The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino is no longer an unknown commodity. We are well past the days of QT stomping into the studios’ yard and stealing their ball just to shake things up a bit. Tarantino has become his own brand, and like it or not, he’s carved out his very own niche to amuse himself. He’s still as divisive as he ever was, but now he has studio support, financial security, and audience applause to soothe the pain that any critic of his particular version of high art mixed with exploitational nihilism might bring. He has become the ultimate love it or leave it director and The Hateful Eight will do nothing to shift anyone’s feelings for the man. Those that love Tarantino will gush over his genre mashups and ability to write scene chewing monologues like no other. Detractors will point to the obscene violence that punctuates the film and Tarantino’s willingness to go to darker places than any mainstream director will go. If you’re new to Tarantino this isn’t the film to start with. Start with his earlier work that has a few more rounded edges to soften the blow. But for those that have already picked out a Love/Hate camp The Hateful Eight will fit nicely into the appropriate mindset. I happen to fall into the love camp and will likely remain there for the rest of his career.

The Hateful Eight is set in Wyoming a few years after the Civil War and we meet our first few characters on the snowy terrain as a blizzard is raging up behind them. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) are two bounty hunters forced together by circumstance that are looking to take their claims back to Red Rock for the payout but the weather is forcing them to take shelter to wait out the storm. After picking up a man that may or may not be the new Sherriff of Red Rock they head to Minnie’s Haberdashery, but when they get there they find three strangers instead of Minnie and the usual occupants. What plays out is a cat and mouse game of intrigue and deception where no one can be trusted and everyone has their own motives.

What plays out is an intensely misanthropic version of Clue, albeit, one that includes Tarantino’s own blend of racism, sadism, sexism, and violence. There is the language that has become a fixture of QT films, and seeing as how his last cinematic racial epithet won an Academy Award I don’t see that changing anytime soon. There is the staggering amount of violence both subtle and over the top. There is even the Mexican standoff that manages to feature in all of his films. The best way to describe The Hateful Eight would be that it is a western version of Reservoir Dogs mixed with John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The Hateful Eight is a much better film than Django Unchained if only because the audience wants to hear Tarantino dialogue. Django had a few speeches here and there, but was mostly a love letter to exploitation movies. Hateful Eight plays more as a western thriller and gives the characters more than ample time to speechify to the heart’s delight. This is what I want out of Tarantino film. I want his words being said by the fantastic stable of character actors that rush to be in his films. I want that gleaming nihilism that no other director can quite match. I want these movies that only Tarantino can make. The Hateful Eight is one of those Tarantino films. The choice is love it or leave it and I choose to love it even if I can completely understand why some will leave it. The Hateful Eight won’t win new converts to Tarantino’s camp but it sure will please those already converted. Grade: A-

Spotlight Review

As the lights came up after Spotlight there was a hush over the audience. Not the kind of excited hush that follows a film that was mind-blowing and takes the brain a few seconds to process. No, this was a deeper hush. Unsettled. A hush from the pit of our stomachs that knows we just witnessed something awful and we don’t know what to do about it. This was the hush of rage and anguish. The hush that blankets a victim’s cries of despair. That hush didn’t come because we walked into a theater and saw something horrible. It came because we realize that the horror was never there on the screen, but rather is waiting for us when we walk out. The doors are open, inviting us back into the world where all that pain came from, and that hush is us deciding what we’re going to do about it.

With the benefit of hindsight and history, Spotlight documents a story that we all know about- the Catholic Church scandal of pedophiliac priests. We know this story and have had a decade to be outraged about it. But, the reason it’s common knowledge is because of four journalists at the Boston Globe that started with a small local piece about one priest and kept digging and digging until the enormity of the problem became evident to every community around the world.

Spotlight was a team at the Boston Globe that specialized in long term journalism and the film does a fantastic job of showing how grueling it can be to follow a story over a year. This is a procedural film that doesn’t bother with extraneous details like the personal lives of anyone involved, and it could be said that it isn’t really about four journalists, but rather, the job that four journalists do. The obvious comparison is All the President’s Men, but I think Spotlight strikes a similar tone to David Fincher’s Zodiac. It’s a cold film that doesn’t grandstand or spew impassioned speeches (with one exception,) and is oddly pragmatic both in front of and behind the camera.

Journalism in the pre-internet days was grinding work and Spotlight showcases how tedious and unrelenting you had to be to get the whole story. The four members of the Spotlight team, led by a standout performance from Michael Keaton, are told by the brand new editor that they should devote some long-term resources to the story of a local priest that had been accused of child molestation. After encountering the pervasive wall that was the Catholic Church’s influence on Boston they get the feeling that there is more to the story than one bad apple priest and this could in fact be a conspiracy that goes all the way to the heart of the Church. After grinding through months worth of research it becomes more and more evident that this isn’t an isolated incident. This is a sickness that has infiltrated every facet of church life.

Spotlight’s most welcome characteristic is that it knows that the problem was too big. There was blame everywhere. From those that knew about it and covered it up, to those that remained willfully ignorant this was a cover-up that involved thousands of people all over the world. That scope is too big to tackle, so Spotlight keeps it in Boston and doesn’t extend into the worldwide politics of the matter. That act of restraint allows us to stay with these characters as they slowly realize how far this can go. There is a beautiful moment involving the four sitting around a speakerphone when they finally grasp that the number of priests involved is probably not the 13 that they had been investigating, but more like 90. It is one of my favorite moments in film this year.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the plot and very little about the filmmaking, which I believe is what the filmmakers were going for. There is nothing flashy, no scenery chewing, or emotional outbursts. Keaton and Mark Ruffalo are stellar in their roles, but they are everyday guys just doing their jobs. Everything about the film is understated so that the impact of the story is given its full weight. The camera work is mostly static and the color scheme is fairly muted. All of these tiny details give credence to the realism and let the evil underneath the surface come to light.

There is a reason this film should be considered essential viewing. It takes a procedural approach to a emotionally charged subject and lets the story unfold, and that distance allows the viewer to add his own emotion. There is a realization as an audience member that the film never told us how to feel but that dread and impending rage was brought by us. I personally don’t know how anyone could justify the actions of the Church and I fully realize that I am projecting my own emotions onto the film. I was personally outraged at each step of the story as every new layer of deceit revealed another and it became more apparent that those generous donations by the common family were being used by the tax free church to pay off victims of priests that were raping children and then being protected.

I will step off my soapbox now and apologize for the unbiasedness of those last few sentences. Although, I believe it is the strength of this film that it elicits such an emotional reaction in those that see it, and caused me to write almost one thousand words on the movie. This is a powerful film and one that should not only be seen but talked about. We can’t let that hush that we felt lead ourselves into complacency and apathy. We need to care. Grade: A+

Bridge of Spies Review

At this point in his career there is little doubt that Steven Spielberg is a master craftsman of film. There are few directors working today that are as sure-handed as Spielberg behind the camera. Every move is deliberate and each detail meticulously plotted out, but as much as I appreciate his skill and technique I’m always left feeling that there’s a sheen of artifice hanging over the whole affair. In much the same way that Stanley Kubrick was accused of favoring technique over emotion, Spielberg films often leave me a bit cold. The craftwork is undeniable, but I always get pulled out by the gentle tugs of manipulation when genuine emotion comes near the surface. Spielberg’s latest, Bridge of Spies, is no different.

In perhaps the smartest teaming in movie history, Tom Hanks reunites for the fourth time with Spielberg to play the mostly true story of insurance lawyer James Donovan who is brought back to criminal court to defend a captured Russian spy in 1957. His orders are simple: give a grand show to the public that the American justice system will give a defense to even the most obvious of criminals. The only catch is that Donovan isn’t content to hand wave away the case even when faced with prejudiced parties on all sides. His unwillingness to let public opinion stand in the way of Constitutional rights involves him in an espionage entanglement where no one can be trusted and every decision can have world altering consequences.

The performances are the reason to watch Bridge of Spies with two in particular. Hanks brings his everyman charm that proves irresistible at times and Mark Rylance captivates as the Russian spy calmly waiting for everything to unfold in front of him. They bring warmth and humanity to an otherwise distant affair. In fact, it is when those two are on screen together that the film is at its most poignant. When Rylance disappears for a good chunk of the film it’s as if the spark goes out. Perhaps this is due to how I feel about Spielberg. Hanks and Rylance are so good that when they are separated I feel the machinations of the Spielberg machine that much more.

I wanted to like Bridge of Spies more than I did, but that isn’t to say the film is bad. It is perfectly competent and features some really good performances, but I could have done with a little more of an arc for the Hanks character and little more emotion in general. Spielberg is good at giving us nostalgia and can dip into schmaltz at times, but I wish just once he’d let loose and give us something that doesn’t feel so calculated. Grade: B-

Spectre Review

Somewhere along the way the James Bond franchise found itself on the outside looking in at cultural significance. Mission Impossible became the American version of Bond with its cool and trendy spy thrillers that defied logic and did so with style to spare.  Jason Bourne came onto the scene to strip out all of the extraneous nonsense and give us a gritty street level spy. Then in 2006 the makers of Bond switched it up and revamped the style to more closely match public taste. It worked. Bond became the new Bond. Casino Royale was a smashing success by matching the interests of the day rather than clinging to the tradition of old. The apex came with 2012s Skyfall. It was everything today’s audience wanted out of a spy thriller and it argued for the existence of itself in the process. Now three years later we’re presented with Spectre, and we get to examine whether or not that argument for cultural significance would carry over or if Skyfall was Bond’s last gasp.

It turns out that Skyfall said everything the filmmakers wanted to say. Spectre is a rehash that treads water with so little exuberance that it is dangerously close to drowning and behaves like the teenager that completely changed their style to mimic the cool kids and can’t understand why there isn’t more attention after the initial double take. It’s hard to imagine that a spy thriller that includes stunts galore could come across as dull, but that’s just what Spectre manages to achieve. There are good moments here and there, but so much of the running time is dreary nonsense that is as inconsequential as it is boring.

Spectre has the unenviable task of attempting to tie up three stand alone movies into a cohesive whole. It’s trying to bring together disparate elements from the last three films and telling us it was all part of one grand scheme. It doesn’t work. Every line delivered by the criminally underused uber-villain Christoph Waltz causes so much eye-rolling I was starting to worry for my health.  

The official plot consists of Bond being shunned by his government and having to go rogue to track down a super secret society of mega-villains. If that sounds remarkably similar to Mission Impossible Rogue Nation that’s because it’s the same plot. Here’s the kicker though, that last Mission Impossible movie had electric performances and fun stunts. Spectre has so-so stunts and uninspiring performances.

I loved Skyfall and its insistence that we really did need Bond’s version of the suave spy that is always cool under fire and that’s what makes Spectre so disappointing. All that suaveness was replaced with self-loathing and bitterness. Even worse, that visual flair that was delivered by Roger Deakins, as only he can, is replaced with muted colors and bland visual compositions. All of this leads to a film that looks a lot like visual mush. It’s hard to believe a franchise could fall so far in just one film and completely negate the whole point the previous entry was trying to make.  Instead of leading the pack it would seem that Bond is content to be a has been that may have just enough in the tank to keep going, but not enough to really leave an impression. Grade: D+

Steve Jobs Review

Steve Jobs has become a mythical figure; the black turtlenecked unicorn that changed the world with his technological genius and disdain for the status quo. There was a massive bestselling book and even a previous movie that chronicled every bit of Steve Jobs minutiae that is known or can convincingly be passed off as fact. So why should anyone care about another movie that focuses on a man that anyone that cares already knows everything about? The answer can be distilled down to three main ingredients: Aaron Sorkin, Danny Boyle, and Michael Fassbender.

This version of the Steve Jobs story succeeds brilliantly in exactly the places where the previous version failed. The Ashton Kutcher version of Jobs tried to encapsulate all of Jobs’ life into a two hour film. It isn’t possible. It’s never possible. The best biopics provide snapshots of a life that hint at the whole and that is exactly the format that this film takes. Steve Jobs is essentially three vignettes that follow Jobs as he prepares for three product launches: the Macintosh, Next Computers, and the iMac. In those segments Jobs meets with various friends, family, and coworkers and those conversations tell the story of a deeply flawed man who wanted to change the world but always felt and fought like an outsider. He was a genius in ways that no one could quantify and wreck of a human being to everyone around him. Both sides of that conflicting personality come into view in this taut emotional film.

Steve Jobs contains all of the crackling fast dialogue you’d expect from an Aaron Sorkin script complete with walk and talks and Danny Boyle finds a way to film everything with a visual flair that makes every frame interesting. Boyle knows when to hold everything steady and when to let the images flash. There’s an amazing example when Boyle uses the wall behind two characters as a projection screen that shows the backstory that the characters in the foreground are talking about. It’s subtle and flashy at the same time.

The last piece of the filmmaking triumvirate is Fassbender’s unflinching and layered performance. In just three scenes Fassbender manages to give us all of Jobs’ life from genius to unconscionable jerk. It’s the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from Fassbender, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook it. There are few actors that could take three vignettes and give us a life and Fassbender does it without letting us see him sweat. This role presents the opportunity for an actor to show off the acting school tricks and let the audience see just how much they can “act.” Fassbender dodges that instinct and lets the role come through him to give the character grace in his failures. It is a touching performance that few could give.

Steve Jobs is an amazing journey that is splendid in its simplicity. Few filmmakers would have the courage to rely on three scenes to hint at all of life’s complexity, but this movie dares to be daring. It thinks different(ly). It throws a hammer at the traditional biopic and reminds us what these films can be when the talent behind them is so strong. We can’t have Boyle, Sorkin, and Fassbender on every biopic, so we should enjoy this rarity. Steve Jobs is unique and gives us something just a shade different than we were expecting. Much like the man himself, Steve Jobs is one-of-a-kind. Grade: A

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation Review

The Mission Impossible series has become a variation on a theme. The plots of each film are largely the same, even going so far as to hit some of the same narrative beats over and over. So is there any reason to show up for the newest film in the series, Rogue Nation? The simple answer is yes, but the reasons are a bit more complicated. Tom Cruise is back and brings his usual professionalism to the role, even bringing along old mission-mates like Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. What’s different, and ultimately the reason to keep seeing these movies, is director Christopher McQuarrie. What the Mission Impossible series has done is make each film a director’s showcase, and McQuarrie brings his unique sensibilities to this new installment.

Ethan Hunt is back and this time the team is blacklisted and disavowed by the government. Again. But don’t worry because the team has a plan that will involve immense set pieces and white knuckle action throughout. Let’s be honest. You can probably tell me the structure of the plot right now without having seen it. There’s really no reason to dwell on the subject.

Joining Cruise and company is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson who is a revelation as Ilsa Faust. Alec Baldwin also pops his head in from time to time, but as always, the real star is the action set pieces. Here we get everything from jumping on planes to underwater thieving with a sidestep into an homage to The Man Who Knew Too Much. The action is blistering to be sure even if it doesn’t quite match the grandeur of the Burj Khalifa set piece from Ghost Protocol.

The biggest difference between Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol and McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation is a sense of grittiness. Bird highlighted the lightness of the franchise with sharp visuals and clean editing, while McQuarrie doubles down on the shadows. The grittiness is extended all the way to the film itself with McQuarrie using a lower resolution than I’ve seen in a film in quite some time. It’s those subtle nuances that make this film unique and worth checking out. Hard to believe, but five movies in and there’s still something to see. Grade: B-

Southpaw Review

Southpaw is a boxing movie raised on boxing movies. There is nothing in the film that hasn’t been cribbed from a better film and, to top it off, Southpaw seems to take pleasure in heaping mounds of human suffering upon its lead character. Jake Gyllenhaal is certainly committed, there is little doubt of that, but I wonder if he ever stopped to think about why no one else was taking it as seriously as he was. Or maybe everyone else saw that the script was just genre clichés in whole cloth and put forth the appropriate effort.

Gyllenhaal’s sterling workout regimen stars as Billy Hope, an undefeated boxer living a lavish lifestyle with a family he adores and an HBO fight contract worth millions. He’s from the streets and none too smart, but that won’t stop him from being the best. Everything is going fine until a scrappy upstart wants his chance at the title fight and starts heckling Hope at press conferences and celebrity events. It is here where Southpaw splits from Rocky III and instead of a feel good inspirational (albeit wildly shallow) film we are treated to a dour mess of misery.

Everything turns on a dime when Hope’s wife is killed by a stray bullet. Then in a matter of days Hope is bankrupt, suicidal, forgotten by his friends, managers, and trainer, homeless, and his daughter is taken away by Child Services. Cue the inspirational music as Southpaw begins its redemption tour that it didn’t earn. Is there any doubt about how this movie will end up? No there is not. It’s a less eloquent Rocky that tries to stuff all of Balboa’s misfortunes over the course of six films into one two hour mess.

The film is certainly slickly photographed, and Antoine Fuqua’s direction is adequate if not flashy. The technical aspects are the areas where the film shines. It just looks really good. The narrative is where everything breaks down. In fact, other than Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, there is absolutely nothing in Southpaw that could make me prefer it over any of the Rocky movies. And there is the true irony of the situation. It seems apparent that the filmmakers wanted to distance themselves from the vapid fluff of Stallone’s series by being ultra gritty and dramatic. But ultimately there is a line where you have to throw in the towel. There is such a thing as too much drama, but Southpaw’s having none of that. This film wants us to feel like a boxer in the ring by throwing everything it can at us until we tap out. Grade: D

Ant-Man Review

I am genuinely surprised by the resiliency of the Marvel formula, which seems to be: take the script from Iron Man, cross out the name Iron Man, insert new comic book character name, print money. The outlier to this formula seem to be Guardians of the Galaxy which didn’t use the Iron Man script, but instead used The Avengers. Ant-Man, the latest offering from Marvel Studios, also stays firmly in that impenetrable mold. All of this begs the question, “Why bother reviewing these at all?” I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to that as of this point.

The model isn’t new, but typically in the past it’s been utilized on horror franchises. Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Hellraiser all have multiple sequels that follow that very specific formula. There are rabid fans of the various series’ and they know the ins and outs of all the mythology unique to each one. The exact same things can be said about Marvel movies in almost all instances. The difference appears to be that horror franchises are considered shlocky and niche fan bases, while the Marvel films are blockbusters that make millions of dollars.

So here we are with Ant-Man. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I mostly had a good time while watching the film. Is it a good movie? No, it certainly isn’t. It’s the same hero origin story that has been around for decades and essentially spins its wheels for two hours. This comes back to the same conversation that rears its ugly head every time a tentpole blockbuster is released. Quality vs. Entertainment. Ant-Man is entertaining without being good. And you know what? That’s fine. There’s no reason not to enjoy yourself while watching Paul Rudd charm the pants off everyone he meets, and I even laughed quite a few times during the movie. I draw the line, however, at saying that it’s a good movie. It is charismatically mediocre. It is charming in the way that all of the best Marvel films are charming, but will it leave any kind of lasting impression on me? Sadly, no it will not. I foresee that I will have forgotten almost everything about the film in a week. Ant-Man is like eating a really good ice cream cone. You will rave about it while eating, savor the taste that lingers in your mouth for just a little while, and then go about your day. Pretty soon you’ll have forgotten that you got ice cream at all. Grade: C+

Minions Review

Minions is going to be a hit with children. They won’t know why, but it will appeal in the same way that made The Smurfs into a financial success. What Minions won’t do is appease the parents that are being forced to take their children to the theater. At a brisk 91 minutes it is at least 40 minutes too long, and the true strengths of the movie are things that no child will notice, care about, or find interest in. The biggest takeaway of the film is that the incessant chattering about bananas will possibly spur some children to increase their potassium intake. However, there is always the chance that it will just lead to parents spending more money on produce that will eventually rot on the kitchen counter.

The plot follows three minions that were cute side characters in the first two films and thrusts them center stage to carry the load of a listless narrative. The minions appear to be immortal creatures that have been around the Earth since the beginning of time all-the-while searching for an evil entity to be their master. They are cute and cuddly and completely benign to the point that it seems ludicrous that they are searching for an “evil” master. The naïve and innocent charm of the minions in Despicable Me is hindered by the new thought that they have been evil for millennia. Their search for a suitably evil mastermind leads them to Scarlet Overkill and a quest to steal the Crown Jewels of England. Don’t worry about the plot too much, the film focuses on it for only very short periods of time.

The best part of the film is the small sequences where the three main minions act in ways that are remarkably similar to silent era pantomime. The sequences bring to mind Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as they acted as normal characters in increasingly ridiculous situations. About half of Minions is done in this way, where the three characters speak gibberish to each other as they navigate a strange new society. I was engaged during these scenes in much the same way that I smile at The General or Safety Last. If the film makers had stayed with this formula I think I would have enjoyed Minions, however, the movie strays from gibberish to nonsense which is far less satisfying.

My six-year old son deemed Minions to be the best movie ever. I can’t say that I agree and I really hope he changes his opinion in the future, but I do understand why he is enamored at this point. It’s visually colorful and full of physical humor that plays well to that age group. The problem is that the first film aimed its humor at both parent and child to create a fun experience for everyone involved. This film settles for making kids giggle and, while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, it is what makes it ultimately forgettable. Grade: C-

Terminator Genysis Review

He's back whether we wanted it or not. Terminator: Genysis rides into cinema as The Thing That Should Not Be, and explodes into a mess of mediocrity that the filmmakers can't quite save from being a nonsensical trip into nostalgia land where everything reminds you of something better that came before. It's not that the film is altogether bad, it's not. There are some good sequences buried under the rubble of CGI smashfests, but the film's ultimate downfall is its inability to convince the audience that it is anything other than either a cash grab or Arnold Schwarzenegger desperately trying to remain relevant.

Terminator: Genysis goes out of its way to ensure that the film doesn't step on the toes of the original films. It offers us an alternate timeline that supposedly does not interfere with the original story, but ends up muddling the storyline into a convoluted mess. On the surface, the plot seems to make sense and it isn't too hard to follow what's going on, but after the lights come up and you start thinking about the film you can't help but go, "Wait a minute. What just happened?" So the movie starts as a remake of the original film with John Conner sending Kyle Reese into the past to save Sarah Conner in 1984, but when he gets there he has somehow split off into a alternate timeline that is very different from what he was expecting.

All of this leads to a strange amalgamation of the previous films where we get a CGI young Arnold facing off against the current old age version that is not only ludicrous and poorly visualized, but boring to top it off. About half way through, the film abandons all elements of narrative in favor of CGI punching between characters that can feel no pain. It is about as thrilling as watching a child slam two Hot Wheels cars into each other.

There are some interesting ideas under the surface of the film that could have made for an entertaining film. Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to go against that route. Instead we get a ho-hum rehashing of tired genre tropes that seem more like big budget fan fiction than any attempt to invigorate the series or even add anything meaningful to it. It commits the biggest sin a sci-fi action film can- it's boring. When the filmmakers are given the Terminator palette to work with it is almost unforgivable to create something as uninspired as Genysis. Grade: D+

P.S. Would Hollywood executives please stop casting Jai Courtney. He can not act. Not even a little. 

American Sniper Review

American Sniper is a well-crafted and wonderfully acted puff-piece/propaganda film. Everything about it is meticulous (fake baby shots aside) with a keen attention to atmosphere. There are no errant or useless camera movements and all of this is much to the film’s detriment. From the opening scene to the ending credits everything is very carefully constructed to enhance the glorification of the film’s protagonist. There is no doubt from the filmmakers on whose side we’re supposed to be on, and the movie goes to great lengths to pull just the right strings at just the right moments. It is manipulative in the worst ways.

American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, a US Navy Seal that is credited with the most confirmed sniper kills in US military history. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle with a good ol’ boy Texas swagger and his performance is convincing on every level. He nails this part totally and completely with an authenticity that is to be admired. Unfortunately, Cooper’s performance is far and away the best thing the film has going for it, because the plot can be summed up as such: Chris Kyle realized at an early age that he was very good with a gun and used that skill to kill a whole lot of people. The film tries to give us an antagonist in a rival sniper known as Mufasa. Therein lies the problem with the film. Mufasa is almost indistinguishable from Kyle. They are the exact same character on opposite sides of a war, but the film wants us to call Kyle a hero and Mufasa a savage bloodthirsty personification of evil. It is that unfair characterization that I believe sinks the film.

Director Clint Eastwood uses no nuance in this film. This is a straightforward tale of the glorification of one particular soldier in the United States military. We are told that every action and decision made by Kyle was the right one and every motive was pure. If there were any doubts about Kyle’s saintly behavior they were quickly brushed aside in favor of more hero worship. It is cloying in the worst ways, perhaps most evident in the ending sequences. Eastwood uses real life footage from Chris Kyle’s tragic and untimely death to try and convince us that the glorification was justified. The real tragedy of the film is the massive amount of skill and talent that was wasted in what ended up being nothing more than a well-crafted military recruitment video. Grade: C-


Ted 2 Review

Seth McFarlane is in desperate need of an editor. Ted 2 had the chance to be a full on vulgar riot, but McFarlane’s unwillingness to streamline the film a bit leaves it a tattered mess with as many jokes that go nowhere as uproarious ones. Comedy is a delicate art and it is especially easy to overstay your welcome. Ted 2 overstays its welcome and then stays some more. If it was about a half hour shorter we might be talking about comedy gold, but as it is, it’s merely ok if not annoying.

Mark Wahlberg is back with his living teddy bear from the first film. Ted is in love, gets married, and tries to have a child. The conflict comes when Ted is informed that due to an oversight by the government he is ineligible to adopt a child because he is technically not a person. That is the loose thread upon which all of the jokes are hung. Amanda Seyfried joins the cast as a pot smoking lawyer who may or may not be interested in Mark Wahlberg’s character who is recovering from his divorce. There really is very little else to say unless I wanted to spoil the jokes.

The cast is game for all of McFarlane’s shenanigans. Wahlberg brings that boyish charm and charisma that he used to such good effect in the first film and Seyfried gets a better chance to show off her comedy chops than she’s had in quite some time. Even the supporting and cameo characters are spot on with a willingness to let the jokes take center stage. Everyone’s on-screen timing is perfect and the acting deserves serious applaud.

It’s rare that a film seems to have one flaw so fatal that it downgrades the whole affair. Ted 2’s running time is that flaw. Whole swaths of the film could have been cut, especially everything involving the Giovanni Ribisi character, and what would have been left would have been tight and filled with jokes that land. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone thought this movie needed to be two hours long. If it was a half hour shorter it would have been a laugh a minute. Instead, it’s sporadically hilarious with long stretches of tedium. Grade: C-

Dope Review

Dope is the rare teen comedy that lives up to the highest levels of the genre. It is smart, funny, well acted, and provides a wonderful experience. Dope is breezy and exhilarating in ways that are sorely lacking from most teen fare. This also has the added bonus of having perfect performances from a young crew of mostly unknowns that capture these characters in ways that seem realistic and nuanced. Dope is a feel-good comedy that mixes some grounded performances with heightened situations to give audiences a good laugh and a good time.

Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a geek that spends all his time preparing for college and hanging out with his two best friends Jib (Tony Revelori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Malcolm’s Harvard aspirations and penchant for 1990s hip-hop don’t make him very popular so he splits his free time between avoiding the thugs trying to steal his shoes and dodging the drug dealers that try and steal his bike. During one such encounter with the dealers in his neighborhood he makes an impression on a local heavyweight and scores an invitation to a party where things go awry, chaos ensues, and Malcolm ends up with a backpack full of dope. Malcolm has to rally his friends to join him on an adventure through the streets of L.A. to fix the situation, secure his future, and maybe learn a little about themselves along the way.

The trio of Shemeik Moore, Tony Revelori, and Kiersey Clemons is wonderful on screen from beginning to end with each one bringing a layered and hysterical character to the screen. It is refreshing to see such on-screen chemistry that doesn’t seem forced.

Thankfully, the behind-the-camera talents are as impressive as the on-screen ones. Director Rick Famuyiwa lends a sure hand to the proceedings that elevates the material beyond standard point and shoot. Editor Lee Haugen also does a superb job keeping the film light on its feet and wonderfully paced. Due to the tone, pacing, and editing the hour and forty three minute run time flies by leaving everything feeling like a breezy romp.

Dope is the kind of teen comedy I wish we got all the time. In many ways it reminds me of The Breakfast Club and 10 Things I Hate About You. There are few films in the genre that are this successful in their storytelling and Dope tells a wonderfully uplifting story that is a joy to experience. Grade: A-

Jurassic World Review

Those who crave logic and consistency be warned- Jurassic World is not a movie for you. This film is a mess, but it has achieved something that is fairly rare, in that it made me give up somewhere halfway through. I don’t know if it was the total lack of characterization, the appallingly bad dialogue, or the mind-bogglingly stupid decisions made by every character, but somewhere in there I decided that I just didn’t care anymore. Who cares if the characters’ actions in one scene seem to have no bearing on the next? Why bother having any dialogue at all? If the screenwriter didn’t care enough to write believable dialogue why should I bother listening to it? Let’s just get to that end scene with all those CGI dinosaurs that move in ways that suggest that it was the laws of physics that went extinct instead.

Jurassic World is a direct sequel to Jurassic Park with no mention of the two other sequels that exist, which is probably for the best. Jurassic Park has become a major tourist attraction that pulls in twenty thousand visitors a day. Day-to-day operations are handled by Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose nephews (Kid 1 and Kid 2) are coming to visit her for the first time in years. It just so happens that the scientists at Jurassic Park have tinkered with the DNA of a T-Rex and created a whole new species of dinosaur that is bigger, scarier, and brought to you by Verizon Wireless. This new dinosaur has waited patiently for the perfect time to escape by calculating when the most useless idiots will all be in the same place at the same time. Enter Chris Pratt- The Dinosaur Whisperer.

I don’t want to be too hard on the movie. I can’t even get myself worked up about it because clearly the filmmakers put in the actual minimum amount of effort. If they can’t be bothered, neither can I. Jurassic World is a celebration of CGI and nostalgia. Remember that Jurassic Park movie back in the 90s? That was so good wasn’t it? Every ten minutes or so is a scene specially designed to make you remember that original film regardless of whether or not it makes any sense whatsoever. All of those scenes were punctuated by flashes of CGI dinosaurs that look close to realistic until they move. At some point my mind went numb and I never recovered. I could spend another thousand words describing all of the ridiculous things that happen in Jurassic World, but why bother? No one cares. If you want to see a film where dinosaurs fight each other and massive amounts of idiots are in peril, this is the film for you and nothing I say would change your mind. I can’t really recommend this film, but I understand the appeal. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you have a better time than I did. Grade: D+

Tomorrowland Review

Tomorrowland left me breathless. Mostly because I spent the last twenty minutes or so of the film holding my breath in a desperate attempt to make myself pass out and bring about an end to the experience. I found myself hating Walt Disney a little just because he founded a company that would eventually make this didactic mess that I would have to sit through instead of doing something productive. Tomorrowland is such a monumental waste of time that not only do I feel that the studio owes me my ticket money back, but also the gas money I spent to drive to the theater and a little extra for emotional damages.

The “plot” is about a girl who is given a pin that magically takes her to Tomorrowland (sort of) where only really smart and creative people are allowed. That world that isn’t exactly Earth is being threatened by the negativity of humans in ways that either don’t make sense or aren’t explained and they can only be saved by the heroic presence of our main character. She doesn’t need to do anything, just stand there optimistically while George Clooney and Hugh Laurie take turns patronizing everyone with speeches about how negative humans have become and how smart people should be allowed to go somewhere and just be smart.

Tomorrowland certainly has a message that the filmmakers wanted to get across. The message is this- smart and creative people are awesome and they should be allowed to do whatever they want which would really be for the benefit of everyone because the awesome people will  make awesome stuff that even normal dumb non-creative people will get to enjoy. I would have much preferred it if the smart and creative filmmakers had made a smart and creative movie instead of a jiggling mass of plot holes that buckles under the weight of its own pretension.

 There is one set piece in the film that is entertaining even if it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film. You’ll be able to spot it immediately if you have the misfortune to find yourself watching Tomorrowland. It stands in direct contrast to everything that comes before and after, mostly because it’s fun and is a competently choreographed action scene that seems to have internal consistency and a sense of purpose. It just so happens to be the only scene that seems to be made by a crew of filmmakers that weren’t snorting the majority of the budget straight up their nose.

I have complained in the past about films that appear to be feature length music videos. Tomorrowland takes that one step further by hijacking the Apple computer advertisement that told us to Think Different and blowing it up to two hours and ten minutes. I would like to say more positive things about the film, but every time I think about it my head starts to hurt and I need to lie down. I sincerely hope that we can all forget about this piece of exceptionalist nonsense and never speak of it again.  Grade:F 

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

I believe strongly in the auteur theory in film, so much so that I feel like we should be seeing the DNA of the director splattered across the film stock if we know where to look. We should know when we see a certain director’s films. We know when we’re watching Hitchcock, Scorsese, or Tarantino. On the other end of the spectrum it could be argued that Michael Bay is an auteur, because I can certainly identify one of his giant piles of garbage instantly. Now here comes a new film that fits into that auteur category perfectly. Mad Max: Fury Road is a work that could be done by no one other than George Miller. This is a singular vision of mayhem and insanity that looks and feels like no other film.

I had high expectations for this film as it was easily my most anticipated summer release. I loved the original films when I was a kid and the trailer for this new chapter certainly kept my hopes high. The trailer promised bombastic chaos in a world that could only come from the Mad Max post-apocalyptic landscape created by George Miller 36 years ago. Mad Max: Fury Road delivers on the trailer’s promise and gives us two hours of relentless high octane carnage. Its only true flaw may be that it overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes or so.

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the current landscape of summer blockbusters where the emphasis is on superpowers and explosions and any semblance of characterization or storytelling is left by the wayside. I don’t understand why films like the Avengers or Furious 7 even bother with expository scenes at all. It is quite clear that the filmmakers had no interest in writing or filming them so why am I seeing them? George Miller has sidestepped that question by silently agreeing with me. Mad Max is essentially a chase film from beginning to end and it does not rest for silly contrivances like character motivations or plot mechanics. We are dropped into the world and just have to go with it. There are no explanations and we don’t need any. Mad Max: Fury Road is an experience plain and simple. For all those that say they go to see a movie just to turn off their brain and see things blow up- this is the movie for you.

The character of Max was established in the original Mad Max in 1979, but I don’t feel like there’s any reason you would have needed to see that film to enjoy this one. The only thing you need to know is that this takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where humanity has been ravaged. What really sells this film is the visuals which are almost impossible to describe. Fans of the original series can rest assured that George Miller’s maniacal visual flair is still intact.

There certainly are other aspects of the film that merit mention, namely actors Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Both do a fine job with their roles and Theron makes a strong case that the film is mistitled. She is the star and easily carries the film with her performance. The cinematography is gorgeous and it feels like an interesting choice to oversaturate the colors with the modern trend being to de-saturate as much as possible. Miller takes that color palette and fuses the visuals with the audio in a way that feels completely organic to the world while being completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I also appreciated the feminist angle the film seems to take, which is a refreshing respite from the summer movie season mentality of manly men, their heroic deeds, and the luscious ladies that cook them dinner.

My only gripe is that two hours is a ridiculously long time to watch trucks chase each other. I spent a long time admiring the world, the visuals, and the mayhem, but after a while that admiration turns to tedium if nothing new is happening on the screen. I wanted Mad Max: Fury Road to be a masterpiece. It isn’t. But I’ll take the flawed vision of an auteur like Miller over the rubber stamped studio product like The Avengers any day of the week. At least with Mad Max I could walk into the theater saying I didn’t know how the story was going to go, and leave the theater saying I’ve never seen anything else like it. Grade: B+

Mother's Milk Review

Some movies are more intriguing than they are entertaining or technically sound. Mother’s Milk, a psychological horror film from first time director Edward Pionke, certainly falls into that category. There are some very good ideas here and, given the limitations of the ultra-low shoestring budget, what is presented to us onscreen is fairly well realized. There are certainly faults with the film, but they are of the variety that money and experience will likely fix. Mother’s Milk has the feel of a director learning his way around a camera, but is a strong enough debut that I look forward to his future projects.

Mother’s Milk, in both tone and story, is Psycho and Misery mixed together and wrapped in sexual dysfunction. Claude is a statistics professor with a dark fetish stemming from his troubled past. He kidnaps a recent college graduate in order to try and fill a very specific role in his life. As the days and weeks go on a bizarre sort of relationship forms between Claude and Kim leaving the viewer wondering who is really trapped. This is an extremely dark film that will likely leave the audience uncomfortable. I’m not sure I would want to meet the person that believes this has any kind of rewatchability factor. I recommend watching it once, after that you’re on your own.

I must give praise to the two leads as Casey Chapman (Claude Rainer) and Mackenzie Wiglesworth (Kim Rodgers) both do a superb job in the film. Chapman manages to give believability and sympathetic qualities to a monster with a delicate performance that could have easily gone wrong in numerous ways. Wiglesworth plays the victim with a strength not typically associated with that role. Both do a great job of playing off of each other, which is fortunate since they are essentially the only two characters we see on screen for the vast majority of the film. This is the first film I’ve seen for each of them, but they showed enough that I hope to see them again.

The technical aspects are where the film falters, especially in regards to the lighting and editing. The lighting was one of the first things to strike me. Pionke uses his lights to create an atmosphere of shadows and while this can create some striking images it tended to muddle the compositions of scenes taken as a whole. This mixed with the editing issues really dampened the emotional impact of a few key scenes. I’m going to bet that Pionke came out of stage theater productions because many of the films scenes are staged and edited as if they were a play. There is virtually no coverage and most of the movie is done with two shots where both actors are in the frame at the same time. When the majority of the film takes place in a basement it wouldn’t hurt to use the editing to spice things up a bit at times.

All-in-all I was pleasantly surprised by Mother’s Milk. It’s a solid debut for director Edward Pionke and actors Chapman and Wiglesworth. They’ve created a very dark and disturbing film, and while the technical aspects may not be there quite yet, they did succeed in storytelling, tone, atmosphere, and the ability to create a whole lot of tension with just two people in a basement. I’ll forgive the flaws when that much goes right on the first time out. Grade:B-

While We're Young Review

Youth will leave us all behind. It’s what we do when that inevitable fact happens that matters. Do we desperately try and recapture it and force ourselves to try and fit in with a culture that we don’t quite understand? Or do we embrace our age and all of the signifiers that go with it? What happens if we feel alienated from both groups? While We’re Young gives us a story of those in the middle ground. It shows us what happens when we give up on our own identity in a fleeting attempt to live someone else’s life.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia who are in their forties, childless, and splitting their ideals between youthful spontaneity and dull maturity. Stiller is a documentary filmmaker that had a modest hit many years back, but has stalled for ten years making his follow up and is constantly living in the shadow of his father-in-law who is a much heralded documentarian. Stiller encounters Jamie and Darby while he’s teaching a filmmaking class for continuing education. Jamie, an aspiring documentarian himself, offers up immediate flattery for Josh’s old documentary and Josh begins to swoon. Flattery will get you everywhere. Before they know it Josh and Cornelia are spending all of their time adapting to fit in with the youth culture that Jamie and Darby represent and in the process alienating themselves from the group of friends that they now find boring and predictable. When Josh starts to realize that his newfound friendship may not be as it seems he is left to decide where he fits in based on his ideals and his ideals only.

While We’re Young is written and directed by Noah Baumbach who brings his typical ear for dialogue and simple cinematography to this project. He lets the focus fall squarely on the characters and situations. There are no distractions from the story that he’s trying to tell and the stark compositions enhance the themes in much the same way that the black-and-white film added to Frances Ha, which is a film I prefer to this one even though I find While We’re Young to be more relatable. Baumbach has proven time and again that he has a unique ability to shine the spotlight on a character and watch as they squirm through everyday life. I always find his films engaging and While We’re Young is no exception.

Ben Stiller and Adam Driver are the true lead characters in the film and both portray their characters with just the right amount of truthfulness. Stiller’s brand of neurotic everyman has often rubbed me the wrong way and I find most of his performances to be smuggish at best. Here he plays Josh with a vulnerability that I don’t often see from him. We can truly believe that Josh is confused as to why his life didn’t turn out the way he thought it would. We can see Josh’s inner struggles to find his place in the world and that is an amazing credit to Stiller who has shown to be far more in favor of showboating than nuance. It is wonderfully played against the ultra-ironic bohemian hipster in Adam Driver. Driver is a shark in skinny jeans and uses every ounce of that charisma of his to woo not only Stiller’s Josh, but us in the audience as well. We want to like both of these characters and the inevitable breakdown of a forced friendship makes us look at where we truly stand. There are no right and wrong sides because Stiller and Driver let us see ourselves in each of them.

I found this film moving in so many ways. The first two acts are a different tone than the last half hour, but the early moments in the film are so good at capturing truth and believability that the final act twist still seems in character. What we show to the world is not all that we are just as this film is not only what happens onscreen. While We’re Young will stay with you awhile after you see it, making you look at your own life to see where you fit in. That’s the sign of good art and a good film. Grade: A-


The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron

The Avengers 2 throws so much at the screen in its two and a half hour run time that it seems impossible that someone could come out of the theater not liking at least something about the film. That is true even for me. I did indeed like approximately five minutes or so of the movie. The rest is either filler garbage that is there for no other purpose than to set up a future movie or stunningly bad action scenes. The most upsetting thing about the film is that there really is nothing to get upset over. I described The Avengers 2 to a friend as a visual concussion and I’m sticking by that description. The film spends so long pounding and blasting and exploding, and screaming MORE that by the end of it I was left feeling nothing and remembering less.

The plot of the Avengers 2 has to do with a group of superheroes getting together to do superhero stuff and a villain attempting to drive the team apart with infighting. The heroes must learn to work together in order to save the world from certain destruction. Oh wait sorry, that’s the plot of the first Avengers. Marvel movies seem to have become so formulaic that they are almost literally remaking the same film and no one seems to either notice or care.

The touches that I did like in the film felt pretty exclusively like Joss Whedon flourishes. There is a party scene where all of the Avengers just sit around and chat while trying to pick up Thor’s hammer that is brilliant. I would have watched that party in real time for two hours and left feeling satisfied. I didn’t need the two hours of battle scenes because that’s where the film really goes off the rails.

The closest comparison I can make to The Avengers visual style, frame composition, and CGI is Transformers. Most of this movie felt like a Transformer film just with superheroes instead of robots. No wait, Avengers 2 has giant robots as well. The action is muddled and it is very difficult to understand what is happening in any given battle. You can’t figure out where the characters are in relation to each other and everything feels weightless. The editing is hyperactive and sloppy which just makes everything worse. Above all else, it is the technical aspects of the film that really make it a slog to sit through.

It’s hard to write about a Marvel movie. There’s never anything egregiously wrong with them. They’re just all the same. I’ve sat through enough of them now to not care anymore. Hawkeye has a speech in the Avengers 2 where he talks about why they fight. He says that it’s their job. That’s what these films are starting to feel like. It’s a job. Marvel executives have told us that we need to see it and so we go. No other reason. It’s our job. Grade: C-