Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2016 - Episode XII



More so than any other year, December is the month that resembles a jailbreak as the mad rush to the Oscar finish-line heats up. In this final episode of 2016, here are the notable films for the month.

JACKIE – Natalie Portman (BLACK SWAN), plays Jackie Kennedy during her days as a First Lady and her life after the JFK assassination. Co-stars Greta Gerwig, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt. It is directed by Pablo Larrain, whose film NO was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012.

MAN DOWN – Shia LaBeouf plays a U.S. Marine struggling with his return home. Co-stars Gary Oldman, Kate Mara, and Jai Courtney AKA the human plank.

LA LA LAND – This romantic musical has Hollywood heartthrobs Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as singing and dancing lovers. It is directed by Damien Chazelle, whose 2013 film WHIPLASH was an Oscar darling.

FRANK & LOLA – The great Michael Shannon (TAKE SHELTER) stars as a Las Vegas chef who falls in love with a girl who is new to the city. Co-stars Imogen Poots (V FOR VENDETTA).

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – If you need a break from the Oscar race, here’s a return to that galaxy far, far away with the first STAR WARS spin-off feature film…which tells the story how the famed Rebel Alliance stole the plans to the dreaded Death Star. Stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, and Forest Whitaker. It is directed by Gareth Edwards, who helmed the 2014 GODZILLA.

COLLATERAL BEAUTY – Back to the awards race. Will Smith plays a despondent man who copes by writing letters to Love, Life, and Death…and one day gets an answer. Co-starring is Edward Norton, Keira Knightly, Naomie Harris, Kate Winslet, and Helen Mirren. David Frankel (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), directs.

ASSASSIN’S CREED – The long-awaited adaptation of the hit video game. Michael Fassbender stars.

PASSENGERS – In this sci-fi thriller, Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) and Jennifer Lawrence (THE HUNGER GAMES), play colonists who are awoken from their hyper-sleep aboard a starship decades too early. It is directed by Morten Tyldum, who helmed the magnificent THE IMITATION GAME in 2014.

PATRIOTS DAY – Peter Berg, who earlier this year directed the fantastic thriller DEEPWATER HORIZON, brings the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing to the big screen. Stars Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, JK Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, and Melissa Benoist (TV’s SUPERGIRL).

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE – Emile Hirsch (WILD), and Brian Cox (X-MEN 2), play a father-and-son coroner team who experience the supernatural while examining a dead body.

SILENCE – The great Martin Scorsese (THE DEPARTED, GOODFELLAS), returns with this historical epic drama about two 17th century priests who travel to Japan to find and rescue their mentor. Stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson.

FENCES – Based on the play of the same name, Denzel Washington plays a father struggling to make ends meet. Co-stars Viola Davis.

A MONSTER CALLS – In this family fantasy film, Liam Neeson provides the voice of a monster who befriends a young boy. Sigourney Weaver co-stars.

GOLD – Matthew McConaughey plays an unlucky businessman who heads into uncharted jungles in search of gold. Co-stars Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Bruce Greenwood, and Stacy Keach. It is directed by Stephen Gaghan (SYRIANA).

LIVE BY NIGHT – In this 1920’s gangster bootlegger crime drama, Ben Affleck stars and directs for the first time since he won Best Picture for ARGO in 2012. Stars Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, and Scott Eastwood (son of Clint).

20TH CENTURY WOMEN – Set in the 1970’s, a single mother struggles to teach her teenage son about love and freedom. Stars Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup.

PATERSON – Maverick director Jim Jarmusch (BROKEN FLOWERS, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE), is back with this drama about a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver. Stars Adam Driver.

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Next month, Episode I previews the notable releases for the first month of 2017.



Monday, November 28, 2016

A Reel Review: ALLIED



In his 30-plus year career, writer/director Robert Zemeckis has successfully dipped his toes into the waters of nearly every genre of film; drama, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, the Old West…all of which have served as his playgrounds to tell stories. With ALLIED, he finally enters the war-time genre. Specifically, WWII.

In 1942, Canadian Intelligence Officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and French Resistance fighter Marianne (Marion Cotillard), are sent to Casablanca to pose as husband and wife and assassinate the German ambassador. The two grow close and eventually marry having a child, before Max is informed by his superiors that Marianne may actually be a German spy.

Far from the typical war-time film, ALLIED is a tricky espionage story with a touch of romance. The bulk of the story concerns Max reluctantly having to obey orders to discover if his wife has been feeding the enemy information, making for a fine duty vs. family dilemma for him to wrestle with. Robert Zemeckis guides the story with a patient and steady hand, putting his characters through many “tests” to determine if they are who they say they are. It’s a well-constructed guessing game for Max and the audience.

Character is the most important thing when dealing with the high-stakes backdrop of war-time spies. Zemeckis keeps his two leads, Max and Marianne, at an arm’s-length. They’re treated more like chess-pieces than actual characters, as not much is told regarding where they came from or what they’re all about. This is effective for Marianne as she’s supposed to be shrouded in mystery, but for Max it leaves the film feeling cold. Max is supposed to be going through a serious moral dilemma, but the character is underwritten and it’s hard to feel his emotional strain…even when the explosive finale comes around.

Zemeckis has always made excellent use out of new film technology to tell his stories, and ALLIED is no different; the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, as 1940’s Casablanca is recreated in stunning detail. On the set, the production design is stunning, and all actors look right at home in their swanky leisure suits and snappy military uniforms. There is an odd choice of using CGI to de-age Brad Pitt, which takes some getting used to (they ironed out his wrinkles), but the rest of the visual effects are seamless. The tension-building scenes are brilliantly done, and overall Zemeckis films ALLIED with a touch of the style from the Golden Age of Hollywood, giving it a very old-fashioned and familiar feel. Alan Silvestri’s score sounds fine but feels underused.

Acting is pretty good. Brad Pitt shows the strain of his situation very well but he’s hampered with too few script pages to really let his character soar. Marion Cotillard lights up the screen and manages to go dark with a single glance, and she has good chemistry with Pitt. The rest of the cast, including Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, and Matthew Goode are all fine.

The plotting and writing for ALLIED is tight and clean, and there are zero issues with story or character consistency. It’s probably written a little too tight, as the lack of development for the Max character leaves the film feeling too business-like when it should have had a lot more heart. ALLIED is a beautiful-looking movie with some wonderful moments, and is strong enough to earn a recommendation; it’s just a few pages short of greatness.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Reel 40: ROCKY


“Yo Adrian!”


This month marks the 40th anniversary of ROCKY.

In the early 1970’s, a young and starving actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone watched a heavyweight boxing match between the great Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, in which Wepner was defeated by a technical knockout in the 15th round. Despite losing the fight, Wepner had lasted much longer than everyone had expected him to, and this inspired Stallone to begin writing the script for ROCKY. The script was written in less than four days, and the project picked up interest from United Artists.

The studio initially thought the film to be a vehicle for established stars such as Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, or James Caan. True to the spirit of ROCKY, Stallone, then an unknown, convinced the studio to not only let him play the lead, but to also film on location in Philadelphia, as opposed to a Los Angeles sound-stage.

Stallone’s script, which told the story of a tough working-class boxer who gets a shot at the heavyweight championship, called for strong characters, so a strong cast was needed. Carl Weathers was cast as the champion, Apollo Creed…who was loosely based on Ali. Creed was a flamboyant loud-talker, which provided a nice contrast to the shy and introverted main character of Rocky Balboa. Talia Shire, fresh off her success in THE GODFATHER, was cast as Adrian, Rocky’s love interest, and veteran actor Burgess Meredith would play the part of Mickey, Rocky’s trainer. Burt Young was cast as Paulie, Adrian’s brother. John G. Avildsen, who directed Jack Lemmon to an Oscar win in 1973, was brought on to direct.

Shooting took place over just 28 days on location in Philadelphia, with pickups in L.A., on a budget of just $1 million; a low number even for those times. Inventor/operator Garrett Brown’s brand new “steadicam” was used to accomplish smooth photography for scenes when Rocky was running through city streets and climbing up the 72 steps of the Art Museum. Stallone and Weathers would endure injuries while filming the boxing scenes. Once shooting wrapped, composer Bill Conti would provide the score.

ROCKY would be a victory. The film would be a box office smash, and considering its small budget of $1 million, would eventually become notable for its worldwide percentage return of over 11,000 percent. Critics loved it, and the film would receive a whopping ten Oscar nominations, winning three; including Best Picture, Best Director (Avildsen), and Best Editing. The film’s main cast of Stallone, Meredith, Shire, and Young would all be nominated for their acting. ROCKY’S main theme song Gonna Fly Now made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2006, ROCKY was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and today, is considered to be one of the greatest and influential sports films of all time. ROCKY would spawn six sequels over the next 39 years, and Stallone would become an international star. Years later, John G. Avildsen would use the ROCKY template to create THE KARATE KID.

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As a wee-lad growing up in Pennsylvania (Rocky’s home state), ROCKY was a film which was basically on repeat at home; either on glorious Beta tape or HBO. The film would inspire this Blogger and his brother to recreate the fights with several socks on our hands (not one of our best ideas), and the film would easily become a family favorite. Years later, as this Blogger began his study of film, the influence ROCKY had, and still has on cinema is clear. Any story which tells the tale of an underdog going up against goliath-sized odds is always referred to as a “Rocky Story”, and that is a true compliment. Outside of film, the cultural impact ROCKY has had is abundantly clear. This Blogger relocated to Philly in 2010, and during every visit to the Art Museum, many people, either Philly natives or tourists, can be seen running up the steps…recreating the iconic moment in the film. And when they get to the top, they always raise their arms in victory, just like Rocky. The Rocky Statue (first unveiled in ROCKY III in 1982), always has lines of people waiting to take their picture in front of it, and the Philadelphia Eagles, the city’s pro-football team (or so they claim), plays the ROCKY theme before every game. Stallone found a way to speak to the underdog in everyone on the night he watched that Ali fight, and in the last 40 years has inspired us all to keep getting up…no matter how many times we get hit. It’s all about heart, and that is an idea that lasts forever.

“…and that bell rings and I’m still standing, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”



Monday, November 21, 2016

A Reel Review: LOVING



In the past few years, no other filmmaker has captured rural America like writer/director Jeff Nichols. From the backwater towns of Mississippi to the flatlands of Ohio, he has become a storyteller for the country-folk, specifically; the ones who face extraordinary obstacles. He is a voice for the little people, which makes his newest film, LOVING, the story of the Supreme Court case which would end laws prohibiting interracial marriage, right in his wheelhouse.

In Virginia 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), an interracial couple, are arrested for breaking the state’s laws prohibiting interracial marriage and are forced to leave their home state. After raising a family, they yearn to return home, and enlist the help of ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) to reverse their conviction.

The case of Loving v. Virginia would be a landmark in American history, as the (spoiler) eventual decision by the Supreme Court would allow couples of mixed race to marry…and the case would be used as a precedent in modern times when the issue of gay marriage comes to be argued. LOVING guides us through the somewhat complex road that Richard and Mildred must journey; from their early courtship, to their wedding day, to the frightening intrusion when police break down their bedroom door. The story is ripe to turn into a legal procedural, with each step of the legal process acting as a plot point.

But the steady hand of Jeff Nichols has no interest in turning LOVING into a dry legal drama. Instead, he focuses the film’s attention on the Lovings; their family life, their daily routines, and their interactions with each other, friends, and extended family. Nichols realizes that the Lovings were the quiet type; never wanting to seek unnecessary attention or to bothered. With this in mind, the legal proceedings nearly fade into the background of the story, leaving us with Richard and Mildred and their family and their day-to-day struggle with being accepted. With such large implications hanging over the story, the special care and attention given to the main characters turns LOVING into a special film to take in.

Nichols captures the landscape and the living conditions of 1950’s Virginia perfectly. His perfectly framed shots and patient hand in showing the daily routines creates an atmosphere so thick we could practically swat the skeeters away from our sweaty necks. He paints the Lovings as an intimate and very human couple, and it’s impossible to not see ourselves in them. David Wingo’s score is beautiful and adds to the atmosphere.

Acting is superb. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga have a tremendous, natural chemistry with each other, and it’s not hard at all to buy them as a couple. Edgerton’s character is a down-home type who usually has his head down and mumbles a bit, and the scene where he has to plead guilty in open court is heartbreaking as he perfectly portrays a broken man. Ruth Negga is as effective as she is beautiful; conveying so much emotion in a single glance. The great Michael Shannon drops in as a Life Magazine photographer and lightens the mood, and Marton Csokas, as an overzealous police chief, turns in a great role as the villain of the film.

The true brilliance behind LOVING is just how understated everything is. Where other filmmakers would go for big, overdramatic speeches with tears flowing to prove a point, Nichols instead goes for little moments which amazingly carry much more weight. It works because it’s the type of natural, real-world reactions that the common person would have when going up against great odds. In fact, the film is so understated and subtle, that it isn’t until the perfectly-framed final shot where the true weight and emotion of the story finally sinks in, and closes out LOVING with a satisfying, tear-inducing exclamation-point. Jeff Nichols has quietly put together a very relevant film, as it speaks towards how much progress we’ve made, and how much more needs to happen. It’s a film for us all, and those are the best kind.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Friday, November 18, 2016

A Reel Review: FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM



You can’t go home again. Or at least, that’s what they say. Returning home to try and recapture old magic is often an impossible task. For storytellers and filmmakers, returning to a fictional world of their own creation after a long absence can be equally challenging, and in the past decade, many have tried and failed. For author/screenwriter JK Rowling and director David Yates, returning to the world of HARRY POTTER is a journey being watched with many nervous eyes.  

In the 1920’s (70 years before Harry Potter is born), Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young wizard, arrives in New York City with a bottomless case of magical creatures which are illegal to have in the non-magical world of humans. The case is lost, and some creatures escape…which leads Newt across the city in a chase to recapture them without harm.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM has a whole lotta movie going on. Not content to just have a film consisting of chasing and capturing amazing creatures (although the chase-and-capture scenes are incredibly fun), series creator and screenwriter JK Rowling and director David Yates pack the film with a web of many storylines. Newt crosses paths with a human (Dan Fogler), fellow wizards (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), the governing body of magic in America, (led by Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo), and a secret cult looking to hunt down wizards and witches (led by Ezra Miller and Samantha Morton). Toss in a mysterious magical dark entity which is destroying buildings and killing humans, and FANTASTIC BEASTS become a web of intrigue. There are many storylines, many of which seem separate from each other, which eventually come together nice and tight by movie’s end.

Long-time fans of the HARRY POTTER franchise have a lot to be happy about, and a lot to get used to. While the original eight films dealt with schoolchildren learning and growing up, this one takes place in the adult world which brings about a change in tone. It’s firmly set in the world of HARRY POTTER, so terms such as spells, wands, and witches are there to grasp. But at the same time, gone are familiar terms such as professor and quidditch. The film handles itself very business-like, with characters coming second and the plot coming first.

The film more-than lives up to its title. The magical beasts which reside in Newt’s case are wonderfully realized; taking on many shapes and forms with wonderful abilities. The beasties play an important role in the film’s enjoyment, as they provide plenty of whimsical fun in this adult-world tale. Director David Yates keeps the pacing brisk with an excellent sense of momentum and energy, and the darker scenes would feel right at home in any horror movie. James Newton Howard provides an excellent score.

The goddamn 3D is very good.

The actors and actresses are perfectly cast and go a long way in selling the ideas going around. Eddie Redmayne once again proves himself to be one of the world’s finest actors, playing Newt as a brilliant, caring, yet aloof and reckless wizard who is a bit shy and socially awkward. It’s a remarkable performance, and makes the Newt character an important entry in the POTTER universe. Katherine Waterston always seems to be stuck in the same gear, and Colin Farrell is excellent as always. The show is nearly stolen by Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, whose budding love-affair (between human and witch) is fun to watch. Ron Perlman is perfect as a goblin gangster.

The third-act of the film unfortunately puts our now-beloved beasts on the backburner in favor of way too many fight scenes with wizards hucking CGI lights and blobs at each other (it reeks of studio meddling). Seemingly aware of this, Yates and Rowling manage to steer the film back to the creatures for the finale…which also packs in a twist which fans will eat up like chocolate frogs. By film’s end, FANTASTIC BEASTS serves as a solid first-chapter in a new set of stories, but it also stands alone as its own adventure. It is fun, eye-popping, intriguing, and for as much new material there is…feels comfortable. Going home has never felt better.

BOTTOM LINE: See it



Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need To Know About FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM



This week, author JK Rowling’s world of wizards, witches, and magical creatures enters a new era when FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM lands in theatres. Here is everything you need to know about this highly anticipated film.

What is this all about? -  FANTASTIC BEASTS takes place in the same universe as HARRY POTTER and his adventures. Set 70 years before Harry is born, the story is about a case of magical creatures which gets lost in the non-magical (muggle) world; specifically, New York City.

What is this based on? – FANTASTIC BEASTS is based on the book of the same name, written by JK Rowling in 2001. The book contains no plot, and instead serves as a “schoolbook” that a wizarding student would study. The fictional author is Newt Scamander, who is the main character in the film.

Who is behind this? – This film marks the debut of JK Rowling as screenwriter. It is being directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four HARRY POTTER films. Yates’ other theatrical credit is this year’s giant stinking turd THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (or BORE-ZAN).

Who are the actors and actresses? – The central role of Newt Scamander is held down by Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar in 2014 for his stunning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. He was also nominated in 2015 for THE DANISH GIRL. His other credits include MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011), and LES MISERABLES (2012). Redmayne is joined by Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam from LAW AND ORDER), who appeared in last year’s STEVE JOBS, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE (2014). Also tagging along are Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, and Ezra Miller. Ron Perlman (HELLBOY), provides the voice and motion-capture for a goblin gangster.

Random Facts – The name Newt Scamander appears on the Marauder’s Map in the film HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004) * The film will take place in the United States, which is a departure from the previous films, which were set in the UK * Eddie Redmayne was the first and only choice for the role according to series creator JK Rowling * In the HARRY POTTER universe, Newt’s textbook is required reading for first-year students *

What to expect – It has been five years since the last film in the HARRY POTTER series, but that doesn’t mean the popularity of the franchise has waned (read Reel Speak’s review of a recent community festival HERE), so no matter how the film is, we can expect a massive box office hit. On the screen, Eddie Redmayne has proven to be one of the best actors working today, and can easily carry a film on his shoulders. Parent company Warner Bros. is a concern, as they have been known in the past year to meddle and butcher films in the editing room (see the last two DC Comics disasters). Behind the screen, Rowling is a very good storyteller, and her transition from writing novels to screenplays should be an easy one for her. But behind the camera, we have David Yates…whose rush-job shooting and editing style nearly sunk the last four HARRY POTTER films, and his BORE-ZAN movie this past summer was one of the worst of the year. During his original POTTER run, he was bailed out by the strength of the source material; the story was just too strong to be killed by his lousy style. So hopefully, the story by JK Rowling is once again good enough to survive its inept director. Sometimes magic is all we need.

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FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM arrives November 18th in 2D, 3D, and IMAX formats.


Monday, November 14, 2016

A Reel 25: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST


“Be our guest…”




This month marks the 25th anniversary of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
Based on the French fairy tale of the same name (and partly on the 1946 French film version), in which a beautiful young woman falls in love with a prince who had been turned into a beast, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was the 30th animated feature film to be produced by Disney…but its origins would go much further back in time. Coming off the success of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in 1937, Walt Disney was looking to adapt the story to the film, but the story proved to be a challenge. The project would sit on virtual shelf until the late 1980’s when it was revived, and it would become the first Disney animated film to use a script; as most animated films were developed using storyboards.
After some stops and starts (including a complete scrapping and starting over in 1989), first-time feature directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were hired, and they in turn asked songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who had written the song score for Disney’s successful THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989), to develop the film into a Broadway-style musical. Since the original story had only two main characters, the filmmakers enhanced them, added new characters taking the form of household items to guide the audience through the story, and added a real “villain” to complete the story. The film would use a combination of hand-drawn and computer animation, with new software and techniques allowing for a wider range of colors and much greater depth and movement.
Voice-casting can go a long way in adding life to animated characters. Paige O’ Hara, a broadway actress, was cast as Belle, the main character, and Robby Benson was cast as Beast. Jerry Orbach, of TV’s LAW AND ORDER fame, donned a French accent to play the role of Lumiere, the butler who was turned into a candlestick, and Angela Lansbury provided the voice of Mrs. Potts, the castle cook turned into a teapot. The film’s songs were recorded live with the orchestra and the voice cast, giving it a cast album-like energy.
In November of 1991, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was released and met with critical acclaim. At the box office, it would be the third most successful draw of the year, surpassed only by TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES…which was still a great feat for an animated movie. It would be the first animated film to be ever to be nominated for Best Picture, and would remain so until 2010 when the category was expanded to 10 films. At the 64th Academy Awards, it would be nominated in six categories (including two for Best Original Song), and would win two; for Best Original Score and Song. Years later, IGN would rank the film as the greatest animated movie of all time, and in 2002 it would be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
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The impact of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST would go far beyond Oscars and dollars. From 1989 to 1999, Disney was going through what film-historians refer to as the “Disney Renaissance”; in which the famed studio went through a creative resurgence which restored public interest in their films and their products. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was the third film made during this period, and would contribute greatly to Disney’s decade-long success. In that decade, countless kids and families would have shelves of VHS tapes packed with Disney titles, and in this Blogger’s household, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was the film that was picked the most often. This Blogger’s little sister, then five years old, watched the film all the time…and knew every character, song, and moment in the film. It became a family favorite, and this Blogger’s little sister now shares her enthusiasm for the film with her daughter…and it’s certain that is a scene being played out with many families. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a legacy film; one that is passed down from generation to generation, transcending time over and over again.


“Tale as old as time…”




Friday, November 11, 2016

A Reel Review: ARRIVAL



In cinema, aliens have been arriving on Earth for tens of decades with all sorts of intentions. There have been those who want to kill, kidnap, and torture us, and there have been others who want to befriend and educate us…with the occasional one who just wants to hang out and eat candy. The genre can feel stale sometimes, which makes the landing of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL very timely…and what a landing it is.

Twelve mysterious alien craft have arrived across the globe and sends the world into a panic. To discover their intentions, the U.S. government enlists the help of Louise (Amy Adams), a troubled language professor, and Ian (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Under the command of U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), the team races to communicate with the silent aliens before the world tears itself apart.

The most important question ever to be answered when aliens arrive on Earth is, what are their intentions; to destroy, or befriend us? ARRIVAL spends most of its time with its characters trying to solve this mystery, which is a monumental process. The large, tentacled aliens do not speak and only communicate with strange symbols, and Louise and her team have their work cut for them in learning the language and figuring out how to communicate back. It’s a race against the clock, as the more hostile nations of the world are gearing up for war, which of course makes every other country nervous enough to mobilize their military.

Despite the massive, worldwide events that are happening here, ARRIVAL is still very much a deep character piece. Louise has some serious demons that she’s dealing with the whole time, and as an intellectual, uses her troubles to her advantage in deciphering the alien code. However, towards the end, ARRIVAL presents a mind-bending, gut-punching, breath-taking, brain-destroying TWIST which flips the entire film upside-down. It is executed perfectly and not just for shock value, as it justifies the arrival of the aliens and Louise’s personal issues, and by the time the credits roll, the true meaning of the film comes as a revelation. It is so good, one would want to immediately view the film again.

Denis Villeneuve shoots, frames, and edits his film with meticulous care. Pacing is perfect, and every shot has an expressed purpose. It is beautifully shot, and Johann Johannsson’s score adds to the ominous atmosphere. Pacing is tight, humor is well-timed, and the surprises are perfectly executed.

Amy Adams does an outstanding job here. Her character’s personal struggles drives her, and with a single glance can convey the amount of turmoil she’s going through underneath. Jeremy Renner is equally outstanding. His character is like a kid in a candy store when boarding the alien craft, and although his character is a little undercooked, he later benefits from that big ol’ twist. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg are excellent as always.

Besides aliens and Louise, ARRIVAL has a lot of themes going on. The worldwide conflict over the alien ships speaks towards how this very world behaves towards each other. Villeneuve never gets preachy, and long after the credits finish, there is a lot to talk and think about for hours. ARRIVAL won’t set any new trends for the genre as it is so good in its ambition and execution, it can never be copied. It flies high above the crowded skies of sci-fi, and that makes it a masterpiece.

BOTTOM LINE: See it



Monday, November 7, 2016

A Reel Review: DOCTOR STRANGE



After 13 successful films in eight years Marvel and their parent company Disney seems to have this superhero thing down-pat, but the newest addition to their series is by far their greatest challenge to put to film. Where their previous heroes use familiar elements such as brute strength and technology to battle bad guys, DOCTOR STRANGE is a character which swims in the weird; bizarre things like out-of-body projections, time-loops, mystical portholes leading to other dimensions, and folding reality of top of itself in eye-popping collages of merging images. It’s the most out-there hero to be brought to film, and its success or failure could determine if the genre will be stuck in the familiar or have the ability to soar further.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a brilliant yet arrogant neurosurgeon, who after a vicious car-accident loses motor function in his hands. Seeking a cure, he travels to the Far East, where he discovers the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who lead a world-wide secret group of sorcerers…sorcerers who are under threat from former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

Showing no shame, director Scott Derrickson keeps DOCTOR STRANGE in the classic pages of traditional storytelling. It’s the Hero’s Journey to the letter, as Strange goes from one stage to the next…from his tragic fall from his comfortable life, to encounters with mentors, to journeying through the belly of the beast, and rediscovery of one’s self. It’s a familiar template, but the surroundings and the characters keep it all fresh. Strange is painted as an arrogant and ego-filled character in the early goings, and his journey to becoming a hero runs parallel to his path to becoming a better person.

There is an old axiom in filmmaking that the higher the concept, the simpler the story must be…and by sticking to that rule, DOCTOR STRANGE has a perfect balance. Once the mystical side of the film opens up, the dazzling and breathtaking visuals, most of which are sights never before seen on film, are a lot to take in. The visual dazzle isn’t just showing off, as each magic trick serves a purpose in the story; either to provide explanation to the new world or to serve as a backdrop or a way of fighting for our characters. At the center of all the acid trip-like (not that this Blogger would know for sure) is Strange, and he keeps things grounded as being a very human character just trying to find his way.

Director Scott Derrickson keeps the pacing tight and the humor well-timed. The film moves, and the weighty emotional moments add some welcome heart. Derrickson never lets Strange the character get lost in all of the weirdness, and his trauma in losing control of his hands can really be felt. The powers that the characters wield are wild and lead to some tricky sequences which can keep the audience fully engaged and makes the adventure a true thinking-man’s superhero film. Michael Giacchino’s score is magnificent.

The goddamn 3D is spectacular.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Strange. Shedding his British accent perfectly (which takes some getting used to), he plays the character as stubborn and spoiled, but finds a way to add some tragedy and generates a great amount of empathy. Tilda Swinton is absolutely mesmerizing as the Ancient One, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as always. Benedict Wong nearly steals the show as comic relief, and Mads Mikkelsen, as the Big Bad of the film…is also very good. His villain is a unique entry into the Marvel universe as his motivations could be argued to be on the right side of things. Two well-known actors, Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg appear as Strange’s medical colleagues, but are used sparingly and put aside for the bigger picture.

Despite being connected to the larger series of movies, DOCTOR STRANGE is very much a stand-alone film, and only has a few winks and nods to the bigger picture…but even those winks are a firm connection and peek into what’s to come for this character and others. Once the visual assault clears our fried brains, DOCTOR STRANGE finishes as a unique, fun, and satisfying superhero origin story which delivers on every promise. Just like its main character, it masters the strange and bizarre…and ultimately raises the bar for what superhero movies are capable of.

BOTTOM LINE: See it






Friday, November 4, 2016

A Reel Review: HACKSAW RIDGE



Movies are often driven by characters, and building characters is essential. Character building is not unlike making a house; there’s a foundation, walls, a roof, and maybe most important of all…what’s inside. Such is the approach of filmmaker Mel Gibson and the odd-yet-true story of HACKSAW RIDGE.

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who despite being a devout Christian and conscientious objector, joins the Army during WWII as a medic and refuses to lift, much less fire a weapon despite the orders from his Platoon Sergeant (Vince Vaughn), company commander (Sam Worthington), and the persecution by his own fellow soldiers and military justice.

On paper, the idea of a soldier going to war without as much as pea-shooter in his hand to defend himself seems ludicrous, and maybe even a little corny despite being based on a true story. Establishing the character is everything, and director Mel Gibson, showing the patience of a veteran filmmaker, is in no rush to make sure we know exactly who Desmond Doss is and how his refusal to fire a weapon is justified. Childhood incidents cement his reluctance to fight, while his WWI-veteran alcoholic father (brilliantly played by Hugo Weaving) adds to his sense of duty to his country. His wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), gives him something to come home to and adds plenty of heart to the story, and his experiences in boot camp where he is literally punished for his beliefs builds his walls even stronger.

HACKSAW RIDGE is ultimately a war picture, and once Doss does make it to the front lines as a medic, he gets his wish and gets to rush into the hellfires with nothing but air in his hands. And once those hellfires do start to burn, Gibson lets it all fly. Guns boom like thunder, flames fill the screen, bodies are blown to bits, and blood and guts spew everywhere. Rats and maggots eat away at the dead, and heads and limbs are mangled and crushed like going through a meatgrinder. War is hell, and Gibson never lets us forget it.

But in the middle of all that blood and fire is Doss, who runs from one mess to another dragging his fellow wounded soldiers to safety, and this is where the emotional power of the film kicks in. Soldiers who had ridiculed Doss earlier now defend him, and the shit that Doss has to go through, especially when he is left on his own after his Company retreats, is enough to make anyone cringe. War is brutal and powerful and out of it comes raw emotion, and Gibson delivers. Bring tissues.

The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is outstanding.

Andrew Garfield puts on a great physical and emotional performance. His southern accent pushes the good-ol-boy routine a little too much, but once he is asked to do the physical work all is forgiven. Garfield is asked to do a lot here and he is more than up to the challenge. Teresa Palmer is excellent, as is Sam Worthington, and in a rare dramatic role, Vince Vaughn.

HACKSAW RIDGE has a nostalgic feel to it, as it is filmed and acted in the 1950’s style of all-American boys and strong ideals. It sometimes feels dated, but it works…and sticking to ideals is what the film is all about. Gibson is telling a story not about war but about remaining steadfast to belief in the face of the worst hell imaginable, and it makes the relentless on-screen onslaught of booming bombs more than just noise. Gibson has crafted a very unique war picture with HACKSAW RIDGE, one with a different type of story with a different type of soldier; the type that we would want sitting next to us when things go wrong. And those are the best characters.

BOTTOM LINE: See it


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A Reel Preview: The Year In Film 2016 - Episode XI



This has been a year of many cinematic disappointments and disasters, but 2016 is looking to finish off strong by starting with a packed month of November. Reel Speak’s Big Bold Prediction of the year is this; our Best Picture winner will be released this month. Here is a preview of the notables:

HACKSAW RIDGE – Mel Gibson, director of the Oscar-winning BRAVEHEART, returns behind the camera for the first time in a decade to tell the true story of a WWII medic who refused to carry a weapon and single-handedly saved over 75 lives in combat. Stars Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, and Vince Vaughn.

LOVING – Director Jeff Nichols, who earlier this year brought us the magnificent MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, brings the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving to the screen; a couple who were arrested and sentenced to prison in 1958 because their interracial marriage broke anti-segregation laws. Stars Joel Edgarton (WARRIOR), Ruth Negga, and Michael Shannon.

DOCTOR STRANGE – If you need a break from the awards contenders, Marvel Studios is back with another chapter in their growing universe of films. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s SHERLOCK) plays the mystical Dr. Steven Strange, and he is joined by Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, and Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s HANNIBAL).

ARRIVAL – Denis Villeneueve, who last year brought us the powerful SICARIO, returns with this sci-fi drama about aliens arriving on Earth. The cast includes Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK – Ang Lee (THE LIFE OF PI, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), uses new filming technology to adapt this book of the same name, in which a U.S. Army soldier recounts his tragic wartime memories while on a promotional tour across the country. Stars Joe Alwyn, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, and Kristen Stewart.

USS INDIANAPOLIS: MEN OF COURAGE – This often-delayed epic about the historic USS Indianapolis, the ship immortalized in JAWS (1975), finally sees a theatrical release this month. Nic Cage stars.

ELLE – Paul Verhoeven (BASIC INSTINCT, ROBOCOP), directs this erotic thriller in which a woman who is raped stalks her attacker.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM – Another break from the awards race, which brings us back to the magical world of HARRY POTTER; taking place over 50 years before Harry was born in which a case of magical creatures is lost in the muggle (non-magical) world. Stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, and Colin Farrell. Shitty director David Yates, who brought us THE LEGEND OF BORE-ZAN this year, is behind the camera.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN – Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Oscar for TRUE GRIT (2010), plays a high school junior whose world is turned upside down when her best friend begins dating her brother. Co-stars Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick.

BLEED FOR THIS – In this true story, Miles Teller (WHIPLASH) plays Vinny Paz; a world champion boxer who refuses to retire despite a spinal injury. Co-stars Katey Sagal and Aaron Eckhart.

MACHESTER BY THE SEA – In this drama, Casey Affleck plays a man who is reluctantly made legal guardian of his nephew. Co-stars Michelle Williams and Matthew Broderick.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS – In this psychological thriller, an art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, which she sees as a threat against her life. The heavyweight cast includes Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, and Michael Sheen.

ALLIED – Robert Zemeckis, director of BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP, and FLIGHT, directs this WWII drama about two assassins who fall in love, and later suspect that one may be a double-agent. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard play the assassins.

LION – Dev Patel (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), searches for his long-lost family using Google Earth. Rooney Mara (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) co-stars.

MISS SLOANE – In this political thriller, Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY), plays a politician pushing gun control. Co-stars Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, and Sam Waterston. It is directed by John Madden (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE).

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Next month, the final episode of 2016.