Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Reel Review: ROMA



In the last decade, writer and director Alfonso Cuaròn has established himself as one of the premier filmmakers working today; his outer-space adventure GRAVITY (2013) was an Oscar darling, his CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) is widely considered to be one of the best films of the millennium, and his entry into the HARRY POTTER series, THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004), is one of the best in the wizarding franchise. With his newest film ROMA, he steps away from the wide scope he’s been working with and goes smaller and personal. 
In the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the early 1970’s, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), is a housekeeper for a middle-class family, consisting of four children, parents, and their grandmother. Life is good, until unexpected events turn her world upside-down. 
ROMA does not have much by way of plot, and even by the time the closing credits sneak in, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the plot may have been. The bulk of the film has us spending a lot of time with Cleo during her mundane, everyday tasks of cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the children. For the first hour, not much happens, and ROMA unfolds as if a bunch of hidden cameras were placed in a house to keep an eye on the housekeeper. 
Once we get past that first hour, things change dramatically as Cleo finds herself with an unexpected pregnancy, and an upset household when the father leaves the family for a mistress. These events spider-web into more happenings, including the radical father of Cleo’s baby, the children misbehaving, the mother going into a spiral, and Cleo finding herself in the middle of the 1971 riots known in the history books as the Corpus Christi Massacre. These events have a heavy impact on Cleo and the audience, as the time we spent with her in the early goings now have a payoff. 
Filmed in glorious black-and-white, ROMA looks amazing on the big screen; scenes ranging from the beach and ocean and simple tilework in the house is presented beautifully. This is Cuaròn’s first credit as a cinematographer and he does stunning work. The film is presented simply with very few cuts; there are some incredible long unbroken takes with very specific camera movement and panning. The film moves at a snail’s pace deliberately, as Cuaròn is no hurry to shove information or action in our faces; it takes a lot of patience to take in.  
With the exception of Yalitza Aparicio, the cast is mostly made of non-pro’s who have never acted before, and this adds to a very authentic feel. Aparicio in the meantime is excellent as she goes through many emotions caused by her pregnancy and other dire situations. 
ROMA is a semi-autobiographical take on Cuaròn’s own upbringing in Mexico City, and upon first viewing it’s not hard to say that the director probably gets more out of this film than general audiences would. But it’s a film that tends to sink in, and the way it is presented offers a lot of food for thought. Even though it is light on action, Spanish-speaking and sub-titled, with a hefty 135 minute run-time, those hearty enough to stick with it will definitely be rewarded. ROMA is a departure for Cuaròn as it doesn’t have the grand scale or adventure of his previous films, but by going smaller he also goes deeper, and further cements his status as one of our best directors. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it



Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Reel 40: SUPERMAN

"A friend."



This month marks the 40thanniversary of Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN. 

Here in 2018, superhero movies dominate the box office and take over every movie theatre, while having a new life in pop culture outside of their comic book origins. But before December of 1978, there were none to be found, and the notion of a comic book movie was an idea as far away as the planet Krypton. 

The journey to bring DC Comic’s most popular and heralded character began way back in 1973, when producer Ilya Salkind began the long process of acquiring the rights to the red and blue-caped strongman who was faster than a speeding bullet.  The idea was to film SUPERMAN and a sequel back-to-back, but the first film had to be put together first. By 1974 the red tape was cleared, and the first order of business was to find a leading man. Names such as Muhammad Ali, Al Pacino, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Dustin Hoffman were considered. The task of writing the screenplay would to go Mario Puzo, who was fresh off his success for writing THE GODFATHER and its sequel. 

For the director, Steven Spielberg was considered, but the producers wanted to see how his “fish movie” would succeed first. That fish movie was JAWS, and despite being a massive hit, Spielberg would not helm the man of steel into flight as he immediately committed to different film about aliens, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. By 1975, famed actor Marlon Brando had signed on to play the father of Superman, Jor-El. Shortly after, Gene Hackman took on the role of Lex Luthor, Superman’s arch-enemy. By 1977 sets were being constructed, and the directing job went to Richard Donner, who was coming off his success with the horror film THE OMEN (1976). 

The role of Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent would finally go to Christopher Reeve, who beat out big names from 1970’s cinema such as Sylvester Stallone, Paul Newman, and Burt Reynolds. The rest of the cast was rounded out by Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Valerie Perrine, Marc McClure, Terence Stamp, and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane…Superman’s lifelong love interest. Filming began in 1977 at the famed Pinewood Studios, with location shooting in New York City, Alberta Canada, and New Mexico. The score would be composed by John Williams, who had just won another Oscar for his work on STAR WARS. 

The results were spectacular. With landbreaking special effects which truly made us believe that a man could fly, SUPERMAN wowed audiences and would finish as the second-highest grossing film of 1978 (behind GREASE), and would finish its theatrical run as the sixth-highest earner all-time. It would be nominated for three Oscars, and would win a Special Achievement Academy Award for its special effects. Reeve would win Best Newcomer at the BAFTA’s that year. In 2017 it would be added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. 

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The success of SUPERMAN can be attributed to many things; Donner’s workman-like direction, the perfect casting, the soaring score by Williams, and the great physical performance by Reeve…who transformed before our eyes from dorky Clark Kent to the mighty Superman with no special effects needed. Reeve made the wire-work to make Superman fly function perfectly, and thanks to the pitch-perfect script, embodied Superman’s ideals of truth and justice. Richard Donner’s direction was a great balance of humor, drama, with a whole lot of human heart, and super-sequences such as Superman’s rescuing of Lois from a helicopter crash and saving an airliner, are thrilling. And on top of that, Donner found room to make it a father-son story. John Williams’ score soars as high as the man of steel himself ever did, and today tugs on the heartstrings like no other piece of music can. Forty years after its release, SUPERMAN stands as the grand-daddy of all superhero films. Despite its time-period setting, it still holds up, and still towers over many of the superhero films we get today. It is fun, majestic, true to its character, and most importantly…super. 

“They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way…”










Friday, December 7, 2018

A Reel Review: The AVENGERS - ENDGAME Trailer



The universe stopped today, as Disney and Marvel studios finally unleashed the first look at the grand finale to their ten-year opus. The fourth AVENGERS film, sub-titled ENDGAME, was given a short teaser which recapped the events of the preceding film, INFINITY WAR, while offering a glimpse of hope for victory. Here’s how it landed…

HERE BE SPOILERS! 

When we last left our heroes in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, the mighty Thanos had acquired all of the powerful Infinity Stones, which enabled him to wipe out exactly one-half of the population in the universe with a single snap of the finger. This action left only a few heroes standing, including Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). The Ant-Man was left in the vastness of the quantum realm, while Iron Man /Tony Stark was left stranded on the other side of the galaxy. 

This new teaser does a lot of catch-up for us. Stark is drifting in the big blackness of space, starving and nearly dead, while Cap and Black Widow seem shell-shocked over the happenings of the previous film. Scenes of a defeated Thor and a perplexed Banner are shown, and in an image right out of its comic origins, the mighty Thanos in semi-retirement with his armor used as a scarecrow. 




The trailer has a ton of heart, with Stark and Cap remembering their true loves, and a glimpse of a returning Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who looks like he has been through hell. The trailer is dark and ominous, letting us know that this is the biggest challenge Earth’s mightiest heroes has ever faced. As dark as it is, the very end gives us a chuckle when the Ant-Man pops up, letting us know that no matter what, Marvel still knows how to have fun. 



This was a fine trailer and the perfect way to tease Marvel’s grand finale. It doesn’t give away much, acts as a recap, and the emotion of a dying Stark and a weeping Captain America hits home right away. This was also the reveal of the title of this AVENGERS film; ENDGAME was the chosen title…and it is appropriate as this is a term that was coined by Stark many times over the last ten years. And speaking of Stark/Iron Man, it was quite perfect for this trailer to start off with him, for this run of Marvel movies started off with IRON MAN in the first place. Perfect in every way. You can watch it HERE

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AVENGERS: ENDGAME arrives on Earth on April 26, 2019. 









Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2018 - Episode XII



This December is shaping up to be the most unique month of 2018 and looks to send out the year on a high note. The final month of the year usually brings us an avalanche of awards hopefuls and contenders, and while we do have that coming…this time we’re also treated to fan-favorites and blockbuster-designed action films. This month also brings special returns to the big screen; Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST for its 25thanniversary, and SUPERMAN for its 40th
Here now is the final preview for 2018…
ROMA – Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuaron (GRAVITY), returns with this drama based on his own upbringing in Mexico City. 
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – Margot Robbie (I, TONYA), plays Queen Elizabeth I, and Saoirse Ronan (LADY BIRD), plays the title character in this historical drama centered around the 1569 English conflict. David Tennant and Guy Pearce (THE KING’S SPEECH), co-star. 
VOX LUX – In this drama, a pop-star (Natalie Portman), struggles to maintain her career through scandals and violence while raising her daughter. Jude Law co-stars. 
ONCE UPON A DEADPOOL – A re-edit of this year’s DEADPOOL 2, which brings it from an R rating to PG-13 and reset during Christmastime. 
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE – This animated Marvel film brings the legacy of Spider-man to the big screen. 
MORTAL ENGINES – Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS), produces this adaptation of the book, in which entire cities have been mounted on wheels and prey on each other. 
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT – Controversial director Lars von Trier (NYMPHOMANIAC, ANTICHRIST), directs this psychological horror film following a serial killer, played by Matt Dillon. 
THE MULE – Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this true-story drama about a WWII veteran in his 80’s who becomes a drug-runner. It co-stars Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Pena, Dianne Wiest, and Andy Garcia. 
MARY POPPINS RETURNS – In a casting move that is practically perfect, Emily Blunt takes on the role of the beloved Mary Poppins in this direct sequel to the 1964 Disney classic. It co-stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Meryl Streep, and Colin Firth. It is directed by Oscar winning director Rob Marshall (CHICAGO). 
AQUAMAN – The big-screen solo-debut of one of DC Comics’ legacy characters, which has had a supporting role in JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), and a cameo in DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016). Jason Momoa reprises the role, and he is joined by Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman. It is directed by James Wan (SAW, THE CONJURING). 
BUMBLEBEE – In this loose prequel to the TRANSFORMERS series, the popular transforming alien-robot Bumblebee arrives to Earth and is taken in by a teenage girl. It stars Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT). 
WELCOME TO MARWEN – Steve Carell plays the victim of a violent assault who constructs a miniature WWII-era village to help himself cope. It is directed by Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP). 
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK – Barry Jenkins (MOONLIGHT), directs this romantic drama about a woman who seeks to clear the name of her wrongly accused husband. 
HOLMES & WATSON – Will Ferrell is Sherlock Holmes and John C. Reilly is Dr. Watson in this parody of the classic detective duo. 
ON THE BASIS OF SEX – Felicity Jones (ROGUE ONE), plays Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this story about her early life. It co-stars Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, and Kathy Bates. 
VICE – Christian Bale (THE DARK KNIGHT), plays Vice-President Don Cheney, and Sam Rockwell plays President George W. Bush in this comedy-drama. Adam McKay (THE BIG SHORT), directs. 
STAN & OLLIE – Based on the lives of the classic comedy act Laurel and Hardy, with John C. Reilly (STEP BROTHERS), and Steve Coogan (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM) in the title roles. 
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Next month, the first movie preview for 2019. 



Monday, December 3, 2018

A Reel Review: GREEN BOOK



In the last 20 years, the directing and writing duo of the Farrelly brothers (Peter and Bobby), have brought us some of the most well-received films in the comedy genre, such as DUMB AND DUMBER (1994), KINGPIN (1996), and FEVER PITCH (2005). This year, Peter ventures out on his own in new territory; directing and co-writing a true story drama centered around two unlikely companions. 
In the 1960’s, famed African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), hires Italian-American bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), to be his driver and bodyguard on a musical tour of the deep south.
Co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the real-life son of Tony, GREEN BOOK embraces the old road-trip and odd-couple genre and sends it down the highway with two well-developed characters who could not be further apart. Tony is a blue-collar guy who is rough around the edges and solves conflicts with his fists, while sporting an enormous appetite and is surrounded by family. Don in the meantime is a lean gentleman, who has no family and uses his intellect and education to solve problems. The contrast between these two men is wide, but as they drive through the Jim Crow-era of the South and encounter racism at its worst, they find common ground. 
The bulk of GREEN BOOK unspools with Tony and Don in the car, interrupted by Don’s wonderful performances and encounters with segregation laws, with the latter storylines acting as an eye-opener. Don is embraced as a wonderful performer among rich white people, but still isn’t allowed to eat with them or use their toilets. Tony in the meantime has his own prejudices to put aside, and his turn to see humanity over all else is long, but natural. 
Peter Farrelly keeps the pacing tight and humor well-timed. The laughs are huge but never ridiculous, and the dramatic scenes are very well directed. The music of the time really gives the film a kick, and it is a joy to watch from head to tail. 
Performances are wonderful. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are electric together, and each get major moments to shine. Linda Cardellini plays Tony’s wife and turns in one of her best roles. 
If GREEN BOOK has any flaw, there is one character trait/problem that Don has which is not given any reason for existing, and it doesn’t seem to have a solution by movie’s end. But it’s a minor gripe in what is a charming, fun, and eye-opening film. Peter Farrelly has proven that he has some serious chops away from the comedy genre. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it




Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A Reel Review: RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET



WRECK-IT RALPH, the computer-animated surprise hit of 2012, was a film that fed a lot of quarters into our sense of nostalgia. Based on original and classic video game characters, the film took us through the inner workings of video games and the arcades that house them and brought back many memories of cabinet-sized games in simple, 16-bit glory. The sequel, RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET, doesn’t bother with nostalgia at all, and instead plows head-first into the future. 

Six years after the events of the first film, video game characters Ralph (John C. Reilly), and his best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), leave the friendly confines of their games and arcade for the world wide web…in search of a replacement part for Vanellope’s broken game which is now on the verge of being scrapped. 

Where the first RALPH film was a story about clinging to the past, the sequel literally leaves that behind and focuses on the here and now. Ralph is now very happy and content with his life, while his best buddy in the whole wide world Vanellope is now bored with her game and is ready for a new challenge. The friendship between the two is developed strongly and drives the film. Ralph, who is still the lovable dumbass, will do anything for his friend even to disastrous consequences, and the two different goals for the characters becomes a challenge to their friendship. 

Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston see that friendship as the center of the film, and they are right to do so. The challenges Ralph and Vanellope face threaten their relationship and very existence, and they have to overcome obstacles that any one of us have faced out here in the real world. It gives this animated fantasy a lot of heart and it really works. 

Where the film really shines is the creative power in showing us the inner workings of the internet. Familiar terms and places such as email, pop-ups, pop-up blockers, trolls, eBay, Instagram, Twitter, and social media are all given physical representations. Even the human users on the other side are given a presence, and the results are mind-boggling. There are also several fan-favorite cameos scattered throughout the film, including a visual assault when the duo visits the Disney website. 

John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman seem to be having a blast with their parts, and both fit their characters so very well. Other parts filled in by Taraji P. Henson, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Alan Tudyk, and a few other surprises are handled very well. The show is stolen by Gal Gadot, who appears as a tough racer in a high-stakes bloodbath of a racing game. 

The last half-hour goes a little off the rails, even to the point of being ridiculous, but by movie’s end all can be forgiven as it goes for a fitting and bittersweet wrap-up. The first WRECK-IT RALPH had lessons for us all to learn in a familiar setting, and the sequel takes us to new places with even more to learn. It’s fun, heartwarming, and worth every quarter. 

BOTTOM LINE: See it 




Monday, November 26, 2018

A Reel Review: CREED II



In 1985, the third sequel in the ROCKY franchise capitalized on the United States vs. the Soviet Union thing that the 1980’s were famous for. Very much a product of its time with its flag-waving and MTV rock videos, the film sent Rocky Balboa to Russia to fight the pride of the Soviets, who had just killed the great Apollo Creed in the ring. The events of ROCKY IV changed the character of Rocky forever, and still have an impact 30 years later in the sequel to the ROCKY spinoff series, CREED. 
Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo, is challenged by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who had killed Apollo in the ring 30 years prior. Creed takes on the match, despite the reservations by his trainer and mentor, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). 
One of the more fascinating elements of the CREED films is playing catchup with our characters. Rocky is still a grieving widow; still mourning the loss of his wife Adrian, estranged from his son (again), and living a life of solitude now that all of his friends have passed on. Creed is on the rise in his boxing career and is taking steps to build a family with his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Ivan Drago in the meantime, had his life destroyed after his loss to Rocky 30 years ago; having lost his wife, career, and country…and is using his son as a way to get revenge and perhaps get their family back together. 
While it is a joy to drop in on these characters and see how they’re doing, these are also important steps to provide motivations for all characters. Rocky just wants to live what’s left of his life in peace, the Dragos want their family and respect back, and Creed still can’t seem to step out of his father’s shadow. Once these motivations are set, things are fine…but the script never seems to dig any deeper than that. Creed himself comes off as a smug ass for most of the film, and even by the time the credits roll, we’re not sure if he learned anything or not. 
Steven Caple Jr., who is directing only his second feature film, keeps the plotting very tight…in fact a little too tight as the film is insanely predictable. Every fight (save for the last one), character beat, and action can be seen from miles away, and there are literally no surprises to be had. The fights are wonderfully staged, it hangs its hat on the ROCKY legacy/nostalgia, and it delivers on making us feel comfortable more than shocked or surprised. With that, the film feels very small. But the good news is for the first time in this 40 year-old film series, the opponent isn’t just a bad guy; Victor Drago has good reasons to fight that nearly make us want to see him win and succeed. 
Michael B. Jordan in his second round as the son of Apollo is good in the role, even though his character still doesn’t seem to have learned anything from his journey in the first film. But his physical work is incredibly impressive. Sly Stallone slips back into Rocky Balboa with ease, and a dramatic showdown he has with Dolph Lundgren is wonderfully played by both men. Florian Munteanu is a monster in the ring with a massive screen presence, despite only delivering a few lines in Russian. Tessa Thompson is very good as always, even though her character only exists to straighten Creed out every now and again. CREED II also has a few good cameos from past characters which work very well. 
Despite how safe and predictable CREED II plays it, the film still functions just fine on its own, and the conclusion of the final boxing match finally gives us something new in the ROCKY series. It gives us a satisfying wrap for several characters at once, and as good as the scene is between Rocky and Drago, it feels like we get cheated out of just one more to really close things out. But overall CREED II carries on the tradition and story of ROCKY quite well and gives long-time fans of the Italian Stallion what they are looking for. CREED II isn’t a knockout, but lands enough punches to win.  
BOTTOM LINE: See it 



Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Reel Review: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS


One of the rarest styles of movies nowadays is the anthology;which is a movie consisting of several different stories, or short films…often tied together by a common theme or premise. The newest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, embraces that style with the perfect setting: the Old West. 
The Old West has always been, and will continue to be a source of great storytelling; after all, it was in the West where those campfire stories became famous. BUSTER SCRUGGS, which was originally intended to be a series, is based on short stories written by the Coens over a period of 20 to 25 years, with differing moods and subjects, and embraces the more famous and romantic elements of the Western. There are six chapters, and here’s how they rode down the trail…
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), is a cheerful singing cowboy who speaks to the audience and travels the plains in search of a song and a good time, while showing off his impressing gunfighting skills…and meets his match in a dusty town. This opening sequence is a real charmer; with Nelson displaying some great singing chops and comedic timing. The editing and fighting is very sharp, and the ending is hilarious. 
Near Algodones
A young cowboy (James Franco), finds himself at the end of a noose after a failed bank robbery. This chapter is short and sweet, and has an impressive battle with an Indian war-party. It’s a fun ride with a tragic, yet sweet ending. 
Meal Ticket
An aging impresario (Liam Neeson), and his quadruple-amputee performance artist (Harry Melling), travel from town to town where the artist recites classics from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s a hard life for both of them for the sake of their art, and when Neeson’s character finds a better way to make a living, he’s left with a hard choice to make; sacrifice the art for coin. It’s an interesting, and sneaky statement on modern Hollywood. 
All Gold Canyon
A grizzled prospector (Tom Waits), arrives in a pristine canyon in search of gold. This one is 99.9% a one-man show by Waits, who goes through the tedious, boring, and backbreaking task of digging and shifting for gold specks. Waits is tremendous, and a great twist towards the end makes this chapter perhaps the best of the lot. 
The Gal who got Rattled
A young woman (Zoe Kazan), is on a wagon train to Oregon when her brother (Jefferson Mays), passes away and leaves her future uncertain, only to start a courtship with the wagon train’s lead cowboy (Bill Heck). This chapter is a dialogue-heavy story, with characters just conversing their way down the endless trail. It does have a shock of an ending though, inspired by any one of the best Greek tragedies. 
The Mortal Remains
Five people (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross), are in a mysterious carriage ride with a body on the roof. This chapter is also dialogue heavy with not much happening, and the identity of two of the passengers makes one wonder if the five souls on board are actually just…souls on their way to a final destination. The best part of this chapter is the lighting, which beautifully changes from sunset to darkness as the ride goes on. The weakest of all the chapters although it is wonderfully acted. 
Overall, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS feels like the Coens just having fun with the Old West genre; heavily inspired by the old TV serials that they grew up with and found their first inspirations from. It’s a passion project and it shows, and that’s not a bad thing. The six chapters don’t have much in common with no recurring characters or places, and the one theme that is common is hard to catch; the ending feels like it could have used some sort of stronger wraparound or bookend. It’s still very much worth a watch, as it is very well crafted and acted, and the score by Carter Burwell (who also scored the Western TRUE GRIT for the Coens), is excellent. The Old West hasn’t been this much fun in a long time. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it











Monday, November 19, 2018

A Reel Review: WIDOWS



In the last seven years, writer and director Steve McQueen has established himself as one of our premier filmmakers; from his sexually-charged thinker SHAME in 2011, to his Oscar-winning historical epic 12 YEARS A SLAVE in 2013. Each of those films had simple concepts which he was able to add layer after layer of story and character, and his first voyage into a genre gives him the opportunity to do it again. 
A crew of high-profile criminals (Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss), are killed in a botched robbery, leaving their widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon), in debt to a corrupt politician (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for office against an upcoming political star (Colin Farrell). With little money and little choice, the widows decide to finish their husbands last planned robbery (worth $5 million). 
Based on the 1983 ITV series of the same name, and co-written by Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girlfame), WIDOWS right away has the potential to fall into the old template that any heist-film has; get the crew together, make plans, overcome obstacles, get along with each other, execute the job. Never one to follow any trend, McQueen puts together a film that is more concerned with the past history of the widows and their husbands, the political corruption that is entangled with their husbands’ robberies, street violence, love and loss, and family drama. There are many storylines going on and McQueen weaves them in and out of each other brilliantly, all coming together in an explosive end. 
Characters are dug into with unexpected flashbacks; each of the widows have histories of abuse, lies, and tragedy, and it makes their current predicament of paying back the debt all the more desperate. The old elements of the heist are still there, but they mercifully fall into the background and don’t take up the bulk of the film. For good measure a minor mystery is thrown in; as the widows try to discover the secrets behind the last planned heist. 
When the heist does start, McQueen films it with the expert touch of a veteran action director. The tension-building is excellent, and it has a gritty, real-world feel that never escapes the realm of believability. Pacing is brisk, the humor subtle, and a few well-timed twists are a lock to take away some breaths. The film looks gorgeous as McQueen fills his frames with an outstanding eye. Hans Zimmer’s score is excellent. 
Acting is absolutely tremendous. Viola Davis carries most of the film as her character is the most wounded and has the most to lose, and an emotional-outburst scene with Liam Neeson is simply stunning. As good as Davis and Neeson are, there are a lot of show-stealers here; Elizabeth Debicki as one of the widows shows a lot, Colin Farrell has a lot of family drama to deal with…which involves his power-hungry and controlling father (wonderfully played by Robert Duvall), and Daniel Kaluuya, as the street-thug, right-hand-man of one side of the election, turns in a surprising role as the villain. Cynthia Ervio pops in as the widows’ getaway driver and is very good. 
The third act and finale is a super-sized mix of surprises and tragedy, and then brilliantly comes back down to wrap up the characters and set their courses for their future. By the time credits roll there is a lot to take in, think about, and wonder if we can believe what we just saw. Steve McQueen has fashioned a masterpiece again; another thinker of a film with layers of story and character. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it





Friday, November 16, 2018

A Reel Review: FANTASTIC BEASTS - THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD




When famed author J.K. Rowling wrapped up the cinematic version of her beloved HARRY POTTER series, she left us with a fantastic, and fascinating world of wizards, witches, wands, and spells to explore. The mythology she created was thick and full of mystery, and the first spinoff series, FANTASTIC BEASTS, seeks to explore it all and expand it. The first film set the stage and opened the door just a crack, and the second film, THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD, opens it just a bit more…

The evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), has escaped custody and is on a mission to build an army, and Professor Dumbledore (Jude Law), recruits magical creature caretaker Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), to stop him.

THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD, written by series creator Rowling and directed by David Yates, is a plot-heavy film that adds layer upon layer onto the wizarding world that we thought we knew so well. New territories are explored (like the overseeing Ministries of Magic in France), new spells are spun (including a CSI-like, crime-scene rebuilder), and yes, many new fantastic beasts are introduced (including a reprisal of the mischievous, shiny-thing seeking Nifflers). While all this is going on in an attempt to find and stop Grindelwald (a task Newt wants no parts of), character after character gets piled onto the growing heap. Newt is having issues with his brother Callum (Theseus Scamander), who is about to marry Newt’s old crush Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). Meanwhile, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), is on hand to find Grindelwald, but is mad at Newt because of a misunderstood love triangle. Credence (Ezra Miller), is back and on a quest to understand his power and to discover his background, while Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudoi), is having a romantic crisis with her love Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).

If it sounds complicated, it is. Throughout the movie a magical map would come in handy. With so much of that going on, Grindelwald seems to fade into the background, and it’s almost a relief when we check back in on him. Oddly enough we don’t see Grindelwald commit any crimes (despite what the title of the movie says), and Newt just seems ill-equipped to handle the task of stopping the world's most evil wizard. 

But if HARRY POTTER fans want magic, then this film delivers. The spells, creatures, and magical surroundings are fantastic to see, and there is a great comfort in being back in this beloved world. Hogwarts returns in all of its glory and does make the heart soar, and familiar characters from the old series pop in for good measure. Yates, who has now directed seven films in this series, still only seems to get it right half the time. Some of his action sequences rely on way too much shaky-cam and it’s impossible to see what’s going on, and pacing is an issue; there are many starts and stops and one too many times where everything stops dead for a character to give their life story. The score by James Newton Howard is excellent.

Acting is also excellent. Eddie Redmayne’s character of shyness and awkwardness is a joy to see. Jude Law seems a far cry from the long-white-bearded version of Dumbledore we knew and loved, but we can see the early steps. Johnny Depp as the Big Bad looks great, sounds great, but feels shortchanged by the script which only brings him in now and again. Katherine Waterston seems stuck in low gear, while Dan Fogler once again is a delight.

The finale, in which Newt doesn’t do very much of anything, doesn’t wrap up half of the many plot-points…which are punted down the road for the next film, making this installment an obvious, stage-setting middle chapter. There are a few good twists and reveals made, including one that will drive POTTER fans up a whomping tree in either rage or confusion. How we look at THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD in the future may depend on the payoff when the next movie arrives, but for now, it is a bumpy, overstuffed film with many bright lights and intrigue. If only that door was opened a little less. 

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it




Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Reel Review: OUTLAW KING



In 1995, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic BRAVEHEART brought the First War of Scottish Independence to the big screen; told through the eyes of famed Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. At the end of that film, Wallace’s fight was picked up by the heir to the unrecognized Scottish throne, Robert the Bruce, who takes center-stage in David Mackenzie’s OUTLAW KING; making his film an un-official sequel to BRAVEHEART. 
After the death of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), recalls his surrender to Edward I, the King of England (Stephen Dillane), and accepts the Scottish crown. Declared an outlaw, Robert goes into hiding with his wife Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), and his loyal followers which includes vengeful warrior James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). 
It is a difficult, and dark time for Robert and Scotland. After breaking the peace treaty and declared a criminal, Robert is not only faced with the task of winning Scotland’s freedom, but staying alive while trying to raise an army. Most of the film’s time is spent with Robert trying to scrounge up enough fighting men, which is a difficult task…as most of Scotland wonders how Robert can succeed where the great and revered William Wallace failed. In-between negotiations with clan leaders, Robert must also survive assaults by the King’s Army, which threaten what little resources he has along with the safety of his family. 
OUTLAW KING seems like it would be prime material for a character-driven piece, but the film is instead driven by plot. Robert himself is but a player in the whole thing, and whatever drives him internally is never explored. Where Gibson gave his William Wallace a lost love to keep him going, Mackenzie doesn’t give his Robert much of anything to go on. This decision, which perhaps was done to avoid the BRAVEHEART comparisons, leaves OUTLAW KING without much of a heart. They’re fighting for their freedom, we’re told…but it falls short of letting us know what’s so vital other than the achievement of proclaiming that they’re free. 
Where OUTLAW KING comes up short in humanity, it excels on the battlefield. The battles, skirmishes, and assassinations are very well directed with glorious bloodshed and stunning camera work. The entire cast seems to have done a lot of prep work in swordfighting and it shows. Mackenzie puts together some great sequences on a grand canvas meant for the big screen, and the opening sequence, a nine-minute unbroken tracking shot…is outstanding. 
Acting is equally outstanding. Chris Pine holds his Scottish accent and puts in a lot of physical work. Florence Pugh is as beautiful as she in talented and nearly steals the show. But where the show is stolen is with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who with his shaggy hair and shaggier beard is unrecognizable and has some breathtaking scenes as he swings his mighty sword lopping off the heads of his enemies. A leap forward for this young actor. 
When OUTLAW KING had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it had a run time of 137 minutes; 20 of which were cut for its general release. This is worth mentioning because it does show in the end, as the film stops abruptly just after the climactic battle (the famed Battle of Loudoun Hill, which the entire film leads up to), and we’re left with on-screen titles to wrap up important loose ends. It’s an annoyance, not a deal-breaker, but it does make the film seem smaller than it wants to be. OUTLAW KING is still worth its crown, despite a few kinks in the armor. 
BOTTOM LINE: See it





Monday, November 12, 2018

Stan Lee 1922-2018



Stan Lee; comic-book writer and cultural icon, has passed away at 95. 

As the founder of Marvel, Lee was already a legend in the superhero world when he began to make his mark in cinema with his now famous cameos, and was listed as an executive producer for Marvel films, beginning with the 1990 direct-to-video CAPTAIN AMERICA. His short on-screen appearances, which were often comedic and self-aware as they referenced his involvement with the characters creation, were always looked forward to and became large enough that they became a talking-point of nearly every Marvel film. 

Born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City in 1922, Lee, along with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, co-created fictional superheroes that would become permanent pillars in our culture; Spider-Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Black Panther, and the X-Men. With co-writer Larry Lieber, he had a hand in creating Ant-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and the Avengers. He led the expansion of Marvel comics into a new age; making the leap from dusty shelves to packed movie theatres, TV screens, and video games. 

He was induced into the comic book industry’s Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1995. He received a National Medal of Arts in 2008. 

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In the past decade, it is without question that Marvel Studios has dominated cinema; at the box office, with critics, and with fans. There have been many debates as to why they have had such unprecedented success, and the answer lies in Lee’s characters, which were built from the classic archetypes that the best stories have featured over thousands of years. His characters were mighty, yet human…and Lee found ways to make even the greatest heroes have the qualities that us mortals could connect to. Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor were legends in the comic book pages, and they were built well enough that they translated perfectly to the big screen; so perfectly that they now have a second life in our culture. Stan Lee was the man who made heroes real for us, and that is a legacy that can never be matched. 


Friday, November 9, 2018

A Reel Review: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB




The character of Lisbeth Sandler has had a complicated history on the big screen. The chain-smoking, bisexual tattooed super-hacker got her start in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling  DRAGON TATTOO trilogy of crime novels, which were adapted for the screen in 2009 in Swedish-language versions. The character then got an American treatment in 2011, which covered the first book. Here in 2018, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB continues her story, based on the fourth novel, which was the first not written by character-creator Larsson. 

Lisbeth (Claire Foy), is spending her time as a superhero-like avenging angel; getting revenge on abusive men by hacking their bank accounts and liberating their abused wives and children. She is hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a former employee of the NSA to steal back his program which is capable of accessing all of the world’s nuclear codes. After a series of unfortunate events, Lisbeth is left on the run from the mysterious Spider organization who is also in pursuit of the program. 

Despite the new cast and director, SPIDER’S WEB serves as a loose sequel to the 2011 film, but thanks to a prologue which shows Lisbeth’s upbringing and establishes her hatred of abusing fathers and husbands, the film stands firmly on its own and not much homework is required going in. After the prologue, director Fede Alvarez sets up what looks like a clever heist film coupled with exciting shootouts, escapes, and chases across the country. The script however is overcomplicated with parties switching allegiances and that world-wide, all-encompassing nuclear launch program which seems like a dumb idea in the first place. There’s a lot of dullness going on, and despite the threat of the world being wiped out by nuclear war (again), the stakes can’t help but to be met with a shrug. 

Dumbness is the operative word here. To beef things up, Lisbeth is faced with her past often. Too often as every two minutes something pops up to remind her of her past. It’s way too on-the-nose way too often, and it happens so much the film becomes intolerably predictable. Action scenes are loaded with stupidity; characters get away with stuff by way of happy accidents and dumb luck. What is meant to be taken as cerebral comes off as silly and lazy. Lisbeth conveniently has safe-houses all over the country; every time she gets into trouble and loses everything she owns, she just goes to one of her hideouts and gets re-stocked. It’s another thing that happens too often and lessens the stakes for the character. 

Lisbeth the character is played cold and distant by Claire Foy. Although Foy does a fine job with the accent and does a fair amount of physical work, this version of Lisbeth is just boring. The rest of the cast are pure throwaways; fine actors all around but make no impression whatsoever. 

The third act and finale sums up the entirety of the film, as it again relies on a lot of dumb shit and repeats actions from the prologue; in fact, it becomes clear that the entire film is a repeat of that goddamn opening sequence. It’s hard to call this a disappointment because the old nuclear bomb plot could have come out of any spy novel or film in the last 60 years, so what we have here is a lot of ho-hum, who-cares, so-what, and no-matter. Spider’s web? More like Spider’s shit. 

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it 




Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Reel Opinion: The Top 10 Best Biopics

bi·o·pic
/ˈbīōˌpik
noun
A Biographical Movie 




The first biographical film, or biopic, arrived way back in 1906. It was quaintly called THE STORY OF THE NED KELLY GANG, and told the life story of outlaw Ned Kelly. Since then, the biopic has been a pillar of Hollywood, and rightfully so. After all, the personal story of a real person who had achieved greatness can be the best source of inspiration and storytelling.

The recent release of the so-so BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY has sparked discussion of the best biopics that have been made, which leads us to Reel Speak’s very first Top 10 Biopics. To qualify, a film must have a focus on an individual, but not necessarily tell that person’s life story from birth to grave…because a person's life can have one single chapter that becomes the most defining. 

Now let’s get this story started…

10. AMADEUS (1984)



This Best Picture winner from 1984, which tells the story of famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is unrightfully overlooked when the discussion moves to the great films of the last 50 years. It was nominated for 53 awards and winning 40, including eight Oscars, and as of 2017 it is still the most recent film to have more than one nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. 

9. ED WOOD (1994)



The best film from strange and unusual director Tim Burton, which portrayed the life of famed director Ed Wood and his efforts to make what is considered to be the worst movie ever made. A film that serves as a love letter to classic Hollywood, and explores the old question of what is art and who gets to say if it is. It is inspiring to any one person who has been told that their creativity wasn’t good enough. 

8. WALK THE LINE (2005)



Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the legendary Johnny Cash elevated him in the eyes of the world as one of our finest and committed actors, and his co-star Reese Witherspoon, playing Johnny’s wife June Carter Cash, was equally praised. An actor’s paradise, WALK THE LINE was a toe-tapper of a film with a lot of heart. 

7. RAGING BULL (1980)



A pair of Martin Scorsese classics enter the list, starting with his take on the life and times of boxer Jake LaMotta, played by Robert DeNiro. This brutal and near-savage film is hard to watch in places, as it should be, and earned DeNiro his second Oscar. 

6. THE AVIATOR (2004)



The only reason Scorsese’s film about famed aviator and filmmaker Howard Hughes ranks over RAGING BULL is that it’s easier to watch. The performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugues and the great Cate Blanchett as the great(er) Katherine Hepburn were incredible, and Scorsese’s love for the good ol’ days of Hollywood and entertainment are on full display. It’s a celebration of Hughes more than an examination, and that’s OK.

5. THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978)



The movie that could be considered the one that started the modern biopic, most especially in the music business. Gary Busey’s role as the famed musician Buddy Holly earned him an Oscar nomination, and today the film serves as the template for life stories on the big screen. 

4. THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)



One of the most obscure moments in history was elegantly brought to the screen by director Tom Hooper. The story of King George VI and his stuttering problems showed how a personal story can have wide implications for others; reaching as far as a nation or the entire world. This Best Picture winner featured tremendous acting from Colin Firth, Geoffery Rush, Guy Pearce, and Helena Bonham Carter. 

3. PATTON (1970)



This epic war drama, which told the story of General “ol blood and guts” Patton and his tireless efforts to win WWII all on his own, featured an iconic performance from George C. Scott, and is the one role that he is the most remembered for. A winner of seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Scott. 

2. GANDHI (1982)



Richard Attenborough’s biography of the life of Gandhi, the leader of India’s peaceful movement against the United Kingdom, was not only a Best Picture winner, but was also the big-screen debuts of Sir Ben Kingsley and Daniel Day-Lewis; a claim that not many films can boast. Epic but personal, GANDHI is one of those exquisite films that should be required viewing for history and film classes. 

1. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)



One of the rare cases where the film nearly eclipses the man. Often regarded as one of, if not the greatest film of all time, David Lean’s Best Picture winner about the life of T.E. Lawrence made legends out of everyone involved. It cemented Lean’s reputation as a filmmaker, and Peter O’Toole’s status as one of the all-time greats. It is epic and grand in its scope, but never loses sight of the man it is about. If the best biopics are the ones that inspire, then LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the one that stands the tallest; showing us how to be more than what we are. 

REEL SPEAK'S TOP 10 BIOPICS

  1. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
  2. GANDHI
  3. PATTON
  4. THE KING'S SPEECH
  5. THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY
  6. THE AVIATOR
  7. RAGING BULL
  8. WALK THE LINE
  9. ED WOOD
  10. AMADEUS