Sunday, December 27, 2015

F*** The Haters, Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT Is F***-in’ Great

(Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

Before “The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino,” as it’s identified in the opening credits (what other filmmaker does that?) properly begins, there’s a title card reading “Overture” accompanying an image of a silhouette of a stagecoach pulled by a team of horses, with snow-covered mountains in the background.

As composer Ennio Morricone’s intense minor melody slowly built, I found myself staring into the graphic until the shadows on the mountains became more and more ominous. One even started to resemble a lurching figure with a knife drawn, others looked like pools of blood, winding snakes, etc. This perfectly set the sinister tone for the three hour film following.

Tarantino’s Western opus, which is now playing exclusively in a limited Super CinemaScope 70mm Roadshow release (it begins a regular theatrical release in digital on January 8th, 2016), also features a 12-minute intermission, so it’s obvious that the filmmaker is reveling in giving us an old school cinema experience.

But, being Tarantino, it’s still sprinkled with his distinctive post-modernist stylings, meaning that it’s profane as f***, ultra gorey, and brimming with racially-fueled attitude.

Set in Wyoming, several years after the Civil War, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is broken up into a handful of chapters, recalling PULP FICTION except that there’s no prologue or epilogue.

In the first chapter, “Last Stage to Red Rock,” we are introduced to Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren aka “The Bounty Hunter,” Kurt Russell, who previously starred in Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE half DEATH PROOF, as John Ruth, who is another bounty hunter dubbed “The Hangman” because he doesn’t kill his captures (he prefers to watch them get hanged after handing them over), and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue aka “The Prisoner,” a wanted fugitive in Ruth’s custody.

Jackson’s Major Warren, who’s transporting the bodies of three of his bounties, hitches a ride with Russell’s Ruth on his stagecoach as it turns out that the two men had met before. Ruth recalls that Warren has a letter from President Lincoln in his possession, and asks to read it again, but Leigh’s uncouth, rednecky Domergue spits on it, causing Warren to slug her and she and Ruth tumble out of the stagecoach as they are handcuffed together.

Chapter Two, “Son of a Gun,” introduces Walton Goggins (The Shield, Justified, DJANGO UNCHAINED) as Chris Mannix of the infamous Mannix Marauders as Ruth tells us, who also hitches a ride with the crew, who claims, to Ruth’s disbelief, that he’s travelling to Red Rock to be appointed the town’s new sheriff. We get more inklings of back stories as the slickly racist Mannix tells Ruth a tale about how, after the war ended, Warren burned down a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in a prison escape (Warren: “The whole place was made of kindling…so I burnt it down”) killing 47 men which caused the South to put a reward on his head.

So there, we have half of the eight, and what Tarantino deems relevant info about their reputations, and Chapter Three, “Minnie's Haberdashery,” rounds out the rest - Demián Bichir as Bob (“The Mexican”), Bruce Dern as General Sandy Smithers (“The Confederate”), and a couple of RESERVOIR DOGS, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, as Oswald Mobray (“The Little Man”), and Joe Gage (“The Cow Puncher”), respectively. 

Ruth, Warren, Domerque, and Mannix arrive at the chapter’s title stagecoach stop to find that Bichir’s Bob is looking after the place while Minnie is visiting her mother – or so he says.

The rest of the movie takes place in the log cabin interior of Minnie’s with the most elaborate Mexican standoff that Tarantino has ever mounted. When we come back from the intermission, there’s suddenly a narrator (an uncredited Tarantino) who tells us that during the last scene, somebody seen only by Domergue poisons the coffee (Chapter title: “Domergue Has a Secret”), so we’ve got that mystery to chew on (along with the puzzle of who’s in secret cahoots with who), and we get one of the writer/director’s patented time juggling so we get to see what was happening during the same time as the setup.

In a flashback chapter, “The Four Passengers,” that would be too spoilery to describe, we have a few moments with the only other women in this brutal boy’s club: Tarantino’s trusty stuntwoman Zoë Bell, the motherly Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), and the lovely Belinda Owino. This segment also prominently features Channing Tatum, but damn if I’m gonna tell you how his character factors in.

I won’t go into the particulars of the big ass finale, “Black Man, White Hell,” but will say that it sure packs a bloody wallop.

Leigh’s Domergue, who gets her face bashed in so much throughout the film by Russell’s Ruth that she’s a disgusting, blood-soaked mess (with convincingly broken teeth too) way before the end, can be difficult to look at in ginormous, 70mm close-ups, but the actress owns the role with such intensity that I could never look away.

It’s cool that this is the second ultra violent Western that Russell has starred in this year - the great BONE TOMAHAWK being the other. The guy seems at confident ease with this sort of material (having the classic ‘90s Western TOMBSTONE in his background surely helps) and really rocks the thick, gray handlebar mustache. 

And, in his 6th Tarantino film, Jackson stands out yet again. With his sharp, smart delivery, Jackson's Major Warren has many of the film's most amusing lines and moments, and was one of the only characters I cared about getting out of the cabin alive.

It’s fitting that Madsen and Roth are on hand as the Tarantino joint this most echoes is RESERVOIR DOGS with its one-setting, and aforementioned Mexican standoff scenario. I wouldn’t put this in the same class with that outstanding debut or its classic follow-up PULP FICTION, but I enjoyed it more than his last few films, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED, and I liked those films quite a bit.

It already appears that THE HATEFUL EIGHT may be Tarantino’s most divisive movie yet. I’ve seen critic friends post that they thought it was a cinematic masterpiece, and seen others declare that it’s one of the year’s worst movies.

But I was intensely entertained throughout its three hour running time – I can understand folks thinking that it’s way too long and talky, but I found the dialogue, deliciously laced with evil undercurrent, to be consistently involving (as well as funny as f***), and I devoured how Tarantino through the sharp lens of cinematographer Robert Richardson made the spare scenery so immersive.

I also don’t agree about the charges of misogyny that have been leveled at it. Like almost all the men here, Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is a scary, murderous outlaw, and the actress nailed it in a recent Q & A when she said “She’s a killer. She’s gutsy and her whole identity is, ‘Yeah, give me what you’ve got, it doesn’t mean anything to me. Hit me again, I don’t give a f**king sh*t.’”

So in that spirit, I’ll sum up by saying f*** the haters, Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT is f***-in’ great. See it in 70mm if you can.

More later...

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tina Fey & Amy Poehler's Silly, Sloppy, & Sadly Insubstantial SISTERS

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SISTERS (Dir. Jason Moore, 2015)

t’s almost as if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, both in their mid-forties, were like ‘it’d be great to do a big stupid high school-styled house party comedy, but we’re too old. Then said, in unison, “then let’s do a comedy about two women who are too old to have a big stupid high-school styled house party!”

So, aided by PITCH PERFECT director Jason Moore helming a screenplay by their fellow SNL writer alum Paula Pell, Fey, and Poehler do just that, and it results in their silliest, sloppiest, and, sadly, least substantial project of either of their careers.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a lot of funny moments though.

Fey, as an irresponsible, unemployable mother very much the opposite of her signature role as workaholic neurotic Liz Lemon on the former NBC sitcom 30 Rock; and Poehler, as the control freak nurse who shares little in common with her signature role as Lesley Knope on the former NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, slip easily into their roles here as siblings Kate and Maura.

When the two sisters learn that their parents (James Brolin and Diane Wiest) are selling their beloved childhood home in Orlando, Florida, they decide to have one last blow-out party there and, wouldn’t you know it, outrageous hi-jinks ensue.

On the sisters’ guest list is The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz as a neighbor that Poehler’s Maura is crushing on; John Leguizamo as a sketchy alcoholic druggie who’s crushing on Kate; SNL pals (Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch, and Bobby Moynihan), Samantha Bee as a married mom looking to get her freak on, and several other recognizable funny faces.

Another SNL alum of Fey and Poehler’s, Maya Rudolph plays would could be considered the movie’s villain, the snooty Brinda, who tries to crash the party but gets thrown out so she continuously attempts to shut the shindig down. Rudolph’s part is probably the most contrived and least amusing element on display, but she still made me laugh (or at least snicker) particularly when seen dancing outside the window.

As a stoic drug dealer, John Cena, in his third comic film appearance of the year (TRAINWRECK and DADDY’S HOME are the other two) also warrants some laughs (stay through the end credits for his best moments).

Just about everything you’d expect happens – massive property damage, somebody accidentally gets fucked up and wrecks havoc (Bobby Moynihan mistakes cocaine for Splenda when doing a Scarface impression), farcical sex scenes, and, of course, epiphanies about the sisters’ unhappy stations in life.

SISTERS is a throwaway comedy that may only be good for a matinee or a half-hearted rental months later, but because Fey and Poehler are two of the funniest people on the planet, it contains a high volume of jokes that land, even if you may not remember them later.

This weekend, it certainly serves as wacky counter programming to the new STAR WARS (as in if you can’t get into that, maybe consider this), but I bet Fey and Poehler’s stint co-hosting SNL the day after the film’s opening (with music guest Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band!) will be a much funnier must see.

More later...

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

For The First Time Since 1983, STAR WARS Is Really Back

Opening tomorrow at every multiplex in the galaxy:


(Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2015)

As suspected, J.J. Abrams is much, much better suited for STAR WARS than STAR TREK.

Abrams’ TREK movies were poppy, new fangled approximations of the Star Trek ethos, but his highly anticipated seventh entry in the ultra popular space saga, THE FORCE AWAKENS, really is a bonafide, honest-to-God, gloriously old school STAR WARS movie.

It captures the spirit and replicates the story beats of the original 1977 film so lovingly that it is almost a virtual remake, but that back-to-basics approach hugely works in its favor because, unlike the awful prequels, it’s not cluttered and all over the place.

Now, in order to keep from revealing major spoilers – the kind that would keep people from reading reviews like this in the first place – I’ll try to be as vague as I can with plot points, and other juicy tidbits.

It’s 30 years after the events in RETURN OF THE JEDI, and instead of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance we now have “The First Order,” and “The Resistance.” Darth Vader’s successor, clothed in similar black attire with metal mask and cape, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is, of course, trying to crush The Resistance and find Luke Skywalker who’s gone missing.

On a desert planet that highly resembles Tatooine, but is called Jakku, we meet a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who befriends BB-8, that cute orange and white spinning droid you’ve probably seen in trailers and TV teasers, who is being hunted by The First Order because he’s carrying a secret message to be delivered to The Resistance. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, John Boyega (ATTACK THE BLOCK) plays a storm trooper who defects and joins forces with Rey, under the guise that he’s in The Resistance. Fleeing from The First Order, Rey, Finn, and BB-8 happen upon The Millenium Falcon in a space ship junkyard, and luckily it still holds together for their escape.

Before long the Falcon is captured by a large freighter owned by famed smuggler, and rebel hero Han Solo (Harrison Ford in his most invested performance in eons) and that beloved hairy Wookie, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who, unlike Han, hasn’t aged a day.

That’s as much of the plot as I need to go into. You can most likely guess that there is a new Death Star (Starkiller Base) to destroy, a cantina-like scene, light saber battles, X-Wings and Tie Fighter dogfights, and revelations about who’s related to whom.

Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Leia Organa, now a General, with Anthony Daniels back as C-3PO, and Kenny Baker back inside R2-D2, but he hasn’t been the same since Master Luke vanished. 

The new kids, Boyega and Ridley, have great gusto and likable pluck in their roles and are a lot of fun to watch run around through battle station corridors, Endor-like forests, and snowy Hoth-type terrain. It's like they split the role of Luke into the two characters, who both long for better destinies before getting swooped up into the galactic battle between good and evil.

As for Luke, we all know that Mark Hamill has signed back on, but going into how he appears would be ultra spoilery so I won't go there.

As for the other new characters, Oscar Isaac, who gets some wise-cracks in (he also appears to be having more fun than I've ever seen him have in a movie), plays Poe Dameron, an ace X-Wing fighter pilot for The Resistance; a stern Domhnall Gleeson (Isaac’s EX MACHINA co-star) plays the evil First Order General Hux, Lupita Nyong’o plays the motion capture-enhanced alien pirate/bar owner Maz Kanata (sort of the movie’s Yoda), and Andy Serkis lends his distinctive talents to embodying the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (another motion-capture creation), the new Emperor-esque figure.

And who knew that Driver, best known as Lena Dunham's weird, lanky boyfriend on the HBO show Girls, would make such a great STAR WARS villain? He nails the intensity needed for Kylo Ren, and gives him just the right amount of ache as well.

It’s also nice that their dialogue, written by Abrams, Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, TOY STORY 3), and returning series scribe Lawrence Kasdan, is sharp and witty with just the right amount of call backs. This is especially notable in Han and Leia’s scenes, though I wish they fought a little, with that old Tracy/Hepburn-ish back and forth so memorable in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Fisher, who had to slim down to reprise the part, brings gravitas in the form of her older, dignified Leia, but they could've given her a little more to do. However, that's a small complaint considering.

George Lucas may have created STAR WARS, but somewhere along the line he lost its vision. Abrams sure found it here, as one of the best things that I can report is that while watching THE FORCE AWAKENS, I really did forget about the prequels. Abrams’ film is so immensely entranced with the look, feel, and tone of the original trilogy that all that nonsense about senate treaties, midichlorians, Qui-Gon Jinn, Palpatine, etc. never comes to mind. It’s remarkable how successful it is in rendering Episodes I-III non-canon.

Sure, there's lots of CGI, but little of the aforementioned clutter of the prequels or many recent sci-fi action films. I really appreciate that Abrams had real sets and models built, and relied on practical effects when possible. David Mindel's cinematography lovingly apes the look of the original trilogy, as John Williams reworks all the mighty musical cues of his previous series' scores effectively. 

As a rekindling of the magic of the space opera that I loved as a kid, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a fantastic success. Abrams really pulled off a wonderful, faithful, funny, and intoxicatingly fun entry that had me from the first line of the opening crawl to its powerful last shot. For the first time since 1983, STAR WARS is really back.

When Han says “Chewie, we’re home,” he might as well be speaking for the masses that are going to eat this up, and go back again and again for more.

More later...

The Colony Theater Closes Tomorrow So One Last Ditch Plea For Stories

fter tomorrow night’s showings of BROOKLYN (at 7:15 and 9:20) and TRUMBO (7 and 9:30), the Colony Theater in Raleigh will be ceasing operations. Tonight's showing of the 1988 action classic DIE HARD, which I wrote about in the N & O last Friday, will be the last Cool Classics screening at the theater (the series moves to the Rialto in January).

A couple of months back after it was announced that the theater was closing, I posted asking local folks to send in their stories about their experiences with the venue, but I only posted a few of them for a few reasons.

First, there were pesky rumors that the rent might be re-negotiated or that new owners would swoop in and continue its long run as an indie theater. I didn’t really believe they were true, but I still had some small hope that the Colony could be saved.

Second, I didn’t get that many stories. My friend, Anthony Rhodes, who worked there several years ago shared several entertaining ones, and there was a funny anecdote that Brian Hill shared about going to see PULP FICTION there with a girl who was tripping on mushrooms, but mostly I got folks emailing that they were sorry that the theater was closing, and that they went to many movies there.

So, in one last ditch effort to try to job folks’ memories I posted this on Facebook today:

The Last Days of The Colony Theater Thread: I was hoping I could get folks to share their favorite movie experience at the Colony as they are closing tomorrow. I’ll start: Three or four years ago, I attended the Colony’s Cool Classics screening of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic ALIEN.

I sat up close and got more engrossed in the film than any other time I had seen it. Of course, this was largely because I had never seen it on the big screen before, but it was different this time because this time I felt like I was watching the movie back in 1979 when it first came out.

That’s right, I seriously felt transported into not just the world of the movie but the world of the theater that had probably shown the movie back then. Those who are well acquainted with the décor of the shag carpeting on the walls can probably imagine the feeling somewhat as the theater never lost its ‘70s looks. This vivid memory of that ALIEN screening is one I’ll never forget - when the Colony became a time machine.

Anybody else got a favorite movie experience at the Colony story?

Here are some responses:

Matt Pennachi (Former Cinema Overdrive Series curator): I'm not sure how to craft it into a story that is actually interesting to read, but having a chance to run SLAP SHOT on 35mm was a real thrill to me. In particular, having the opportunity to run the National Film Board of Canada cartoon of "The Sweater" (which was a childhood favorite of mine) before the film was awesome.....particularly when I had to manually chance the masking from scope to flat as we transitioned from the cartoon to the feature.

Jennifer Love (Rialto Theater Manager): When Ambassador first bought the Colony, I remember being there when the new floor carpeting was being installed and helping paint the restrooms. Someone had decided to be creative on the stalls and go for that speckled look. We had old toothbrushes and dipped them in white paint and splattered spots onto the stall walls. That's how we did it and why there are so many different sizes of spots. I think I had more white paint splatters on me than the stalls!

I also worked matinees back when Colony ran them everyday. Food lion was being constructed next door at that time. Clif and I worked the unexpected hit, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL and a sold out show around the holidays (can't remember which) of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. just the 2 of us! I still don't know how we did that. My favorite memories are of the midnight late shows. They played in house one: THE ABYSS, HEAVY METAL, THE SHINING and so many more. I know everyone will continue to love the Colony and all the memories made there. Good times.

Daniel Matti (Schoolkids Records Manager): I saw 13 ASSASSINS twice there. The only Takashi Miike film I've seen in theaters. I will miss the Colony.

Joel Frady (Fellow Film Critic): REQUIEM FOR A DREAM in 2000 - there must have been 50 or so people in the right theater, and when the credits rolled not a single person moved. Then, when the lights came up everyone slowly exited - but nobody said a word. We were almost back to NC State when I finally broke the silence with “Who wants a fucking Dairy Queen Blizzard?”

Joe Corey (Cinema Overdrive host): Fond memory of going over for a midnight screening of FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL! KILL! for the projectionist inspection. Also the joy of attending my first Cinema Overdrive and feeling at home. It was good to attend a program where I had utter trust in whatever Adam (Hulin) and Matt (Pennachi) programmed. Was so grateful for the months that I hosted the series while Adam was away.

Goodbye, Colony Theater (1972-2015). I, and many others, will miss you greatly.

More later...

Monday, December 14, 2015

To Get It Out Of The Way, Here's My STAR WARS Story From 1977

Not long ago, a film writer or fan (I can’t remember which, and the post is hard to locate) made a plea on Facebook for critics not to all start their reviews of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, releasing this week if you haven’t heard, by stating how much the original movie or trilogy meant to their childhoods.

It’s a good point, as the experiences of so many folks with the series are identical, mine included: As a kid, I grew up on STAR WARS (still not calling it A NEW HOPE, dammit!), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and RETURN OF THE JEDI, as an adult hated the prequels, and as an older adult I have a sliver of hope that J.J. Abrams will deliver a new entertaining entry that lives up to at least some of the hype.

But, in the interest of keeping it out of my review, I do have a story to share about seeing the film for the first time. I was seven in the summer of 1977, when my family - 
my parents and my older brother - and I went to the Varsity Theater in downtown Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to see STAR WARS. 

George Lucas’ sci-fi epic had a limited release in May – the date May 25, 1977 is tattooed in the back of every geek’s brain – but it didn’t open wide and come to my hometown until July 1st.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t go to see it the weekend it opened. I have memories of seeing many TV spots for it, plus pictures in newspapers and magazines that intrigued me greatly (that was as big as the buzz got in the pre-internet era) before my Mom and Dad gave in and took us some night in July, which I think was a weeknight. 

Like just about every kid, I was blown away by the movie – it was incredible looking from the first wide screen space shot to the last, really funny (I still remember the roar of laughter when R2-D2 falls face down after being zapped by a Jawa), and all around exciting, ultra fun stuff.

But, although it became my favorite movie in the years to come - collected the toys, had the posters on my bedroom walls, went as Luke Skywalker for Halloween, etc. - my first words walking out of the theater indicated a less than glowing viewpoint:

“‘King Kong’ was better.” I said this to my brother, and he has never let me forget it.

Now, it would be one thing if I meant the original, 1933 classic KING KONG, but I meant the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake, which had come out the previous Christmas. Now, I wouldn’t consider that film to define my childhood at all, but at the time it was my favorite of the very limited amount of movies I’d seen, and I apparently thought that STAR WARS hadn’t topped it.

Decades later, it’s been a well told story in my family with even my brother’s kids making fun of me for saying it (I join in on ridiculing my 7-year old self because, yeah, it is fun).

It feels good to confess that embarrassing moment here. I’ve come around to consider it one of my first moments of film criticism (albeit a hilariously misguided one). 

So I’m glad I got my childhood STAR WARS story out the way here so it won’t clog up my review of THE FORCE AWAKENS. For sure, nobody will want to hear it there.

I'll leave you now with this picture of a couple of iconic action figures that I dug up out of a lunchbox in my closet (a STAR WARS lunchbox, yes):

More later…

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA There's A Lot Of Boring Bombastic Bravado

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Ron Howard, 2015)

It’s Ron Howard’s “Moby Dick!”

No, not really. It’s Ron Howard’s adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 bestseller “In the Heart of the Sea,” about the incident that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 classic “Moby-Dick.”

Via a framing device, Melville, played by Ben Whishaw, gets the tale how the whaling ship Essex was destroyed by a ginormous 100-foot sperm whale told to him by Bremdan Gleason as Thomas Nickerson, who had been a 14 year old cabin boy on the ship at the time.

So we flash back to the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1821, where the young Nickerson (Tom Holland) fades into the background as Chris Hemsworth (THOR) as Owen Chase and Benjamin Walker (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) as George Pollard step forth as the stars. Hemsworth’s Chase, looking like he’s ready to pose for a romance novel cover, was promised that he’d be captain of the Essex, but the powers that be gave the job to the more refined rich boy Pollard.

Chase kisses his pregnant wife (Charlotte Riley) goodbye and the Essex sets sail on its voyage to hunt whales for oil. Tensions rise between Chase and Pollard when Chase defies the Captain’s orders in a vicious storm scene, but they agree to put their differences aside in order to achieve their chartered goal of 2,000 barrels of whale oil – a task that could take several years.

Several months into the voyage is where serious shit goes down. The whale we’ve been waiting for wreaks havoc on the ship and the crew in the central bombastic as hell action sequence, and the surviving sailors, including Chase, Pollard, Nickerson, and a few others including Cilian Murphy, looking as Willem Dafoe-ish as ever, as first mate Matthew Joy, are left with only three small open boats, and very little food or water.

As the men grow weaker so does the film. And, wouldn’t you know it, the cannibalism scene doesn’t help make the story any more compelling! Maybe it would’ve if I cared about these characters, but, even with knowing they were based on real people, the film’s mechanics made them feel like expendable cogs.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA has a lot of bluster and bravado bursting through its frames, especially during the whaling sequences, in which there's some mighty fine filmmaking. It’s too bad that its post production 3D conversion renders the imagery dark and murky, diluting its possible power.

That said, the film would still be problematic in 2D. Howard’s film, his 24th as director, is an attempt at a swashbuckling ocean epic that has more realism and grit than the Hollywood sea adventures of the past, but it’s so CGI saturated that its ends up having very little resemblance to reality, and as such, detachment and boredom massively set in.

It also bugs me that Nickerson and Melville never met in real life, something I didn’t know until after the movie, but still felt contrived in the film’s context. It’s TITANIC-style storytelling, and the film could’ve really done without it. 

Gleeson, as the boozy, disturbed Nickerson, is likable as always, and Whishaw does his best with his underwritten role, but their scenes add little but some random humor to the equation.

Hemsworth and Walker’s rivalry never gets very interesting either, so what we’re left with is an over-sized, over CGI-ed whaling spectacle that failed to leave much of an impression on me. From what I hear about this film’s opening grosses, I know I’m far from alone in that assessment.

More later...

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Film Babble Blog’s 2015 Fall Film Round-Up Part 1

So many movies, so little time.

With a few exceptions, I’ve found it to be a fine fall for film. The
movies that have stood out to me include THE MARTIAN, BRIDGE OF SPIESSTEVE JOBS, SICARIO, ROOM, SPOTLIGHT, and CREED (click on the titles to read my reviews), but there are many more that I have seen over the last few months but haven’t blogged about yet. So I thought I’d take a look back, and clean out my notebook in the process, especially because a bunch more movies are coming fast.

I’ll start with what’s currently #1 at the box office, Francis Lawrence’s THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 2, the fourth and final film in the popular franchise. I enjoyed the first two entries in the series, but haven’t been into either half of MOCKINGJAY. PART 2 is a washed out slog through bleak terrain with very little action (certainly not of the fiery kind that the poster implies) or emotional connection. Jennifer Lawrence and the rest of the cast make the most out of the murk, which has to do with our arrow-shooting heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and crew taking down the evil Capitol or some such, but I was so ready for it to end way before it did. The most notable, and maybe the most depressing, part is that it contains the last film work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose loss can really be felt in a concluding scene in which a letter from his character to Katniss has to stand in for him.

Next up, a few weeks back I had the choice between an advance screening of CREED and the new Pixar movie, Peter Sohn’s THE GOOD DINOSAUR. Because of their track record, I went with Pixar. I chose…poorly. The obvious upside is that the film, set in a world in which dinosaurs never went extinct, is gorgeously animated with stunning photo-realistic landscapes and vibrant colors that really pop in 3D. The downside is that, after half a decade of development hell with changes in director and voice cast, the resulting film’s story, about Arlo the Apatosaurus’ adventure accompanied by a feral caveboy, is probably Pixar’s least substantial. After the screening, I joked with friend, and fellow blogger, William Fonvielle of Filmvielle, that it needed a MacGuffin, but it probably really needed a few more re-writes.

A much better animated feature this season, is Steve Martino’s THE PEANUTS MOVIE, the first “Peanuts” film in 35 years (the last one, BON VOYAGE, CHARLIE BROWN (AND DON’T COME BACK!), I saw as a kid at the theater – I’m old). It’s apparent that the filmmakers, including Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz’s son Craig, and grandson Bryan, who co-wrote and co-produced, took a lot of care in paying proper tribute to the style, tone, and sentiment of the original strip (and the TV specials and movies), right down to every character’s expression. 

The premise, involving Charlie Brown trying to impress the ever elusive Little Red-Haired Girl, is full of humorous and heartfelt moments, and Snoopy’s subplot, involving his imaginary WWI air battles with the Red Baron, is pretty entertaining too. The animation may be a little too fancy - such intricately applied shadows and lighting on these kids’ faces seem a bit much at times – and I could’ve done without the pop song concessions, but this enjoyable update acutely captures Schultz’s ‘loser who wins’ spirit.

On the indie front, there’s John Crowley’s BROOKLYN which has been getting well deserved buzz and is currently #9 at the box office. It’s a very pretty period piece, based on Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed 2009 novel, that boasts a strong performance by Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, a shy Irish immigrant struggling to adapt to her new life in 1950s Brooklyn. In yet another likable turn, Jim Broadbent plays a kindly priest who helps Eilis get a job working a cosmetics counter in a department store, where she’s watched over by Jessica Paré (Mad Men) as the head clerk. Eilis finds love in the form of Emory Cohen as Tony, a charming Italian-American who scopes her out at a dance because he “likes Irish Girls.”

Eillis’ learns that her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) back home in Ireland has died and she decides to return home, but before she goes, she and Tony get secretly married at City Hall. Once back home she finds herself with a new suitor (Domhnall Gleeson) while letters from Tony stack up unopened. So our heroine, who grows more and more confident as the film progresses, has to make a choice between the two vastly different lifes.

The screenplay, adapted by Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY, AN EDUCATION), is tenderly written, giving Eilis’ story a lot of resonance, and it’s a handsome looking film, warmly shot by cinematographer Yves Bélanger (WILD, DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB). Although there’s another ‘50s-set drama (hint: it stars Cate Blanchett) soon to release that’s far superior, BROOKLYN is a beautifully drawn drama that is sure to get plenty of awards season action.

Stay tuned for part 2.

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Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Incredible CREED: One Hell Of A Legacyquel

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

CREED (Dir. Ryan Coogler, 2015) 

Over at the movie website ScreenCrush, critic Matt Singer coins a term that I really hope catches on: “legacyquel.” Singer writes that it describes a “very specific kind of sequel - in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors.”

The phrase fits, especially when applied to the highly anticipated seventh chapter in the STAR WARS saga, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (out in 2 weeks!), but it’s the seventh installment of the Rocky franchise, CREED, that really embodies what a great legacyquel should be all about. And it’s largely because it features an Oscar caliber supporting turn by the series’ star.

On the surface, CREED is a spin-off centered on Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed, the son of Rocky’s greatest opponent, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, and it works as such for its first 20 or so minutes.

Donnie’s back story is that he was born to a mistress of Apollo’s who later died leaving him to bounce from foster homes and juvenile detention, until his adoption by Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Donnie’s adopted mother worries about his fighting lineage, hoping that he’ll take a job in a corporate office instead of pursuing professional boxing, but she knows he’s his father’s son and there’s no getting in the way of his dream.

That’s where Sylvester Stallone, resurrecting Rocky Balboa from the ashes of what was supposed to be his swansong (2006's ROCKY BALBOA), comes into play. Donnie travels to Philadelphia to coax the Italian Stallion out of retirement to be his trainer, but Rocky, still running the restaurant established in the last sequel (ROCKY BALBOA), tells him that he “don’t do that stuff no more.”

You know it’s only a matter of time before Rocky gives in and we’re immersed in training montages of Donnie, in a familiar gray sweatsuit, intensely working out at the gym, running through the streets of Philly at dawn, and chasing chickens, all set to the triumphant score of Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, which, of course, calls upon Bill Conti’s iconic Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now” at just the right moments.

Stallone’s Rocky now takes on the part that Burgess Meredith’s Mikey played in the first three films in the series, that of the lead’s trainer/father figure, and he wears it well. The duo attempt to keep their collaboration under wraps, but after his first major fight with the gym owner’s (Richie Coster) son (Gabe Rosado) it gets out that Donnie is Apollo Creed’s offspring.

This leads to Graham McTavish as the manager of “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by real-life professional boxer Tony Bellew), setting up a fight between his client and Donnie. The highly hyped event will be the last professional match for Conlan as he is going to jail for seven years for gun possession, and it will serve as this entry’s trademark final fight.

Meanwhile, Donnie has a love interest on the side in the form of his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, SELMA), it turns out that Rocky has Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma but refuses to undergo chemotherapy because of what his late wife Adrian went through. This moment, in which Rocky faces his mortality in a cold hospital room, is one of the film’s most affecting. Stallone’s performance is a thoughtful and measured piece of work that deserves all the Oscar buzz its getting.

It’s also uplifting and exciting to witness the making of a bonafide movie star. Jordan bests his solid work in Coogler’s stirring 2013 debut FRUITVALE STATION, his first collaboration with screenwriter/director Coogler, and should really make a name for himself with his powerfully invested work here.

Jordan obviously did a lot of real training for the gripping and emotionally wrenching fight scenes, which were shot by cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Donnie’s first fight is a standout scene: a single, long unbroken shot taking place inside the ring, captured by stunningly choreographed camerawork.

In the incredible CREED, Coogler punches up the Rocky formula with great success. It believes so deeply in the Rocky mythos, that we believe in it too. We go along that these are real people with a shared history because every detail, from Rocky and Donnie’s interactions to the tidbits revealed about the past, is convincingly heartfelt. CREED keeps it real, while keeping all the Rocky feels.

It’s truly one of the biggest surprises of the year that CREED is as genuinely good as it is. It’s the must see movie event that few saw coming, and it’s, for sure, the legacyquel this season to beat. However, I hear that the Force is strong with its upcoming competitor.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SPOTLIGHT: A Journalism Procedural That Really Crushes It

Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses:

SPOTLIGHT (Dir. Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT is everything that James Vanderbilt’s Rathergate drama TRUTH wanted to be – a vital journalism procedural that actually has the facts to back up its case.

The film focuses on the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team into the scandal of child molestation and systematic cover-up within the Catholic Church.

The investigation is spearheaded by editor Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who has just joined the paper after a buyout. Baron tasks the team – made up of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) – to dig into the case against Father John Geoghan, a Catholic priest charged with sexual abuse of over 80 children.

The staff reports to assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., son of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame (see ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN) sharply played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame.

To prove that Cardinal Law found out about Geoghan 15 years earlier and did nothing, the Globe sues the church to obtain access to incriminating documents, something that may alienate the paper’s readership, 53% of which are Catholic.

With the help of lawyers Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), and Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), it doesn’t take long for the team to uncover that close to 90 priests in the Boston area have been accused of sexual misconduct.

McCarthy certainly atones for his previous film, the atrocious Adam Sandler vehicle THE COBBLER, with his passionately meticulous work here. The camerawork, shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, is straightforward as is the editing, as no flashiness is required to enhance the swift, compelling storytelling on display.

Many films have great casts, but SPOTLIGHT is my vote for best ensemble of 2015. Keaton, who was wrongly passed over by the academy for his performance in BIRDMAN last year, could be back in the Oscar race for his stellar turn here. Ruffalo, whose reaction to the enormity of the scandal is the most emotional, also stands out, and McAdams puts in her second solid performance of the year (SOUTHPAW was the first one). Schreiber, Slattery, James, Tucci, and Crudup crush it as well – man, this film is really a boy’s club! – and a few non-names such as Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton shine in roles as outspoken victims.

I bet that, much like its classic newspaper drama predecessors ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and ZODIAC, this is a film that will reward repeat viewings. Its pace and construction is tightly wound, but still takes time for some interesting moments in-between the unveiling of events – i.e. a shot of Scrieber looking for the publisher’s office, a beautifully framed shot of Ruffalo, James, and McAdams working at their desks with Keaton in his office behind them (see above).

SPOTLIGHT will definitely make my top 10 films of 2015 list, and I’ll be pulling for it come Oscar time. The acting, screenplay, editing, direction, Howard Shore’s stirring score, etc. should all be acknowledged in the upcoming awards season.

More importantly, it should be seen. It has a lot of competition and isn’t playing on a huge amount of screens so folks should really seek it out. Too many great films slip through the cracks and are largely overlooked. Don’t let that happen to the brilliant, intelligent, and über insightful SPOTLIGHT.

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ROOM: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses:

ROOM (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)

Brie Larson’s sturdy performance in SHORT TERM 12 is considered by critics to be her breakthrough, but it’s her powerful work in ROOM, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning 2010 novel, that should make the actress a household name.

Larson plays Joy Newsome, a young woman living under horrifying conditions. For the last seven years Joy has been trapped in a sound-proofed, concrete garden shed in the backyard of the house of her abductor only known as Old Nick (Sean Bridges).

With Joy is her son, five-year-old Jack (first-time child actor Jacob Tremblay), the result of one of many rapes that Joy has suffered over the years. To Jack, the small, filthy space they live in is their entire world. Joy has maintained this illusion by telling Jack that there is nothing beyond the four walls of “room” except outer space, and that what he sees on their crappy beat-up TV is make believe.

However, the day has come for Joy to tell Jack the truth, because she’s devised a desperate plan for escape. Joy fakes Jack’s death, and rolls him up in a rug for Old Nick to take away in his pick-up truck. Joy instructs Jack to wriggle out, jump from the bed of the truck and run for help.

The plan is successful and Jack is able to direct the police to the shed, and mother and son are finally free. Jack is astounded at how big and limitless the real world outside the room is, while Joy struggles with rehabilitation.

Joy discovers that her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have divorced, and that her mother has a new boyfriend (Tom McCamus). Without spelling it out, Macy conveys how uncomfortable he is with having a grandson who is a product of rape.

Needing financial help, Joy agrees to do a prime time interview, but it doesn’t go well because of the glibly insensitive questions posed by the show’s host (Wendy Crewson).

This leads to Joy spiraling down into depression, and attempting suicide. Jack, still wide-eyed at his surroundings, gets his long hair, which he calls his “strong,” cut by his grandmother, and sends his ponytail to his mother in the hospital. This gesture helps in Joy’s recovery, and we see that once again Jack has saved his mother.

Abrahamson, whose film FRANK (the one with Michael Fassbender as a musician who wears a giant papier-mache head) was one of my favorite films of last year, handles this material with great poise. Every scene seems to have profound purpose, especially one late in the film where Joy and Jack revisit room for closure, though composer Stephen Rennick’s score lays it on a bit too thick at times.

I was incredibly moved by ROOM. It’s a durable drama that has moments of gripping suspense - i.e. the escape sequence – but it is its tender concern for its characters that will stay with me the most. It’s largely due to the stellar acting of the mother-son duo.

Tremblay puts in an impressive naturalistic performance for a 5-year old, although his voice-over narration, a totally unnecessary device here, gets a little icky.

Larson, who may be best known to mainstream movie-goers as Amy Schumer’s sister in TRAINWRECK, excels as Joy. One can feel her strained pain in her every expression, and all of her interactions with Tremblay shine with authenticity.

It’s flawless work, a career best, and if she doesn’t get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, I’ll be very offended.

ROOM’s dark disturbing first half is exceedingly effective, but it’s the way that its second half earns its uplift that makes it a fully rounded, and satisfying emotional experience.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

One Last Christmas Eve Blow-Out In THE NIGHT BEFORE

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE NIGHT BEFORE (Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2015)

Sure, the premise of this Seth Rogen joint is pretty flimsy - i.e. three friends have one last Christmas Eve blow-out and farcical hilarity ensues - but after giving the silly stoner spin to such subjects as the apocalypse, cancer, and Kim Jong-un, I’m cool with that, as long as they keep the laughs coming.

And that they do, right from the get-go with a very welcome voice-over appearance by Tracy Morgan reciting rhyming lines in the familiar style of the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem from which the film derives its title. This gives us the set-up that back in 2001, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Ethan lost his parents in an automobile accident, and in an effort to cheer him up, his friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) initiate a hard partying holiday tradition that later comes to include an ongoing quest through the streets of New York City to find the elusive, mysterious Nutcracka Ball, considered “the Holy Grail of Christmas parties.”

In the present day, Isaac is a successful lawyer whose wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth to their first child, Chris is a pro football player who’s just started to get a taste of stardom, and Ethan is stuck in a rut as a struggling musician who has to take work that involves dressing as an elf and serving hors d’ourves at a corporate party on Christmas Eve.

The job is humiliating but things look up when while working coat-check Ethan happens upon 3 tickets to the Nutcracka Ball. Ethan gleefully steals them, quits his job, and runs off to find his friends. Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s most implausible moments (of which there are many), Isaac’s wife Betsy gifts him a neatly packaged box of hallucinogenic drugs and encourages him to go wild at his get-together. Yeah, sure.

So the fellows don tacky Cosby-style Christmas sweaters (Ethan’s has a standard line of red reindeer, while Isaac’s has a Star of David and Chris’s a black Santa – see above) and hit a karaoke bar, where they perform Run-DMC's “Christmas in Hollis,” and run into Ethan’s ex Diana (I forgot to mention that the guy is still reeling from a break-up) played by Lizzy Caplan.

Caplan, who, as a veteran of Party Down, THE INTERVIEW, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, and going way back with these guys to the Freaks and Geeks days, is well acquainted with such sausage party shenanigans, is accompanied by Mindy Kaling (The Office U.S., The Mindy Project), who gets her phone mixed up with Isaac.

This leads to Isaac, who’s gone goofy by consuming most of the drugs in his gift box, getting dick pic texts and not knowing how to respond.

In true Seinfeldian-fashion, each character has their obsessive hang-up - Isaac’s is that he’s too fucked up to function, Chris is wanting to score weed for his team’s quarterback that he’s trying to impress (this is one of the film’s clunkiest scenerios, which involves Mackie chasing Broad City’s Ilana Glazer as an evil drug stealing freak), and Ethan’s is, of course, wanting to get back together with Diana.

And in a wonderfully unexpected appearance, a hilariously deadpan Michael Shannon shows up as the guy’s high-school pot dealer, Mr. Green. This marks the second time that Shannon has stolen a movie away from Gordon-Levitt (see: PREMIUM RUSH). Shannon kills it here – every line is a stone cold gem – so much so that he ought to have his own comedy vehicle some day.

The only thing that matters in a movie like this is if it’s funny, and THE NIGHT BEFORE has some of the funniest moments of any comedy I’ve seen this year, and it has a warm, fuzzy heart that conveys way more genuine Christmas spirit than, say, crap like the dysfunctional family comedy LOVE THE COOPERS (currently #3 at the box office).

The joyous energy that Rogen and gang, including screenwriters Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg, bring to this round of crude gags, dick jokes, drug jokes, wacky mishaps, pop culture riffs, and surprise cameos, is crazy infectious.

THE NIGHT BEFORE is way better than THE INTERIEW, but a notch below THIS IS THE END on the scale of output of from the Apatow alma mater. It may have lazy plotting, some overly obvious set-ups, and much silliness just for silliness’ sake, but it brings so much in the way of laughter, likability, and an undoubtedly sincere theme of friendship, that it more than makes up for those faults.

It did make me wonder how much longer the 33-year old Rogen can make these man-child has to face growing up movies. He’ll probably yet again take a cue from Apatow, and do ‘em til the big 4-0. As long as he keeps bringing the funny, that’s fine by me.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Raleigh-Cary Area Finally Gets Around To Celebrating Orson Welles’ 100th Birthday

The 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary film-maker Orson Welles was half a year ago (May 6th to be exact), but here in N.C. it’s better late than never to celebrate as special showings of some of the man’s best work are hitting local screens this month.

Earlier this month The Cary Theater in downtown Cary hosted a Cinema Studies Screening of Orson Welles’ 1957 thriller TOUCH OF EVIL, presented by the Modern School of Film, and kicked off a Sunday afternoon series of November Welles screenings with the director’s 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel THE MAGNIFICIENT AMBERSONS.

The Sunday series continues at The Cary with Welles’ most acclaimed film, 1941’s CITIZEN KANE on the 15th at 2 pm. I previously wrote about seeing KANE at the theater last year (my first visit to the newly refurbished venue).

The following Sunday, the 22nd, the lesser known, but still essential, THE STRANGER (1946) will be featured, and the series wraps up on the 29th with Welles’ final completed film F FOR FAKE (1973).

On Friday, November 13th, the Colony Theater in North Raleigh is opening the new 4k digital restoration of Carol Reed’s 1949 film-noir masterpiece THE THIRD MAN for a week long run. While Welles didn’t direct, many film buffs feel that his film-making fingerprints such as use of deep focus, long takes, and abstract angles are all over the sublime post-WW II thriller. There’s no doubt to his contribution in his writing of his own dialogue as the iconic Harry Lime character, especially when it comes to the famous “Cuckoo Clock” speech.

As the Colony Theater is sadly closing next month, it’s great that they’re showing such a classic piece of cinema as THE THIRD MAN before shutting down (The Colony will also be showing such notable films as THE PRINCESS BRIDE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and DARK STAR in the weeks ahead, click here for more info).

I have to work this Sunday so I’ll be missing The Cary’s screening of CITIZEN KANE, but I will be attending The North Carolina Museum of Art’s showing of the film on Friday, November 20th. It’ll be my first visit to the redesigned SECU Auditorium, and I’m taking my 17-year old nephew Linus, who’s never seen it or much in black and white for that matter.

Last summer, I was talking to Linus about the Netflix superhero series Daredevil and how good Vincent D’Onofrio is as the villain Wilson Fisk, and I mentioned that D’Onofrio had played Orson Welles more than once (in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, and in his own short film FIVE MINUTES, MR. WELLES, which you can watch here).

“Who’s Orson Welles?” Linus asked, and, well, I was a bit taken back. Still, as this happens a lot when I babbling about some old thing to kids who are completely disconnected to it, I dropped the subject.

More recently, Linus told me that he may want to study film in college – he’s not sure where he’ll go to college, mind you – and I said that he really ought to see CITIZEN KANE – it’s Film 101.

My first experience with Welles was seeing THE MUPPET MOVIE with my grandmother when I was 9, something I’ve written about before. Welles had a cameo in the film as the powerful head of a movie studio who signs up Kermit and gang to be stars (“prepare the standard ‘Rich and Famous’ contract for Kermit the Frog and Company

My grandmother, who is still alive, told me who Welles was – KANE, the “War of the Worlds” radio show, etc. – and the seed was planted, but it was years before I actually watched any of his work.

So now I’m attempting to pass on my Orson obsession, or, better yet, the movie-loving gene to my nephew – we’ll see how that goes.

For those of you out there that are new to Welles, there is a great documentary that came out last year, Chuck Workman’s MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES, available now on Blu ray and DVD. It gives a fairly thorough overview of Welles career in 91 minutes, and despite its overly tidy summing up of some messy material, it makes for a good introduction to the man.

Scores of vivid vintage photographs, generous samplings of archival footage, and sound-bites from insightful interviews from the likes of Norman Lloyd, biographer Simon Callow, Steven Spielberg, Buck Henry, and Peter Bogdonavich help tell Welles’ tale, and it’s cool to see clips of Welles being portrayed by the aforementioned D’Onofrio, Christian McKay in Richard Linklater’s ME AND ORSON WELLES, Liev Schreiber in Benjamin Ross's 1999 HBO telefilm RKO 281, and Jean Guerin in Peter Jackson's 1994 crime drama HEAVENLY CREATURES in the mix. *

Of course, it’s the words from Welles himself that are the most notable. Some choice quotes: “I’m ashamed of Rosebud, it’s a rather tawdry device - it doesn’t stand up very well, ” “You know, I always liked Hollywood very much – it just wasn’t reciprocated,” and “I would’ve sold my soul to play THE GODFATHER, but I never get those parts offered to me.”

Well, that’s enough Welles for now. Hope to see a lot of folks coming out to see these classics on the big screen in Cary and Raleigh. And, by the way, this post is part of my new “Drag a kid to KANE” initiative. Yeah, that’s right – I’m really trying to start that as “a thing.”

* I posted about actors who've played Welles back in 2008 as well: A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes (5/5/08)

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Saturday, November 07, 2015

SPECTRE Isn't Especially Bond At Its Best

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SPECTRE (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2015)

WARNING: This review contains Spoilers! But I bet you guessed the supposed biggest one two years ago.

James Bond is back, but this time he’s far from “better than ever” as the ad campaign has declared every time a new entry has appeared since the series began in the early ‘60s.

There’s a considerable drop-off in quality in Agent 007’s 24th adventure, SPECTRE, from his previous outing, but since that was the universally acclaimed, box office record-breaking smash SKYFALL, that’s hardly surprising.

And that's just it - as hard as they tried, there are no surprises in Daniel Craig's fourth time out as Bond. Let's start with how Mendes and Co. misguidedly took a page from the reboot rulebook established by STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS by lying to fans for years about the villain's identity.

J.J. Abrams and his crew swore up and down that Benedict Cumberbatch was not playing the series' most notorious villain, Khan, in the second installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise and we got burned bad there. So much so that Abrams admitted later that they screwed up the reveal.

When news got out that Christoph Waltz was cast in SPECTRE, the first thought everybody interested had was that he must be playing the Bond series' biggest villain, Ernest Stavro Blofeld.

But when Waltz was asked if he was playing Blofeld, he replied: “That is absolutely untrue. That rumor started on the Internet, and the Internet is a pest.”

Well, the internet must be a pest because they guess things right sometimes.

Beyond that, the film is a stitched together collection of overly familiar action set pieces hung on a story-line that's no match for the plot of the last MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie.

The plot being that Bond, spurred on by a cryptic video message left by his deceased superior M (brief final Judi Dench cameo!), Bond goes on a rogue mission (hello, LICENSE TO KILL) to track down the titular evil organization behind a new electronic global surveillance initiative called Nine Eyes set to dismantle the MI6 00-division.

SPECTRE starts off smashingly with a pre-credits scene involving a high-jacked helicopter (hello, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY!) going out-of-control above the huge crowds of Mexico's Day of the Dead festival, but after the rather lackluster theme song “Writing's On The Wall,” it settles into draggy drama for a bit.

The new M (Ralph Fiennes) puts Bond on leave, so Q (Ben Whishaw) only gives him one gadget (a watch that can explode) and tells 007 “enjoy your downtime!” Of course, Bond disregards the notion of taking a break, steals MI6's snazzy new Aston Martin DB10, and heads off to Italy where he hooks up with Monica Bellucci as the widow of the guy Bond killed at the film's beginning, and he learns of a secret meeting of international terrorists that he is able to infiltrate a little too easily.

This is where Waltz as Blo...sorry, Franz Oberhauser, clothed in shadowy darkness, comes in and senses Bond's presence in the room immediately. This leads to a pretty standard-issue car chase through the streets of Rome, then Bond follows another lead to the snow-covered mountain terrain of Austria. 

There he hooks up with Léa Seydoux as Madeleine Swann (sadly, the more age appropriate Bellucci is long out of the picture), the daughter of Bond's former adversary Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, making his third appearance in the series after CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE). 

This, of course, leads to another chase, with 007 chasing after the film's Oddjob stand-in Mr. Hinx (WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista) in a commandeered private plane that gets its wings clipped (hello, LIVE AND LET DIE!).

Meanwhile, Fiennes's M frets over a merger with MI5 and clashes with his new superior, C (Andrew Scott, best known as Moriarty on Sherlock), while Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Whishaw) have more screen-time than usual on the sidelines aiding 007 and M.

Bond and Swann follow another lead to Morocco, and after a brutal fight on a train with Mr. Hinx (Hello, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, LIVE AND LET DIE, and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME!), they make their way to SPECTRE's meteor crater lair (like Blofeld’s volcanic lair in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE!), and that's where we get the lowdown on our villain's background and all that other spoilery stuff (apart from Waltz's identity as Blofeld there actually are some plot-points here I'll refrain from describing).

The London-set climax, which involves blowing up the remains of the old MI6 building, and more helicopter shenanigans, isn't very inspired and whatever excitement was in the film had drained from the film way before they get there.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis, John Wade, John Logan, and Jez Butterworth unsuccessfully try to duplicate the highlights of SKYFALL, which all but Butterworth scripted, and the result is an uneven, and frustratingly paced narrative.

And, running at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it’s the longest, and most drawn out, Bond movie of the series. That’s another strike against it. 

But back to my original beef about how they tried to hide that Waltz was playing Blofeld. This is no way to treat the re-introduction of SPECTRE, absent from the franchise since DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER for legal reasons.

It would’ve been a better move, and, I bet made for a better movie, if they’d just announced up front that the two-time Academy Award winner was portraying 007’s most powerful and iconic foe, instead of fashioning their film around such an obvious “twist.”

Instead we’ve got this epically ineffective Bond in which Craig looks bored and ready to go home. After this routine ride with such a surprise fail, that’s sure how I felt.

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