Thursday, March 31, 2016

Lighten up, DC!: The Suicide Squad Reshoots

Earlier today, word got out that the highly anticipated film Suicide Squad was in the midst of some pricey reshoots and the reason is not necessarily quality of the content but rather the worry of a tonal disconnect between the hugely popular second trailer of the movie and what the finished product would actually be. Warner Bros. saw the buzz the film was building from the pretty terrific new look at these characters and became worried that all of the comedy in the film was right there in those two and a half minutes, and audiences would find themselves turned off when they finally sat down in the theater and left wondering why what they saw didn't match their expectations. 

The reactions I have come across to this news on Twitter have been just as polarizing as the reviews of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, ranging from thrilled excitement to angered disappointment. The optimism is from those that hope the suits behind the scenes got the message when it became clear that BvS was a critical failure and that some fun should be injected into the cinematic universe (although this has nothing to do with BvS, I will get to that in a bit). The concern comes from those that love the more dark and gritty take on caped heroes and would end up merely blending in with the slate of Marvel films rather than doing something to stand out. 

First, let's address one thing that is a common misconception: reshoots do not equal a failed film. Many times the knee jerk reaction to such an announcement is that obviously what the studio saw is a mess and thus we are seeing last minute panic to fix it, when it just isn't the case. Well, sometimes it is the case of course, but at least it isn't a guarantee. Many great pictures have had reshoots and rewrites and massive issues on the set that seemed to spell disaster, yet in the end what was seen by the masses became beloved. I'm not saying Suicide Squad belongs in this conversation, hell I don't know if it was ever going to be good, but do not give up hope or become pessimistic solely because of an awareness of reshoots. 

As for where I stand in the whole thing, I am actually pretty darn excited that Warner Bros. recognized something that could be a problem and acted on it. The only concern is that the changes may not be executed well and fail to fit into director David Ayer's overall vision, because if this decision wasn't made mutually and it causes tension between the filmmaker and the studio, trouble could be brewing. I always want to believe that what I am witnessing on the big screen was what the director wanted me to see, and it is a bummer when that isn't the case. If he found a way to go back to the drawing board and seamlessly integrate some more humorous character interactions and fun set pieces to give the audience a more enjoyable experience, then count me in.

As I referenced earlier, it's important to note that this decision to reshoot isn't actually tied to the critical response to Batman v Superman, although I am sure that only helped to reinforce the decision that was already made. Reshoots were actually ordered based only on the response to that second trailer and this is why I am optimistic. Let's face it, whether you want the DC movieverse to be dark and more tonally violent than other superhero fare is irrelevant because if Suicide Squad was meant to follow that path, then ironically the death knell for the film would have been that trailer. Why? Because the positive reaction means those who are enthused by it now have expectations, and if they aren't met the word of mouth would be really poor and I don't think WB studios could handle two big budget critical failures in the same year. I will be honest, I was very much a Suicide Squad pessimist based on the still images released last year. I believe I said that they looked more like a posed photograph at an Insane Clown Posse concert than a look at a superhero villain movie. The first trailer had me thinking maybe it could be pretty cool, but it was the second trailer that hooked me, and the little voice inside my head said "This looks like it will be a lot of fun!" Had it failed to live up to that come August, I would be one of those with not so hot things to say afterwards and if too many voices are negative, eventually the box office will suffer.

To be clear, I'm not even someone who took issue with the tone of Batman v Superman. I was fine with the brooding second chapter after the somewhat optimistic (although still pretty dark) Man of Steel. The thing is though, if all of the films within this universe feel exactly the same tonally, it just won't work. People like to complain about Marvel being silly, but it is a false generalization. It has been light and fun when it wants to be, and good on them because I have enjoyed much of that style in their films. Guardians of the Galaxy is my favorite MCU film because it was a total blast of fun yet within the colorful set pieces and clever comedy there was a real heart beating throughout the story and its characters. My second favorite of theirs is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which takes on a very different tone, a picture that is essentially an intense and stylish spy thriller that just so happens to feature an Avenger in the lead role. Their universe works and flows so well because they have found a way to take different styles and levels of seriousness and make them all mesh cohesively. Granted, I continue to take issue with films like Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World because of their attempts at humor, but it isn't that they wanted to be funny that is the problem, it's that they failed so spectacularly at doing so. I would still rather have those that try to present a mixed bag and fail over film after film after film of one note storytelling.

Suicide Squad should be fun. It just should, but when I say fun I don't mean it should be DC's Guardians of the Galaxy, which I know some have labeled it as already. That's a poor comparison and can only do harm to Suicide Squad by setting inappropriate expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy features a charismatic Chris Pratt in the lead, a tree that only says three words and a talking, smart ass raccoon. It was always meant to be a comedy heavy picture and director James Gunn nailed it from start to finish, but Suicide Squad could not and should not strive to match such an experience. A film centered on these villains should be highly entertaining and elicit laughs, but more those earned through dark behavior and intentions rather than anything breezy. I can only assume the characters featured in Suicide Squad will make more appearances in other DC films going forward, and they need to be able to make us smile but also demand that we take them seriously as representations of evil, and this is where I hope Ayer and the studio are able to find a balance with these reshoots. Too far in either direction could end in both critical and financial failure, but I hope not. Right now I am choosing to believe that this will end up being a terrific late summer slice of entertainment. Just don't panic over the reshoots, because something tells me in the end the decision will have been for the best.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Raid: Redemption Review

Rama says goodbye to his pregnant wife and makes a promise to his father, one that carries immense weight between the two of them yet for viewers it is the definition of vague. A promise to bring him home. Suddenly, with no further character development or building of a story, we are being briefed by the leader of a S.W.A.T. team on the way to a mission. The first time I watched The Raid: Redemption, this was a very minor complaint of mine, that any attempt at telling a real meaningful tale is left in the dust of action spectacle and ultra violence. I no longer can even pretend that this bothers me anymore. Director Gareth Evans knew exactly what he was doing when he crafted this film, and the result is quite possibly my all time favorite from the genre. Each revisit makes me feel like I just bumped a line of coke and then plowed through a six pack of energy drinks. Not that I would have any idea what that feels like, of course. Sounds euphoric though.

Joking, obviously. Kids, don't do drugs.

The first bullet of the film flies in slow motion, but not to worry. Things are about to speed up, a blast of frenetic energy that will leave you in awe. It doesn't matter if you are with a group of friends craving the chance to soak in the bloody halls of a tenement or sitting alone at home just searching for a distraction. Either way a word will not only float through your mind but likely slip between your lips at some point, an audible declaration for just how fucking awesome the experience of watching this movie is.


I know I said it. I still say it and I have seen the film numerous times. The Raid is brutal and brilliant, a dizzying explosion of bravura filmmaking that made me believe in a genre that I had once left behind. The set pieces are limited to this one drab building, hallways muted by lifeless colors and lit by flickering lights, but what Evans proves is that an ability to choreograph and film action turns what looks to be ordinary into something extraordinary. Along the way we get a bit more insight into what makes Rama tick, both through his personal exhausting path to survival and the deeper connection he has to this fight that was referenced in the promise to his father, but it isn't a lot and truthfully, it doesn't matter. That brief glimpse into his world at the start was plenty.

I think the part of the film that surprises me the most isn't that such gruesome, intense action can be so entertaining but rather that it doesn't get boring being stretched out over the course of 100 minutes. How many bodies can hit the floor before we start to feel fatigue from the redundancy of cinematic death? Turns out the answer is plenty. More than the chaos of The Raid can provide even, because by the time the final frame leaves the screen I may feel battered and bruise yet at no point does the picture feel excessive. It might be hard to believe after so much carnage, but what you just witnessed is only the first act of something much, much bigger.

A punishingly perfect film, The Raid is an action masterpiece.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

"That's how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men...cruel."

Let's just be honest for a second. We can say whatever we want about how we approach watching a film, but the truth is it's really challenging not being at least a little bit mentally biased one way or another towards a work that is so polarizing, especially in our modern world that not only aggregates reviews into a single percentage score but those contributing to that number are sharing their thoughts on social media for a week before the rest of the world has a chance to see it. Unless one is capable of shutting off the world for days, the noise is palpable and virtually impossible to ignore. 

I truly, honestly did my best to push it all out of my mind though. Not just the negativity, the opposite end of the spectrum as well, those that fought back against the reviews labeled as rotten and insisted the film was actually quite fresh. I believe I succeeded, because as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice began it all melted away in a hurry and I was pulled in by an outstanding start, as even the origins of Batman that have been done to death were a welcome sight thanks to a bit of that confident Zack Snyder visual flair. That combined with the fantastic idea of showing us the carnage that took place in Metropolis again, only this time from the ground level perspective of Bruce Wayne was exactly what I needed to believe in this film. The evocation of 9/11 terror through imagery to drive home just how horrifying it is to witness death from above, chaos completely out of your control was haunting and incredibly smart. 

The highs of Batman v Superman are wonderfully high, the type of stuff that truly feels like a culmination of everything a comic book fan could hope for when this project was announced. The problem is, there are also lows and boy are they low, resulting in an experience that all together is more frustrating than thrilling. I considered trying to not bring Marvel into the conversation because I know the strange competition between the fans of the two gets some riled up (why we can't love and want the best from both, I will never understand), but it's important to bring up their cinematic universe to serve as an example of how it should be done. By the time the two Infinity War films are released, the MCU will have been churning out films that coexist for over a decade, a studio that decided to play the long game and try to set things up with patience in order to build the characters so that they wouldn't need to be fleshed out in a collaborative setting. Batman v Superman fails so massively at times in terms of its scattershot plot and piss poor characterization that the ugliness of trying to rush the main Justice League event to the big screen was evident and undeniable. 

I found it humorous that after the film ended and the credits had finished rolling, when it became clear that there would be no post credit sequence (go ahead and leave, nothing to see here), a guy in my theater started joking that this isn't Marvel, that DC doesn't need to give us a preview of what's to come. Why is this funny? Because to proclaim DC is above such techniques is absurd given that what they did was even more egregious by forcing in uncomfortable previews of their future projects during the film, a moment involving comically labeled computer files that feels so out of place that if you don't laugh at it, you may cry. 

Despite the frustration, I would be lying if I said I wasn't excited to see where the universe will go from here. I really loved the casting of Affleck as Bruce/Batman and it absolutely worked for me, the concept of him being a mentally tortured and far more brutal take on the character than what we have seen before. Unfortunately by quickly pushing him into this team up film, I felt like the chance to get a more nuanced look at everything that makes this version tick was lost. If the rumors are true that Ben will get the chance to direct and obviously star in his own solo Batman film, perhaps featuring villains from Suicide Squad rather than bloated CG creatures, I will be at the front of the line ready to fall in love with it. My only wish is that I had a better chance to learn about what Affleck was going for beyond what numerous dream sequences and a misguided anger towards the god that flies above us are capable of establishing.

Gal Gadot is obviously gorgeous, that was never in doubt, but the question of whether she would actually fit the role of Wonder Woman was and her character suffered from what weighed down the film as a whole, that her role was minimal due to being thrust into various scenes with no development only to finally allow her to shine during the main action set piece in the final act. While that battle scene didn't quite enthrall me as much as I had hoped, her role in it was extremely entertaining and gave me high hopes for her solo film. I just wish Batman v Superman didn't feel like a giant commercial for all of those solo films, because even though I may be sold on some of the future plans, the present was far more gloomy and uninteresting than it should have been. 

I know a lot of people are raving about Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, but I'm still not sold. Not even close. While I found his take on the character a bit more tolerable as the story unfolded, that's sort of like saying being punched in the head starts to hurt a little less because you become numb to it. I found his Mark Zuckerberg gone twitchy and wild act to be insufferable early on, an exhausting attempt at being over-the-top ominous combined with comical and I simply wasn't scared nor was I amused. I can only hope that his performance in future films is tweaked to be a bit more serious and less ridiculous, and I should note that I don't fully blame Eisenberg himself for the way I feel. Obviously Snyder along with writers David Goyer and Chris Terrio found this take on the character to be interesting and believed it would fit the tone they were looking for. Personally, no thanks.

I deeply admire that Snyder, Goyer and Terrio strive to tap into some really interesting thematic material here and that Batman v Superman was far weirder and more unique than what people assume they are getting from a superhero film. Unfortunately it feels like the depth is only half baked before the film devolves into an effects driven slug fest, and don't get me wrong, that can be a lot of fun but I wanted to be moved by the message and much like a lot of the film, this fell short. 

I liked Batman v Superman. It's a pretty good film, but it's so damn frustrating. Throughout every moment, even when the picture really feels like it is ready to go off the rails, I could sense a really terrific movie in there somewhere that just wasn't allowed to come out. Despite the fact that I proclaimed this film "good", that doesn't mean I believe the critics are wrong which is a sentiment I have noticed a lot of. It's a dangerous message, to declare others wrong because your opinion might not align with theirs. The beauty of appreciating cinema is that opinions are not only welcome, they are a necessity because without different viewpoints and debate, what the hell is the point? Why would anyone even feel compelled to write a word if it were a guarantee that all who read completely agree on every level? I love the fact that a vast majority of people can walk into a theater and walk out disappointed yet I am entitled to feel something different and explain why. No one is wrong and I'm not right, and neither are you.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Man of Steel Review

A few days ago, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered and the reactions from those in attendance were overwhelmingly positive. The best superhero film ever, they said. Twitter exploded in glee and the world was made whole by the opinions of others. We would soon witness an epic battle between the bat and a God, and it would change cinema forever.

Today, critics were allowed to release their reviews of the film and many were negative. Very negative. An overlong, morose slog, they said. Twitter exploded in anger and the world was shattered because of the opinions of others. We would witness a nauseating, frenetic and ponderous battle between the bat and a God, and it would have the masses reaching for pain relievers as soon as they left the theater.

You know what all of this means? Nothing. At least not until you see the film and form your own opinion of it. Neither the joy nor the sorrow is relevant. Stop relying on a tomato and a number score to guide your own thoughts on a film. If you love it, embrace it. If you don't, criticize it's mistakes and analyze what could have been done to fix them. Either way, see it for yourself and don't allow the exterior noise to pollute what you see, hear and feel.

This isn't to discount the importance of film criticism, obviously, since my passion is watching and reviewing films. It's how we approach and respond to film criticism that needs to be addressed. I share my opinion and if you are so kind as to read these words, I hope you too see the same films and are willing to come back and consider my views and either agree with them or debate me on why you disagree, not with hostility but rather a desire to actively discuss and try to see a new side to cinema. I have extracted very little from a movie upon my first viewing, but rather than discount a critic who felt differently, I will revisit it with their praise in mind and try to see what they saw, and at times it has lead to a rewarding, eye opening second attempt. Even if it doesn't happen that way, even when it again falls flat, the fact that art can resonate differently from one person to the next is something that should be celebrated, not admonished. If we always agree on everything, then what's the point?

With all of this in mind, I decided to sit down and give Man of Steel another look, the film that preceded the madness that is now Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For the past three years, the Superman reboot has proved to be an incredibly divisive feature, with reactions ranging from it being a beloved part of the sub-genre all the way to it being a horrid, abomination of filmmaking. I have never found myself leaning towards either side of the aisle, as I am enough of a fan to own the Blu-ray and give it enough spins to justify the purchase yet also more than willing to be critical of its shortcomings, and trust me, it has plenty. Still though, whether it be the first time or the fifth, a new look at a film can always make or break the perception one previously had for the work, so sitting down in my living room for another round of Zack Snyder's take on Kal-El allowed me to look even closer and dig a little deeper.

Many have been highly critical of the way the character is portrayed in the film, with his behavior being morally suspect and a little less than "super", but I have never quite understand this complaint. Man of Steel is a true origin story, introducing us to a character who has to learn what it means to be a symbol of good in the world, the kind of hero that people can both literally and figuratively look up to during a time of need. What would that be like, to have to learn on the fly (no pun intended) how to be so perfect and pure that any wrong step can be viewed as a chink in the armor? Isn't it only fair that we, as viewers, allow the character a single film to break through these image issues and find his way rather than expect the second coming of Christ from the first frame on?

Bringing up Christ was no accident, to be clear, because one of the major problems I have with this picture is the exhausting need to use imagery to compare Superman to Jesus. The idea of connecting the character to religious undertones is nothing new and it wasn't unexpected, but a little subtlety can go a long way. I had already grown weary of the symbolism used when a scene involving Clark seeking the advice of a priest arrives and he is framed in a way that has him side-by-side with a stained glass image of Christ, and I believe I honestly whispered to myself "Holy shit, enough already" the very first time I saw Man of Steel back when it was first released. My issues with this remain unchanged.

What does work here, however, is the casting. Henry Cavill is essentially the model choice to fill the shows of Clark/Superman both in terms of appearance and performance, and surrounding him with talent like Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane and Michael Shannon certainly don't hurt the film in any way, shape or form. It's a hell of a cast and they do their best with a script that weighs so much of the experience down. Some dialogue works wonderfully, eloquently written words that stick with you long after the film ends, and for a moment the screenplay deceives you into believing that writer David Goyer pulled a poetic rabbit out of a hat to suit the visual splendor that Snyder is capable of, the type of glorious frames that had me melting when the first trailer for the film was released.

So what does it tell you that I openly celebrated the news that the Goyer script for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was getting a rewrite from the Oscar winning writer of Argo, Chris Terrio? It's my way of saying that for every one piece of dialogue that played like music to my ears in Man of Steel, there were five more that had me shaking my head and cringing. As bad as this might sound, I will be honest, I found myself tuning some of the conversations taking place in the film out this time around because I didn't really give a damn what they were saying. So much of it is irrelevant, overwritten in a failed attempt to make characters and relationships feel more profound then they ever deserved to be, and when the film strives for some sort of warm breeziness like a nice moment between Clark and his mother, it ends up feeling out of place because even under the Kansas sun, the photography and character chemistry always feels so dour and cold.

Also, to finish up the issues with dialogue, have you ever had one specific line in a film that makes you want to literally punch yourself in the face? Man of Steel has exactly that. During a scene where we see the military spotting General Zod's spaceship in orbit of Earth, it is clarified that they are yet to make any contact with the alien craft, so their entire intelligence is based on photographs of something floating in space. That's all they know, the fact that it's there. So when the military man says the following line, even though I knew it was coming as this isn't my first rodeo, I still loudly slapped my own forehead and wondered how it could be. I wanted to believe I had concocted these words in a dream and it wouldn't actually rear its ugly head:

"I'm just speculating, but I think whoever is at the helm of that thing is looking to make a dramatic entrance."

Well thank our fucking lucky stars we have such wise men running the military to drop hot observational takes like that. I'm just speculating? Whoever is at the helm? Dramatic entrance? They literally know NOTHING about the situation at this point except that something is there. Nothing. It's phony, inexcusable dialogue like this that serves entirely as a means to introduce the ominous bad guy talks to people through their television sets sequence but upon reflection, is written like absolute horseshit. This isn't the only example of Goyer's script being drivel, but it is the one moment that makes his inability to deliver all the more obvious. So yes, I couldn't be happier that the mistake of having him write Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was potentially remedied by calling in Terrio, and hopefully the upgrade is noticeable.

Finally, let's get to the real elephant in the room that is Man of Steel, and that is the final action sequence between Superman and Zod, although saying "final action sequence" when it refers to such a large chunk of the film does feel a bit disingenuous. I would hate to imply that one brief moment causes such a stir with heated arguments between fans and detractors, and that implication is important to debunk because the length of the carnage taking place on screen is precisely the problem: it feels never ending, and this is coming from a guy who actually mildly enjoys the film and gets a bit of a thrill from the whole thing (I know, hard to believe I actually do lean positively with Man of Steel, but trust me I do). Between the strange decision by Snyder to constantly do abrupt zoom-ins on flying craft and people, all of which remind me of when I was a child and my family got their first camcorder and I discovered the zoom buttons so I used them incessantly just because I could, the non stop chaos of buildings crashing down and thunderous punches being thrown, and the overbearing score from Hans Zimmer blasting our minds into oblivion until we are tapping out like a boxer who took one too many clean hits to the face, the truth of the latter portions of Man of Steel is that it is an unnecessary assault on our senses. I am all for big action, for an exciting spectacle and for a special effects bonanza, but it's just too much here. I hate to pull the Marvel card right now because I know how fiery people get when they are siding with the different comic properties (why we can't love both I will never understand), but the first Avengers film managed to deliver a 45 minute long final battle set piece without ever making me feel fatigued from the experience because it understood the importance of fitting in some clever dialogue, likable characters and comedic timing to break up the monotony of destruction. Every new fight felt fresh and exciting because it never felt like Joss Whedon was trying to put our head into a vice and squeeze until we passed out. I am almost certain Batman v Superman is going to go full on, rock hard boner with the action sequences, and I wouldn't expect anything less, but I hope they are able to fill me with more joy and less migraines than the epic in scale but absent in heart effort here.

Despite all of this, yes, I am actually a fan of Man of Steel. Seems impossible, I know, but something about it lends itself to being the type of film I like to experience, even if half the time it is to complain about it. Perhaps I am just attracted to the ugliness, but I can both enjoy the movie and yet also understand that it fails on quite a few levels. I actually love the gritty, serious tone found here and I wish more superhero movies would adapt it, but find a better, happier median when it comes to balancing it out with a bit of heart and charm. For example, I will take the super serious Man of Steel over the completely ridiculous Iron Man 2 any day, a film that tries so hard to have fun that it forgets it is supposed to be dramatic and exciting as well. Much of the action here, before it becomes overkill, is worthy of admiration and appropriately handled considering we are dealing with God like alien creatures rather than the limited power of humanity, and one scene in particular that others have taken issue with because of product placement (to be clear, I see it, I just don't care) I actually love. The decimation of this rural area is filmed in a way that means to demonstrate just how overwhelming and scary a battle like this would become for those who couldn't possibly understand their strength. It's when Supes and Zod bring the 9/11 on Viagra imagery to Metropolis that I start to feel numb to it all.

So after a handful of viewings, I think I have come to grips with exactly how I feel about Man of Steel. Could my perspective continue to change in the years to come? Sure, of course it could, but for now I am comfortable thinking of this movie as a totally watchable, enjoyable yet ultimately deeply flawed picture that I would mildly recommend. Being totally honest, because of my pessimistic approach to Batman v Superman ever since the entire crowded, seemingly rushed project was announced, I would be happy with the exact same outlook after seeing that one this upcoming weekend. Perhaps these lowered expectations will serve me well and I will walk out of the theater with a smile on my face having witnessed a blockbuster that improves upon the ills of its predecessor, finds a way to introduce a new slate of compelling characters without becoming muddled and delivers its action set pieces with the concept of quality over quantity in mind. Until Friday night, I will hope for the best, and no reaction leading up to it, whether positive or negative, will change that.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Collateral Review

Los Angeles is shrouded in darkness, yet when it glows it is impossibly beautiful. A city that roughly four million people call home and yet Michael Mann portrays it as feeling strangely empty at times, city streets not only lacking a palpable buzz but no real life at all. One high speed sequence is surrounded by rows of parked cars with no movement in sight, the chaos centered solely around his characters which presents a dystopian quality to a stylish noir.

I hesitate to refer to Michael Mann as a personal favorite filmmaker of mine, because he doesn't always hit the right notes with me. When he does, though, the work is memorable and spectacular, from Manhunter in the 80's to Heat and The Insider in the 90's. Inexplicably I am yet to see Thief, his feature length debut that I have been told repeatedly is a true gem, but I will address that sooner rather than later. With Collateral he proves that his ability to unleash some immensely enjoyable cinema on the world during another decade, a film released in 2004 that showcases two stars working at the top of their games, Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.

Cruise plays Vincent, a contract killer on a mission, five hits in one night and he needs a driver to get him from place to place. Foxx plays Max, the cab driver unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when he picks up Vincent and finds himself serving as an accomplice to calculated and cold blooded murders. The two men couldn't be more different in their attitudes towards life and their demeanor, but this isn't some buddy cop type setup that is nauseatingly predictable and tired. It's quite fascinating to watch the nuance in the two performances as they display their strengths, their weaknesses and their different ideas of morality and the right way to live their lives.

One specific scene is so beautifully symbolic and unforgettable and it involves two coyotes crossing the road in front of the cab. At first Max and Vincent spot one, the only sign of life around them on the streets of Los Angeles, but what really grabs Vincent's attention is the second coyote that enters the frame soon after and follows behind its partner. Vincent has lived his life and done his job as a lone wolf, a man who belongs in a pack yet has always avoided relying on another person to help him along the way, and this sight of the two animals together is handled masterfully. A subtle reminder that trying to survive these streets and the dangers that fill a life like Vincent's alone isn't wise.

An undeniably cool, smartly crafted crime thriller from a director that knows how to handle such material, I really need to catch up with all things Mann and form my own conclusions on the ones I avoided because of some poor word of mouth. I remember people telling me to skip Collateral, that it really wasn't anything special, and I now realize that couldn't be further from the truth. Pretty much everything about this film is special, a dazzling display of photography, confident direction and spot on performances that work together to form top notch, entertaining cinema.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Killer of Sheep Review

Killer of Sheep is over 30 years old, yet it is a film that hardly feels dated. In fact, it is incredibly relevant and topical today, a film that focuses on people struggling daily with the reality of poverty. I am lucky enough to not be able to personally relate to the characters or the struggles they face, but I can appreciate them and empathize with them. This film thrives in it's simplicity, allowing me to care so much for their lives because director Charles Burnett approaches this with an almost documentary style. I never once felt like I was watching actors working off of a script, because the realism of the subjects felt like I was getting an intimate look at their lives.

As the film ended, I felt it lacked a bit of wow factor or any aspect that soared enough to send it into the realm of films that I hold in the highest regard. That's not to say I wasn't impressed though, it is a superbly well made film that really doesn't do anything wrong. Killer of Sheep is impossible to disregard and deserves to be seen, and I would imagine for some it hits hard and all too close to home.

Stan works in a slaughterhouse in the film, constantly dragging around sheep and ending their lives in a second. These animals live a mundane existence in a tight room, an entire life without any real joy or experiences, their sole purpose to be killed. I think Burnett is trying to tell us it could be worse. The people we see in the film are living tough lives in not so ideal conditions, but at least they get to feel something. Stan gets to touch his wife, hold his daughter, and talk to his friends.

He stands above these creatures as a dominant, powerful figure, and as long as he is living and breathing, no matter what life throws at him, he will always be stronger than something. Any person could be a killer of sheep.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane Review

I see a lot of films, some I love and some I loathe, but one thing that doesn't happen often enough is the feeling that I need to process what I just saw. That feeling where you don't quite know what to say and you replay the entire experience in your mind to relive the journey to see how it got there. By there, of course, I mean the conclusion of the film, and goodness does 10 Cloverfield Lane have one worth talking about. It's the entire reason I needed time to process.

Let's back up here for a second though, because I need to make myself perfectly clear: 10 Cloverfield Lane is terrific from the first frame all the way through the last, so when I say process I don't mean to imply that it was ever walking some sort of tightrope between good or bad. A masterclass in claustrophobic tension and unnerving performances, the picture starts with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whom has never been better) frantically packing a bag and the combination of this imagery along with the a glorious score that reminded me so much of something that the great Bernard Hermann would have graced us with over a Hitchcock classic had me thinking of Psycho.

Where she is going, we don't know, but she never gets there. Her car is violently struck and when Michelle wakes up, she is in an ugly, windowless room with blood on her pillow, an IV in her arm and one leg chained to the wall. It's a nightmare and one that doesn't make sense, and what follows does very little to clear the picture up. 10 Cloverfield Lane is ingenious because it is a doomsday prepper thriller that leaves the audience just as confused as Michelle is down in that shelter, wondering what is really going on up above and just how much her "savior" deserves to be trusted. So if the film is all about isolation and cramped spaces and an underground existence, how could this movie possibly be connected to the original Cloverfield, a found footage monster picture? I can't answer that because I don't want to ruin the fun. Sit tight and stay tuned.

While pointing out that Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives her best performance yet doesn't sound like a big deal, it is to me since just last year I was raving about her work in the film Faults. She may not steal the headlines here because John Goodman gives an award worthy turn, but one could argue that Winstead is equally brilliant in her own way, and it is also important to note that the third party present in their bunker is Emmett, played wonderfully by John Gallagher Jr. whom you may know from an excellent film called Short Term 12. The three of them are asked to carry 10 Cloverfield Lane through the importance of performance art, and I wondered during this if much of the film would work as a stage play. The set pieces are limited but we don't need any more because witnessing these gifted actors display their craft is a sight to behold.

Working with a pretty much perfect script written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, the latter being the Oscar winning writer and director of the film Whiplash, first time director Dan Trachtenberg steps onto the scene with a stunning sense of how to film a thriller using space and circumstances to make the audience feel just as uncomfortable and buried as the characters on the screen. I couldn't find a flaw in this engrossing and disturbing picture until the end, and honestly I am still not sure how I feel about it. It felt like a tiny step down from the perfect rest of the film, but it also oddly worked and feels refreshingly unique and thus I find myself admiring the direction it went. The fusion of genres caused a tonal shift that was like the vibrations felt down in the shelter, but I think I loved it? I still don't know, but I know I am fascinated by how I can't stop thinking about it.

10 Cloverfield Lane is such an interesting piece of cinema, not only because of the actual 100 or so minutes that we are lucky enough to be able to watch but also because of the unlikely marketing campaign that started with a shocking trailer release just a couple of months ago, and prior to that moment the movie was never even announced as being in production. It never happens, finding out about a film so soon before it was to hit theaters, and the strategy was nothing short of brilliant. Each new look made the intrigue of this mysterious film intensify but the limited amount of time it was allowed to spend on anyone's radar meant it was impossible to feel 10 Cloverfield Lane fatigue. The fact that this was backed up by such a tremendous, well made work is the icing on the cake, and with each passing minute as I continue to process, replay and relive, I find myself more and more in love with 10 Cloverfield Lane.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Gods of Egypt Review

We all saw it coming. Gods of Egypt was a disaster from the start and its release date was simply the culmination of controversy, terrible trailers and awful reviews. It seems unfair to say we never really gave the film a chance, but let's be honest: we never gave the film a chance. Months before it would even hit theaters, director Alex Proyas was apologizing for the predominantly white cast portraying Egyptians. When the focus of the marketing campaign is centered around an apology rather than any sort of ancitipation or excitement, it's fair to assess that trouble is brewing.

When the film screened for critics and the response was overwhelmingly negative (as expected), Proyas could have taken the high road and accepted the criticism. He didn't. Honestly though, I sort of get it in a big picture sense. Not that film critics deserved to be referred to as "diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass", that a filmmaker would stoop to that level with such a public comment is just juvenile and sad, but the failings of Gods of Egypt are much bigger than just one bad film or one studio losing money. Despite some critical success in the past for crafting films like The Crow and Dark City, Proyas had not released a film in seven years and the fact that 140 million dollars was inexplicably poured into the production budget of Gods of Egypt meant that his career was certainly taking a major hit with such a failure. Each negative review must have felt like another kick in the gut, and for that I empathize with him.

Now that I got that out of the way, let me provide a kick of my own: Gods of Egypt is an atrocious film. It's awful. The characters and the dialogue they speak, the terrible visual effects that had me paying more attention to just how noticeable the green screen was than the actual action sequences, the casting that not only was whitewashed but also just misguided in terms of putting halfway decent performers on the screen. It's all so bad, and the result is an unintentional comedy that is laughable even when the film asks you to keep a straight face. It's not possible. I couldn't take a single moment seriously. 

Strangely though, the fact that Gods of Egypt is such a poor film made it oddly appealing at times. The type of material that taps into the part of me that loves to relax on a Sunday afternoon and watch an original film on the Lifetime Channel or the Syfy Network and laugh at the ridiculousness. Don't get me wrong, no matter how much fun it was at times to witness this mess unfold, I never actually enjoyed the ride. With one of those straight to cable films, the poor acting or uninspired script are forgivable because we know they had very little resources to work with from the beginning. 

A 140 million dollar production budget and this is what came from it. Baffling. Apparently Lionsgate had the idea that Gods of Egypt would be the start of a new, highly successful franchise for their studio. 

Maybe they didn't, but we all saw this coming. What we will never see is a sequel.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Knight of Cups Review

"Dreams are nice, but you can't live in them."

After The Tree of Life knocked me on my ass and simultaneously filled me with joy and sorrow, warmth and pain, comfort and fear, I couldn't recommend the film fast enough to others. I knew it wasn't exactly what many consider to be accessible material, but I figured if I described the experience well enough and painted a vivid picture of just how deeply it affected me emotionally, others might see what I saw: a profound, sweeping work of art that reminded me I was mortal yet was begging me to embrace the splendor of life. 

It didn't go so well. Some saw beauty in the images but little to no substance in what they were saying. Others saw nothing at all. This isn't a condemnation of their opinions, in fact I can't possibly blame them since I was the same way the first time I witnessed the film. My boredom quickly blossomed into disgust, my patience wore thin in a hurry over the whispering voice-overs and seemingly meaningless string of imagery that was undeniably gorgeously filmed, yet hollow. I needed to dig deeper to find it, to find everything, and I am so glad I did. 

This leads me to the new film from director Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups. I know without a shadow of a doubt that much like most if not all Malick, this is a picture that was destined to polarize and hearing many express hatred towards it will not shock me. I couldn't possibly recommend the film based on character or performance or story, because none of those things really matter. If you look closely and allow the artistry of what Malick and master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieved here, what you will find are frames that are bursting at the seams with life and passion.

The film follows a writer named Rick (Christian Bale) as he wanders Los Angeles and Las Vegas, from crowded streets to barren landscapes, in search of something more. To many his life probably seems something worthy of being envied, as he parties lavishly and surrounds himself with stunning women, yet it is evident throughout that there is an emptiness that haunts him and a desire for a deeper connection both within himself and with others that guides his movements. Those stunning women I mentioned are portrayed by Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto and Natalie Portman, not to mention the random frolicking forays with other mostly or completely nude beauties, and yet while the people in the frame could constantly be described as sexy and worthy of lustful thoughts and feelings, I was never distracted by it. The human form as envisioned by Malick through a Chivo lens always comes across as evidence of a higher power rather than a sexual turn on, playing more like a sculpture in a museum than a teenage wet dream. 

At this point, I feel like you either love Malick or you don't. Not that some of his work doesn't elicit a much stronger reaction than others, even from his biggest fans. I consider The Tree of Life to be the greatest accomplishment in the history of cinema while To the Wonder was gorgeous to watch but provoked very little thought, but even a lesser Malick still feels like it deserves to be seen and appreciated. If you have hated everything the man has touched thus far, you will likely loathe Knight of Cups aggressively because his style is still oozing from every inch. However, if you're not sure and willing to give it a try, go into Knight of Cups with a willingness to be swept away by perfectly lit and captured shots that I wish I could frame and bring to work with me, placing the images across the sad, windowless walls I stare at all day to remind myself that just outside is a world that is nothing short of miraculous.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Social Network Review

The film is filled with so many memorable and perfectly crafted moments that it's easy to forget about that opening scene. Just a conversation between a young couple sitting in the middle of a bar, and the first time you watch the movie it takes a second to realize that the dialogue is going to fly at you frenetically, an Aaron Sorkin script that doesn't slow down for the viewer but instead demands that you keep up. It's in this first sequence that astonishingly the character of Mark Zuckerberg is fleshed out. We see his arrogance, his social awkwardness. We hear the words spill out of his mouth that would inevitably lead to the downfall of his relationship, and even though he can't stop himself you can feel the split second regret for the cruel way he demeans her. 

The ambient sound in this scene has a disorienting effect when trying to follow the dialogue, but it is ingeniously mixed. The clicking of beer bottles and the many surrounding voices all blend together into a jarring hum of normalcy and because of this the scene feel so real, like we are there at the next table watching a date crumble into pieces. It's equal parts uncomfortable and intoxicating. 

"You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole."

Prior to the film even being released, the whole world knew exactly who Mark Zuckerberg was. Facebook had accumulated hundreds of millions of users and the man behind it all was vastly wealthy, yet in this moment there is no second guessing Erica Albright when we can see it in her eyes, the realization that she can not and should not spend another minute dealing with his bullshit. There is something so satisfying when that final word hits: asshole. It lands emphatically and strikes a chord with Mark, a single word that knocks over the first domino of the entire story to follow. 

It's only a few minutes at the very start of the film, yet it is the most critically important scene in The Social Network. When he should have been focusing on his goal of being punched by the Phoenix Club, instead he was at home blogging about the breakup and quickly creating a crude, cruel and sexist website that would crash the Harvard network and hurt a large amount of the female portion of the student body emotionally. As if there was any doubt regarding what Erica Albright said, it is impossible to deny now: Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole. Yet all the pain and vitriol derived from a few hours on a Tuesday night paved the way to the groundbreaking, generation defining social network that this many years later is still a go to form of communication for people from around the world. 

I recall when The Social Network was first being released many were voicing their dissent over how boring a "movie about Facebook" would be, and that label still resonates a bit today when I bring this masterpiece up with someone who is still yet to see it. They ask if that is "the Facebook movie" and I answer with, yes and no. Facebook is obviously central to the storytelling, but in reality this is a film about relationships, loyalty, greed, and betrayal. A film centered around a website that devalues the word friend and builds an artificial feeling of self worth based around how many acquaintances one can gather onto a list. The Social Network takes an essential and engrossing screenplay from Sorkin and then morphs into something truly masterful thanks to David Fincher, one of the finest directors working in cinema today. It is his artistic vision and attention to detail that elevates greatness into perfection. 

Before The Social Network, I had no idea who Rooney Mara was. Her role here is brief but if you watch closely, her talent is very much on display and it has since blossomed into amazing work and two Oscar nominations. She stole the show as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and was gorgeous in every conceivable way in Carol, yet I will always remember her most for Erica Albright and the way she says that word. That one word that blazed a trail of innovation, deception, heartbreak and litigation. The word that changed the world.



Saturday, March 5, 2016

Zootopia Review

The mind of a child is both beautiful and terrifyingly fragile. If someone so young and so easily influenced is taught to hate by the very people they look up to, the ignorance of blind prejudice will continue onto a new generation. I have seen it happening in front of my eyes and it makes me so sad. It's not okay and it doesn't have to be this way. 

Bravo to Disney Animation for releasing a new film that brilliantly balances being energetic and delightfully clever with delivering an allegory that should resonate and matter to everyone, regardless of their age, race or gender. Everything in Zootopia is so carefully calculated to entertain but also make a social statement about the ills of society and how wonderful our world could be if opened our minds and our hearts to those who look or love differently than what we perceive as "normal". The main character is a rural raised bunny named Judy Hopps who is told to limit her expectations and settle for less than her dreams because as a small female bunny, the limit falls far short of the sky. She is taught early that a fox is to be feared and never trusted, and this prejudice is backed up by a bad apple that bullies her both verbally and physically. She carries this bias and literally the weapons she needs to protect herself from a fox after she earns the job she always wanted, a position as a police officer in the city of Zootopia. 

The world building of the city is phenomenal, with each section of it gorgeous and vividly detailed in ways that likely can't be fully appreciated with one viewing. The characters are fun and interesting and the voice casting of these roles is spot on, with Ginnifer Goodwin playing the lead role and Jason Bateman along side as the fox Nick Wilde doing outstanding work in terms of comedic timing and the right amount of nuance to help carry a story with a surprising amount of depth. Some of the thematic material is delivered with subtlety but some is pretty on the nose, but either way it all feels important and portrayed with heart and decency which should be greatly admired. 

If all you want to do is appreciate what is there on the surface, you will not be disappointed by Zootopia. It's fast paced and so funny, an animated crime caper noir that knows how to appeal to any viewer of any age. If you like your cinema with a bit more meat on the bones, something deeper to chew on, Zootopia may not reach the ingenious height of intelligence displayed by Pixar's Inside Out a year ago, but it isn't far off either. This is a film that taps into the zeitgeist in a way that almost feels improbable, like they must have wrote it yesterday to deliver a message of hope and kindness and optimism in a world that is fueled by so much anger and pain.

Zootopia is a great piece of entertainment that carries an even better social message with it. It's only March, but the front runner for Best Animated Feature at the 2017 Oscars has arrived.