Thursday, July 28, 2016


By cranking out 13 movies in 11 years, writer/director Woody Allen is in the most prolific time of his six-decade career. In that time, he’s had just as many misses as hits, and his newest film, CAFÉ SOCIETY, falls somewhere inbetween; or maybe better than that, or maybe worse…depending on what we demand from a Woody Allen film.

In the 1930’s, Bobby (Jessie Eisenberg), moves to Hollywood to work for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who is the head of a major movie studio. Bobby falls for Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is secretly having an affair with Phil. When things go south for Bobby, he moves home to NYC, were he begins working for his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who is the owner of a swanky, high-profile nightclub and also a gangster.

CAFÉ SOCIETY is a film which is loaded with old and familiar playthings for Woody Allen. Items such as marriage infidelity, love triangles, family matters, and unrequited love are everywhere, and for long-time fans of Allen, or those of us who have been familiar with his vast catalogue of films, it is comfort food-level cinema.

Unfortunately for this Allen film, CAFÉ SOCIETY doesn’t have much by way of a plot. The love triangle between Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil is where the movie is at its strongest, and is the best representation of anything resembling an actual narrative, but once that gets disposed of and Bobby heads back to the east coast, there isn’t much to hang our hats on other than the characters musing over the choices they had made in life. Little plot and a lot of character can be forgivable providing there is a payoff, but by the time the credits roll, one has to wonder what the point of it all was.

CAFÉ SOCIETY is the first film in which Woody Allen has worked with famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro,  (considered to be one of history’s most influential cinematographers, having filmed notable classic such as APOCALYPSE NOW, REDS, and THE LAST EMPEROR), and the payoff is immense. CAFÉ SOCIETY, from sunny California to the grim of New York, is absolutely gorgeous. Some great work is done using natural lighting, and a short scene is Central Park fills the screen with beauty. Allen and Storaro bring the fun and swag of 1930’s Hollywood and New York right back to life, and the music is spot-on perfect.

Allen has always pulled great performances out of his casts, and CAFÉ SOCIETY is no different. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who have appeared on-screen together before, show great chemistry with Stewart getting the most to work with. Eisenberg is fine, even though his character feels a little inconsistent; he’s wide-eyed and innocent one moment, world-weary cynical the next, and then innocent again from scene-to-scene. Steve Carell plays a great part as the Hollywood boss, and puts on a touch of a classic screen-villain which is a joy to watch. Corey Stoll is a waste, as is Blake Lively who eventually enters the story as a new love interest for Bobby.

The enjoyment of CAFÉ SOCIETY depends on one’s demand from a Woody Allen film. His old tricks and styles are present, the laughs are plenty, in good taste and well-timed, and the dialogue is fun and snappy and very functional…but as a film it sorely needs a story to fit into the backdrop. It isn’t a total waste of time, and very much feels like Woody Allen is filling time before his next film.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The Top 5 STAR TREK Films

The 13th film based on Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK television series, entitled STAR TREK BEYOND, warped into theatres in 2016, earning its way into a first-place finish at the box office along with positive reviews from fans and critics (read Reel Speaks’ review HERE). With BEYOND entering many conversations concerning the best TREK films, now seemed like a good time to revisit, and rank the best of the fleet.

Similar to the way Reel Speak ranked the Top 5 Pixar films (HERE) this Blogger approached this list the same way any other movie is judged; story, entertainment value, character, and emotional impact. With STAR TREK, it’s fair to also consider just how well the films stay true to the values that the original television show set forth 50 years ago, because after all; when millions of dollars are on the line, it’s not hard for filmmakers to go off course.

Thirteen films is a lot to go through, so this Blogger decided to run with a Top 5 list. So let’s go boldly…

5. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) – This was a close call, because this Blogger really enjoyed BEYOND and was tempted to slip it into the Top 5. But maybe time will be the answer to just how well BEYOND holds up, and time has certainly been kind to THE VOYAGE HOME. In this adventure, the crew warps back in (ahem) time to the present day to bring a humpback whale or two back to the future, where an alien probe is threatening Earth because of the absence of the extinct species. It’s hokey and relies on a lot of humor, but THE VOYAGE HOME embraces a lot of the things that made TREK so much fun and interesting in the first place; time-travel plots, hokey yet believable storylines, and an underlining message of having to take care of the present in order to preserve the future. The original intro to STAR TREK always had a line about “seeking out new life”, and seeking new life is exactly what the mission is THE VOYAGE HOME.

4. STAR TREK (2009) – When the decision was made to bring STAR TREK back to the big screen in the new millennium, the franchise was a shipwreck. There had not been a film in seven years, and the last few had suffered from poor reviews and even poorer box office results. When director JJ Abrams was brought aboard the bridge, he not only got the shipwreck off the island but back into orbit. With yet another time-travel story, Abrams reset the board with young versions of the old crew and a new timeline, which gave the franchise the complete freedom to explore any storylines possible. The new cast of actors captured the spirit of the original crew in a dazzling display, and the sense of energy was a welcome joy to watch. The method used to “reboot” the franchise was brilliant, and the film itself was a thrill ride with wonderful the old ship a much needed boost for new audiences.

3. STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984) – As stated, seeking out new life is one of the most vital themes in TREK, and in the third film, there was no life more vital to search for than the one belonging to the beloved Mr. Spock, as wonderfully played by the late Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy, who also directed, raised the stakes by making the search for the missing and presumed-dead Spock an outlaw act, making the mission led by Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) an illegal one, which was new territory for TREK. Their mission was a labor of love, and add in James Horner’s magnificent score, and we’ve got the most emotionally satisfying TREK of them all.

2. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) – The granddaddy of all TREK films and the one that got it all started. A simple plot which reunites the original crew from the television series in which an indestructible alien entity threatens the Earth, this film spends a lot of its time with its characters getting to know each other, which is a great way of letting the audience, who had not seen a new STAR TREK adventure in over a decade, to get re-acquainted as well. THE MOTION PICTURE capitalized on dazzling visual effects, and was the first to realize that the chariot of our heroic crew, the starship Enterprise, was important enough to be treated like a character. Jerry Goldsmith’s score became one of the most recognizable TREK themes, if not the definitive. When this Blogger was a wee-lad, the mystery behind the alien entity played out like a horror movie, and 37 years later, still holds that aura.

1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) – When the decision to make another STAR TREK movie was made in the early 1980’s, the approach was to make the opposite of THE MOTION PICTURE. Where the first film had no villain with a face and deliberately-slow Kubrick-like pacing, THE WRATH OF KHAN brought back a formidable villain from the television series and kicked up the action. Khan, as portrayed by Ricardo Montalban, gave a larger-than-life performance which even today is often recalled as one of the best on-screen villains ever created. And once again, seeking out new life was the focus, with our Admiral Kirk feeling old and worn out and looking for meaning again, and the only way he could find new life was to face death…and that death came to his best friend, and the best friend of audience, Mr. Spock. Infused with the best themes of TREK and the classical nature of Moby Dick, THE WRATH OF KHAN carries resounding themes of life and death, but at the same time is a fulfilling space adventure which goes boldly, and establishes STAR TREK as legitimate cinema.





4.       STAR TREK


Friday, July 22, 2016


When STAR TREK first began its voyages 50 years ago on television, it was a space adventure done with a sense of hope and optimism and sprinkled with humanity and classical storytelling. When the franchise moved onto the silver screen in 1979, the stakes were raised, the stories got bigger, and some of that old TREK-feeling was left behind. Justin Lin’s STAR TREK BEYOND, now the 13th film in the franchise and the third since the 2009 reboot/re-start, is a TREK film which sets out to find what was lost.

The starship Enterprise is on its third year of its five-year mission, and the crew is getting restless. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is considering taking a desk job, and his friend/First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is also considering leaving the crew when Enterprise is lured to a remote planet by Krall (Idris Elba), and maroons the crew on the planet as he plans to unleash an attack on the Federation.

STAR TREK BEYOND is very much done in the spirit of an original TREK episode, with simple plotting set with a captain-and-his-crew story. Things take a great turn when the crew is marooned and split apart; Kirk and his Navigator Checkov (Anton Yelchin) are on their own, as is Spock and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), while Chief Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) is alone until he befriends an alien she-warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and helmsman Sulu (John Cho) are in the clutches of Krall. The plot is simple; rescue the crew and stop the bad guy (with a few excellent twists), but what makes it work is that BEYOND is very much a character-driven film. By isolating everyone, each character gets to be their own role in the plot and have an impact. Even when separated, the crew acts as a team, and every member has their moment…which pays off greatly towards the end as each character brings something vital to the table (or the bridge).

Director Justin Lin, working off a script which was co-written by Simon Pegg, keeps the galactic pedal-to-the-metal at all times. Pacing is very fast, almost to a fault, and the result is a very energetic film with a great sense of forward momentum and urgency. When it does slow down for the occasional necessary pauses, the time is used wisely for some nice character moments. The action scenes and setpieces are spectacular with a vast sense of scale, particularly in the outer-space scenes with Enterprise. As good as the bigger setpieces are, the tighter fight-scenes are a bit muddy; anything that goes into hand-to-hand combat resorts to too much shaky-cam and really needed to hold still. It’s a minor gripe in a very-well photographed film. Old-school TREK fans are in for a treat, as the Enterprise looks fantastic thanks to Lin’s loving and graceful shots on her exterior and interiors, and the film is graced with some heart-string pulling nods to the old STAR TREK crew and the other films and TV series.

Acting is as wonderful as it’s ever been in a STAR TREK movie. Chris Pine has grown into a role of leadership, and his chemistry with Zachary Quinto’s Spock is getting better and better. Karl Urban gets the best lines and executes them perfectly, and Simon Pegg also chews the scenery in a good way. Sofia Boutella, despite having to act her way past a ton of makeup and being a bit thinly drawn, is a blast to watch. Idris Elba also has the task of acting his way past 500 pounds of makeup and prosthetic, but his performance is solid although his villain-character is also a bit underdeveloped. The rest of the cast, including John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and the late Anton Yelchin are perfect.

The original STAR TREK set out on the small-screen with an attempt to be relevant in society along with its hope and optimism, and that is certainly present in this film, and going deeper…the way the crew comes together and works with alien races of all shapes and sizes drives home a subtle we’re-not-all-that-different-on-the-outside message, which once again makes TREK a relevant force in the real world. Everything STAR TREK set out to accomplish 50 years ago is present here, and as a film it is a solid space adventure and a perfect big-screen experience.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Reel 30: ALIENS

“…they mostly come out at night. Mostly.”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of James Cameron’s ALIENS.

Often regarded as one of the best action-films ever made, Cameron’s ALIENS was a direct sequel to Sir Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979), which told the story of a mining-crew who was wiped out by a single alien onboard their ship while in deep space. Emerging the victor in that film was the character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who was the lone survivor in the story and elevated herself as a new action hero in the genre.

The want for a sequel to Scott’s ALIEN emerged as far back as 1979. However a change in ownership at 20th Century Fox delayed the project for several years, and it wasn’t until 1983 when new management found an interest in the film. The first director on the list was James Cameron, who at the time was not even into filming his breakout film, THE TERMINATOR with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cameron, who was a huge fan of the original film, wrote a portion of the script while filming TERMINATOR, and wrote it as a war film with Vietnam War influences.

Where Scott’s ALIEN was a slow-paced horror-flick in which one single alien-terror kills off a crew one-by-one in the seclusion of outer space, Cameron’s ALIENS raised the stakes by upping the number of alien creatures into the hundreds and by making our heroes a platoon of futuristic Marines. Re-joining the story would be Sigourney Weaver, and her cast-mates would include a testosterone-fueled cast of  Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein, and Al Matthews. But not content to let his film play out like a old boy’s club of ass-kicking Marines, Cameron cast a nine year-old Carrie Henn to play the part of Newt; a young girl who is the lone survivor of the alien infestation…a brilliant move by Cameron which gave Ellen Ripley something real to fight for.

Filming took place at the famed Pinewood Studios in London, and at the abandoned Acton Power Station, also in London. Filming had its hiccups, as Cameron clashed with his director of photography and a production crew who were loyal to Ridley Scott and felt Cameron wasn’t experienced enough. Problems continued through post-production, as editors rushed to meet the July 1986 deadline and composer James Horner, fresh off his success from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982), had to put together a final soundtrack in a matter of days.

Cameron and his team were able to pull it together, and ALIENS arrived on time and was the No.1 film at the box office for four straight weeks…and to this day it sits as one of the highest-grossing R-rated films of all time. It would be nominated for seven Oscars, including James Horner for Best Original Score, and would win two for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects. It would win eight Saturn Awards in the categories of actress (Sigourney Weaver), supporting actor (Bill Paxton), and performance by a young actor (Carrie Henn). The success would give James Cameron the clout he needed to have his own way with his films…which would lead him to his Oscar-winning TITANIC (1997) and AVATAR (2009); the highest-grossing film of all time.


Sometimes there is nothing better than seeing two of your favorite genres come together on the screen in a glorious milkshake. ALIENS was, and is, a great mashup of science fiction, horror, and the war-film genre…with an adventure in outer space involving a creepy-as-hell alien-things and flag-waving, ass-kicking, ball-breaking, big-fire-bringing Marines. As wee-lads, this Blogger and his brother loved ALIENS; every fight, curse, character, and on-screen death (Bill Paxton’s Hudson was, and still is our favorite). Thirty years later, ALIENS holds up just as well if not better than most blockbuster-tailored action-flicks of today. The film has heart, is visually amazing, and knows how to treat soldiers on film. After all, the best war-films are the ones that know that a platoon of soldiers are composed of people from all walks of life and allow those diverse characters to be themselves. Outside of the big-nuts platoon, we have our Ellen Ripley, as gloriously played by Sigourney Weaver. Weaver’s performance and Cameron’s writing set the template for women as action-heroes, and the influences done in ALIENS can still be seen, and sought after today. Ellen Ripley was a badass, but was graced with the motherly instinct to protect those around her, making ALIENS not just a model for sci-fi fans, but also the highest standard for elevating the role of women in a man’s universe.

 “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

Friday, July 15, 2016


Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Over the decades the movies have adapted this simple idea into the three-act structure, and the challenge for every filmmaker has been to make the seams in-between the acts invisible as their stories progress. For director Paul Feig and his remake of the 1984 beloved comedy GHOSTBUSTERS, keeping consistency between acts is one of many issues.

Paranormal researcher Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and physicist Erin (Kristin Wiig) put their old differences aside to investigate the uprising of ghosts around New York City. They recruit quirky engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and amateur NYC historian Patty (Leslie Jones) to form a team of researchers and ghost-hunters despite efforts from the mayor (Andy Garcia) to debunk them and keep a lid on the existence of ghosts.

GHOSTBUSTERS is a film with a solid beginning. Good work is done in establishing the main characters, most especially with Abby and Erin…who have been friends since childhood and have their own issues to work out between each other. They are the grounding element in their ghost-busting team which is kept on their toes with the nutty Holtzmann and the powdered-keg Patty. Despite the good early work, GHOSTBUSTERS settles into a second-act slog as pieces are moved around in anticipation of the final showdown. On-and-off again discussions with the mayor’s office are a grind, and the mystery behind who is drawing ghosts into NYC doesn’t amount to much. All this is capped off with a messy third act culminating in a huge battle between our heroes and a thousand CGI ghosts, which is a lot of lights and noise and is equivalent to jangling shiny keys in front of an infant. The character work done in the early act is thrown out the window, and the supposed pay-off at the climax doesn’t feel earned.

GHOSTBUSTERS is a comedy at its core, and the laughs that Feig goes for are very much hit-or-miss. Most of the humor comes in the form of quips, but the stage is set early on when Melissa McCarthy’s character blows a lady-fart which is then followed up by a guy shitting his pants which is then followed by another guy flipping the middle-finger all over the place. It’s a sign that the humor is completely un-sophisticated and aimed at 13 year olds, and doesn’t do the cast any favors. Feig also treats his male cast-members in a curious way; nearly every man with more than five minutes of screen time is portrayed as a complete idiot, with the bulk of the jabs thrown at the character Kevin (Chris Hemsworth); a dim-witted hunk hired as a receptionist. Kevin is played so dumb he can’t answer the phone, and it’s so over-the-top the character feels mentally-challenged; a trait which Feig takes full advantage of. And just for good measure, our team of Ghostbusters shoots a giant ghost in the nuts with their lasers in the final battle.

Pacing and editing are also an issue. Many scenes drag on for way too long as one single joke is stretched way too thin. The film also stops dead in its tracks to wedge-in cameos from the 1984 film, which add nothing and only halt what there is of the plot. There are many callbacks to the original movie and the pacing is weighed down because of it, and it comes off as a mistake for a movie which so desires to be its own thing. There are some very well-done horror sequences here and there, but they are usually derailed by a CGI blob-thing of a ghost.

Acting is all over the place. Kristin Wiig is allowed to do the most work and does it well. Melissa McCarthy fades into the shadow of her castmates, but still finds time to pull her standard fat-girl-falls-down routine. Leslie Jones just YELLS REALLY LOUD all the time. Kate McKinnon fares the best as the quirky and socially-awkward engineer, but is very thinly drawn and since McKinnon is a bit un-hinged in the first place, it’s hard to give her too much praise. Despite the flaws with his character, Chris Hemsworth breaks out of his manly tough-guy persona with a surprisingly loose performance. Neil Casey plays the so-called villain who is bringing ghosts into the city, and he is written so thinly, with zero background or motivation, that he makes no impression whatsoever.

A lot has been said about this reboot/remake of GHOSTBUSTERS concerning the female leads and the whole idea of even making the movie in the first place. The cast, which does have talent, is short-changed by the underwritten script and the crass humor, and the only justification for having the ladies in the lead is to have queef jokes and one-liners about their bras. The film does not serve them well, and overall is an insult to watch as it is crude, silly, offensive, and exploitive…and makes no strides for anyone involved. It suffers from a poor story structure and bad humor, and is one ghost story which needs to be busted and locked away.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


“Welcome to Earth!”

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Roland Emmerich’s INDEPENDENCE DAY.

INDEPENDENCE DAY, commonly referred to as ID4, was very much done in the spirit of the alien-invasion flicks of the 1950’s, sharing a lot of DNA with WAR OF THE WORLDS or THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. With a simple plot of aliens arriving at Earth with giant spaceships and eventually attacking, only to be fought off by the efforts of human beings from all walks of life bonding together, it was classic storytelling of good vs. evil done with a big budget and bold decisions.

The first idea for ID4 came by director Roland Emmerich during a press tour for his 1994 film STARGATE, when a question from the press had him questioning his own beliefs about life in outer space. The original idea was to have the aliens arrive on Earth and in secret, but Emmerich eventually asked the question, that if you were arriving from another planet, “would you hide on a farm or would you make a big entrance”? Emmerich and his producing partner Dean Devlin wrote the screenplay with such a beginning in mind, and the project was greenlit by 20th Century Fox.

ID4 was a visual effects heavy film, but it was still character-driven which meant casting would be crucial. One of the boldest moves was casting rapper Will Smith in the important role of Capt. Steven Hiller, a cocky yet born-leader-type fighter pilot. The role was only Smith’s 5th film credit, with his work in the drama SIX DEGREES OF SEPERATION (1993) earning him the attention for ID4. Jeff Goldblum was cast as David Levinson, a satellite technician would play an important role in defeating the aliens, and the rest of the strong cast included Bill Pullman (fresh off another galactic adventure, SPACEBALLS), Judd Hirsch, Vivica Fox, Margaret Colin, Mary McDonnell, Randy Quaid, Adam Baldwin, Brent Spiner, Harry Connick Jr., and the late great Robert Loggia and James Rebhorn.

ID4 would be one of the first films to rely heavily on computer-generated graphics, but the filmmakers still had a reliance on the old-school model-making ways. The iconic shot of the White House being destroyed by a laser blast was actually a large model, and thousands of model buildings, jet fighters, and alien ships were built and destroyed on film. Despite sticking to the old way of visual effects, the leaps in CGI that ID4 made would help usher in the CGI era and change filmmaking forever.

The impact that ID4 would have on the industry began even before the film was released. It was the first film to market itself during the Super Bowl, and the now-historic trailer would set a trend which continues to this day. As the film got closer to release, commercials were aired under the guise of an actual news broadcast of aliens arriving; marking the beginning of viral marketing years before the term would become a household name.

The approach worked. ID4 was the highest grossing film of 1996, and for a time was the 2nd highest grossing film of all time, second only to Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK (1993). Today, it sits as the 51st highest grosser of all time, and in 1996 TIME Magazine featured the film on its cover, saying that science fiction had finally become a legitimate genre in movies again. ID4 was nominated for two Oscars, winning one for Best Visual Effects. David Arnold’s patriotic score would win a Grammy.


INDEPENDENCE DAY is a fully-functional thriller of a film. It is exciting and tragic, funny and devastating, and loaded with spectacle while never losing sight of its characters. The story structure, which often references a chess-game in which all pieces are put in the right place, can easily be a taught in any film or screenwriting 101 class. ID4 made history in the way it was conceived, made, and marketed…and is certainly responsible for bringing the modern summer blockbuster model to where it is today. This Blogger fondly remembers watching ID4 in the theatre in the summer of 1996, being blown away by the visuals, and also wondering just how exactly the good guys were going to win against such massive odds. It was an emotional roller-coaster of a film, and once Bill Pullman’s character of the U.S. President gave his rousing and iconic speech, something akin to the St. Crispin’s Day Speech or Quint’s calm-before-the-storm monologue from JAWS, there seemed to be hope…and that was part of the great storytelling by Emmerich and Devlin. By the time the film wrapped and David Arnold’s magnificent bravado score kicked in, it sent this Blogger and his friends flying out of the theatre, ready to take on the world. Today, this Blogger watches INDEPENDENCE DAY once a year, always on or around the 4th of July, as the film has become part of the holiday just as much as our fireworks.

“Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!”


This Blogger was pleased to be a guest on the Hi-5 Podcast celebrating the 20th anniversary of INDEPENDENCE DAY. You can listen to it HERE.

Monday, July 11, 2016


As a wee-lad, this Blogger was always fascinated by his uncle’s Swiss Army Knife. It was the neatest little gadget with an answer to every problem, and was very much the type of tool that would be used by James Bond or Batman. In SWISS ARMY MAN, the directing team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known simply as Daniels), sets out to ask the question of what would happen if a human body were used as a multi-purpose, problem-solving tool. But it doesn’t stop there.

Hank (Paul Dano) has been stranded on a remote island with little food and water and is about to commit suicide when a farting corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. The arrival saves Hank’s life, and in gratitude, he takes Manny on a trek to find home.

The concept of SWISS ARMY MAN feels like one of those ideas that a bunch of drunks would come up with during an all-night binge, only instead of the idea giving way to hangovers, this time they actually went out and filmed it. The film is a bizarre journey, as Hank uses the body of Manny as a tool to help him get back to civilization. Hank uses Manny’s teeth to cut rope, his head as a hammer, his mouth and lungs to collect and store drinking water, and his farts to light fires and to act as a propellant when he uses him as a jet-ski to cross a body of water. Not to mention Manny’s erect penis which acts as a compass to point towards civilization. It’s a bat-shit crazy road-trip story, and is packed with situations that have to be seen to be believed.

But not content to just gross and freak people out, Daniels takes things to a new level when Manny the farting corpse begins to speak and hold conversations with Hank. Whether or not it’s really happening or Hank is hallucinating from starvation is left up in the air (likely the latter), but it turns the bizarre nature of the film into a buddy-flick. The two bond as expected, but another level is reached as Hank is forced to explain what life is and what it means to be alive to Manny, who has no recollection of his former self. Things take an even deeper level when Hank begins to project his life onto Manny’s empty memories, and Hank’s miserable backstory is filled in one of the most brilliant methods put to screen. There’s a lot of metaphor being worked with here; having to literally face death to find life again, and the uniqueness of the situation gives it a new and fresh spin.

Daniels keeps the pacing brisk and the humor coming in doses, and there are many pop-culture references to keep movie-nerds smiling, plus even the dramatic moments have a feeling of lightness to them considering they involve a gassy dead body. Filmed mostly on beaches and dense woods, the cinematography is stunning, and the soundtrack composed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell is breathtaking.

Acting is superb. Paul Dano goes through every emotion that can be thought of, and his scenes where he role-plays to explain life to Manny are hilarious. Daniel Radcliffe turns in what would have to be the most talked-about performance in years as the corpse; having to remain (ahem) stiff and still convey a sense of emotion in a startling, and amazing way. Mary Elizabeth Winstead pops in as a love interest and is effecting in her limited screen-time.

The finale is a rousing one which leaves our characters in interesting places, and the reasoning for Manny’s, um…talents are sort of left out there. But it doesn’t matter, because the questions the film raises are more than just looking for explanations, as this is a film which deserves to be talked about on an existential level for years to come. This is a film about life and death, love and friendship, falling and rising…and it makes one of the most ridiculous concepts in years an effective and memorable storytelling tool. SWISS ARMY MAN, like any good friend, is a multi-purpose tool for those of us who have looked into the darkness and found light; meaning everyone.


Thursday, July 7, 2016


Warning: Here be spoilers.

There’s nothing like a shiny new car, and in March of this year, Warner Bros. rolled out what they hoped to be the Cadillac of superhero films with their super-opus BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. But the film, which promised the long-awaited showdown between two of the most popular characters in fiction, was met with mediocre to dismal reviews (read Reel Speak’s review HERE), and the bad-word-of-mouth from critics and fans kept the film from reaching the coveted $1 billion mark, and just like that the new car was sputtering down the road.

The criticisms of the film were many, including a non-existent plot, choppy editing, poor sense-of-place, bizarre dream sequences, characters doing things for no reason and an overall joyless experience. Perhaps not deaf to the legitimate complaints from critics and fans, Warner’s and director Zack Snyder are offering a new cut of the film, entitled ULTIMATE EDITION, which carries 30 extra minutes of movie (beefing up the run time to over three hours), along with a new R-rating (the theatrical version was PG13), and an assumed promise of the many issues being resolved.

It must be made clear that the ULTIMATE EDITION isn’t much of a director’s cut, as it doesn’t re-tool scenes or replace anything. It instead extends a lot of scenes and enters in new ones which offer more exposition and some better character moments…and flesh out things that were merely mentioned in one or two lines in the theatrical version. The bulk of the extra time goes to the investigative reporting by reporters Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), with Kent tracking down the Batman (Ben Affleck) and Lois trying to get to the bottom of an incident in the desert in which Superman is framed for murder. The new scenes with Lois take her to an FBI lab, where actress Jena Malone, who was cut completely from the theatrical edition, finally gets to appear as a lab technician. Unfortunately for Lois, her investigation, which wasn’t all that compelling or interesting in the original version, does more harm than good as the extra material makes it easier for the characters to realize that the villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), was the one responsible for the Superman framing and the bombing of the U.S. Capitol (a major incident in the film). The new scenes make Luthor’s guilt very obvious, which makes his overall plan in the story even dumber.

Clark Kent’s investigation scenes fare much better, as they offer a chance to see Superman acting like a human being instead of the thug Snyder has portrayed him as over two films. Cavill gets to show some compassion to people and families of Gotham, and his reasons for wanting to battle the Bat, which came out of nowhere in the theatrical cut, are a little more palpable. Clark’s compassion nearly makes Batman a villain in the film and long-time fans of the Bat may take issue. The best addition to the film comes courtesy of Clark’s added scenes, as it allows the film to firmly establish the close proximity of the film’s two primary locations…Metropolis and Gotham City; as opposed to the theatrical version which didn’t establish this until the movie was almost over.

Other added scenes include a quick shot of yet another super-villain who vanishes just as quickly as he (or it) appears, which adds nothing to the overall story and teases another movie. There are also added scenes involving a supposed witness to the alleged Superman-murder in the desert, and the family of a criminal Batman had put away…which only bring the movie back to the same place as the original cut did. There’s also too much time given to a football game between Metropolis and Gotham, and photographer Jimmy Olsen, which adds nothing. The new R-rating is a soft-R, as the only graphic parts seem to be two new F-bombs and Ben Affleck’s ass.

ULTIMATE EDITION does fix a few problems on the outside, but the core issues are still there. The film still feels like many scenes are appearing out of order, and a major continuity mistake, in which Clark appears in a place he isn’t supposed to be, was not fixed. The other issues such as poor sense-of-place (we never know where we're at), and the wacko dream sequences remain as they are not explained or even helped, and the film still lacks any joyous moment or rallying point to get our hearts behind. Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder haven’t fixed much, and have instead hammered out the dents in a car with a broken engine.


BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – ULTIMATE EDITION is now available for digital download and streaming services. The blu-ray will be released July 19th.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Reel Review: THE BFG

When the conversation moves to the long and storied career of Steven Spielberg, the word “heartstrings” tends to come up a lot. It doesn’t matter if the man is playing in the arena of sharks, aliens, war, or dinosaurs…one way or another he will find a way to tug those strings within our hearts, which makes his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, THE BFG, in which a young orphaned girl befriends a Big Friendly Giant, the perfect playground for the famed director to play in.

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is whisked away from her orphanage by a friendly giant (Mark Rylance), who is tasked with collecting dreams and delivering them to sleeping children and their families. Once in the land of giants, the BFG is tormented by nine bigger-giants, and Sophie decides to help her new friend.

THE BFG doesn’t have a whole lot to work with in terms of plot, and spends most of its time with Sophie and The BFG exploring their surroundings. The story doesn’t have much of a bite until it moves into Sophie looking to stop the tormenting going on that the bigger and meaner giants are inflicting upon BFG. It’s a thinly-veiled anti-bullying message going on inside of Spielberg’s playing around with a Beauty and the Beast theme sprinkled with his own E.T. (1982).

But this friendly giant begins to stumble thanks to the script, which feels frustratingly incomplete. The heart of the story is the relationship between Sophie and BFG, and although some fine seeds are planted, the script seems to fast-forward to the part where they suddenly become best friends for life. It doesn’t feel earned and robs the film of any true heartstrings to pull. The incomplete script also plagues the magical and magnificent world the giants inhabit; although the environments are stunning, the building of the mythology stops short of feeling complete. Exactly why it’s so important for BFG to complete his task of delivering dreams is never fully explained, or even why it’s his in the first place. This robs of the film of any real stakes and a “who cares” vibe when it comes to whether or not Sophie can help him.

There’s still a lot to enjoy in THE BFG. The CGI work in the giants and the giant-land is stunning, and the motion-capture work done with BFG is breathtaking. There’s some clever design-work done with BFG’s home, and even more clever work done with showing how a giant can move stealth-like down a city street. Humor is well-timed, and a sequence with the Queen of England and her staff which turns into a farting-fest has to be seen to be believed.

Acting is split right down the middle. Young Ruby Barnhill, in her first movie role, is sweet in some places but stiff in others, and never really develops a full character. Mark Rylance acts his way past the motion capture to create something memorable. The rest of the small cast, which includes Penelope Wilton (as the Queen), and Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall (as the Queen’s staff), are handled well.

THE BFG tries to go for a sweet happy ending with Sophie and a member of the Queen’s staff (Rebecca Hall’s character), but just like everything else in the script, the moment doesn’t feel very earned and won’t have anyone reaching for the tissues. THE BFG is packed with big ideas and good intentions, but doesn’t see any of them all the way through; it’s a film which takes baby steps instead of giant ones.


Friday, July 1, 2016


Since 1918, Tarzan has been a character well-suited for the big-screen. Start with a young boy raised by apes who grows to be the king of the jungle, throw in a love-interest named Jane and a mustache-twirling villain, and you’ve got the makings of high adventure right away. For director David Yates, such simplicity just isn’t good enough for the latest vine-swinging adventure in the form of THE LEGEND OF TARZAN.

Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), now known as his birth name of John Clayton III, has left life in the jungle for a life of domestication with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), but is coaxed back into the wild by civil rights activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects some foul play in the country of Africa. But the trip is being orchestrated by the corrupt Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who is looking to capture Tarzan and turn him over to hostile natives to gain the rights to diamonds.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a film which is burdened with a convoluted plot which didn’t need to be as thick as the baddest bush in the jungle. There’s a lot of talk-talk-talk about civil rights, diamonds, a secret army, and a King who has defaulted on his loans. Things pick up when Leon Rom fails to capture Tarzan and settles on Jane instead, which leads to Tarzan rampaging through the wild to catch them. On paper there’s enough there to sustain the film, but the adventure has no momentum as things have to stop every now and then to talk about all the politics involved, and the stakes involved are never really made clear which gives the whole thing a “who cares” vibe.

Director David Yates adds to the blandness by doing nothing with his characters. Tarzan has little to achieve other than chasing Jane and punching apes, and the character finishes the film in the same state of mind as when he started…and the big guy seems to have zero issues with transitioning from the domestic life back to the jungle. Jane is treated even worse as just a plain-old damsel in distress, and George Washington Williams, who is based on a true character from the American Civil War who fought to abolish slavery, feels like he would add some serious-issue angles to the film but winds up as nothing more than a sidekick-buffoon stumbling through the jungle. To top it off, Leon Rom is driven by nothing more than greed. Snore.

As a character who communicates with animals, Tarzan can be a high-concept to buy into. Certain touches work, but the CGI work done on the animals only works part of the time…which has us watching Tarzan fight and cuddle with unrealistic-looking blobs on the screen and the artificial jungle environments are stunning in some places and very fake in others. Rupert Gregson-Williams contributes a very good score, and cinematographer Henry Braham films some great-looking scenes which don’t involve fake apes and bugs.

The goddamn 3D is shit.

Acting is an odd mix. Alexander Skargsgard looks like a great Tarzan (he looks amazingly like the Disney version), and has a great presence on screen. He’s given minimal dialogue to work with, which seems fitting for a character raised by apes but takes away opportunities for him to truly act. Margot Robbie shows a lot of fire and spirit when she’s not tied down to something, and Samuel L. Jackson just plays Samuel L. Jackson. Christoph Waltz plays the exact same character he’s played in his last 13 movies (yawn). Djimon Housou, who appears as a tribal chief, is terrific as he always is.

The finale includes a big battle (groan) on a ship complete with a big explosion and a machine gun (double-groan), and with whatever everyone was fighting over never really clear, all the noise means very little. By movie’s end there’s also the realization that Tarzan never spends a lot of time in jungle doing Tarzan-things, and instead spends the movie in houses, trains, and boats. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a failure to grasp the simplest of characters and simplest of concepts, and provides nothing that the audience would want to see. This is an adventure that never should have left the house.