Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2015, Episode II

The good news about the final month of Movie Siberia is that a wide selection choices will be released; ranging from book adaptations, spy parodies, sci-fi, and fantasy. The bad news is this is still Movie Siberia, where low-expectation films are banished for good reason. At least it’s a short month, and the Oscars are right around the corner. Here is a preview for the notable films of February.

SEVENTH SON – Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges stars as a knight, and another Oscar nominee, Julianne Moore, stars as a witch in this medieval fantasy. Co-stars Ben Barnes, Kit Harington, Olivia Williams, and Djimon Hounsou.

THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER – The sequel the world has been waiting for.

THE VOICES – A romantic comedy in which Ryan Reynolds talks too much to his pets. Co-stars Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick.

JUPITER ASCENDING – The Wachowski siblings (THE MATRIX) direct this original tale about a girl (Mila Kunis) who discovers that her ordinary life on Earth is about to end in a cosmic adventure. Co-stars Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, and Eddie Redmayne (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING).

NAILED – David O’ Russell (AMERICAN HUSTLE, THE FIGHTER) directs this oddball in which a girl (Jessica Biel) suffers a freak accident which leaves a nail lodged in her head. Co-stars Jake Gyllenhall, James Marsden, Catherine Keener, Tracy Morgan, James Brolin, and Kirstie Alley.

JANE GOT A GUN – This troubled Western, which has gone through countless directors and cast members, finally comes together. Gavin O’ Connor (WARRIOR) is the credited director, and the cast includes Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, and Bradley Cooper.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE – Based on the popular comic book in which a super-secret spy organization recruits a street kid. Stars Colin Firth (THE KING’S SPEECH), Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Mark Hamill, and Mark Strong. Directed by Matthew Vaughn (STARDUST, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS).

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY – E.L. James’ kinky best-seller arrives on the big screen. Stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson (THE SOCIAL NETWORK).

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 – Another sequel the world has been waiting for.

McFARLAND USA – This Disney flick is based on the true story of the 1987 McFarland high school cross country team in an economically challenged community. Stars Kevin Costner and Maria Bello.

FOCUS – Will Smith is a con artist who takes on an apprentice, played by Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET).

MAPS TO THE STARS – A psychological comedy/thriller involving a Hollywood family. The packed cast includes Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, Sarah Gadon, Carrie Fisher, Mia Wasikowska, Viggo Mortensen, and Rachel Weisz. Directed by David Cronenberg (EASTERN PROMISES, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE).


Next month, Episode III previews the month of March.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Originally filmed in 2008 and released in international markets in 2009, the first big-screen adaptation of the works of beloved novelist Paulo Coelho finally arrives on U.S. shores. The work, VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE, is considered to be the most-filmable of the spiritual and mystic nature of Coelho’s writings. It is a simple story with enough under the surface to work with; enough for director Emily Young to either explore or muck up.

After a failed suicide attempt, Veronika (Sarah Michelle Gellar) awakens in a mental institution run by an un-orthodox doctor (David Thewlis), and discovers that her botched attempt has caused a sensitive heart condition which gives her just a few days (or weeks) to live. She befriends fellow inmates which include amute (Jonathan Tucker), a loose-upstairs roommate (Erika Christensen), and a mysterious woman (Melissa Leo).

VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE is set up with the simplest of parts; losing a want to live and finding it again. Such simplicity is deepened with the added element of Veronika still facing an inevitable death, only this time the clock is uncertain. Putting a person who wants to die in the face of death but taking it out of their control is great material to work with, and the first half or so of the film makes for a great setup.

Director Emily Young, in her first big-screen venture, grips the audience well and early, but then lets it all go as this sea of possibility is only explored with the water going up to the ankles. Veronika’s reasons for wanting to die are never fully fleshed out, and her journey back towards the light-side comes suddenly and too quickly. Young seems to be working from a first-draft of the script; with only the easy-to-understand parts present in the film.

The film is far from a disaster and Young does show great promise. A nice atmosphere of dread hangs over the narrative, and things are photographed beautifully. Pacing is quick and some more dramatic scenes are handled well. Some odd editing decisions take away from Veronika’s journey, as too much time is spent away from her and is a major distraction while other characters and a goofy subplot involving a doctor and another patient are messed around with. The score, composed mostly of piano pieces, is fantastic.

Acting is very good. Sarah Michelle Gellar owns the film and effectively gives us a range of emotions from anger to sadness to lifelessness to flat-out rage. She’s the best part of the film and rightfully so. Jonathan Tucker spends most of the film as a mute, which gives him the opportunity to effectively act with his eyes and body language. Erika Christensen is fantastic as the bug-eyed looney, and David Thewlis and Melissa Leo are their usual brilliant selves.

The finale involves a major twist which turns the entire film around, and is almost good enough to forgive the sins Young has committed. Almost. From a technical standpoint, VERONIKA is nearly perfect, and it’s only a misunderstanding of the material which holds it back. Worth a look as a curiosity piece.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Best & Worst Films of 2014, Part 2

The Year in film 2014 is being often referred to as an “off-year”, thanks to the absence of heavyweights such as Spielberg, Scorsese, O’Russell, Malick, Cuaron, Lee, and the Coens…along with the underperformance of highly anticipated films such as INTERSTELLAR, FURY, and GODZILLA. This “off-year” label is a little unfair, as this was the year of the all-important character-piece. A good character study makes the person’s story the plot of the film, and 2014 did it well in quantity and quality. 

This Blogger screened over 60 films in 2014, with only ten real stinkers and a great number of triumphs. Outside of Reel Speak’s Top 10 Best of 2014, this Blogger highly recommends BOYHOOD, LOCKE, NOAH, KILL THE MESSENGER, NIGHTCRAWLER, FOXCATCHER, BIG EYES, UNDER THE SKIN, A MOST WANTED MAN, GONE GIRL, and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. 

Now to business…

The mark of any great science-fiction film is the ability to take a ridiculous concept and not just make it believable but essential to the storytelling, and Bong Joon-ho's SNOWPIERCER handles this task with the efficiency of a well-tuned machine. An original story in which a globe-spanning train houses and divides humanity's last survivors, SNOWPIERCER utilizes its surroundings perfectly as a select few lead a revolt. The film is a statement on social divide and survival, worked on many levels, and was the best original sci-fi film of 2014.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s stoner-detective novel INHERENT VICE was handled with the precision of a master craftsman. Anderson’s ability to hone down a script to the basic primal level is on full display along with pulling great performances out of his cast. His long, un-interrupted takes were a challenge to himself, the actors, and the audience…and viewing the film through the eyes of an altered state made for a unique whirlwind of a ride. 

Sometimes the best way to get to know a character is to drop them in the middle of the desert and see what happens. This was the basis for WILD; in which Reese Witherspoon brought to life the true story of a lone woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after her life fell to pieces. Witherspoon’s performance is the most human of the year; making for a believable character without getting overdramatic or too Hollywood. Director Jean-Marc Vallee taps into the human condition perfectly and films a gorgeous and threatening landscape for his character to grow in. 

Making a movie about a well-known person can be tricky for a director and daunting for the actor, but Eddie Redmayne’s performance as renowned physicist Stephen Hawking coupled with director James Marsh’s gentle and elegant direction effectively dug into the souls of humans going up against impossible odds. Redmayne’s co-star and on-screen wife, played by Felicity Jones, made for the best love story of 2014. The movie is composed with complete elegance; making for a beautiful film in style and substance. 

Perhaps the bravest performance of the year came from Michael Keaton in Alejandro Inarritu’s BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE). In BIRDMAN, Keaton plays an on-the-nose version of himself; a former action star who made a splash years back playing a superhero, but never kept the level of fame going once he left the role. Working on many levels, BIRDMAN plays with themes of fame, family, today’s Hollywood, exactly what is art and who gets to say if it is, and most of all…takes a literal stance on a man trying to get away from his past; a past which the world won’t let him forget. BIRDMAN is a technical marvel in its presentation (the entire film has the illusion of one continuous take), and strikes a perfect balance of hilarious comedy and touching drama. In our current world of an overabundance of superhero movies, BIRDMAN is one of the most relevant films of 2014. 

Speaking of superheroes, it would be dismissive to consider Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY as such. With tongue firmly in cheek and embracing the sci-fi B-movie much in the spirit of STAR WARS, GUARDIANS escapes the Earthly bounds of traditional comic-book fare and makes a movie that everyone can enjoy. Full of color and drama and adventure and comedy with some the most entertaining group of characters ever assembled, GUARDIANS reminds us of what it is to have fun at the movie theatre…and there wasn’t a movie in 2014 which had more of it. 

In this Blogger’s long movie-watching career, there has only been a few instances where the audience sat in a stunned dead-silence when the movie ended; SCHINDLERS LIST comes to mind, and to a lesser extent SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Now Clint Eastwood’s impactful AMERICAN SNIPER can be added to that short list. From the dangerous battlefields to the comforts of home, Eastwood explores the effect war has on a man and his family with the gentle touch the topic deserves. Bradley Cooper puts in a transformative performance which elevates him to another level of respect, and most importantly, the true story of a dedicated soldier is revealed to the world. 

Wes Anderson’s newest film, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, is packed full with his trademarks; quirky humor, dry dialogue, ensemble casts, symmetrical framing, and heavy use of color…but what makes it different this time around is that BUDAPEST is also a grand love letter to the golden age of cinema. It carries the sad melancholy concerning all fine things which must one day pass from this world, giving it a gravitas that Anderson has not explored very deeply before. Ralph Fiennes and all of the large cast turn in great performances, making BUDAPEST a place you just want to wrap yourself up in. 

Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE had the thinnest plot of any good film of 2014; just come over and hang out…only the folk we are hanging out with are vampires. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are two vampire lovers from ages past who are just squeaking out a (ahem) living in modern-day Detroit, and Jarmusch gives his actors a magnificent world thick and heavy with atmosphere. The two lovers together ponder their place in the world today, which makes for a the most unique exploration of characters in 2014. This Blogger's personal favorite of 2014.

The most complete film of 2014 is the one that fleshes out one of the most interesting and important persons in history while never falling into the old cliché traps of the standard Hollywood biopic. Director Morten Tyldum’s THE IMITATION GAME explores the life of Alan Turing, who nearly single-handedly ended WWII without firing a shot and how his own country eventually persecuted him for his lifestyle. THE IMITATION GAME runs with a story in which the stakes are very high for the main character and the entire world, and during this time the character of Turing, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, is examined fully through excellent uses of flashbacks. Far from standard fare, the film takes some dramatic twists which brings the flashback back around in full and justifies their place in the story, which makes for a very rounded film. Turing’s life and eventual persecution is a strong hint at goings-on in the world today, making THE IMITATION GAME a very relevant film with many lessons to be learned. Written with care, directed with precision, and acted with deep-digging emotion, THE IMITATION GAME is unmatched in scale and intimacy. Alan Turing, an extraordinary person, gets his proper story told. 

The Best Films of 2014 


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Best & Worst Films of 2014, Part 1

Looking back at the cinematic year of 2014 turned into a sobering task. This was a year where life caught up with the movies; movies that seem small when compared to the many actors who left us in 2014: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, James Garner, Bob Hoskins, Harold Ramis, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Ruby Dee…to name a few. Their loss makes judging and ranking films seem like an insignificant task, but business is business and the show must go on. This first part of Reel Speak’s annual Best & Worst of 2014 begins from bottom up. 

This Blogger screened over 60 films in 2014, and is happy to report that only 10 of these are worthy of being put on the dreaded shitlist. This Blogger was savvy enough to avoid critically drubbed stinkers such as ANNIE, DIVERGENT, LET’S BE COPS, THE LEGEND OF HERCULES, or anything involving Adam Sandler or Tyler Perry. These are the films which should have and could have been a lot better or had the potential to be something good. 

It’s difficult to get on the case of directors Robert Rodriguez and Sir Ridley Scott when their efforts were so earnest, but we’re not giving out A’s for effort. Rodriguez’s long-awaited and long-promised SIN CITY 2 was visually stunning with a great cast and was very much within the spirit of its predecessor and source material, but it was ultimately a big snorefest and had a major continuity break which still has people wondering if the fool thing was supposed to be a prequel or a sequel. In Scott’s case, his Biblical epic EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS was the best-looking film of the year, but was bland and by-the-numbers with actors who didn’t seem to know what they were they for. 

George Clooney’s THE MONUMENTS MEN was one of several WWII based films in 2014 and was packed with an ensemble cast to tell a little-known story in history. That great cast was wasted with the thin and dull material and made little to no impression. 

Director Ivan Reitman, who once gave us the great GHOSTBUSTERS and STRIPES, once again proves that he is a very average director when he doesn’t have Bill Murray or Harold Ramis to bail him out. Reitman’s DRAFT DAY was not only dumbed-down to insulting levels for blockheads to understand the pro-football draft, but it was also unfunny, undramatic, and predictable from 10 miles away. 

Wally Pfister, well-known for his cinematography work, had his directorial debut with the Johnny Depp-led TRANSCENDENCE…and probably should never be given the keys to the kingdom ever again. TRANSCENDENCE tackles the issue of humanism and technology and treats it with the utmost stupidity. 

Director/writer David Ayer has now solidified his reputation as the most overrated guy in Hollywood. His SABOTAGE was not just a mindless-action flick; it was a soup-sandwich of a plot which made no sense and had heavy-handed and clumsy attempts to make interesting characters. Thanks to Ayer, Arnold Schwarzenegger has yet another turkey on his resume since his return to acting. 

Another version of the old FRANKENSTEIN story isn’t all that offensive on principle; after all, the big lugnuts has been recycled countless times in film, TV, cartoons and breakfast cereals. But what is offensive is when your film I, FRANKENSTEIN, lacks any narrative structure and defies every bit of logic. Acting from Aaron Eckhart and potato-head Jai Courtney is beyond laughable and makes it difficult to believe that something like this actually made it into theatres. 

The film which showed the most promise this year was David Dobkin’s THE JUDGE; with an all-star cast (Duvall, Downey Jr., D’Onofrio, Farmiga, Thornton), and a classic story of you-can’t-go-home-again. Unfortunately for all involved, THE JUDGE latches too tightly onto the clichés and never moves past them; angry son, grumpy father, film projector with family movies, old girlfriend…it was so predictable it felt like a late-night TV skit. 

Be warned; this is where it gets nasty. 

There is nothing worse than disingenuous filmmaking, and the two worst films of the year are guiltier of it than any movie this Blogger has ever seen. The first is THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. When Sony Pictures decided to reboot/recast their popular webslinging superhero, it was done with the promise of giving us something new. This was an outright lie as the second film in the new series accomplished the same thing the first one did: nothing. The first film teased a great amount of mystery surrounding the main character, Peter Parker, and did zip to resolve it for two whole movies; basically all teasing with zero payoff. Couple that with cartoonish action and laughable acting from Jamie Foxx, and you’ve got a bad movie. The worst part is the two leads (Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone) were two very good actors surrounded by terrible surroundings. 

The biggest lie of them all was told by Sylvester Stallone’s THE EXPENDABLES 3. Like the first two films before, THE EXPENDABLES 3 was made with the promise that we were to see our favorite action stars from years past share the screen together. A great idea, because who wouldn’t want to see the man who played Indiana Jones share the screen with the guy who played Rocky and the man who played The Terminator? When watching the film, it was clear that this was a big fib. The actors involved were obviously never on the set at the same time, so the film was cut to make it look like they were. This resulted in a very choppy film where the action just cut back-and-forth between close-ups. It was painfully obvious and amateur-level garbage. If that wasn’t bad enough, the movie made the genius decision for our hero to go and recruit a new, younger team…which put the promised action stars out of the movie for what seemed like an eternity, and forced us to spend time with a bunch of no-names which nobody could give a rat’s ass about. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the action scenes were dumb, the acting was shit, the story was a convoluted mess, and the CGI set the industry back 20 years. Nothing about this movie worked; the concept, the approach, the execution, and the end-result was not only the worst movie of 2014, but the worst movie this Blogger has seen in years…maybe ever

The Worst Films of 2014

10. SIN CITY 2 


Part 2 will highlight the best of 2014.