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.

More later...