Monday, August 29, 2016

The Small Screen: The Night Of

Being that this is only my second post ever about a television series, I wasn't even sure I would write it. The challenge I face here centers around wanting to put some thoughts down for both those that have finished watching the new HBO miniseries The Night Of and those that haven't seen a single episode yet but may consider it in the future. I know many don't have any form of the premium network but look forward to binge watching a series when the DVD or Blu-ray is released months from now. Writing about a series as layered and eventful as this without spoiling anything for those people is extremely difficult, but I feel compelled to give it a shot.

HBO had me with its marketing of this series well before the first episode even aired. I am a sucker for moody, atmospheric dramas, and it was obvious with the little teaser that played on the network often that The Night Of was exactly that. I still recall being absolutely dazzled by the first season of True Detective. How unfortunate that there was a second, and I will get to that idea later when it comes to this series. I am endlessly fascinated by the legal system, but courtroom dramas, by murder mysteries and the unsettling uncertainty of being judged by a jury of one's peers. Wrongful convictions happen, and whether presented on the news in reality or merely a character appearing in a work of fiction, I find myself looking into the eyes of the accused in these situations and wondering...did he or she really do it? If I were on the jury, would I feel comfortable setting the course for the rest of their life? What if I were wrong?

For those that are not aware, The Night Of is an 8 part miniseries that tells the story of Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American young man who decides to take his father's cab out on night without permission in order to attend a party. A few different men try to enter the cab looking for a lift, but Nasir (or Naz for short) turns them away, telling them the cab isn't currently in service. A pretty young girl does the same, only this time he is willing to take her. This decision is unsurprising, since the mind of a young male works a bit differently when looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman, but it also would prove to be one that would completely alter the course of Naz's entire life.

After a little adventure in the cab and some drug use,  Naz and Andrea (Sofia Black D'Elia) end up back at her place and just outside her door they quite literally have a run in with two men walking down the sidewalk, as one bumps into Naz. At first this is ignored until Naz hears them use a slur referring to his ethnicity, so words are exchanged. One of the men walks away, while the other says or does nothing. He simply stares daggers at Naz and Andrea as they enter her place. It's an extremely unsettling shot, an unforgettable moment from a series that showcases a number of those. We haven't even witnessed the crime yet, but suspect number one has been established.

Naz and Andrea would eventually have sex, but not before some extremely unconventional and hard to watch foreplay, as it is quite clear that drugs and alcohol can lead to some very strange decisions and also perhaps Andrea is the type of person who gets turned on by some unusual things. A game is played between the two of them involving a rather large knife and the thrilling concept of trying to stab down between spread apart fingers, obviously without drawing blood. This doesn't go so smoothly, and as the blood spills we are already putting together just how bad this looks if the night takes even darker turns. A knife with fingerprints all over it and a stab wound to the palm of a girl's hand, the type of injury that a rational thinking mind would result in a trip to the emergency room. Instead, at this moment they become intimate, but we as an audience are not privy to any prolonged sequence of lovemaking. Instead we cut ahead to Naz waking up elsewhere, a room that turns out to be the kitchen downstairs from her bedroom. How he got there, we do not know. He goes back upstairs to get his things and head home, but that's when he finds her brutally murdered in her own bed. A knife with fingerprints all over it. Suspect number two has been established, and it's Naz, and no one could possibly look more guilty of this crime than him.

Created by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, if this first episode doesn't have you completely hooked by its final shot, then I am not sure The Night Of is the show for you. I was floored by the first installment, with the performances, the photography, and circumstances and the overflowing amount of intrigue over where the story would go next making me wish this were a Netflix series rather than HBO only so I could watch all 8 parts in a row right then and there. What The Night Of ended up being was a reminder of the power of the television model that existed before the notion of binge watching, the hold a show can have on you when you know you have to wait another full week before you could get answers to all of the questions rattling around in your brain. It's frustrating, yet so fulfilling when that time arrives and you can absorb yourself into another hour of excellently crafted storytelling.

Originally picked up as a series by HBO and set to star the late great James Gandolfini, the production of The Night Of went through some ups and downs, with no bigger down than that of Gandolfini's tragic and unexpected passing. Rather than scrapping the series, which is based on a British program called Criminal Justice, the decision to continue on in his honor was made and the first choice to replace Gandolfini was Robert DeNiro, who agreed to take on the role only to have to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. This lead to the casting of John Turturro, and let's just say if I were an Emmy voter I would already be writing his name onto my ballot and asking where and when I could turn it in. His performance as lawyer John Stone ended up being the soul of the series, the most compelling and likable piece of a show that desperately needed that touch to avoid being too ominous and cold for it's own good. Riz Ahmed does extraordinary work as well as Naz, but his arc is far more torturous given the circumstances he is facing, and he isn't someone the audience can truly root for throughout the series because it is not made perfectly clear whether or not he is actually guilty of the crime.

That last part is an important point and one of my personal favorite portions of the story, the fact that Naz is not presented as neither a victim nor a murderer to us until the latter half of the final episode when the truth of that night comes out. Whether or not you believe he did it is up to each individual viewer, as a number of possible suspects and their motives are presented but all the while we are given a deeper and more disturbing look at the past and present of Naz, the boy who initially seemed far too innocent to be capable of such a crime...but is he? Is anyone in The Night Of innocent? One thing is made abundantly clear in this series and that is the fact that to be human is to be flawed, with every one of the characters facing their own demons along the way.

Unfortunately the series is not perfect. It loses some steam during some predictable prison sequences that delve into tropes that seem too on the nose for a show that seemed so deliciously original at one time, and these are the times when Turturro is so valuable, the ying to Naz's yang, the man outside that gives us something to follow closely and someone to root for. When focusing on Turturro's John Stone, a seemingly inordinate amount of time is spent focusing on aspects of his character that may not feel important like his battle with eczema or his quest to save a cat from its death at a kill shelter, but to dismiss these pieces to his puzzle shows a failure to understand just how well a character can be fleshed out by terrific writing without lengthy or exhaustive exposition. We see how unbecoming Stone is and we understand his career choice to be one of those gimmicky lawyers who looks to plea out his clients quickly and collect his check. The kind of lawyer often referred to as an ambulance chaser, someone who waits from a call from the desperate in order to make a little cash, only instead of injury settlements John Stone dabbles in those that are obviously guilty and just need someone to try to lessen the blow provided by the justice system. He neither looks or acts the part of a high profile, trial attorney and he never planned to be one until he got one look at Naz in a holding cell, and something about him lingered in his mind enough to turn around and go back to talk to him. Something different from those he normally approaches. Something potentially...innocent.

Another issue I took with The Night Of came in the form of the character of Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), not so much her because her performance was fine and her part of the story is vital, but the direction the writers take her later on in the series. Remember when I started this off by talking about how challenging this would be, writing about a show like this without spoiling anything for those who haven't seen it? Well, here we are. I won't go into detail about what I didn't care for with Chandra, but you will know during episode 7 when a certain moment happens involving her character that seems to be so out of place and thrown in randomly. The finale ends up using this moment to move the story forward, so at least it had a purpose, but it still just didn't sit right with me. It felt like a cheap way to allow Turturro to shine more, but the good news is he did, with a speech given by him during that finale being the perfect and essential clip to show at the award shows in the future.

As for that whole second season issue I mentioned quickly in regards to True Detective, a title that now leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those that watched the second season when the first was basically a masterpiece...leave The Night Of alone going forward. Let these 8 episodes be it. I know for many this doesn't seem right, because how could something so good be taken away so quickly? How can I not want even more answers, even more perfectly explained closure since all is not tied up with a little bow on it here? Because for me, the story was told, and given the thematic meaning behind what we watched and the characters we followed for these eight weeks, the bow is in fact tied on. There is nothing more to adorn to this present that HBO gifted us. I have already come across an article or two wondering if HBO would green light some additional episodes of the show in the future to follow what happens after all of this with these characters, but some ambiguity can be exactly what the doctor ordered from time to time, and honestly not much is even that ambiguous anyways. After all that darkness and dread, The Night Of closes with a shot that is certain to put a smile on your face, and with how fried my nerves were watching the twists and turns of the finale, I needed it.

For those who may question how plausible certain pieces of the story were, like the fact that police still had not reviewed certain seemingly obvious pieces of evidence until the very last episode when closing arguments are being made at the trial, consider looking into some real murder cases that happened that feature some stranger than fiction type of head scratchers along the way, like the highly publicized Making a Murderer case involving Steven Avery and the now recently freed Brendan Dassey. Hell, just watch an episode of two of 48 Hours Mystery or Dateline and you will see at least one inexplicable decision made by police or criminals or attorneys that will have you saying aloud, whether to yourself or those you are watching the show with "How they hell did they miss that?" or "What kinda person would screw that up?". What seems like sloppy writing in The Night Of sadly happens all the time. Why?

Because to be human is to be flawed, and no one is truly innocent. That is certainly the case in the new superb miniseries The Night Of, and if you haven't checked it out yet, find a way to do so.


If you did watch the show, what did you think? Are you satisfied with the way it ended? Would you like to see more of the story in the future? Let me know, I would love to discuss this tremendously detailed and fascinating television series with you.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sing Street Review

The world needs Sing Street.

There are dozens of great films released each year, but a select few make me feel a certain wonderful way. The type of picture that has a beating, beautiful heart that pumps life into every scene, making it impossible not to smile throughout the entire damn thing. Beyond the fact that they usually dabble in or around the comedy genre, these films don't have to be alike besides their ability to charm and delight. Two years ago it was the shockingly brilliant The Lego Movie, a film that initially seemed like nothing more than a means to sell more toys but turned out to be layered and moving and constantly funny. Last year it was the completely joyous, optimistic and endlessly entertaining Magic Mike XXL, a delicious slice of cinema that I have revisited a few times whenever I need to a reminder that art can be completely void of cynicism and cruelty of any kind. A film that presents the gods on stage as flawed but embraces humanity of all colors, shapes and sizes.

Honestly, I just put the Magic Mike XXL Blu-ray in right now so I could keep the good vibes flowing as I wrote this. I had turned the news on, a stream of reminders that the world can be violent, dark and cold, and it isn't that I want to turn my back on reality or shrug my shoulders from inside my own bubble made of safety and fortunate circumstances. Sometimes I care too much about what is happening in the world, and it literally hurts to think about it. That's precisely why I needed to change the channel, why I needed to watch a film that makes me smile. I feel like I am floating just above the ground and I am in too good of a mood to come down just yet.

I have writer/director John Carney and Sing Street to thank for this magical feeling.

The film takes place in Dublin, Ireland during the 1980's, and it tells the story of a 14 year old boy named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and the struggles he has with his family. His parents have financial troubles and their marriage is falling apart, and they make Conor go to a new public school located in the city and the transition isn't easy. Bullied by both classmates and teachers, he needs an escape and he finds it in the spellbinding eyes of a pretty girl sitting across the street named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). She says she is a model. Conor says he is in a band. He isn't. When he asks Raphina to be in the music video they will be filming and she agrees, it's exciting but it creates a problem: Conor needs to actually form a band. With the help of some friends and the trends of the decade they live in serving as inspiration, they form a group called Sing Street but this isn't a lazy set up solely to meet a girl. They pour their time and energy into the music and lyrics of their songs, resulting in some genuinely terrific tracks that capture an audience and perhaps Raphina's heart as well.

An outstanding script, charming performances and great music, I couldn't get enough of Sing Street, and even though it strays down some pretty tired romantic comedy territory with the path of Conor and Raphina's relationship during the second half of the movie, it all works because the film earned the emotional connection I made with it. Two stories can end the exact same way, yet only one will work while the other may fail because weak characters with little chemistry expose the tropes. Great characters who all fit perfectly together on screen celebrate them. Bring out the best in them.

We need films like this every so often. Stories that don't necessarily have to be perfect or 100 percent original yet they thrive thanks to a screenwriter whose pen pulses with passion and feeling. Actors who buy into the material and sell it during every scene. Catchy music that elevates a good moment into a great one. There is one aspect of Sing Street that made me a little sad, yet it touched me at the same time and that is the dynamic between Conor and his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). On the one hand it served as a reminder that busy lives and just enough distance to make hanging out difficult keeps me and my older brother from fully connecting, essentially rendering our relationship to special occasions only. On the other hand, I was able to see the joy in Brendan's face when Conor decides to go in a different direction and live his life, and it's a pretty special thing knowing if I had to, I could pick up the phone and call right now and have someone there for me no matter what.

The world needs the occasional escape, a reason to laugh, smile and root for love.

The world needs Sing Street.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings Review

"If you must blink, do it now."

Good advice Kubo, but who the hell would want to blink while watching something this gorgeous?

The amount of detail put into the film Kubo and the Two Strings by the ingenious studio Laika is staggering. It is a joy to witness because the craftsmanship that goes into every frame they construct is an aspect of excellent stop-motion work that doesn't get nearly enough credit, as I suspect that many whom would attend a film like this would lump it into a pile of "kid's movies". The irony of this, of course, is that many younger aged children may lose interest in a story like Kubo's while the older you get, the more appreciation you will have for the storytelling. Sure, screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler include humor and fun characters that will appeal to the tiniest of viewers, but their ability to pour so much soulful mythology and meaningful emotion into young Kubo's journey should be admired by anyone and everyone, no matter how resistant they might be to buying into animation.

The opening imagery of the film is arresting and perfect, the sight of a woman trying to navigate the violent waves of a stormy sea under the nighttime glow of the moon, and mother nature gets the best of her when she crashes and hits her head in the process. Coming to after washing up on a nearby beach, she hears a familiar cry and rushes to it, the sound of her baby son Kubo crying in the sack she kept him in to protect him from the devastating environment. They survived, but why were they facing such perilous circumstances in the first place? Who or what are they running away from?

The head injury would cause lasting effects, as we flash forward in their lives to a point when Kubo is now taking care of his mother as she shows signs of the trauma during the day, living as if she is in a vegetative state, only to become alert when the sun sets each night. As soon as the world is consumed by darkness, she says the same thing immediately each day: "Kubo". Her concern for his well being in this moment is addressed through vital flash backs and some dialogue, but nothing close to the type of exposition that would drag the film down. Without getting too detailed because it is best to learn all about the world Kubo lives in while you watch the film, he should never be out when the sun goes down. A dangerous part of their past lurks, waiting for the right moment to strike.

A wonderfully assembled vocal cast bring these characters to life, starting with Art Parkinson as Kubo, Charlize Theron as Monkey, Matthew McConaughey as Beetle, and Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara as the aforementioned threats that means to do Kubo harm. Travis Knight makes his directorial debut here although his spot in Laika is not new, previously being the Head of Animation before becoming the President & CEO of the studio in 2009, and his first crack at directing may have produced their best film yet. This may not sound like a big deal considering they only have four films under their belt, but if you understand how much I love the nightmarish experience that is their first picture Coraline, you would know that weighing the possibility that Kubo might be better means a lot.

For some, going to see an animated film brings an expectation of silliness and non-stop comedic beats, with a film like The Secret Life of Pets dominating the box office while the early results of Kubo and the Two Strings have been disappointing. As a massive fan of the work of Studio Ghibli and the master Hayao Miyazaki, bringing more of a melancholy tone and weighty themes into animation is everything I could want and hope for, and Kubo delivers. Don't be afraid to challenge your children with work that has a lot of substance. I can only speak to my experience with my daughter seeing this brand new Laika gem, but she is 8 and took to the exploration of an after-life and the idea of showing appreciation for those that have left us. Even at her single digit age, she eats up both the darkness and the light that is showcased by such mature, compelling cinema.

A fascinating adventure steeped in Japanese folklore with an ending that sticks the landing, go support Kubo and the Two Strings. We need films like this to live on.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Son of Clowns Review

In one way or another, we are all actors. We have all hid pain or regret from those around us, putting on a performance in order to mask something deeper. Something that can be tucked away temporarily yet impossible to bury permanently. I have never stood on a set or up on a stage and delivered lines from a script, but I have done plenty of acting. We all have.

Hudson Cash (Adam Lee Ferguson) had a role on a network television series until he receives a phone call informing him that it has been cancelled. He leaves his life in Los Angeles behind to return home to North Carolina, a world that feels foreign rather than familiar. A place of uncertainty rather than salvation. His family tries to pay their bills through unconventional means, a backyard circus business, but it's a struggle. They perform at children's parties and bringing joy to their customers is all that matters in the moment, but they're acting. They're doing their best to hide the pain of knowing that doing what they love may not be enough.

One day while helping out the family business by making a stop at a party favor store, Hudson meets Ellie (Anne-Marie Kennedy), a girl with a smile that lights up the room and they instantly have chemistry. The connection with Ellie is something Hudson desperately covets, the door he needs opened to make him comfortable enough to allow for vulnerability. A cry for help just when he needs to let it out most. Afraid to tell his family and friends about the disappointing path his career has just taken, whenever Hudson is asked about the status of his show he delays the agony associated with the truth by telling lies. Quietly and with seeming normalcy, he soaks his sorrows in a constant stream of alcohol to feel numb to the world.

Filmed by writer/director Evan Kidd on a micro-budget around his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, it's to be expected that editing flaws can be spotted and a performance or two may seem a bit flat, but all things considered what Kidd has created here is quite impressive, a picture that has a soul and beating heart bursting through a very personal narrative that is driven by characters and dialogue. The photography is often wonderfully vivid and the lens captures the city and its citizens beautifully, making it quite clear that this whole project means something special to those working on it. Son of Clowns has an authenticity that breathes life into the entire experience, elevating even the somewhat clunky sequences early on because it's easy to tell that warts and all, this is Kidd's film.

On a performance level, Ferguson plays Hudson in a way that makes him seem not only cold but also a bit wooden early, which initially felt like something worthy of criticism. However, as the film rolls on and his inner demons start to bubble to the surface, the fact that he seemed a bit flat and closed off while interacting with his family and friends after first arriving home feels honest and gives his character a bit of sincerity, especially as we witness him open up while unfortunately falling apart. Despite Ferguson playing the lead, the key to the entire film is Anne-Marie Kennedy as Ellie. The moment Hudson enters the party store and we get our first glance at her, something about Son of Clowns changes for the better as she displays an aura that is intoxicating, the type of girl I would have had a crush on instantly without even having to say a word. The fact that Ferguson and Kennedy prove to be the two strongest actors in the film does wonders for everything Kidd means to achieve here, because as I reflect on the entirety of the picture, the moments that are shared between Hudson and Ellie are the best sequences in Son of Clowns. Evan Kidd shows an impressive amount of maturity as a filmmaker when he lets the camera linger during a few scenes, allowing the emotional complexities of love under duress resonate rather than unnecessarily rushing to the next moment or important set piece.

Of course Son of Clowns isn't perfect cinema, considering it's made by someone working under the limitations of micro-budget independent filmmaking. With each passing minute though, the talents of Kidd begin to peak through frame after frame and I couldn't help but admire his ability to allow his two leads to take over during the second and third acts. As the story of Hudson Cash began to wind down, it occurred to me that Son of Clowns is a film that needs just the right ending. I could see two possible outcomes, one that felt essential given Hudson's journey and the thematic weight of the material, and another that would leave a bad taste in my mouth.

If you could have seen the smile on my face when the credits began to roll, you would know for sure which direction it went.

Already an award winner for Best Actor and Actress at the 2016 Eastern North Carolina Film Festival and named 1st Runner Up for Best Dramatic Feature at the 2016 Down East Flick Festival, Son of Clowns will be released on Amazon VOD November 15th. Give it a look when you get the chance.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Suicide Squad Review

Let the record show that I was not a naysayer of Suicide Squad nor am I some sort of D.C. "hater", which is the quick and misguided label applied to anyone with a negative opinion towards any of the three films from the DCEU thus far. Initially I had little to no faith in this project, as the occasional release of a set or promotional photo looked more like a group of Juggalos passing around a bottle of Faygo than any film I would be interested in, but after a trailer or two I bought in. Suicide Squad looked like a good bit of fun. Bring it on.

It starts like a bad dream. 20 or so minutes of character exposition, all set to random but recognizable music cues that fall on deaf ears because the images they are being played over do so little to inspire. 2 minutes of writing off the plan of Amanda Walker (Viola Davis). Don't be silly, Amanda. Those freaks are criminals. They can't be trusted. Cara Delevingne turns into a witch, and for 30 or so seconds she shows off her powers, and somehow this is enough to flip the consensus opinion of the plan. Stamp of approval. It's clearly their only hope. Just like that, a glowing creature appears and its tentacles are fierce. A lot of people die. Minutes ago they were unacceptable dangers to our society, but what the hell. Call in the Suicide Squad.

There you have it. That's how the plot of Suicide Squad is established. It starts like a bad dream but by the end this baby is pretty much a full blown nightmare.

The movie is written and directed by David Ayer, and it's the former that is far more embarrassing than the latter. This screenplay was dead on arrival, filled with exposition and messy nonsense and edgy quips trying to sell t-shirts at Hot Topic but none of it is all that interesting, and speaking of uninteresting, how about these characters? Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn makes up roughly 90 percent of what I enjoyed about this film as her performance is spot on and she does have a presence that makes the frame slightly less ugly and drab, and the other 10 percent is some amalgamation of Will Smith's performance as Deadshot, which was occasionally good, and the relationship he had with his daughter that added some stakes to this film that desperately needed more. Not only is there nothing to root for, there isn't even anything compelling about the rest of the people on the screen. Jai Courtney as Boomerang, which is a neat thing for a bad ass villain to have...a boomerang. Jay Hernandez as Diablo whom they tried so hard to give emotional meaning to but none of it resonates. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc who is not only a painfully lame character but also a cringe-worthy racial stereotype, something that was already uncomfortably obvious before they made his one request from the government access to the BET channel. Cara Delevingne as June Moore/Enchantress, probably the worst thing in the entire film and that's really saying something.

Last and very nearly least, Jared Leto as the Joker. Remember those stories coming out for months before Suicide Squad was released about how he was leaving dead animals in costars dressing rooms and mailing bondage porn to crew members or some shit? All as some sort of process for a method actor to "become the character"? Not only is he barely in the film, but sadly that's a good thing. Leto plays the character like Jim Carrey from The Mask doing his best Tony Montana impression and it's shockingly bad. I was stunned, wondering if we really have to see this version of such a legendary character become a bigger part of a cinematic universe that I want to keep following? Perhaps another director, say Ben Affleck in his future solo Batman film, can bring the best out of Leto later on. The David Ayer helmed version felt like a guy who comes to your Halloween party in costume and 20 minutes later you are making small talk with other people hoping he won't come around because his act grew weary in a hurry.

Also, can we address the nonsense of including dialogue about how they need the Suicide Squad in case a new Superman were to arrive with violent intentions? A psychopath swinging a baseball bat, a guy who is a perfect shot with guns, a dude with a boomerang, a woman with a samurai sword and a human crocodile. That'll do it. If Superman were to lose his powers and be involved in a bar fight, sure, they've got this, but how could they possibly stand their ground against a God that soars through the sky? Yes, by the way, I am aware that Enchantress is included in the recruitment of the team and she actually does have powers, but if they really thought she was capable of bringing down Superman, why the others as well? They need a powerful witch AND a crazy girl with a Louisville Slugger?

Terribly edited, sloppy in execution and completely devoid of almost anything that could even get me to crack a smile, Suicide Squad is saved from being a total disaster by a completely watchable and fun performance from Margot Robbie, but she isn't enough to actually elevate this film to a level I could even come close to calling "good". I couldn't believe how often the writers ask Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to literally announce a character's name and what their skill set was to the team. The biggest laugh I had was the line "Here comes Slipknot, the man who can climb anything." as they just toss a new character into the mix sans fanfare after spending the entire first act of the film introducing these bad guys with flashy graphics. What I particularly loved is specifically the skill: "the man who can climb anything". Assemble a team to try to stop a galactic god, make sure to find a spot for "the man who can climb anything". Holy shit.

It's a bummer because I honestly wanted to have a blast with Suicide Squad, but it came close to doing nothing for me. I would watch a Harley Quinn solo film mostly because I wanted to see more of the character's backstory on the screen. The fact that she was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum prior to her own evolution into insanity is fascinating, yet Suicide Squad addresses this with a couple quick and totally forgettable scenes meant to establish the relationship between her and the Joker. Out of all the 7 or so scenes that Leto's Joker is in, every last one of them either bored me or made me laugh for all the wrong reasons. Terrible.

Suicide Squad is a bad film, completing a rough 2016 for the DCEU, and I actually really enjoy Batman v Superman (especially the Ultimate Edition on Blu-ray). Still, that film could have been better yet it's a masterpiece compared to this one. I really, really hope Wonder Woman lives up to it's wonderful first trailer. Perhaps she can be the saving grace of a universe of cinema I really want to see succeed.


Monday, August 8, 2016

Weiner Review

A documentary is a film that tells a non-fiction story, but how one goes about telling it can vary greatly and there is a place for all styles. My favorite film of the year thus far is the 7 hour long masterpiece O.J.: Made in America, and because that is such a sprawling and comprehensive piece telling a story that spans decades it had to be done using a combination of actual footage along with interviews with those involved in the various moments. Ironically, that is usually the type of doc that doesn't draw me in as much because the standard person talks to camera with cutaways to footage format doesn't feel quite as riveting as the type of film that immerses you in the reality of others. Films that feel voyeuristic, like the audience is seeing something it shouldn't.

O.J.: Made in America transcended any issues I may have had with its style because it was handled with such tremendous patience and intelligence, painting with a broad and brilliant brush that illustrated every single piece of nuance that went into the life of O.J. Simpson and the brutal double murder that he likely got away with. While the new documentary Weiner is unable to reach the impossible heights of that picture (Made in America is easily my favorite ever in the genre), it's not far off and ironically far more my style. What we have here is the fly on the wall style of filmmaking that gives viewers a rare glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes of a political campaign, but not just any campaign. One mired in a scandal that creates a truly surreal environment that these people occupy, all captured by the cameras of filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg.

Anthony Weiner was a rising star in the political scene, a democrat from New York that served their 9th congressional district from January 1999 through June of 2011, and he didn't merely keep his seat, he dominated seven elections in a row. Accompanied by his beautiful wife Huma Abedin who also happens to have powerful political connections as well, as she has worked for Hillary Clinton for 20 years now starting as an intern in the White House and now serving as vice chairwoman of her Presidential campaign, the sky was the limit for Anthony...or so it seemed. In 2011, a sexting scandal erupted when his own Twitter account posted an explicit photo of himself and eventually he was forced to come clean about his transgressions with women he met online, none of which he had ever met in person. He resigned from his position in Congress and began to rebuild his public image, apologizing for what happened while salvaging his marriage after the birth of their first son.

The world forgave and moved on and when Anthony Weiner began a run at becoming the next Mayor of New York City, he was leading in the polls. A true comeback story.

Then it happened again. New images, even more revealing then the previous batch, and what was more damning were the dates they were taken, right around the time he was initially exposed and even shortly after. The documentary began filming far earlier than this new scandal, as it was initially meant to be a peak behind the curtain of a man seeking redemption story. Now this film became so much more.

I cannot say enough positive things about the way Weiner was assembled, edited perfectly to maximize the entertainment value of the subject and his circumstances while also allowing the camera to feel like a living, breathing thing, lingering with longer takes of silence to demonstrate the humanity of the situation beyond funny headlines and national embarrassment. We see all the various covers of the New York Post using his last name as a way to capture the attention of readers, but because of the actions of Anthony, Huma is forced to face all the shame and deal with her own pain. Their son will one day learn of what his dad did, a conversation they will have to engage in that as a father I do not envy. Even just being able to see the faces of those that work for his campaign, the people that believed so deeply in him and what he was trying to do, when they were allowed to let their guard down and let their concerns and frustrations bubble to the surface. All of it is endlessly fascinating and at times heartbreaking.

Weiner is quite funny though, and it's okay to laugh. Part of what makes the experience so enjoyable on a comedic level is Anthony's ability to make light of it himself, and regardless of where you fall on the political scale it's hard to deny the courage of a man who is willing to face the heat of the same embarrassing questions over and over and over again yet not throw in the towel, entering rooms of people that he knows to be hostile towards his private behavior but he somehow keeps his head held high and fights back, sometimes too hard. One of the finest frames of the film pops up shortly after an interview between Anthony and MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, a contentious altercation to say the least. The way the filmmakers choose to shoot this moment, as Anthony and Huma watch the way it went down on television via Youtube, is outstanding because on the one side you have Weiner not even trying to hide his smile. It's hard to witness this moment and not recall back to when he was criticized for being a narcissist earlier in the doc as it truly appears as if he is enjoying the moment despite it being an ugly piece of tape certain to impact his chances of winning the election. On the other side is his wife Huma, so strong to stand by the person she loves through thick and thin and yet now while Anthony soaks in the spotlight, she cannot even pretend to want to watch. There in one frame, he looks one way and she another, he with a smile and a stream of laughter and she through eyes that look ready to burst with tears. It's a perfectly filmed moment capturing a marriage that is deeply, profoundly troubled.

Weiner is a film that feels stranger than fiction, at times playing like a mockumentary that cannot possibly be based in fact. Whether it is watching Anthony waving flags proudly at various parades, walking quietly down the city streets with his baby boy in a stroller or quite literally being chased through a McDonald's by the girl who released his most damning pictures, this movie is endlessly compelling and a must see.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Little Prince Review

"It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

I felt it was appropriate to start this off with a quote that not only is spoken in the film but also describes why it totally won me over as well. On the surface The Little Prince undoubtedly treads in similar waters as many stories that were told before it. Here we follow a little girl (voiced by Interstellar breakout Mackenzie Foy) who is unable to embrace the wonders of childhood because of her mother (Rachel McAdams) who tries to make her daughter grow up fast, keeping her on a rigid and joyless schedule meant to further her education and future career aspirations yet lock her away from the depths of her own imagination. When the girl and her mother move to a new house, their next door neighbor is an old man known only as the Aviator (Jeff Bridges), and his home is a reflection of his personality. A man so creative and eccentric doesn't blend into a grey, routine filled existence. The Aviator introduces the girl to his world, one filled with magic and endless possibilities. It's a world that revolves around the story of the Little Prince.

The beats of the story may lead down a predictable path, but lord, the process of getting there is tremendously moving and imaginative. The film balances two completely different worlds and animation styles, one that is computer animated that displays reality and then stop motion when telling the story of the Little Prince. While the stop motion pieces of the film are more striking and interestingly detailed considering how commonplace computer animation is these days, both provide some truly stunning imagery along the way. Of course, this is only a small part of why I love this film. 

"It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

The Little Prince struck a chord in my heart that allowed it to transcend any criticism I have over narrative familiarity. It's just a beautiful picture across the board, and the relationship between the little girl and the Aviator is full of so much warmth. Seeing her eyes open to what was around her, as she realizes how big the world is after her mother spent so much time making it feel small, was really special. The soul of The Little Prince reverberates through every moment, big and small, and it is essential. It is only with heart that I could feel it all. Despite so many frames being soaked in emotion and beauty, the true reason why I am still glowing from this experience is invisible to the eye.

Distributed in the U.S. by Netflix and available to stream there now, safe to say The Little Prince is a front runner for animated film of the year. As much as I love both Zootopia and Finding Dory, neither made me feel quite this wonderful.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Star Trek Beyond Review

Let me be clear right from the start: I am no Star Trek historian. In fact as of 2009 I couldn't even call myself a Star Trek fan on any level, as I had literally never seen a single thing from the universe that Gene Roddenberry created so many years ago. Nothing. Not a single episode of the show and not a single film. If it wasn't for a steady flow of positive word of mouth coming from those who had seen the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot, I can't promise when I would have watched that one either but I gave it a shot, and I absolutely loved it. Still do. Same can be said for its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, which falls a bit short of the first but plays right into my wheelhouse in terms of tone and entertainment value.

I prefaced my feelings about the two new films with my total lack of Trek knowledge because the main issue I have heard from many regarding the Abrams take on these stories (especially Into Darkness) is that it just doesn't feel like the Star Trek that many knew and loved growing up, and also the fact that apparently the second film is too much of a mirror image of previous work meant to whip up nostalgia rather than tell a compelling and original story. Whether Abrams captured the spirit of what true Star Trek should feel like, I do not know. Whether he apes the ground others had previously tread for him, I cannot possibly know since I have never walked that ground before, and even if he did it might be hypocritical of me to criticize considering it's the same detraction I see a lot of when it comes to The Force Awakens and yet I loved every damn second of that film.

The point is, I am judging these modern takes on the Trek universe with a different perspective than many, as even today as I am writing about Star Trek Beyond I am still yet to see anything prior to 2009. I was told to check out Wrath of Khan. I think I will. Until then, this is the way I see these three films, like it or not, because my mind cannot pretend to be upset about something it does not know. Maybe someday I will see what many see and understand where the vitriol and furthermore the celebratory attitude towards a change in director comes from, as Justin Lin took over for Abrams for the third film. This current trilogy is my Star Trek, and as such, consider me a fan.

As for the new installment, I will admit that I had some pretty huge concerns after seeing the first trailer however many months ago. After Star Trek Into Darkness left many dissatisfied thanks to its mimicry of past material, I couldn't help but think that what I was seeing now was a clear attempt to replicate the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that managed to (somehow) seamlessly weave deep space, science fiction oddness with real world music and references, and James Gunn pulled it off in what is still my favorite Marvel film to date. The thing is, the reason it worked is because it was so refreshingly unique, so when someone says "What's the next Guardians of the Galaxy?" the answer is, it's impossible, unless of course we are taking the question literally and then it would be Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. No other director can capture that same lightning in a bottle because it was already caught and released onto the world, and trying to duplicate that feeling in an audience will unquestionably end up falling short.

The good news is, while Star Trek Beyond did venture into a bit of Guardians type territory by incorporating seemingly out of place musical cues as mechanisms for both humor and action, for the most part it manages to be entirely its own thing, an adventure to deep space that maintains the same extremely impressive ensemble from the Abrams films while taking on a bit of a different tone. The adventure aspect of this film is something that completely worked for me as even as a defender of the two previous films, Abrams chose to make the stories more grounded and gritty at the expense of exploration and imagination.

I mentioned the impressive ensemble and yes, the usual suspects all continue to showcase terrific performances and the always building and maturing chemistry between the characters. It broke my heart to watch Anton Yelchin on the screen knowing that if this series lives on, he will not be a part of it which is such a shame. 2016 was the year that my admiration for him as an actor broke out after watching his outstanding turn in Green Room, and he is giving a meaty amount of screen time here with Star Trek Beyond as well and does not disappoint. Anton, you will be missed. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, and Simon Pegg (who also wrote the film) are all on point and have been a major reason for my admiration for all three of these films.

As for the new faces to the screen, Sofia Boutella (likely best known for her role in Kingsman: The Secret Service) is a really enjoyable addition to the mix here as Jaylah, a character that is stumbled upon when the crew is stranded on a remote planet and she serves as the crucial piece to present them an opportunity to have a chance to return home. She forms a really solid bond with Pegg's Scotty, both literally on screen as their communication forms a bridge of trust between her and the rest of the crew and in the sense that something about the two of them, Pegg and Boutella that is, work together really well and the dialogue between them comes off as genuine.

If there is an Idris Elba fan club out there, allow me to join it. I love the man, a gifted actor who constantly does outstanding work regardless of the material he is given, which is why I find myself disappointed right now after sitting down for Star Trek Beyond expecting the villain to shine. Elba does quite well with what he is asked to do, which unfortunately is very little and extremely forgettable, and even in the end the motivations of his Krall character proved to be underwhelming. I get it, why he is so angry with the Federation. When they do flesh out the reasons for his obsessive and murderous agenda, it all makes sense, but it is sorted out in a hurry and falls limp, the type of thing that isn't muddled now but will end up seeming that way years later when people try to remember what exactly pushed him over the edge because the writing of this revelation and the way it is elaborated upon didn't resonate strongly with me.

I know Eric Bana's Nero from the first film is considered a weak villain, and it's true he didn't bring a ton on screen beyond progressing the story forward, but at least the motivations for his actions were presented clearly, meaningfully and expounded upon with enough emotional power to sell me that while he is by definition a "bad guy", at least I can see where his vengeful desires came from. Krall is a let down of a villain, a side show to the extremely likable main cast of characters and their clever dialogue that often kept a smile plastered across my face. It's actually because of the crew of the Enterprise and the words Pegg, along with co-writer Doug Jung, gave them that has made this film more enjoyable in retrospect than it played originally, as I sit here thinking back to various moments and lines that were extremely well done.

Without a doubt I am a fan of Star Trek Beyond and will proudly sit it along side the previous two films, but with a shockingly uninteresting villain played by a profoundly interesting man and just a general lack of a wow factor for me throughout the movie, I find myself a little less on board with the picture as a whole than I hoped to be. It's a fun adventure, and even without ever seeing it I can appreciate those that have compared it to an episode of the original series because it did feel a bit episodic which could explain where I am coming up short. I walked out of the cinema feeling the same way I would have after a fun and exciting episode of a series, but under those circumstances I would be wondering what was coming next week or at most next season. When I walked in I was anticipating an event, a follow up to a film that felt like just that two years earlier, and perhaps my expectations were misguided. This might be a perfect example of where filling in the massive amounts of Trek emptiness from the past would have helped me, as perhaps I could have appreciated the journey on a higher level and had it mean a heck of a lot more if I knew where the inspiration behind it was coming from.

Don't let me rain on any parades with the misconception that I disliked Star Trek Beyond, it's a really good movie and I had a blast with it, but something feels missing. Perhaps I will eventually find it and a revisit will be even more rewarding.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition Review

Back when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released in theaters, I came home very late at night (technically very early in the morning) and started furiously typing, explaining my issues with the film and yet the tone wasn't one of them. Everywhere I look I see people tearing down the movie for its grim aesthetic and mostly humorless dialogue, but these aspects actually work as a positive for me rather than a negative. I don't subscribe to the notion that a picture involving superheroes must be light and airy, that I need to feel like I am having fun the entire time in order to enjoy the experience. Just make a good film. Zack Snyder sorta did.

The reasons that I felt compelled to come home and start furiously typing those issues the first time around basically boiled down to two things: pacing and the villain. It may sound impossible to many, but the theatrical cut being 150 minutes long was too short, a film with a scattershot narrative as it desperately tried to build an entire cinematic universe in one story where as Marvel achieved theirs prior to any Avengers team up event by releasing 5 films spanning 4 years. Sure, we may know the Batman character inside and out from the decades of comics, television and film, but it is still up to Snyder to introduce us to THIS Batman and he did so, but at a disservice to his man of steel. Technically serving as a sequel to a film by that very name, Man of Steel, Henry Cavill obviously an integral part of the story of this film and yet his character feels short changed by a lens more focused in on Ben Affleck's brooding bat.

The new Ultimate Edition that was recently released on Blu-ray incorporates thirty minutes of scenes deleted for the theatrical cut and the result of adding them back in is a better film, plain and simple. Even when some scenes feel like they were worthy of deletion, they still enhanced the movie by making the story flow better and the whole ends up being a much more pleasurable watch. Superman is giving a few extra moments too and they help, and I couldn't help but think about what a shame it is that the world didn't get to see this cut initially and perhaps have a slightly better opinion of the movie. Slightly.

See, if you hated the film the first time, the Ultimate Edition will do nothing for you. Perhaps it will actually make you more angry because it's the same tone and style and writing and performances as the movie you already saw, only longer. Therefore, if you belong to that camp, don't take what I say as an endorsement that a revisit with this new look at Batman v Superman will change your mind, because it won't. However, if you are like me and you enjoyed the movie the first time but had reservations, it's entirely possible that this more pleasurably paced picture will cure what ails ya.

As for the villain, I was hoping that Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Lex Luthor would win me over with a second look. It was even worse this time. His twitchy, quirky take on the megalomaniac billionaire drives me nuts almost every single time he is in the frame, spare a scene or two where he was giving good dialogue and dropped the ridiculous mannerisms for a moment. That scene where he introduces Clark to Bruce at a party is cringe worthy awful and I still find it baffling that it was something included in the trailer ahead of the film's release, an advertisement meant to draw people into the cinema. For all the good that I find throughout this film, finding myself legitimately excited for the Wonder Woman solo effort after Gal Gadot was introduced as the character here, looking forward to a Batman movie directed by Affleck himself, being optimistic about the first Justice League team up due out next year, the idea of having to see more of Eisenberg as this character brings my enthusiasm down a notch or two.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is never going to be a perfect film, no matter how many different cuts they could release in the future. It is deeply flawed and has already proven to rub many the wrong way with its joyless determination to prove the superhero sub-genre doesn't need to crack jokes and fling colors at our faces for hours, but for me at the very least the additional half hour made me appreciate the movie a little bit more. Enough to bump my original score up by a half star and look forward to what turns out to be an improved cinematic universe going forward.