Review: “The Witch”

If it wasn’t clear by now, I’m a pick-your-moments kind of guy.  If I made a 10 Commandments of Storytelling, Thou Shall Pace Thyself would be very near the top.  It’s a commandment that Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” breaks, though there’s certainly escalation.  The final 15 minutes or so are a wild and grisly ride.  And yet…I couldn’t help but feel tired and rundown by the film.

In 1630s New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from a Puritan Christian community.  They take up residence on the edge of some very spooky woods.  Will characters in horror movies never learn!?

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While the farmer’s eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is watching his infant son, the boy goes missing.  We see that he was taken by a witch and mashed into jelly.  (I wish I were joking — that’s an image that won’t leave my head anytime soon.)  After the boy’s disappearance, the fabric of the family comes undone.

There are some interesting storytelling choices here.  The film boats some tricky language for any actor, especially young ones.  But the cast handles it very well.  Fans of “Game of Thrones” will recognize Kate Dickie as William’s wife, Katherine.  Like on the HBO show, she plays another religious zealot.  In addition to Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, there are three other children: Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and a pair of rambunctious — that’s a polite word — twins played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson.

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For the majority of the film, it feels like everyone is shouting and hissing through bared teeth.  Not without reason, but it all gets a little monotonous.  The film drains its emotional stores long before it’s over.

Alfred Hitchcock defined suspense as the audience having information that characters do not.  His example involved a bomb under a table.  We the audience know it’s there, but the characters having a conversation at that table do not.  I’ll come back to Hitch in a moment.  As Devin Faraci pointed out, a lot of witch stories are structured as mysteries.  Is there or isn’t there?  I’m thinking of “Rosemary’s Baby,” one of my personal favorites.  But here, Eggers shows us that there is in fact a bomb in the woods.  And all the family’s squabbling about God’s will and what it all means is distressing in the best sense, because they’ve got much bigger problems.

“The Witch” is not constructed like most horror movies.  Few and far between are the jumps scares, and they usually involve something pretty ordinary — an ax going through a block of wood.  (So much wood chopping!)  Still, the atmosphere is thick and Eggers rings unease out of the ordinary like a goat shifting its gaze.  The goat, by the way, is Black Phillip, and he’s the best.

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One of my favorite sequences involves young Caleb in the woods.  He comes across a cabin…and its occupant.  There’s a great use of subjective camera — we slowly track into this mysterious woman as she stares right into the camera’s lens.  I literally shuffled back into my seat.

And then we come to that bloody climax.  What follows is a series of decisions that read like someone bolding, italicizing, underlining and then circling a phrase to make sure that we really, really get the point.  Additionally, the film travels in stock witch imagery which is never more true than the final moments.  It descends into camp for a film that has otherwise had a deficit of it.  (A deficit in camp…can a film have that?)

None of this makes “The Witch” a bad film or even mediocre.  It’s just not a great one.

Have you seen “The Witch?”  What did you think?  Comment below!

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Lists: Top 10 Films of 2015

Hope everyone’s 2016 is off to a great start.  Of all the films I wanted to see before compiling my top 10, there are two I just haven’t caught up with — sorry “45 Years” and “The Look of Silence.” But January’s nearing its end, so here we go!

Note: I haven’t labeled this my favorite or best films of the year.  That’s a deliberate choice, because I don’t really distinguish between the two.  I like the Filmspotting podcast approach – Imagine all but 10 movies from 2015 are going to be wiped from the face of the Earth.  Which 10 would you save?

Now without further ado…

10.) “What We Do In the Shadows”

There aren’t typically comedies in my top 10s, because, frankly, they don’t often tickle my fancy.  But “What We Do In the Shadows” is the funniest film of the year and probably in years.  It’s a mockumentary (think: “This is Spinal Tap”) from Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame.  He’s joined by co-writer and co-director Taika Waititi.  Here a documentary crew follows a group of flatmates that happen to be vampires.  Sure they might be bloodsuckers, but they’re just like you and me.  Trouble getting up in the morning…erh at night.  Roomies not pulling their weight.  Baggage with the ex.  You know, the usual.

9.) “Steve Jobs”

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“Crackling” is a cliché when it comes to describing good writing, but damn it, that’s the best word for Aaron Sorkin’s work on “Steve Jobs.”  His knack for verbal ping pong is as strong as ever.  Sorkin and director Danny Boyle retool conventions of the biopic, and we’re all the better for it.  No standard cradle to the grave narrative here.  The film is structured around the launch of three Apple products.  Similar to Sorkin’s “The Social Network,” he depicts this tech giant as an asshole, but a passionate and creative asshole.  It’s a refreshing warts-and-all approach.  Michael Fassbender is great as Steve, but Kate Winslet steals the movie as his assistant.

8.) “Carol”

From “crackling” to “classy,” “Carol” is another sorta-throwback for director Todd Haynes.  (I’m thinking of you, “Far From Heave.”)  Adapted by Phyllis Nagy, it’s a romantic melodrama set in the 1950s between two women.  The lovers are played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  Blanchett is great, selling reservoirs of repressed emotion.  But Mara in particular is so strong in a quietly heartbreaking performance as a young woman navigating adulthood.  The film is lovingly put together — from Edward Lachman’s rich cinematography to Carter Burwell’s tender score.

7.) “Sicario”

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This and my next entry are the most likely to induce a panic attack.  First up, “Sicario.”  Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan presents a bleak worldview centered around an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) assigned to a task force to combat the escalating war on drugs.  Victories are few and far between.  Director Denis Villeneuve sculpts an atmosphere as oppressive as the arid desert sun.  Benicio del Toro is excellent as the titular sicario (hitman) — he’s a movie tough guy who intimidates with a whisper instead of a shout.  There are a number of great setpieces, but a Mexico-USA border crossing and a nighttime mission through an underground tunnel stand out.

6.) “It Follows”

Here’s the second in my panic attack twofer.  “It Follows” is about an evil specter that’s passed from one person to the next through sex.  Writer-director David Robert Mitchell delivers a model for tension-filled exposition when young Jay (Maika Monroe), tied to a wheelchair, learns that the evil specter is pursuing her.  It’s only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a stranger or a friend.  It’s always coming, and it’s coming to kill.  There are so many great sequences, such as the opening, which depicts a panic-stricken girl running through a quiet neighborhood.  Or Jay’s encounter with the entity during class.  (Disasterpiece’s nerve-jangling score contributes so much.)

Yes, the third act is a letdown but not enough to keep it off the list.

5.) “The Big Short”

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I’m not a huge fan of director and co-writer Adam McKay’s work, particularly for movies like “Anchorman,” so color me surprised that I responded as strongly as I did to “The Big Short.”  What a wild and wooly tapestry he weaves about the financial meltdown in 2008.  It’s a kitchen sink movie — sad, funny and infuriating with many techniques on display such as breaking the fourth wall and docudrama.  Though the aesthetic schizophrenia might give you whiplash, I found it exhilarating.  It boasts an all-star cast with the likes of Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell.  Each is as good as you expect.  (Carell might be even better.)

4.) “Ex Machina”

Where most science fiction films are content to be dressed up action flicks, writer-director Alex Garland brings ideas back to the genre.  A young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is tasked with determining whether a robot named Ava has the ability to appear human.  (Also known as the Turing test.)  In addition to Gleeson, there are two key performances here — Oscar Isaac as the eccentric billionaire that develops the AI and Alicia Vikander as Ava.  Cool and calm yet wide-eyed, Vikander will keep you guessing.  I love the design of the film.  An illustrious estate built around and into a mountain, ceiling-high windows looking out over expanses of wilderness, concrete and windowless rooms covered with post-its, and the glass enclosures housing Ava.

3.) “Spotlight”

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It’s always a pleasure to watch professionals do their thing on the big screen.  Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy crafts an ensemble drama in the procedural vein of “All the President’s Men.”  A group of Boston Globe journalists (played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, among others) seek to uncover a child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church.  Like the 70s Watergate drama, this film doesn’t spoon-feed you information.  There are a lot of names, a lot of places, and you’re going to have to keep up.  Though the film is pretty packed, it does make time for characterization and mini side dramas, such as a new editor, who happens to be Jewish, under pressure to drop the story on the Catholic Church.

2.) “Mad Max: Fury Road”

I can’t believe George Miller got away with making a $150 million summer blockbuster this uninhibited and distinctly his.  But here we have “Mad Max: Fury Road!”  A nefarious ruler keeps a collection of young woman captive as breeders until they’re freed by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  And the ruler gives chase.  Enter: Max (Tom Hardy)…a sidelined character thrust into the action.  The worldbuilding is economical.  The film isn’t big on plot, but there are clear character arcs and some clever bits of setup and payoff. The visuals are lush and vibrant — a nice change of pace from the desaturated look of many summer blockbusters (and certainly films that are post-apocalyptic).  The action is kinetic yet fluid.  Though the film has a reputation for being unrelenting, it finds those little nuggets of quiet.  What a lovely day, indeed!

1.) “Inside Out”

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And finally, my #1 movie of the year…”Inside Out.”  About the anthropomorphized emotions that govern a young girl’s mind, the film has an ingenious premise.  Co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen introduce us to wacky rules and concepts (i.e. the personality islands, core memories), and then play with them.  The voice cast is superb.  A lot of studios market their animated movies with big celebrity names.  How many people go see an animated film because John Q. Actor voices a role?  At Pixar the character and performance come first.  “Inside Out” takes some dark turns.  I love how Joy’s (Amy Poehler) catharsis is learning about catharsis.  Like light and darkness, joy can really only be measured against sadness.  The moment of this film that really gets me is when she’s in the memory dump, clutching the girl’s memories.  She starts to cry, she wants so badly for her kid to be happy.  Don’t we all want that for ourselves and others!  There isn’t a bad guy here, but Joy’s really the one making things difficult.  And that’s okay, because her desires are so relatable.

Also there’s some REALLY great cat and boyfriend humor.

So there we have it!  My honorable mentions include:  “Bridge of Spies,” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “The End of the Tour,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Room” and “Tangerine.”

What films resonated with you most last year?  Let me know in the comments!

Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

After much anticipation, it’s finally here: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Apologies for the delay in my review.  It’s a busy time of year, and I wanted to see the film for a second time to parse out my thoughts.  Plus, with the film having been out for over a week and having made enough money to fill 10 battle stations, I figure it’s safe now to talk about some spoilery plot points.

I’ve already written about what this universe means to me, so the big questions is:  Does director JJ Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” live up to its galactic hype?

Pretty much.  And that’s no easy feat.  Let’s dive in!

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From the title crawl, you know you’re in good hands.  “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  Whoa!  No taxation or trade routes here, huh?  (I can see your eyes glazing over already.)  The film opens with the remnants of the Empire, now the First Order, attempting to intercept a map to Luke.  Squash the last remaining Jedi and there will be little hope for the Resistance.

A resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the plans in his BB-8 droid before he’s captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a disciple of the Dark Side.  The BB unit rolls through the dunes of the desert planet Jakku until he comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), an independent and resourceful scavenger waiting for her family to return.

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Meanwhile, Kylo Ren learns what the droid is carrying.  A conscience-stricken stormtrooper (John Boyega), nicknamed Finn, helps Poe escape.  The two crash on Jakku in a TIE fighter.  Believing Poe to be dead, Finn finds his way to civilization, or the backwater planet’s version of it, where he meets Rey.  After a skirmish with the First Order, the two board the Millennium Falcon.  (I know the Force works in mysteries ways, but talk about coincidence!)

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The Falcon is picked up by none other than its former captain and co-pilot, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).  We learn that Rey believed Luke Skywalker to be a myth.  Han informs her and Finn that Luke went into hiding after a Jedi in training was seduced by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

That pupil was Kylo Ren.  In one of the film’s most stirring scenes, he prays to the helmet of Darth Vader.  “I feel it again…the call to the Light…Show me again, the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way.”  Just as Luke was tempted by the Dark Side of the Force, Kylo is tempted by the Light.  And why shouldn’t he be?  He’s Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son.

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Now, if a lot of this seems familiar — a droid carrying secret plans, a young person on a barren desert planet with aspirations for something greater — that’s by design.  Similar to this year’s “Creed,” this is as much a soft reboot as it is a continuation of the saga.  Would I have liked a little more daring and originality in the story department?  Absolutely!  Given JJ Abrams’s track record — I’m looking at you, “Star Trek Into Darkness” — I was pretty nervous about fan service, but the callbacks didn’t bother me much.  With one huge, planet-sized exception.  I’ll get to that later.  There certainly isn’t anything as eye-rollingly awful as Anakin Skywalker creating C-3PO.  (Sorry, I’ll try to stop referencing those.  They’re painful for me too.)

One of the things this film, the first in a new trilogy, needed to do was set up a cast of compelling characters.  And in that regard, “The Force Awakens” is aces.  Oscar Isaac’s Poe has all the charisma of a 1930s swashbuckling movie star.  Think Errol Flynn.  I loved that John Boyega’s Finn was allowed to be scared out of his mind and in over his head.  Few things are duller than a hero who’s completely and utterly confident in their abilities.  If they aren’t concerned for their own well-being, why should we be?

It’s a testament to the film that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the original cast to show up.  But even they deliver…mostly.  Carrie Fisher doesn’t do much with the very little she’s given to do.  But Harrison Ford — I haven’t seen him this engaged by a part in years!  This is a far cry from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

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The two MVPs are undoubtedly Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.  Much has been made about Rey being too perfect, which is to say she excels at everything she does.  She’s a good pilot and mechanic.  She’s strong with the Force and can more than hold her own with a lightsaber.  While I can’t argue that she doesn’t have many defeats (if any at all), I profoundly disagree that the character, as a result, is uninteresting.  Rey is filled with longing and doubt, fear and incredulity at her own abilities.  Ridley owns the role.  There are some wonderfully evocative, dialog-free moments.  When we meet Rey, she sleds down a sand dune after acquiring some scrap.  A fighter pilot helmet strapped to her head, she wistfully looks out at the empty desert landscape.

And then there’s Kylo Ren.  All too often, studios — I don’t wanna name names so let’s just say Schmarvel — are content to prop up empty, soulless, uninteresting villains to give their heroes something to hit.  Not this guy.  Unlike Darth Vader, he’s still in flux — a villain that hasn’t quite hatched from his cocoon.  His impenetrable mask and Driver’s icy delivery hide an interior that’s filled with uncertainty.  A petulant young man, he’s prone to violent, lightsaber-swinging outbursts when he doesn’t get his way.  From the moment he stepped on screen and stopped a blaster bolt from hitting its mark, I knew I was in for a treat.

(Seriously, the sound design in this film is incredible.  The Force now has an audible presence, as though the air flexes when it’s in use.  It feels more powerful and dangerous than it ever has before.)

Though the film has its dark passages, JJ Abrams and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt imbue it with a sense of humor.  It’s maybe the funniest entry in the series.  I get a chuckle just thinking about BB-8’s lighter thumbs-up.  Abrams is known for his acrobatic camera, but he and DP Daniel Mindel dial it back here.  We’re allowed to appreciate the scale of this universe, whether it’s a star destroyer eclipsing a moon or Rey dwarfed by the massive engines of a vessel.  Abrams also made good on his commitment to return to practical effects.  Though puzzlingly, there are a couple poorly executed CGI characters. Still, I enjoyed the assortment of puppetry, make-up and animatronics bringing the corners of many scenes to life.

Now for that troubling bit of fan service.  The First Order has a super weapon not dissimilar from the Death Star, though it’s much bigger as the film eagerly points out.  This monstrosity has been carved out of a planet and has the power to destroy entire star systems.  Complete with an easily exploited weakness, the new baddies seem incapable of learning the lessons of the Empire.  Not being revealed until the mid-point, this Starkiller Base barely has a screen presence.  Its annihilation of five planets is met with a shrug rather than a shriek.  Contrast that with the harrowing destruction of one planet in the original “Star Wars.”  Every time the film cut to this storyline, I felt the otherwise brisk pace come to a grinding halt.  While many of the tropes and archetypes feel lovingly constructed, this truly seems like filmmakers going through the motions.

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“The Force Awakens” never achieves the storytelling efficiency of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, especially the first two entries.  In many respects, it feels like the most episodic of the films, even more so than “The Empire Strikes Back” and its infamous cliffhanger ending.  Many questions are left dangling, right down to the tantalizing final frames.  (Luke!)  Though it may be a little frustrating, I suppose we are in that era.  It feels like a backhanded compliment to say that this latest entry is better than the prequels, but it’s way better.  JJ Abrams and company have done a good job setting up the board for grand chess master Rian Johnson.  I am very excited to see where he takes the story in Episode VIII.

What did you think of “The Force Awakens?”  Did the fan service elements bother you?  Comment below!

Review: “Spectre”

I was really enjoying “Spectre,” the 24th film in the James Bond series, for the first hour and a half.  Had it ended there, this would be a positive review.  But it didn’t.

It’s hard to talk about this film without delving into spoilers, so I’m not even going to try.  You’ve been warned!

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Sam Mendes, responsible for the previous (and best) entry, “Skyfall,” returns to the director’s chair.  He brings his fluid sense of action and a knack for making sure every penny of the budget shows up on screen.  The film opens in Mexico during a Day of the Dead celebration.  Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema craft an elaborate long take which follows James Bond (Daniel Craig) as he tracks a target through the festivities.  I suspect friend of the blog, Ben, would call this an embodiment of the Bond experience:  exotic locations and grand spectacle mixed with intrigue.

As things are wont to do in this franchise, everything goes to hell.  Bond finds himself running from a collapsing building and then chasing his target right into a departing helicopter.  (So much running!  Where’s Tom Cruise when you need him.)  Here we have a spectacular blend of what looks to be location photography and a gyrating set, the actors rolling and bouncing inside, as 007 tries to take control of the aircraft.

Bond discovers that he’s embroiled in a larger conspiracy involving a nefarious organization known as Spectre.  After learning that a former nemesis, Mr. White, has ties to the group, he pays him a visit.  In an attempt to gain leverage over the man, Bond vows to protect his daughter Madeleine (Léa Seydoux).  Simultaneously, M (Ralph Fiennes) is wrestling with Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), a member of the British government trying to coalesce intelligence organizations from several countries into one massive, Orwellian security group.

Now, things aren’t all expensive tuxedos and vodka martinis during the first half of the film.  There’s some eye-rolling dialog like, “As you know, 007, [insert something that Bond clearly does know but we the audience don’t].”  And poor Dave Bautista (more on him later) and Monica Bellucci are completely wasted as a henchman and Bond girl respectively.  But it isn’t until shortly after our hero meets up with Madeleine that that delicious vodka martini ends up all over that nice tuxedo.

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Few and far between are the Bond girls that develop any real connection to James.  That’s certainly attempted here, but the film doesn’t lay the groundwork.  By the end of “Spectre,” we’re to believe that Bond would give up his double-0 license for a life with Madeleine, but we’ve no reason to think their relationship is any more special than the countless women he’s shagged.  Frequent callbacks to Vesper Lynd, perhaps the best Bond girl in the series, don’t help.  She was smart, resourceful and complex in her own right.  We saw her relationship to Bond develop in “Casino Royale.”  Not the case here.

Now we come to the film’s other crippling problem.  The head of Spectre is Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  He is and always has been the franchise’s big bad.  The Joker to Bond’s Batman.  The Moriarty to his Sherlock.  That Waltz is playing Blofeld will come as a surprise to no one who’s even a casual Bond fan.  But the film certainly wants it to.  Hiding his identity, we initially know him as Franz Oberhauser.  Franz is a brother of sorts to James Bond.  After the death of Bond’s parents, Franz’s father looked after him, and Franz felt that James supplanted him in the eye of his dad.  So he killed his father, faked his own death and took the name Blofeld.

Wait, there’s more…

“Spectre” retcons so many elements from the previous three films.  As it turns out, Blofeld has been Bond’s puppet master for all his life.  He’s responsible for everything that’s happened during Craig’s run.  All those baddies worked for Spectre.  In addition to making the universe that much smaller (even Auric Goldfinger avoided the mantle of Spectre), this is lazy, lazy, lazy writing.  Instead of constructing a worthwhile villain or setting up the evil organization in the previous entries, the filmmakers trot out a fan favorite (with tired daddy issues to boot) and hang the plots of “Casino,” “Quantum” and “Skyfall” on him.  He says to Bond at one point, “I’ve really put you through it all these years.”  If you say so.

Without any emotional stakes or character investment, the back half of this film feels tedious.  It dives head first into most of the Bond clichés the Craig movies have spent ribbing, but they feel half-assed, like the director’s heart isn’t in it.  Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is a completely unremarkable henchman.  He’s got metal thumbnails, a fact that I needed to be reminded of after my screening because they’re such a non-entity, which he uses to gouge out a foot soldier’s eyes.  And he’s dead by the middle of the film.  You remember Oddjob and Jaws.  You remember their names.  (I had to look Mr. Hinx up.)  You remember their quirky character traits, Jaws for his nasty chompers and Oddjob for his lethal propensity for hat throwing.

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Not once, but twice, this film falls into the elaborate scenarios that Bond always escapes from.  The first is a torture scene with a series of small drills and James’s head.  The second is an escape sequence.  Blofeld sends Bond on a chase through the bombed out MI6 to find Madeleine.  If he can’t find her in three minutes, they’ll both be killed when the building is completely leveled by another bomb.  This sequence left me wanting to scream, “Just kill them!”  Same old villain falling for the same old tricks.

As another friend of the blog, another Ben, put it, “I can see what they were trying to do.  They wanted an updated version of the cheeky, kitschy fun of the late Connerys.  Watches, quips, muscle men, countdowns.  That could be fun in small doses.  But to build an entire film on those references isn’t borrowing classic fun from the franchise’s past.  It’s inviting back all the problems of banking on those references to captivate an audience, or even keep them vaguely involved.”

Is “Spectre” as bad as “Quantum of Solace?”  Not quite.  It’s got too much polish for that.  But it was a lot easier to slap a tourniquet on “Quantum” and brush it off.  This one, thanks to its ties to the other films, ain’t gonna be that easy.  Stir it or shake it up, I hope the producers do whatever they need to right this ship.

Have you seen “Spectre?”  What did you think?  Let me know in the Comment section!

Review: “Sicario”

I’ve got it. The next big trend in physical fitness. All you need to do is watch Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” once a day, every day, and the pounds will melt off in no time.  From its opening moments, depicting a raid on a drug house, the film is sweaty-palms suspenseful.

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FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is part of that raid.  Soon after, she’s recruited into a task force, which includes Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  They’re to take down a major drug kingpin in Mexico.  Kate, unsure of whom to trust even on her own team, realizes she’s swimming in dark and dangerous waters.

The main cast — Blunt, del Toro and Brolin — are really strong.  Brolin, with his wry smile and reluctance to give up information, generates a lot of nervous laughs.  But del Toro is the MVP.  In one of my favorite moments, shortly after we (and Kate) have met him, he’s sleeping on an airplane and his hand starts to twitch and then he wakes with a start.  The smallest suggestion that under the enigmatic and menacing exterior, there’s a lot of pain and sadness.

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Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t provide Blunt’s Kate with a whole lot of background or even agency, but that’s why you cast one of the best actresses of her generation.  In an early exchange, we learn that she’s divorced and doesn’t have kids.  No family attachments.  (How’s that for foreboding?)  Throughout the film, she often finds herself on the losing end of conflicts, which is a little unusual for mainstream audiences.  I didn’t mind it so much, as it felt emblematic of the drug war itself.  It’s a losing battle.

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The action setpieces have a real sense of presence.  Explosions aren’t accompanied with the standard fireball.  They’re concussive forces, throwing our heroes to the ground.  Kevlar vests don’t keep characters free from harm.  Bullets still knock the wind out of them, leaving them gasping for air.  Interrogations aren’t performed with a lot of flapping and yelling but cold and quiet intimidation.  I’ve never witnessed a real explosion, been shot at or interrogated — knock on wood — but these moments felt refreshingly absent any trumped up Hollywood conventions.

Indeed, the film achieves all this without resorting to cinema verite techniques (handheld camera, extensive film grain, etc.).  I’ve talked about Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the blog before, and I can’t overstate his skill and artistry behind the camera.  In what’s sure to be one of the shots of the year, a group of gunmen are preparing for a dangerous trek underground at sunset.  As they move across the barren desert landscape, their silhouettes appear against the nearly-night sky and slowly sink into the dark horizon.

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Deakins and Villeneuve employ a lot of helicopter shots, particularly as the task force is driving across the border into Mexico for a mission.  Being a fan of “The Shining,” I couldn’t help but think of the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s film as Jack Torrance drives to the film’s haunted hotel.  The effect here is similar, as we watch from on high as our characters navigate into trouble.

Due to its blistering intensity and pessimistic worldview, “Sicario” isn’t going to be a film for everyone.  But if you’re willing to take the ride, I think the craftsmanship and strong performances are definitely worth your time.

Have you seen “Sicario?”  What did you think?  Comment below and thanks for reading!

Fall Movie Preview

Well, it’s that time…my favorite season for movie watching.  Fall is when studios tend to release their better films (i.e. the ones they think’ll make a splash during the end-of-year awards).  Prestige season begins in earnest for me on September 18 — seven days and counting — so I’ve compiled a list of the films I’m most looking forward to.

September 18 sees the release of “Black Mass” — the story of real-life mobster, Whitey Bulger.  Johnny Depp plays Bulger, and judging by the trailer, this looks like a welcome return to his more menacing and nuanced work (think “Donnie Brasco,” which happens to be another crime film).  On top of that, I was a fan of director Scott Cooper’s first feature, “Crazy Heart.”

Also out on September 18 is “Sicario.”  (It’s in limited release that weekend and goes wide on September 25.)  The trailer for this drug war drama makes it look like a real nerve shredder.  It’s from another promising young filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve.  After “Prisoners,” itself a lesson in suspense, this seems like another fruitful collaboration with could-make-a-dumpster-look-great cinematographer, Roger Deakins.  The cast is spectacular as well, headlined by Emily Blunt (in full bad ass mode), Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin.

I haven’t liked a Ridley Scott film in several years — really since the Director’s Cut of “Kingdom of Heaven” — but I’m hoping that will change on October 2.  “The Martian” is about an astronaut left for dead and his struggle to survive on…you guessed it…Mars.  Scott’s susceptible to selecting scripts that are beneath his talent, but Drew Goddard (of “Cabin in the Woods” and “Daredevil” Season 1) is the screenwriter here.  And again, we have a phenomenal cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Peña.

martian

And then there’s the pairing of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle, whose film “Steve Jobs” hits screens on October 9.  The former is a self-described writer of “People talking in rooms” and the latter’s known for his bold and vibrant filmmaking.  Michael Fassbender plays the titular tech genius.  He’s one of my favorite actors working, but I’m mostly excited to see what Sorkin and Boyle bring out in one another.

The weekend of October 16 is stacked.

First up is “Beasts of No Nation.”  It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the man behind the first season of “True Detective.”  It stars Idris Elba as an African warlord recruiting children into a civil war.  The film is getting a very limited theatrical release, but it’s also going to be available on Netflix streaming the same day it hits screens.  I love “True Detective,” so I’ll see anything Fukunaga touches.  The positive buzz for the film has only gotten me more excited.

Bridge of Spies” comes out the same day.  This one’s from a young, upstart filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.  (I see big things for this guy.  Very talented.)  The director’s track record has been spotty lately, but even mid-tier Spielberg is better than most.  I’m excited to see him reunite with Tom Hanks, who plays a lawyer focused on rescuing a US pilot who went down over the Soviet Union.  Oh, and the Coen Brothers have a screenwriting credit!

But the movie I’ll see first that weekend is “Crimson Peak.”  Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors working, and this marks his return to the haunted house genre.  If you haven’t seen “The Devil’s Backbone,” you should remedy that right away.  Based on the trailer, the visuals looks as lush and vibrant as you’ve come to expect from del Toro.  Yet another great cast here with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain.

crimson-peak

And finally, “Room” comes out in limited release the same day.  I’ve heard good things about the novel on which the film is based, but there’s one reason I’m really excited for this one…and her name is Brie Larson.  She gave a stunning performance in “Short Term 12” (actually my favorite performance of 2013).  I was disappointed to see her relegated to Love Interest in “The Gambler,” but it looks as though “Room” will be another opportunity for her to flex her acting muscles.

November 6 brings the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, “Spectre.”  “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes returns here.  Aficionados will recognize Spectre as the nefarious organization that reared its head in early Bond films.  The inclusion of talent like Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux and Andrew Scott is very exciting.  The only thing that gives me pause is that, after the release of “Skyfall,” Mendes stated he’d said everything he had to say about Bond.  Presumably, the studio offered him enough money to keep talking.  That’s usually not the best reason for a director to sign on, but based on the strength of the previous film, I’ll be there opening weekend.

On November 20, “Carol” gets a limited release.  Director Todd Haynes tackles a similarly taboo subject matter as his own “Far From Heaven.”  This one’s about a younger woman falling in love with an older woman in 1950s New York.  Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star, and they’re two of the best actresses working today.  The film’s screened at festivals to rave reviews.

This year brings not one but two Pixar films.  After the summer’s “Inside Out,” I’m really looking forward to “The Good Dinosaur” (November 25).  The premise is pretty basic — What if the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct?  (The trailer plays this out in a hilarious visual gag.)  When the animation studio is on its game, there’s nobody better.  The film’s had a troubled production, with Disney announcing in June that nearly the entire voice cast had been scrapped.  Still, “Inside Out” felt like a real return to form for Pixar, so I’m hoping their latest picks up where it left off.

good-dinosaur

The performer pairing I’m most excited for is Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in “Macbeth,” which is getting a limited released on December 4The trailer is gorgeous.  I’ve already talked about how much I like Fassbender, but Cotillard is every bit his equal (if not superior).  The prospect of these two playing off each other in a Shakespeare adaptation sounds fantastic.

Finally, we come to it — the main course!  “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is unleashed on December 18.  When the first teaser was released last November, I wrote about my reluctance to get excited for this new trilogy.  But as we’ve gotten closer to release and with the second teaser, my hesitance has almost completely faded…except for a minor concern that the film may delve into fan service (see: director JJ Abrams’s own “Star Trek Into Darkness”).  But I’m so ready for this!

star-wars

(The next two are technically Winter titles, but what’s dinner without a little dessert?)

On December 25, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” will go into limited release (with a wide release soon to follow).  It’s about a group of bounty hunters — and a valuable quarry — holed up in a cabin during a blizzard.  Tarantino is one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers working.  I’m excited by the prospect of him tackling something with a limited setting.  If “Inglorious Basterds” was any indication, with its farmhouse and tavern sequences, he knows how to wring suspense out of a confined space.  And there’s a great cast: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow up to “Birdman” also comes out on Christmas Day — “The Revenant.”  The trailer is tense as hell, and the images (composed by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) are breathtaking.  There looks to be an extraordinary amount of movement and coordination within the frame, as you’d expect from the DP of “Children of Men.”  Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy star.

So those are the movies I’m most looking forward to!  What about you?  What are you excited to see this Fall?

Why CG Sucks (Because Sometimes It Does)

Freddie Wong recently uploaded a video on why computer-generated imagery (or CG) sucks.  “Except it doesn’t,” he qualifies.  I’m a big fan of Wong’s work, most of which is available on YouTube.  He’s a talented artist and entertainer, and he’s done a number of informative behind-the-scenes videos.  His channel is a great resource for fledgling filmmakers.

The general thrust of his latest is summarized in an opening line:  “I think the reason we think CG looks bad is because we only see bad CG.”  He asserts that there’s a lot of great CG work that goes largely unnoticed, precisely because it’s so strong and seamless.

And while I agree with that, I think Wong brushes some significant negatives under the rug.

Something that can’t help but color the video is its intended audience.  “Do your fingers rage across subreddits and message boards about a simpler, better time…back before computers ruined movies?”  Wong’s audience is filmmakers and aficionados.  Unless I’m grossly underestimating the general populace’s interest in CG, who else is bemoaning the loss of practical effects?

And many of his examples are minor touch ups.  Note the snow on the ground in the shot with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.  It’s a relatively still camera with limited movement in the frame — not a huge challenge to paint in effects.  Or the stadium shot from “Forrest Gump.”  The filmmakers hired enough extras to fill a section.  What you’re seeing is a bunch of practical elements composited on a computer.

Forrest shoot Forrest finished effect

I think these two examples constitute good and, indeed, invisible uses of CG.  Critically, they’re also limited.  Computers were used to augment reality, not fabricate it whole cloth.  To my mind, this is all those lamenting an overuse of digital effects are asking for — a little restraint.

Now, I don’t want to blanketly condemn computer-generated effects and certainly not the artists who create them.  As Wong points out, it’s a segment of the industry that gets pummeled on a regular basis.  And sometimes it can be hard for practical methods to achieve a desired effect.  I’m a big fan of Japanese giant monsters, and those films are known for using men in suits and miniatures.  That said, I appreciate that recent kaiju films, such as “Pacific Rim” and “Godzilla,” opted for CG instead.  Rendering the physics of something that big (and the destruction it causes) can be difficult with a suit or even animatronics.

I’m for whatever looks best.  Yes, sometimes costs are going to demand one approach over another, but having something physically on set is almost always going to trump the thing that gets added in post.  Even if you as an audience member aren’t aware of what strategy is being used, I bet you’ll have a more visceral reaction to a practical effect than a digital one.  After all, it’s not just you reacting to that robot, alien, dinosaur or what have youit’s the actors.  Imagine you’re a filmmaker, and you’re spending vast sums of money by the hour.  You’re going to get better results a lot faster if your actors have something to act to.

Wong concludes:

“So maybe the reason why people seem to think visual effects are ruining movies isn’t really a problem with the visual effects, maybe it’s just a problem with the movies themselves…CG, just like every innovation in cinema, is simply a tool on the filmmaker’s tool belt to tell a story.  But when the end result is bad, maybe it’s not the tool’s fault.”

Clearly CG is not a sentient being out to destroy movies.  It’s still grossly misused.  Wong cites practical elements in the “Transformers” movies and praises their digital effects work, but don’t get me started on the exaggerated and overcomplicated animation of its title characters.  Is that the fault of the digital artists?  Of course not!  That was Michael Bay’s vision…one made possible by computer animation.

TRANSFORMERS, Optimus Prime, 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

And that’s ultimately my point.  Some filmmakers have become so enamored with being able to put anything and everything up on screen that they forget how it looks.  CG’s become a crutch — one that fosters laziness and poor choices.  The set pieces of many tentpole productions are established before there’s even a script so that digital artists can get to work (including “The Avengers,” which is cited in this very video).  That’s backwards thinking, and it underscores the studios’ priorities when it comes to effects and story.

What are your thoughts on the film industry’s use of CG?  Comment below!