Monday, August 29, 2016

Gene Wilder 1933 - 2016

Gene Wilder; actor, screenwriter, and author…has died at 83.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Wilder became interested in acting at the age of eight, when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor told him to make her laugh. He adopted the professional name of Gene Wilder at the age of 26, taking inspiration from Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in the novels Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River. He studied communication and theatre arts at the University of Iowa, and later at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he attended acting classes in New York.

In the 1960’s, he would cross paths with film producer and director Mel Brooks, who would cast him in the 1968 screen adaptation of THE PRODUCERS. The film would become a cult comedy classic, and would earn Wilder a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  

Over the next several decades, Wilder would become a frequent collaborator with Brooks, and eventually other comic greats such as Gilda Radner and Richard Pryor. The list of films reads like a roster of Greatest Comedies; WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971), BLAZING SADDLES (1974), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), SILVER STREAK (1976), THE FRISCO KID (1979), STIR CRAZY (1980), THE WOMAN IN RED (1984), and SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL (1989).

After the passing of his wife Gilda Radner in 1989, Wilder would found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center, and co-found Gilda’s Club; a cancer-awareness support group. He would author several books, and leave the business with two Oscar and two Golden Globe nominations.


This Blogger would discover Gene Wilder in the early 1980’s, when a new cable-box service called HBO would run the great comedy YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Although many of the jokes in that film would go right over the head of this wee-lad, the film became a favorite thanks to Wilder’s funny acting and excellent timing. Over the years, this Blogger would appreciate him even more thanks to great turns in BLAZING SADDLES and THE CISCO KID…in which he played opposite Harrison Ford. Wilder had entered semi-retirement in 1999, and his absence could be felt in cinematic comedy. He brought to every role a touch of class, grace, and pure humanism that very few actors could do. He was the perfect match for the films of Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Sidney Poitier, and most of all…his soulmate Gilda Radner. It has often been said that Wilder was never the same after Gilda passed, just as the film world will never be the same without Wilder. The laughs that Gene Wilder brought us for so many years have faded, but the memories of those laughs will remain…just as the comfort of knowing that somewhere, Gene and Gilda are together again at last.

A Reel Review: DON'T BREATHE

Of all the different genres in cinema, the horror-movie seems to be the one which has never advanced past its usual storylines of vampires, ghosts, possessions, slashers, and home-invasions. Maybe it’s because those are the crucial elements of the genre, but over the past decade have become very old-feeling and stale. For director Fede Alvarez and his newest, DON’T BREATHE, the solution to this problem could not be simpler.

Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), are three delinquents living in what’s left of suburban Detroit who make a living as burglars. They break-and-enter into the house of an old blind man (Stephen Lang), after hearing rumors of a fortune inside…

The home-invasion storyline has been an effective one in horror for many years. After all, there’s nothing more frightening than being threatened in our own homes, our comfort zones, by something that’s uninvited. The old trope usually centers on a family or helpless person being threatened by invaders, but Fede Alvarez, who last directed the 2013 EVIL DEAD remake, literally turns the tables by suddenly making the invaders who are the ones under threat. The old man, who is very much blind, turns out to be a war vet whose killing skills have not diminished in the least, and his handicap has turned his other senses…smell and hearing, into a powerful radar.

Not content to just let all the characters chase each other around in a spooky, dimly-lit house, Alvarez takes things several steps further by playing with our emotions. In the early goings, we’re fully prepared to hate on the three burglars who don’t think twice about robbing an old blind man, but once a second-act whopper of a twist comes around, we’re suddenly pulling for the robbers and hoping the old man gets what he deserves. There’s a lot of back-and-forth as backstories are revealed and everyone has legit reasons for robbing and other acts. It’s an emotional roller-coaster and Alvarez never puts on the brakes.

Alvarez has filmed one spooky-looking movie. The goings-on inside the house are very dim, making for a creepy atmosphere which is often injected with many well-timed jump-scares…and a pivotal scene in a maze of a basement in pitch-black is enough to scare anyone. Tension builds up nicely with satisfying payoffs and the scenes where the robbers have to hold their breath lest they be detected by the old man…will undoubtedly have audiences holding their breaths as well.

Jane Levy is the real star of the show, having to go through a wide range of emotions and having to put in some strong physical work as she is tossed around like a rag-doll and is required to crawl through tight places trying to escape. Stephen Lang puts in a powerful performance which is iconic and frightening; iconic because of the mighty shape that he throws, and scary because of how real he really is…this could be our neighbor.

Despite feeling so fresh and new, DON’T BREATHE still falls into the old horror tropes with a villain who won’t die and what seems like a thousand endings to the film. It’s far from a dealbreaker, as Fede Alvarez has crafted a horror film which is fun, scary, interesting, and far from predictable. If the horror genre is going to survive, we need more movies like DON’T BREATHE.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Reel Review: The Science Behind Pixar

Movie magic is something we all want to believe in when the lights go down in the theatre and the silver screen lights up. We all want to believe that Kong is really climbing the side of the building, that a man can fly, and that a space station really is the size of a small moon. Part of the fun of cinema is actually believing that things are happening, and to know how something was done is a way of ruining the illusion. But then the question has to be asked; what is more impressive, the magic trick, or how the trick was done?

Since 1995, perhaps no other movie studio has pulled off more magic than Pixar Animation Studios. Not only in the realm of computer animation, but in storytelling, characters, and world-building. This year, the famed animation studio took their show on the road with a travelling exhibit entitled The Science Behind Pixar, in which the curtain was drawn back from behind the magic stage.

This Blogger and his date were pleased to attend the exhibit during its stop at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Boasting over 13,000 feet of exhibition space covering two floors, the exhibit explored the math, science, and computer-science that goes into the developmental process of making a Pixar film. It takes attendees on a journey; from rough character sketches by pencil on napkins to wireframes to the design of the worlds they inhabit. It’s what Pixar calls their pipeline, and through interactive displays, attendees can get a first-hand experience in creating a film.

Filmmaking, like any other creative endeavor, happens in steps. The exhibit takes attendees through each step from sketches to fully realized characters in the computer capable of more facial expressions than a human being has. The interactive displays are designed for both adults and kids to have fun and learn with; the controls were easy and well-labeled for the little cowpokes to have fun with making computer images of characters make funny faces, while adults were schooled in how basic filmmaking works…learning principals such as camera angles, lighting, and rendering images.

The exhibit knows its audience. Anyone attending most certainly has at least a good familiarity with Pixar’s catalog of films (or why else would they be there?), and the exhibit uses examples from every Pixar film to demonstrate their movie-making technique. CARS (2006) demonstrated their ability to create reflective surfaces, while MONSTERS INC. (2001) and BRAVE (2012) showed how fur and hair are created and manipulated. UP (2009) was used to show off lighting and the math/science required for creating colors (the equations behind every pixel was mind-boggling), while INSIDE OUT (2015) showed us how characters are made to move. And while there was a lot to learn, there was still plenty of time for fun…as full-sized models of beloved characters were around for kids and big kids to pose with.

The question of the magic trick being more impressive than the secret is still unanswered. For this Blogger, knowing the secrets behind Pixar’s magic makes the feat all the more impressive. The biggest takeaway from The Science Behind Pixar is the focus on the people behind the scenes which make it all happen. Pixar’s films and their peers are often dismissed because they’re done with computers instead of pen and ink, but the point that is often missed is that those computers are being manipulated by human hands, which means the magic is nothing without the right hands waving the wands. Movie magic is real, and as this Blogger and his date experienced, can turn an adult into a kid with a simple wink.


Learn more about the exhibit HERE

Read Reel Speak’s Top 5 ranking of Pixar’s Films HERE

Friday, August 19, 2016


The Old West has been a pillar of cinema since literally day one. Over the past few years, the contemporary Western has seen some success, from the Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2009), and David Lowery’s AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013). By infusing the classical themes of the Old West in modern settings, the stage can be set for some great storytelling, which brings us to David Mackenzie’s HELL OR HIGH WATER.

In modern-day Texas, the Howard brothers (Toby and Tanner, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) go on a string of bank robberies in small sleepy towns. Hot on their trail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

Like any good Western, HELL OR HIGH WATER is all about cops and robbers as they chase, evade, and play cat-and-mouse across the countryside. On the surface, the plot is fairly easy, but director David Mackenzie, working from a script by Tyler Sheridan (of TV’s SONS OF ANARCHY), gives the film a richness thanks to some excellent character work. Far from just bad guys, the Howard brothers are looking to get revenge against the bank which wiped out their family farm, and on the flip side, there’s the grumpy-old-man Ranger Hamilton and his partner Alberto who constantly pick on each other with insults about heritage and race (Alberto is part Mexican, part American Indian). The two sets of duos are very well developed, and each one has palpable reasons for their robbing and chasing. Taking things a step further, the characters could not be more different from their partners; Toby is cool and reserved while his brother Tanner is a loose cannon, Hamilton is near retirement and does things unorthodox, while his partner Gil is by-the-book. The contrast between characters is very well written and keeps things moving.

Tyler Sheridan’s script plays out like a love letter to small-town Texas, specifically the little people and their lifestyles. The film does some great world-building in establishing the small towns with shuttered up shops, closed down mills, and people who almost consider the brothers to be a modern day Robin Hood. The film is rich with culture and modern-day sensibilities, making it very relevant and powerful.

But back to the robbing and chasing…the robberies and gunfights are brutal and realistic, and the tension-building heading towards the climactic showdown is thicker than outback brush. Director David Mackenzie films the countryside beautifully, and the film has a classic and iconic feel to it. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provides a magnificent score.

Jeff Bridges is a blast as Ranger Hamilton. He’s a grump, but a lovable one, and also a career lawman burdened with the pending doom of boring retirement. He gets to show some serious emotion towards the end after a character death which is as shocking as it is sad (bring tissues). Gil Birmingham acts as a great foil to Bridges and the two are a joy to watch on-screen together. The show is stolen by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who are convincing not only as men from Texas but as brothers. The love and respect these two actors make happen between the brothers is the true heart of the film, and it beats steadily and strongly.

The final showdown ends with plenty of blood and tears, but before the film ends, it comes back with a quieter, yet equally effective showdown before riding off into the sunset. David Mackenzie has crafted a modern classic with HELL OR HIGH WATER. It is a beautiful and rich movie with classical storytelling elements; almost the kind of tall-tale one would tell around a campfire. It is emotional and powerful, making the Old West as real and relevant as it was 100 years ago.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Reel Opinion: Concerning Hobbits

The cinema world may be finished producing films based on the works of JRR Tolkien’s fantasy-world of Middle-Earth, but that hasn’t stopped that populated world of wizards, hobbits, elves, and dragons from making waves this week.

The first minor internet-tsunami rolled in when writer Gracie Law penned an open letter to Warner Bros. pictures. In the eloquent and earnest letter (read it HERE), Law took WB back behind the woodshed for their latest big-budget film adaptations which have been met with sneers and jeers from fans and critics. Recent disasters such as WB’s adaptations of DC Comics properties were cited, such as this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. Law also included the last three films based on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, THE HOBBIT. The three films, which adopted the famed and beloved book and included extra material from Tolkien’s vast appendices, were a relative box office hit, but were not met with super-enthusiasm from critics and fans, and certainly did not live up to the emotional impact, culture-impact, or awards-season success that its predecessor, THE LORD OF THE RINGS had.

Hardliner fans of THE HOBBIT films, and fan-sites across the web went nuts at the inclusion. To them, THE HOBBIT films were a wild success, and much better films than what the DC Comics adaptations have offered so far, and are quick to point out the $4 billion the films made worldwide.

The issue of THE HOBBIT movies being better than the DC Comics films is debatable, and a huge box office return doesn’t always mean quality as franchises tend to have their own built-in fanbase who will show up no matter what. Fandom tends to look at their films through rose-colored glasses, and can ignore flaws in storytelling and filmmaking as long as they see the characters and places they desperately want to see. Tolkien-fans aren’t alone in this; fans of STAR WARS, TREK, HARRY POTTER, can be just as guilty…and on a smaller level, fans of cult-directors such as Tim Burton or Quentin Tarantino. This Blogger will always appreciate the fiery passion that a fan can have for anything, but a balance must be struck between objectivity and desires, or else they’re just abandoning reason for madness.

Love or hate the three-film adaptation of THE HOBBIT, it’s coming back to store-shelves and online orders, as just today a new Middle-Earth box set, containing all six films, will be released October 4th.

The monster set includes 30 discs overall (bonus material), which are housed in faux leather-books on a collector’s wood-shelf designed by Peter Jackson, director of the six films. There’s also a book of original art by long-time Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe. The price for this dragon sized horde: $800.

Like many, this Blogger has already made his purchases of the Middle-Earth films, so don’t expect a review of this pricey-set at anytime (although Christmas is coming, and your favorite movie-Blogger has been very good this year). Either way it looks like a crowning addition to any collector’s kingdom. For better or for worse, Middle-Earth spins on.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Kenny Baker 1934-2016

Actor Kenny Baker has passed away at the age of 81.

Born in England, the 3 ft. 8 in. tall dwarfish actor got his first taste in show business in 1951 when approached on the street to perform in a theatrical troupe of dwarves and midgets. He later joined the circus, and taught himself to ice skate, and eventually formed a successful comedy act called the Minitones.

His big break into permanent stardom came in 1976, when then unknown-director George Lucas cast Baker as the role of the lovable droid, R2-D2 in the first STAR WARS film. Although the remote-control mechanisms of R2 are what made the droid roll around, it was Baker who would be inside; making the droid wobble, rock, and turn his head…giving that feisty, yet loyal personality that R2 would be known for over the next 40-plus years. Baker would reprise the role for the next five STAR WARS films, including the Prequels. Baker also appeared as Paploo, the Ewok in 1983’s RETURN OF THE JEDI who, in a memorable scene, would steal a speeder-bike. Baker would not reprise the role of R2 for the latest STAR WARS entry, sub-titled THE FORCE AWAKENS in 2015, but would be on-hand as a consultant.

Other notable roles held down by Baker outside of R2-D2 include Terry Gilliam’s TIME BANDITS (1981), FLASH GORDON (1980), THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), AMADEUS (1984), LABYRINTH (1986), and WILLOW (1988).


Long-time friends of Reel Speak are well aware of the impact STAR WARS has had on this Blogger, from early influences, to career path, to family…right down to this very blog. As a wee-lad, R2 was this Blogger's very first STAR WARS action figure (still have him), and thanks to Baker, he has been a faithful counterpart for many years, and always will.  It was therefore this Blogger’s great pleasure to meet Mr. Kenny Baker in 2002 when Star Wars Celebration II was held in Indianapolis, Indiana…just prior to the release of STAR WARS EPISODE II: THE ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Although the meeting was very short, this Blogger remembers Mr. Baker as being funny and gracious, and he had a beaming smile which could light up a space cruiser. In the wide-universe of STAR WARS, there are many names which are associated with the world-changing franchise; names like Lucas, Ford, Hamill, Fisher, Daniels, Mayhew, Prowse, and Guiness…and Baker’s name belongs right up there near the top. The character of R2-D2 may have been a collection of metal, steel, lights and wires, but it was Baker who gave it a heartbeat, and turned the it into a him. In that regard, Baker was as much an artist as anyone. We have lost our first R2, but his spirit will be with us always.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Reel Review: PETE'S DRAGON

In the vast cinematic catalog of Disney, there could not have been a better candidate for an update than PETE’S DRAGON. The 1977 film, which was a live-action musical with a hand-drawn cartoon dragon, was hokey and cute, and today is looked at as an obscure oddity or a gem of a family flick. For the new version, Disney turns to independent-film/arthouse director and writer David Lowery; a mismatch on paper, but on screen…the marriage could not be more perfect for flying PETE’S DRAGON back from the past.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) is stranded in the vast and lush Pacific Northwest forest after a tragic car accident which kills his parents. He is taken under the wing of a friendly and furry green dragon which he names Elliot. After six years together, Pete is discovered by Forest Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is trying to protect the forest from her logging-company owner (and fiancĂ©) Jack (Wes Bentley) and his overly aggressive trigger-happy brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Grace and her father Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), an old man who has been claiming to have seen a dragon years before, set out to protect both Pete and Elliot from those who want to exploit them…

Light on plot but heavy on heart and character, PETE’S DRAGON is a film all about family, relationships, and finding one’s place in the world. Director David Lowery, in his first big-budget visual effects-driven film, guides us through these themes like a good ranger would through the forest; putting each character in some sort of moral quandary or peril, while never losing focus on the two stars of the film…Pete and Elliot. The friendship between the two, which seems better suited for a children’s storybook or a full-fledged cartoon, is palpable from the start. Lowery gets to the core of the friendship, with the both of them looking for a place to belong and relying on each other for survival. The scenes between the two of them are heartwarming, and the scenes when they are separated are heartbreaking.

For as much character as the film has, it still relies a lot on the CGI creation of Elliot the dragon, and the result could not be more spectacular. The creature looks fantastic, and Lowery makes the brilliant decision to give him the mannerisms of a friendly dog; Elliot chases bugs (and his own tail), carries big trees in his mouth (until they get stuck between two more trees), and cuddles and protects his master with a fierce love. His moments when he spreads his wings and take flight are magnificent, and his landings are always a highlight (he can’t land very well). Elliot’s facial expressions convey every emotion from joy to sadness, and his big eyes are enough to melt anyone’s heart. From design and execution, Elliot the dragon is a visual masterstroke.

Director David Lowery, who has made a name for himself in the quiet world of arthouse cinema, once again films a beautiful looking movie. The forests are deep and stunning, and his work with sunsets and sunrises gives PETE’S DRAGON an intimate and mature feel. The old musical numbers are gone, but in their place are well-timed and well-picked contemporary folk songs…with each one serving a unique purpose in the story.

Young Oakes Fegley is terrific as Pete, having to go through many ranges of emotion from happiness to surprise to the feeling of shock once he finds himself removed from the forest and into the scary civilized world. Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford are perfect as always, and Karl Urban, who takes the role of the villain in the film (he goes hunting for Elliot), is great as always.

PETE’S DRAGON borrows a lot from a handful of films which have reputations for turning people into blubbering messes in the theatre, and David Lowery is clearly showing his love and admiration for those stories. Here he has crafted a film which feels wholly original and new, while hitting every emotional note required for a classic Disney movie...while capturing the feeling of a campfire tale or a fable out of a dusty old book. Be prepared to go through joy and sadness, heartbreak and elation…and let the old Disney magic take you on a flight.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Reel 30: STAND BY ME

“You guys want to go see a dead body?”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Rob Reiner’s STAND BY ME.

Based on the novel The Body by Stephen King, STAND BY ME, which borrowed its title from the 1961 song by Ben E. King, told the story of four early-teenage boys in a small Oregon town who go on a cross-country journey on-foot to find the dead body of a missing child. Rooted in boyhood friendships and deriving from classic films and literature, it was a new-age Heart of Darkness  or maybe even APOCALYPSE NOW, in which a trek into the unknown tests the bonds of friendship and family, with an episodic nature akin to a Greek myth…all in the setting of a coming-of-age story; in which one returns from the journey unchanged.

With the entirety of the film focusing on the four friends, casting was the most vital task of the pre-production process of the film. Director Rob Reiner, who was coming off consecutive hits with THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984), and THE SURE THING (1985), began the casting process by casting to type; to match the young actors’ personalities with their characters. The important role of Gordie, whose young eyes would be the window for the audience, would go to Wil Wheaton, who projected sensitivity and intelligence. The character of Chris, the rebel of the group who often acted as peacemaker, went to River Phoenix. Corey Feldman, who was fresh of his success in THE GOONIES (1985), another coming-of-age story, was cast as the troubled yet slightly-unhinged Teddy. The clown and yet most sincere of the group, Vern, went to Jerry O’Connell, who was only 11 years old at the time and had never acted in a film before. Veteran actors such as Kiefer Sutherland (son of Donald), and Richard Dreyfuss (as an older Gordie, who provides the narration) would round out the cast.

Rehearsals would double as acting classes, and filming would commence in Oregon, utilizing locals as extras. A pivotal scene on a railroad bridge spanning a river would be filmed in California. The shoot lasted only 60 days, and Reiner kept his young cast from meeting or seeing the dead body (played by Kent W. Luttrell) during production, in an effort to get an honest shocked reaction when the body is eventually found. Jack Nitzsche, who had won an Oscar for the ballad Up Where We Belong for AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMEN (1982), provided the score while utilizing classic rock songs from Buddy Holly, The Del-Vikings, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course…the title track from Ben E. King.

STAND BY ME would be a box office hit and one of the biggest earners of 1986. It would be nominated for two Golden Globes and one Academy Award. Today, the town of Brownsville, Oregon, which stood-in for the fictional town of Castle Rock, still holds an annual STAND BY ME Day. Rob Reiner would name his own production company Castle Rock Entertainment after the fictional town, and the success of STAND BY ME would propel Reiner into his future hit-films, including THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987), and A FEW GOOD MEN (1992).


STAND BY ME was a film which was introduced to this Blogger and his brother at just the right time. Every summer, we would spend the dog-days at our cousin’s house in upper Michigan, and it was there where we would watch STAND BY ME as often as we could. The film, which was all about boys being boys as they went off on an adventure, was very much our rallying point, as this Blogger, his brother, and two cousins who were also brothers (just like in the movie, girls were never invited), jumped over fences and went sneaking around in wooded areas seeking something or other (never found a dead body). STAND BY ME spoke to us because the characters were our age, but on a deeper level, the different nature of the characters were exactly how we were; there was the quiet mediator, the rebel, the nut, and the youngest who got picked on. We were the characters from the film, and today, remember those dog-days fondly. STAND BY ME holds up today not only as a nostalgia piece, but as a near-perfect film, where characters with strong backstories (the idea to make them all come from not-so perfect families worked very well), were the driving force in the story. Journeys and adventures are the core of storytelling, and STAND BY ME was the film which told it the best way; through the eyes of youth…while graced with that sad melancholy concerning all things which must pass from this world.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Monday, August 8, 2016


The latest film version of Antoine de Saiut-Exupery's beloved 1943 novella The Little Prince has waited a long time to be seen. The film, directed by Mark Osborne (KUNG FU PANDA), had its debut at the famed Cannes Film Festival in 2015, and was slated for a Spring release in 2016. After some still-unexplained delays, the film has finally landed on Netflix for all to see. Despite a direct-to-home release with little time in theaters, this version of THE LITTLE PRINCE is very much a film, and worthy of being considered true cinema.

Brought to life with a combination of old-school stop-animation and computer generated 3D animation, this version of THE LITTLE PRINCE tells the story of The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), who has every minute of her life planned out by her mother (Rachel McAdams). Tired of the mundane, The Little Girl befriends her next-door neighbor, a weird old man known as The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who sparks her imagination when he tells his story of his experience long ago with a strange child known only as The Little Prince. 

The original novella for The Little Prince was a story which embraced the art of storytelling. This new film version stays very true to that idea by becoming a story within a story within a story. It's an approach which easily could have become a muddled mess, but in the caring hands of director Mark Osborne, THE LITTLE PRINCE stays on course. The film is a journey for The Little Girl as her imagination, long held in check by her over-organizing, yet well-intentioned mom, finally gets to soar. 

Not content to just tell the traditional story of The Little Prince within the framework of another story, Osborne and his team of writers are also busy playing with a lot of themes. Big ideas of love and family, along with what it means to let go of childhood and enter the world of grown-ups are just the tip of the cinematic iceberg. A lot of the themes take physical forms on the screen; a sequence in which childhood objects are tossed into a machine and ground into paper-clips is a little too on-the-nose in addressing playthings being traded in for practical things...but within the story it works, and it works well. The animation is stunning as computer animation is used for The Little Girl's World, and then switches to stop-motion for the world of The Little Prince as she imagines it. It's a clever presentation method, beautiful to look at, and is vital to the film's central theme of bridging the gap between the old and the new. 

The extra-large and talented voice cast are all excellent. Mackenzie Foy is excellent as The Little Girl, and Rachel McAdams does great work as the mom. Jeff Bridges is an absolute blast as The Aviator. The film takes great advantage of the rest of the cast by putting them in just the right roles; James Franco (The Fox), Marion Cotillard (The Rose), Benicio del Toro (The Snake), Bud Cort (The King), Albert Brooks (The Businessman), and Ricky Gervais (The Conceited Man) are perfectly is a few other surprise voices. 

The finale goes for an emotional knockout, and does land very well. By the movie's end many of us may find ourselves digging through storage to find our old toys, just to see if those old and cherished childhood memories are truly lost to the complicated world of grown-ups. The ability for a movie to have that sort of impact is a special one, and one that THE LITTLE PRINCE has always been well-suited for. 


Friday, August 5, 2016


In storytelling, structure can be everything. Even the best of stories can be derailed if it doesn’t have a solid beginning, middle, and end…and in the meantime create interesting and relatable characters that have something important to do within the story. For writer/director David Ayer’s SUICIDE SQUAD, the third film in Warner Bros’. series of films based on DC Comics super-heroes and villains, those basics go out the window faster than a speeding bullet.

Months after the events of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, ruthless U.S. government stooge (job title unknown) Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her right-hand man soldier-hero Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) look to protect the world by assembling a team of criminals with super-abilities; including the hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), psycho-girl Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), human flame-thrower Diablo (Jay Hernandez), human-reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Australian master-thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and master-swordsman Katana (Tatsu Yamashiro). The Squad sets out on a mission to stop the witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) from destroying the world, while avoiding attempts by The Joker (Jared Leto) from kidnapping Harley Quinn.

SUICIDE SQUAD doesn’t have much in the way of plot, as the squad of bad-guys have little to do other than not get killed and stop the bad guy from blowing up the world. Seemingly aware of this, director David Ayer fills the time by introducing backstories to every member of the Squad. Nearly the entire first half-hour is spent rolling out the characters via mini-rock videos and file-folders, and while the backstories are solid and do deliver on making the characters relatable and kind-sorta someone we’d care for, the execution could have been a lot tighter. Some of the stories ramble on for too long, others are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it too fast, and some of the character introductions actually happen twice. There’s a lot of redundancy going on, and the flashbacks continue throughout the run of the movie…often at awkward times. Editing and editing decisions are an issue; watching SUICIDE SQUAD is like driving over miles of speed bumps.

With so much flashback and exposition, it’s hard to tell exactly when the real story of the film even begins. The script lacks a beginning point, and with random scenes popping in and out in odd places, any semblance of structure is lost. A mid-film twist involving Amanda Waller makes no sense whatsoever, but even before that comes the realization that the entire movie relies on circular logic: The Squad is put together to counter the possibility of a super-threat, but it’s the presence of the squad which ignites the super-threat they eventually have to fight. It’s flat-out lazy writing, and the laziness continues in telling us over and over again how the Squad are such bad people, instead of actually letting the movie show it.

Bad guys or good guys, every team needs a strong villain to go up against, and SUICIDE SQUAD completely drops the ball in that area. The Enchantress herself is a fascinating character and looks like she’d be a formidable foe, but the film elects to shove her in the back in place of a large CGI thug-thing with tentacles…topped off by a small army of CGI blobs with no faces and machine guns. The eventual big showdown is a mess of lights and noise, and dips so far into the fantasy genre that it feels mismatched against the Squad of hitmen and bare-knuckle fighters. There isn’t much of a threat, which makes anything that the Squad does completely ho-hum.

Acting is all over the place. Will Smith dominates most of the screen with his presence and charisma. His acting is fine, but he doesn’t come close to feeling like the ruthless killer that the film keeps telling us that Deadshot is supposed to be; it seems not even Will Smith can overcome the Will Smith-charm. Margot Robbie is dazzling as the slightly-unhinged Harley Quinn, and Joel Kinnaman is solid. Jai Courtney shows more life than he ever has on-screen, although his Aussie accent has his lines coming out in mumbles. Viola Davis is perfect as always. The much-hyped return of The Joker to the cinema by Jared Leto is a letdown; the character isn’t in the film enough (roughly seven minutes) to make any kind of impression.

SUICIDE SQUAD is a frustrating film because there are elements here and there that do work; the characters of Harley, Deadshot, and Diablo have great backstories to latch onto, the music selections are fun (although there are way too many rock hits crammed into a short amount of time), and the presence of actual jokes and witty one-liners are a welcome change to the previous mopey adaptations of DC Comics properties. All the good stuff is outweighed by a thin plot, clunky storytelling, an awful villain, and clumsy writing. This is one Squad that should have stayed incarcerated.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year In Film 2016, Episode VIII

Reel Speak is a blog which likes to keep things positive; cynicism and unwarranted negativity need not apply here. But facts are facts, and there’s no way getting around the fact that the Summer Movie Season of 2016 has been a stinkbomb equal to the size of a Godzilla-fart. The good news is there are only four weekends left in the season before Oscar Season kicks in, and between now and then we have some interesting releases to look forward to. Here are the notable films for the month of August.

SUICIDE SQUAD – The third film in Warner Brother’s adaptations of the DC Comics superheroes, in which a team of villains are assembled to do some good. Stars Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, and Jared Leto as The Joker. It is directed by David Ayer, who directed the biggest piece of shit movie of the last decade, SABOTAGE in 2014.

THE LITTLE PRINCE – This adaptation of the beloved classic novel has seen many delays in its release, but finally sees the big screen this month. It is a 3D stop-motion animated film with the voices of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, James Franco, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti, and Albert Brooks. It is directed by Mark Osborne, who directed KUNG FU PANDA (2008).

SAUSAGE PARTY – This R-rated animated film is a spoof on Disney and Pixar films in which a sausage journeys to discover his own existence. Features the voices of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, and Jonah Hill.

PETE’S DRAGON – Disney has decided to remake their beloved, yet rarely-talked-about 1977 film in which a young boy befriends a dragon. Stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, and Robert Redford. It is directed by David Lowery, who helmed the magnificent AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS in 2013.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS – Multiple-Oscar nominee Meryl Streep plays a heiress in New York who aspires to become an opera singer. Based on the true-life story of Florence Foster Jenkins, who was known for her poor singing ability. Co-stars Hugh Grant.

HELL OR HIGH WATER – Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers who plan a bank robbery to save their family farm. Jeff Bridges co-stars.

BLOOD FATHER – Mel Gibson steps back in front of the camera as an ex-con looking to protect his daughter from drug dealers.

ANTHROPOID – A WWII film based on the true story of Czechoslovakian operatives conspiring to assassinate an SS General. Cillian Murphy and Toby Jones star.

BEN-HUR – The fourth film adaptation of the novel by Lew Wallace since 1907 is directed by Timur Bekmambetov (WANTED, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER).

WAR DOGS – Jonah Hill and Miles Teller play two idiots who get a government contract to supply weapons to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

IMPERIUM – Daniel Radcliffe (HARRY POTTER), plays an undercover FBI agent.

A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS – Natalie Portman (BLACK SWAN), directs and stars in this adaptation of the autobiographical novel of the same name, taking place in Jerusalem during the first years of independent Israel.


Next month, Reel Speak previews the first month of Oscar Season.