Saturday, September 21, 2019

A Reel Review: AD ASTRA


In the 1970’s, there was an effort to bring Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness to the big screen by young and ambitions filmmakers George Lucas, John Milius, and the man who would direct it…Francis Ford Coppola. The idea came about to set the adaptation during the Vietnam War, and the project evolved into the grand and timeless APOCALYPSE NOW. Forty years later, just as Coppola’s film was inspired by the book, James Gray’s outer-space adventure AD ASTRA takes inspiration from Coppola and beyond. 

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), is selected to head a secret mission into the solar system, to stop waves of energy surges that is threatening the Earth…surges that are being caused by McBride’s father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who vanished with his crew decades before around Neptune. 

Showing no shame, director James Gray takes what Coppola did and puts it into space. McBride hitches a ride on a ship with a crew that has no idea what his secret mission is, has an unscheduled stop that leads to disaster, all while McBride’s internally-thinking voiceovers dig into his relationship with his long lost father…a father that takes nearly the entire movie to get to. It’s loyal to APOCALYPSE NOW to nearly a fault, and anyone who has seen that film even once can see the familiar beats.

In lesser hands, this would be a bland remake, but AD ASTRA does manage to make the story its own. The void of space acts as a metaphor for the void in Roy’s life without a father, and the script explores that to a successful degree. Roy carries the film and proves to be a fascinating character; outside he is cold and emotionless…the perfect astronaut whose heartbeat always remains steady, while on the inside he laments his life and the choices he has made with his estranged wife (Liv Tyler). Familiar beats or not, it works and it works well.

It may be an old story in a new skin, but that new skin is magnificent. World-building is key here. Hints are given here and there to the state of space travel, which is grounded and despite taking place in the (near) future, seems to be the state that our real-world space programs would be going. Space-flight is commercialized, the military has their own branch of spacemen and women, the Moon is a goddamn tourist trap with disputed territories (another aspect that Roy laments), and the awe of space seems to have been replaced by familiar Earth-bound human conflicts. 

But the awe and wonder of space is not lost here. The film looks amazing. The vastness of space and planets such as Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune…filling the screen in stunning detail. Production design is outstanding from command consoles to cockpits to underground bunkers under the surface of Mars. The film is a wonder to look at. Pacing is a slow burn, but the action sequences are pulse-pounding for the audience…even if Roy’s doesn’t. Max Richter’s score is excellent. 

Acting is very good. Brad Pitt turns in one of his best performances; struggling on the inside while staying cool externally. His eyes say it all. Tommy Lee Jones is great as always, and extended cameos by Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland handled well. 

AD ASTRA finds a nice balance between characters journeying inward while they voyage out, something that is not easy to do. The finale plays it tight and straight almost to a fault, as audiences expecting a twist or major surprise may be disappointed. Much like the movie and novel that inspired it, AD ASTRA goes A to Z and back again, with everything in-between a grand and intriguing look at human beings and what they are capable of. 

BOTTOM LINE: See it 



Friday, September 20, 2019

A Reel Review - RAMBO: LAST BLOOD


In 1982, Sylvester Stallone brought to the big-screen the character of John Rambo; a traumatized Vietnam veteran who is also the finest killing machine ever put together by the military. Rambo’s adventures and mishaps took him through small-town USA, back to ‘Nam, and then Afghanistan and Burma…with his final film offering a satisfying closure for the war-torn character. But nothing can ever rest in today’s Hollywood, and nearly forty years after Rambo first hit the screens, he returns again in LAST BLOOD. 
Eleven years after returning home, Rambo (Stallone), battles a Mexican cartel who has kidnapped his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal). 
When last we saw Rambo, he was returning home after decades of fighting one war or another. It was an emotional wrap for the character and seemingly the series, and the job of Stallone and director (yo) Adrian Grunberg for another film was to make his return worthwhile. The early goings of the film are fascinating as we catch up with domestic Rambo. He has inherited his father’s Arizona horse ranch, and is quietly raising horses and taking care of his niece. But at the same time, he is preparing for a war that he feels is coming; digging endless tunnels under his property, and stocking up and creating his own weapons. When Gabrielle gets kidnapped, Rambo uses every skill he has to get her back and to eventually defend his home when the cartel comes knocking. 
For the first time, Rambo has something to fight for that his near and dear to his heart. But either through lazy scriptwriting or a disaster in the editing room, LAST BLOOD falls apart in the telling. The early goings have Rambo experiencing PTSD with flashbacks to Vietnam…only to have that element vanish from the film and never come back. His blood-line relationship to Gabrielle is unclear, Gabrielle’s kidnapping oddly happens off-camera and is clumsily handled, the medications he’s taking are given no context, a free-lance reporter shows up to help out and then disappears, and the closing monologue at the end feels like it belongs in another movie. Chunks of the film feel like they’re missing; it’s bizarre, sloppy, and feels incomplete. 
If it’s blood and gore that is expected out of a RAMBO film, then LAST BLOOD does deliver. Rambo is as ruthless as ever, using his home-made weapons to impale and blast bodies all over the place…and when he’s not doing that, he’s tearing body parts away with his bare hands. It’s a bloodbath, and moderately fun…but the problem is what he’s fighting for changes by the end of the second act, and suddenly he’s not fighting for very much at all. LAST BLOOD does have its stand-up-and-cheer moments, but they’re forgotten just as quick as they happen. The main villain is one-dimensional, his army faceless, and the final battle feels oddly feels stretched in a movie that’s only 89 minutes long. 
Stallone turns in a good performance in his fifth outing as John Rambo, playing the internally-troubled vet as well as he ever has. It’s a movie of long speeches and monologue for Rambo, which feels oddly out of place for the character that we’re used to seeing give one-word answers. His introversion is gone, and that creates a disconnect from what we’re used to. Yvette Monreal is outstanding, and plays the fear of being kidnapped into sex-slavery perfectly. 
Rambo has always been a character of contradictions; he’s a walking example of how war can destroy a man, and yet provide skills that makes him a hero. Maybe that’s what has made him so popular over the years, but in LAST BLOOD the division is a bother. Rambo this time out has little to do but draw blood, and his conclusion (if we can call it that), is very unsatisfying and un-necessary. There are hints of something larger and more introspective, but they never happen. There was no need for this at all. 
BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it 


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need to Know About AD ASTRA


For most of this year, AD ASTRA has been flying in low orbit; underneath the radar of most film critics and cinephiles. But after a strong showing on the festival circuit, the film has rocketed into everyone’s sights, and has become one of the leaders in the early Oscar Season. Here is everything you need to know in this preview of AD ASTRA. 
What is this about? – Astronaut Roy McBride travels to the edge of the Solar System to find his missing father, whose experiments are threatening the Earth. 
Who is in front of the camera? – McBride is played by Brad Pitt, who is appearing in his second high-profile film this year…with the first being Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. His father is being played by Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones. The cast also includes Ruth Negga, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in LOVING (2016), along with Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, and John Ortiz. 
Who is behind the camera? – AD ASTRA is directed by James Gray, who so far has brought us THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016), THE IMMIGRANT (2013), and WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007). Gray co-wrote the screenplay with television writer Ethan Gross, who worked for three seasons on TV’s FRINGE as executive story editor and writer. 
Random Facts – The term AD ASTRA is a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars” *James Gray has promised the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s ever been done in film *The movie reunites Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones, who appeared together in another space-movie, SPACE COWBOYS (2000) The storyline draws heavy inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which was also the basis for Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) *The score is composed by Max Richter, whose film credits include MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018), and HOSTILES (2017) *AD ASTRA is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 124 minutes 
What to expect – Starting with the director, James Gray has a track-record that’s been good, but not quite great. His films have earned reviews that fall just short of greatness, but far from terrible…and it could be possible that he is ready to take that giant leap into the upper-stratosphere of filmmaking. And having a writer from one of TV’s most successful sci-fi shows is also encouraging. In front of the camera, Brad Pitt has somehow become one of Hollywood’s elder statesman; earning the privilege of hand-picking films carefully which promise not to be throwaways. We can expect a great performance from him, along with his castmates.  The inspiration from Heart of Darkness is fascinating, and the strong reactions from the festival circuit hint towards something special. It’s been a while since we have seen a truly great film set in space with real-life star-voyagers, and it is possible that one is about to land. 
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AD ASTRA opens wide September 20th





Friday, September 13, 2019

A Reel Review: DOWNTON ABBEY


The British historical drama DOWNTON ABBEY was an immensely popular series that ran from 2010 to 2015. Set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate, it followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants through all their ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies…with great events in history having ripple effects on the family and the British social hierarchy. The series finale served as a satisfying end, with the family intact but with the winds of change hanging heavily. Here in 2019, the Crawleys return, this time to the big screen for another go. 
The estate of Downton, led by Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), are informed that the royal family of King George V and Queen Mary will be stopping by for a visit. As the family scrambles to prepare, Mary recruits the services of their retired butler Carson (Jim Carter), to return to Downton to help the overwhelmed butler Mr. Barrow (Rob James-Collier). 
Written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler, DOWNTON ABBY plays out like a condensed season of the series, with various plotlines effecting the large cast. Carson’s return gets under Barrow’s skin, who by-the-way is still coming to terms with his identity as a gay man in the 1920’s. Mary in the meantime is debating the future of Downton in British social hierarchy, while Granny (the wonderful Maggie Smith), is battling with cousin Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton) over an issue of inheritance. On top of that, Branson (Allen Leech), is dealing with a mysterious visitor, while the entire domestic staff…cooks, butlers, maids, and footmen…are displaced out of their own house and duties by the King’s own people. 
If it sounds like a lot, it is…and those are just the major plot points. But the script by Fellows impressively keeps it tightly and neatly organized, and keeps the film from diving into episodic territory. The many storylines converge nicely, with nearly every character getting their moments. For long-time fans of the series, it is a treat to behold, and newcomers can fully embrace it as a period drama. The film doesn’t hang its hat too heavily on what came before, so newcomers wouldn’t be lost (there is a nifty re-cap in the beginning), and veterans of DOWNTON can benefit from knowing the backstories. The pacing is brisk and the film moves along nicely with no fat to be trimmed. Humor comes in doses, and the dramatic, emotional moments handled well. The music by John Lunn is outstanding. 
Acting is excellent from the seasoned cast. Newcomer to the Abbey is Imelda Staunton, whose scenes with old film-rival Maggie Smith are a blast. Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern are drastically underutilized, with both of their characters given very little to do. The show is stolen by returning footman and server Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who is excited out of his pants to be serving the royal family. 
The burning question for DOWNTON ABBEY is if the film serves a purpose after the satisfying and emotional series finale. For fans it is a treat to see the beautiful Abbey on the big screen, and one major character gives their final bow. Despite that there is no sense of finality, as the script does play it safe, and the door is open for even more drama at this famed estate. This film easily could have been done as another full season, and its sole purpose seems to be fan-service. But if fan-service is all it cares about, then it’s a job well done. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it 


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Reel 25: ED WOOD

"This is the most uncomfortable coffin I've ever been in! "


This month marks the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton’s ED WOOD. 

Based upon the life story of infamous director Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s loose comedic biopic was based upon the novel Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey. The film was the brainchild of writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who as film students at USC originally conceived the project as a documentary. As the project progressed and changed to a concept of a feature film, it eventually landed on the desk of quirky and stylistic director Tim Burton; the man responsible for hits EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990), BATMAN (1989), and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993). 

The pairing of Burton with a story about Ed Wood, a director who would gain notoriety as one of the worst directors of all time, was a perfect one. Burton had always been a fan of the man’s work, and this admiration would seep into the film as ED WOOD would ultimately not make fun of his films, but would express a deep love for filmmaking in general. Burton would also inject his personal relationship with screen legend Vincent Price into the film; his Ed Wood character would strike a beneficial working friendship with horror-film actor Bela Lugosi. 

ED WOOD would wind up with an ensemble cast. Johnny Depp jumped at the chance of playing the lead, and he was joined by Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Lisa Marie, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, pro-wrestler George “The Animal” Steele, Juliet Landau, Mike Starr, and a young Vincent D’Onofrio who would cameo as Orson Welles. On top of it all, Martin Landau would turn in a spectacular performance as an aging Bela Lugosi, which would win him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. 

In addition to Landau’s win, ED WOOD would be nominated for a Golden Globe (Best Musical or Comedy), and Best Actor (Depp). Rick Baker would win an Oscar for Best Makeup. The film had underperforming box office numbers, but the very strong reviews and accolades for the cast would earn it popularity long after it left the silver-screens. Much like the director whose name is on the film, ED WOOD would gain traction as a cult-favorite as time went on. 

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This Blogger’s first encounter with ED WOOD came in the early Spring of 1994, when a certain film professor showed the class a working print copy of the film, nearly six months before it was to be released in theatres. That working print, shown to us in glorious VHS, was an incomplete version…with running time-codes, black spots where edits and effects had to be inserted and a notable absence of opening and closing credits. The film, even in an incomplete version, was dubbed worthy of being shown in a film class as there was a lot the world (and evidently film-students) could learn from ED WOOD. Not only is it perfectly crafted, well-acted, and written to the point where it is infinitely quotable, but Burton was able to find the heart and soul in the story of a very weird man. Burton’s Ed Wood character was the Little-Engine-That-Couldn’t; a very earnest director who spun his wheels really fast and hard but could never quite make it over that mountain. It is Burton’s statement on what is art and who gets to say if it is, which gives it a timeless quality. That’s what made it work so well. ED WOOD was a labor of love for Burton, and those are best kinds of film. 

“This is the one! ‘This’ is the one I’ll be remembered for!”




Friday, September 6, 2019

A Reel Review - IT: CHAPTER TWO


The decision to break up the film adaptation of Stephen King’s famed horror novel IT into two movies was a logical one. After all, King’s novel is over 1100 pages long, covering over 30 years of story with even more backstory and various character plotlines. In 2017, IT: CHAPTER ONE was a well-received, well-executed story of a group of pre-teens battling the fear-mongering supernatural killer clown…which makes the expectations high for the grand finale in CHAPTER TWO. 
Twenty-seven years after the events of the first film, the Losers Club (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Jay Ryan, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Andy Bean), are summoned to their old hometown of Derry to face the ancient monster Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who has risen again to feast on the innocent. 
The business of CHAPTER TWO concerns the now-adult versions of the Losers Club battling Pennywise once and for all. It’s a battle not done with weapons or glow-sticks, but with all of them facing their fears. There’s a lot of metaphor going on, as the group has to individually come to grips with their past; often represented in items, places, and memories. Director Andy Muschietti has a lot of themes at work; childhood trauma, unrequited love, deep secrets, and letting go of childhood fancy. There’s plenty going on, with most of the themes casually explored and others focused on for the duration. 
And for most of that duration, CHAPTER TWO has the un-avoidable burden of a story flaw. The Losers return to Derry with little or no memory of the events of the first film, and they spend most of this story re-capturing those lost memories. Since we the audience already knows what happened, we’re basically spending the film waiting for the characters to catch-up. Where the first film has a lot of mystery to uncover, CHAPTER TWO loses that sense of discovery, and it’s an issue as it sucks the tension out of the story. 
But as a horror movie, CHAPTER TWO really works. The scares are well-timed and relentless, creative and stunning to look at. The fears of the Losers come in many physical forms; from walking spider-heads  to deformed insects with human baby-heads…it’s grotesque and very effective. The individual challenges the Losers have to face are well written and executed, and the appearances of Pennywise (when he does appear in clown form, more on that in a bit), are a thrill. 
Visual effects range from excellent to just-okay. Some of the creatures are just CGI blobs, while others look great. How they are used is the real selling point, as a sequence involving a creepy old lady is possibly the first time that CGI horror really (and finally) works. The child actors return to reprise their roles, and are digitally de-aged to match their ages and appearances from CHAPTER ONE. The effect only works to an extent, with most of their faces looking cartoonish. 
Acting is excellent with James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, and Bill Hader carrying most of the workload and carrying it very well. The real star of the movie is in the casting of the adult Losers, as they all match their childhood counterparts perfectly. Bill Skarsgard is once again terrifying as Pennywise, but he unfortunately takes a backseat too often in favor of CGI monster-versions of the clown. 
The finale is a headache-inducing CGI shitfight, but it does end in a satisfying manner that loops back to CHAPTER ONE and may provide some tears. With so much going on, the film takes a long time to wrap up, and the hefty 160-minute running-time can really be felt. Despite all that is packed in the film, a lot of questions remain unanswered such as Pennywise’s origin or purpose, with no real hints to even leave it up to speculation or discussion. But in the end, CHAPTER TWO is worthwhile horror flick with enough scares and emotional resonance to earn a pass despite a few stumbles. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2019 - Episode IX


Exit Summer, enter Fall. With the Summer Movie Season now in the books for 2019, it’s time to look ahead to September, where the fun and flash of the warmer months are replaced by the seriousness and grit of the cooler days. Here are the notable releases for the upcoming month: 
It all starts to float with…
IT: CHAPTER TWO – The much anticipated horror sequel to the 2017 hit. This time, the kids from the first film return home 27 years after their apparent defeat of the terrifying clown Pennywise…only to find him back and meaner than ever. Bill Skarsgard returns as Pennywise, and he is joined by James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, and Andy Bean. 
HUSTLERS – In this crime comedy, Jennifer Lopez leads a group of her fellow strippers in a scheme to hustle dozens of wealthy men. Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Cardi B., Lili Reinhart, and Lizzo co-star. 
FREAKS – A paranoid father keeps his seven-year-old daughter locked up in their dilapidated house, in fear of possible dangers outside. It stars Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, and Lexy Kolker. 
THE SOUND OF SILENCE – Peter Sarsgaard plays a “house tuner”, who works on the sonic environment of homes, who encounters a problem he can’t solve. Rashida Jones co-stars. 
3 FROM HELL – Rob Zombie returns to cinema with this sequel to his 2005 horror-shocker, THE DEVILS REJECTS. The roles of the rejects are reprised by Sheri Moon Zombie, Sid Haig, and Bill Moseley. 
RAMBO: LAST BLOOD – Sylvester Stallone reprises his now-decades old character of John Rambo, the killing-machine Vietnam Vet. This time Rambo travels to Mexico to save his niece from the cartel. 
AD ASTRA – Brad Pitt plays an astronaut who journeys into space in search of his lost father, whose experiment is threatening the solar system. Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland co-star. It is directed by James Gray (THE IMMIGRANT, THE LOST CITY OF Z). 
DOWNTON ABBEY – A continuation (and perhaps grand finale), to the beloved television series. This time, the Crawley family and their staff prepare for a royal visit; from King George V and Queen Mary. 
RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL – Nic Cage plays a federal agent tracking down cocaine dealers. He is joined by Laurence Fishburne and Barry Pepper. 
ABOMINABLE – This animated family film offers a break from the seriousness of the month, and has a teenage girl encountering a young Yeti and befriending him. 
JUDY – Oscar winner Renee Zellweger (COLD MOUNTAIN), plays famed singer and actress Judy Garland in this biopic. 
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Next month, Reel Speak previews the packed month of October. 


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Reel Facts & Opinions: Here Comes THE IRISHMAN


One of the most anticipated films of this year, if not the decade, is the Martin Scorsese-directed, Netflix-produced THE IRISHMAN. The mob drama, which is based on the book I Heard you Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, brings Scorsese back to the mafia genre; a genre that he defined with his films GOODFELLAS (1990), CASINO (1995), and THE DEPARTED (2006). The film also reunites him with frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci (out of retirement), and also marks his first film with GODFATHER alum Al Pacino. Although the film is still a couple months away from release, THE IRISHMAN made headlines this week with news concerning its running time and release plan. 
The release plan was settled this week, with Netflix, the home-streaming company who produced the film, announcing plans to release THE IRISHMAN in a limited theatrical release on November 1st. The film will add cities over the following three weeks before launching on their streaming service November 27th. Scorsese himself was seeking a more traditional rollout, but this plan is similar, if not just like what Netflix did with ROMA last year. 
Similar to the news surrounding Spider-Man last week (read about that web HERE), this move has been met with controversy with many blaming either side. Long-time fans of Scorsese are eager to see THE IRISHMAN in theatres, but larger chains such as AMC and Regal will likely not get the film as they demand a minimum of 90 days in the theatre. With THE IRISHMAN leaving theatres in just 26 days for the home streaming service, the film does not meet their long-standing requirement. The film will likely go to smaller, independent chains such as Alamo Drafthouse and Landmark (chains that don’t exist all over)…who were willing to run ROMA in limited fashion last year. It’s disappointing that Netflix has chosen to not play by the rules once again, and robbing people of seeing the return of cinema legends to the big screen. It seems that they want to have their cake and eat it too; they want to be treated like any other studio, but then they don’t act like any other studio. And if THE IRISHMAN is good enough to be considered for awards, the argument of home-streaming films being eligible for Oscars will erupt again (Oscars want minimum time in theatres as well). 
The other bit of news about THE IRISHMAN is its running time. Although it is subject to change, it will run at 210 minutes, or three-and-a-half hours. This would be Scorsese’s longest film to date, and the longest mainstream American film in more than two decades. This news was met with glee from long-time cinephiles who grew up with Scorsese’s films, as such a stellar lineup deserves a long film. And it also harks back to the glory days of Hollywood, when films like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), clocked in at nearly four hours. Of course, this news was met with griping from the attention-span deprived crowd who watch too many YouTube videos, and ironically, probably the same crowd that doesn’t think twice about binging a TV show on Netflix without moving for 10 hours. 
All this is subject to change, and since there is no such thing as bad publicity, THE IRISHMAN will be talked about all during the fall season and earn its label as one of the most anticipated of 2019. 
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THE IRISHMAN debuts at the New York Film Festival on September 27thbefore hitting select theatres on November 1st, and Netflix at home November 27th

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reel Facts & Opinions: New Footage from THE RISE OF SKYWALKER


Since 1977, no news has been able to stop the world like news coming from the STAR WARS galaxy. Such an event happened this past weekend, at Disney’s biennial exposition event known as D23.
The bulk of the new news came from the pending release of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER; the 9thepisode in the STAR WARS “Skywalker” saga, poised for release this December. The film promises to end the generation-defining saga which began over 40 years ago; altering the film-industry and the lives of kids and parents everywhere. The first shot across the bow came early in the expo, with the release of this stunning new poster: 

And that was just a taste. Although we didn’t get a new, full-blown trailer, we did get a “sizzle reel” which debuted new footage and tied the new film to the legacy of STAR WARS. It begins with John Williams’ incredible new score, which has new variations of the old, favorite tunes. The beginning of the reel was a montage of previous films, from the Original Trilogy to the Prequels, to the first two episodes of the Sequels…all tied together by the voice of Luke (Mark Hamill), re-using his dialogue from the first trailer (HERE), released in April. 

The reel then takes us to a shot of the core of the new STAR WARS; Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac). Behind them are legacy characters Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). What follows next are shots of the General Leia (Carrie Fisher), and some breathtaking shots of a pending battle between the heroic Resistance and the evil First Order. 

And then oh-my-gosh it looks like the lovable C-3PO may have gone evil…

All this is capped by a fantastic-looking shot of Rey and the big bad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), slashing it out amongst crashing waves: 

And then boom…a quick shot of a dark-looking Rey with a black cloak and a double-bladed lightsaber with more swinging action…with the voice of the Emperor (reprised by Ian McDiarmid), saying “your journey nears its end”. 

What does all this mean? Not much of the storyline was revealed; none at all as a matter of fact. But if the mission of a reel like this is to generate excitement, then mission-accomplished. The footage looks great, and raises more questions than answers. And the callbacks to the prior films form a straight line that has been in the works for decades. As a good friend of Reel Speak said today, this reel had the mile-markers of our lives in once place; all the best of STAR WARS brought together. Masterfully done. 
You can watch the reel HERE
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STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER lands on December 20th



Friday, August 23, 2019

A Reel Review: READY OR NOT


One of the best sub-genres of horror is the closed-quarters thriller; where a victim, or victims, are trapped in a singular location with nowhere to go, while being pursued by a bloodthirsty villain. This has worked as far back as JAWS (1975), to ALIEN (1979), to SAW (2004), and here in 2019…is given a new angle with READY OR NOT.

Grace (Samara Weaving), marries Alex (Mark O’Brien), who is a member of the Le Domas family, who are super-rich from decades of manufacturing board games. On her wedding night, Grace is asked to take part in an old family tradition of playing a game at midnight…that leads to the entire family trying to kill her. 

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, READY OR NOT does not have much by way of plot, and spends most of its time following Grace around the large mansion, as she ducks into dumb-waiters, under tables, and behind counters as the family hunts her down with guns, axes, crossbows, and spear-guns. It’s a thrill-ride, as Grace runs for cover, with the added element of the family, who don’t really know what they are doing with the antique weapons they have to use. 

Reasoning is everything in a movie where everyone is out to kill the main character. For the Le Domas family, they sincerely believe that if they don’t kill the bride before sunrise, then they themselves will be destroyed. The real mystery behind the film isn’t why they’re trying to kill Grace, but if in fact the “curse” as they believe it, is true or not. Hints are given here and there throughout the chase, and by the time the bloody finale hits…it all makes perfect sense. It’s a fresh angle on an old tale, and it works. 

The co-directing team of Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet keeps the pacing brisk and the energy high. The film isn’t a scare-fest as much as a bloodbath, and the laughs are perfectly timed. READY OR NOT has feet planted in both comedy and horror, and balances them both well. 

Samara Weaving is terrific in her role and shows her bravery in doing what it takes to get the shot. Weaving is shot, stabbed, splattered with blood, and dropped down a pit with rotting carcasses and she sells every scene in an amazing performance. The rest of the cast handles their parts well, with Andie MacDowell a highlight. 

By the time the film wraps, our Grace has been through some sort of hell, and she emerges a hero that we want to root for. READY OR NOT is a great ride; full of horror and laughs and perfectly executed. 

BOTTOM LINE: See it