Friday, December 15, 2017

A Reel Review: STAR WARS - THE LAST JEDI


Myths and legends are the elemental forces of all storytelling; building worlds, characters, and journeys that become so large they communicate with us on an internal level, and ultimately effect who we are. For the past 40 years, STAR WARS has thrived on the building of legends, and in the 8th episode of the saga, THE LAST JEDI, writer and director Rian Johnson takes it all a step further, and beyond.

After the events of THE FORCE AWAKENS, new Force-user Rey (Daisy Ridley), travels to the remote planet where self-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is hiding from the galaxy. Meanwhile, the evil First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), pursues the remnants of the Resistance across the galaxy; led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

THE LAST JEDI is split into two distinct storylines, with Rey trying to pull Luke off his remote island, and the Resistance fleet being relentlessly bombarded by the First Order. The storyline with the Fleet brings up the stakes considerably; these are the last true leaders of the good guys, and as their fates go, so goes the fate of the galaxy. This narrative eventually splinters off into a sub-plot with Finn (John Boyega) and ship-mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) heading off on a side-quest to enlist the help of a codebreaker (Benicio Del Toro) to help save the fleet. A lot of ground is explored here in the simple line of saving the Fleet, with characters coming to vehement and even violent disagreements over how exactly to survive. Right away, heroics are called into question which is new ground for STAR WARS.

The heart of the story lies with Rey and Luke. Rey is young and eager, and earnestly wants to help her friends and a galaxy in peril. Luke in the meantime is a broken man, wracked with guilt over his past failures. Writer and director Rian Johnson uses this time to completely deconstruct the idea of a legend and to explore the nature of what a hero really is. There is some deep work going on here, with a lot of digging into character and the lore of the Jedi. This is a film that explores what happens after the happy ending, and the self-reflection that the characters take on is a stunning move for a STAR WARS film.

Johnson has a thousand balls in the air all throughout THE LAST JEDI. He boldly explores themes that were established years ago in previous films, tearing them down to nothing and then building them back up again. Items and storylines from THE FORCE AWAKENS are picked up and taken to some brave new places, with a few cleverly saved for Episode IX. There are some major revelations made, a few well-timed twists, and film’s hefty running time is well-spent with each major character getting their due.

Pacing for the most part is brisk and the momentum is ever moving forward. Finn and Rose’s side-quest to a casino initially feels like a distraction from the bigger things going on, but those concerns are later disposed of by the time the finale rolls around and the trip is more-than justified. The film is beautiful to look at, with the on-location filming at Luke’s remote island breathtaking in every frame. There is a heavy amount of CGI work done here, perhaps the most in any STAR WARS film. Most of the effects look great, while a handful of them look rough and fake. The comic-relief bits and gags come in the most unexpected places, and the emotional touches are perfectly timed. The action sequences are a thrill, with a space battle or two done with the perfect amount of tension. John Williams returns to score his 8th STAR WARS film and resurrects many themes from the past, but THE LAST JEDI doesn’t seem to have a new theme to call its own.

Acting is outstanding. Mark Hamill as Luke is fascinating, and he conveys more emotion in a single glance than most actors can in 60 minutes of work. Daisy Ridley is once again wonderful, as is John Boyega. Benicio Del Toro nearly steals the show as a stuttering oddball, Laura Dern gets some heavy lifting to do as Leia’s second-in-command, and the late great Carrie Fisher gets many moments to shine. Kelly Marie Tran is a blast and a welcome addition to the galaxy. Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver are also excellent.

Nearly all of us were introduced to STAR WARS as children, when the galaxy before us was wide open with possibility; fueled by imagination and dreams. By the time the smoke from the final battles clear, Johnson magically brings those old feelings back around for an emotional exclamation point and a nod towards the past and future of STAR WARS. By the end of this episode characters are in new territory, and whatever comes next is anyone’s guess. Rian Johnson has crafted a balance of thrills and character in THE LAST JEDI, and for the first time in a long time, makes myths and legends seen in a new light. That’s what great storytelling does, and most of all...shows that STAR WARS can still surprise us. 


BOTTOM LINE: See it 




Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need To Know About THE LAST JEDI



This week, the most anticipated film of the year arrives in the form of the 8th episode in the STAR WARS saga, entitled THE LAST JEDI. Here is everything you need to know before returning to that famed, far away galaxy…

What is this about? – THE LAST JEDI picks up right after the events of THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), which was the first film in a new trilogy, directed by JJ Abrams. The new trilogy begins 30 years after the events of THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), which was the final film in the Original STAR WARS trilogy. In THE LAST JEDI, the Resistance struggles to survive against the sinister First Order, while Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi in the galaxy, continues his self-exile.

Who is behind this? – Abrams has stepped aside, and in his place is writer/director Rian Johnson, who is mostly known for his sci-fi thriller LOOPER in 2012. This is the third film produced by Disney since they acquired the franchise in 2012.

Who is in this? – Reprising their roles that they started 40 years ago are Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, the late Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa, Anthony Daniels as C3P0, and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca. Reprising their roles from THE FORCE AWAKENS are Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Gwendoline Christie. Lupita Nyong’o once again provides voice-over and motion capture work for Maz Kanata, and Andy Serkis does the same for the mysterious and evil Snoke. Newcomers to the saga are Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro.

Random Facts – Carrie Fisher, who passed away last year, assisted Rian Johnson in the writing of the screenplay * This will be Fisher’s final screen role * Benicio del Toro was originally cast to play Darth Maul in STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), but dropped out when most of the character’s lines were cut * John Williams returns to score the film, his 8th in the series * This is the longest STAR WARS movie at 152 minutes * This is the first film in the series in which the late Kenny Baker was not involved in the portrayal of R2-D2. Baker passed away in 2016 *

What to expect? – The first thing to expect in THE LAST JEDI is the beauty of the film. As explored by Reel Speak in the review of the final trailer (HERE), all the footage we’ve seen looks gorgeous; perhaps the best-looking STAR WARS movie yet. Story-wise, we don’t know a lot of details about the plot, but considering the literal cliffhanger we were left with at the end of THE FORCE AWAKENS, we can assume that our characters, new and old, will be going through some hard times. Rian Johnson has proven himself to be a clever writer, and his knack for weaving characters around is excellent. Disney and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy have not made any major missteps with STAR WARS since day one, and this Blogger isn’t expecting one here.

*

THE LAST JEDI opens with limited screenings on December 14th, and in wide release on the 15th. It will be available in 2D, 3D, and IMAX formats.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Reel Review: THE DISASTER ARTIST



In 2003, eccentric oddball Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, produced, and starred in THE ROOM…which since then has gone on to be labeled as one of the worst movies of all time. With its bizarre, unconventional storytelling, technical errors, and terrible acting, the film has moved into a cult-favorite status; so bad it’s great to enjoy, with midnight shows and drinking-party screenings reveling in its shittiness. The making of the film has been told in a book, and this is the basis for James Franco’s THE DISASTER ARTIST.

Greg (Dave Franco), is a struggling, wanna-be actor who meets Tommy (James Franco), who is an odd bird with quirky behavior, a hidden past, and a mysterious bottom-less pit of income. When the two fail to get their acting careers started, they set out to make a film on their own.

THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t focus on the making of THE ROOM as much as it does its two main characters; the baby-faced and new-to-the-world Greg, and the older yet on-his-own-planet Tommy. The film almost sets itself up as a veiled fairy tale, with Greg being guided though his journey by an otherworldly being in the form of Tommy. But the twist here is that the fairy godmother is as clueless as the child; Tommy has terrible social skills, speaks in broken English, and barely understands how the world works…let alone how to put a film together. Right away, the matchup between the two is a huge draw.

When the film moves into the production of THE GREEN ROOM, things get even weirder as Tommy, playing the role of lead actor and director, proves how far over his head he is with the venture. He shows up late, can’t remember lines, and frequently clashes with the crew. But beyond all that THE DISASTER ARTIST is really exploring the dreams of the dreamers; Tommy may be terrible at making movies but his efforts are very earnest and honest. The film explores the familiar question of what is art and who gets to say if it is or not…all while coming back to the area of the two best friends who have their ups and downs trying to make that art.

Director James Franco, who ironically is also wearing more than one hat here, keeps the pacing brisk and the humor in big doses. The film is extremely funny, but at the same time manages to really feel Tommy and Greg’s pain when the inevitable eventually happens. Dave Porter’s score is excellent.

James Franco is excellent in the role as Tommy, and it’s almost eerie just how much he looks and sounds like the man. When he acts like an ass, we hate him, and when he fails we suddenly feel sorry for him…and Franco sells it every time. By far this a role to remind us just how great Franco can be. His brother Dave is equally effective, and works well playing the fresh-faced newbie and showing frustration with Tommy’s wacky behavior. Seth Rogen drops in as a frustrated crew member who is just trying to keep the movie production going, and is very good, as is Alison Brie as Greg’s love interest.

The finale drives home the point of sticking with our dreams and with the people who help us get there. It’s a tad heavy-handed but it works, and THE DISASTER ARTIST turns into a very satisfying film experience. It may be based on something awful, but it lands as something wonderful.

BOTTOM LINE: See it



Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Reel Opinion: Big Screen vs. Small



Earlier this week, the British Film Institute’s international magazine Sight and Sound released their annual critics’ list of the best films of the year, and one entry has not only raised eyebrows, but re-ignited a hot-burning debate over what exactly should be considered a film.

The list, which polls more than 180 critics, programmers, and academics from around the world, includes for the first time a TV series in the top ten; David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, which was ranked second, behind Jordan Peele’s GET OUT. The inclusion of a TV series has added fuel to the fire to the argument that there is a supposed eroding line between film and TV in the last few years; a fire that was given some extra flame when last year’s 7.5 hour TV documentary series OJ: MADE IN AMERICA won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

With Oscar season in full swing and entering its busiest time, the argument rages that productions from home-streaming services like Netflix and Showtime (which ran TWIN PEAKS), should be considered when the Academy starts voting in the next few weeks. It’s a point that was actually started in 2015, when Idris Elba’s role in Netflix’s BEASTS OF NO NATION was not recognized by the Academy…despite critical acclaim and many calls for his inclusion.

Why wasn’t BEASTS OF NO NATION considered for an Oscar, and should TWIN PEAKS be in the running? Why wouldn’t they (other than the obvious of both of them being made for TV), if the quality is there? The Academy will only pay attention to productions that actually play in a movie theatre; they’re old-school in that way, they want people to go to the movies, and seemingly believe that the big screen is the true home for a film. They probably think of themselves as the caretakers of the sanctity of cinema, and they would be right to do so; someone has to do it. Now, the Oscars have changed and evolved over the years; categories have been re-named, altered, and flat-out discontinued…but opening the door for a series that never saw the inside of a movie theatre is likely to never happen. Especially since a TV series is a completely different format than film; a series can take 10-12 hours to tell a story, where a film is confined to just 2-3 hours. And besides, the Emmys and the Golden Globes exist to honor TV shows.

The calls for Netflix productions like BEASTS OF NO NATION, and this year’s MUDBOUND to be honored by the Academy are getting louder, but this Blogger sees this as a trendy thing. Home streaming services are extremely popular, and rightfully so, but people need to quit acting like Netflix is the first home entertainment service to make their own movies; HBO has been doing it for decades without one goddamn Oscar nomination. Nothing has changed to make the line between TV and film disappear, with only popularity and easy accessibility as the driving force. Home-streaming is cool so therefore the thought is everything they do is better than anything else, and that’s not enough.

*

See Sight and Sound’s complete list HERE




Monday, December 4, 2017

A Reel 25: A FEW GOOD MEN


“You can’t handle the truth!”





This month marks the 25th anniversary of Rob Reiner’s A FEW GOOD MEN



Adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin from his play of the same name, A FEW GOOD MEN was a genre-setting, military-courtroom drama with influence that can still be seen today. Centered around two U.S. Marines charged with murder and their reluctant lawyer who defends them, A FEW GOOD MEN explored issues of law and order and military ethics in a clever mash-up.



Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of his film MISERY (1990), put together an all-star cast. It’s headliners were Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore, along with an excellent supporting cast of Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack, Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Noah Wyle…who would later go on to television fame in ER.



The film was a critical and commercial success, and would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s screen-time was limited to a handful of scenes, but his impact was immediate and memorable enough to rightfully earn that nomination, and also a ranking in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Villains. AFI would also rank the film in its Top Courtroom Dramas, and Top 100 Movie Quotes. Rob Reiner would go on to direct and produce the beloved THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), and Aaron Sorkin would become one of the most coveted screenwriters in the business; penning scripts for TV’s THE WEST WING, along with the feature films THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and MONEYBALL (2011).



*



As a former soldier and a sucker for court-room dramas, this Blogger has always had a high level of admiration for A FEW GOOD MEN. As a legal thriller it is tight and deep with the ability to explore the dusty old law books in a way that is interesting and engaging. The exploration of military ethics, from the age-old debate of soldiers following questionable orders, to the even older debate of what duty to country really means…raise questions that are still debated in classrooms, lecture halls, and Basic Training to this day. A FEW GOOD MEN is one of Aaron Sorkin’s best works, and Rob Reiner’s finest achievement in directing.



“You don’t need to have a patch on your arm to have honor.”


Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Reel Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI



The stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance…are the series of emotions people experience after losing a loved one. These stages can last days, months, or years at a time, and perhaps the one that is the most emotionally charged is anger. This is the basis for director Martin McDonagh’s black comedy drama THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.

Seven months after the brutal rape, murder, and burning of her of daughter, Midred (Frances McDormand), is infuriated with the lack of arrests and erects three billboards outside her small town shaming Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The billboards spark rage from the community, including officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), her ex-husband (John Hawkes), and also affects her depressed teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges).

Emotional rage is the name-of-the-game in THREE BILLBOARDS. Midred has entered the rage stage and doesn’t seem to be letting go of it anytime soon. Although she gets some support from friends, her decision to start a very public war with the police has immediate ripple effects. Dixon, who is an unstable alcoholic prone to violence, lashes out in the only way he knows how, and poor Sheriff Willoughby has his own health problems and is effected by the shaming in more ways than one.

McDonagh does great work in the early goings of the film to establish his characters; Mildred is angry, Willoughby is inept, and Dixon is an asshole, but as the narrative moves forward things change. Mildred is portrayed as angry to the point of being unlikeable, Willoughby and his health issues, along with his loving family, are brought up front, and even Dixon manages to show his true worth. The audience’s allegiances will change often in THREE BILLBOARDS, and the magic of the film is that it’s hard to figure out who is in the right, and who, if any of them, are in the wrong.

The story has plenty of twists and turns to keep the mystery of the murder under cover, and also in the background as McDonagh spends his time in THREE BILLBOARDS with the characters circling each other, seeing who blinks first. There is a ton of emotional hurt going on, and it’s a fascinating watch to see where it’s going. Pacing is brisk, the dialogue is sharp and funny, and the score by Carter Burwell gives an atmosphere that nearly makes the film feel like an Old West yarn. The film looks gorgeous, although a peaceful scene with Mildred and a fawn is ruined by shitty, cartoonish CGI.

Acting is top-notch. Frances McDormand mostly shows a gruff exterior, but we get hints of just how torn up she is inside. Woody Harrelson has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and the show is stolen by Sam Rockwell who goes from contender of the Asshole of the Year Award to Hero in a blink. The rest of the cast is excellent, including Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, and Peter Dinklage.

By movie’s end, not all of the characters come out of the situation unscathed, and the ones who do aren’t quite in the clear, but at the very least they armed with tools to get through the next stage of grief they are likely to go through. There a few moments towards the end where it seems like McDonagh was running out of things for his characters to do, and they wind up doing some head-scratching moves, but it’s a minor head-scratcher in what is a superb film. This is an emotional gut-punch boosted by outstanding performances and guided by a steady hand. These billboards stand tall.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The INFINITY WAR Trailer


“There was an idea…”

For the past decade, Marvel Studios and parent company Disney have taken on an unprecedented cinematic journey. It began with the release of their first film based on Marvel Comics, IRON MAN in May of 2008. It was the first building block towards their heralded INFINITY WAR storyline, with each one of their connected films building towards the ultimate showdown between our heroic Avengers and the “Mad Titan” Thanos in his quest for the mysterious and powerful Infinity Stones. After a decade of 17 films, $13.4 billion in box office revenue, and spinoffs into television, we’re finally nearing the climax of the long-form story…and today Marvel gave us our first look.



Today on Good Morning America, the first trailer for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR was released to the world, and minutes later online (HERE). Right away, something must be said about the extremely well thought-out strategy behind this unveiling. Timing is everything, and Marvel/Disney decided to release this first, much-anticipated look nearly a full week after Thanksgiving (no distractions), the day after their rival company DC finished up their epic (and very good) TV crossover series (no competition), and the day before their own AGENTS OF SHIELD starts up again on TV (cross-promotion). This was a perfectly executed, and beautifully thought-out plan.

The beginnings of the trailer brilliantly hark back to the early days of the franchise, with a variation of the iconic monologue from Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), explaining why the Avengers were originally assembled. The monologue trades off lines between Fury, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Vision (Paul Bettany), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The familiar tunes of the theme from the first AVENGERS film (2012) is heard, which drives home the long history at work here. The tone is ominous, and a far cry from the zany fun that Marvel’s most recent film, THOR: RAGNORAK had. Marvel has always given us a great balance of seriousness and comedy, and that’s why fatigue or boredom has never set in with their films.


The trailer moves on with shots of our team slowly coming together, including Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), with dialogue picked up by the expected arrival of Thanos (Josh Brolin)…whom we’ve only seen in glimpses over the last 10 years.


Some other highlights include Thanos punching out Iron Man, a bearded and world-weary Captain America (Chris Evans) leading a charge, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) calling for a new shield for Cap, a new suit for Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and that bastard Loki (Tom Hiddleston) with one of the important pieces to the puzzle…


And finally, the closing shots…Thor meeting our beloved Guardians of the Galaxy!


Overall the trailer shows some epic shots, and seems more than worthy of the buildup we’ve been witnessing. It hypes up the film without giving away very much of the plot. When it comes to long-form franchise building, this is how it’s done.

*

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR arrives May 4th, 2018. It is directed by the Russo Brothers, who recently directed the Marvel films CIVIL WAR (2016), and THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014).  






Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2017 - Episode XII



As it is with almost every December, the final month of the season opens the floodgates, with Oscar hopefuls and fan favorites finally arriving. Here are the notable releases for the month of December.

It all takes shape with…

THE SHAPE OF WATER – From director Guillermo del Toro (HELLBOY, PAN’S LABRYINTH), comes this fantasy/sci-fi tale in which a custodian at a secret facility befriends a captured sea creature. Stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer.

THE DISASTER ARTIST – James Franco plays the creator of the infamous film THE ROOM from 2003, considered to be one of the worst films ever made.

I, TONYA – Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) plays figure skater Tonya Harding in this sports drama. Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan (THE WINTER SOLDIER), co-star.

WONDER WHEEL – Director Woody Allen’s annual film is a crime drama in which the wife of a carousel operator and her husband’s estranged daughter pursue the same man. It stars Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, and Kate Winslet.

TITANIC – Speaking of Kate Winselt, James Cameron’s Oscar winning epic about the doomed ocean liner returns to theatres in a limited run for its 20th anniversary.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – The long-awaited, and much anticipated 8th episode of the STAR WARS saga. Rian Johnson (LOOPER) directs, and he is joined by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, and Benicio del Toro.

GOTTI – John Travolta plays famous gangster John Gotti of the Gambino Crime Family.

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE – This adventure serves as a loose sequel to the 1995 films. Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black lead the cast.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN – Hugh Jackman (X-MEN), hangs up his claws and steps into the life of P.T. Barnum in this extravagant musical. It co-stars Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and Zendaya.

DOWNSIZING – Alexander Payne (NEBRASKA), directs this sci-fi comedy in which people are miniaturized for a fresh start on life. It stars Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Kristen Wiig.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD – Sir Ridley Scott directs this crime drama based on actual kidnapping events. It stars Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, and Mark Wahlberg. 

PHANTOM THREAD – The last time director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis worked together, we got the magnificent THERE WILL BE BLOOD in 2007. This time around they explore the world of the fashion industry in the 1950’s.

MOLLY’S GAME – Based on the true story of the underground high-stakes poker ring in Hollywood. It stars Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Michael Cera. It is the directorial debut of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A FEW GOOD MEN, THE SOCIAL NETWORK).

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME – This adaptation of the novel of the same name, which is one of the most acclaimed films out of Sundance this year, has a 17 year-old Italian boy (Timothee Chalamet), beginning a love affair with his father’s American assistant, played by Armie Hammer (THE SOCIAL NETWORK).

THE POST – Steven Spielberg directs this true-story adaptation about the role of the press in the revealing of the Pentagon Papers. The cast includes Tom Hanks, Meryl Steep, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, and Bruce Greenwood.

*

Next month, Episode I previews the first month of 2018.


Monday, November 27, 2017

A Reel Review: COCO



For the past 20 years, the working relationship between Disney and Pixar Animation Studios have found success in the blending of traditional, human stories with fantastical elements and worlds; worlds populated by talking toys and cars, hairy monsters, and lovesick robots combined with classic stories of discovery and coming-of-age. For COCO, their 19th feature film, Pixar decides to challenge themselves by not just playing with fantasy, but with exploring culture, art, myth, and belief.

12-year old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), dreams to be a musician, but is banned from playing music by his family which has a soured past with musicians. On the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, Miguel stumbles into the Land of the Dead, where he tries to earn the blessings of his long-past family members to pursue his dream.

The Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, is a three-day event in which family gatherings pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. In a bold move, directors Lee Unkirch and Adrian Molina use that celebration and culture as the basis for world-building; it’s a brave move right away as they are locked into following hundreds of years of tradition, as opposed to having the freedom to just create any fantasy world they want. Instead, the filmmakers use the many traditions associated with the celebration as important plot points and rules which makes the fantasy world work.

Once Miguel is transported to that fantasy world, he meets members of his family and a trickster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who go back-and-forth in assisting him. The rules that are in place are used in great effect to drive the plot; when a person is forgotten in real life, they fade away from the Land of the Dead…and with Hector already beginning to fade, the clock is ticking to get Miguel back to the living where he can re-establish Hector’s memory. Miguel in the meantime has his own problems, having to navigate his family’s long-burning hatred for musicians. There are a few excellent twists and reversals to be had, and the many turns the plot takes keeps COCO fun and layered.

The animation from Pixar has never been better. The colorful landscapes are breathtaking with stunning detail, and the character design is excellent. The music is wonderful, the humor just right, and the entire cast performs their parts very well. The film also isn’t afraid to go into some dark territories; character deaths and murder…and the somewhat disturbing element of the dead fading away into nothingness.

Some may be able to see the finale coming from some ways off, but even those who do will be reaching for a hankie, because COCO wraps up with one of the most emotionally charged endings ever in cinema. It’s an emotional wallop that is well earned, and will have not just kids but adults talking about it for a long time. COCO offers great food for thought on family and tradition, and is Pixar’s bravest…and one of their very best.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Reel Review: LADY BIRD



One of the best types of tales to be told is the coming-of-age story; a tale which takes us along the journey of a young person as they go through an ordeal, which on the other side leads them to adulthood. Books, poems, plays, and cinema have been using that narrative for hundreds of years with great success, mostly because such a story is one that we can all relate to; it’s a very human and natural ordeal…and this is the root of Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD.

Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who re-names herself Lady Bird, is a senior at a Catholic High School in California who wants to go to the east coast for college, despite the wishes of her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird goes behind her mom’s back to apply to east coast schools, while trying to catch a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), and jockeying for popularity with her classmates.

LADY BIRD is a film which doesn’t try to break new ground or re-write the manual on how to turn a girl into a woman. It’s basic storytelling which doesn’t have much of plot, and instead focuses on the events in Lady Bird’s life over a year’s time (or so), as she applies to schools, tries to get a prom date, breaks up with boys, fights with her mom and brother, and befriends popular girls in place of her tried-and-true best friend.

Teen angst is at front-and-center of this tale, as Lady Bird is shown as a young girl who seems to dislike everything. That’s an approach that could go horribly wrong, as no one wants to spend an entire movie with an unlikeable character, but Gerwig has a strong handle on things. Lady Bird isn’t unlikeable at all, and is more of a misunderstood character than just misbehaving. There is warmth and outright sincerity to it all, and there are very few moments that Lady Bird is going through that we haven’t felt towards the final months of our high school years.

Gerwig films a very plain looking movie, and it often feels documentary-like. Pacing is brisk, and even the quieter moments tend to move. Gerwig also directs some very well emotionally-charged scenes between Lady Bird and her parents, which is (again), familiar territory and hard to watch. The film is also brilliantly set in 2002, which is a ways from the social media age and allows the teen characters to be teens, and also has the lingering fear of 9/11 hanging over the characters. Pop music from the time is used in all the right places.

Saoirse Ronan is magnificent as Lady Bird. Her Irish accent vanishes, and an outsider would never guess that she isn’t really a California girl. Ronan goes through all sorts of emotions and sells them; when she’s happy, elated, sad, or downright furious…it always works. Lucas Hedges is great as always, and Laurie Metcalf has a lot of hefty lifting to do as Lady Bird’s always-annoyed mom.

LADY BIRD deals mostly with the main character’s want to escape and start her life, and by the time she gets there, we don’t quite feel that her journey is over, but that she now has the tools with her to move forward. Gerwig has written and directed a clever, simple, and effective coming-of-age story here, one that can generate plenty of laughs and tears…and find something for us all to remember.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Monday, November 20, 2017

Reel Facts & Opinions: JUSTICE LEAGUE Post-Mortem



This past weekend, JUSTICE LEAGUE, Warner Bros’. latest entry into their series of films based on classic superheroes from DC Comics, was met with surprisingly low box office numbers. The big team-up movie with iconic characters Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg only grossed $96 million over the weekend, which was the lowest debut of the five films in the current DC series.

A gross of $96m would be just fine for a lot of movies, but JUSTICE LEAGUE had an estimated budget of $250m, plus a very large amount to cover marketing. It’s an embarrassing, and troublesome weekend for DC and Warners. How did this happen? How did what was supposed to be the crown jewel of superhero movies go bust? Here are some thoughts:

Their reputation preceded them – Prior to JUSTICE LEAGUE, a build-up of sorts was attempted with the so-so MAN OF STEEL (2013), the lousy BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), the shitty SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), and the magnificent WONDER WOMAN (2017). While WONDER WOMAN earned a lot of much-needed positive points with critics and fans, JUSTICE LEAGUE was a direct follow-up to DAWN OF JUSTICE; a clunky and joyless affair which many fans likely were still feeling disappointed and burned. Yes, DAWN does have its fans and supporters, but most people did not like it, and the low box office for JUSTICE LEAGUE proves it. With the exception of WONDER WOMAN, these DC films have not made much of an impact with the general public, and they are now staying away.

A history of bad press – JUSTICE LEAGUE took a long time to get here. The film was being planned as far back as 2007, and has had many stops and starts. Once things finally did get going, a collective groan was heard across the world when Zack Snyder, who helmed MAN OF STEEL and DAWN OF JUSTICE, was re-hired to direct JUSTICE LEAGUE. Why Warners decided to stick with a director who hadn’t come close to hitting a home run with these superhero films was a mystery to fans, and a sticking point. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Snyder wound up leaving the production to deal with a family emergency and was replaced by Joss Whedon. Although Whedon is more-than-capable and likely improved on the production, the media reports of extensive re-shooting and re-scripting had people doubtful that things could be salvaged.

They messed up Superman – This series began with Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL in 2013, and right away fans, and even non-fans could not connect with this version of Superman, who was portrayed as a glum stick-in-the-mud who acted like he didn’t even want to be a hero. This carried over into DAWN OF JUSTICE, where the character was basically an angry thug, and no one could care about him. On top of that, the decision was made to kill Superman at the end of DAWN OF JUSTICE, a move that did not earn one bit of an emotional response from anyone (who cries for a gloomy character?), and then they had the bright idea to keep him out of all the marketing for JUSTICE LEAGUE; like we couldn’t figure out he was coming back. Putting Superman at front-and-center of the film would have gone a long way to earn some positive points. But no, they had to be cute with it.

Bad release date – November isn’t really a month known for blockbusters; those fun and colorful films with fantasy and sci-fi elements and things that go boom, and rather for those quiet and serious Oscar contenders. Although Marvel’s THOR: RAGNORAK opened in the first week of the month to a very good box office haul, JUSTICE LEAGUE came later, less than a week away from Thanksgiving…when people are slipping into the busy holiday rush.

It just wasn’t that good – And this is the real bottom line. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that only 39% of critics gave it a positive review (read Reel Speak’s review HERE). Now, JUSTICE LEAGUE was a vast improvement over DAWN OF JUSTICE in that they finally injected some fun into the storytelling, and course-corrected Superman by cheering his miserable ass up, but it also has serious flaws in editing, continuity, and basic storytelling logic. There was a lot of fun to be had, and yes it entertained, but it seems that critics and bloggers value the craft of filmmaking over entertainment, and that’s probably the way it should be. That 39% was earned, and people aren’t going to spend time and money on a film with lousy reviews, a bad history, directed by the same guy no one likes, and released during the busiest time of the year.

Come to think of it, a JUSTICE LEAGUE flop isn’t all that surprising.




Friday, November 17, 2017

A Reel Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE



JUSTICE LEAGUE; the 5th entry in the series of films based on DC Comics’ “world’s finest” heroes, is a production that has seen a lot of turmoil behind the scenes. Original director Zack Snyder departed the project, and was replaced by Joss Whedon who not only finished the film, but re-wrote and re-shot several scenes. None of that really matters as an excuse or a justification for anything, and rather as important background…because the only thing that really counts is what we see on the screen.

After the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), recruit super-powered beings such as The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), to help battle the evil Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), who has arrived to Earth with his army of parademons to collect the three mystical Mother Boxes, in an attempt to destroy the planet.

JUSTICE LEAGUE does not have much by way of plot; find the boxes, defeat the bad guys, save the world. There’s nothing wrong with a simple plot, and for the most part it works here, so with such a thin narrative, weight must be put on the challenge facing the new team of super-friends. That weight falls on the shoulders of the main villain, Steppenwolf…who is visually presented here as a stiff, CGI creation. Beyond his appearance, he is one-dimensional and dull, and seems to get his ass kicked easily enough by just one hero, which makes the movie’s efforts to assemble the new team somewhat pointless.

Similar to the style of two of the preceding DC films, JUSTICE LEAGUE feels like it was edited by over-caffeinated monkeys. Scenes seem to start in mid-conversation, and ram through everything so quickly we’re out of the scene and into the next one before we can comprehend what was just discussed. There is a goddamn rush to everything and it takes away from the gravity of the situation, making the stakes feel very small, especially with the lack of any sort of build-up towards the final battle. There are also gaps in continuity (pieces of the movie seem to be missing), odd cuts, often feels patchwork, and an excellent opening flashback with Superman is never justified or closed. It’s an editing disaster.

But there is still a ton of fun and enjoyment to be had in JUSTICE LEAGUE. Every one of the heroes is perfectly written with a fair amount of personal narratives to humanize them. Their banter between each other is perfect and brightens up the film. The chemistry between them all leaps off the screen, they all get their moments worthy of applause, and the sense of fun drives the film. The (ahem) return of Superman, is welcome (although the method used to resurrect him is lazy and contradicts an earlier tease of his return), but most importantly, he finally, finally, FINALLY doesn’t act like a miserable mope. This is as close to classic Superman as we’ve ever seen on film and it is glorious. The action scenes are a thrill, and the conflict that arises within the group is very natural.

Visual effects are crap and drag the film down. When the film goes into the green-screen action where characters are in artificial environments fighting CGI blobs, the effects are so poor and cartoon-like that it’s reminiscent of an old Disney movie which cuts from live-action to animation. But the biggest issue involves poor Henry Cavill, who was called back to reshoot scenes after he had grown facial hair for another film role. The CGI used to digitally erase his mustache is so bad it looks like the crew smeared snots on the camera-lens to hide it. It’s shocking how an effect this bad, after 20 years of CG development, can find its way into a major release like this. Danny Elfman’s score is somewhat generic and lacks a central theme to rally around. He occasionally throws in a few of the classic superhero themes we’ve heard in the past, but not nearly enough.

Acting is excellent all around. Ben Affleck has really grown into the role of Bruce Wayne, even after only two films, and his portrayal of a world-weary hero is spot-on. Gal Gadot is magnificent and pretty much owns the movie. Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa are a BLAST, even though Aquaman’s importance in the film is a head-scratcher, as he doesn’t do much with water or the ocean during the final fight. Ray Fisher acts just fine despite being less of a character and more of a plot device. JK Simmons, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, and Diane Lane appear as extended cameos, with Adams and Lane getting some hefty, emotional moments which are very well acted. The great talent of Ciaran Hinds is wasted behind the CG mess of Steppenwolf. Henry Cavill is wonderful now that he finally gets to act like a hero.

As stated, there is very little build-up to the final showdown, and that adds to the feeling of a small-stakes adventure. The film very much feels like a TV episode that would be seen during Saturday morning cartoons; tight, fun, no consequences, and even a tune-in-next-time tease for further adventures. JUSTICE LEAGUE is very much split down the middle; the good stuff really works in fantastic ways, and the bad things are cinematic sins and outright awfulness. That sort of imbalance makes it fall just short of a high recommendation for the World’s Finest.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it




Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need to Know About JUSTICE LEAGUE



Of all the major releases in 2017, perhaps the one film that is the most anticipated, dreaded, feared, and already debated about is JUSTICE LEAGUE. It’s been a messy ride to get here, and here is a preview to cover everything you need to know about it.

What is this all about? – JUSTICE LEAGUE is Warner Bros.’ fifth in their series of films based on the famed superheroes of DC Comics, which began way back in 2013 with the so-so MAN OF STEEL, and continued with the lousy BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), the shitty SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), and the magnificent WONDER WOMAN (2017). Following the events of DAWN OF JUSTICE, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) was killed, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and his new pal Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), begin recruiting fellow super-powered beings to help battle an incoming threat. The new team includes The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

Who else is in this? – Returning cast-members include Jeremy Irons as Bruce’s butler Alfred, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, and Robin Wright as Antiope. Jesse Eisenberg may or may not be returning as Lex Luthor. New cast-members include JK Simmons as Commissioner Jim Gordon, Ciaran Hinds as Steppenwolf (the Big Bad of the movie), and a few other surprises.

Who is behind this? – This is where things get tricky. Zack Snyder, who directed MAN OF STEEL and DAWN OF JUSTICE (and outside of this series, 300, and WATCHMEN), was the original director before having to leave the production due to a family tragedy. Filming was picked up by Joss Whedon, whose directing credits include THE AVENGERS (2012), AGE OF ULTRON (2015), SERENITY (2005), and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (2012). Whedon re-wrote and re-filmed several scenes, and it is estimated that 15-20% of JUSTICE LEAGUE was directed by him, with the rest credited to Snyder.

Random Facts – Due to the extensive re-shoots after Snyder’s departure, Henry Cavill was brought back to re-film several of his scenes, and needed his distinctive mustache, which he had grown for another film-role, removed by CGI * The characters of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg all made small appearances in DAWN OF JUSTICE * The villainous character Steppenwolf also made a cameo in DAWN OF JUSTICE, but was cut out of the theatrical release. He was edited back in for the Ultimate Edition version * Danny Elfman provides the score, which works-in old superhero themes from SUPERMAN (1978), and his own theme from BATMAN (1989) * Warner Bros. and DC Comics have been planning a JUSTICE LEAGUE film as far back as 2007 * The ensemble cast includes three Oscar winners; Affleck, Irons, and Simmons, and three Oscar nominees…Adams, Lane, and Eisenberg *

What to expect? – It must first be said that newcomers would likely be lost with this film, and would need to brush up on the previous movies; MAN OF STEEL led directly into DAWN OF JUSTICE, which ties into WONDER WOMAN, which leads right to JUSTICE LEAGUE (no one needs to see SUICIDE SQUAD ever again). With that out of the way, what to expect is anyone’s guess based on the history of the last few DC movies and the troubled production behind the scenes. Zack Snyder delivered two turkeys in a row for DC, and his departure may have been a blessing. Whedon has proven more capable when it comes to directing superheroes, and his writing (he won an Oscar for TOY STORY) is some of the best in the business. We can probably expect a lot of Snyder’s iconic visuals and endless action scenes, along with Whedon’s knack for character chemistry and well-timed, smart-ass humor. But the obvious problem of how a film survives a change in directors hangs over the film like a cloud. DC and Warners struck gold with the Patty Jenkins-directed WONDER WOMAN earlier this year, so the bar has been raised for themselves, along with being set extremely low with DAWN OF JUSTICE. If they land somewhere in the middle that would be OK, but considering the magnitude of these classic DC characters coming together for the first time, we should expect more.

*

JUSTICE LEAGUE opens in select theatres November 16th, with wide-release on the 17th.






Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Reel Review: LBJ



Director Rob Reiner’s look at Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, takes a page directly out of Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN from 2012, where the traditional (and somewhat tired) approach of a life story is traded in for one single, important chapter in the main character’s life; a chapter that was vital to the President, and had an impact on the country.

After losing the Presidential nomination of his own party, Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson), is asked by John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) to run as his Vice President. Once in office, Johnson frequently clashes with John’s brother Robert (Michael Stahl-David); a situation which only grows worse after John’s assassination which thrusts Johnson into the Presidency. 

LBJ is a film which quickly and efficiently checks off the boxes in the history books, following Johnson as he flexes his power as a Senate Majority Leader, his struggle with (at the time) the thankless and power-less job of VP, and the weight of the world he feels once he finds himself sitting at the big chair in the Oval Office. Presented in a non-linear fashion, the base of the film takes place during that fateful day in Dallas, with several extended flashbacks unspooling the story. After the perfectly re-created assassination, the film really picks up as Johnson continues to collide with Robert, and he struggles to decide if he should push Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill. There are a lot of hard decisions for Johnson to make, and the film focuses on him as he is pulled in a thousand different directions by a thousand different interested parties.

When a movie is named after the main character, we certainly expect the main character to be the entire film. Johnson is portrayed not as a power-hungry man, but just as a good fellow who just wants people to like him. That works to an extent, but what caused that cause is where LBJ falls a bit short. How Johnson came to be seeking approval from his peers is never explored, and we’re left with just a thin representation of the man. LBJ also doesn’t have a clear climax, or anything to work up to. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill happens off-camera, after the film has ended (explained away in the credits), and although it wraps with Johnson’s address to Congress and the nation, it falls way short of a rousing finale or end of the journey.

Reiner’s attention to detail makes LBJ a fine historical piece. The assassination of Kennedy is harrowing, and the recreations of the historic, and all-too familiar photographs and films of the events that followed are perfect. The film is brisk, very tightly edited, and dialogue is sharp enough where even the driest of political jabber is interesting.

Woody Harrelson is magnificent as Johnson. He vanishes into the role, looking and sounding just like the man. He finds a true heart in the character, and come across as that fun uncle we only see on holidays. He is matched perfectly by Jennifer Jason-Leigh, who plays his loving and supporting wife Lady Bird. Jeffrey Donovan is very good as John F. Kennedy, and the supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins, C. Thomas Howell, and Bill Pullman, are also very good. 

At only 97 minutes, LBJ seems to end just as it’s getting started, and without a clear climax or enough development on Johnson, the film feels like a middle chapter to a larger story. It comes across as incomplete, but what we do get works well enough.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it



Monday, November 13, 2017

A Reel Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS



Of all the film genres that have come and gone over the decades, the “whodunit” is probably the one that is missed the most. With a mystery at hand, various types of characters, and a problem-solver detective or sleuth, the stage is always set for an adventure full of twists and turns; and with the added bonus of letting the audience play along, trying to solve the mystery themselves, the genre could very well be the first interactive cinema. The genre has vanished from theatres faster than an escaping crook, but with director Kenneth Branagh’s version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, perhaps it is time for a comeback.

In the winter of 1934, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), the world’s greatest detective, is on holiday travelling aboard a luxury train when Ratchett (Johnny Depp), an unpopular businessman with possible criminal ties, is found murdered. Poirot investigates the suspects, including Ratchett’s bodyguard (Josh Gad), a princess (Judi Dench), a widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Governess (Daisy Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a Spanish missionary (Penelope Cruz), a valet (Derek Jacobi), and a professor (Willem Dafoe).

With nearly a dozen possible suspects hailing from all corners of the globe and all walks of life, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS weaves a maze of mystery, going in all different directions despite the straight-line confines of the train. Everyone is under Poirot’s close eye as they all are revealed to have some sort of motive against the victim, and Branagh keeps us guessing with each tiny clue.

EXPRESS is a mystery, but as a film it clicks as an ensemble piece. With such a large cast, many suspects need to make an impression. Some really stick out, while others fade into the background, and the ones we do spend time with are somewhat one-dimensional; serving little purpose other than revealing hints and clues to the mystery. Poirot gets the most work as a character, portrayed as a world-weary man who needs a break from his profession, but reluctantly gets pulled back in. It’s a nice touch which makes the eccentric and odd character relatable.

Despite being light on character, EXPRESS somehow works beautifully. Like any good “whodunit”, it’s a film packed with secrets, and the reveals can keep audience engaged and in the guessing game right up until the end. The sense of style that Branagh embraces is a throwback to the old days of Hollywood with star-studded films and lavish production. The period setting is brought to life in stunning detail, with the train and period-styles in hair and costumes a joy to see.

By directing and starring, Branagh certainly has his hands full here, but he proves to be more than capable of wearing two hats. In front of the camera he nails his Belgian accent, and his bits of humor are well-timed. Johnny Depp thankfully plays his character very straight, showing that he can still be a very good actor without stupid-looking costumes and endless slapstick. Michelle Pfeiffer is terrific, Daisy Ridley is charming, and Willem Dafoe shows just how great he can really be.

This MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is, of course, based on the classic Agatha Christie novel, and is the second version to come to the big screen. Those familiar with the material won’t be surprised by the final reveal of the guilty party, but newcomers will get a good charge out of it. Branagh has put together a “comfort film” here; one that is familiar and doesn’t take many chances, but it functions well enough on its own to earn its place in an old genre.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Dark Universe Going Dark?



Five months ago, Universal Studios, the studio responsible for originally bringing horror to the silver screens and pop culture in 1930’s with DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, and THE WOLFMAN, announced a new series of films based on those very classic characters, called the Dark Universe. The announcement came with a fair amount of fanfare; ranging from a teaser-trailer to a casting photo which included veteran Oscar-winning actors;  including Javier Bardem, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, and Tom Cruise. The new series would be taking a page out of the Marvel playbook; a connected series of films with characters crossing over and building a single franchise out of many.


That long-range plan, if there actually was one, seems to be in serious trouble after today’s news that writer-producers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, the captains and architects of the Dark Universe¸ would be departing the franchise. The move is the latest in the demise of the Dark Universe, beginning with their first release this year, THE MUMMY, which bombed financially and was blasted by fans critics, and the delay of production on THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. So after one movie and less than half a year, the Dark Universe is suddenly a ship without a captain, rudder, or even a sail.

How did it come to this? How did Universal, one of the oldest studios in Hollywood, so badly bungle their collection of the most famed and classic characters of all time? A lack of patience and understanding of their properties are the biggest mistakes they’ve made, and THE MUMMY displayed both of those blunders. The film didn’t play out as its own story, and instead came across as a feature-length trailer for five other movies. It was also over-loaded with CGI spectacle, and was a far cry from the roots of horror. And a horror movie that doesn’t scare is always bound to fail with fans, critics, or even the most casual person in the theatre.

So what now? The Dark Universe hasn’t been announced as officially scrapped. Not yet anyway. To do so would be to admit defeat and risk looking ridiculous after the big rollout earlier this year. Universal is most certainly scrambling behind the scenes, but if they can hire the right writers and actually make a goddamn movie that’s scary and tells its own story, the ship can always be righted. After all, it was only a few years ago before famed comic-characters The Hulk and Spider-man were laughing stocks of the industry after a near-decade of lousy movies, and today they are at a peak of popularity thanks to some solid films. Universal deserves to fall on their face after their impatience in trying to build a franchise instead of concentrating on one film at a time (everyone wants to go to the party, but no one wants to cook), but even if they deserve failure, that’s not something fans want to see. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman are some of the most iconic characters in history, and to see them return to silver-screen glory wouldn't be a trick...but a treat. 


Friday, November 3, 2017

A Reel Review - THOR: RAGNAROK



It has been well-documented and accepted that one of the many reasons Marvel’s series of films work so well is that they transcend standard superhero tropes by crossbreeding with other genres of film; elements of the techno-thriller, espionage, war-film, and even horror have found their way into their stories of heroes and villains decked out in capes, helmets, and armor. For THOR, playing with fantasy and sci-fi has been the natural way to go, but for his third solo adventure, sub-titled RAGNAROK, two genres were simply not enough.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and his estranged brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) set out on a search to find their missing father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), just as the Goddess of Death Hera (Cate Blanchett) descends upon their homeworld of Asgard to claim the throne. Thor and Loki are captured by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), where prisoners are required to compete in deadly battles for their freedom, which re-unites them with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Most of RAGNAROK is composed to two distinct storylines, with Thor, Loki, and Hulk spending their half of the film trying to escape imprisonment, and the other half belonging to Hera as she ruthlessly takes over Asgard. As expected, these two storylines come crashing together in the end, but what is not expected are the turns taken before we get there. Hera as the villain has a deep, personal connection to Asgard which gives her a mighty, and palpable axe to grind, and our heroes have their own work to do with each other before finding freedom.

Director Taika Waititi has a lot to juggle here, with every character, right down to the minor ones having their own arc to get through. Waititi seems to know that grounding is needed, so crossbreeding the film with other genres give us something familiar in this fantasy flick, which is packed full of monsters and way-out-there creatures. These genres range from cheesy 1980’s sci-fi, buddy-cop, family drama, jailbreak, heist, good old-fashioned gladiator fighting, and plenty of Norse mythology. There are a lot of familiar things going on and anyone can find something to latch onto.

Waititi keeps the pacing brisk with an outstanding sense of energy; there is always the feeling of forward motion and there’s rarely a dull moment. There is a lot of comedy going on and the film can’t seem to go more than 30 seconds without a gag, and it almost seems too much, but when the film does slow down for a necessary pause, those pauses are very effective. Visual-effect wizardry is everywhere and constantly gives us something to look at. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is a wonderful mix of 1980’s techno and traditional, with a certain Norse mythology-inspired rock song making some clever appearances.

Acting is a blast not only because of the stellar cast, but because of the remarkable chemistry everyone has with each other. Hemsworth and Hiddleston, now in their fourth film together as battling brothers, light up the screen and both show great comedic timing. Tessa Thompson nearly steals the show, and Jeff Goldblum is well-cast in the role of an eccentric weirdo. Mark Ruffalo gets a lot of heavy-lifting to do here, and as a bonus, his Hulk finally becomes a true character. Idris Elba is very effective, Anthony Hopkins is excellent as always, and Cate Blanchett is fantastic. Karl Urban comes in as a reluctant henchmen to Hela and is very good, and Benedict Cumberbatch returns as Dr. Strange in a small, yet very vital and effective role. There are also some whopper cameos here and there with name-worthy actors new to the Marvel series; it seems everyone wants in on the party.

There are some bold choices made with RAGNAROK; several major character deaths and other things happening that change the landscape of the Marvel series for good. This is not only a vital entry in the series, but as a standalone is a thrilling adventure with high entertainment value; bursting with the ability to prompt laughs, tears, and arm-raising cheers. That’s what all genres do best.

BOTTOM LINE: See it.




Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Reel Preview: The Year In Film 2017 - Episode XI



The glorious winds of Fall are starting to roar, and the second full month of the season has one of the most diverse selection of films of the year; superheroes, comedies, Oscar hopefuls, and animated family films. Here are the notable releases for the month of November.

It all rocks in with…

THOR: RAGNAROK – The 17th entry into Marvel’s connected series of films also serves as the third solo adventure for the God of Thunder. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is imprisoned while his homeworld is under siege by Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. The ensemble cast includes Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Ruffalo reprising Bruce Banner/The Hulk.

MY FRIEND DAHMER – A biographical drama about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, based on the graphic novel of the same name. Stars Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Dallas Roberts, and Anne Heche.

LADY BIRD – Saoirse Ronan leads this comedy-drama which has nothing to do with the former First Lady. Ronan plays a nurse struggling to keep her family together after her husband loses his job. It is directed by Greta Gerwig.

LBJ – Woody Harrelson plays former President Johnson in this political drama taking place after the JFK assassination. It co-stars Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, and Kim Allen, and is directed by Rob Reiner (A FEW GOOD MEN).

LAST FLAG FLYING – Richard Linklater (BOYHOOD) directs this comedy-drama about three Vietnam Vets who reunite after one of their sons is killed in Iraq. It stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – Kenneth Branagh stars and directs this mystery film, which is the fourth adaptation of the famed novel. The ensemble cast includes Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley (THE FORCE AWAKENS).

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER – Colin Farell and Nicole Kidman headline this psychological horror film in which a fatherless teen upsets their household. 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI – Frances McDormand (FARGO) plays a grieving mother who raises billboards in her hometown to seek justice for her murdered daughter. It co-stars Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Peter Dinklage. Directed by Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES).

JUSTICE LEAGUE – The fourth film in DC Comics’ connected series of films is the first team-up of their classic heroes; Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). The rest of the massive cast includes Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, and Ciaran Hinds. It is directed by Zack Snyder (DAWN OF JUSTICE), and Joss Whedon (AVENGERS).

WONDER – Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play parents of a boy with a facial deformity.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. – Denzel Washington plays a liberal lawyer in this legal drama. Colin Farrell co-stars, and it is directed by Dan Gilroy (NIGHTCRAWLER).

MUDBOUND – Veterans of World War II return home from the war to deal with racism and PTSD. Stars Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hudlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, and Mary J. Blige.

I LOVE YOU, DADDY – In this comedy-drama, Louis C.K. plays a TV producer who tries to prevent his teenage daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) from falling for a 68 year-old filmmaker (John Malkovich).

COCO – The newest offering from famed animation studio Pixar is inspired by the Mexican holiday of Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and follows a 12 year-old boy who sets off a chain of events leading to a reunion of long-past family members.

DARKEST HOUR – Gary Oldman (THE DARK KNIGHT), plays Winston Churchill in this war drama during his early days as Prime Minister. Co-stars Ben Mendelsohn and Kristin Scott Thomas, and is directed by Joe Wright (ATONEMENT).

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME – Based on the novel of the same name, two young men (Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet), develop a passionate relationship.

THE CURRENT WAR – Benedict Cumberbatch (THE IMITATION GAME) plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon (TAKE SHELTER) plays George Westinghouse in this true-story about the battle to determine whose electric system would power the world.

*

Next month, the final Episode of 2017.