Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reel Facts & Opinions: Hail to the Chiefs

Playing the part of a famous person in history has to be a daunting task for actors, especially if the character has lived in the past 50 years, where their likeness, voice, and mannerisms have been captured by the magic of film…which means the actors have to do their homework. Famous persons usually have at least one great story to tell, and a good gold-mine for stories has always come from the men who have served as the President of the United States. This year alone, Kevin Spacey played Richard Nixon in ELVIS & NIXON, Bryan Cranston will play Lyndon B. Johnson in this year’s upcoming ALL THE WAY, and Woody Harrelson will also play LBJ in the upcoming LBJ. And today, the announcement came that one of the most popular Presidents in history will be returning to the big screen; Ronald Reagan.

Variety is reporting that actor Will Ferrell is set to play President Reagan in a film currently titled REAGAN. The story is to take part at the start of Reagan’s first term, when he falls into dementia and an intern is given the task of convincing him that he is an actor playing the President in a movie. The script is said to be one of the best on Hollywood’s famed Black List; an annual catalog of the top unproduced films in Hollywood.

Reagan, who actually started his career as an actor, has been portrayed on the big screen eight times beginning in 1982, when Rip Torn took the role in the comedy AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL. Other memorable takes on Reagan were Reginald Green in THE IRON LADY (2011), and the late, great Alan Rickman’s curious take on the character in THE BUTLER (2013).

Eight times seems like a lot, but it’s pale in comparison to how many times other Presidents have been adapted for the silver screen. Richard Nixon has been portrayed 11 times, which includes Frank Langella’s Oscar-nominated role in FROST/NIXON (2008), and Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s NIXON (1995). And those 11 appearances don’t count the CGI version Michael Bay used in his third TRANSFORMERS film, which actually worked.

After Nixon, George Washington has appeared 20 times, John F. Kennedy has been played 13 times, Franklin D. Roosevelt 11 times, Teddy Roosevelt 25 times (which includes three by Robin Williams), and Ulysses S. Grant 11 times.

But the champion of all Presidents on film belongs to the name of Abraham Lincoln, who has appeared a whopping 39 times since 1915, with the first appearance being in D.W. Griffith’s controversial (yet historic) film, THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Over the years, Lincoln has appeared in comedies such as BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989), and THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)…and as fictionalized versions in ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012). The definitive version of the 16th President belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance in Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN (2012), which should be considered a model for all future Presidential characters and films.

It seems unlikely that Will Ferrell will be studying up on the Day-Lewis method of acting in his preparation to play Ronald Reagan, especially since the little of the plot that’s been revealed indicates a lot of liberties being taken (although, who is to say that it didn’t happen that way?). The film has yet to sign a director or fill other roles, but it will be on Ferrell to make his President worthy of memorial or an impeachment. There is also the (ahem) minor matter of the film apparently poking fun at someone suffering from Alzheimer's (how will the Reagan family react?), and one has to hope the script as enough tact to be respectful to the 40th President of the United States.


Monday, April 25, 2016


The story of Snow White and her world has been a permanent fixture in storytelling for over 200 years. After humble beginnings as a fairy tale, Walt Disney added to his empire with his landmark film adaptation in 1937. Most recently, director Rupert Sanders dipped the character back into its fantasy roots with SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN in 2012. Its sequel, sub-titled WINTER’S WAR, has a new director and doesn’t bother with Snow White herself, but instead focuses on her world.

Set some years before the events of the first film, the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), using her magic mirror, betrays her sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who turns herself into an evil ice queen. Freya builds an army over the years which includes Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain). When Freya senses the love between Eric and Sara, she separates them. Flash-forward to after the events of THE HUNTSMAN, and Eric is recruited by two dwarves (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon), to find the now-missing mirror before Freya does.

Showing no shame, WINTER’S WAR is a film which fully embraces the fantasy roots of Snow White; specifically, the world that she inhabits. Its world is packed full of dwarves, fairies, goblins, witches, magic-spells, swordplay, bow-play, and axe-play…all set up in a days-of-high-adventure atmosphere. All that is dressing under the meal, and the meal WINTER’ WAR is serving is a little meek. The story, which runs around a camera-absent Snow White, feels more complicated than it should have been. The idea for the film to serve as both a prequel and a sequel to the first film bogs things down a little, and for a film that is primarily concerned with fetching a magic object and defeating an evil witch, the road to get there is way too complicated…despite the insertion of some nice twists and turns.

But where WINTER’S WAR really fails is that the film is so incredibly BORING. Pacing is a major issue as characters plod from one setpiece to another, and by the time they get there for another fight scene it’s hard to care. The battles are done well enough from a choreography point-of-view, but there is no energy, excitement, thrill, or any reason to care. It’s hard to tell if the film lost its way while shooting or in the editing room, but for a film that is immersed in a great-looking visual effects-feast in a fantasy world, it’s shocking just how dull everything really feels.

Acting is a mess. Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain drop in and out of their odd Irish accents, with Hemsworth struggling the most as most of his lines come out garbled. The two of them look great in their medieval outfits slinging arrows and axes, but sadly don’t generate much chemistry between each other. Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt whisper their way through the movie with occasional outbursts, and each one of these fine actresses had to feel ridiculous with some the things they were asked to do. Comedy relief is asked of Nick Frost and Rob Brydon as dwarves, but not one of their jokes or gags can generate the slightest giggle.

The movie looks amazing, James Newton Howard’s score sounds great, and the over-qualified cast fits their outfits well and swing their weapons around nicely, but WINTER’S WAR, after a very noisy final scene, is very much all flash with no substance. There are moments here and there which threaten to salvage things, but the overall lack of energy, rhythm, and forward-motion is very disturbing and shows a lack of understanding the filmmakers have for their craft. No fairy tale should be this torturous to sit through.


Friday, April 22, 2016

A Reel Review: ELVIS & NIXON

A good story can be found anywhere; in a novel, comic-book, history book, news article, or corner pub. For director Liza Johnson, an obscure and nearly forgotten moment in history which occurred in 1970 was her inspiration…a moment when Mr. President met Mr. Presley.

Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) becomes concerned about the safety of the United States and recruits his best friends Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville) to accompany him to Washington, DC…where he requests a meeting with President Richard M. Nixon (Kevin Spacey) so he could get a Federal Agent badge and work undercover.

ELVIS & NIXON spends most of its time following Elvis as he persistently, and wholeheartedly pursues his goal of obtaining his coveted badge, with the remaining time dedicated to a grumpy Nixon who wants nothing to do with him whatsoever. The early goings set are set up in a familiar cinematic journey, with Elvis setting out for his goal, encountering many ups and downs and setbacks, and coming across a host of star-struck people. Nixon meanwhile acts as the antagonist, refusing to meet with the flamboyant rock star simply because he doesn’t understand him.

Director Liza Johnson uses this time wisely. She manages to dig deep during the time before the meeting, dropping hints here and there over what makes these two men, who couldn’t be more different…tick. Once the meeting does happen (about an hour into the film), the two men initially prod each other like predators before finding common ground, and here is where ELVIS & NIXON really pays off. The meeting feels earned, because Johnson had done a fine job of laying the groundwork on the way. Its love and family which drives the two men, and its love and family which makes the meeting not end in a fistfight or any sort of disaster. As icing on the cake, Johnson lets her two characters explore the themes of fame and responsibility, and it adds a bonus layer to work with.

Johnson keeps the pacing quick and humor light, and 1970’s Washington and Hollywood look great on the big screen. The style and pacing make for a fun ride, but she still manages to sneak in a hint of sweet melancholy as the two characters are only a few short years away from events that will change their lives forever. If the film has any fault its un-needed sub-plot involving Elvis’ best friend Jerry Schilling, who is torn between helping Elvis and heading home to propose to his girlfriend. It’s there to add depth, but it tends to be a distraction from the fun we’re having with the rock star and politician. The movie also tends to forget its setting; the meeting takes place in December, yet characters walk around Washington as if it’s 90 degrees (Virginia has mild winters, but not that warm).

Michael Shannon is terrific as Elvis. He doesn’t look like the man most of the time (the times when he does are chilling), and Johnson’s neat trick of having people freak-out when they see him adds to the believability. Shannon gets the body language, voice, and mannerisms of Elvis just right, and he finds a deeper level during the more intimate scenes which makes him a true character and not just a good-looking prop. Kevin Spacey manages to look quite like Nixon with the hunch and growl and is very entertaining. The supporting cast of Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, and Tate Donovan are all excellent.

ELVIS & NIXON runs at a brisk 90 minutes, and for a film which barely makes feature-length and only has a dozen main speaking roles and set-pieces, it feels like a lot happened. This isn’t a story which involves an earth-shattering moment or the changing of a generation, but instead a quick tale of two people coming from opposite ends of the galaxy landing on the same planet. ELVIS & NIXON is a meeting worth sticking around for.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016


“Follow the money.”

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

In 1972, the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington D.C. was burglarized. The intruders were caught, and over the course of the next two years, the event would blow up into a political scandal which would lead to a national crisis and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The scandal would be brought into the light thanks to the investigative efforts of reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, and in 1974 the two collaborated on a book about the ordeal. That same year, Hollywood’s biggest star, producer and actor Robert Redford, purchased the rights to adapt the book onto the screen. Screenwriter William Goldman, who had just won an Oscar with Redford on BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), was hired to write the script. Due to the length of the book, a decision was made early on to only adapt the first half of the book, which would have the film ending with Nixon taking the Oath of Office for what would be his second term in office (Nixon would resign eight months later, after story broke in The Post).

Once the script was settled upon, Redford settled into the role of Carl Bernstein, while Dustin Hoffman, fresh off an Oscar nomination for LENNY (1974), was cast as Bob Woodward. Redford and Hoffman visited the offices of The Washington Post for months to research their roles, but the paper denied permission to film inside of its newsroom. The production team then took detailed photographs and measurements of the newsroom and built and exact replica; right down to phone books and desks. The set was built in Hollywood, while Redford and Hoffman filmed exterior scenes in Washington, D.C. Also joining the impressive cast was Hal Holbrook, Jane Alexander, Jason Robards, Ned Beatty, Stephen Collins, and F. Murray Abraham.

Upon release, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN received universal acclaim. It would be nominated for eight Oscars, winning four; including Best Adapted Screenplay for Goldman and Best Supporting Actor for Robards. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the U.S. Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN was a film which had a lot going for it in 1976. The nation was still reeling from the scandal and was still hungry for more information, and having two of Hollywood’s leading men in the film certainly didn’t hurt. The tone of the film fit in perfectly with cinematic style of the 1970’s; gritty and grounded thrillers in which there are no real heroes or winners by the time the credits roll. Director Alan J. Pakula did remarkable work in contrasting light and dark, honest and corrupt…and underneath the surface of a political thriller and detective story, was a tale about government rotting from within. But the film is also a story about the power of good journalism, and its influence was seen recently in the Best Picture winning SPOTLIGHT, which tackled a similar topic; print-journalists overcoming great odds to reveal the truth. The quote “follow the money” would reverberate through pop-culture, and would eventually resurface countless times in other films and TV dramas. The Watergate Scandal may have been a national crisis, but it gave journalism the chance to shine…and the film would go a long way in inspiring a generation of eager newsmen and women. In our social-media/information-crazed era, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is the standard by which all that information is gathered…and presented.

“If you’re gonna do it, do it right. If you’re gonna hype it, hype it with the facts.”


Monday, April 18, 2016

A Reel Review: MILES AHEAD

Telling the real-life story of a person in feature film tends to come off as a where-are-they-now TV special, or even a Wikipedia entry where the important events of a life are checked off. For first-time director Don Cheadle, telling the story of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis required a different approach…an approach which much like the music of Davis, does its own thing while not caring if we like it or not.

In the late 1970’s, Miles Davis (Cheadle) hasn’t produced an album in five years and his holed up in his apartment surrounded by drugs and booze, when he is visited by Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a reporter looking to write Davis’ comeback story…a comeback which Davis isn’t ready to make. Meanwhile, sleazy record executive Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg) plots to steal from Davis home a tape full of new recordings no one has heard yet…

Seemingly not content with the standard formula for the music biopic, director Don Cheadle, who also co-wrote the screenplay, instead focuses on a three-day blitz in Davis’ life during his five-year absence from the world…with flashbacks here and there to at least explain how Davis got to the point where he didn’t want to make music any longer. It’s an honorable approach and for the most part works, but the un-necessary touch of Davis telling the story himself is where MILES AHEAD loses some ground. Set in the framework of Davis telling the movie’s story to Braden, Davis says early on, “if you’re going to tell a story, tell it with some attitude”. It’s Cheadle speaking directly to the audience and letting us know that the film in front of us is an embellishment of the facts…as Davis and Braden go off on a mission to recover the stolen tape which leads to car chases, gunfights, fistfights, drug deals, and murder.

Cheadle lets his movie evolve into a buddy-cop flick, as Davis and Braden, neither of which trust each other, go from one sticky situation to another where noses are broken and bullets go flying. It’s a clever genre mash-up and gives the film the grounding that it needs. Cheadle also finds time to let Davis explore the torture that creativity can bring, and exactly what fame tends to be and not be. There’s some excellent work being done under the surface, and it’s only the outrageous situations that the players find themselves in which distracts from it.

The film is a technical masterpiece. It has a grainy and dark look to it which makes it feel like a film which was shot on 1970’s film-stock; it’s a very authentic vibe which is very effective. There are some clever transitions from the 1970’s to the 1950’s in which Davis’ backstory is explored…specifically his failed marriage and planting roots towards his eventual substance-abuse issues. The musical performances are outstanding, and Davis’ actual music is always heard in the soundtrack during scenes.

Don Cheadle is outstanding as Miles Davis. Speaking with Davis’ raspy voice which sounds like a cinderblock dragged across an ashtray, he is a dead-ringer in sound and appearance. Ewan McGregor is a blast as the journalist who is in a situation that he is no way prepared for, and Michael Stuhlbarg comes off as a great villain. Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Davis’ wife Frances, is beautiful on-screen and is a great foil to Cheadle’s violate Miles Davis.

The movie ends with a loop back to the story-telling by Davis, and reminds us that the entire film we have just seen is a kinda-sorta made-up story…with perhaps 10% of the overall film hitting the actual facts; it’s almost as frustrating as having a main character waking up at the end revealing that the entire film had been a dream. There is still a lot to enjoy in MILES AHEAD, as Cheadle’s amazing performance and masterful directing are very worthwhile, but the non-traditional approach may be off-putting for musical purists…and for as much as MILES DAVIS shoots for, we don’t really get a sense of the impact the real-life Miles Davis made on the world. There is commendable effort here, but one can’t help but to wonder how much more accessible and believable it would have been if it stayed a little more traditional.


Friday, April 15, 2016


Disney’s latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s famed and beloved jungle-adventure about a boy raised by animals is very much done in the spirit of their old, live-action/animated hybrid films; loaded with adventure, whimsy, fun characters and iconic villains…dressed up with breathtaking visuals and environments by way of the latest cinematic technology. It is not a remake, rehash, or reboot, but instead a reinvention of the classic tale while keeping all the right themes intact.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi), is a young orphan (referred to as a man-cub) who was abandoned in the jungle and found by a panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), and raised by a wolf named Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o). When a vengeful tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) seeks to kill Mowgli, the young boy sets out into the jungle to go back to his own kind, and along the way befriends a bear named Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray), encounters a seductive snake named Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and a power-hungry gigantopithecus by the name of King Louie (Christopher Walken).

Drawing heavily on Kipling’s many works, THE JUNGLE BOOK is episodic in nature as Mowgli ventures through the jungle encountering friends and foes while falling into one scrape and pickle after another. Keeping all of the chapters together are very strong threads which director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks are more than happy to explore. The question of how many lives a man-cub is worth is asked early on by Khan, and that question seems to be grappled with by Mowgli’s friends as they help him decide if he should stay in the jungle or go back to his own kind. Looming over it all is the threat Khan poses to Mowgli and to the rest of the jungle inhabitants and it provides a serious threat which all characters have to face.

Favreau explores many themes during Mowgli’s trek through the wilderness; about man’s threat to nature and the danger they pose, what makes a man a man and the question of what really makes a family. These are very adult themes which are handled very well and never derail the film or bog it down too much for younger minds. But the first great beauty of THE JUNGLE BOOK is that Favreau drops us all in the middle of the jungle, right in Mowgli’s mind…and lets us explore the magnificently realized world through his eyes. There is a sense of wonder going on at all times, as Favreau seems to be recalling the days of his childhood when nature programs were the thing to watch every Sunday afternoon.

The second great beauty of THE JUNGLE BOOK is the breathtaking visual effects. The entire environment is artificial and the many animals, ranging from wolves to monkeys to squirrels to hawks to elephants…are stunningly convincing. Everything is photorealistic and it’s hard to tell where any physical elements end and the CGI begins.

Neel Sethi, in his first feature film, is fantastic as Mowgli as he hits every emotional note that can be asked of such a young actor. The voice-cast is perfectly matched with their animal characters, with the true standout being Idris Elba as the villainous tiger Shere Khan. Idris booms like thunder in bringing this bad guy to life. Khan is a true menace on screen and a great cinematic villain. The show is stolen by Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, whose animal characters actually look like them…and they both get to sing a little…

The finale is a thrill and manages to pull off a convincing final battle despite the heavy use of CGI animals bashing into each other. By movie’s end, Favreau has found a way to tap into the things that we all enjoyed as cubs, and can appreciate more as adults. THE JUNGLE BOOK is new and exciting; taking old themes from an old story and giving them a fresh coat of paint that is classic and endearing. Be prepared to laugh, cry, fear, and duck for cover…this is an emotional journey that Disney has always done so very well.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Reel Facts & Opinions: Cinematic Spring Catch-up

With the calendar moving from the slow months of Winter into the busier months of Spring (and a soft opening to the Summer Movie Season), Reel Speak has been busy posting more reviews than actual blogs…for as the weather gets better, as does the release schedule. With a short break in the action, this seemed like a good time to take a look at what has been dominating the world of film news in the past few weeks.

This Blogger was very pleased to begin April with a screening of Stanly Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY on the big screen, as part of Cinemark Theatres’ Classic Series. This was the first time this Blogger had seen the film in the theatre, and the result was stunning. The extra-large presentation made the vastness of space all the more beautiful and terrifying, and sequences such as The Dawn of Man and the trippy Infinite were breathtaking. Every hair on an ape could be counted, and the sinister red glow of HAL the super-computer practically burned off the screen. It was a magnificent experience at the theatre and this Blogger highly recommends any release as part of Cinemark’s Classic Series.

A galaxy of another kind stole all the headlines recently when Disney and LucasFilm unleashed the first teaser-trailer for the first STAR WARS spin-off film, sub-titled ROGUE ONE. This is the one of the most interesting projects Disney has taken on since acquiring the STAR WARS franchise, as it’s the first film which (a) does not have episode-number or focus on the Skywalker family, and (b) serves as a prequel to the STAR WARS film which started it all; A NEW HOPE from 1977. In A NEW HOPE, which lands as the 4th episode in the Skywalker Saga, the plot involves Rebel forces exploiting secret plans to the Empire’s super-weapon, the DEATH STAR. ROGUE ONE seeks to tell the story of how those plans were stolen, and looks to lead right up to the events of A NEW HOPE. Call it a prequel, or call it Episode 3.5, but either way fans were enthralled at the teaser, which brought back classic characters and locations that they fell in love with nearly 40 years ago. See the trailer HERE.

As if STAR WARS wasn’t making enough headlines, Disney then dropped another bomb when the announcement that the original STAR WARS trilogy would be returning to theatres at select locations as part of a roadshow program. Dubbed The Return of the Trilogy, the show will hit the road in August in 20 cities, with all three films presented in their 1997 re-release (Special Edition) format. The triple-feature will also have specially made video content in-between films, along with contests, and “other special surprises”. For this Blogger, this is a great event to look forward to. It’s not often the original films which changed an industry; the face of pop-culture, and the lives and imaginations of so many writers filmmakers and creative people…appears in the theatre. This Blogger has massive fond memories of the 1997 release with his friends, and looks forward to another day to be long-remembered.

Making fewer headlines than STAR WARS but still some decent waves was the release of the third trailer for Warner Bros. Pictures’ upcoming adaptation of the DC Comics villain-teamup known as SUICIDE SQUAD. The trailer, which is a high-energy blast set to the rocking tune Ballroom Blitz, seems to continue an apparent adjustment in WB’s marketing approach to the film. The first trailer was a grim snoozer, and was soon followed up by a more colorful and zippy trailer set to Queen’s classic rock-tune Bohemian Rhapsody. Considering the poor reviews and box office drop of WB’s BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, there seems to be some adjusting going on behind the scenes of SUICIDE SQUAD, and that should be a good thing. See the new trailer HERE. WB wasn’t quite done making headlines, as they quickly followed up with the announcement of Ben Affleck being named as director for the upcoming solo BATMAN film, as yet un-titled, due out in 2018 or 2019. Affleck, who has a solid directing career with GONE BABY GONE, THE TOWN, and the Oscar-winning ARGO, will also star as the caped crusader…and should be considered a welcome addition to the ongoing series of connected DC Comics films.

And not to be outdone, Disney and Marvel Studios released the first trailer for this year’s adaptation of DOCTOR  STRANGE, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. As a character who uses magic and bending reality to fight, STRANGE looks to be a different kind of film from what we’ve seen from Marvel so far…as opposed to armored guys (and women) who are combat-ready. See the new trailer HERE.


DR. STRANGE arrives November 4th.

SUICIDE SQUAD arrives August 5th.

Monday, April 11, 2016


The way human beings react to drastic and unexpected change has been a source for storytelling since the Stone Age, and in the last few years has served as a fine playground for director Jean-Marc Vallee. Vallee has explored the way we react to illness in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), and divorce in WILD (2014)…with both films becoming Oscar darlings. Vallee’s newest, DEMOLITION, tackles the most drastic game-changer for human beings…the loss of a loved one.

Davis (Jake Gylenhaal) is a bored-with-life investment banker who loses his wife in a car accident. Despite pressure from his father-in-law and boss Phil (Chris Cooper), Davis begins to unravel and takes solace in sending letters to Karen (Naomi Watts),  a vending-machine customer service rep whose son Chris (Judah Lewis) is sexually confused, and proceeds to physically demolish and take apart everything in his life.

The stages of grief are not the easiest things to express on film, and often fall into clichéd territory with characters staring at themselves in the mirror or standing at a gravestone during a torrential downpour. Thankfully, DEMOLITION is a film which avoids all that and instead, nearly to a fault, hangs its mourning hat on metaphor. Early in the film, Davis is advised by Phil that in order to understand something, it needs to be taken apart…and Davis takes this advice literally and proceeds to disassemble everything in sight; his computer, fridge, restroom stalls…and eventually takes a sledgehammer and smashes everything in his house. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor which for the most part works.

But for a story that is supposed to be all human, DEMOLITION has a huge disconnect with the audience. With Davis being a very rich banker living in what most working-folk would consider to be a small mansion, it’s difficult to feel sorry for him once the (ahem, clichéd) paths of I’m-rich-and-miserable begin to reveal. The film doesn’t build up towards much and there’s no huge moment for Davis, and even by the end of the story it’s not quite clear if he advanced at all. A lot of big ideas are thrown around in DEMOLITION as characters endlessly talk about life and death and what it means to actually feel, but most of these are merely said and never fully explored or have any sort of pay-off at the end.

As he has always done, Jean-Marc Vallee pulls some great performances out of his cast. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is a bit of an oddball who only has to act weird and do odd things after the accident, and it’s hard to believe that any other actor but he could have pulled this off. Chris Cooper is excellent as the grieving father, and does the best work and gets the only real weighty stuff to work with. Naomi Watts is as pretty and charming as ever, but doesn’t seem to have much chemistry with Gyllenhaal. Young Judah Lewis, who as a sexually confused 15 year old, turns in a very good performance despite the character adding even more oddness to the whole film.

Davis’ character suffers from a lot of numbness throughout the film (before and after the accident), and with the story centered on him, the overall film experience feels numb as well. There’s an awful lot of dryness to it, and for a film that wants to be one long therapy lesson, one has to work very hard to find any answers. DEMOLITION is a film anchored by great performances and the occasional thought-provoking idea, but ends up as a film which turned left when it should have turned right.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Reel Review: I SAW THE LIGHT

From Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash, from NWA to Dewey Cox…the rock n’ roll biopic has become a genre of its own over the decades, with each one earning success thanks to a well-proven formula of storytelling; a formula of humble beginnings, a meteoric rise, a tragic fall, and topped off with a rise from the ashes. For director Marc Abraham and his Hank Williams biopic I SAW THE LIGHT, that old formula didn’t seem to be good enough.

Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) rises to fame in the late 1940’s despite his dependencies on drugs and booze, and struggles to maintain his career along with his marriage to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen).

I SAW THE LIGHT is a film which seems to exist to prove a point; that the decades-old formula of telling the story of a famed musician isn’t the only way to go. Instead of starting Hank’s story at the beginning, director and writer Marc Abraham instead chooses to focus on a specific period in the man’s life; starting when Hank Williams was just starting to become famous until his untimely death at age 29. There are roughly six years of ups and downs explored here, with Williams earning his wealth and chasing a goal of performing in the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a noble effort, but I SAW THE LIGHT focuses too much on its current happenings and doesn’t seem interested in looking at what made Hank…Hank. His desire to play at the Opry (and stay there) is expressed over and over again, but other than a short line of dialogue early in the film, there is no reason to know why exactly it is so important to him. With that crucial element missing I SAW THE LIGHT operates as a very shallow film.

Marc Abraham also struggles with the narrative structure. Scenes do not transition very well into each other; we go from one big dramatic event after another which has zero impact on the very next scene, and while it’s possible Abraham is letting us fill in the gaps by ourselves, chunks of the film seem to be missing. There are also a bunch of what appears to be interviews being filmed with Hank’s friends to tell us about things that were happening (possibly after his death), but it feels lazy as in too much telling and not enough showing.

There is still a lot to hang a ten-gallon hat on in I SAW THE LIGHT. Tom Hiddleston is marvelous in the role and even looks like Hank time and time again. Hiddleston does his own singing, and the performance scenes are spectacular; with the highlight being an a cappella version of Cold, Cold Heart…sung by Hiddleston…which is chilling. Abraham shoots a beautiful looking film, and the tone of the era is captured perfectly.

Tom Hiddleston nails the musical performances  and the off-stage drama. Elizabeth Olsen as his on-again, off-again wife is also excellent, and Bradley Whitford turns in a nice supporting role. Cherry Jones nearly steals the show as Williams’ overbearing mom.

The film ends with Hank Williams’ way-too-young passing, and it’s a dramatic moment which feels light because the build-up towards it is devoid of any urgency or life. It’s a ho-hum finale simply because the last 30 minutes are a snore. I SAW THE LIGHT is worth a peek thanks to a wonderful performance by Tom Hiddleston, but suffers from clumsy storytelling and an apparent want to do things differently by the director. Formulas work for a reason.


Monday, April 4, 2016


In the past five years, writer/director Jeff Nichols has done tremendous work in exploring the family dynamic, due in no small part to his ability to place a family story inside of another genre. In TAKE SHELTER (2011) it was paranoia, and with MUD (2012) it was broken-home drama mashed with backwoods fables. Nichols’ latest film, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, once again explores the ins and outs of family, this time while playing with science fiction.

Roy (Michael Shannon) with help from his best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) flee a religious cult led by Calvin (Sam Shepherd), with Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher)…an eight-year-old boy who has otherworldly abilities. They meet with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and flee across the country to a mysterious location with the cult and the government, led by Paul (Adam Driver) hot on their heels.

The success or failure of any science fiction flick is how much we are willing to buy into the fantastical elements of the story. With MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, the abilities and powers of Alton are not only believable, but are also what drives the story. Alton can do simple things such as hear radio signals through the air, or deadly things such as pulling satellites out of space or granting visions to those brave enough to look him in the eye. His abilities are what makes three different powers of the world come after him for different reasons; the government thinks of him as a weapon, the religious cult believes he will show them the way to paradise…and his parents just want to keep him safe.

And it is with the parents where Jeff Nichols’ story truly takes shape. While the film has many themes working such as belief and fear, it is really a story about the great lengths a mom and dad will take to keep their children from harm. Even after Roy and Sarah realize that whatever awaits them at the mysterious location Alton is drawn to may result in their son vanishing…they still press on at all costs. It’s parental love that Nichols is playing with in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, and there is no fantastical element in the film that can overcome how powerful that simple theme is.

The film begins right in the middle of a lot going on, and Nichols brilliantly fills in the backstory through some clever reveals; some come very slow, and others with shocking, jump out-of-your-pants moments. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL also serves as a mystery thriller, and it is mesmerizing waiting for the next reveal to answer questions. Alton’s powers, which become more volatile and unpredictable during the day, force the family to travel by night…giving Nichols the opportunity to shoot some startling and beautiful night-time cinematography.  The pacing is brisk, the humor is sparse but well-timed, and David Wingo’s haunting score has a way of getting inside our heads; just like the movie will.

Acting is superb. Michael Shannon continues his reputation as one of our finest actors here. Although he doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, he communicates legions of emotion in a single glance. His face shows his soul, and there is never a moment where we doubt his resolve as a committed father. Kirsten Dunst is also excellent, having now fully graduated to the more adult-roles and is perfect as a loving mother. The supporting cast of Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, and Sam Shepherd are also excellent. Young Jaeden Lieberher, as the center of the film, shoulders the burden perfectly.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is one of those perfect films which plays with many themes and genres, but never gets hung up or distracted by them and sticks with an A to Z storyline which is never confusing or hard to buy into. The whopper of a finale, topped off with a junior-whopper closing shot, brings all of the many themes together in a thought-provoking way. This is a film which can work for many audiences; sci-fi fans, drama-critics, and any parent who has ever loved their children.