Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2016, Episode IV

This year, the Summer Movie Season had a soft-opening with one big blockbuster-tailored film in March. With April, things quiet down a bit with some light comedy and excellent-looking character pieces. Here are the notable releases for the month of April.

It all gets special with…

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL – Released in March in a limited capacity, this thriller from Jeff Nichols (TAKE SHELTER, MUD) sees a wide distribution in April. Michael Shannon (TAKE SHELTER, MAN OF STEEL), stars as a father protecting his son (Jaeden Lieberher), who has special abilities. Co-stars Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and Sam Shepard.

I SAW THE LIGHT – Also moving from limited to wide release in April, Tom Hiddleston (Loki from THE AVENGERS) plays the original Hank Williams in this biopic. Co-stars Elizabeth Olsen.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME! – Director Richard Linklater (BOYHOOD), who explored the 1970’s with DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), takes a swing at the 1980’s in this sports-comedy.

MILES AHEAD – Don Cheadle (IRON MAN 3), directs and stars as jazz legend Miles Davis. Co-stars Ewan McGregor, and Michael Stuhlbarg (A SERIOUS MAN).

THE BOSS – Melissa McCarthy plays a CEO who gets sent to prison for insider trading. Co-stars Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, and Kathy Bates.

HARDCORE HENRY – In this first-person, sci-fi action film, the audience sees everything through the eyes of Henry; a cybernetic supersoldier. Stars Sharlto Copley (DISTRICT 9), and Tim Roth.

DEMOLITION – Jake Gyllenhaal (NIGHTCRAWLER) plays a man who sets out to rebuild his life by destroying everything he owns.. Co-stars Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper.

THE JUNGLE BOOK – Jon Favreau (IRON MAN) directs the newest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous work. Neel Sethi plays the lead role of Mowgli, and he is joined by the voice-talents of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, and Christopher Walken.

CRIMINAL – Kevin Costner plays a gruff convict who gets the memories of a CIA agent implanted into his brain. Co-stars Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Eve, and Gal Gadot (DAWN OF JUSTICE).

GREEN ROOM – A punk rock band witnesses a murder. Stars Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart.

THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR – A prequel/sequel to SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012). Chris Hemsworth (THOR) reprises his role as the Huntsman, and Charlize Theron is back as the Evil Queen. Co-stars Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, and Jessica Chastain.

ELVIS & NIXON – The story behind the 1970 meeting at the White House between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Kevin Spacey stars as Nixon, and Michael Shannon plays Elvis.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING – Based on the novel of the same name, Tom Hanks stars as a washed-up businessman who travels to Saudi Arabia to propose a business complex. Co-stars Tom Skerritt, and Ben Whishaw (SPECTRE).


Next month, Reel Speak previews the massive month of May.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The DAWN OF JUSTICE Aftermath

This past weekend, one of the most anticipated superhero films of all time finally landed in theatres, with Warner Bros’. latest adaptation of a DC Comics property, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. The film easily won the domestic box office with a hefty $166 million.

But there are troubled waters underneath that shiny, six-digit money figure. A recent article by Forbes (HERE) points out that DAWN OF JUSTICE displayed the biggest drop between Friday and Sunday of any superhero movie to date; falling 55% from $82 million to $37 million.

How is it that a movie featuring two of the most popular iconic superheroes of all time, topped off with by a third (Wonder Woman) can suddenly struggle to bring people in? The first and obvious thing to look at is, is the movie any good? Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 28% of 278 reviews were positive, with an average rating of 5/10, and Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews from mainstream critics, gave the film an average score of 44/100, based on 51 critics (read Reel Speak’s review HERE).

Contrary to popular belief, superhero movies are not made exclusively for fans who dwell in comic book shops. Studios have to get the general public in the door because that’s where the real money is and determine if a film will have legs past its opening weekend. Reviews that were not very favorable have clearly led to bad word-of-mouth on the street, which is likely keeping the average viewer away.

There may be other factors involved. The decision to release on an Easter holiday weekend is questionable (did no one at Warner Bros. have access to a calendar?), and keeping the same creative team intact from MAN OF STEEL, the predecessor to DAWN OF JUSTICE, which was also met with mixed reviews, may have also been a factor (fool me once…). There are also theories that the world is growing tired of superhero films, and the term superhero-fatigue is being tossed around a lot. After all, there are now three major studios releasing several super-films a year (Warner Bros., Disney, and Fox), which averages out to a new flick every other month. But we only have to look at Fox’s recent release, DEADPOOL, which recently became the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, to see that people can and will still come. Why did DEADPOOL succeed where Batman and Superman are struggling? Because DEADPOOL was a better movie (84% positive on RT, 65/100 on Metacritic). So note to Warner Bros., if you want better success, make better movies.

Filmmaking is an art, but it’s also a business and an industry; an industry that employs hundreds and thousands of jobs and careers. Long-time lovers of cinema usually don’t actively hope for a movie to fail, but in this case there has to be some silent applauding for the struggle of DAWN OF JUSTICE; especially for committed fans of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman…who most certainly feel a bit cheated after this decades-long wait to see their beloved trio come together in a bad movie. Warner Bros. would be wise to use DAWN OF JUSTICE as a learning experience; to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what will draw people to the theatre…and most importantly, learn how to make a good film.

What say you?

Friday, March 25, 2016


Storytelling. Since the dawn of man, it has been an elemental part of the universe. It evolves, and now has its biggest and grandest stage on the silver screen. It is a home for heroes, and no two heroes in our time have more popularity than Batman and Superman. Much like the art, these two characters have taken on many forms and renditions, but have never shared the big screen together until now. Bringing them together is a treat for loyal and casual fans, but for director Zack Snyder, the act, just like a hero and a story, must have meaning.

After witnessing the cataclysmic events of MAN OF STEEL, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) vows to take down Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill). Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the trail of a story which leads her to billionaire tech-genius Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg), who is planning something bad.

As the second film in the Warner Bros. new series of films based on characters from DC Comics, it must first be said that the first film, the Superman kick-off MAN OF STEEL (2013), is essential viewing before diving into DAWN OF JUSTICE. In a stunning, 9/11-inspired sequence, DAWN OF JUSTICE begins during the end-battle of STEEL, with our new Bruce Wayne witnessing first-hand the power of Superman. It’s a powerful opening which is eerily familiar, and from there the film spends a ton of time with characters talking about the aftermath. A congressional delegation investigating the need for superheroes (led by Holly Hunter) drags the film down with endless debate about whether or not the world needs Superman. While all that is going on, DAWN OF JUSTICE moves into several other sub-plots with the principle players (Wayne, Kent, Lane, Luthor), and suddenly the film feels like 10 unrelated short-films running in succession. It doesn’t take long to realize that DAWN OF JUSTICE doesn’t have much of a story, and just moves into sub-plot after sub-plot; it’s choppy and has nothing to strive for.

Director Zack Snyder, working off a script by David Goyer and Chris Terrio, is juggling a lot of things at once; so much that there’s not room for it all. The big-idea themes are introduced but never developed, and are moved aside for some bizarre out-of-body dream sequences in which Wayne and Kent see things that make no sense in the overall film. Snyder apparently is burdened with the task of teasing the larger universe yet-to-come (or, the pending sequels), and the nutty dream sequences grind the film to a halt. The most egregious of which happens when an important character discovers more superheroes, and the film stops dead DURING THE FINAL BATTLE. It’s clumsy and baffling.

The only thing worse than the storytelling, or lack of it, is the technical execution. If film-editing is a fine-art, then DAWN OF JUSTICE was cut together with a jagged machete. Many scenes seem to start in the middle and feel like they’re missing their beginnings, while other scenes feel like they’re coming out-of-order. To make it all worse, DAWN OF JUSTICE can’t even get its setting clear. With the film taking place in Wayne and Kent’s cities of Gotham City and Metropolis, respectively, the lazy decision to place the two cities seemingly a mile apart (separated only by a body of water) is made. Characters bounce back and forth from city to city with no indication where they are (there are no defining characteristics to either place), and the geography isn’t made clear until late in the film, which at that point everyone would be dizzy from trying to follow things. It’s astounding that a major release like this would have such a confusing and sloppy aspect.

But if its superheroes that are expected out of DAWN OF JUSTICE, then that much is delivered. Batman is a menacing character, Superman gets to do some super-things, and the show is nearly stolen by Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman; who gets the biggest (and only) cheer when she does her wonderful things. There are some big-wow moments to be had, and Snyder, who at the very least was capable of big-screen, big-imagery iconography, makes for a visual treat whenever these three are on the screen.

Acting ranges from one extreme to another. Ben Affleck is perfect as an older and mean Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Jeremy Irons as his butler Alfred is a perfect foil; the two light up the screen every time they’re trading verbal punches. Henry Cavill certainly looks the part of Superman and is growing into the role nicely, and his short time as the alter-ego Clark Kent has just enough charm. Amy Adams as Lois Lane gets one big moment in the early goings, but then becomes a damsel-in-distress every five minutes which makes her annoying. Gal Gadot is spectacular as Wonder Woman, and the smaller roles held down by Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Scoot McNairy are solid. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is nails on a chalkboard; it’s no fault of his own doing, but the role is built as an eccentric weirdo who does weird things for no reason.

Luthor and Superman have a great moment prior to the big showdown the man of steel has with Batman (Luthor is behind it all, although for what reason is never made clear), and when the showdown does come, it is one hell of a fight to see. They of course make friends (in a groan moment), and then have to take on a third villain in the form of a CGI blob which is disposed of just as quickly as it shows up. The three or four endings needed to wrap the film are predictable, and one has to wonder just how the future films will shape up as Snyder and his crew have painted the franchise into a corner. DAWN OF JUSTICE does have a shiny-object effect to it, where it’s easy to be mesmerized by the holy-cow moments and the novelty of seeing these classic heroes interacting. But that shiny object is very thin and has nothing underneath it, as DAWN OF JUSTICE is a deeply flawed, poorly constructed, and maybe even poorly conceived idea…with no grip on storytelling whatsoever.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need To Know About BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Who are the two most popular, storied, and iconic superheroes ever created? Without a doubt, it is Batman and Superman, and on any given day during any given debate, any one of them could be declared as the #1. It’s a case of 1A and 1B, and this week, for the first time, the cinematic versions of these two characters finally meet on the big screen when BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE arrives in theatres. Here is everything you need to know going into this highly anticipated film.

What is this all about? – DAWN OF JUSTICE is the second film in Warner Bros. Pictures’ new series of connected films based on characters from DC Comics, with the first film being Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL in 2013, which introduced a new Superman and supporting cast to the world. In this second entry, WB/DC are introducing a new Bruce Wayne/Batman, who is seeking retribution after the cataclysmic events of MAN OF STEEL. Along with a new Batman, this film will also introduce new versions of famous DC characters such as Bruce Wayne’s long-time butler Alfred, Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor…along with the first big-screen versions of Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

Who is playing who? – The extra-large cast has Henry Cavill reprising his role as Superman, and Ben Affleck (ARGO) as our new Caped Crusader. The new cast includes Gal Gadot (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS) as our new Wonder Woman, Jessie Eisenberg (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) as Lex Luthor, Jeremy Irons (DIE HARD 3) as Alfred, and Jason Momoa (TV’S GAME OF THRONES) as Aquaman. Reprising their roles are Amy Adams (AMERICAN HUSTLE) as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne (THE MATRIX) as Perry White, and Diane Lane (UNFAITHFUL) as Martha Kent. Also along for the ride are Holly Hunter, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

Who is behind the camera? – DAWN OF JUSTICE is directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed MAN OF STEEL in 2013. His other credits include 300 (2007), WATCHMEN (2009), and SUCKER PUNCH (2011). The script is written by Chris Terrio, who won an Oscar in 2012 for Ben Affleck’s ARGO (Best Adapted Screenplay), and David S. Goyer, who wrote MAN OF STEEL and Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY. The score is provided by Hans Zimmer, who scored Nolan’s Batman films along with GLADIATOR (2000), and THE LION KING (1994), and Junkie XL, who provided the score for last year’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.

Random Facts – This version of Batman has no connection to Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films, and is a fresh-start (reboot) on the character * Christian Bale, who played Bruce Wayne in the Nolan films, was offered to reprise his Batman role in DAWN OF JUSTICE * This is Ben Affleck’s second time out playing a superhero; he played the lead in DAREDEVIL in 2003 * This is the 10th time Batman has been portrayed on the big and small screen since 1943. Superman has been portrayed 16 times since 1939 * The “v.” in the title is an abbreviation of the Latin word “versus”, meaning “against”. The title of the film is styled in the way court cases are titled. The first party is the claimant taking action because they have grievances with the second party *.

What to expect – For the past year, it seems that Warner Bros. has been going out of their way to tell us how epic and huge the fight between Batman and Superman is; which is fine and good, but it still needs to have a story behind two titans punching each other. Starting with the script, Goyer and Terrio have had success by writing very workman-like scripts; nothing mind-blowing but functional enough to get characters where they need to go. The cast, which reads like a list of nominees on Oscar night, are certain to do their jobs well, and this Blogger has believed from day one that Ben Affleck will give his all as the new Bruce Wayne…and the same goes for newcomer Gal Gadot. DAWN OF JUSTICE will truly crash or fly depending on its director, Zack Snyder. Snyder is known for great spectacle and visual treats, but has struggled with lacing together a story in the past. Delicacy is not his strong suit, but for a film that seems to want nothing more than fighting, that may be the story Warner Bros. wants to sell. We can expect lots of action, with what’s behind it all the real question-mark.


BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE takes flight March 25th


Monday, March 21, 2016


“Remember remember the 5th of November…”

This month marks the 10th anniversary of James McTeigue’s

Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore in which a masked freedom fighter named V attempts to start a revolution against a tyrannical neo-fascist government in a future United Kingdom, V FOR VENDETTA was James McTeigue’s directorial debut, and was produced by the (then) Wachowski Brothers, who were coming off their successful run with THE MATRIX franchise.

Using history and literature as inspiration, including the Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 1605, along with Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo and the writings of William Shakespeare, Moore’s graphic novel was adapted for the screen by the Wachowski’s. It was an ambitious and bold project, with a narrative led by a masked terrorist fighting against a government which ruled with an iron fist. The Wachowski’s wrote the script even before their first MATRIX was complete, and revised and revisited it over the years. When things finally started rolling, the directing job went to McTeigue, who had served as an assistant director for the two MATRIX sequels, along with STAR WARS: EPISODE II.

The important role of V, the masked main-character, was first given to James Purefoy, who spent six weeks filming before leaving the production. The role was filled by Hugo Weaving, who had previously starred in THE MATRIX trilogy, and was enjoying fame from his role in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The role of Evey Hammond, the young girl who falls in with V, went to Natalie Portman, who had impressed McTeigue during their time working together on STAR WARS. The super-villain-esque role of the Supreme Chancellor, Adam Sutler, went to the great John Hurt. The rest of the cast was rounded out by Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, and a young Imogen Poots.

Once filming was complete, V FOR VENDETTA was slated to be released on the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ historic plot to destroy Parliament, with the tag line “Remember remember the 5th of November”, which was taken from the traditional rhyme about the event. However, due to the extensive visual effects work, the film was delayed four months into March of 2006. The missed opportunity did not hurt, as V FOR VENDETTA opened number one at the U.S. Box Office and in five other countries. Famed critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave the film “two thumbs up”. It would win few awards, although Natalie Portman would win Best Actress at the 2007 Saturn Awards. The character V, whose face is never revealed, was included in Fandomania magazine’s list of The Greatest 100 Fictional Characters.


V FOR VENDETTA did not win any Oscars, has not been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and as a movie based on a graphic novel, it is often lost among the flood of comic-book adaptations involving men of steel and caped crusaders. But the strong symbolism in V FOR VENDETTA has made the film one of the most significant entries into pop culture and society since STAR WARS. The film itself speaks to how the famed mask is a symbol, and that has become true as the face of Guy Fawkes has become a symbol today for the oppressed, for fighting for freedom, and seeking truth. As a film, the film is very progressive as it tackles an evil government which persecutes women and gays, and watching it today one has to wonder just how far from that fictional storyline we really are in reality. The dramatic prose, characters, and commitment to history and the arts give the film a richness, and the action scenes, which are fantastic while remaining tempered, make V FOR VENDETTA one of the most entertaining and worthwhile action-flicks in the modern era. This Blogger keeps this film in his personal Top 20, proudly displays the poster at home, and revisits the film once a year; always on the 5th of November…and often wonders when the world will catch up to V.

“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Ever since his return to filmmaking in 1998, director Terrence Malick has established himself as the most unconventional filmmaker in the business. The word un-traditional is used a lot to describe his approach, from shooting movies without a script and then taking years to edit, from refusing to do press or cluing his actors in on the film they’re actually in. He’s a maverick and his films show it; often trading off a storyline in favor of philosophical ideas and using actors as props instead of characters. His latest, KNIGHT OF CUPS, shows that he has no intention of changing his style to please anyone.

Rick (Christian Bale) is a Hollywood screenwriter who is on the verge of signing on to work on a blockbuster film which will make him a millionaire, but he is going through some sort of personal crisis…and spends most of his time bedding women (played by Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, and Imogen Poots), while sorting out his old issues with his brother (Wes Bentley), and his father (Brian Dennehy).

True to the Malick style, KNIGHT OF CUPS does not offer much of a storyline in the traditional sense. Instead of an unfolding narrative where we follow a character through plot point after plot point, KNIGHT OF CUPS instead watches Rick as he stares out across the cityscape watching helicopters fly around. Characters rarely speak to each other, and we are instead treated to whispered narration in which their thoughts and feelings are expressed. Long-time admirers of Malick will certainly enjoy the approach, (the style is his trademark), and KNIGHT OF CUPS deserves points for being its own thing.

The film is divided up into eight chapters; with each chapter taking its name from the Tarot cards. Each chapter explores a theme, but here is where KNIGHT OF CUPS loses its shine. The film is horribly redundant as each chapter is exactly the same; Rick wanders around, meets a new girl, beds her, gets close to her, drifts away from her, and then goes back to wandering around staring at helicopters. It’s like watching the same vignette over and over, and by the third chapter the pattern is painfully obvious. Maybe Malick is trying to stay something about the repetitive nature of life, but as a film it gets old really fast.

Shot around Los Angeles and Hollywood, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki do amazing work in filming the city. The beauty of the ocean and her beaches are stunning, as is the dullness of a highway underpass or abandoned building. The film spends a lot of time at locations in L.A. which have been used countless times for Hollywood productions. Long-time film-fans will recognize most of them, and one has to wonder if Malick is mocking Hollywood by utilizing them. Still, the film is technically proficient and beautifully scored, although Malick’s decision to shoot the actors from their backside for 90% of the film does get annoying; we see the backs of their heads more than their faces…again, perhaps another statement by Malick which works against the enjoyment of the movie.

It’s difficult to judge the acting in KNIGHT OF CUPS because no one really acts and instead walk around each other. The only true acting Malick seems to allow is when Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett square off against each other as ex-lovers. There are fireworks for a few glorious seconds before the dialogue disappears, and it feels like we were cheated out of a real showcase of acting from these two greats.

After dealing with a whole lot of redundancy, KNIGHT OF CUPS offers a finale which leaves Rick in the exact place where he started the film; which isn’t the worst thing in the world for a film to do, but considering the lack of a true narrative and all of the philosophical ideas tossed around (with no answers given), one has to wonder what the point of KNIGHT OF CUPS really is other than Malick quietly poking fun at mainstream Hollywood. Malick has given us a beautiful film which deserves praise for being its own thing and far from the standard fare grinded out by the Hollywood machine, but it doesn’t seem interested in functioning as a movie, and like its maker, doesn’t really care.


Monday, March 14, 2016


In 2008, producer JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves unleashed upon an unsuspecting world the giant-monster invasion flick CLOVERFIELD. Here in 2016, Abrams continues the story by bringing aboard a new director and goes for a smaller setting, but piles on the drama in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a horrific car accident and wakes up in an underground bunker run by Howard (John Goodman), who won’t let her leave because he believes there has been a cataclysmic event outside that has poisoned the air. Michelle and her fellow captive Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) begin to suspect that not everything is as it seems.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a film which plays in many different genres, beginning with horror. The early goings of Michelle’s wicked car accident leading to her waking up in a strange place half-nude with an IV sticking out of her arm is the stuff most nightmares are made of, and the situation becomes even more frightening as Howard is revealed to be a rough, tyrannical, and somewhat paranoid man with mood swings that range from pleasant to mean in a blink. Eventually things settle in and the characters begin to trust each other, as they accept that they really can’t leave the bunker because of the toxic outside air, and the film shifts into a patched-together family drama. But one small twist leads to another, and Michelle and Emmett being to doubt everything; from the toxic air to what’s happening outside, right down to Michelle’s accident. 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE plays a game of maybe-it-is and maybe-it-isn’t, and as the characters doubt Howard, as does the audience.

Ninety-five percent of the film takes place in a single setting, and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg makes excellent use out of every inch. The bunker is beautifully designed with all of the comforts of home; a working kitchen, living-area, well-stocked pantry and facilities…and it seems like a nice place to live during an apocalypse if not for the drama and tension that keeps building. The mystery of the story is thick, and Trachtenberg plays the characters against each other and the situation beautifully.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is marvelous in her role. She displays all of the fear we would expect in such a situation, but still digs deep to find strength. John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as well, but he seems to be overshadowed by how good Winstead is, and especially the great John Goodman…who turns in a powerhouse performance as Howard. Goodman, in his long and varied career, has played the teddy bear and the sinister, but never both at the same time and it is a marvel to see. The mood swings, and there are many of them, change in a hurry, and Goodman nails each turn perfectly. By far, it is the best of his career.

The whopper of the finale dips firmly into science-fiction, and establishes a connection to the original CLOVERFIELD film (but true to the spirit of this film, maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t), and by the time the credits roll it is debatable whether or not all of the threads have been wrapped up. The ending may not work for everyone, but the journey to get there is more than worth it. This is a film which is wrapped up in mystery, deceit, terror, and tension…proudly wearing its Hitchcock and early TWILIGHT ZONE influences on its sleeves. The film is loaded with “maybe”, but there is none concerning how good it is.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Reel 20: FARGO

“What kind of trouble are you in, Jerry?”

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Joel and Ethan Coen’s FARGO.

Often referred to as a black-comedy crime-thriller, FARGO tells the story of a pregnant Minnesota police chief (played by Frances McDormand) who investigates three road-side killings which ensue when a struggling car salesman (played by William H. Macy) hires two criminals to kidnap his wife in order to extort and make away with the ransom. Although the beginning of the film states “this is a true story”, the film was not based on a specific event, but rather inspired on a conglomeration of several crimes, some of which took place in the area the Coens grew up; the suburbs of Minneapolis.

FARGO was the seventh feature film from the Coen Brothers, with Joel listed as director and Ethan as producer, with the both of them as the credited screenwriters. With the script calling for the story to take place during a harsh winter in the upper-midwest, filming began in January of 1995 in the Minneapolis area, but due to an unusually mild winter, production would move to other areas of Minnesota and North Dakota. No scenes were filmed in the area of the actual Fargo, North Dakota. Cinematographer Roger Deakins handled the filming; his third of an eventual 12 collaborations with the Coens.

Keeping the local flavor intact was important to the Coens, who cast a strong group of actors who could convincingly pull off the accent. The regional accent, referred to as the “Minnesota Nice” and the “singsong”, was taught to the cast by several dialect coaches. The principle actors, Frances McDormand and William H. Macy, spent time in the region with the locals to perfect their accents. The rest of the cast was rounded out by Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, and Harve Presnell.

Upon release, FARGO would not set the box office on fire, but it was a hit with critics, who found the violent, yet quirky comedy-thriller a joy to take in. Highly respected critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1996, and Ebert would later list it as the 4th best of the 1990’s.

FARGO would play at the Cannes Film Festival that year, where it would win the Best Director prize. It would be nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and would win two; Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens. FARGO would later land on several lists penned by the American Film Institute (AFI), including a ranking #84 on its famed 100 Years...100 Movies list, along with McDormand’s character ranked #33 on 100 Heroes & Villains. In 2006, FARGO would be selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


This Blogger hated FARGO in 1996, and probably didn’t like it very much ten years later. But as age sets in and perspectives change, a deep appreciation for FARGO was found. It is a film which balances many things at once; comedy and tragedy, crime and drama…and manages to poke fun at local flavor while staying respectful and true to the people, and despite being a murder-mystery, manages to be a very fun movie to watch. It has become a pop culture icon with an infinite number of zinger-quotes and characters which are memorable and a pleasure to hang out with. In the long run, the success of FARGO would enable the Coens to basically do whatever the hell they wanted for the rest of their careers, and their follow-up, THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), cemented their reputations as the most diverse filmmakers in the business. The Coens would borrow from FARGO for the rest of their careers, using botched kidnappings and bags full of money in their eventual Best Picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and their most recent romp, HAIL CAESAR! (2016). FARGO has all the elements that a great film should have; drama, laughs, good characters and an interesting, evolving story. Will FARGO hold up for another 20 years? You betcha.

“There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2016, Episode III

The conclusion of the Oscars not only marks the official end of the cinematic year of 2015, but it also signifies the end of Movie Siberia; the slow and dead months of early winter where the harvest is thin. Cinematic March, like the season of Spring, is a time of renewal. Here are the notable releases for the coming month:

It all falls into place with…

LONDON HAS FALLEN – The not-so-long-awaited sequel to the 2013 action flick, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. Gerard Butler (300), reprises his role as a secret service agent protecting the U.S. President, reprised by Aaron Eckhart (THE DARK KNIGHT), this time in London. Morgan Freeman tags along.

ZOOTOPIA – Disney animation studios gets back into the business of walking and talking animals. Stars the voice talents of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Bonnie Hunt, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, and Kristen Bell.

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT – In this war comedy, Tina Fey plays a war-correspondent sent to Afghanistan who develops a relationship with a fellow journalist from Scotland, played by Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT). Co-stars Billy Bob Thornton and Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET).

KNIGHT OF CUPS – Philosophical and experimental director Terrence Malick returns with another opus, this time telling the story of a Los Angeles screenwriter trying to make sense of strange events around him. Stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Brian Dennehy, Freida Pinto, and Imogen Poots.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – Described as a “spiritual successor” to the 2008 alien-monster invasion flick CLOVERFIELD, a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in an underground cellar run by a survivalist (John Goodman).

THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY – Sacha Baron Cohen (BORAT), stars as an English footballer who sets out in search of his long-lost brother, who is an MI6 assassin. Co-stars Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, and Isla Fisher. Directed by Louis Leterrier (THE INCREDIBLE HULK).

EYE IN THE SKY – Helen Mirren plays the leader of a secret drone mission. Co-stars Aaron Paul, and it is one of the last appearances by the late-great Alan Rickman. Directed by Gavin Hood (WOLVERINE: ORIGINS).

THE LOBSTER – In this sci-fi oddball, a city gives single people 45 days to find a mate before they are turned into an animal. Stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

REMEMBER – Christopher Plummer plays a dementia-ridden man who sets out on a cross-country road trip to deliver justice to the former Nazi guard who had murdered his family seven decades prior. Co-stars Martin Landau (ED WOOD).

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL – Jeff Nichols, who directed the magnificent TAKE SHELTER in 2011, returns with this sci-fi thriller in which a young boy with special powers is hunted by the government and extreme religious sects. Co-stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kristen Dunst, Sam Shepard, and Adam Driver.

I SAW THE LIGHT – Tom Hiddleston (Loki from THE AVENGERS) plays the original Hank Williams in this biopic. Co-stars Elizabeth Olsen, David Krumholtz, Cherry Jones, and Bradley Whitford.

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2 – The sequel to the 2002 smash-hit which brings back the original cast for another big fat wedding.

BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – The two most popular superheroes in history finally share the big-screen for the first time. Henry Cavill (MAN OF STEEL) reprises his role as Superman while Ben Affleck (ARGO) slips on the Batsuit for the first time. Gal Godot (FAST AND THE FURIOUS) brings Wonder Woman to the cinema for the first time, and she is joined by Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, and Holly Hunter. Directed by Zack Snyder (MAN OF STEEL, 300, WATCHMEN). 


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of April.