Thursday, December 29, 2016

10 Worst Films of 2016

At some point between now and the time the Oscars air on February 26th, I will have my complete list of my 50 favorite films of 2016 posted. So many various best of lists are already out because they come from critics and publications that are able to see every film either prior to their release or immediately after, and I am just not able to. Being that this is merely a passionate hobby for me while working full time elsewhere, finding time to go see every major award contender released late in the year isn't plausible, at least by the time the calendar flips. That extra month or two though, that's when I will see things like La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and Silence.

For now, as it stands, I have seen just under 150 films released in 2016 and I wouldn't be surprised if I get up to around 175 by the time I wrap it up. While it is possible that one of those remaining to be seen pictures ends up being a massive disappointment to the point of being among the worst movies of the year, it certainly isn't probable. If La La Land finds its way to the bottom ten...I can't even wrap my mind around that concept enough to finish the thought. So, I feel pretty safe in my ability to declare the following ten movies as the worst of 2016.

As always, it is important to remember that these rankings are solely based on my opinion and I truly never mean to insult anyone who may have enjoyed some of them. I hope you did. I never root for others to share my dismay towards something that doesn't work for me, so if you see one here that simply entertained you or even something you connected with on an emotional level, that's awesome. For me though, these movies range from painfully dumb to having to witness a legend stoop to an insufferable level I can't even comprehend.

10. Zoolander 2

Many would say, but the original Zoolander was stupid too so what would you expect? I genuinely enjoy the hell out of the first movie though. Sure it is stupid, but that word can sometimes be applied vaguely without giving proper credit to the execution of the stupidity. Zoolander was so dumb it succeeded at making me laugh over and over and over again thanks to absurd characters and set pieces and ideas. What makes the sequel such a failure is its inability to walk any new ground at all, instead trying to retrace the footsteps of the original by duplicating jokes. It's so lazy it doesn't even deserve to be remembered, and honestly I barely do remember it. 

9. The Sea of Trees

Maybe Zoolander 2 did have a little bit of a I should have known better feeling to it, since when they announced a sequel I could already sort of smell the stench of failure. The Sea of Trees, however, is just an epic disappointment from acclaimed director Gus Van Sant with a talented cast featuring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts. The worst part is they could have done something special with the basic concept of a suicidal man finding another man in need of help in the forest of Mt. Fuji, kept it grounded to their circumstances and conveyed emotional depth through their storytelling only. The decision to flash back to show what brought one man to the brink of suicide and the laughable absurdity that we witness during those flashbacks, just awful, and the very end of the film is a disaster that made me laugh hard enough to shed a tear or two, but it's not meant to be funny. 

8. The Choice

I have seen a few of the films adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels. The Choice has to be the worst. It's formulaic, boring, poorly acted nonsense from start to finish. I am not immune to the charm of a romance, even a melodramatic, predictable one. I have probably seen A Walk to Remember 5 times and would watch it again if given the chance. The Choice is terrible and I barely could sit through it once. 

7. The Boy


I can't. I have nothing else I could possibly say about this movie. Next.


I get it, I am not exactly the target audience of this one, but yeesh. 

XOXO contains the most unintentionally hilarious sequence in a movie this year, when a young DJ has his big chance to perform in front of a massive crowd, and he is so nervous about whether he can do it, and his friend gives him a motivational speech so he finds the courage to walk out on that stage, and they do a close up of a bead of sweat on his brow, and then a close up of a deep breath, and then...he plugs in a USB drive and his music starts playing. It's so perfect.

5. The 5th Wave

Fan of The Hunger Games franchise, find the Divergent movies to be at best mediocre, but the young adult shit really hit the fan this year with The 5th Wave. It has been a long time since I saw this one very early in 2016, but I recall it failing for me on basically every level. 

4. The Brothers Grimsby

I couldn't find a single laugh in The Brothers Grimsby no matter how hard I looked. Nothing. It was just a cold, gross, slog of a "comedy" that I couldn't wait to end, and honestly I think I did turn it off with a few minutes to spare. Perhaps the ending was so amazing it would have saved the movie from being ranked on this list. I doubt it.

3. The Do-Over

I was tempted to write about how silly Netflix was to pay Adam Sandler roughly 20 million dollars a movie for a four movie contract, but then I realized I watched the movie. So what the hell do I know, right? 

The Do-Over is dreadful.

2. The Boss

So much bad comedy in 2016, and unfortunately there is even more to come after The Boss. So much time spent not laughing at material designed to elicit laughter. Putting this list together is forcing me to relive some of these movies, and it's quite painful.

1. Dirty Grandpa

Goodness, this movie. The absolute worst of the worst. Just an atrocious hellscape of comedic misfirings and pathetic attempts to equate crudeness with laughter. Don't get me wrong, crude material can work when it is good crude material. Watching Robert De Niro navigate these waters, this legend of acting who was in films like The Deer Hunter, The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and so was a difficult pill to swallow. It isn't as if he is a victim here, he took the role and I assume he read some portion of the script before doing so. I just can't wrap my mind around it. Dirty Grandpa is, without a doubt, the worst film of 2016. It's almost not fair to associate the other 9 films with it because it is so much worse than them. The Boss is a Best Picture candidate compared to Dirty Grandpa

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Arrival Review

I remember a time growing up when science fiction almost felt like shameful, dirty words, with any interest in them reflecting a person's level of uncool. Of course this was at a time when wearing a shirt with a superhero on it would have gotten someone beat up or mercilessly mocked, and these days the trendy stores with an adolescent target audience can't keep them on the shelves, so things change. When I was 15 years old a friend and I skipped school to wait outside all day for tickets to see Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and it was a day I may never forget, yet when I returned to class the following morning I lied about what I had done the day prior. Had to. After all, the cute girls were sitting nearby and I wouldn't want to kill my (nonexistent) chances with them drowning in my nerd truth. I can't help but wonder if kids are lying about their interest in Star Wars now. I doubt it.

The funny thing about growing up embarrassed to be a fan of science fiction is just how broad of a genre it is and never having the balls to point this out. Only nerds like Sci-Fi, says the bully who went to see The Matrix four times in theaters. From fun, silly escapism to deep space travel to intensely personal, human stories, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Jurassic Park to The Hunger Games, the odds are strong at some point all of you have fallen in love with science fiction storytelling. For me, when the genre is at its absolute best, it taps into something deeper inside the audience, something moving and profound and perhaps even thematically polarizing. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is considered a science fiction film, but in reality it's a rich metaphor for coping with overwhelming, crippling grief. I can't even think about certain scenes in that picture without feeling the sudden urge to weep, but tears are not required for a Sci-Fi movie to resonate. Make me angry, make me hurt, inspire me or scare the living shit out of me, I don't care. I just want to feel something.

Why does it not surprise me that the best of the genre from 2016 would come from Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker who has consistently delivered incredible cinema on a nearly annual basis since 2009 when Polytechnique was released, his dramatization of the massacre that took place at a school in Montreal in 1989. After that it was Incendies, the story of two twins honoring their mother's final wishes to travel to the Middle East to discover the roots of their ancestry. Next was the bone chilling child kidnapping story Prisoners, probably my favorite of all his extraordinary work, followed by Enemy, a surreal mystery thriller about a man trying to find his exact double that he spots in the background of a movie frame. Last year Villeneuve unleashed Sicario, a gritty and brutal look at the violence along the U.S. - Mexico border involving the drug cartels as the FBI tries to bring them down.

This brings us to his 2016 Oscar contender Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. The film is smart, gorgeous, intimate and fascinating, with a screenplay that never allows itself to be dumbed-down in order to sort itself out with simplicity for the audience. Villeneuve and crew, notably Heisserer, director of photography Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannson, have created something that simultaneously feels current and important for today and yet a work that could have found its audience decades ago, a movie that should be celebrated for its originality while still demonstrating that it found inspiration in the work of Tarkovsky, Kubrick and more recently Zemekis with Contact, which was of course based on the writing of Carl Sagan.

Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks, played brilliantly by the outstanding and perfectly cast Amy Adams, and the opening shots of the movie tread in some familiar and some would say fatigued trope territory, but fear not, for this film has quite the surprise in store for the audience in the end. We see Louise and her daughter Hannah, a short montage of images of their relationship ending in Hannah's death from cancer while still in adolescence. Next we see Louise arriving to give a college lecture with everyone around her distracted by television sets broadcasting images of the incredible breaking news, the sudden arrival of twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft spread out randomly across the world. At this point I fully admit I was one of those concerned about the tired nature of where this would inevitably end, immediately questioning if the aliens would provide her some sort of afterlife connection to her daughter as a less than shocking emotional conclusion. I should have trusted the talent involved here to dig deeper and give me more, and they certainly did.

Louise finds herself involved in making first contact with the alien visitors after Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) asks her to join the team in order to try to understand their form of language in hopes for answers as to why they have come. Working alongside Louise is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and the sequences involving their direct communication with the two seven-limbed creatures, or "heptapods", instantly feel like top-tier cinema thanks to a pitch-perfect performance from Adams and stunning imagery. If you are waiting for violence, explosions and war, for revelations of weapon technology that the aliens plan to use for human annihilation, you have come to the wrong place with Arrival. Sure, the concept of defense due to the unknown motivations of these creatures is always in play, as well it should be when the military is involved in protecting humanity against a threat, but the point of this story is far more cerebral and heavy and essential than it devolving into such obvious and redundant territory.

Arrival serves as a reminder of the importance of intellect, communication and kindness at a time when it feels like our world wants to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a scene during the film when the different countries from around the globe decide to stop cooperating with each other, to break contact and instead focus on the threat solely directed at their own land and I couldn't help but think of numerous issues currently making headlines, from refugees needing a place to go for safety yet facing threats of closed borders to a universal pact on trying to reverse the negative effects of climate change while a newly elected ignoramus threatens to turn his back on the deal. We need intelligence. We need to communicate. We need to speak to each other with understanding and compassion in order to see the whole picture through clear eyes.

I cannot and would not go into detail regarding the end of this film, as I try to always remain spoiler free, but it is certainly something that will spark a lot of internal and external questioning while exiting the theater. Arrival is utterly spellbinding science fiction, one of the best films of 2016.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

"Save the rebellion! Save the dream!"

It took a long time for me to admit to myself that I was never going to be able to judge a Star Wars film with a completely clear, critical mind. At a time when nostalgia is thriving because so many people want that warm and welcoming blanket wrapped around them, there are few things that take me back to my childhood in a way that is so fresh and vivid that it almost feels like 25 years ago could have been yesterday. Star Wars is one of them. Now, I am not going to wax poetic in somber tones and ask that you hear sympathetic violins over my words as if I had a rough upbringing. I didn't. I have lived a blessed life from the moment I was born, but like anyone there were good and bad moments sprinkled throughout the adolescent years that shaped me into the person I am today. No matter what was happening, no matter how seemingly dark it got, I could count on the VHS tapes of my favorite trilogy waiting for me anytime I needed them. Some will roll their eyes at people like me and say it's just a movie, and in a sense they are right, but it's not that simple. The memories of my life are soaked in the frames of the original trilogy, and I will be seeing them play over those iconic cinematic images for as long as I am lucky enough to be able to. 

While some were turned off by the way The Force Awakens followed the blueprint of A New Hope, choosing to win the audience back with the familiarity of a winning formula, I fell deeply in love with that film when it was released a year ago and absolutely none of that magic has tapered off. Sure, all of those callbacks to the original films and hearing John Williams return to put some new twists on an established and brilliant musical score put a smile on my face and even the occasional tear in my eye, but the deeper reason why The Force Awakens worked wonders for me was on a character level. Both old and new, the characters across the board felt special and formed a uniquely fascinating bond quickly. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, all working together along with supporting players and a terrific script to bring what always made Star Wars great to a new generation.

When Disney laid out their plans to not only create new installments of the episodic series of films but also standalone features based on side stories previously referenced, I was excited because frankly, life is too short to complain about too much Star Wars, but I also had a question lingering in my head that cast just a bit of doubt over the success of their plan: would it work without the characters that mean so much to people? This especially applied to the first of these films, released this weekend titled Rogue One, because two years from now we will be watching the origin story of Han Solo and going forward after that I have heard other concepts rumored involving established characters. Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards who made the wonderful Monsters with limited resources and a terrific piece of blockbuster filmmaking with the new Godzilla, focuses on the rebel team that steal the plans for the Death Star that reveal the weakness utilized in A New Hope to destroy it, and thus beyond a few cameos and the return of a familiar, iconic villain, this is a Star Wars film that would rely almost entirely on a new cast and one that we would only know for a single movie.

That last part, the fact that it was a one-off that was certain to not receive the sequel treatment given that its sequel is, well, A New Hope, presented the most difficulty in making Rogue One work and sure enough that factor played a role in the biggest and for me only real flaw in the film. Trying to establish a team of characters that work together for such an important mission in only two hours, with the final (and amazing) battle sequence taking up 45 minutes of screen time made it pretty much impossible to develop these characters and provide the necessary depth to make their relationships blossom on screen. I have come across a fair amount of people complaining that the first hour plus of the film is "boring" when I didn't find that to be the case at all. If anything what Rogue One needs is more of this, 20-30 minutes more of character depth and relationship explaining/building because then, when the battle is raging and the bodies are falling to the ground in agony, the emotional impact of what we are seeing would be so much stronger.

I decided to sleep on Rogue One rather than start writing immediately when I got home last night, mostly because of what I addressed at the start of this review; my inability to properly critique films from a franchise that means so much to me. I am glad I did, not because I could sort out a growing pile of issues I had with it but rather so I could let everything that worked so wonderfully seep into my consciousness and dance around in there, like the incredible photography of Greig Fraser that created instantly indelible imagery that will prove to be unforgettable, like Vader's castle on Mustafar or his scene at the end of the film that is sublime, or the vast scope of the Death Star on screen that demonstrated the sheer daunting scale of such a weapon in a way we have never seen before. The fact that we get to visit new worlds and expand on this universe I love so much, with even just a brief visit to a planet called Eadu creating such an essential and gorgeous sequence taking place in the darkness during a driving rain. The performances, even if they weren't allowed to flourish properly, are still all on point, from Felicity Jones as the strong Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the man personally put in charge of constructing the Death Star, Diego Luna as Cassian, Donnie Yen as Chirrut, Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, Riz Ahmed as Bodhi and the supremely talented Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial Officer Orson Krennic. Also, Alan Tudyk shines as the newest droid to steal scenes in the universe, K-2SO. The cast is outstanding, and if given more time to breathe I truly think they would have proved to be a special new piece of the Star Wars universe. A solid musical score from composer Michael Giacchino that may not feature any one piece quite as brilliant as "Rey's Theme" that Williams introduced in The Force Awakens, but his arrangements balance the old and new well and the notes that haunt over various moments involving the Empire during the earlier portions of the movie stood out to me.

Rogue One is a thrilling film, terrific entertainment that is worth the price to go with family or friends and enjoy a spectacle on the big screen. Your kids may not ask you to rush out and buy the toys from this one at the same level as I'm sure they did with The Force Awakens (lord knows my kid wanted them all), but I would imagine Jyn will be a popular character for a lot of young girls out there that should feel proud that Disney has now gone back to back with Star Wars films featuring a female lead that demonstrates her power and bravery without needing to be saved by a knight in shining armor. Now if only they could go ahead and hire one of the many incredible female directors out there for a project, rather than give the massive gig of Episode IX to someone like Colin Trevorrow, but I digress. The point is, what does work during Rogue One outweighs what doesn't spectacularly, likely leaving most people in the audience walking out of the theater not picking apart the flaws but rather glowing in the adventure and action set pieces that are big, bold and beautiful.

I'm going to take my daughter to see it this weekend and I can't wait to experience it again. I can't stop smiling, even just writing this review as I play my favorite moments back in my head over and over. That's what Star Wars does to me. I can't help it.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Snowden Review

The most fascinating thing about Edward Snowden was how ordinary he was. This person, this seemingly very run-of-the-mill guy was suddenly the biggest public figure on the planet because he proved that all it takes is one individual willing to risk their own well-being for what they deem to be "the greater good" to shake the landscape of the country and the way people view it. Sure, it was always implied that he was a very smart man because he wouldn't have acquired his position with the CIA without being qualified, but that's really all we needed: implications. Conclusions we could form on our own about this man that sparked a nationwide debate and made any person out there holding onto confidential information wonder to themselves, would I ever be a whistle blower if I felt I was doing the right thing? Would I be brave enough to be the next Edward Snowden?

Laura Poitras' documentary from 2014 titled Citizenfour handled Edward Snowden and the gravity of his situation wonderfully. Just a guy, closing the blinds of his hotel room and keeping the "Do Not Disturb" sign hanging from his room door thanks to totally justifiable paranoia. The most powerful country in the world was looking to shut him up and bring him in, and yet documentarian Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill holed up with him and filmed the interview, talking face to face with the man that would tell the world just how comprehensive and invasive the United States surveillance programs truly are.

Perhaps the new film Snowden from Oliver Stone would have been more successful had it been released prior to Citizenfour (and I believe I read that Stone tried to stop the release of Poitras' documentary for this very reason), but I'm not sure if timing would have changed much. The story itself isn't any less fascinating today, and when I think of Citizenfour I get excited all over again regarding just how covert and secluded and essential the entire experience felt, yet while I was watching Snowden I was quickly disinterested by the way Stone framed the hero/villain, depending on which side of the aisle you fall on the subject, and his story.

When the film first started I was optimistic, but in a matter of minutes I literally asked myself this question: do I really want or need an Edward Snowden origin story? It didn't take long for me to tell myself the answer was no, watching Stone take an extraordinary subject and turn it into a poor excuse for Good Will Hunting meets The Bourne Identity, as no matter how many Rubik's cubes Snowden solved all I wanted to do was go back to a time when I thought of him as an everyman trying to change the world. Some would say, but it's the truth, and maybe it is, but do we always need a person's full truth? Haven't we all liked the idea of someone more than their reality?

Poor casting of talented people only make the light shining on the flaws of Snowden that much brighter, creating a film that feels like actors trying way too hard to play roles. This picture isn't a disaster, it has its riveting moments and the talent involved is undeniable, but the whole of it all is far more conventional and uninteresting than such a story ever deserves to be. Go watch Citizenfour instead.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Swiss Army Man Review

"Maybe everyone's a little bit ugly. Yeah, maybe we're all just ugly, dying sacks of shit and maybe all it'll take is one person to just be okay with that."

I have never been the most agreeable person when confronted with a social situation. I'm not, can't get the words to come out and start sweating before running away bad, but I just never feel like I am in my element when surrounded by new people in a new environment. Every minute feels like a tiny struggle rather than the warm breeze I welcome when I am soaking in my comfort zone, with friends or family or when I am alone. Gosh I love being alone, the couple of hours late at night when the lights are low, the world is still and I am completely free to not say a single word but rather digest those written by screenwriters and spoken by the actors on screen. This isn't a slight to those friends or family, and those closest to me understand that by now. I simply need that time each night to let my banal daily concerns melt away, focusing instead on stories told by and about others.

It wasn't always this easy though. It was never can't get the words to come out and start sweating before running away bad, but that doesn't mean the words ever came out naturally, I'm certain there was some sweating and I constantly had to fight the temptation to run away. Growing up is never easy for anyone, except for maybe one of those teenage Kardashian's and the Trump son who looks like he would have tried to date Rory Gilmore at Yale, and as a teenager I felt like I was putting on a costume every single day. I'm sure this is quite common, I know that now, but at the time all I could be certain of was what I saw in the mirror looking back at me. The expensive clothes I bought and the obsessive and unhealthy weight loss, all so I could play a character that would get the girl, and the thing is I did. I got a girl. I felt like Gene Kelly swinging on a lamppost in the rain. I got a girl.

It was never going to amount to anything, and looking back on it, all of the joy of that first relationship has been rendered meaningless. I wore the expensive clothes, I stayed in perfect shape, and I ended up resenting the girl because I was never allowed to be me.

Swiss Army Man opens up with Hank (Paul Dano) on the beach of a deserted island preparing to hang himself. He has been stranded for some time and has lost any hope of being found, but then suddenly a dead body washes ashore. He tries to resuscitate the man but is greeted by little success and a steady wave of flatulence, which quickly becomes an unlikely source of hope when the body begins to propel itself through the water thanks to its farts. Hank quite literally rides the corpse across the ocean much like a jet ski, reaching the land he thought he would never see again thanks to the help of his new deceased friend.

Yes, this is the real premise to a real film, and a great one at that. I remember the first time I saw the trailer for Swiss Army Man in the theater, and the murmurs that filled the room after it ended were likely not positive nor truly negative but more in the realm of astonishment that such a story would be told in the first place. It's exactly these reactions that truly shine a light at how wonderful the screenplay for this film is, written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (whom go by "Daniels"), because it completely subverts expectations by taking such crude, juvenile humor and elevating it into something thoughtful, meaningful and at times even profound. Early on in the film after he first discovers the body and rides around on it, I didn't think there was a chance in hell I would be able to take the picture seriously and yet there I was later on as Hank is having conversations with a dead man named Manny, teaching him about how joyful the minutiae of life can be, and I was moved.

Notice I said Hank had conversations with a dead man. That's because the corpse in the film talks, and the man doing the talking is Daniel Radcliffe, and what a terrific performance it is. Once you peel back the curtain that initially blocks your view, one made of farts and erections, you see the beauty in this whole thing so creatively put together by the Daniels. You see the passion and love they have for a film that is built on a foundation of low brow material and yet they are able to make an audience feel high with exuberance when they see the touching moments between Hank and Manny, and it helps a lot that Dano and Radcliffe have such excellent chemistry.

Swiss Army Man is so imaginative and fascinating, and discovering the deeper meaning to everything you might initially deem shallow is a real treat. Sure, a dead guy farts a lot, but for Hank it is symbolic for feeling free, for being comfortable enough around another person to not hold back who you are. Accompanied by a musical score by Manchester Orchestra that is flat out perfect for this strange, wonderful journey, this film certainly isn't for everyone but those that find its heart will fall in love with the bond between a man and a corpse. It's unbelievable that this whole things works, a reminder that originality is alive and well as long as such interesting projects continue to get funded and supported by studios that believe in innovative storytellers.

The driving force behind Hank's desire to get back home is a girl named Sarah, played by the beautiful and supremely talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead whom still has delivered one of the better performances of the year in 10 Cloverfield Lane. For much of the film her character is relegated to being simply a photo on the lock screen of Hank's phone, but she delivers the final three words of the movie that perfectly encapsulate exactly how everyone watching this movie feels at some point. I know I said them once or twice, but I had a smile on my face when I did.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Elle Review

I will admit, I was taken aback by it. It's hard enough when a film includes any rape scene at all, to stomach what we are seeing, but typically the audience has had time to settle into their seats. Digest some of their popcorn before that awful feeling creeps into their stomach while they watch such a heinous and unthinkable crime. Paul Verhoeven doesn't deal with typical and the least of his concerns in regards to Elle is how your stomach feels. Opening a film mid-rape feels like a new level of perversion, the ultimate fly on the wall situation in which no sane person would hope to be said fly. It's a shocking and uncomfortable way to start a film, but what follows soon after the assault is perhaps more shocking. It's the way normalcy overwhelms the victim's movements so quickly, as if what just occurred isn't that big of a deal, but thanks to an Oscar worthy performance from Isabelle Huppert, we know that at least some part of her is both physically and emotionally scarred. Like so many rape victims, she buries it. Verhoeven said that he initially pursued an American actress to play the lead but no one would go near the role due to the content, and knowing that, bless Huppert for not only taking it but utilizing the material to perfection. The screenplay is so layered that there is almost too much to try to unpack in one viewing, and it was essential that the right actress lead the way.

Michèle cleans up the broken dishes and throws them away. She takes a bath, and even when blood begins to surface as a result of the attack she merely moves the bubbles around to hide it. She orders takeout. Despite being assaulted in her own home, a place that one should feel safe in rather than vulnerable, the police are never called. Michèle just carries on with life, and continues to despite what becomes clear soon after: the attacker isn't done with her yet. Text messages and other threats that not only make it known the first assault wasn't random, but that he is someone close to her. Close enough to know her current location and exactly what she is wearing. Nevertheless, life goes on, but every window or empty room in Michèle's home feels dangerous and far too accessible.

Elle is a mystery in a sense, but Verhoeven isn't all that interested in that aspect of the storytelling. Initially I thought that the cat and mouse game being played involving unsettling threats from a man in a ski mask would last the duration of the film, that the big final confrontation would reveal the identity of the assailant, but it's a pretty safe assumption that like me, you will guess exactly who it is without too much of a struggle. The film isn't about who, but rather the psychology of the victim, illustrating that there is no standard response the world should expect from someone who goes through something so tragic.

One of the most fascinating themes under Verhoeven's microscope is power and the way different people respond to it, and how gender roles factor into sex. The intercourse shown during the film ranges from horrifically violent to rather mundane, at least in the way Michèle behaves during it, showing little to no interest in her partner beyond the general desire to "get laid". Towards the end of the film after consensual sex with Robert (Christian Berkal), the husband of her business partner Anna (Anne Consigny), he compliments her regarding how great it was that she pretended to be a corpse. This is not a reflection of Michèle's libido as we see quite clearly her desires during a scene in which she masturbates while watching the handsome neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom lives across the way, but merely her lackluster response to traditional lovemaking in which the man takes control. At one point she finds herself in a situation that is bound to result in intimacy when that neighbor is inside her home, but when she demonstrates power over the situation and makes it clear what she wants, he's the one to push away and leave.

Those who are familiar with the work of Paul Verhoeven, with films that were initially misunderstood only to garner critical acclaim and find their audience years later like Robocop and Starship Troopers (I know Showgirls is also viewed in this light, but I am yet to see the film), will hopefully understand and appreciate that what might seem controversial on the surface is meant to push buttons and disturb viewers in order to make people think and lead to discussions as to what point he was trying to make as a storyteller. From his examination of power and even the way he illustrates this away from sexual intimacy, like flipping gender roles and having Michèle and Anna run a video game company while all the men in the office report to them, some pleasantly and others with resentment, to the way he presents rape with a sense of honesty that others won't by avoiding cliches that only demonstrate the way the world assumes one copes with such pain. What angers me quite often is when assumptions are made in regards to a crime based on a general observation of behavior from the victim or the accused, that a rape couldn't have occurred because the victim "seemed fine" or that one is guilty because they didn't grieve exactly the way you would imagine, ignoring that people express emotion or bury their sadness in different ways. So many victims of sexual assault will continue to see the person who hurt them, sometimes even romantically. Not all stories end with someone stumbling into a police station in tears, looking to file a report.

Many will be troubled after seeing Elle because they will exit the theater believing it is an apologist's view of sexual assault, that portraying a strong, female lead character who seems to relinquish that strength due to her acceptance and perhaps even what some perceive as enjoyment of the attacks happening to her is problematic. If that's your take, fine, but it's misguided and unfair to the careful construction of this excellent picture from a director who has made a mighty fine living delivering satire that is missed and thus misunderstood. The rape scenes in the film are not erotic or sexy in even the slightest way. It almost physically hurts to watch them, but while sex can be beautiful and violence is ugly, Verhoeven wants to drag the audience into the grey area that is considered taboo to many despite being a rather commonplace fantasy, when those two worlds come together. The result is an engrossing, bizarre, and unique cinematic experience, one of the very best of 2016.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Manhunter Review

With a lot of films, I can recall the exact place and time I first witnessed their stories unfold. Perhaps it was a theater trip with specific friends or family, or on an awkward date with a girlfriend in high school. Maybe it was at someone's home, or maybe my own in the middle of the night with the lights off, nothing but the images on screen flashing through the room to illuminate the darkest corners. For some reason, I don't recall when or where I first watched Manhunter. Released in 1986, I can be certain it wasn't at the cinema seeing as how I was only 2 when it graced theater screens. I'm sure it was at home, but I can't see it. "Do you see?". No, Francis, I don't. I'm confident I was alone because the only thing I remember quite vividly from my first journey into Michael Mann's lurid, unsettling cinematic world is how much it disturbed me. Shook me to my very core. No one was around to distract me, to make me feel protected from every accessible window and door that all suddenly needed to be double, no scratch that, triple checked that their locks were sturdy and functioning. Even locks didn't feel like enough.

The opening sequence in which we see a first-person perspective of a killer entering a home quietly in the middle of the night, walking through the darkness past items that make it quite clear that this isn't just a single person or a couple residing here, but a family. Children. The camera looks into a bedroom and we see one of them sleeping peacefully. So peacefully. So vulnerable. We move on to the next room down the hall, but it feels like a respite for the occupants we already laid eyes on rather than permanent safety. We shouldn't be here. These people should wake up in the morning with concerns no greater than breakfast or being tardy to school or work. If only the world were always so safe and simple.

We look into the master bedroom and hold steady for moments but it feels like forever. It's unbearable, the knowledge that the only thing scarier than being watched is waking up to such a horrific and unthinkable discovery. She does. She wakes up with a light shining in her eyes, and we don't see what happens next. Thank goodness. It's bad enough to assume and find out soon after that these assumptions were indeed correct. Literally only the opening minutes of Manhunter, before we have met a single character or understand even the most basic pieces of the plot and it's unshakable. A piece of cinema I can never escape from. I have been scared watching movies before of course, and I will be again for years to come, but Manhunter was and continues to be different because of that opening sequence. I don't fear what I see, what I can at least try to fight back against. I fear what I don't, what I never see coming.

"Do you see?"

Based on the novel Red Dragon by author Thomas Harris, Manhunter excellently combines the stylish, taut direction of Michael Mann with the story and characters that fill us with dread. Manhunter follows FBI Agent Will Graham (William Petersen) during his pursuit of a serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy" (played with unsettling perfection by Tom Noonan), and the reason Graham has been put on the case is because he previously apprehended the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox), the character made famous by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Although successful in putting Lecter behind bars, his solving of the case came with a price, and he is forced to face these demons all over again even literally when he consults with Lester hoping to gain insight into the motivations of a killer.

Initially garnering mixed reviews and a poor showing at the box office, Manhunter has aged wonderfully and gained appreciation over the years. It's a terrific film that will send chills down your spine, and not just for that opening sequence that I devoted so many words too. For a film that taps into a very specific and disturbing fear of mine, it's sort of remarkable how often I feel compelled to revisit the picture and take in those hypnotic visuals as Mann plays with light and color in ways that feel essential to tell the story appropriately. The film's soundtrack is also memorable and vital, and even though it feels like it belongs in the 80's it doesn't date Manhunter in any negative fashion, instead matching the vibe and aesthetic perfectly.

I'm not sure why I don't really remember the first time I saw Manhunter, aside from the overwhelming feeling of dread that came along with it. Perhaps that's exactly why. Maybe I blocked out the big picture stuff that no longer feels irrelevant as the terror I felt and the sleep I lost that night weren't temporary but rather something I would carry with me long term. Every single time I give this disc another spin, it haunts me as if it was the very first time all over again, and while that doesn't sound fun to many people who probably want to avoid spending too much mental energy delving into their deepest, darkest fears, I embrace the fact that cinema is able to push those boundaries and make me feel something so profound.


Hell or High Water Review

"I've been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore."

In simplistic terms, Hell or High Water is a western crime film about two brothers robbing banks, but the thing that makes the story really matter is why they are committing the act, not the act itself. The imagery that writer Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie litter the film with isn't meant to be subtle, literally signs and graffiti splattered across these desolate plains that invoke an honesty about a portion of society that feels left behind. A section of rural America that's desperate for opportunity yet never is provided it. We see the words "debt relief" on an advertisement, but rather than provide an option for Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster), instead they drive right past it, never giving it a look. It's not that they missed it, it's that the world missed them. It's that to these two, ironically, the safest and most realistic option is robbing banks.

Toby Howard is divorced with two sons, but we don't know that just yet when the film opens with a scene of a hold up in a bank. Their motivation yet to be established, what becomes clear immediately though is the differences in demeanor between the men. Toby keeps his cool, relying on a solid plan and a vision of executing it to guarantee success. Tanner, however, is a loose cannon, an ex-con doing this for the money, sure, but also the thrill. Tanner takes unnecessary risks that they are getting away with now, but eventually such a way of life without proper discipline will catch up to them.

Eventually the specifics of why they are committing these crimes come to fruition, their mother recently deceased leaving their chances of keeping the family ranch unlikely due to a reverse mortgage that was taken out with Texas Midlands Bank, the same bank the boys have already now robbed. Unless the debt can be paid off within days, the ranch will foreclose, and this especially matters to Toby after recently discovering oil on the land. His goal is to rob enough in order to pay off the loan, sell the oil and give his sons a life he never had himself, one of financial comfort and stability. Unfortunately for Toby and Tanner, two Texas Rangers (played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) have been assigned to their case and are in pursuit.

Having now seen the last two films by David Mackenzie, this and the terrific prison drama Starred Up from a couple of years ago, I am more than impressed with the way he is able to handle brutal circumstances and elevate them with elegance and grace, words that may not seem applicable to a typical western crime thriller but it's that touch that proves to be absolutely necessary to convey the complexities of Hell or High Water. Those complexities live and breath in the written words of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, whose only previous screenplay was last year's excellent Sicario, earning him six award nominations from various critic groups and the Writers Guild of America. Funny, authentic and meaningful dialogue, and I love the way the setting and literally the writing on the walls depict the struggle felt by so many without the screenplay getting overly preachy and to on-the-nose with the subject. When you see spray paint across a wall that reads "Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us", Sheridan and Mackenzie are letting the setting do the talking, and it speaks loudly and with perfect clarity.

Perfectly cast with every actor filling their role like it was written just for them, Hell or High Water is the type of film that demands a second viewing and I can't wait to give it one. On the surface this movie can be appreciated thanks to the main premise, the performances and the literal chase going on between two criminal brothers and the Rangers never far behind, which was initially plotted in a way that reminded me of No Country for Old Men only the thematic differences between the two stories guaranteed a different end result. There is so much else going on here involving economic struggles and that class disparities that can be found across America, I can guarantee that even more of the message being delivered by Hell or High Water would resonate next time.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sully Review

I know Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger received plenty of recognition following the unforgettable moment when he executed an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, yet despite the many public appearances to honor him I can't help but think of the overall story as an example of quiet heroism. In fact it sort of feels like heroism in general is too quiet these days, that saving lives is a lot less flashy than losing them in regards to media attention. Sure, as soon as anyone hears the name Sully, they likely invoke the images of the plane floating along that ice cold river that are stashed away in all of our brains somewhere, but how often would you think of him or that moment if not reminded? I can't remember the last time I took a second to reflect back upon moments of heroism in our society, but not a day goes by in which I'm not haunted by a reminder of the disturbingly dark side of our world.

When I heard that Clint Eastwood would be making a film about the man and the event that seemingly defies his life, I assumed the proceedings would be inspiring but simple. A little bit of character building, some family stuff to make the circumstances more feel weightier, pre-flight discussions with co-pilot (played by Aaron Eckhart), take off and then dramatic, literally death-defying landing, he's a hero celebrating and scene. This is due to my own ignorance of the situation, unless the controversy was not all that publicized because I either had forgotten and completely missed it. The concept of someone being a hero and yet potentially also liable for the danger in the first place is fascinating and I was completely unaware of the investigation into Captain Sully. This layer of his story made this Eastwood picture all the more interesting than I was expecting.

Running at a surprisingly brief 95 minutes, Sully is carried by a typically great lead performance from Tom Hanks and a confident, wisely economical approach to storytelling from Eastwood, delivering a finished product with no extra meat on its bones at all. This movie thrills us with its terrifying reenactment of the harrowing experience on that plane that day, from take off to the birds hitting both engines to the short, pressure filled amount of time in which Captain Sullenberger was forced to make a decision as to whether he could make it to a nearby airport or attempt the landing he would ultimately pull off by bringing the plane down safely on the Hudson. It's those seconds when air traffic control was providing him options and the fate of all of those lives on board were in Sully's hands that complicate the circumstances and elevate the cinematic experience. Sure, all lives were saved that day, but should they ever have been put in that much danger in the first place? Could he have landed safely and calmly at a nearby airport? The film essentially answers these questions and it isn't much of a spoiler to assume it works out in the Captain's favor, but the implications and self-doubt felt by the hero of the picture still add plenty of fascinating tension.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Small Screen: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Typically when I mention Gilmore Girls, the initial assumption made by others is that I am a television prisoner held captive by the women in my life. That a Black Friday binge session of the series involves my mother-in-law, wife and daughter forcing me to endure hours of programming that will leave me bored and begging for entertainment freedom. That I will be scratching and clawing to change the channel to something action packed and full of testosterone, because I guess the word "girls" in the title automatically cuts the other gender entirely out of the target audience.

The thing is though, when it was at its best, Gilmore Girls was truly a great series and it was often at its best. The first six seasons were brought to television screens by creators/writers/directors Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino and they created a sharply written, funny and warm show that has proved to be insanely rewatchable years later, as I have enjoyed each episode multiple times at this point. The dialogue may defy realism at times because it is so snappy and quick-witted that many likely wonder, how do these people never miss a beat? How are they always ready and waiting with a vague reference or perfectly timed quip? This never bothered me, probably because I have friends who are like this, who somehow naturally have a response locked and loaded at every conversational turn. Also, regardless at what speed it is being delivered, one simple fact remains: Gilmore Girls is just so smart and well written. From the very first episode it was impossible for me not to appreciate it on a screenwriting level.

The seventh and at the time final season no longer involved the Palladino's after a contract dispute forced them and the CW network to go their separate ways, and even though the new showrunners and writers tried to replicate the magic it wasn't the same. The story went in strange and unfortunate directions, the relationships on the screen that we learned to root for and love deteriorated and even when they were repaired by the series finale, it never felt quite right. Gilmore Girls joined a list of other shows that I watched from beginning to end that were a personal favorite only to have it taper off by its conclusion, and while it was easy enough to remind myself that the good vastly outweighed the bad overall, that much time devoted to a show that fades to black on the screen forever leaving a sour taste in your mouth resonates over the long term. So many terrific programs tainted by misguided ideas on how to end them. An all too familiar shame.

When the news came out that Netflix had an agreement to bring the series back, and that it would be created by the Palladino's so they could have an opportunity to end the show on their terms, it was impossible not to be excited. Almost all of the original cast on board to return no matter how big or small the role, a countdown clock began to when we could spend a lazy day binge watching the new episodes and kudos to Netflix for picking Black Friday as the day to unleash them. While so many people were out shopping, I was thrilled to eat Thanksgiving leftovers and take in all 6+ hours of the new run in one sitting.

Even with all the excitement and anticipation, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life managed to exceeded any expectations I had for the revival of the show. Honestly, I think I can safely say that this is the best the series has ever been, and if this is the way it ends (and I am conflicted as to whether I want it to be or not, but I will get to that later), it went out on top, replacing that ugly feeling after season 7 went off the rails. Limited to only 4 episodes but with each one running at a lengthy 90-ish minutes, the story is told seasonal starting with the Winter, and what an appropriate time to be reunited with the Gilmore's and Stars Hollow given how magical the shows relationship with cold weather and a graceful snowfall proved to be over the years. The humor is as clever as ever with scripts bringing the best out of every character, and it's amazing how every actor was able to walk in their old shoes again after 9 years away so comfortably. Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore, a great character because she is at times so likable and funny and impossible not to love and yet there are plenty of moments throughout that serve to remind the audience how deeply flawed she is as a person, which might be frustrating for those wanting perfection from a lead role at the center of a show but in reality it's very honest and human. Rory Gilmore, daughter of Lorelai played by Alexis Bledel, following in her mother's footsteps in terms of being so smart and strong but making plenty of mistakes along the way growing up. When we first met these girls, Lorelai was a 32 year old mother of 16 year old Rory, and by the time this new Netflix mini-series revival began Rory has reached 32 herself and its fascinating to see how differently her place in life is than her mother's back in 2000. Not a mother, unmarried and still sorting out the path of her chosen career.

The third of the titled Gilmore girls is Emily Gilmore played by Kelly Bishop, mother of Lorelai and grandmother of Rory. Her circumstances, while unfortunately birthed of tragedy in reality as her husband on the series was played by the late Edward Herrmann who passed away in 2014, opened up so many storytelling paths for these four parts as we watch how the sudden and unexpected passing of the patriarch of the family has effected them all since. One of the truly wonderful and touching aspects of these new episodes is the way this was handled, as the balance here of the wide range of emotions in play felt so warm, authentic and in a way, cathartic. I sat down to watch these great characters again hoping to be moved in multiple ways and that's exactly what we get, as a smile plastered across my face quickly shifted to a tear in my eye but it never feels jarring. It always feels right.

One of the toughest things to figure out in a situation like this is a way to provide fan service in terms of giving cameos to all of the characters from the show without it feeling clunky and out of place. As I was following the casting news of this revival it felt like every single day word was coming out of another familiar face returning, but rather than excite me it had me wondering if it was all too much. How can every friend and ex-boyfriend return to their lives during only a four episode arc without it feeling like overkill, a constant stream of winks and nods rather than actually moving the story forward? While a few of these cameos do end up feeling like nothing more than fan service, with little to no reason to be invoked in the moment, for the most part the Palladino's pull this off with flying colors as most of the characters blend in appropriately and at times even deeply matter to the progression of the main characters.

On basically every level I am blown away by how good the new Gilmore Girls is. Directed beautifully, written even better, performed perfectly and paced like a dream you don't want to wake from, A Year in the Life might be one of the best things to air on television this year, and yes I know what I am saying. I have watched every moment of Game of Thrones, every ingenious episode of Atlanta, the cold and compelling The Night Of and the wonderfully weird nostalgic journey that is Stranger Things and yet I have fallen madly in love with the Gilmore Girls all over again. I already can't wait to watch these four parts all over again, and now that I know the ending it will be interesting to see how brilliantly it all builds to it. I am certain many will be disappointed by the abrupt nature of the final scene, the way it leaves unanswered questions that probably will never be answered, but for me it is perfect.

As I mentioned early, I have a conflicted feeling as to whether I want this to be the official end of Gilmore Girls or not. On the one hand, it's such a terrific conclusion, watching them come full circle as four words uttered quickly likely made so many people watching gasp and instantly hope it signals another season on the way. I love the idea that uncertainty remains for Rory and Lorelai, that life doesn't wrap everything with a bow and address every detail, and when you reflect back to a conversation that takes place between Rory and her father Christopher (David Sutcliffe) a little bit earier during the fourth and final part ("Fall") you will recognize that everyone watching (myself included) made an assumption that the questions Rory asked were nothing more than research and general curiosity but in actuality they were heavily loaded and vital to her future as a person. I am being extremely vague, I know, but that's because if you haven't seen the series, I don't want to ruin it.

One last thing before I wrap up the many, many words I have devoted to the return of Gilmore Girls: if this limited run is worthy of any one piece of award recognition, I hope it is for the lead performance of Lauren Graham, and a scene in which she makes a phone call to her mother in the final episode is her masterpiece as a character. It's flawless and powerful and heartbreaking and beautiful. It's perfect, and one of quite a few moments I keep replaying in my head.

What a splendid achievement this turned out to be, and if it proves to truly be the last time we every visit Stars Hollow this time, what a way to go out. So much time and energy was poured into these 6 hours of the show, probably the same amount that they would normally have to expend in order to create 22 episodes back when they were working with a traditional season schedule and it shows. These episodes are so meticulously detailed and filled with love, and if the Gilmore Girls ever touched your heart in the past, the Netflix revival mini-series is an absolute treasure.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Loving Review

The new film Loving, written and directed by the masterful auteur Jeff Nichols, tells the true story about the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving in the 1950's. Because of the laws against interracial marriage in Virginia at the time, they were forced to leave the state in order to legally wed, but when they returned to their home intending to spend their lives together the police quite literally pulled them out of their mutual bed and arrested them. It's horrifying to witness and yet the biggest compliment I can pay Nichols, and the very reason why I love his films so much, is how quietly he delivers such powerful material.

This exact same film could have been made by so many other filmmakers and it wouldn't be nearly as good. It just wouldn't, and it is easy to see where it likely would have steered in the wrong direction. During scenes that typically would lead to actors delivering an emotional monologue with anger, just begging to be a clip shown at the Oscars, Nichols doesn't ask for it. Instead we feel the pain that comes with their acceptance of an unjust reality when, instead of anger and verbose dialogue, these characters say little to nothing at all. They merely hang their heads and leave us, the audience, to question what sort of society would incarcerate on the sole grounds of who one loves.

Nichols' ability to collaborate with Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, whom play Mildred and Richard, is what harnesses the entire soul of the picture. This is a performance driven story featuring subdued performances, which seems impossible yet it works from start to finish. It's crucial to remember that "subdued" is not a criticism but rather a compliment. Negga and Edgerton are honest and so profoundly authentic that they don't need to always be saying something in order to speak to us, and this is a familiar aspect for me when it comes to Nichols. I felt it in Shotgun Stories, Mud, Midnight Special and most of all his masterpiece Take Shelter. He tells stories with such eloquence and beauty and with so little exposition, which for some is probably a turn off because it might feel like a lack of detail regarding what came before with his characters leaves the viewers in the dark, but I don't see it that way. For me, it speaks to his desire to tell a story that is here, now, right in front of us. Nichols allows us to fill in those details on our own, and whether it involves a fictional world he built from scratch or one portraying a real and essential reality like in Loving, it has worked across the board. I don't need to understand the mindset of Richard and Mildred leading up to meeting in order to comprehend their love at a time when it was unusual and frowned upon. What matters is that they are in love, and that their relationship would be a landmark moment for progressives as their long fight to legitimize what they felt resulted in the Supreme Court ruling unanimously in their favor in Loving v. Virginia.

Loving could have been manipulative and cliched and forced the predictable forbidden romance tropes on us, yet it avoided all of it gracefully and seemingly with ease. Who needs manufactured emotion when it is so pre-baked into the truth? What is essential is the right cinematic voice to deliver it, and Nichols is exactly that.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

Three years ago, long after the phenomenon of the Harry Potter novels and the film adaptations of them had taken the world by storm, I watched the movies for the first time. Scored a, shall I say, fantastic Black Friday deal for the whole lot of them on Blu-ray and truly loved the journey, from the awkwardly but appropriately childish first two entries directed by Christopher Columbus (and boy did they feel like they were directed by Columbus), the major step forward third film directed by the great Alfonso Cuaron, a rock solid fourth movie directed by Mike Newell and then Davis Yates took over for the final four installments, with his two-part Deathly Hallows conclusion being simply, well, fantastic. Sorry I keep doing that. It's just the right word to use sometimes.

Catching up on these films after the fact made the story feel like it had a finality to it, like I was watching a sprawling, epic story playing out knowing that once it was done, it was done. Little did I know that an entire side franchise would spill out from the same universe, as well as the inevitable return of Harry himself when the newly published Cursed Child eventually finds its way to the big screen. Here we have the first of what will apparently be a five (?!) picture story, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and even being only a late blooming, relatively mild Potter fan I felt a certain warm sensation when the Warner Bros. logo filled the screen with that familiar musical cue. It felt right, like I was sitting down for a couple hours of adventurous and literally magical fun, and the good news here is if that is what you seek, that is what you shall get.

After taking on those final four Potter pictures, Yates returns behind the camera for Fantastic Beasts and word is he will do the same for all five of them as well, putting his stamp on a franchise that obviously means a lot to him, as many other filmmakers would likely hesitate to stay in one place for such an extended segment of their career rather than being able to branch out and try different things. The photography here is a mixed bag, as at times it feels so refreshingly crisp and alive, like what is being captured is both impossibly imaginative and magical and yet real, like set pieces that you could walk through yourself and believe in the world they created. At other times, though, there is something certainly off here compared to what was achieved during the expansive Potter years, and I think the difference is here a lot of the time it is obvious what we are looking at are sets meant to feel like 1920's New York City rather than just actually feeling like it authentically.

Half the time it was as if I was being swept away again by what made those Potter movies great, but the other half was looking to scratch that itch that begged for the same charm to return. On a character level it would be basically unfair to expect similar returns, as watching Harry, Ron and Hermione grow up together all while dealing with the many others walking the halls of Hogwarts, played by a vast array of tremendously talented people, proved to be a wonderful and unforgettable experience. Eddie Redmayne is fine playing Newt Scamander, and that's coming from someone who thought I could never forgive him for his portrayal of Lili Eibe in the brutally bad The Danish Girl. He's just fine here. The problem with that is, as the lead of the film he needed to be more than that but beyond playing Stephen Hawking, I have severe doubts that Redmayne is capable of doing it. Many would argue INCLUDING playing Hawking he isn't able to carry a picture, but I still consider that performance to be quite impressive. Katherine Waterston is always terrific and she doesn't really disappoint in Fantastic Beasts, but her character is meant to develop a palpable chemistry with Redmayne's Scamander and I simply never felt it. Dan Fogler actually rises to the occasion to be MVP of the film because he has the right comic personality that is so desperately missing from the lead character, and Colin Farrell is just fine doing his ominous, guy who has secretive conversations in the shadows thing. Also, Ezra Miller is perfectly cast as a kid who gives me the friggin' creeps, because Ezra Miller plays that well. I'm looking at you, We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The plotting of Fantastic Beasts is strange, even though the winding path it takes throughout does eventually add up in the end. See, the issue is that the premise built early involves Scamander basically playing Pokemon Go in New York City, on a desperate search for his missing beasts hoping to capture them all in his case because others get their hands on them, but really this collecting of beasts is so inconsequential to main conflict in the end. Sure, it's the reason Scamander and others go from point A to point B and C and so on, and the actions of those beasts bring a lot of vivid colors and entertaining action to the movie, but all they really serve for the big picture is as a scapegoat for the disastrous damage being inflicted on the city that is actually due to a lurking evil no one wants to believe in. So while the beasts are necessary and at times quite fun, my only real criticism of the way they fit into the story is perhaps some of the meat could have been trimmed off of these cinematic bones. By that I mean, if the true danger that will likely carry the franchise forward from here is being hidden in a subplot tucked off the to the side, maybe some of those beast catching moments could have at least been shortened as to avoid Fantastic Beasts being over two hours long, especially considering they are going to stretch this puppy out over another four films.

Despite what certainly feels like a large amount of complaining, the truth of the matter is a lot of what I bring up will be written off to nothing more than nitpicking to many, many others who go to the cinema for a slice of enthusiastic entertainment, who are looking for the means to be distracted from reality and Fantastic Beasts will surely fill those shoes. Also, I can't help but wonder if the only real fair way to approach this movie is to evaluate it on its own, because even though it is impossible not to lump it in with the Potter films mentally, the truth of the matter is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is its own...well, beast. Damn it. It exists in the same universe as the other movies and ties between them have already been established and I would imagine will be strengthened over time, but for now putting this one movie alone under its own spotlight, Fantastic Beasts is good. Real good. For me, better than the first Harry Potter film because this has a stylistic maturity to it that was sorely missing from those Columbus efforts. The question is, where does this new offshoot story go from here? Will there really be strong enough material to not only build upon what is already established but actually improve upon it as well? I have my doubts that anything related to Fantastic Beasts will be as eye opening as the jarring step up between The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban, but I will be there in the theater every two years hoping to be proven wrong.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Review

"Let me ask you something. Why don't people trust their instincts? They sense something is wrong, someone is walking too close behind them. You knew something was wrong but you came back into the house. Did I force you, did I drag you in? No. All I had to do was offer you a drink."

Have you ever had the intense desire to write something only when the time comes to put words down you freeze? That's what is happening to me right now. Has been for a while, to be honest. Never have I gone through a stretch like this, one in which I watched so much inspiring cinema yet failed to be inspired to describe it. Sometimes in my mind I am playing the excuse game like I am trying to rationalize the falling ratings of Monday Night Football. First it was the Cubs historic run to a World Series title, and well, that actually is a valid excuse. It's the lack of bounce back after that ended that shocks me at the moment. Maybe it was being filled with dread over the possibility that a totally unqualified man could be given the keys to the most important car in the world, knowing he would likely crash it into a wall and we would watch it burst into flames that did it. Still doing it, if that's the case. Now that it's a reality, cinema is that much more vital. When things look ugly, one's best bet is to turn to the beauty of the arts for relief. A distraction from inevitably bad and broken policies. An escape from anger and hate.

The irony of this was perfectly encapsulated tonight as I tried to decide what film I should watch. I wanted to sit down, relax and watch something that filled me with joy. A film that was familiar and comfortable, but not one that many would deem "mindless". A work that I have already studied numerous times and yet each frame could be further investigated. A movie that was guaranteed to open up the floodgates and allow me to write.

"It's hard to believe that the fear of offending can be stronger than the fear of pain, but you know what? It is. And they always come willingly. And then they sit there. They know it's all over just like you do but somehow they still think they have a chance. Maybe if I say the right thing? Maybe if I'm polite. If I cry, if I beg. And when I see the hope draining from their face like it is from yours right now, I can feel myself getting hard."

Beauty. Joy. Comfort. I knew I had to dip my toes back into a cold and cruel world brought to life by David Fincher. I find the craft and confidence of his take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be downright sexy, the expert execution of bringing this material to life and the chilly palette of the photography on display represents everything that made me fall in love with cinema years ago. The cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth is especially brilliant because I feel like I am being beat down by the brutality of the landscapes through my television screen, and yet the story being told by these images is not solely reliant on the monotony of darkness to indicate dread. The pure, glistening white of snow and the golden glow of lights are constantly integral to the visual puzzle Fincher and Cronenweth want us to piece together, but even at its brightest nothing ever feels quite right here. Nothing feels warm or inviting. Nothing feels comfortable during The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which makes it all the more odd that I feel so much comfort while watching it.

It sounds a bit demented, I know, but one of the most appealing things about watching movies for me is knowing I can swim through a bunch of shit for two hours and yet emerge from the experience clean. There are a few scenes during this movie, one in particular that you know what I mean if you've seen it, that are just flat out hard to watch. There is nothing beautiful to be found, no joy to be had, and nothing comfortable to wrap yourselves in during something so painful and tragic being done to a human being, yet when vengeance is had, when Lisbeth Salander fights back against her abuser and inflicts a similar devastating level of brutality against him, it's so fulfilling. It's so rewarding. It's such a huge fuck you to the ugliness and evil that is so prevalent in our world. It's a fist raised in the air saying to the oppressors that just when you think you have all the power, a bad ass girl with just the right amount of crazy can both figuratively and literally stick it up your ass and take the power back.

"You know, we're not that different, you and I. We both have urges, satisfying mine requires more towels."

I have no idea if this made any sense, just a flow of late night ramblings from a guy who needed to find the words deep down and let them spill out in some sort of comprehensible order. It just feels good to be moved by cinema again in a meaningful way. I can always count on the slightly twisted, glorious and perfectly perverted mind of David Fincher for that, and his decision to direct Steve Zaillian's screenplay based on the source material by the late author Stieg Larsson proved to be an essential one.