Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The Best Films of the Millennium 2000-2015

Happy belated New Year! With the first 15 years of the millennium now in the history books, Reel Speak finds this to be the perfect time to review and rank the Top 15 films since Y2K never happened.

This list was put together from a combination of this Blogger’s personal favorites and objective judgment, along with looking at a film’s’ longevity and impact on the industry.

For space considerations, let’s get 11 thru 15 out of the way…

15. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

14. THE DEPARTED (2005)


12. AVATAR (2009)

11. ZODIAC (2007)

Now to the fine details…

10. TAKE SHELTER (2011) – Powered by a great, layered performance by Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols’ drama-thriller about a man who may, or may not be going out of his mind…was a film that kept audiences guessing and fascinated. Thick with family drama and an uneasy feeling of dread and horror…TAKE SHELTER stands as a strong blending of many genres of film which un-nerves as much as it keeps us thinking.

9. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007) – Andrew Dominik’s introspective look at famed outlaw Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, stands as one of the finest Westerns ever made…and no more than a dozen gunshots are fired. Dominik breaks away from the traditional Western by going deeper into his characters and slowing the pace way down, and the film features some of the most stunning work by master-cinematographer Roger Deakins.

8. THE KING’S SPEECH (2010) - Perhaps the most elegant film of the millennium, Tom Hooper’s film about an obscure moment in history is a personal story which has huge implications for many more people. It is beautifully filmed and is an actor’s workshop, and the perfect definition of what a Best Picture winner should be.

7. GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005) – David Strathaim puts in the performance of a lifetime as famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s look at the early days of television broadcasting. In the days where TV didn’t really know its place, Clooney poses many questions about the medium which are just as relevant now as they were in 1953. Not all are answered…and they shouldn’t be because there is no final answer. That’s what a great film does, and this is sure to inspire many discussions and lectures in Journalism 101 classes for years to come.

6. INSIDE OUT (2015) – The youngest entry on this list comes to us from famed animation studio Disney/Pixar, in which the emotions of a young girl are actual characters, guiding her through the ups and downs of her life. Sharply written and directed, INSIDE OUT is an immensely entertaining film with plenty of laughs and tears to be had, but the longevity of it (the film is being used by child-psychologists to help kids figure out which emotion is in charge), elevates it to one of the best of this millennium.

5. WARRIOR (2011) – Sports films have all taken on the same identity in the past 30 years; an underdog who must overcome immense odds and obstacles to win. WARRIOR turns it all upside down by creating two main characters which both have a lot to fight for (meaning we don’t know who to root for), and then adds an extra layer by making those two main characters brothers; brothers who have to fight each other in a high-stakes mixed-martial arts showdown. Fueled by powerhouse performances by Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte…and topped off with one of the most emotional finales ever…WARRIOR is high-mark in the 2000’s and in sports-films overall.

4. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) – In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST pulled the curtain back on the Holocaust. In 2013, director Steve McQueen did the same with slavery in America. Displaying a unique style of disciplined directing, McQueen takes us on a harrowing journey as seen through one man (Solomon Northup, as brilliantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). It is so brutal and honest that it is not an easy film to watch…and similar to SCHINDLER’S LIST, not the type of film to be often pulled off the shelf for casual viewing. This is a movie for hardened fans of film, and historically, one of the most important ones. This film had to made.

3. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003) – One of the greatest moments in Geek History is when Steven Spielberg announced at the 78th Oscars, “it’s a clean sweep”, as Peter Jackson’s grand finale to his THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy won Best Picture while nabbing every Oscar it was nominated for. Besides the awards and box office success, THE RETURN OF THE KING was an emotional finale which had people weeping in a way not seen since BAMBI, had the type of epic, large-scale filmmaking reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and was the most significant entry into pop-culture since STAR WARS. And the topper: it brought the fantasy genre into the world of legitimate film.

2. BLACK SWAN (2010) – There is an idea in filmmaking that a director is better off confusing the audience for five minutes than to let them get ahead…and that seems to be the approach Darren Aronofsky took with his psychological mind-bender, BLACK SWAN. Brilliantly filmed and edited with plenty of twists, turns, and WTF moments, Aronofsky takes us through the seldom-explored world of professional ballet while examining a fragile mind…wrapping it up with one of the most perfect endings in cinema.

1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) – There are movies, and there are films…and there are directors, and there are filmmakers. Explaining the difference is difficult, but we all know it when we see it. For Paul Thomas Anderson, his reputation as a master-filmmaker was solidified with his epic tale of greed in his 2007 film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Loosely based on the novel by Upton Sinclair, this late-19th century piece about an oil-man and his adopted son explores greed and the lengths men take, along with diving into family, faith, and even takes a look at how the foundations of America were founded. Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably the best actor of our time, stunningly transforms himself, and his battle with a young preacher (played by Paul Dano) over the souls of a small town is equal to that of the clashing of large armies. It strikes the perfect balance of intimacy, character-conflict, history, and is iconic and thought-provoking…and has the all right pieces to last a very long time.



2.       BLACK SWAN


4.       12 YEARS A SLAVE

5.       WARRIOR

6.       INSIDE OUT





11.   ZODIAC

12.   AVATAR





Come back in 2020 for the Top 20 of the Millennium.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2015 - Part 2

The Year in Film 2015 was a great one; perhaps one of the best of the millennium. It was a year where box office records fell (more than once), nostalgia was a great sell, and where a return to basic elemental filmmaking proved to be effective.

It was a year of triumphs but also a year of loss. Outside of the theatre, we said goodbye to screen-legends such as Robert Loggia, Gunnar Hansen, Fred Thompson, Maureen O’Hara, Alex Rocco, Omar Sharif, Dick Van Patten, Rod Taylor, Leonard Nimoy, and Christopher Lee.

Back in the theatre, this Blogger screened over 50 films in 2015, and whittling the list down to just ten is never easy. It’s fair to mention films that just missed the Top 10; BRIDGE OF SPIES, THE MARTIAN, STEVE JOBS, ANOMALISA, THE GOOD DINOSAUR, THE DANISH GIRL, Z FOR ZACHARIA, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, IT FOLLOWS, THE BIG SHORT (if you could understand it), and the 40th anniversary big-screen re-release of JAWS…all providing wonderful experiences at the theatre.

Now to the list…

10. MR. HOLMES – When the book is closed on the career of the great Ian McKellen, the roles likely to be recalled first will be his recurring appearances as a good wizard and a super-villain. And the role that deserves to be in the same conversation is the performance Sir Ian put in as a 90-year old Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon’s MR. HOLMES. Playing a version of Holmes who is facing his greatest challenge; the loss of his memory, Condon weaves an intimate tale of human loss and endurance, while painting a picture of the old generation connecting with the new. MR. HOLMES was the most heartbreakingly sweet film of 2015.

9. SICARIO – The lines between cops and robbers aren’t as clear as they were in the old days, and that is the basis for Denis Villeneuve’s look at the U.S. government’s ongoing war against Mexican drug lords. Beautifully shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, SICARIO builds a great amount of mystery around who is right and who is wrong with gut-punching reveals coming in big doses. Action sequences are built-up brilliantly and then executed with heart-pounding intensity, and the performances by Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro are top-notch. Cops and robbers haven’t had this much respect on the big-screen in years.

8. CREED – The first spinoff of the beloved yet up-and-down ROCKY franchise was an absolute triumph of movie-making. Not just because it told a good story, but also because it was saturated in a comfortable and welcoming nostalgia without hanging its hat, or gloves on it…and was able to forge its own identity as a bona-fide underdog sports film. Sylvester Stallone puts in the performance of a lifetime, and Michael B. Jordan establishes himself as a powerhouse actor.

7. THE HATEFUL EIGHT – Quentin Tarantino’s closed-quarters paranoia tale set in the Old West may borrow from many films in the past (even his own), but like CREED, doesn’t hang its ten-gallon hat on it. Tarantino writes and directs a film with a constant feeling of uneasiness for the characters and the audience as the mystery folds and unfolds, and the outstanding photography in glorious 70mm is a sight to behold. This was an event film which needed to be experienced on the big screen, and is a pleasing throwback to the simpler and grander days of the old movie house.

6. INSIDE OUT – When our emotions take over, they control our mind and our actions…and that is the basis of Pixar’s latest brilliant animated marvel. In this film, emotions are actual characters existing in a little girl’s head and guide her through her life, making for a multi-layered film which is mind-blowing for adults and educational for kids. The longevity of the film may already be well-established; child psychologists are using the film as a way to communicate with kids…to determine which emotion is in charge at any given moment. That makes INSIDE OUT one of the most important movies ever made.

5. SPOTLIGHT – In 1976, the now-classic film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN examined the role of journalism in a national scandal. In 2015 this generation got its own version in the form of Thomas McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT. Focused on the Boston Globe’s role in blowing the lid off the Catholic Church sex scandal, SPOTLIGHT is a masterful procedural; going through the steps of an investigation while never forgetting about the human beings who have to make it happen. The film is packed with great performances and is the ensemble powerhouse of 2015.

4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – George Miller’s latest entry into his own MAD MAX franchise, launched over 30 years ago, is a thunderous rampage across the desert filled with bodies, blood, crashing metal, throwing flames, flying bodies and fuck-all-and-embrace-wreckage action. Simple in plot, and using minimal dialogue, there is a tremendous amount of energy and visual power which squished audiences into their seats. FURY ROAD is a prime example of the power of visual storytelling. Chaplin would be proud.

3. EX MACHINA – There have been many landmarks in the history of visual effects; from giant apes to roaring dinosaurs to Gollum to Optimus Prime…and the next name on the list belongs to Ava the robot. Beautifully acted by Alicia Vikander, Ava is a miracle in visual effects in its realism…but on top of that, director Alex Garland creates an atmosphere which is absolutely hypnotic. A thought-provoking look at what it is to be human, this is the one film of 2015 which turned wheels, stopped breaths, and froze eyes…an absolutely fascinating experience.

2. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – Thanks to Disney and director J.J. Abrams, STAR WARS returns to greatness in its 7th episode. Similar to CREED, there are a lot of throwbacks to enjoy, but still has time to be its own adventure; marvelously introducing great new characters while dusting off the old beloved ones. The spirit of adventure, magic, and whimsy was fully embraced; making for many laughs, cheers, and tear. For many people of the old and young generation, this was the most emotional trip to the movies, and the cinematic event of 2015.

1. THE REVENANT – In many ways, Alejandro Inarritu’s newest film is the anti-STAR WARS. Where STAR WARS is magical and fun and loaded with the newest tech, THE REVENANT is gritty and tough, and for the most part stays far, far away from any hi-tech visual effects wizardry. Shot in some of the most desolate and coldest places using only natural light, Inarritu’s tale of man vs. man vs. the wilderness is a simple one, but it’s done in a way that we’ve never seen before…making for one of the most amazing theatre experiences ever. Famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki photographs the most stunning images ever put to screen, and Inarritu stages elaborate scenes that have to be seen to be believed. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy look frozen and miserable because they really are frozen and miserable, and both actors put on performances of their careers. It is a simple but grand film, and is a true example of how amazing cinema can be.





3.       EX MACHINA


5.       SPOTLIGHT

6.       INSIDE OUT


8.       CREED

9.       SICARIO

10.   MR. HOLMES




Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2015 - Part 1

The Year in film 2015 was a strong one, and could perhaps go down in the history books as one of the strongest of the millennium. This Blogger screened over 50 films in 2015, and is proud to report that only five (5) are crummy enough to be included in this first part of his annual roundup of Best and Worst.

Every year, there is a lot of fodder released by studios for the sake of filling gaps in the schedule and to keep some income incoming. Movies like that are generally cast-offs and wind up as disasters. This Blogger was sober enough to avoid critically panned stinkbombs such as ROCK THE KASBAH, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, MORTDECAI, PAN, ENTOURAGE, VACATION, TAKEN 3…or anything made by Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry. The films in this list are the ones which should have, and could have been a lot better than what wound up on the screen.

Starting from the bottom up (or working towards the bottom)…

5. SERENA – The tag-team of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper has been wildly successful in the past few years, but the bottom may have finally fallen out with Susanne Bier’s disastrous adaptation of the acclaimed novel. The film was a disjointed assembly of episodes dealing with way too many storylines which never quite connected to each other, once again proving that when a movie tries to be about too many things, it winds up being about nothing. Characters have very little to do, and the two leads, Lawrence and Cooper, drop in and out of their accents. Top it all off with one of the most ridiculous endings in cinema history, and we’ve got a film Lawrence and Cooper would prefer never to be mentioned again.

4. JUPITER ASCENDING – The Wachowski siblings have been responsible for giving us some of the most visually innovative films in the past 15 years, and in their original sci-fi adventure they maintain that reputation, but this newest work from them was a journey to the Planet Dumb. Everything about the film was silly; from characters sprouting wings to honey-bees doing weird things to far-out rocket boots and outlandish alien species. Now we can forgive a lot when it comes to sci-fi, but the structure of the film which consisted of one chase scene after another interspersed with endless dialogue about some galactic legend or another, made it all extremely repetitive and ultimately boring. Villains are one-note and the heroes are bland…making JUPITER ASCENDING the silliest-looking borefest of the year.

3. FANTASTIC FOUR – The latest version of the classic Marvel Comics property didn’t have much of a chance to succeed; it had a ho-hum cast, a director who was more interested in partying than working, and the task of being a relevant film that could compete with, or at least be mentioned in the same paragraph as, the flood of big-name comic book films that are released every year. As it turns out, Fox Studios and director Josh Trank disagreed on everything, and it really showed on screen. FANTASTIC FOUR was disjointed with parts of the film seemingly missing, and the whole thing doesn’t end as much as it does stop during mid-sentence. It’s mind-boggling that something like this could ever see the light of day. This is as messy as it gets.

2. CHAPPIE – The most frustrating thing about CHAPPIE is that the creation of Chappie the robot is a true miracle of visual effects. The character is amazing to spend time with, but unfortunately, supposed-visionary director Neill Blomkamp ruins everything else. From a convoluted and silly plot to horrible acting from droop-face Dev Patel…and veterans Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, right down to the massive plot holes and predictable ending. To top it off, the casting of South African hip-hop group Die Antwood as low-life gangsters, who brandish pink machine guns, wear their own merchandise and listen to their own music, is one of the most bizarre product-placement attempts ever in cinema. And someone needs to tell Blomkamp that filming in a slum is no longer interesting.

1. TERMINATOR GENISYS – The fifth entry in the once venerated TERMINATOR franchise represents everything that is wrong with the mentality of big studios when it comes to big-budget franchises. As if the stupid-looking sub-title wasn’t enough, GENISYS finished up with over a dozen unanswered questions in its story, all of which was punted down the road to be answered in a sequel. Obviously there was more of a concern to set up a franchise than to tell a story, and the film suffered from it. On top of that, GENISYS took everything that had happened in previous films, events that are beloved by fans, and contradicted it all through a lazy time-travel plot which basically took a smelly dump on every TERMINATOR film made. And why? Just to reset the franchise for further installments. And even from the outside looking in, GENISYS is a bore thanks to its redundant structure of action-scene followed by talking, followed by action-scene followed by talking…rinse and repeat. And despite the clean slate the film wants us to believe in, the film ends with a scene which makes all the events we just sat through completely pointless. This is a film which is an insult to TERMINATOR fans and to cinema overall. Fuck this movie forever.



2.       CHAPPIE



5.       SERENA



Thursday, January 14, 2016

Oscar Nominations: The Good, The Bad, & The Glorious

The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced this morning, ushering in the homestretch to Awards Season and generating debate among lovers of the silver screen. As always, there is plenty to talk about. Here are the Good, Bad, and Glorious points:


-As expected, acting nominations were announced for Leonardo DiCaprio, Sylvester Stallone, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, and Jennifer Hudson. No surprises there in a good way.

-George Miller, who directed the high-octane MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, earned a Best Director nomination for his post-apocalyptic action and carnage fest. The nomination is one of ten (!) for the film. Basically a sci-fi flick, it’s refreshing to see the Academy acknowledge the genre.

-Five nominations for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. The five nods brings the total franchise number up to 30, which is the 2nd most in history for a film-series, behind Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth films (38).


-No Best Original Screenplay nomination for Quentin Tarantino, whose intricate writing in his Western THE HATEFUL EIGHT was certainly tighter and more focused than the last two films he won for (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED).

-Director Ryan Coogler, who rejuvenated the ROCKY franchise with his crowd-pleasing CREED, should have earned a Best Director nomination.

-EX MACHINA; one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and one of this Blogger’s favorites, should have had a Best Picture nomination.

-STAR WARS creator George Lucas was recently quoted as saying that the Academy doesn’t award popular movies. This rings true this year, as the 7th episode in his own series did not earn nominations in major categories…despite being one of the best-reviewed films of the year and a box-office champion.

-More of a curious point than a bad one: Idris Elba was kind-of expected to land a nomination for his powerful performance in the war-film BEASTS OF NO NATION. But the film’s non-traditional release (it was on a limited run in theatres and globally on Netflix), calls into question of how the Academy is keeping up with the times. Did the streaming-service release hurt Elba? Does the Academy shun the format in favor of big-screen releases?

-The lack of diversity (namely black actors) in the nominations has re-awakened the discussion of why the Academy doesn’t nominate more minorities. But even if Coogler, Elba, and Michael B. Jordan (CREED) were nominated, the numbers would still be skewed. It’s due to a lack of options in the industry, and that’s the real issue.


-Pixar’s INSIDE OUT earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay; a rarity for an animated film. The last movie to do so; Pixar’s UP in 2009.

-Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in THE REVENANT has earned so much praise that his co-star Tom Hardy was overlooked for the Golden Globes and did not make many people’s short-lists prior to today’s announcements. However, the Academy noticed…and gave Hardy a rightful nomination.

-EX MACHINA rightfully earned a nomination for Best Visual Effects, as it arguably displayed one of the most visually stunning creations made in a long-time.

-It’s all about the movies, and the list of eight nominees for Best Picture is a solid one. It’s a nice mix of old (Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, George Miller), and new (Adam McKay, Alejandro Inarritu, Tom McCarthy), while servicing several genres; spy-thrillers, action, sci-fi, comedy, and good old-fashioned drama. The right films are there, and Oscar Night will be a competitive one.


The Oscars will be awarded February 28th.

Alan Rickman 1946-2016

“I can teach you how to bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses. I can tell you how to bottle fame, brew glory, and even put a stopper in death.”

Actor and theatre-director Alan Rickman has passed away at 69 years old.

Born in Acton, London to a working class family, Alan Rickman studied art and design in his early years before taking on an interest in acting. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and while there, studied Shakespeare and worked for established actors such as Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson…along with winning several acting prizes.

Moving on professionally, he worked with various British theatre groups before landing a role in the 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, which earned him a Tony Award nomination.

Seeking a film career, he went to Los Angeles in the late 1980’s, and within the first few days of his arrival, was cast as the terrorist Hans Gruber in John McTiernan’s DIE HARD (1988). Rickman’s portrayal of the cold and educated vicious villain was a perfect foil to Bruce Willis’ everyman-hero, and the performance would earn him a spot in the American Film Institute’s 100 Heroes and Villains list; helping elevate DIE HARD to a classic status.

He was a diverse actor who would play romantic leads in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995), and TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY (1991). But he couldn’t resist playing the Big Bad again, and in 1991 would play the Sheriff of Nottingham in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, opposite Kevin Costner. The performance would earn him a BAFTA award. He would dabble in television, and as the “mad monk” in the HBO production of RASPUTIN: DARK SERVANT OF DESTINY (1996), Rickman would win a Golden Globe, a SAG award, and an Emmy.

In 2001, he would become a permanent figure in pop culture when he accepted the role of the ambiguous character Professor Severus Snape in the HARRY POTTER franchise, which would last eight films. The character would eventually take a tragic, heroic turn…making Rickman’s Snape…a character which was hated early on…beloved.

Other notable roles included MICHAEL COLLINS (1996), DOGMA (1999), GALAXY QUEST (1999), LOVE ACTUALLY (2003), THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005), PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER (2006), SWEENEY TODD (2007), and THE BUTLER (2013). He voiced the caterpillar in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND in 2010, and would reprise the role in the 2016 sequel.

Empire magazine would rank him no. 59 in the Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time in 1997, and would also rank him the 19th best actor over the age of 50.


Like most, this Blogger was introduced to Alan Rickman in DIE HARD, where the well-dressed man with the most unique voice and delivery ever heard became a foe on-screen that was to be feared and respected. Rickman changed the way the old mustache-twirling bad guy operated, and the industry would pattern their baddies after him for decades to come. As great as he was in DIE HARD, this Blogger holds Rickman’s performance as the crooked Sheriff of Nottingham in PRINCE OF THIEVES as his personal favorite. This Sheriff wasn’t just a bad guy, but a flawed one who made mistakes and acted human; once again turning the typical bad-guy role upside down. As the tragic character-hero in the HARRY POTTER franchise, Rickman would generate more emotion than any other character, and would become a study in heroes and how they operate. And here is where Rickman’s massive cross-generational impact can be felt. The young will remember him as Snape, while the old will relate him to Hans Gruber…two characters that he made his. And perhaps the way both generations will remember him can be summed up in the famous line he spoke in HARRY POTTER:


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Reel Review: ANOMALISA

Writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote extensively about the most vital stage of the hero’s journey, called The Belly of the Whale. In this stage, the hero, or the main character, enters an area of the unknown, appears to have died, and emerges on the other side reborn and prepared for the next stage of the journey.  In his stop-motion puppet drama ANOMALISA, writer and director Charlie Kaufman takes a unique approach to that stage of the journey; an approach which will have cinema lovers talking for a long time.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), is a self-help writer who is bored with the mundane routine of his life, and seemingly has a condition where everyone around him looks and sounds alike. On a business trip, he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person he has met in years that doesn’t look and sound like everyone else.

Traditionally, there are several stages in the journey of a character before they get into the Belly. Kaufman’s first unique approach to ANOMALISA is to skip most of them and catch us up with the characters while they already in the area of the unknown. By the time Michael and Lisa meet at their hotel, life has already chewed them up, and the two are navigating the Belly and looking for a way out. It’s a love story coupled with a glimpse on what may be Michael’s mental illness, or just a statement on how mundane we can let our lives get.

Right away, the stage is set for Kaufman and his characters to explore each other, develop backstories, and look for that all-important way out of the void they are in. But not content to just let his film rest on two lost souls finding new meaning in life, Kaufman gets several layers working at once. ANOMALISA is loaded with metaphors; from the name of the hotel, the title of the film, right down to every line of dialogue…everything has a deeper meaning. The metaphors are not cheesy or overly-clever and work very well, making ANOMALISA a joy to take in.

The usage of stop-motion puppetry gives the film a life that is very unique. The art-form allows Michael’s condition of seeing and hearing everyone the same way more believable and the characters almost seem aware that they are puppets. The puppets and the environments they inhabit are the true stars of the show. The puppets breath, eat, drink liquids, pour drinks, smoke, urinate, fornicate with stunning realism, and several long-takes without cutting away shows an incredible amount of skill from Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson. The puppets are true characters as they are written (and brilliantly voiced) with very true-human features. The environments are brought to life with breathtaking detail; especially the interior of a taxi-cab, hotel rooms, bathrooms, and room service menus are amazingly created. Kaufman and Johnson are also not afraid to fill the frame with as many characters as possible. A busy airport and most especially a hotel bar…are worth several viewings just to watch what the many characters/puppets in the background are doing. If stop-motion puppetry is a dying art-form, ANOMALISA is one hell of a way to go out.

As much of a joy ANOMALISA is to take in, the ending may frustrate those who are used to, or looking for a solid resolution to their films. Michael doesn’t seem to have changed very much by the time he exits the Belly, and it’s a subject of discussion whether or not he actually exited. The ending feels like the film had chased its tail, as Michael seems to be in the same goddamn state as when he started. It’s clearly an important episode in one man’s life, and if he is now armed with enough tools to survive his next chapter is also debatable. This is a case of the journey being better than the destination, but it’s a journey well worth taking.


Friday, January 8, 2016


An old friend of Reel Speak was once taught that there are only two things needed to make a great movie; Lighting and Writing. Writing, of course, is the most important; it establishes places, characters, actions, conflicts, and is the elemental piece of any film. On the other end, lighting simply establishes mood and atmosphere. For the last 100 years, filmmakers have relied on all kinds of lighting tricks to help tell their stories. With THE REVENANT, the latest from director/writer Alejandro Inarritu, the only lighting trick used is the best of all; the only light used is the one that Mother Nature provides.

 A company of 19th century fur trappers, guided through the wilderness by Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and commanded by Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), are attacked by Indians and while on the run, Glass is savagely attacked by a bear protecting her cubs. As the company breaks up, Glass is left for dead by the greedy and taunting Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who also kills off Glass’ adapted Indian son. Not as dead as Fitzgerald thought, Glass begins a journey of revenge and survival through the harsh winter wilderness.

Getting back to basics is what THE REVENANT is all about. It’s a basic plot of survival and revenge which is paired with the most basic of settings. Most of the film centers on Glass as he makes his way across the frozen tundra with nothing to eat and barely a fur to cover his wounded body. It’s a series of ups and downs for Glass, who must evade Indians who are out for the kill and find a way to not starve in a frozen wilderness, and just when he finds a way to get by, it is taken from him just as quickly. It is a harrowing tale of survival, but not content to sit by and let that be the driving force of his film, Alejandro Inarritu couples it with a spiritual side; the loss of Glass’ family and what he is fighting for is never left out of the tale.

There is an absolute relentlessness to THE REVENANT. The weather never lets up, and things never seem to get better for Glass. The bear-attack is one of the most savage things ever put to film and is absolutely cringe-worthy, and the threat of the Indians, who also have their own justified axe to grind with the White Man, is always surrounding the story. Inarritu does not let his foot of the gas-pedal at any point, making THE REVENANT a near exhausting watch. By the time this tale ends, both Glass and the audience will have passed though the belly of the beast.

Filmed in the wilderness of places like British Columbia and Alberta, THE REVENANT is perhaps one of the most stunningly jaw-dropping films ever to see the big screen. Images involving trees, running water, snowfall, and even a snail-shell are filmed in breathtaking detail. Everything about the film is real; the actors look frozen and miserable because they really are frozen and miserable, and Mother Earth looks gorgeous because she really is. Inarritu certainly restores any lost faith that wonders of nature no longer exist in the world. Simply put, there are images on the screen that are hard to believe.

While famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is busy painting the most beautiful of cinematic pictures, Inarritu is composing some amazing one-take shots. By not cutting away for what seems like forever, the audience is dropped right into the middle of the action; every chase, fight, tussle, and trudge through the snow is felt real, and it doesn’t involve wild tech like 3D or virtual reality. Far from a gimmick, it makes THE REVENANT an immersive stunner.

Equally stunning are the performances by the cast. Leonardo DiCaprio goes through hell and back for his role; going bare-skinned in the freezing cold and jumping into more-freezing streams. Most of his dialogue comes out in grunts and wheezes (a throat injury courtesy of the bear attack), so there’s not a lot for him to say but a lot for him to do, and it is a physical performance which has to be seen to be believed. As good as he is, he is nearly overshadowed by Tom Hardy, who with his southern drawls and savage mannerisms, makes for an intimidating character. Domhnall Gleeson is excellent as always.

Despite being a simple revenge and survival story, THE REVENANT actually has a lot to wrap up towards the finale, and with a running time of two and a half hours, the resolutions feel very much earned as the journey to get there is definitely on the epic side of things. By using the simplest of writing techniques, and the beauty of nature to lead the way, Alejandro Inarritu has created a film which is a triumph for the human spirit; both in front of and behind the camera.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2016: Episode I

For years, the months of January and February have traditionally served as a dumping ground for movies not quite good enough for the fun summer months or the gold of Oscar Season. There are mostly cast-offs, with the occasional gem amongst the piles of coal. This first Episode of monthly previews for 2016 looks at the notable releases for January:
It all gets deadly with...

THE FOREST – Based on the famed real-life location of a Japanese forest where people go to commit suicide, Natalie Dormer (CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE HUNGER GAMES), goes into the woods looking for her lost sister.

RIDE ALONG 2 – The long-awaited sequel (ha) to the 2014 comedy hit. Ice Cube and Kevin Hart reprise their roles as cops acting like idiots.

THE 5TH WAVE – In this science-fiction thriller based on the novel of the same name, Chloe Grace Moretz (KICK-ASS), plays a young girl who, with her baby brother, tries to survive an Earth which has been knocked back to the Stone Age after an alien attack. Co-stars Liev Schreiber (SPOTLIGHT), Maggie Siff (SONS OF ANARCHY), Ron Livingston, and Maria Bello.

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI – Michael Bay (THE ROCK, TRANSFORMERS), directs this true-story thriller about the six members of a security team who fought to defend the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi after a terrorist attack. Stars John Krasinski (THE OFFICE), and James Badge Dale (IRON MAN 3). It is written by Chuck Hogan (THE STRAIN).

DIRTY GRANDPA – In this screwball comedy, Robert De Niro plays a grumpy old man who tricks his grandson, played by Zac Efron, to drive him to Florida.

KUNG FU PANDA 3- Jack Black reprises his role as the high-kicking talking panda in the third installment of the animated franchise. Includes the voice talents of Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Bryan Cranston, Kate Hudson, and J.K. Simmons.

JANE GOT A GUN – This troubled film, which has seen various changes in cast-members and directors since 2011, finally sees the big screen. Set in the Old West, Natalie Portman (BLACK SWAN), defends her home from a gang of marauders. Co-stars Joel Edgerton (WARRIOR), Noah Emmerich, and Ewan McGregor. Directed by Gavin O’Connor (WARRIOR).

THE FINEST HOURS – Loosely based on the true story of a rescue mission involving an oil tanker which split in half during a massive storm. Stars Chris Pine (STAR TREK), Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, John Ortiz, and Eric Bana.


Next month, Episode II previews the month of February.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Reel Review: THE BIG SHORT

Making a movie about real-life events is fairly easy; the facts are there and chances are someone already wrote a book on the event, so filmmakers already have one-half of the writing done. But life isn’t simple, and when it comes to adapting a super-complex story involving stocks and finances, a movie can easily get bogged down, confusing, and boring. Such is the task for director Adam McKay and his attempt to dramatize the financial crisis of 2008 stemming from the crash of the housing market.

Eccentric financial analyst and trader Michael Burry (Christian Bale), discovers that the U.S. housing market is unstable, and even though no one believes him, creates a credit default swap market, which would allow him to bet against the housing market and cash-in on boatloads of money. His idea leaks to Jared Venett (Ryan Gosling), an arrogant trader who recruits hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join him. Meanwhile, two young upstarts (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) also discover the plan and recruit a retired investor (Brad Pitt) to get them in on the deal of century.

THE BIG SHORT is mostly a story about greed and how it messes everything up; from governments to families to financial institutions to normal everyday people on the street. The fairly large cast of characters spend most the film examining and deconstructing the extremely complicated and dense strategies of the housing market, and when they realize they can make millions if not billions of dollars over the impending crash, they are then thrown into the moral question of whether not they should. After all, when the crash happens, people lose their homes and jobs…and they have an opportunity to walk away with a fortune. The variety of characters react in different ways, and director Adam McKay, mostly known as a comedy director, fleshes out the reactions in very human ways.

As the characters explore the shaky and shady ways of the housing market, as does the audience…and it is not an easy mess to figure out. McKay doesn’t bother to dumb anything down and leaves the authentic jargon intact, but does what he can to simplify it for his audience; most of whom, even homeowners and stock traders, would likely never have heard most of the gobbledygook. McKay uses visual aids such as building blocks, card games, and metaphors, and even stops the movie dead in its tracks for a celebrity cameo to explain things (Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath, for example). For the most part it works…not because the explanations are understandable (they’re not), but because the way the characters react to the situations which sells it. We will never understand what just happened to someone’s stock option, but we can certainly tell from their emotions if it’s good or bad.

McKay keeps the mood and pacing very brisk and light. As a dramedy, it’s very funny without going over-the-top or relying on unnecessary slapstick or endless F-bombs. Characters break the fourth-wall and speak directly to the audience on occasion, and although it works it doesn’t seem to happen enough; McKay only seems to do it when he gets stuck.

Acting is superb and is dominated by Christian Bale and Steve Carell. Both are quirky characters which the actors vanish into. Ryan Gosling finally sheds his blank-stare style of acting and creates a character we’d love to hate, and Brad Pitt is just kinda there. Marisa Tomei pops in as Carell’s character’s wife and is her usual cute and charming self.

THE BIG SHORT in broad strokes takes a long hard look at not just greed in the country, but in the overall world, and how it constantly effects our overall culture. McKay exposes a lot of the shitty things done by Wall Street, the banks, and the U.S. government, making his film required viewing for anyone eager to learn about exactly what happened in those turbulent days of 2008 that the networks couldn’t even explain. If McKay makes one error it’s the glossing-over of the little people who were hurt the most in the crisis, as he focuses mostly on the people who were at the top of and in the middle of it all. There’s not much heart or empathy to be had here. It’s a minor gripe, as THE BIG SHORT is much too captivating to crash over one issue.


Monday, January 4, 2016


Writer and director Quentin Tarantino loves the movies to a fault. He adores classic cinema so much that he packs his own work with may winks and nods and references to the films which inspired him to become the filmmaker he is today. He doesn’t quite have his own cinematic voice, but instead allows the history of cinema, which he recycles, to do the talking for him. His latest, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, is much of the same…only this time, the method is used effectively and masterfully.

Set a few years after the end of the Civil War, bounty hunter John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) encounter a fellow bounty hunter and former Union solider (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be sheriff (Walton Goggins). The four take shelter from a blizzard at a stagecoach stopover, where they are greeted by four strangers; a hangman (Tim Roth), a former confederate general (Bruce Dern), a Mexican (Demian Bichier), and a cowboy (Michael Madsen).

Tarantino is a big film nerd, and he tends to draw other film nerds to the theatre to see what he’s milkshaked up lately. The first thing that today’s crop of film-geeks will notice is that THE HATEFUL EIGHT draws a lot from John Carpenter’s 1982 thriller THE THING; another closed-room guessing game (wink) which also starred Kurt Russell (nod)…and Tarantino even goes as far as re-using a portion of the original soundtrack (wink again). It’s an old story in a new setting and certainly not a deal-breaker, but worth mentioning because those who know their cinema would likely see right through it.

But once the characters get into place and the suspicion of at least one person not being who he says he his takes root, THE HATEFUL EIGHT takes what has been done before it and compounds it. Just like any good horror movie should have the hanging feeling of dread, Tarantino brings in a constant feeling of uneasiness in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Audiences may certainly be looking over their shoulders just like the characters are, wondering who is behind them and what they are really up to. Paranoia is the name of the game and Tarantino plays it like a banjo from hell.

Not content to just have the film turn into an Old West version of CLUE, Tarantino does excellent work with his characters. None of these rogues and hooligans are the type of people you’d want to hang out with, but they are developed well enough that putting them all in a confined space and letting them be themselves works brilliantly. Ex-soldiers from the war have axes to grind, bounty hunters have cargo to protect, and secrets have to be kept in what winds up as a very intricate web of storytelling.

Tarantino has long had a reputation as a great writer of dialogue, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT strengthens that thought. Dialogue is perfect for every character, keeps a long movie feeling like it is moving by quickly, and makes for some thrilling white-knuckle showdowns. The N-word is used a lot, but considering the time-frame feels right-at-home. The bursts of violence come out of nowhere and are sure to send popcorn flying.

Shooting in the seldom used format of 70mm, Tarantino does remarkable work in filling his frame when the camera is inside and outside. The outdoor footage is stunning, and the detail and lush colors inside the cabin (also called a haberdashery) pop off the screen. By far it is the most technically superior film Tarantino has ever put together. The “Roadshow Presentation” is complete with a magnificent overture, and the intermission is perfectly timed after one of the biggest and best showdowns of the movie. The intermission is followed some jarringly unnecessary narration from Tarantino himself; an odd choice as the film was surviving just fine on its own without any outside help. The score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone, his first Western in several decades, is powerful and perfectly appropriate for the time-period, although the film does have a few silly choices in using pop-music here and there.

Acting borders on over-the-top in some places and magnificent in others. Kurt Russell, in his first real starring role in a long while, seems very inspired by his gruff character and makes it work. Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as the fugitive who is a little un-hinged, and Samuel L. Jackson turns in one of his best performances in a long time. The show is nearly stolen by Walton Goggins and his excellent comedic timing, although it seems hammy at times…and Bruce Dern can still bring the goods. A surprise cameo late in the film is a blast, and Tim Roth is still the most annoying twit in the business. Michael Madsen is fine for the most part but for some reason goes into a Cookie Monster voice for no reason.

After a few twists and turns, THE HATEFUL EIGHT wraps up as one hell of a bloody affair, and after three-plus hours (including overture and intermission) it very much feels earned. There are a lot of familiar pieces and parts in the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino, but this time out he makes them feel new and doesn’t rely on them alone to carry his story. THE HATEFUL EIGHT is very much an authentic Western of old, and a true treat for cinema lovers.