences which take place in the vastness of space are breathtaking. The goddamn 3D is awesome in some places, but useless in others, and the dimness robs the film of its vibrancy; the whites of the astronaut’s suits look grey and Mars loses a lot of its fire-red.

Matt Damon puts in a marvelous performance. While he only goes deep a few times, there is a never moment that we’re not cheering for him. He is funny and tragic at the same time, and it doesn’t take long for Matt Damon the actor to disappear and Mark Watney the astronaut and scientist take over. The rest of the super-sized cast is excellent.

The finale is an emotional wallop and brings home the notion of love and dedication in a film which mostly feels cold thanks to its lifeless surroundings; both on Mars and in the chilly offices and control rooms of NASA. This is very much a human story, surrounded by a great cosmic adventure which is thrilling and intriguing for both sci-fi fans and film-lovers. As he once did thirty years ago, Ridley Scott has composed a classic in space.