Friday, September 30, 2016


In the 1970’s, one of the most popular genres in cinema was the disaster flick, in which everyday people were faced with insurmountable odds in surviving real-world disasters; ranging from air travel (AIRPORT), high-rise fires (THE TOWERING INFERNO) and ships at sea (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE). Today, Hollywood is quick to jump on the latest catastrophe, which brings us to Peter Berg’s DEEPWATER HORIZON; the true story of the oil rig which exploded in 2010…killing 11 people and spewing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean.

The oil-exploratory rig Deepwater Horizon, just 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, is 43 days behind schedule and millions of dollars over-budget. The chief tech Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), crew leader Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) and officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), try to keep things together despite being pushed by BP Oil representative Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) to keep drilling despite the eminent danger.

DEEPWATER HORIZON is very much inspired by the disaster-film template from the 1970’s, where characters are introduced, fleshed-out, and then thrown into some sort of large-scale deadly situation which is caused by some greedy bastard trying to make a few million bucks. At the center of this is Mike Williams, who only wants do his job and go home to his loving wife and family (with the wife brilliantly played by Kate Hudson). There’s a lot of blue-collar vs. white-collar going on here, as Mike and Mr. Jimmy constantly bang heads with the management types concerning the problems with the rig.

Offshore exploratory drilling is not easy to explain, and director Peter Berg uses nearly the entire first act in explaining how it works…using the constant arguing between the workers and management as a tool to accomplish this. A lot of the technical jargon comes off as Ancient Greek, but many exceffective ellent visuals are presented to help the audience along. It sounds dull, but once the troubles start, it pays off.

The lead-up to those troubles is a wonderful build, and the atmosphere of tension and dread hangs heavy over the film. Once things go south and oil blows everywhere leading to one hell of a KABOOM, Peter Berg’s film shifts into high gear. The story goes into survival mode with characters trying to evade the flames, save their fellow workers, and keep the rig from blowing more oil into the ocean. The situations the characters find themselves on the burning rig are harrowing and the film is loaded with plenty of holy shit moments. The visuals are stunning, Steve Jablonsky’s score adds to the power of it, and as tragic as the story is, DEEPWATER HORIZON is an eye-popping heart-stopper.

With so much spectacle going on, characters become even more important, and Berg does not drop the ball in getting great performances out of his cast. Mark Wahlberg is fantastic, going through a lot of physical work and showing every bit of needed emotion. Kurt Russell is equally great, and his scenes facing off with John Malkovich are a treat.

With all of the exploding and burning going on, Berg never fails to keep this as a family story, and Mike getting home to his wife and child serves as the emotional punch at the finale which is promised to bring a hefty amount of tears. And just as a parting gift, Berg adds in a nice tribute to the men who lost their lives on that night…making DEEPWATER HORIZON a proper historical drama. This is by far Berg’s finest film; a perfect balance of spectacle and triumph of the human spirit.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Reel Facts & Opinions: THE BIRTH OF A NATION - A Tale of Two Films

One of the most anticipated and controversial films of 2016 has arrived in the form of Nate Parker’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION. It is a film which re-claims its title from another notorious movie from 100 years ago, but now has to struggle with its own issues.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION is based on the true story of Nat Turner, the enslaved man who led a revolt in Virginia in 1831. The film premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival back in January, where it was met with critical acclaim. It won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, and was bought by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million; the largest deal ever for a Sundance film. THE BIRTH OF A NATION has been praised for its acting, directing, soundtrack, and cinematography…with many critics hailing it as a new American classic and a strong contender come Awards Season.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION has strong roots in the past. Director Nate Parker, who also produced, wrote, and stars in the film, took the title from the 1915 silent film of the same name by D.W. Griffith. The 1915 film is a landmark movie for pioneering techniques such as close-ups, fade-outs, and a battle sequence with hundreds of extras. It also was the first to build the plot to a climax, to use color-tinting, to dramatize history alongside fiction, and to feature its own score by an orchestra. It was the first 12-reel film (190 minutes), and the first to be screened at the White House. Today, the 1915 BIRTH OF A NATION is regarded as the film which brought us into the modern era.

But the film was not without controversy. It portrayed black men as unintelligent and aggressive towards women, with many of the roles played by white actors with black face-paint. On top of that, the Klu Klux Klan is shown as a heroic force, and the film is credited with inspiring the “second era” of the KKK in Georgia the same year with the film being used as a recruiting tool. Despite being innovative in cinema history, the 1915 BIRTH OF A NATION is seldom mentioned in film circles and treated like a black sheep.

Fast-forward to modern times, and director/writer/producer Nate Parker has re-claimed the title in an effort to challenge racism in America. By telling the true story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, it was clearly Parker’s hope that the strong and iconic title of THE BIRTH OF A NATION could finally be remembered for something good.

But it seems that iconic title may have a curse upon it, as Nate Parker’s film arrives under a cloud. A few months back, the revelation was made that in 1999, Parker and his roommate, while students at Penn State University, were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted while the roommate was guilty before the verdict was overturned…and the accuser would commit suicide in 2012. It’s a point that has people turning heads and asking questions, as Parker’s new film does depict a brutal rape. On top of that, in 2014 Parker made comments which were taken to be homophobic, which included him saying that he would never take on the role of a gay man, which he considered to be “emasculating”; a curious choice for someone who is putting himself out there as a flagbearer for civil rights.

Even though the 1915 film and the 2016 version could not be further apart in messaging, intent, and style, both films now seem to have a stigma attached to them; where the achievements of the film are overshadowed by the beliefs of the filmmaker. The backlash may have even started before the movie is even in theatres; advertising for the film, by way of TV spots and trailers, has been scarce. Parker may have put himself into the same class as directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski; two famed filmmakers whose actions have had people boycotting their films for decades. The debate can rage on for another 100 years if buying a ticket to see the new THE BIRTH OF A NATION shows support for Parker, but closer to the here and now…even more interesting to see if the Academy decides to support it when the Oscar voting begins. A movie should be judged by what it puts on the screen, even if it’s difficult to separate it from the people who made it. THE BIRTH OF A NATION at least deserves a fair shake. History will take care of the rest.
Read Reel Speak's review of THE BIRTH OF A NATION HERE

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Reel Review: Back on the Big Screen - STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN Director's Cut

In the year/stardate 1982, director Nicholas Meyer delivered what is considered today to be the best and most quintessential STAR TREK film with STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (read Reel Speak’s commemoration of the film’s 30th anniversary HERE). The film, in which the original cast including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, are terrorized by a vengeful Khan (brilliantly played by Ricardo Montalban), recently received a new blu-ray Director’s Cut edition this year, and this past weekend, returned to the big screen as part of Cinemark’s Classic Series. Having never seen the film on the big screen, this Blogger was pleased to take in a showing.

The first item that needs to be mentioned about this limited re-release is that this version does not seem to be the new remastered Director’s Cut which was released this year, and that brings good news and bad news. The new home release suffered from a visual defect/glitch (later corrected) which angered many fans and consumers, and this version which was run in theatres thankfully did not have that glitch. But it seems to be the version that was released on standard DVD in 2002, and although the movie looks great on the big screen, there is a feeling that it could have looked just a little better. There’s a bit more graininess to it than expected, and although WRATH OF KHAN likely looked like that anyway when it was first shot and projected on film over 30 years ago, those of us who have been used to the dazzling gloriousness of blu-ray will notice a difference. The Director’s Cut includes several bits which were cut out of the theatrical edition, and although they are neat to see, many are redundant and are not complete scenes as much as extended ones.

But again, WRATH OF KHAN, whatever version…benefits greatly on the big screen. Colors really pop; the reds of the Starfleet uniforms, the blackness of space, and the bright control panels of our beloved USS Enterprise leap off the screen. Visual effects and space-battles are stunning, and hold up very well for a film which was made 15 years before CGI took over the industry. The exteriors of the Enterprise and USS Reliant models look beautiful, and the climactic battle inside of a color gaseous nebula is breathtaking.

The way a film sounds is just as important as it looks, and WRATH OF KHAN benefits greatly from the big theatre speakers. Dialogue is clear, explosions and fires have their expected boom, and sci-fi sounds such as phasers and transporter beams sound magnificent. The big-screen environment really augments the film’s audio and brings out sounds that are often lost when viewing at home. For example, in a quiet scene in Kirk’s apartment, which overlooks a body of water, the sounds of foghorns can be heard in the distance; a touch that this Blogger never noticed. Other ambient sounds such as the beeps and whistles of the Enterprise Bridge and control stations are also brought out of hiding.

No STAR TREK film is complete without a great soundtrack, and WRATH OF KHAN features one of the best scores of all time. James Horner’s work in the film sounds fantastic. No one did mighty horns the way the late great Horner did, and his music is literally stunning. Sitting through the end-credits to listen to the score alone is worth the ticket price.

With all the visuals and sounds being augmented, WRATH OF KHAN once again becomes a powerful cinematic experience. The big-screen presentation amplifies the power of the film; after all, it carries powerful themes of life, death, old age, loss of youth…and undying friendship. All very human themes that cinema thrives on. With so much visual and audio stimulation going on, all these great storytelling themes are doubled in power, and a few tears may roll even for those who have seen the film countless times. This big-screen presentation isn’t quite perfect, but it is a trek worth taking.


STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN Director's Cut will once again run on the big-screen on September 28th. Click HERE for information.

Read Reel Speak’s ranking of the best STAR TREK films HERE.

Friday, September 23, 2016


One of the better trends in Hollywood over the last decade is the contemporary Western; where a film is set in modern times but injected with themes and sensibilities from the Old West. On the opposite side of town is the bastardization trend of injecting modern characters and style into a film actually set in the 1800’s. Such is the wobbly stepping-off point of director Antoine Fuqua’s version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

Just after the Civil War, bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), is hired by a widow, Emma (Haley Bennett), to save her town from the reign of terror of Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants to level the town for mining rights. Outnumbered by Bogue’s personal army, Chisolm rounds up a gang of gunhands including a gambler (Chris Pratt), a shell-shocked sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a tracker (Vincent D’Onofrio), an assassin (Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a rogue Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier).

Like most Westerns, the plot of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN could not be simpler; assemble the good guys, shoot the bad guys, save the town. Simple stories are always workable with good characters, and this adventure stumbles right out of the saloon. The Seven are drawn very thinly, relying on old clichés like drinking too much, playing cards, and knife-throwing. No one is given much of a backstory, and with little to draw back on, there is very little for the characters to play with. Diversity in a group makes for good drama, and even though this band of gunhands has several shades of skin color, there is nothing beneath that to make for a story that anyone would care about.

Director Antoine Fuqua shows his love for classic Westerns a little too much, as the film plays out like a checklist of things that have to happen in such a film. Stranger walks into a saloon, check. Gunfight in a saloon, check. Guy goes crashing through a saloon window, check. Gun-twirling, check. And on and on and on ad nauseam. With so many familiar elements going on, the plot also falls into predictability…as every turning point in the film can be seen riding up to us from miles away. That makes for boring.

Fuqua’s direction isn’t very inspired. His framing is as clichéd as the rest of the story, as every cowboy is filmed with a tilted hat leaning up against a post at least half-a-dozen times. The silhouetted shots of the characters against sunsets, campfire lighting, and boots walking across a dusty floor come as quickly as we can predict them. On top of everything else, no characters are drawn up or act like they belong in a Western; they’re all too smart, too hip, too skilled, and way too sophisticated for their own good. It’s either an attempt at speaking to general audiences or just laziness in not taking the effort to roughen-up the characters. Either way it doesn’t work. The score, written by the late great James Horner and composed by Simon Franglen, is fantastic.

Acting is a mixed bag. Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt get most of the screentime and the best lines. Both men at least look great in their hats, but both roles are so shallow that we can see them struggling to find some meat to chew on. Ethan Hawke gets the most to do as an actor as his character actually has a personal demon to overcome. Vincent D’Onofrio is hilarious as the slightly off-kiltered trapper but often turns into a cartoon. Peter Sarsgaard is fucking awful. Haley Bennett is as wooden as a saloon door.

The finale consists of Bogue showing up with a million guys, all of which are disposed of in an endless headache of a battle with (PG-13 bloodless) gunfire, knifes, hatchets, arrows, and dynamite causing big-ass explosions. All this is followed up by a small revelation of Chisolm’s character which explains a few things…but at that point the horse has already left the barn. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a shallow and bland film which not only makes zero effort to feel authentic, but has no grasp on what can make Westerns so great.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Sci-Fi Resurgence

For nearly 100 years, Hollywood has been good for embracing a genre and telling nearly every type of story there is to tell in that style. For decades the Western was the go-to place for fun and adventure, as was the WWII men-on-a-mission flick. In the 1960’s throughout the 1970’s, thanks to the coming of JAMES BOND and public mistrust in government thanks to a very unpopular war, the espionage and conspiracy films were the popular choice. In 1977, a then-unknown director by the name of George Lucas rocketed the sci-fi genre into our culture with his game-changing STAR WARS…which made the old genre from the 1950’s, which was usually packed with cheap-looking aliens and cheaper-looking spaceships, a legit form of cinema.

But STAR WARS was almost too good. Although STAR TREK would eventually find its way from the TV screen to the silver screen a few years later, STAR WARS has had a stranglehold and almost a monopoly on adventures in space. Through the 1970’s and 1980’s, there were several low-budget knockoffs here and there, but none were taken seriously and the genre seemed to be owned by the makers of STAR WARS and TREK. For the last thirty years we’ve seen countless versions of the Western, the spy-film, and war-picture, but no one seemed to be willing to venture out into the cosmos.

All that seems to be changing, as studios have finally awakened from their hyper-sleep and are giving new and original sci-fi films a chance…with this year, and especially this coming Fall, looking very promising; with films such as MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, ARRIVAL, and PASSENGERS earning good buzz among sci-fi fans and Oscar voters.

But this turn towards the cosmos has been a slow and bumpy one, as not just any outer-space bounding sci-fi attempt has been shiny as a star. Marvel Studios got the ball rolling in August of 2014 with their adaptation of their comic book heroes GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, which was less of a superhero film and more of a cosmic adventure which was a hit with audiences both in and out of comic shops. The fall of that year brought us Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, which starred high-level talent such as Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway…but struggled at the box office and didn’t quite blow critics or fans away.

The bottom was hit in February of 2015 when the Wachowski Siblings arrived with their steaming turd of a movie in the form of JUPITER ASCENDING, which stunk up the atmosphere so badly it could dissolve the sun…and gave critics a good case for avoiding any or all sci-fi at the theatre. And then this year brought us the equally stinky INDEPENDENCE DAY sequel.

But hope was restored when director Jeff Nichols landed with his magnificent MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Starring the great Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL was a perfect mix of family drama and other-worldly beings, and is easily one of the best films of 2016 (read Reel Speak’s review HERE). The journey continues this Fall and Winter, with Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL in November. Villeneuve, who last directed the great SICARIO in 2015, is telling the story of a team of scientists (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) investigating an alien landing. And then in December, director Morten Tyldum, who gave us the Oscar-darling THE IMITATION GAME in 2014, travels into the far reaches of space with PASSENGERS, starring Hollywood heartthrobs Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as two space travelers who wake up from suspended animation 90 years too early. And as icing on the cake, the first STAR WARS spinoff film, sub-titled ROGUE ONE, also comes in December.

Considering all of the fine pieces and parts involved in the coming sci-fi films for this year, we could very well be seeing resurgence in the genre. Hollywood has become a monkey-see, monkey-do business (maybe it always has been), in which every studio tries to copy the success of another. If the upcoming slate of space adventures does well with critics, fans, box office, and awards-voters, sci-fi may finally step out of the long shadow of that galaxy from far, far away.


See the trailer for ARRIVAL HERE

See the trailer for PASSENGERS HERE

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Reel Review: SNOWDEN

There is little doubt that Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the NSA who leaked thousands of classified documents to the media and world, is one of the most controversial figures in our recent history. The debate over his status as a hero, patriot, whistle-blower, or traitor rages on, which makes the telling of his life story a tricky task. But the solution to the task is simple; just hire a director who has chosen a side and doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Enter Oliver Stone.

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), steals thousands of classified documents from the NSA, and meets with three journalists (played by Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson), in a secret location to release the data and to get his story on tape; a story which includes his rise through the ranks in government security by way of his mentors (played by Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage), and the stresses on his personal life and relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley).

SNOWDEN sets itself up as a fascinating character-study; specifically, how one’s core-beliefs can be torn down. Snowden the character starts off as a patriotic conservative who just wants to serve his country and is quick to defend government policy. His turn to the opposite side is a slow one, and happens over several stages of his career which takes him all over the world. At each new location and job assignment, there’s an incident or two which begins to change his core, and eventually act as a stressor with his personal life with Lindsay. When director Oliver Stone keeps the focus on Snowden and his struggle with the actions of his own government, SNOWDEN is a fascinating film.

Snowden’s actions, which broke the law to reveal other crimes, has divided the world on his status as a hero or a traitor, and Oliver Stone makes it very clear which side he has chosen. A filmmaker choosing a side isn’t a terrible thing, but Stone does so much biased hero-worshipping in SNOWDEN that it hurts the film. Stone uses the Snowden character as his own mouthpiece to let us know his thoughts on the current state of the U.S. government and the issue of security vs. freedoms. Supporting characters go out of their way to clap Snowden on the back and endlessly thank him, and Stone even finds a way to give him a standing ovation near the end of the film. It’s often a distraction, as the movie stops dead in its tracks one too many times for all this soap-boxing to happen. Stone’s admiration for the man leads him to actually replacing Joseph Gordon-Levitt with the real Snowden himself towards the end of the film in a bizarre and jarring move.

Acting is excellent all around. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fascinating as Snowden, giving us a calm demeanor on the outside with hints of the inner struggle. His chemistry with Shailene Woodley is fantastic and really drives the film. Woodley gives the best performance of her career as someone who is stuck in a troubling situation but chooses to stay out of love. Nicolas Cage pops in as one of Snowden’s mentors and makes an impression, and even manages to poke fun at himself here and there.

The most frustrating part about SNOWDEN is that since the real story is far from over, the film leaves us hanging at the end, which means it doesn’t have much of a shelf-life. An inevitable followup/sequel in 20 years could be interesting. That followup would be wise to learn from the mistakes of SNOWDEN, as the preaching gets in the way of the storytelling one too many times. For a biopic it is Stone’s most personal film as no questions are raised but plenty of answers are given. His answers and not much else.


Friday, September 16, 2016

A Reel Review: BLAIR WITCH

In 1999, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT arrived in theatres with a boom. A simple tale of three teens lost in the woods and terrorized by a (perhaps, maybe) spectral witch, the film was presented through the teens’ video cameras…a style which had audiences convinced they were watching the real thing, and would usher in over a decade of found-footage copycats in horror cinema. Times have changed since then, in both the horror genre and in cinema, which makes its newest sequel, BLAIR WITCH, facing an uphill battle in re-capturing the magic that the original film had.  

Fifteen years after the events of the first film, James (James Donahue) is determined to find his lost sister who had vanished in the dense woods of Maryland while filming a documentary about a witch. He and his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Peter (Brandon Scott), and Ashley (Corbin Reid), travel to Maryland and enlist the help of two witch-believers; Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), and venture out into the woods where strange things begin to happen…

Much like the first film, BLAIR WITCH does not have much by way of plot. Smartly avoiding any reference to the first sequel, the crap-tastic BOOK OF SHADOWS from 2000, this new film serves as a direct sequel; albeit fifteen years later. It’s still a film about a group of twenty-somethings lost in the woods and eventually terrorized by something unseen and menacing at night, but the point of James being out there to find his long-lost sister offers some weight to the characters and gives them a valid reason for being out there, along with drawing a direct line to the first film.

With so little plot, characters take center-stage. There are good pieces in place with James being determined to find answers, and Peter being a jerk-of-a-skeptic constantly clashing with locals Lane and Talia…who are convinced that the witch is real. The drama and conflict between characters is light, and only does just enough to get the message across in where everyone is coming from.

Director Adam Wingard borrows heavily from the original in replicating many of the old beats. He follows it a bit too closely, as items such as the nighttime noises in the form of inhuman screams with trees breaking and the haunting stick figures which appear out of nowhere appear at just the times we’d expect them to, and we can easily predict what’s going to come next. But if scares and a creepy atmosphere are what’s demanded out of a BLAIR WITCH movie, then Wingard does deliver. There’s a certain primal fear that we all have concerning being alone in the woods at night, and Wingard capitalizes on it perfectly. There’s plenty of jump-scares and some excellent sound-mixing to have us looking over our shoulders once the sun goes down.

Acting is very good for such a young and unknown cast. Most of them spend their time yelling at each other or screaming at the trees, but the film belongs to Callie Hernandez. The amount of fear she conveys is stunning, and a claustrophobic sequence with her crawling through an underground tunnel is performed with every bit of emotion the situation should bring out of anyone.

Wingard does a lot of work in bringing BLAIR WITCH into the new generation by playing some neat and clever tricks with today’s technology involving GPS, two-way radios, cell-phones, and even flying drones. He also spends time expanding on the myth of the witch, answering some old questions from the first film while raising some new ones, (some items work, some don’t), and a long-awaited glimpse or two of you-know-who is worth the wait. Overall BLAIR WITCH delivers the scares, and does its job as a worthy sequel, but it’s a lot of been-there, done-that…and doesn’t do quite enough to make the fear last much longer than the closing credits.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Reel Facts & Opinions: DC Lightens Up, and The Return of the Masters

In the past week there’s been some movie news worth taking a second look at; some from the world of comic books and some from the land of upper-tier cinematic talent.

The first bit came from the superhero world; specifically from the Warner Bros./DC Comics camp concerning the stumbling franchise which has not captured the hearts of fans or critics. DC Entertainment President Geoff Johns spoke about a “course correction” in the works for the next round of films, specifically with director Zack Snyder’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, due out in 2017. Johns said that a much lighter tone will be present from here on-out, which is a stark contrast from the dark and dour and grim and humorless worlds we’ve seen from the kickoff film MAN OF STEEL (2012), and this year’s BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (BvS).

This is a change that many fans saw coming. DC’s third film in their universe-building franchise, SUICIDE SQUAD, which arrived this year to more jeers than cheers, had a noticeable change in tone from its two predecessors. It had jokes, a semblance of fun, and characters who actually looked like they enjoyed being who they were…quite the opposite of MAN OF STEEL and BvS, which had no sense of fun and didn’t generate one goddamn laugh or chuckle. After two films, it seems DC and parent company Warner Bros. has finally realized that people don’t want to go to a superhero film and walk away depressed.

But it has to be said that a dark tone has not been the biggest problem with DC’s films, but rather dysfunctional storytelling, nonsensical plots, sloppy editing, and no sense of energy or intrigue. Good movies they were not from a functional standpoint, and the darker tone barely even registered with people who were just trying to figure out what the story was. You can still make a good movie and be serious; after all, prior to MAN OF STEEL and the new DC Cinematic Universe, Christopher Nolan’s standalone DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY was also dark and gritty…but no one really noticed or complained. And why? Because they were good movies. If Geoff Johns and DC wants to course-correct their stumbling franchise, basic storytelling needs to come first. Just make a good movie.

The other noteworthy cinematic news last week involves two of the most important names in film today; writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Months back, there were rumors that Anderson and Day-Lewis would be reuniting for the first time since their magnificent THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), for a new film set in the 1950’s involving the fashion industry in London. Last week, word came out that Focus Features as acquired rights to the project, with filming beginning in January for a late 2017 release date.

For true cinema fans, this comes as long-awaited and fantastic news. Daniel Day-Lewis, who to this Blogger is the greatest actor who ever lived, has not been seen on screen since Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN in 2012. That performance earned him his third Oscar for Best Actor…the only man to ever do so. Day-Lewis has since taken a leave of absence from cinema (he does that often), having just wrapped up his most prolific period of his career (five films in 10 years). Anderson in the meantime has been busy, having filmed THE MASTER in 2012 and INHERENT VICE in 2014. To this Blogger, Anderson is the best living director today, so having him back working with our best actor ever is really something to look forward to. Both men have proven to be masters in their respective domains, and considering their last collaboration, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, is now considered to be one of the best films ever made (see where Reel Speak ranks it in this millennium HERE), the Winter of 2017 already has something important to look forward to.


Paul Thomas Anderson’s as-yet untitled film will be released in late 2017.

JUSTICE LEAGUE will land in November 2017.

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Reel Review: SULLY

When Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his plane, a US Airways flight with 155 souls on board, into the Hudson River after losing both engines shortly after takeoff on a cold January morning in 2009, the nation, less than a decade after 9/11, quickly embraced him as a hero. In making a film about the hero and the incident that made him so, the challenge wasn’t in making Sully the hero we believed him to be, but rather in stretching the incident, which only lasted 208 seconds, into a feature-length film. The task falls on the wings of two film veterans; actor Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood.

Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff (Aaron Eckhart), crash-land their flight into the Hudson River after losing both engines shortly after takeoff. While the nation celebrates their heroic act in saving every life aboard the plane, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) launches an investigation which has Sully wondering if he had acted the right way.

When telling the story of true-life disaster such as TITANIC (1997) and APOLLO 13 (1995), most of the work is already done for the filmmakers, as those incidents were drawn out over hours and days. Sully’s flight, which lasted only 208 seconds, presents a much tougher challenge. Director Clint Eastwood, obviously aware of this, fills the time with the investigating NTSB, coming as villains looking to hang Sully and his First Officer, poking and prodding at interview after interview which eventually climaxes in a public hearing. In addition, there are several flashbacks to Sully’s backstory including his evolution as a pilot, along with endless phone calls to his wife (perfectly played by Laura Linney). Despite these scenes being designed to develop Sully and make him wonder if he made the right call in landing in the river (as opposed to heading to the nearest airport), none of these sequences seem to generate much excitement. It’s Eastwood’s trademark patient style, as everything is presented as dry and as-is as possible in endless scenes of conference rooms and hotel rooms.

But where SULLY really soars is anything involving the flight, crash, and evacuation itself. Everything including the first sign of trouble, the actions of the pilots and flight attendants, the fear from the passengers, and the eventual response from New York City’s finest are harrowing. Eastwood, with his gentle touch, generates an unexpected amount of emotion during these sequences…and the welling-up of tears for the audience is such a wonderful and sneaky build that we don’t even realize we’re crying until it’s too late to hide it. The human aspect of the flight and landing is expressed beautifully, as Eastwood drops us right in the shoes and eyes of concerned New Yorkers as they watch a low-flying plane in a place it’s not supposed to be. The visual effects are jawdroppingly stunning.

Tom Hanks doesn’t quite wow as Sully, as it’s a quiet and nuanced performance of a man who simply wanted to do his job and go home. There’s nothing over-dramatic about him in the role, which matches the tone of the film. Aaron Eckhart is fine as Sully’s loyal co-pilot, although he’s portrayed as a little too loyal; almost like a kiss-ass more than a wingman.

SULLY has a non-linear structure to it, as the crash sequence is shown twice; once quickly in the early goings and then again at the finale in an extended way. That finale, which involves the public hearing, feels anti-climactic as they run a flight simulation four goddamn times trying to prove Sully was in the wrong. The final word is also an odd one and doesn’t quite put an exclamation point on the film. Overall SULLY has many moments of boredom countered by even more emotional power, and although it flies uneven, it’s unfair to dismiss it as SULLY’s landing is much better than the flight.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016


The history books have always provided plenty of great material for cinema to find stories to tell. Some of the best ones are the more obscure moments and unknown people from the past, and perhaps none more obscure, or odd, than the story of Florence Foster Jenkins.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a 1940’s New York City socialite who uses her wealth to further her singing career, despite the fact that she is a terrible singer. Her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), fearing for Florence’s failing health, uses his influence to shield her from bad reviews from the press and packs venues only with close acquaintances. When Florence decides that she is ready to perform at the famed Carnegie Hall with her new pianist Mr. McMoon (Simon Helberg), St. Clair realizes this is one performance that he can’t control.
The nice way to put it is, Florence Foster Jenkins had a lot more ambition and passion for her singing than she had talent. She sounded worse than pigs being slaughtered, and a great deal of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS deals with just how important music is to Florence’s health, and the efforts that her husband St. Clair takes to insulate her from bad reviews from the press and the public. Director Stephen Frears takes what could have easily been a one-note comedy routine and finds a lot of heart to play with, as Florence is so passionate about her singing and St. Clair is deeply devoted to her health and happiness…the film becomes a version of The Little Engine That Couldn’t, coupled with a love story, and it isn’t long before we find ourselves hoping that Florence will at least hit a few good notes when she takes the big stage.  
Taking things a step further, St. Clair himself isn’t without his own storylines. Despite being devoted to Florence, he carries on an affair with Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), and often plays a game of cat-and-mouse concealing it from Florence. It makes for a lightly complicated love triangle and plenty of layers for the character. Meanwhile, Mr. McMoon, who serves as the eyes and ears of the audience, has to wrestle with finally reaching the prestigious stage of Carnegie Hall with the world’s worst singer. There’s fine character work at play here, and everyone has something important to overcome.
Director Stephen Frears keeps the pacing and the mood very light and fun. The moments when we have to endure Florence’s awful singing are hilarious as the characters react, and try to hide reactions. At the same time though, Frears generates a healthy amount of pity for the woman, who may or may not be aware of how bad she really was. 1940’s New York City is shown in small glimpses, and seems to lack any sweeping shots of the city…which adds to the intimacy that’s going on but makes the film feel very small-screen.
Meryl Streep puts on an unforgettable performance as Florence. Having acted in musicals on film before, the territory was familiar for her, but to actually sing way-out-of-key and do it badly was a tall order…and she does it perfectly. The performance sequences are gut-busting funny, and Streep counters every laugh with a lot of emotion during the quiet moments. Simon Helberg is equally funny, and Hugh Grant turns in a head-turning performance and signals his new stature as a British actor with age and experience.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS doesn’t follow the old music-biopic template, and seems to focus more on the efforts of St. Clair to shield Florence from the outside critical world than on the character whose name is on the title of the film. It’s different and it’s a bit hokey in places, but when the old question arises of what is art and who gets to say if it is or not comes around, there is no better place to look for answers than this little-known and seldom talked-about story.

Friday, September 2, 2016


In the past six years, writer/director Derek Cianfrance has excelled in making films which explore the nature of flawed characters. In 2010 he took us through the paces of a troubled marriage in BLUE VALENTINE, and in 2012 focused on the hard feelings than can exist between fathers and sons in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. His newest, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, certainly has characters with weaknesses, but this time, they are weaknesses which make his characters as human as any of us.

Tom (Michael Fassbender), has returned from four years of fighting in the First World War, and seeking the quiet life, takes a job tending a lighthouse on a remote island. During one of his breaks, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and they soon fall in love and live together on the island. Trying to raise a family, Isabel miscarriages twice, but one day discovers a wayward boat with an infant girl. Tom and Alicia decide to keep the girl for their own, and four years later…cross paths with Hannah (Rachel Weisz), the true mother of the child.

Based on the novel of the same name, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is a film which has a lot going on. It has a lot to say about love and marriage, raising a child, forgiveness and resentment, and facing consequences for our actions. The central theme is decisions based on morals and ethics, and throughout the film the characters are faced with making choices which they can legitimately argue for and against. The decision to keep the baby as their own, along with the even tougher choices which need to be made once the true mother is discovered, drives the film…and Cianfrance, who also penned the script, uses every minute to explore every corner of the issues.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is a slow burner; there’s no real action and the pacing is deliberate, but what makes the drama tick is the fine work done with the characters even before they get to the island. A good portion of the early goings is spent establishing Tom and Isabel; Tom has been through a war, feels like he has reached all that life can offer, and is withdrawn inside himself. Isabel on the other hand is full of life and constantly reaching for the stars. The contrast between the two is note-perfect, and makes the eventual drama work because by that time the two characters are very well developed. They’re not drawn as weak or flawed, but as very human, and by film’s end we are sure to be double-guessing ourselves as to how we would react in their situation.

Cianfrance paints a beautiful picture for his characters to live in. The ocean, sunsets, sunrises, and the island are stunningly filmed, and the fine details of Tom and Isabel’s house makes the film feel like it’s in our laps. There is a classic cinematic feel going in both look and substance. Dramatic scenes between Tom and Isabel are heartbreaking; with Isabel’s two miscarriages being the most gut-wrenching. There is also one wicked sequence involving an island-storm which is as frightening as it is awesome.

Performances are outstanding. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander have amazing chemistry together, and it doesn’t take long to buy into their love or their eventual problems. Fassbender pulls off a transformation throughout the course of the film; he begins with a constant melancholy with a far-away look as man torn by war, and finishes looking like a newborn. Vikander has to do the most heavy lifting; having to go through the anguish of losing two babies, the joy of finding one, and the terror of having to lose one again. As good as Vikander is, Rachel Weisz is equally effective; playing a woman constantly in mourning. By far, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is an actor’s workshop.

With so much for the characters to deal with, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS often feels like two or three different films, and the middleweight-running time of 132 minutes feels a lot longer thanks to the slow pacing and long stretches of dialogue. It plays out like a Greek Tragedy, but those hearty enough to endure will certainly be rewarded, as Cianfrance has written and directed an exquisite film here, and manages to generate pity for every single character in the story, despite how humanly-flawed they may be.


Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year In Film 2016: Episode IX

The Summer Movie Season has mercifully come to an end, and although the magnificent winds of autumn have yet to arrive, the month of September marks the beginning of Oscar season…with many big-name directors throwing their hat in the ring while still leaving room for some fun. Here are the notable releases for the packed month of September:

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS – Director Derek Cianfrance (BLUE VALENTINE, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES), directs this adaptation of the novel of the same name in which a post-WWI couple rescues a baby girl. Stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz.

MORGAN – Kate Mara (FANTASTIC FOUR), plays a young girl raised in a lab with superhuman abilities. Co-stars Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Giamatti.

YOGA HOSERS – Director Kevin Smith (CLERKS), brings us a spinoff film of his 2014 horror flick TUSK. Stars Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith, and Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose Depp.

MAX ROSE – Legendary comic Jerry Lewis returns to the big screen for the first time in over 20 years, playing an old jazz pianist who just found out his wife may have been cheating on him for 50 years. Co-stars Kevin Pollak and Fred Willard.

SULLY – Clint Eastwood directs and Tom Hanks acts in this autobiographical film about Chesley Sullenberger; the airline pilot who famously landed his plane in the Hudson River.

LONDON ROAD – Tom Hardy stars in this mystery thriller which is based on the musical of the same name.  

BRIDGET JONES BABY – Renee Zellweger returns with the third film in the BRIDGET JONES universe. Co-stars Colin Firth and Patrick Dempsey.

BLAIR WITCH – This direct sequel to the 1999 cult-hit THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was filmed in secret, and tells the story of a group of college students looking to uncover the mystery behind the events of the first film.

SNOWDEN – Oliver Stone (PLATOON, JFK), directs and Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this biopic/political thriller about Edward Snowden; the computer specialist who leaked classified information about the National Security Agency in 2013.

OPERATION AVALANCHE – This found-footage film has two CIA agents infiltrating NASA to expose a mole, only to become mixed up in another conspiracy; the fake 1969 moon landing.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – Director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY) directs this remake of the 1960 Western classic. Stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Peter Sarsgaard. The film features the final score by the late James Horner.

THE DRESSMAKER – Based on the novel of the same name, Kate Winslet (TITANIC) stars as a dressmaker who returns home to care for her mother in this revenge comedy-drama. Co-stars Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, and Hugo Weaving.

QUEEN OF KATWE – Produced by Disney and ESPN Films, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 YEARS A SLAVE) plays the true-life role of a Ugandan chess prodigy. Co-stars David Oyelowo (SELMA).

DEEPWATER HORIZON – Director Peter Berg (LONE SURVIVOR, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), brings to the big screen the true story of the massive oil spill after the 2010 explosion of an oil rig. Stars Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson.

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN – Tim Burton (BETELGEUSE, ED WOOD), directs this adaptation of the novel in which a houseful of children with extraordinary abilities is threatened by an evil force. Stars Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, and Samuel L. Jackson.


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of November.