Tuesday, January 31, 2017


One of the greatest, and sadly, often forgotten chapters in American history was the massive effort undertaken to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. It was one of the largest instances of the entire country coming together under one goal, and it did so despite the barriers within its own borders at the time. Those barriers affected many of the unseen workers at NASA, and this is the story to be told in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaie), are three African-American mathematicians and engineers at NASA in the early days of the space race, and are tasked with crunching the numbers to get America in the race, with or without the help from their managers (Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst) and fellow rocket scientists (Jim Parsons).

Get your ass to the moon. That is the main goal of the country during the time of HIDDEN FIGURES. The stakes are high as the clock is ticking, as NASA is desperate to at very least get a man in space; as the public perception of the new space agency is very low due to being surpassed by the Russians at every turn. The situation is an enigma at NASA; they are willing to do anything at any cost to achieve their goal, but it’s their own segregation rules and attitudes towards women in the workplace which hampers them. HIDDEN FIGURES takes great lengths to show us just how difficult it was for Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary to do their vital jobs when major things like segregated restrooms (Katherine has to walk across the entire campus to get to a colored-restroom) to little things like separate coffee pots. Katherine gets the bulk of the attention, as she is fleshed out from childhood as a mathematical genius, and it is her calculations which are sorely needed. We need you, NASA is saying, but only if you stay in your boundaries.

The grand scheme of things is the real focus of HIDDEN FIGURES, and although each of the characters get more than their share of moments to struggle and overcome, the film has a very small-screen feel to it. Exactly how the trials and stresses of the workplace, and racism and sexism affect the characters beneath the surface are never really explored, and things seem to be in a hurry to get to one plot point to the next. The characters seem unaffected, and they oddly seem to be having the time of their lives.

Director Ted Melfi still makes HIDDEN FIGURES quite the enjoyable ride. The plotting is tight, the pacing is brisk, and the moments of humor are well-timed. Music selections from the time-period are excellent, and Melfi does great work in capturing the country in the 1960’s. The visual effects, including a few space-shots, seem like an afterthought and could have been rendered better.

Acting is fine all around, despite no one in the cast getting any sort of big emotional moment to really shine. Taraji P. Henson gets the most screentime and work, and does very well with what she’s asked to to do. Kevin Costner is as gruff as he’s ever been, and is there to mostly give long speeches. Octavia Spencer is also fine, but is just sort of there...and her character turns oddly turns smug against another who is showing compassion in a bizarre scene. Jim Parsons, as a bitter and jealous engineer is the villain of the story and handles things well. Kirsten Dunst is fine, as is Mahershala Ali, who shows up as Katherine’s hopeful lover.  

Despite the small-screen feel and a need to dig deeper into the characters, HIDDEN FIGURES finishes off as a very inspirational flick; preaching unity and tolerance which makes it a fine piece to show in history and ethics classes. Audiences will find themselves rooting more for the space program than the characters who struggle to make it happen, but it’s still a very functional film with a lot to say. It’s tight and enjoyable, and does enough right to earn a recommendation.


Monday, January 30, 2017

A Reel Review: SPLIT

When writer/director M. Night Shyamalan exploded onto mainstream cinema over 20 years ago, he was immediately hailed as the next great wizard of film. Since then he has had plenty of ups and downs, before hitting the point where his name became a running joke and no studio would touch him with a ten-foot cattle prod. But in recent years there has been a slight spark of his old magic, and his newest film, SPLIT, offers every opportunity for the embattled filmmaker to regain some of his old praise.

Three teenage girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Anya Taylor-Joy), are kidnapped by “Dennis”, one of the 23 split personalities inhabiting the body of Kevin (James McAvoy). While in captivity, the girls encounter the other personalities, while Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), begins to wonder what he has been up to recently.

Ever the patient one, M. Night is no hurry to unspool the many secrets he has hidden away in SPLIT. After some fine character building with the girls, the film moves into a closed-quarters paranoia-infused horror territory, with the unpredictable nature of Kevin’s personalities adding more terror to the situation of being held captive in a basement. What seems to be a simple plot of finding a way out is compounded by the mystery of which personality is going to appear next (ranging from an old British woman to a nine year-old boy), and finding the one personality who may be able to help them escape. The clock is ticking, as the personalities often make references to “the beast”, which seems to be on its way with deadly intentions.

SPLIT above all else is a horror movie, as the terror of being kidnapped by a nutcase should be enough to scare anyone in the real world. While the film does have an atmosphere of pending doom, it does feel like the tension and fear could have been amped up a bit more. There are no real jump-scares or white-knuckle moments, and there’s a flatness to the emotion that M. Night is going for. The horror bits are interrupted by therapy sessions between Kevin and Dr. Fletcher which offsets things, but still, SPLIT functions just fine on the surface.

Acting is wonderful and it all comes down to the marvelous talent of James McAvoy who is basically being asked to play several different characters in a short amount of time. McAvoy is convincing enough where he acts past his body and sells each personality, and the drastic changes he goes through towards the climax of the film are stunning. The younger cast members also do well, with most of the work going to Anya Taylor-Joy, who finds a great chemistry with McAvoy and his many faces. Taylor-Joy also does fine work in selling the more ridiculous situations, such as Kevin acting like an old woman or little kid.

SPLIT seems fairly straight-forward, but then comes the ending...and what an ending it is that M. Night unleashes on us. It’s not a twist as much as a surprise and it brings along a revelation which changes the entire perspective on the film, as everything we thought we may have figured out goes out the window; long-time followers and fans of M. Night are sure to leave the theatre with a mile-wide grin. M. Night has put together a clever thriller here, and while it’s not perfect, has all the elements that a good wizard would wield.


Friday, January 27, 2017

John Hurt 1940-2017

British actor John Hurt has passed away at 77.

The son of a vicar and an amateur actress, John Vincent Hurt grew up in a strict upbringing where he was discouraged from acting and encouraged to be an artist. In 1960 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and was later cast in small roles on television.

His first film was THE WILD AND THE WILLING in 1962, and his first major role would be in 1966 in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. In 1971 his role in 10 RILLINGTON PLACE would earn him his first BAFTA nomination. In 1978 his role in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS would earn him his first BAFTA and Golden Globe win and his first Academy Award nomination. He would later lend his voice to the animated classic WATERSHIP DOWN (1979).

He would earn a permanent spot in pop culture and in sci-fi circles for his role in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979), where his role as the doomed crewman Kane, the first character to have an alien burst out of his chest…would create one of the most shocking and iconic scenes in cinematic history. In 1980 his role in THE ELEPHANT MAN would earn him another BAFTA and other nominations, and he would again lend his voice to an animated film; this time for Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1978), where he would voice Aragorn.

Other notable roles would include HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (1981), NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1984), THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985), and would reprise the role of Kane in the sci-fi parody SPACEBALLS (1987).

He would further cement his status in geek culture for his roles in the comic-book adaptations of HELLBOY (2004), and its 2008 sequel, and the adaptation of the graphic novel V FOR VENDETTA (2006). He would enter the world of HARRY POTTER by playing Mr. Ollivander, the man who sold wands, for three of the eight films, and would appear in TV’s DOCTOR WHO. He would appear in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008), along with critically acclaimed films such as CONTACT (1997), PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER (2006), MELANCHOLIA (2011), TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013), SNOWPIERCER (2013), and JACKIE (2016).


Like most cinema fans, this Blogger was introduced to the talent of John Hurt in ALIEN, where the poor bloke who had an enthusiasm for exploration would meet a messy end courtesy of the first chest-bursting alien we would ever see. There was a unique balance to the way the man acted; he had a gravelly voice, but his delivery had the right amount of peaks and valleys which always sounded like music. It didn’t matter if he was playing a wizard, dictator, a doctor, or a spy…there was an incredible amount of class that he brought to every scene. John Hurt was one of a kind, and cinema will miss him.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reel Facts & Opinions: Oscar Nominations - The Good, The Bad, & The Glorious

The movies always give us something to talk about, and each year the Oscar Nominations provide plenty of material. Today’s announcement of the nominees for the 89th Academy Awards have plenty of Good, Bad, and Glorious to discuss. Here’s the breakdown:

The Good

-HELL OR HIGH WATER, Reel Speak’s No. 1 film of 2016 (HERE), was nominated for four Oscars; which includes key categories such as Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. The fourth belongs to Jeff Bridges for Best Supporting Actor, which is his seventh career nomination.

-This Blogger also said (HERE) that 2016 was one of Disney's best overall years, and the Academy agreed; six Disney films earned a total of eight nominations.

-Meryl Streep gets made fun of a lot for getting into the show nearly every year, and some of those many nominations seem obligatory, but this year she is well-deserving for her marvelous role in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.

-After taking it on the chin the last few years for a lack of diversity (an industry-wide problem, not the Academy’s), this year the selections are much better. For the first time in history, black actors and actresses are nominated in every acting category, including Viola Davis…who is the first black actress to achieve three career nominations. And the nominations were not limited to the acting. Barry Jenkins became the first black director/writer to earn nominations in Directing and Screenplay (for MOONLIGHT), and Ava DuVernay’s 13th was nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

-This Blogger still finds MOONLIGHT, which earned eight nominations, to be vastly overrated (no goddamn plot), but said from day-one that Naomi Harris was the best thing about it. Harris was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

-Sometimes the Academy deserves credit for not nominating something or somebody. Many expected Tom Hanks to compete for his third career Oscar for his role in SULLY, but the Academy passed…and this Blogger agrees; it was a good pass because SULLY was a bit underwhelming.

-Another good pass that was made was Amy Adams for ARRIVAL. While ARRIVAL was outstanding and Adams was very good…she’s done much better, and didn’t show us anything new.

-One last good pass was Michael Keaton for the seldom-mentioned THE FOUNDER, a film which was released on the same day the nominations were due.


-Martin Scorsese’s outstanding SILENCE only received one nomination (Best Cinematography), which is one less than that stupid PASSENGERS received.

-Composer Thomas Newman earned his 14th career nomination for stupid PASSENGERS. Newman has never won in 14 tries, and it hurts to root against him because PASSENGERS was stupid and deserves nothing.

-Not necessarily bad but worth mentioning; Pixar’s FINDING DORY, which grossed over $1 billion worldwide, was not nominated for Best Animated Feature. The last time Pixar failed to get in this category was with MONSTERS UNIVERSITY in 2014.

-The traditional format of announcing the nominees in a “live” format was changed this year in favor of a pre-produced video with past nominees introducing the categories. Although this was a nice change of pace and well-produced, it took away from the spontaneous atmosphere the old format offered.


-Pixar’s outstanding short film, PIPER, was deservedly nominated for Best Animated Short.

-ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY earned two nominations, which brings the total number of nominations for the entire franchise up to 29; second only to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Along those same lines, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM also scored two, which brings the total number of nominations for the HARRY POTTER franchise to 14.

-Mel Gibson is back! The embattled director’s outstanding HACKSAW RIDGE earned six nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Gibson. The inspirational powerhouse WWII film is a tribute to all veterans and deserves the recognition, and it seems Gibson’s past sins have finally been forgiven.

-Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL was also a deserving nominee, earning eight; including Best Director and Best Picture; making the alien-landing flick the first sci-fi film to be a legit contender to bring home the top prize since ET: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in 1982.

-Damien Chazelle’s LA LA LAND is the one to talk about, as his musical about life, love, and art earned a record-tying 14 nominations; including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), and Best Actress (Emma Stone). The film also received two for Best Original Song.  In a world full of negativity, LA LA LAND was the feel-good experience of the year, and deserves every bit of praise.


The Oscars will be awarded February 26th.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reel Facts & Opinions: THE LAST JEDI

Lucasfilm and parent company Disney stopped the world dead in space today, when they let loose the long-awaited official title of the 8th Episode in the STAR WARS saga.

Fans and professional film writers immediately went into research and speculation mode, as every small reveal in the growing and beloved STAR WARS galaxy of films always hints at the bigger picture. So what can we figure out from this title? The easy answer would be to say that THE LAST JEDI refers to Luke Skywalker, who was referred to as such as far back as Episode VI, RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), and most recently in the opening crawl of last year's Episode VII, THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015). But let’s keep in mind that the plural of Jedi is also Jedi, so the title could also refer to other characters; specifically, characters that we were introduced to in THE FORCE AWAKENS. But it’s also worth mentioning that THE FORCE AWAKENS had a theme of generational pass-the-baton (or lightsaber) going on, so perhaps THE LAST JEDI refers to the very last of the Jedi as we’ve known them in seven (and a half) films.

What’s even more striking about today’s reveal is the color-change of the logo. Gone is the traditional yellow, and in its place we have a sinister blood-red. This has been done before; notably with RETURN OF THE JEDI in 1983.

And then again with Episode III, REVENGE OF THE SITH in 2005.

It may seem like just a color change on the surface, but since the color red is significant to STAR WARS…it does mean a little something. Perhaps we’re in for a darker film as traditionally, the second chapter of each STAR WARS trilogy has always been the one where the good guys get their asses kicked all across the galaxy. It may also be worth mentioning that in 2013, there was an Expanded Universe (EU) novel by Michael Reaves which carried the same title, but since that line has been discontinued and no longer counts as canon, there is little to be gained from looking there.

We have yet to see a teaser for THE LAST JEDI, so a lot of this speculation may be a little clearer whenever it does arrive. But for now, Disney and Lucasfilm have accomplished exactly what a reveal like this is supposed to do; fascinate and spark discussion.


THE LAST JEDI arrives December 15th.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2016 - Part 2

This second of a two-part series looks at the Best of 2016.
The curse that seemed to be hanging over 2016 (more on that HERE), hit the Summer Movie Season the hardest, where nearly every major studio forgot how to make an effective blockbuster. That is, every studio except for Disney. The house that Walt built had one of their best overall years with crowd-pleasing efforts such as FINDING DORY, THE JUNGLE BOOK, PETE’S DRAGON, ZOOTOPIA, another one-two knockout punch from their Marvel superhero catalog with DOCTOR STRANGE and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and the emotional wallop of ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.
After Disney, other films in 2016 worthy of a recommendation includes Peter Berg’s two powerhouses PATRIOTS DAY and DEEPWATER HORIZON, Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS, the bizarre-yet-earnest SWISS ARMY MAN, the magnificent return to the HARRY POTTER world with FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, the two most powerful acting performances of the year with Denzel Washington in FENCES and Natalie Portman in JACKIE, and Meryl Streep’s hilarious and genuine performance in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.
Now onward and upward…
10. A MONSTER CALLS – On the surface, this fantasy drama about a young boy who is visited by a giant monster seems ripe with cliché, but J.A. Bayona’s adaptation of the book of the same name couldn’t be further away from that. Packed with adult themes such as coping with the loss of the loved one and dealing with life-altering changes, this was an adult drama which just happened to have that young boy as a main character. A MONSTER CALLS was also a love letter to the power of storytelling and imagination, and was the one film guaranteed to put an entire theatre into weep-mode.

9. THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS – Derek Cianfrance’s drama about a couple who find a baby lost at sea and raise her as their own, only to later discover the real mother, was the heartbreaker of the year. Beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted by Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz, OCEANS plays out like a Greek Tragedy, but it is also a fascinating look at how we deal with moral dilemmas. There’s a lot for us all to learn in this film.

8. LOVING – Writer and director Jeff Nichols had two knockouts in 2016, with LOVING arriving in the Fall months. Based on the true story of the couple who challenged interracial marriage laws and bans, LOVING was a powerful, yet understated look at, yes, love…but also rural America of the 1950’s, and the themes explored here somehow feel very relevant today. With a patient and steady hand, Nichols doesn’t allow the film, which is driven by a legal battle, become a dry courtroom drama. Instead, he invests the film’s time with his main characters (fantastic performances by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), and crafts a film which speaks to everyone.

7. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Realism was the name of the game in Kenneth Lonergan’s drama about loss. Far from the typical overscored and overacted drama films, MANCHESTER spends all its time around its characters as they deal with real-life situations around the death of a family member, and the impact hits home hard. It is an actor’s workshop, with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams putting together one of the most heartbreaking scenes seen in cinema in a long time.

6. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL – Jeff Nichols’ other knockout of the year arrived in the Spring, and was a magnificent balance of sci-fi and family drama. Centering on a young boy with extraordinary abilities who is wanted by the government and a religious cult, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a road-trip movie injected with a father’s love for his son. The film is shot beautifully with razor-sharp editing, and the acting by Michael Shannon, Kristen Dunst, Joel Edgerton, and Adam Driver is superb. It’s a chase-film, but also a mystery-thriller which is revealed in hints and peeks, and it speaks greatly to the power of family.

5. LA LA LAND – Fresh off his success with WHIPLASH a couple of years ago, director Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical, about a young couple chasing their dreams in Hollywood was by far the most joyful event of the year. A tribute to the arts of music and acting, LA LA LAND establishes two characters we can all relate to (brilliantly played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), and makes us care about what they dream about. As a musical, it’s wonderful…and as a film, is uplifting while keeping the real world around at the same time.

4. SILENCE – Martin Scorsese has been trying to get this exploration of faith put to the screen for several decades, and perhaps its best that he didn’t get to make it until he was in his seventies, for SILENCE displays all the markings of a seasoned and masterful filmmaker. A far cry from the bombast of his last few films, SILENCE is a quiet journey into faith as seen by two 16th century priests in the dangerous lands of feudal Japan. But not just about faith but about that inner-belief that drives us all, SILENCE is deeply layered, powerful, and rich enough that it may take 20 years to fully digest it all. Beautifully shot and exquisitely edited, it also had career-best performances from Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson. Whenever Scorsese does decide to retire, SILENCE will be mentioned amongst his best works.

3. ARRIVAL – Aliens landing on Earth have become as common to Hollywood movies as popcorn on a theatre floor. Seemingly aware of this, Denis Villeneuve’s take on it is a thinking-man’s sci-fi film, where humans aren’t quite at war with the strange visitors, but instead engaged in communication. The stakes are high as a paranoid world moves towards war, but despite the grand stage, Villeneuve makes the brilliant choice of making one character (Amy Adams) the real focus of the film. Her personal story is compounded by the presence of the aliens, and the film’s late, mind-bending twist changes everything we were assuming we knew about the story; it even changes the meaning of the film’s title. In a current Hollywood where everything is copied, ARRIVAL is one film that can never have its ambition and execution imitated.

2. HACKSAW RIDGE – In his return to the director’s chair for the first time in a decade, Mel Gibson delivers a war film which is the most uplifting and inspirational movie of the year. Based on the real-life heroics of WWII soldier Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a medic who refused to fire or even carry a weapon into battle, Gibson builds his character in well-executed stages, and the battle-scenes in which Doss carries wounded man after wounded man to safety are an endless emotional train. This is a war film like none other, and re-establishes Gibson as the powerhouse director of our time.

1. HELL OR HIGH WATER – One of the best trends in today’s Hollywood is the time-bending contemporary Western; that is, a story set in the modern day with the sensibilities of an Old West tale. David Mackenzie’s tale of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on a crime spree while evading the law (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), presents itself like a standard cops and robbers romp, but the trick is finding a way to justify the brothers and their bank-robbing ways. Using our real-world economy and the way it chews up and spits out families as the real villain of the film, Mackenzie builds his characters in small, revealing steps…and gives the film a richness thicker than Texas heat. The robbing, chasing, and cat-and-mousing are brilliantly executed with terrific tension, and the climactic shootout is devastating for the characters and the audience. It really feels like a classic Western, only instead of horses they ride pickup-trucks, and it’s infused with fierce family loyalty going up against an unfair world…which makes it a very powerful and relevant film. No other movie in 2016 stopped time and delivered on every front like HELL OR HIGH WATER.

The Best Films of 2016

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The Best & Worst Films of 2016 - Part 1

This first of a two-part series looks at the Worst of 2016.
The Year in Film 2016 seemed to have a curse hanging over it. By far, the worst part of the year was saying a final goodbye to beloved actresses and actors; many of which were taken too soon. In 2016 we said farewell and adieu to Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Tony Burton, George Kennedy, Patty Duke, Anton Yelchin, Michael Cimino, Garry Marshall, David Huddleston, Kenny Baker, Steven Hill, Gene Wilder, Robert Vaughn, Ron Glass, Florence Henderson, David Margulies, and Alan Thicke…among others.
Back on the screen the curse hung heavy, and not even notable names such as Spielberg, Affleck, and Ang Lee could escape it. The Summer Movie Season suffered the most, where nearly every studio (except for one, more on that in Part 2), forgot how to make a good blockbuster. This Blogger was sober enough to steer clear of obvious stinkbombs like ASSASSIN’S CREED, ZOOLANDER 2, NOW YOU SEE ME 2, ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, or anything made by Tyler Perry or Adam Sandler. This list of the Top 10 Worst Films of 2016 are movies that should have been better than they turned out.
This is what happens…
10. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – The long-awaited on-screen meeting between two of the most iconic characters in history was a head-scratching entry into Warner Bros.’ bungled attempts to build a cinematic universe with the DC Comics brand. It’s debatable if it was the fault of the studio or director Zack Snyder, but DAWN OF JUSTICE had no plot, incoherent storytelling, bizarre editing choices, breaks in continuity, weird dream-sequences that made no sense, and was overall a very dysfunctional film. Toss in two of the most poorly-executed screen villains of all time, and we have an easy entry into the Worst List.
9. PASSENGERS – Pretend for a minute that Ralphie from A CHRISTMAS STORY got his beloved BB-gun by murdering all of his friends. That’s exactly how PASSENGERS plays out; a main character who at movie’s end gets what he wants by making a despicable decision. It hangs over the entire film, and spoils an excellent cast, an intriguing sci-fi concept, and one of the best-looking films of the year.
8. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – Antoine Fuqua’s unnecessary remake of the classic Western stumbled right out of the gate. Only four of the “Magnificent Seven” were actors people actually cared to see, and the cast was then directed to act like modern-day folk who just happened to be wearing cowboy hats. On top of that, the film hung its two-gallon hat on every cliché out of the Old West genre, and it felt more like a goofy TV sketch than a film.
7. INFERNO – Author Dan Brown’s page-turners have not translated very well to the big screen, and the third attempt scrapes the bottom of the latrine. Despite the talent involved (Ron Howard, Tom Hanks), INFERNO came off as clumsy and awkward as characters just bounced around from location to location only to pause long enough to garble out some sort of history lesson. The film wants to be a thinking-man’s adventure, but the final minutes resolve everything by characters punching each other. Let this movie burn in the fires of hell.
6. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN – Director David Yates had his work cut out for him in bringing back a character to the big screen that was past its peak fifty years ago, and he completely fell off the vine. The film was overburdened with plot as characters talked…and talked…and talked some more about shit no one cares about in a TARZAN film like the King being unable to pay off his loans. The stakes are never made clear and there’s nothing to care about, and the finale is a big ball of stupid involving machine guns and explosions. And Christoph Waltz plays the exact same character he always does. Tarzan? More like BORE-zan.
5. SUICIDE SQUAD – Warner Bros. had a chance to redeem themselves by bringing together Batman’s greatest enemies on-screen for the first time, only they made the idiotic decision not to involve Batman. Instead, the Squad fought the most ridiculous villain (which, by the way, came to power thanks to the Squad being put together in the first place), along with a bunch of blobs. The film had no structure (they were still introducing characters in the third act), and the logic in assembling the team didn’t make any sense (they were assembled to counter super-powered beings, only none of them had any real super-abilities). And the icing on the cake was the much-hyped version of Jared Leto’s Joker showed up for a grand total of six minutes…and makes no impression whatsoever.
4. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE – This sad sack of shit, a sequel to the 1996 smash, had everything wrong with it; the returning cast-members were mis-used (one dies for absolutely no reason), the new cast was dreadfully dull, the plot made no sense and contradicted the original film, and for an alien-invasion/war movie…is overall boring with snoozer action set-pieces. Visual effects were awful in many places (including the terrible-looking closing shot, capped by a weird and awkward final line), and way too much time is spent with a stupid talking orb which has no impact on the story at all, and is instead kicked down the road for a sequel. A sequel which hopefully never happens.
3. MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN – It seems we can’t go more than a couple of years without the once-great Tim Burton soiling the bedsheets of his reputation again. His adaptation of the book of the same name starts off promising enough, but like many of his movies in the last decade, falls apart at the end with a big CGI battle with goofy characters doing goofy things. But even before that, the film is bogged down with character after character standing around talking; telling instead of showing…which makes this fantasy piece an unforgiveable grind to sit through.
2. WARCRAFT – All things considered, this screen adaptation of the popular video game only made one real mistake; it took itself much too seriously. The fantasy world is supposed to be amazing and full of wonder, but WARCRAFT was bogged down with plot and had no energy or sense of fun whatsoever…and a cast that was way too young for their roles (kings and wizards aren’t supposed to look like twenty-somethings) didn’t help. Fantasy, especially wizards and knights and orcs, should never be this shockingly dull. Warcraft? More like SNORE-craft.
1. GHOSTBUSTERS – Director Paul Feig’s unwanted remake of the 1984 comedy classic was a movie made on a big lie. Feig went out of his way to tell the world that he was making a film to advance the cause of women in the industry, but what we got was the exact opposite. GHOSTBUSTERS is basically an exploitation film, where every stereotype is exploited for laughs. The angry black person, make fun of them! Fat people who fall down, make fun of them! Mentally-challenged people who can’t answer phones, make fun of them! And if that wasn’t bad enough, the movie was packed with juvenile humor which included women farting out of their front-end (so much for advancement), and men shitting their pants. Acting was horrible (only one of the four female leads is a legit actress), and it had the most boring villain ever put to film. The overall result is an unfunny movie which shoots for the lowest IQ, and a disgusting attempt at cashing in on a beloved title which didn’t advance anything. Everything about this was wrong and should be treated like explosive diarrhea; flushed down the sewer and never spoken of again.

The Worst Films of 2016



The Best of 2016 HERE 

Friday, January 13, 2017


When two Muslim brothers set off home-made bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, the incident, and the ensuing manhunt, shook the city to its foundation and captivated the country…and the world. When the time came to put the events on the big screen, director Peter Berg and frequent collaborator/actor/producer Mark Wahlberg were the ones to raise their hands. 2016 may or may not be too soon to put the story to film, but it takes guts to do so…and even more skill to do it right.

Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is a Boston police officer who is at ground zero when two Muslim brothers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), set off explosives at the Boston Marathon…killing several and injuring hundreds. Saunders joins in the manhunt, which includes Police Commissioner Davis (John Goodman), FBI Special Agent DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and Watertown Police Chief Pugliese (JK Simmons).

PATRIOTS DAY spends its early goings laying down the groundwork with its characters; from Saunders with his job issues and time at home, to the bombing victims, to the two brothers and their lives at home. It’s a bit of an early slog, but once things start moving they do pay off. The bombing itself is where the film kicks into high gear. It happens nearly 30 minutes in, and even though we’re expecting it, it’s still a seat-jumper as the build-up towards it is so well done. From there, the film moves into a police procedural, with FBI and Boston PD combing through mountains of evidence and occasionally banging heads over jurisdiction and politics.

Realism goes a long way here, and director Peter Berg has certainly done his homework. The finest details are present, and the film often feels like we are dropped right in the middle of the manhunt and closed-door discussions. Most of the film is seen through Saunders (who is a composite of several Boston police officers), and even though the character seems to show up at nearly every significant event, sticking with him gives us something to latch onto. While the investigation and chase are compelling, Berg is also building a fine tribute to the human spirit, and most especially the city of Boston. There’s a lot of heart at work here, and there are plenty of tears to be shed in joy and sorrow.

Berg has a tremendous amount of energy going at all times. The film moves, and the necessary pauses are well-timed for us to catch our breaths. Boston and its surrounding areas are filmed on a wide scale, giving a great sense of the vast amount of space that had to be searched (needle in a haystack doesn’t even begin to cover it), and the recreations of the marathon and the bombing are stunning. Berg makes great use out of archival footage from local news stations and the surveillance cameras, giving the film a very authentic feel.

Mark Wahlberg, who has now worked with Berg on three films, is excellent throughout. He’s a Boston guy born-and-raised, so it wasn’t hard for him to seem genuine, but it’s his emotional moments which really sell the character; there’s a scene when he tells his wife (wonderfully played by Michelle Monaghan), what he saw in the aftermath of the blast which is some of the finest acting he’s ever done. JK Simmons is tremendous and gets some big moments. Kevin Bacon is always a treat, and the new slim-and-trim John Goodman is also very good. Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze are scary-good as the brothers. The oldest is portrayed as a bully and the youngest as naïve, and the film feels like it could have dug a little deeper into their backstories. The show is absolutely stolen by an unrecognizable Melissa Benoist (TV’s SUPERGIRL), who plays the American wife of the eldest brother. She’s a converted Muslim who is dedicated to her husband, and is chilling with just a single glance.

The final shootout and finale is one hell of a feel-good moment, and ends with one of the best money-shots anyone can ask for in such a story. The end-credits are preceded by a few testimonials from the film’s real-life counterparts…survivors and investigators…and it feels a bit tacked-on and extraneous as the message at that point is already clear. PATRIOTS DAY invokes the spirit of a certain Dr. Seuss tale in which something bad tried to steal the spirit away from a town, only to have the town unite and find its spirit even stronger. Peter Berg has crafted a tribute to Boston, its people, and it’s finest in uniform. PATRIOTS DAY stands proud.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017


When it comes to movies that have a kid, or kids, as the main characters, it’s natural for adults to let out a collective groan. After all, kids are usually put into a film so younger audiences can have something to relate to, and such a film could, and is often, simplified for younger minds to the point where adults are bored to tears. But every once in a while we get a film which is very much geared toward adults which just happens to have a young person as the main character. Meet JA Bayona’s A MONSTER CALLS.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall), is dealing with his cancer-stricken mom (Felicity Jones), often-absent dad (Toby Kebbell), overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and several bullies at school when he begins to have visits from a giant monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who promises to tell Conor three stories in exchange for his own.

It doesn’t take long for any adult mind to feel for our main character. Conor is dealing with a lot of adult issues; the possibility of losing his mom, having to go live somewhere he doesn’t want to (with the grandmother), frustrations with a dad who would rather be elsewhere, and big mean bullies who make everyday a living hell. As the opening lines of the film tell us, Conor is too old to be considered a boy, but still too young to be a man, and he begins the film somewhere inbetween while his world seems utterly hopeless.

Once the monster appears with his promise of telling three stories in exchange for Conor’s own, A MONSTER CALLS dives deeper into not only Conor but all of us. Director JA Bayona is playing with a lot of metaphor here, as each story relates to something in Conor’s life, and the story that the monster wants from Conor is the truth to what is really bothering him. Where most directors may use all of these allegories and parables like sledgehammers, Bayona has a gentle touch going on which makes every point hit home with just the right impact.

The stories that the monster tells are represented through different animation styles and they are stunning to take in. They give A MONSTER CALLS an excellent balance of real-life tragedy and fantasy, and has a great message of the power of storytelling and imagination and why they’re so important to us all. The CGI monster himself, who is tree-like and indeed monstrous, seems to look better during the daytime scenes than the nighttime, and the rest of the visual effects are wonderfully made. Overall the film looks gorgeous, and Fernando Velazquez’s score is perfect.

Lewis MacDougall, in his first feature film, is a wonderful actor and carries the film. He does a lot of heavy lifting, and his scenes with his mom and grandmother, which range from the most painful to the most angry…are perfectly done. Felicity Jones is heartbreaking as the dying mom, and Sigourney Weaver, despite losing her British accent here and there…does great work going up against MacDougall; there is a scene of angry tension between the two, without dialogue, which is hard to watch it’s so real. Liam Neeson is spot-on as the voice of the monster.

By the time the credits roll, there won’t be a dry-eye in the theatre, as the film goes for an emotional gut-punch and connects, but before those credits roll…a single glance from one character changes everything we thought we understood about the film. A MONSTER CALLS is an emotional journey with many themes going on, with the least being that sad melancholy concerning all things which must pass from this world; namely life and youth. There is nothing to moan about here.


Monday, January 9, 2017

A Reel Opinion: Let Them Speak

The stormy political climate of 2016 has spilled over the levee and onto the once clean-slate of 2017, and it happened in the most unexpected place. At this past weekend’s 74th Golden Globe Awards ceremony, actress Meryl Streep, during her acceptance speech for the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award (the Globes’ equivalent of a lifetime achievement award), used her time to make a few comments on the recent actions of America’s President-elect, Donald Trump. Speaking from the heart in just over six minutes, Streep spoke politically and with common sense; politically she addressed Trump’s immigration stance, and with common sense when she spoke of anti-bullying and preventing violence…with the latter point aimed at Trump’s mocking of a handicapped journalist.  

Streep was not alone in her attacks (for lack of a better term),  on Trump. Actress Issa Rae threw some direct jabs on the Red Carpet, and host Jimmy Fallon also got a few shots in during some of his monologues. Using awards shows such as the Globes, or the Oscars, as a platform to sound-off or raise awareness is nearly as old as the format itself. Legendary names such as Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, and Clint Eastwood have done so in the past. It’s a natural place to do so; after all, awards shows such as the Globes are broadcast worldwide, only happen once a year, and a chance to speak even during a short time on stage ensures a message would not get lost in a sea of social media postings. Critics may not like the stage Streep chose to voice her opinion, but if worldwide TV is not the place, then where is? And when?

Streep has her supporters, but she also has her critics and a fair amount of internet trolls. The negative opinions range from the ignorant to the hypocritical; staring with “she has no right to speak her opinion” (of course she does, she has the same 1st Amendment rights as anyone), to Hollywood people being too far removed from middle-class America to be relevant (wrong again; Hollywood may have rich people, but every film has thousands of hands and middle-class laborers to make them happen). But the ultimate irony lies within Streep getting blasted on social media; people using a worldwide platform to express an opinion about someone who used a worldwide platform to express an opinion.

The most ignorant comments of them all say some sort of noise about movie stars and movies only having one job; to entertain. This could not be further from the truth. Movies are meant to entertain, sure…but they are also meant to inspire and illuminate, and there’s no law that says that should be restricted to the screen. Streep also spoke about protecting the arts, which may seem self-serving, but a society without art is no longer a society; even cave-men figured that out a long time ago. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this is the want from her critics to separate those who can and can’t express an opinion, and if that ever happens for real, America fails. Because of the time and place Streep chose to speak, she may be remembered for it above everything else she’s done; but maybe that was the point…to be remembered for something other than gold. In a way, Streep speaks for anyone who felt a need to speak out or to address a wrong, and maybe more of Hollywood, which gets criticized for living in a bubble, will raise their heads. So let them speak, for they live in this country too.  
See Meryl Streep's entire speech HERE

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Reel Review: SILENCE

In 1990, 48 year-old director Martin Scorsese read the 1966 novel Silence, written by Shusaku Endo, and was deeply moved by what he read. Over the decades, his efforts to bring the story to the big screen were met with legal challenges and disputes, and several starts and stops. In 2016, Scorsese, now at the age of 74, has finally brought SILENCE to life…and the timing could not be better.

Two 16th century Jesuit missionaries; Sebastiao (Andrew Garfield), and Francisco (Adam Driver), make a dangerous journey to feudal Japan, where Christianity is outlawed and their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), is rumored to have renounced his faith.

For SILENCE, the backdrop is essential in the storytelling. This is a Japan where Christians; either converts or preachers, are hunted down and brutally tortured unless they renounce their faith. Martin Scorsese puts in careful work in establishing this country where humble peasants who basically live in mud look at Christianity and the two missionaries as their sole hope, despite the threat of torture from the Japanese authorities (led by The Inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata), which ranges from being burned alive to being sprinkled with boiling water to being crucified at sea during high tide. Eventually, the presence of the two padres draws the attention of The Inquisitor, and the two missionaries are left with the hard choice of renouncing their own faith or watch the faithful villagers be destroyed.

It’s a battle of wills with faith as the battlefield, and Scorsese builds layer upon layer of examining a person’s faith when faced against incredible and horrible odds. It’s a look at human belief more than a God-preaching film; raising many questions about what really resides inside us to make us do what we do every day. Aside from the layers of thought, Scorsese also makes the brilliant choice of portraying the Japanese authorities not as God-hating men, but as sincere countrymen who simply want to guard and preserve their old culture. The question of whether or not the Jesuits should have even been there in the first place is raised often, and Scorsese lets us draw our own conclusions.

The most shocking aspect of SILENCE is just how (ahem) quiet the film is. Gone is the bombastic music and obnoxious characters which have populated Scorsese’s films in the past decade, and instead we get a patient and steady hand…with easy going speaking and gentle shots of the countryside. The scenes of torture and killing are brutal, but the film displays the patience of a mature filmmaker. Scenes develop slowly and give us time to ponder, and with a sparse score replaced by ambient sounds of the countryside, has a very natural feel.

Acting is outstanding. Our three priests hail from Portugal and their accents seem to come and go, but more than make up for it with the work they have to do in selling their characters. Andrew Garfield is the true standout, showing a lot of inner turmoil and it’s clear that this is the film that moves him into the upper echelon of cinema. Adam Driver is equally effective, and both he and Garfield look like they starved themselves to achieve the look of two men living on scraps of fish and rice. Liam Neeson has an outstanding moment of pain when the time comes for him to renounce, and Ciaran Hinds is excellent in his limited time. The Japanese cast, including (but not limited to) Issey Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka, and Tadanobu Asano are all very good.

The title of the film refers to the lack of, or complete absence of direct answers from God as the desperate characters call for help, and that hangs over the film at all times. Scorsese offers a lot of profound thought in SILENCE, and it seems fitting that he couldn’t make this film until he was in his 70’s, as it has the touch of a filmmaker, and man who has been around a long time and can ask the hard questions about faith that resonate in us. SILENCE is a punishing film as it asks the audience to endure a lot, and it offers so much to think about that it can be examined and thought about for another 20 years before being fully understood. If ever. That is a mark of greatness.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

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

The bad news about the first month of the year is that it is traditionally the place where unwanted movies are released; a Movie Siberia where films deemed not good enough for the summer months and no-way-in-hell-good-enough for Oscar Season go to quietly die. But the good news is there are a few notable late 2016 awards-hopefuls which move from limited to wide release in the first couple weeks of January. Here is a preview for the leftovers and the first batch of new films for 2017.

The leftovers:

LIVE BY NIGHT – The last time Ben Affleck was behind the camera, he won Best Picture for ARGO. This time he brings us a 1920’s gangster flick based on the novel of the same name. Co-starring is Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, and Scott Eastwood (son of Clint).

SILENCE – Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese is back…this time with a film that he’s been trying to make for decades. Andrew Garfield (HACKSAW RIDGE) and Adam Driver (THE FORCE AWAKENS), play 17th century priests who travel to Japan to rescue their mentor, played by Liam Neeson.

THE FOUNDER – Michael Keaton seems to be determined to get an Oscar; appearing in an awards-hopeful for the third year in a row…this time playing Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. It is directed by John Lee Hancock (THE BLIND SIDE).

A MONSTER CALLS – Based on the novel of the same name, this fantasy drama has a young boy befriending a tree-like monster. Stars Sigourney Weaver and Emily Blunt. Liam Neeson provides the voice of the monster. Acclaimed director JA Bayona (A MONSTER CALLS) directs.

HIDDEN FIGURES – The story of Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician who calculated the flight trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo space programs. Co-stars Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, and Kirsten Dunst. It is directed by Theodore Melfi (ST. VINCENT).

...And the new films:

UNDERWORLD: BLOOD WARS – This fifth (!) entry in the franchise of warring vampires and werewolves has Kate Beckinsale returning to the role.

MONSTER TRUCKS – Lucas Till (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS), plays a high school student who befriends a strange subterranean creature who has a knack for powering trucks. Co-stars Jane Levy, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, and Barry Pepper.

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE – Vin Diesel returns to the extreme-sports turned international spy character in this third film of the franchise. Co-stars Donnie Yen, Toni Collette, and Samuel L. Jackson.

SPLIT – M. Night Shyamalan (THE SIXTH SENSE, SIGNS, UNBREAKABLE) is back with a horror-thriller in which James McAvoy (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) plays a kidnapper with 24 different alternate personalities.

RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER – In what seems like the 865th film in this franchise, Milla Jovovich returns to the role in humanity’s final battle against the hordes (promises, promises). Shitty director Paul WS Anderson is back to direct.

I AM MICHAEL -  In this true story, James Franco plays a gay activist who renounces homosexuality and becomes a Christian pastor. Co-stars Zachary Quinto (STAR TREK), and Emma Roberts.


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of February.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Reel Review: FENCES

Adapting a stage play to film is never an easy task. Staying too true can make the film look like someone just pointed a camera at a play, and making too many changes can lose the original message of the production. Acclaimed late playwright August Wilson’s Fences tackles many issues from race relations to family dynamics, and bringing it to a successful screen adaptation meant finding a director who had a good hold on the material along with a passion for it. Say hello to Denzel Washington.

Troy Maxson (Washington), is a garbage-man in 1950’s Pittsburgh living in a segregated neighborhood. Angry and bitter over his missed opportunities in life, Troy takes his frustrations out on the closest relationships in his life, which includes his wife Rose (Viola Davis), teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), best friend Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and his mentally challenged brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson).

The original version of FENCES was a strong look at African-American progression and race relations. Actor and director Denzel Washington, (who also starred in a recent stage-version of FENCES with his co-star Viola Davis), directs this version which had its script written by its original creator, August Wilson. Washington and Wilson strip away a lot of the politics (but not all), and focus on the characters, with the bulk of it all focusing on Troy, who is one of the most powerful characters ever put to screen. Once a former Negro Leagues ballplayer who now rides a garbage truck, Troy emerges as a blowhard with angry opinions and very tough love for his son. He’s an asshole and proud of it, but the more he goes on, the more about his background is revealed, and the path which brought him to this point. Once the blanks are filled it, there is an enormous amount of pity to felt for Troy, making him one hell of a character to love and hate at the same time.

The scenes between Troy and his son are explosive, and things take an even meatier turn when a late-film twist in which Troy admits a secret to his wife adds a whole new level of drama. The turn makes Rose the emotional beating heart of the film, and gives FENCES even more to work with as a family drama.

As a director, Washington doesn’t have to do a whole lot as the film is very much set up like its original stage-play. Most of the movie takes place in Troy’s backyard, living room, and dining room…and only occasionally explores elsewhere. It feels “stagey” as the camera is basically parked and characters fire away at each other using dialogue that people in real life never would. It takes a bit to get used to, but once the film finds its groove it’s mesmerizing.

But Washington’s real talent behind the camera seems to be in getting tremendous performances out of his cast. Viola Davis is amazing; showing extreme patience and strength in dealing with Troy’s opinionated bullshit and darn-near torment of his son. She has a few big moments in the film which are gut-punches. Young Jovan Adepo holds his own against Washington, and watching Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s mentally unbalanced brother is tearjerking. But nothing compares to the massive powerhouse performance by Washington. It’s a larger-than-life character with many layers that he handles perfectly, and it’s difficult to take our eyes off him. The veteran actor literally changes into another person, and he is so captivating it’s easy to forget that this is the Denzel we thought we’ve known all these years.

FENCES has several big moments for each key character with all of them getting a few moments for an emotional speech or two. After a very emotional showdown between father and son, the film flash-forwards several years and then adds on another wallop of a scene. By the time the credits roll, Washington has delivered a powerful film which will have audiences talking in awe and disbelief; in awe over how something so simply shot could be so powerful, and disbelief over one actor and director’s performance.