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.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

If you are a fan of Marvel films like I am, the best thing that could have happened for the cinematic universe was the success of stories that might be deemed "risky" due to focusing on unproven commodities. Technically you could say that it started unproven of course, because no one could have known with Iron Man was released in May of 2008 that it would become the dominant interconnected beast it is today, but that's a given. What mattered most was when studio chief Kevin Feige was willing to finance films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. When those movies took off and won over audiences, it was safe to assume the universe would continue to expand and introduce us to new and fascinating characters.

Doctor Strange fits that bill, telling the story of Dr. Stephen Strange, an arrogant and egotistical neurosurgeon who has achieved far more acclaim and recognition than a typical member of his field. One night he is driving far too fast and erratically and violently crashes his car, losing the ability to use his hands in the process. It's a devastating turn of events for a man whose entire life resides in what he is able to do with his hands, and during his recovery he battles both depression and a far too ambitious drive to regain full functionality again via experimental treatments. When progress isn't progressing fast enough for his liking, Strange learns of a man named Jonathon Pangborn who never should have been able to walk again until he did. Not only walk, but live a completely normal, healthy life. When Strange locates him, Pangborn points him to a place called Kamar-Taj, and when the doctor arrives there his life changes in mysterious and mystical ways.

I started the review by speaking to fans of Marvel films. Going the other direction, if you are typically not interested in what these movies have to offer, you likely won't be again here aside from some truly stunning visual effects that are sometimes absent from the drab palettes of previous MCU fare. In my world the ambitious concepts and execution of these visuals and the directions this film goes in terms of alternate dimensions and portals and magic are worth the price of admission alone, but for many others the standard superhero origin story feel to the plotting could be a chore. As a fan, I never mind these solo efforts that lead into the connected and expansive character world because I have read enough of the comics now to be curious as to whether they will use the same beats or go in an original direction.

Some decry the origin portion of these films, I actually was concerned during the first act of Doctor Strange that there wasn't enough of it to really build the character. His aforementioned arrogance and narrow focus on only his career in life is crucial in order to understand the depths of his struggle and drive during his recovery, and I felt like I had barely taken my seat by the time he crashed his car. Even though I knew enough about Stephen Strange prior to even entering the theater, I didn't feel like we knew enough as an audience. However, the screenplay did a good job of incorporating some of that development into the sequences when he is fighting for normalcy in his hands to no avail again as we see him tear down those closest to him, like fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who begs him to see the value in his life even without his job. He won't consider it and becomes cruel, pushing her away.

The action sequences throughout Doctor Strange are solid and entertaining but nothing hit me quite as hard as what we saw in the Captain America films directed by the Russo brothers, The Winter Soldier and Civil War. This isn't much of a criticism though as I would hope that different filmmakers with differing visions of characters wouldn't feel redundant in terms of style from film to film. One area that Marvel seems to really miss the mark on, time and time again, are their villains and unfortunately that's basically the case again in Doctor Strange. I had lofty expectations with the casting of the excellent Mads Mikkelsen in the role of Kaecilius, and he is fine but nothing especially memorable in the grand scheme of the cinematic universe.

Despite some issues, Doctor Strange is another entry into the Marvel world that flat out works. Benedict Cumberbatch was the absolute perfect choice to play the Sorcerer Supreme, exemplifying the arrogance and the drive to be able to withstand the injuries and the subsequent training that would help repair his body and mind. Director Scott Derrickson along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill bring that sense of fun and adventure to this tale, and to see the magic and dimension bending movements on screen is wondrous and hypnotic. Perhaps I am just a sucker who has fallen in line to the trappings of what Feige and the others in charge of Marvel Studios want from their loyal audience, to simply buy their brand with enthusiasm with each passing entry rather than begin to feel fatigued over their seemingly never-ending slate, but I am in. They've got me, and I stick around for the post credit scenes ready to see what direction we might go in next every single time. Doctor Strange is another winner and I look forward to seeing him brought in with the team for the next Avengers entry and, of course, the eventual solo sequel that is clearly destined to be made.


Friday, November 4, 2016

The Brothers Grimsby Review

So for like a month I barely watch any films with the intention of reviewing them because I got to experience the glory of witnessing my favorite sports franchise win their first championship in over a century, and this is what I settle on for my return to putting down words. Both written by and starring Sacha Baron Cohen, the new comedy The Brothers Grimsby is brutally unfunny and boring, which is almost hard to believe considering it's only 80 minutes long and tries so damn hard to be shocking with its gross out humor. One would think at the very least it would keep my attention, even if it was for all the wrong reasons. One would be wrong.

Directed by Louis Leterrier, who was also behind the camera for one of my least favorite films of a few years ago, Now You See Me, The Brothers Grimsby misses the mark on every single occasion. Every one of them. I not only couldn't laugh, I couldn't smile. I couldn't sit in one spot and watch it for its entirety because I felt like I have this one life to live and I was just giving away time for nothing. I started cleaning up my living room a bit as this was on so I could feel like I was accomplishing something to offset the awfulness.

Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) has been searching for his brother Sebastian (Mark Strong....why Mark? Why did you do this film?) for 28 years. He finds him. Sebastian is an MI6 secret agent uncovering a plot that threatens mankind. Hilarity ensues. That's all I've got, providing a plot summary is like reliving the movie all over again.

The four worst films I have seen from 2016 are all terrible comedies. Five if you include The 5th Wave, but that wasn't trying to be funny. There is nothing worse in cinema than cringing through over an hour of comedic material that never lands, and The Brothers Grimsby and the three films worse than it all fit so perfectly into that unfortunate category.