Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Reel Review: INFERNO

Despite the talent involved, author Dan Brown’s series of novels involving Professor Robert Langdon, famous symbologist, have not translated well to the big screen. Using ancient and obscure history to drive the stories, a ton of backstory is needed at all times, and for the screen, the history lessons tend to bog things down, and leaving the backstories out leaves a shallow and pointless film. Such is the challenge for director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks in their third time out with Prof. Langdon.

Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. He and his doctor, Sienna (Felicity Jones) narrowly avoid an assassination attempt and find themselves on a trail of clues involving Dante, the famous medieval poet…with the clues set down by Zobrist (Ben Foster), a billionaire activist who has a solution to the world’s overcrowding.

Much like, if not exactly like its predecessors, INFERNO spends all of its time with Langdon and a female counterpart bouncing from one ancient place or museum to another, deciphering hidden clues on paintings which lead them to yet another old place with even more clues. In a paperback novel, it makes for a nice page-turner, and for a film it seems like it would make for a fun point-by-point adventure. Structure is everything in a movie like this; characters have to move from one place to another in a way that makes sense. But director Ron Howard and screenwriter David Koepp seem to be overburdened with the weight of the source material. Characters do indeed race from one place to another while being hunted by mysterious parties, but inbetween every point there are long monologues/history lessons which comes across as baby-garble. Nothing is made very clear, and as each new location comes into frame, it’s easy to wonder why exactly characters are going there. Worse, the film relies on a ton of convenience (characters just happen to be in the right place at the right time for no logical reason), and by the time the film ends, there are several plot-threads that are never wrapped up. Characters do things for no reason other than plot…which makes INFERNO a muddled, messy, confusing soup-sandwich of a movie.

Howard has some serious pacing issues in the editing room. Things click along nicely for a spell but then grind to a halt one too many times for another history lesson; lessons which confuse and smear the lens more than tell a story. Howard’s camera does some neat things and the worldwide locations look beautiful, and in a nice touch, often films scenes with crowds upon crowds of people to drive home the message of world overcrowding. Hans Zimmer’s score recycles some of his old themes from the previous films while throwing in some retro 1980’s-era cues.

Acting is a snore all around. Tom Hanks feels like he should have grown into the role in his third time out as Langdon, but he comes across as Tom Hanks and not Langdon. Felicity Jones is fine, and her character has some interesting turns, but she has zero chemistry with Hanks. The supporting cast, which includes Ben Foster, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, and Sidse Babett Knudsen are all fine.

INFERNO wants to present itself as a thinking-man’s intellectual thriller, but despite all of the showing off of its knowledge of history…ends the film with a bunch of fist-fights. It doesn’t work, although the characters punching each other is (ahem) symbolic of INFERNO; a talented group of actors and filmmakers beating the snot out of what should have been a true brain-burner. INFERNO is an ugly, incomplete film which makes no sense. Throw this one into the fire-pit.


Friday, October 28, 2016

A Reel Review: 31

Stylistic and colorful director Rob Zombie is one of those filmmakers who makes movies for himself. All of his favorite things, from classic horror, rock n’ roll, and vintage art have a strong presence in his films; either acting as a backdrop or the driving force. Long-time fans of Zombie and horror eat it up, but the most casual viewer is often left out in the cold wondering what the big deal is. Looking at Zombie’s catalog of films, he seems to be at his best when he lets those casual viewers in, even if it’s just a peek into normalcy. Such is the task of 31.

On Halloween night in 1976, a group of carnival workers (Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Kevin Jackson), are ambushed off the road and held prisoner in an old refinery by Father Napoleon Horatio Silas Murder (Malcolm McDowell), where they have 12 hours to escape before being murdered by a group of killers…including the master-killer Doom Head (Richard Blake).

Low in concept and simple in plot, 31 is only concerned with the five kidnappees surviving the night and getting out of the maze-like refinery alive. The film plays out like an old 1980’s side-scrolling video game where players venture from one deadly level to the next, having to take out or evade a “level boss” before moving on to the next boss.  With not much going in the way of story, the film is balanced out by the wild killers, ranging from a knife-wielding dwarf-Nazi (Pancho Moler ), two chain-saw wielding clowns (Lew Temple and David Ury), and a pair of sex workers (Torsten Voges and Elizabeth Daily). There’s a balance that Rob Zombie is working with here, as the batshit-crazy surroundings and zany characters (each murderer is a demented clown with a nickname to match) are balanced out by the simple story-goal of survival. For the most part it works, as the craziness is equal to the plot.

31 is first and foremost a horror film, and Zombie holds nothing back in reminding us of it. There’s bloodshed by the gallon as heads and limbs are lopped off and there’s more stabbing and hacking than in a slaughterhouse. Characters are put into situations which are grotesque, and the jokes and gags are equally gross. Horror fans have a lot to feast upon. But like most horror flicks, Zombie paints his characters very broadly, doing just enough to establish them before throwing them into the meat-grinder. There’s also too much of a rush going on; the characters are barely established before the killing begins and they have no time to react or go through any sort of an arc.

Zombie does present one hell of an explosion of color. The sets are magnificent and would look right at home at an old carnival or an outlandish Halloween production. 31 is packed with film references that cinema geeks will love (the group that kidnaps the workers are dressed like Black Bart’s men from A CHRISTMAS STORY), and the classic rock tracks are well-timed.

Acting is decent. Sheri Moon Zombie doesn’t have a lot to do as an actress with no real dramatic moments, but she, like the rest of the cast, have an extraordinary amount of physical torment to go through. Everyone handles their tasks well, but the show is stolen by Richard Blake, who puts in a startling and stunning performance as the master-killer Doom Head. He is creepy and unnerving, and his opening (black-and-white) scene in the prologue is breathtaking. Elizabeth Daily puts on a great Harley Quinn-ish performance, and her big scene under a strobe light has to be seen to be believed.

Like most horror movies, there is a lot to buy into, like how a group of crazies can be so organized…and why the game is even being played is only hinted at. There’s a feeling that a director’s cut of the film would improve those holes, but they are minor. Zombie has created a gruesome film here that works for fans of the splatter-fest but never for the casual viewer; but the casual viewer wouldn’t come within a mile of this anyway. It isn’t perfect and isn’t for everyone, and that’s exactly how Rob Zombie wants it.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Reel Opinion: The Top 20 Horror Films

Horror movies are not for everybody. Not only do people dislike having the shit scared out of them, but the genre as a whole often asks us to buy into some high-concepts, most of which border upon ridiculous. This Blogger has always been neutral on the genre; neither a disbeliever or a die-hard fan…but that doesn’t mean an appreciation for a good horror flick can’t be found. Like any other film, a horror flick should be judged by story, characters, acting, and technical merit…with a few added factors such as scariness and rewatchability.

Why 20 films? Due to the large fanbase out there, and the relatively low-production costs, there is an (over) abundance of horror movies every year…and it wouldn’t seem fair to mention only ten. The bottom-half of Reel Speak’s Top 20 shakes up like this:
19. THE OMEN (1976)
18. SAW (2004)
16. THE OTHERS (2001)

15. HALLOWEEN (1978)
14. THE RING (2002)
12. POLTERGEIST (1982)
11. THE THING (1982)

Now, do you want to see something really scary?

This list is a combination of objectivity and of this Blogger’s favorites over the years, and that opens the creaky door for WITCHBOARD (1986). A story about a woman who gets obsessed with a spirit (or two) connected to a Ouija Board, this film scared the pants off this Blogger when the ultimate evil baddie, called Malfeitor, shows up out of the shadows in the form of a creepy old guy with a white beard, followed by a bowel-moving evil laugh. Mostly forgotten and basically obscure, WITCHBOARD is a night-terror for this Blogger and an easy entry into his Top 10.

M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) gets a little too much attention for its big-wow twist at the end which turns the entire viewing experience upside-down. It’s great, but it often overshadows how good of an old-fashioned ghost story it really is. Heavily influenced by the great Alfred Hitchcock, M. Night creates plenty of scares, and most of all, a mystery…which keeps the audience engaged at all times.

It may not be the scariest film ever made (although it has its moments), but Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) has a lot of strong points as a film. It is visually stunning, beautifully scored, has an iconic look in Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula…and as a Dracula/vampire story it draws heavily and faithfully from the book, and also pulls material from nearly aspect of the vampire legend. Above all, it serves as a love story…which also makes it one of the most unique entries in the genre.

Rob Zombie’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), is an easy entry into this list because it is one of the few horror flicks that make it into this Blogger’s annual October rotation. A gritty throwback to the brutal and bloody 1970’s era of blunt filmmaking and backed by classic southern rock tracks, REJECTS tells the story of a family of serial killers who spend the film becoming some of the most despicable screen-villains in history. And then, in a genius move, the finale suddenly finds a way to make us feel sorry for them. It’s a flip-flop that is effective and makes the film memorable and noteworthy.

Isolation is a scary thing. But what’s even more scary is being isolated with a killer beast hunting you. And what’s even more scary is being isolated with that killer beast in a place where there is nowhere to run or hide…and that’s makes Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979) a perfect horror flick. A nice mash-up of sci-fi and Horror, ALIEN brought about some of the most memorable scares and gut-bursting scenes in history.

Prior to 1984, there was Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman…and then the late and great Wes Craven introduced Freddy Krueger to the world in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. A killer who only exists in people’s dreams, Craven capitalized on the isolation factor, while inserting some real scares (Freddy’s creepy stretching arms and the body bag moving on its own scared the shite out of this Blogger) and a character which stands the test of time.

Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) is the great-granddaddy of horror films. Based on the best-selling book, Hitchcock solidified his legend as the master of suspense with some chilling scenes involving a staircase and a shower (simple things masterfully turned frightening), and is the earliest example of the slasher-genre. Coupled with a mystery and some shocking twists and turns, PSYCHO is a scare-fest and an exquisitely crafted movie.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of THE SHINING (1980) often gets criticized for not being faithful to Stephen King’s book of the same name and for having an ending which Horror fans and cinema buffs debate to this day. These criticisms don’t mean much, because Kubrick creates an atmosphere which creeps those shivers down the spine at all times. From a creepy little kid, ghostly twin-girls, spectral bartenders, a gut-twisting score…and a performance by a young Jack Nicholson, who exerts pure evil with just one glance, THE SHINING is a finely crafted film which still has a presence in pop-culture.

Pop-culture may have been forever altered by Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975) as well, but that’s not the only reason this film, about a killer shark which terrorizes a resort town, makes the list. JAWS is often overlooked as a Horror movie because it takes place during the bright summer and doesn’t involve slashers or any supernatural elements. But the scares are genuine. In 2015 this Blogger celebrated the film’s 40th anniversary by seeing the film on the big-screen, and the crowd, which contained many newcomers, jumped out of their seats in all the places Spielberg intended 40 years ago. JAWS hasn’t aged a day.

Having grown up in a religious family which truly believed that the Devil existed and could arrive at any moment, this Blogger was not allowed to watch William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1974) as a child, and that was probably a good thing. THE EXORCIST, which tells the tale of a young girl possessed by the Devil and does battle with two priests, taps into that primal fear deep inside…that feeling and knowledge that pure evil does exist. The film takes that feeling and gives it a body, a face, and a voice…making for a frightening experience as good tries to do battle with the ultimate evil in the universe. Faith is shaken, beliefs are tested, and pants are pissed in as the scares come in doses. Friedkin somehow creates a film in which even during the quieter times, there is always a feeling of something being off, of something being wrong. It is un-nerving, disturbing, and gets everything right in Horror and in film. THE EXORCIST is the top of terror.









18. SAW



Monday, October 24, 2016

A Reel Review: Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Festival

A book is a wonderful thing which can reach a lot of people in many different ways. Cinema has always had the power to make that reach go even further by being accessible and bringing visuals to the words. Eighty years ago, book-to-film adaptations such as THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND showed how powerful the approach can be, and here in the modern era, THE LORD OF THE RINGS and J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series have become the most significant entries into our culture since STAR WARS.

The world of HARRY POTTER descended upon southeastern Pennsylvania this past weekend with the Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Festival. For two days, six blocks of the historic Germantown Avenue closed off to traffic and created a festival atmosphere attended by thousands of fans. This Blogger and this Blogger’s Girlfriend were more than pleased to make the magical journey on the second full day of the festival.

Chestnut Hill is a neighborhood in the northwestern section of Philadelphia, accessible from the downtown by the area’s Regional Rail. Aware of the fine details of the books and the films, organizers turned the train into a Hogwarts Express experience, complete with characters in costume and distributions of The Local Prophet; a spoof of the magical newspaper which doubled as a festival guide. We (this Blogger and this Blogger’s Girlfriend), boarded one of the later trains and were instantly blown away by the massive number of people on their way to the festival. The train was standing-room only (we stood for the whole trip, which took nearly an hour), but the magnitude of the event had yet to hit us.

The Chestnut Hill West train station, just like the rest of the town, was transformed into the magical town of Hogsmeade, and despite the Dementor-like weather of soul-sucking cold wind and rain, the mass of humanity on the streets was overwhelming. The line to get into a popular restaurant was four hours to get a table, the line to the port-a-potties looked like it stretched forever, and we could walk for five minutes and cover a total of ten feet.

But the congested streets and foul weather could not dampen the spirits of us or the rest of the festival goers…because we were literally in HARRY POTTER land. Local businesses transformed into locations from the films and books; one store became Ollivander’s Wand Shop (where the wands really did choose you), another sold potions and magical trinkets, a candy store became Honey Dukes Sweetshop, while bars and restaurants turned into The Leaky Cauldron  and served special brews made just for this event. Activities for kids and adults (who were basically kids on this day anyway) were everywhere; such as dodging Dementors, making potions, coloring owls, stage events, art galleries, and so much more. Photo-stations were available so fans could take selfies at the famous Platform 9 and ¾, and Four Privet Drive. Large speakers were set up on each block where the soundtracks from the films were always playing…adding to the magical atmosphere. The charming nature of the neighborhood, with its cobblestone-streets and old brick and stone buildings, made it all seem like we had literally transported into the pages and silver screens. And although HARRY POTTER began as books, the film influences were clear; cosplayers in costume inspired by the movies were everywhere, and the love and passion people hold for the material was so thick it could be felt in the air...overpowering the rain and wind.

After a few hours of navigating Hogsmeade, it was time to head down the hill to Chestnut Hill College where a real Quidditch tournament was happening. A Knight Bus (shuttle) was available to usher people to the matches, but we elected to walk through the wind and rain. The 20-minute walk was all part of the fun, as even getting lost had its benefits as we asked a Mad-Eye Moody cosplayer for directions. So lesson learned; when you need help…ask a wizard.

The Quidditch tournament, which is now in its (ahem) seventh year, hosted community teams from Chestnut Hill, the University Pittsburgh, Franklin and Marshall College, Lafayette College, Kutztown, Syracuse, and Stockton University. The adapted game combined rugby, dodgeball, and team-handball…and these players meant business. They played with more ferocity than the clumsy NFL does, and the matches were a thrill to take in.

And all this was on the second day of the festival. The first day was also a packed event with a Pub Crawl, a conference, movie night and pizza party, and costume contest. But for this Blogger and this Blogger’s Girlfriend, the one day we attended was overwhelmingly satisfying. The atmosphere, music, and feel-good vibes from the thousands in attendance made that magical world of HARRY POTTER real for a short time, and there is no wand or spell which could ever replicate it. For a weekend…literature, film, and a community made real magic.

Friday, October 21, 2016


Over the years, there have been many actors who proved to be just as talented behind the camera as they were in front of it. Way back when, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock set the template, and following in their footsteps were big-time names such as Redford, Gibson, Foster, Eastwood, and Affleck. Here in 2016, fan-favorite actor Ewan McGregor gives the director’s chair a try for the first time; tackling the award-winning and heralded novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL.

Nathan (David Strathairn), attends his 45th high school reunion and learns the fate of an alumnus, Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), who was a star athlete, war hero, and successful businessman. Swede marries his high school sweetheart Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and they have one daughter, Merry (Dakota Johnson)…who eventually joins a violent movement against the war in Vietnam and tears her family apart.

AMERICAN PASTORAL is a film which has many balls in the air. On the surface, it’s a story about Merry and her eagerness to belong to something. The early goings of the film take us through her early years in which she developed a stutter, and her very close relationship with her father. As one incident leads to another and the war in Vietnam escalates, Merry rebels against the perfect American-dream lifestyle that her parents have built…and goes into an ongoing angry protest-mode with eventual deadly consequences. It’s a study on the American dream and how insolated it can be from real-world problems. Deeper than that, it’s explores the unraveling of a family and how parents react to a child who hates their guts and vanishes for years at a time…with Swede remaining steadfast for his want to get his daughter back and Dawn falling apart before putting the past behind her.

While the groundwork is solid, McGregor’s inexperienced hand behind the camera is evident. Instead of the gentle touch that the material seems to be begging for, McGregor uses a machete instead of a scalpel. Scenes feel cobbled together, choppy, and don’t flow naturally. Actors blurt out their lines as if they’re on a stage yelling at the cheap-seats, and the dialogue is painfully ordinary and often overstates the obvious. Overall there’s a blandness to the film; scenes which should be drawing emotional punches just come and go with no impact, and Merry is portrayed as such an unlikeable brat it’s hard not to hope for her to get run over by a truck.

Aside from everyone yelling everything out loud, acting is all over the place. McGregor mis-casts himself as the lead, not looking or sounding anything like a Jewish-American and his British accent often sneaks back in. Jennifer Connolly has just as many moments of cardboard acting as she does amazing, with a long, unbroken shot of her unraveling the highlight of the film. Dakota Johnson is fine, but her stutter is not convincing and it often sounds like she’s mocking someone. David Strathairn is excellent as always, and the show is stolen by first-timer Ocean James, who in playing Merry at age eight, does a better job than Fanning at selling the stutter.

The finale goes for a big emotional wallop but misses badly, and instead ends very awkwardly with little feeling of resolution for any character. It’s hard to tell if McGregor was better off acting in this and giving up the chair, or if he should have been behind the camera the whole time…as AMERICAN PASTORAL comes off as very unbalanced. Its coasts along thanks to the strength of the source material, which feels like it needs a whole lot more than what’s seen here.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016


“When I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals…”

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED.

A remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film INTERNAL AFFAIRS, Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED was a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek, catch-me-if-you-can game of a film in which a Boston-based Irish mob boss named Frank Costello plants a mole in the State Police, while the cops plant a mole of their own in Costello’s crew…which leads to both moles trying to uncover each other’s identity. The film was Scorsese’s 20th  feature, and ultimately his most successful.

The road to THE DEPARTED began in 2003, when producer Brad Grey and actor/producer Brad Pitt bought the rights to remake INTERNAL AFFAIRS. William Monahan was hired to write the screenplay and set the film in Boston. Scorsese, impressed with the setting and the Irish-Catholic gangster persona, signed up to direct.

The cast was a list of Hollywood heavyweights. Jack Nicholson, already considered a legend in the screen community, was cast as Frank Costello. Nicholson, looking to give the film something different than what other gangster films had shown before, came up with the idea of basing his character on real-life Boston gangster Whitey Bulger…which gave THE DEPARTED a strong element of realism. Matt Damon would come on board as the State Police mole on Costello’s payroll, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who had success with Scorsese with GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) and THE AVIATOR (2004), would be cast as the other mole. The rest of the cast included Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson, James Badge Dale, and Mark Rolston.

Filming began in 2005 on location in Boston and New York City. Scorsese, always looking to write a love letter to the classic pieces of cinema which inspired him, gave subtle, and not-so subtle references and winks to SCARFACE (1983), WHITE HEAT (1949), LITTLE CAESAR (1931), and even his own GOODFELLAS (1989).  The film was edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, who had won Oscars with Scorsese for her work on his RAGING BULL (1980), and THE AVIATOR (2004). Howard Shore would provide the score, and Irish rock band The Dropkick Murphys were more than happy to send their raucous song I’m Shipping Up to Boston over to Scorsese…who would also add tracks by The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, and Patsy Cline, among others.

THE DEPARTED was highly anticipated and opened to critical acclaim. It would be the third Scorsese film to debut at number one, and would remain in the top ten for seven weeks. It would appear on many top ten “best-of” lists, and Richard Roeper would name it the best film of the 2000’s. Mark Wahlberg would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and at those 79th Academy Awards, THE DEPARTED would win four Oscars; including Best Picture, Best Director (Scorsese), Best Film Editing (Schoonmaker, her third with Scorsese), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Monahan). The film would be the first time Scorsese won an Oscar after six previous losses.


One of the most memorable moments in all of Oscar history was when Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola…cinema titans of the 1970’s and 1980’s and friends to Martin Scorsese, came out on stage to award him with his first Academy Award for Best Director. Some say that the Oscar wasn’t quite deserved and was given to him as a lifetime achievement award, but this Blogger raises his middle finger to that notion. THE DEPARTED today stands as a grand film; brilliant in concept and execution, packed with tremendous acting and crafted with the precise skill that is seldom seen in film today. THE DEPARTED is not just another gangster flick but a strong story about identity, and if it does have to be put into that genre, it is by far the definitive modern film on organized crime. It hasn’t aged at all in a decade, and will be remembered fondly when Scorsese eventually folds up his director’s chair.


“I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.”

Friday, October 14, 2016


For all filmmakers, knowing when to keep things simple is always a challenge. Brevity is fine, but keeping things too simple can make for a predictable and ultimately boring film. But making things too complicated can also be a bad thing…as stories can be hard to follow and characters can easily get lost amongst the sea of plot-lines. Such is the challenge for director Gavin O’Connor and THE ACCOUNTANT.

Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) grows from a gifted autistic child to be an even more gifted accountant who cooks the books for the mafia and the cartel while becoming a superior marksman and unbeatable hand-to-hand fighter. When Dana (Anna Kendrick) discovers a flaw in the financials of a large corporate robotics company, the head of the company (John Lithgow) hires a hitman (Jon Bernthal) to take out Christian and Dana. Meanwhile, a U.S. Treasury officer (J.K. Simmons) blackmails a younger officer (Jean Smart) to help him bring in Christian.

Much like the profession that it is named after, there is nothing about THE ACCOUNTANT that is simple. Gavin O’ Connor juggles many plotlines; corporate embezzling, a police procedural, Christian’s backstory, a cat-and-mouse game, organized crime, and a statement on autistic people and how they can adapt or be rejected by society…are all weaved in and around and all over. There’s a lot to take in and despite the film’s middleweight-running time of two-plus hours, becomes too much for it to bear. The script, clearly feeling the burden of all the plotlines, actually stops the film dead in its tracks for what seems like forever for one character to sit down and verbalize a ton of endless backstory.

Despite the corporate financial embezzling being like listening to ancient Greek, when THE ACCOUNTANT clicks, it clicks well. Christian Wolff is a fascinating character to watch. He’s socially awkward and withdrawn, and answers all questions with stone-cold logic and brutal honesty (picture Mr. Spock turned up to 11). When the film spends time with him coping with his condition or trying to solve a problem, it’s hard not to be completely engaged. The fight scenes and shootouts are fantastically done; they never go over the top and are presented as real as can be.

Ben Affleck is terrific in the role. He practically vanishes behind his style-less nerd glasses but also disappears into the character. We can tell there’s more going on behind his stone-cold face and quiet demeanor. Anna Kendrick is adorable and acts as a nice foil to Christian, and Jon Bernthal lights up the screen as the flamboyant hitman.

For as unnecessarily complex as the main story is, we are ready forgive a lot during the climactic final fight scene which is tremendous to take in…but then the film dives into a plot twist or two which falls well short of their intended shock value. Both of the reveals are well intentioned but feel like a lazy shortcut to wrap up story threads. As much as the film tries to wrap things up neatly, there are still leftover threads out there when the credits roll; such as Christian’s large leap from autistic child to accountant for the mob, and the Treasury officer blackmailing a younger officer is totally unnecessary. Overall THE ACCOUNTANT gets the job done, even if it is as confusing as a new tax law and deserving of an audit.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016


The erotic thriller has been a genre in film which has seen immense popularity over the years. Start with a troubled couple, add in a love triangle and a whodunit mystery with a twist or two…and we’ve got the makings for good drama and suspense. The genre has unfortunately become a little predictable recently, and Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train  seeks to distance itself from the same-old same-old by changing the first-person narrative between three characters. An interesting approach, and a challenge for director Tate Taylor and his screen adaptation of the novel.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a depressed alcoholic prone to blackouts who only finds happiness in watching Megan (Haley Bennett) and her husband Scott (Luke Evans) from afar every day from her seat on a commuter train at a stop. Rachel witnesses what she believes to be infidelity, and Megan later vanishes…which has Rachel wondering if she and her blackouts were involved.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN tries to set itself up as a study to how people react when faced with great loss. Rachel, having messed up her life due to her drinking and (slight spoiler…alleged blackouts), and finding ways to cope with that loss. Seeing Rachel trying to find happiness through others is interesting and makes for a solid start, but the film dives into a convoluted maze of plot. Megan winds up being the former nanny of her neighbors, who happens to be Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson)…and those neighbors just happen to live two doors away, which gives Rachel plenty to look at every time the train comes to that stop. On top of that, Megan may or may not be having an affair with her shrink Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez)…whom Rachel winds up visiting to try and fill in her blackouts.

The thickness of plot (and lame contrivances) can be forgivable, but the film jumps all over the timeline in its telling. First we’re in the present, then back to months ago, then back to the present, and back to four days prior, and then back to years before. It’s a lot to take in, and even the fonts that come up to help us keep track wind up being annoying. The film is also a grind with deadly pacing, and each character is portrayed as a miserable shitbag whom no one would want to spend time with…never mind root for. Perhaps that is a fault of the source material, or maybe the screenwriters couldn’t find a way to trim the fat, but THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN winds up being a messy bore. The early goings focus on the three women and their first-person narration, which (again), is a nice start but eventually that goes out the window for a traditional narrative which makes for a choppy and inconsistent style. Director Tate Taylor also doesn’t do anything great behind the camera, but in the editing he does find room for Danny Elfman’s score to shine.

But there is one thing to love in this film, and that is the outstanding performance by Emily Blunt. Blunt puts us through every emotion in the book, and her drunken scenes of loneliness and despair have to be seen to be believed. Blunt sells the character with a single look, and her ability to turn her attractive features into a drawn and droopy sad person is amazing. Truly, this is her finest performance to date. The rest of the cast handles their assignments well. Allison Janney shows up as a detective looking for the missing Megan, but the role is so small that her talent seems wasted.

The identity of the person responsible for making Megan vanish comes by way of a few well-intentioned twists and turns, but once it’s revealed…there’s a “that’s it?” type of feeling. The film wants to be a clever whodunit but doesn’t have the shock value at the end, and one can’t help but to feel that things would have worked better without all the plot and just focused on the character and her issues. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN isn’t a total derailment thanks to the performance of Emily Blunt, but doesn’t get us to the station on time either.


Friday, October 7, 2016


The year was 1831. The issue of slavery in the United States was 30 years away from erupting into the Civil War, but on an August night in Virginia, a young slave by the name of Nat Turner organized a rebellion in which white slave-owners and their families were murdered in their beds. It was an incident which sparked outrage and led to the slaughter of thousands of black people, slaved and free, in retaliation. It was an incident in history that is messy and ugly and not easy to let fly on film…and perhaps too large for a first-time director.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker), is born into slavery and taught how to read by his owners, which include Samuel (Armie Hammer) and his mother (Penelope Ann Miller). Turner learns to be a preacher, and when Samuel encounters financial troubles, is convinced by Reverend Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.) to take Turner around to the neighboring slave plantations to make some money and to quell any thoughts of rebellion by any slaves. Once on the road, Turner witnesses the harsh conditions and treatment the owners have for their slaves, and after his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is attacked, organizes a bloody rebellion.

Not much is really known about the factual Nat Turner, other than his actions during that August night and that he was a man of faith who claimed to have visions which inspired him. Nate Parker, who co-wrote, directed, and stars as Turner, capitalizes on this and makes THE BIRTH OF A NATION a religious piece inside of a historical epic. Turner being shopped around by his master in an effort to keep local slaves in line is a test of faith, and despite his own slave upbringing on a somewhat-humane plantation, serves as a nice backdrop in his journey from preacher to rebel leader.

These are excellent touches considering the inevitable bloodshed to come, but Parker is in the director’s chair for the first time…and it really shows. Shots are filmed very plainly with the rare eye-popper, and the film suffers from many awkward transitions from scene-to-scene…along with many scenes feeling like they were cut abruptly short. The third act, which includes the revolt, feels very rushed; the climactic battle between two sides of fighters rushing at each other has no buildup whatsoever, and we’re into the fight and out of it before we even realize the story is at its supposed climax; so much for drama. The script relies heavily on Bible passages to express what characters are thinking, and while that works for the most part, creates a disconnect between us and the characters and eventually the entire film. Characters are used as plot points, going so far as to diminish Turner’s wife Cherry, with her attack and rape acting as the final catalyst for Turner to begin his rebellion. Turner himself doesn’t have much of a character arc, and only seems to come to life near the end. The eventual killing of Samuel (one of many historical inaccuracies, for those who care), comes out of left-field and doesn’t make sense story-wise.

For as much as Nate Parker struggles behind the camera, he is absolutely mesmerizing in front of it. His performance is one for the history books, giving off more raw emotion in one look or facial twitch than most actors can pull off in two hours of film. Armie Hammer is the surprise of the film, finally breaking out of his wooden box acting. Aja Naomi King is beautiful on film and turns in a good performance where she is allowed to, and Jackie Earle Haley, as a ruthless and despicable slave-hunter, makes for a great screen villain once again.

There is a lot to appreciate in THE BIRTH OF A NATION, as there are some great ideas going on about faith and how it can motivate or even justify actions, and despite how grisly the murder scenes are, there is a nice balance between brutality and beauty which keeps it from becoming a b-movie horror-flick splatterfest. But the film is too blunt and heavy-handed with its technical execution and imagery, and really seems to be begging for the finesse of an experienced hand. The title of the film itself is a stretch, as the ending moments try really hard to prove itself worthy of the words, but like the rest of the movie, is handled clumsily. Nate Parker has done good work here, but his lack of experience is in stark contrast to his talent as an actor. THE BIRTH OF A NATION does enough good to avoid being a complete wash, but falls short of the greatness its title yearns for.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2016: Episode X

The glorious month of October can be one of the most exciting months of the cinematic year, with many Oscar contenders mixed with gritty action flicks and grisly horror films. Here are the notable films for the month.

It all arrives with…

THE BIRTH OF A NATION – As previewed by Reel Speak HERE, Nate Parker’s epic telling of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 has already been hailed as a new American classic. Parker directs and stars, and he is joined by Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Mark Boone Jr., and Jackie Earle Haley

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN – Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, Emily Blunt witnesses something from her train window which sends her into a psychological nightmare. Co-stars Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez, and Lisa Kudrow. Tate Taylor (THE HELP), directs.

VOYAGE OF TIME – Director Terrence Malick (THE TREE OF LIFE, THE THIN RED LINE), directs this documentary examining the birth and death of the known universe.

PHANTASM: RAVAGER – The fifth and final (yeah right) installment of the cult-hit horror series which started back in 1979.

SHIN GODZILLA – This Japanese version of the big lizard is produced by Toho, the studio which originally created GODZILLA in 1954.

THE ACCOUNTANT – Ben Affleck stars as a gifted accountant who cooks the books for dangerous criminal organizations. He is joined by Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, and John Lithgow. It is directed by Gavin O’Connor (WARRIOR).

CERTAIN WOMEN – Based on the collection of short stories written by Maile Meloy entitled Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, this movie explores a handful of intersecting lives and stories across Montana. Stars Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and Michelle Williams.

CHRISTINE – In this true story, Rebecca Hall (IRON MAN 3) plays Christine Chubbuck, the 1970’s news reporter who committed suicide on live television.

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK – Tom Cruise returns for another round as the ass-kicking private investigator. Cobie Smulders (THE AVENGERS) co-stars. Directed by Edward Zwick (GLORY, THE LAST SAMURAI).

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL – The sequel to the 2014 horror film OUIJA.

31 – Director Rob Zombie (THE DEVIL’S REJECTS) is back with another October horror flick, in which a group of carnival workers are attacked while on the road.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE – In this Western, Ethan Hawke plays a drifter who drifts into the wrong town. Co-stars John Travolta and Karen Gillan.

AMERICAN PASTORAL – Ewan McGregor (STAR WARS), directs for the first time and stars in this crime drama where a man watches his daughter’s political beliefs destroy his family. Co-stars Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly, and Rupert Evans.

INFERNO – Ron Howard (APOLLO 13) returns to direct the third film in the Dan Brown series of books involving symbologist Professor Robert Langdon. Tom Hanks reprises the role, and he is joined by Felicity Jones and Ben Foster.


In a few weeks, Reel Speak previews the month of November.

Monday, October 3, 2016


On the surface, strange and unusual director Tim Burton seems like a good fit for Ransom Riggs’ novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; a children’s fantasy filled with scary tentacle monsters and orphaned children with fantastic abilities which feel right at home in a good horror movie. But Burton has proven to be at his best when he is working with material that he has a passion for, or at the very least, has the opportunity to put a personal touch on…which makes his own MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN a statement on his career.

Jake (Asa Butterfield), is a 14-year old boy who connects more with his storytelling grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), than his distant parents (Chris O’Dowd and Kim Dickens). After a strange event happens, Jake finds himself whisked back in time to the 1940’s at a mysterious orphanage run by the shape-shifting Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who cares for a group of children with creepy and fantastic abilities…who are being hunted by the evil Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his creatures who want to eat the children’s eyes.

MISS PEREGRINE takes place in a complicated fantasy world populated with weird characters, scary monsters, and employs time-travel which whisks characters around all over the place. In an attempt to keep things somewhat grounded, Tim Burton uses the old cinematic trick of the main character acting as the audience surrogate. We see and experience the world through Jake’s eyes, and as he goes, the audience goes. Right away, there are issues as Jake is drawn up as a very boring and bland character. His motivations for finding the orphanage are fine, but once he’s there, there’s little reason for him to stick around other than to listen to other characters stand around and talk. There’s way too much telling and not showing in an attempt to build this universe, and it doesn’t take long before MISS PEREGRINE turns into a grind.

With Jake as a wet noodle of a main character, the burden falls upon the story to keep things interesting. The script is bogged down with way too much exposition, and although Burton is trying play with the theme of the power of storytelling, it never gets very intriguing. By the time the finale rolls around, in which Burton sticks to his new shtick of a ridiculous final battle, we’re left wondering exactly what everyone is fighting for. The story makes little sense, not from the point of view of the main character or from a scripting standpoint.

One of the most frustrating things about MISS PEREGRINE is that the narrative mess takes place in a very good looking world. The orphanage is packed with detail, and it would probably take several viewings to notice everything in the many creepy rooms. Creature design is fantastic, with the spindly, eyeball-eating monsters a nightmare-inducing visual treat. Some excellent stop-motion is used, including a short-lived fight between two bastardized skeleton-dolls which is the most fun the movie has to offer.

The goddamn 3D is muddy shit.

Acting is a bit of a misfire. Asa Butterfield has zero charisma and doesn’t do the film any good. Eva Green hams it up, but she’s less of a character and more of a tool to provide exposition…and she vanishes from the movie for too long when she turns into a bird and stays there. Samuel L. Jackson acts and looks like a cartoon character with his long white spiky hair and pointed teeth. Judi Dench and Kim Dickens appear for what seems like 15 seconds apiece and go away. Terence Stamp escapes mostly unscathed (he’s always great), and the younger cast of children, including Ella Purnell and Finlay MacMillan…are very good.

Over the years, Burton has put his heart and soul into certain films. In BIG FISH he told us about his relationship with his father. ED WOOD was his love letter to filmmaking, while BETELGEUSE, SLEEPY HOLLOW, and CORPSE BRIDE expressed his fascination with death. When he doesn’t put a personal touch on his work, the difference can be seen…and MISS PEREGRINE falls into that category. It is un-interesting, dull, over-the-top silly, and makes no impression whatsoever…not on the audience or the director.