Monday, February 22, 2016

The Witch - A Folktale, BUT Not Really Horror

           I cannot claim to be an aficionado of horror films, though I do appreciate a good scare and have fond childhood memories of the old Hammer Films and Universal monster movies. For me, a good horror movie should at least unnerve you and stay with you beyond the end credits. Sadly, “The Witch”, a Sundance darling from up-and-coming auteur Robert Eggers, fails to really horrify or disturb though it does succeed magnificently in presenting a realistic window into an uneasy period of American history.

           From the first frame “The Witch” is told from the point of view of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest daughter of a puritan family newly arrived in America from England in the early-1600’s. Thomasin’s father, William (Ralph Ineson), quits a secure pilgrim community in New England after a theological falling out with the town fathers and takes his family into the wilderness to found their own homestead and live by his own Christian convictions. The family is soon troubled by a witch that lives in the ominous forest bordering their little freehold. Slowly, frankly a little too slowly, the family unit unravels in fear and mistrust as sinister hardships befall them.

           It should come as no surprise watching this film that Egger’s experience behind the camera has been predominantly in the art department. The costumes, props and sets all represent the hand-hewn 1600’s that is the setting with a truth rarely seen on film. Deeply atmospheric and period authentic, this film tried very hard to be a thinking person’s horror story. Robert Egger spent four years researching his “New England Folk Tale” before production began and his efforts certainly paid off, this film may fail as a truly frightening film yet it is palpable period drama.

Additionally, outstanding performances by Kate Dickie as Katherine, William’s lady wife and Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb the family’s adolescent oldest son, makes the genuine period dialogue work for a 21st century audience. We may not always fully understand what is being said by this family, but the emotions are always conveyed and it is in no way difficult to bond with these people. Fear of hell, God’s mercy and witches were all a part of everyday life in 1630, and this is flawlessly shown in the writing and performing of “The Witch”.

          As I said, “The Witch” tried to be a thinking person’s horror film – even though it was not above the occasional jump cut/shock shot. The artwork, photography, evocative music by Mark Korven and Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting in particular were all well worth the price of admission. (Honestly, Miss Taylor-Joy’s talents all but carried this entire production from start to finish.) In the end, however, the obvious hard work here is undone by a too thoughtful pace a sheer lack of raw horror. The foreboding setting never truly pays off on a visceral level, even at the end when everyone’s worst fears are made delicious flesh. Walking out of the theatre I found the only reason I was still haunted by “The Witch” was I had to write this review.

The most bewitching thing about this film? Anya Taylor-Joy’s brown eyes.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

“Deadpool” – You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry, You’ll Laugh Some More Then Wish You Hadn’t Bought That Large Drink

The wait is over, Deadpool fans (sorry, we don’t have a cutsie name like Trekkies or Bronies) the long anticipated movie is here and it’s an absolute comic thrill ride with that friend at the wheel your parent’s probably wouldn’t want you hanging around with! Not as grand in scope or as self-important as other Marvel multi-verse productions, “Deadpool” undeniably provides all the fun and twice the blood of traditional superhero fare.

This film is a nonlinear tale, told by a smart ass, full of sound and fury and signifying high-spirited carnage for your viewing pleasure. The origin story flashbacks are engaging as we meet merc with a mouth and a heart of gold, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), just as he diagnosed with terminal cancer. This prognosis promises to cut short his blossoming romance with the recently discovered love of his life Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Brown Coats (fans of the TV series Firefly - Hm, Red Coats? Meh…) will almost certainly flock to this film to just to see the lovely and genuinely talented Morena Baccarin do a nude sex scene; granted it was brief and possibly a body double, but it is there. Back to the synopsis: Wade opts for a mutant cure that not only disfigures him horribly – well, not horribly I’ve seen worse done to people’s faces by acne and poor life choices – but grants him incredible healing powers. None of this will be news to Deadpool fans (Deadheads? Rats, taken.) of course, I’m just bringing other readers up to speed. After embracing his new found ability, Wade as Deadpool goes on a mission to find the man who made him a freak, Francis a.k.a. mutant villain Ajax (Ed Skrien). Along the way he brings in help from the two X-Men this film could afford: CGI strongman Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and strangely adorable emo-girl, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Between intense action where people actually get hurt and bleed and die, and almost non-stop wisecracks, “Deadpool” as a film is about as much fun as is legally allowed in public.

The mean streets foul language of this adults-only comic book hero, and his penchant for graphic bloodshed, of course garnered this film an R-rating. Most likely Marvel’s superhero A-Listers stayed away due to this dreaded not-tweenager-friendly branding. Naturally, without that lucrative market, Fox hedged its bets and bestowed this project a relatively paltry $58M budget. No worries though, Wolverine, Tony Stark and Fox Board Members, after a record breaking opening weekend, this investment paid off in spades and the “R” rating was not the taboo kiss of death feared. As a fan I was VERY satisfied, and I’ll do more than forgive the absence of any other Marvel mutants or high-dollar avenging hero-types: I’ll applaud it! Giving Deadpool his own moment to shine did the character justice and his fans a treat. (Deadpoolers? Poolies? Nah…)

As always with Marvel films, there is a teaser scene after the credits... In full keeping with “Deadpool”’s retro pop culture references and soundtrack, this post-credits teaser is a throwback that might go over the heads of some of the younger folks, however a sequel hint is dropped. IMHO - I have little doubt that there will be more blood, more mirth and a Deadpool #2, maybe even a one-off Holiday Special! 

Monday, February 8, 2016

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" - The Valentine’s Day Treat For Zombie Lovers (AND Lovers of Zombies.)

     Let’s start by saying it’s really hard to take a film, or book, with this one’s title too seriously. Purists of Regency Era literature are probably crying that the venerable Jane Austin must be rolling in her grave over what has been made of her masterpiece. They’d be wrong, because not only does this film steadfastly refuse to take itself too seriously but I think Miss Austin had a sense of humor and no small amount of courage in breaking stodgy rules. After all, as a woman she was bound by the conventions of her day not to be a novelist, the first editions of “Pride & Prejudice” were published under a masculine pseudonym. So, ha! Bring on the undead, the Bennet girls can handle them!

     From the first frame of this picture my expectations were well and truly exceeded. Far from being a retread of the “old story” with a zombie apocalypse tossed in, this is a strong and original re-imagining of the English Lit. 101 syllabus standard. Apparently, years prior to the Bennet sisters’ search for suitable husbands, a zombie virus was imported into Britain from one of its colonies. The noble island kingdom has been at war with the undead ever since. London is isolated behind a wall, and a great moat. The children of the wealthy (like Messrs. Darcy and Bingley) study the Japanese martial arts, and of course they look down on the not-so-wealthy (the Bennett girls) who studied under the Chinese Shao-Lin. While gentile society keeps up appearances with whist parties and grand balls, it is not too uncommon to have a zombie bloodbath break out, if needs be. Almost surprisingly, this concept not only works, but works curiously well, becoming Jane Austin’s “The Walking Dead”.

     The cast is a respectable mix of promising newcomers as well as accomplished veterans. Relative unknowns Lily James and Sam Riley play Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. (Col.) Darcy with chemistry and agility. The reasonably esteemed Charles Dance appears as Mr. Bennet and the young but already consummate Jack Huston portrays the piece’s villain, the ne’re do well George Wickham. Even Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame – I like Doctor Who, Doctor Who is cool – shows up to add unfettered comic relief as a clownish Parson Collins.

Likewise, I have no complaints when it comes to this film’s production values. The costumes, photography and blood patterns are all of top quality befitting a classical piece with carnage. No $100M+ marvel, this film’s relatively meager budget of $28M aptly managed to deliver the goods.

I highly recommend “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” not only for its strange humor and overall quality, but also for this film’s incredible imagination. Admittedly a popcorn film, to be watched and enjoyed but not thought about too much, and that’s okay, cinema is entertainment. A quick confession should sum things up nicely: I resisted the whole zombie fad thing, until I became hooked on “The Walking Dead”. In recent months I wasn’t sure if the zombie genre had run its course after a few solid years in popular culture. Frankly, I half expected this film to be to zombies what “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” was to the Universal monster troupe, i.e. the last nail in the coffin. This film was not that, but very possibly a healthy infusion of new blood – the period zombie film. I hope they make more.

P.S. Don’t be too quick to get up out of your seat at the end, wait for it...

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Flawed Genius of The Revenant

Revenant – noun – one that returns after death or a long absence.

The great motivation for me to see this picture, which has been flying under my radar for some time, was quite honestly it’s astonishing 12 Academy Award nominations. That number of nominations puts “The Revenant” on par with films such as “Gone With The Wind”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “From Here To Eternity”. Could this quiet, un-hyped film I’d barely heard of really be an equal among such auspicious company? My answer is absolutely yes, and yet somehow, no.

Set deep in the Colorado Rocky Mountains of 1823, “The Revenant” is pure adventure in the classic sense. A visceral tale of survival, fear, revenge and loss, the story harkens back to the works of Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper. Frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is abandoned for dead by two trappers (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter) after a savage mauling from a momma bear defending her cubs. Glass regains his strength during an agonizing journey back to “civilization” where rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. The violence is remarkable and raw, the setting primal, nearly every quality of this film’s production is worthy of highest praise.

I make no secret of being a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Since before “Titanic”, I’ve appreciated his talent and in recent years his dedication to certain causes as well. DiCaprio’s performance as the historical legend Hugh Glass has already garnered a Golden Globe, it should bag him the Oscar as well.

Tom Hardy’s work in “The Revenant” tops his portrayal of British convict Bronson in the film of the same name. In fact, Hardy’s seething portrayal of Fitzgerald, a strong if scared man, proves that being the new Mad Max is a greater boon to that franchise than his career. Even Will Poulter’s Jim Bridger is an honest redemption from being the geek boy in “We’re The Millers”.

The cinematography is beyond Oscar worthy, it’s groundbreaking. What else to expect from the man who photographed “Gravity”? Many of the action scenes – attacks, chases and the bear mauling – included long single shot takes that took you into the moment in ways no amount of quick cut editing will ever achieve. This film’s imagery, sometimes majestic, sometimes grotesque, was captured (aside from one scene only) entirely with existing natural light. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki did more than earn his paycheck, he crafted another genuine masterpiece.

Positively phenomenal production value, cinematography, acting, sound, costumes, make-up, so many incredible pieces were assembled by director Alejandro González Iñárritu that it should go without saying that the whole is as great as the sum of its parts.  Yet, somehow, “The Revenant” is lacking. It’s a cinematic fact of life, really. A great director can take a good script and make a good movie. A great director cannot take a good script and make a great movie; the script must be great first. The script here was not great, these characters and their travails never engaged me emotionally in any substantial way. González Iñárritu’s $135M epic is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, which component is missing a nomination? You got it – the screenplay.

“The Revenant” is really a very, very good movie - a must-see adult adventure with real people, not comic book superheroes, outer space warrior-shamans or magic rings. However, it is simply not a great movie. It’s no “Ben-hur”, hell, on some levels it’s not even “Titanic”. Well, I guess, some years really, really good is good enough for greatness.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"The Force Awakens" - And Not A Moment Too Soon!

      Better late than never for this review, even as a boy I was the last kid on the block to see new Star Wars films, so it is almost fitting to carry on the tradition with “The Force Awakens”. There has been a lot of talk in the media, fandom and the Twitterverse about this latest installment of the Star Wars franchise being the first true film of the iconic saga since “Return of the Jedi”, and I’m here to say I couldn’t agree more! Maybe it’s seeing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, yes, there’s a real person inside that fur) together again, or the absence of Jar Jar Binks, but this film possesses an authenticity none of the three prequels were able to capture.

      The storyline is familiar, even derivative, but the Force is in the details. A young loner on a desert planet, Rey (Daisy Ridley), escapes her lonely, yearning existence when she discovers a small droid, BB-8, holding important information needing to be relayed to the good guys. Sound familiar? However, the secret information is the location of long missing Luke Skywalker and the baddies are led by new masked villain, Kylo Ren, who also happens to be the son-gone-bad of Han Solo and Princess Leia. This sounds good just typing it!

         ***MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD***

       By now it is almost common knowledge that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) kills his father, Han Solo, in a vicious ending to an intensely emotional scene both Driver and Ford played to perfection. While this is of course an important event in Kylo’s turning to the Dark Side, I feel killing Solo was a mistake. Bringing back Solo only to kill him in the first film of a new trilogy is as disappointing as having Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a great character, killed off in “The Phantom Menace” by Darth Maul (Ray Park), a great villain who is himself then killed off in that film. Solo was a beloved hero, rogue, even role model. Perhaps Harrison Ford didn’t want to do another film or two, but if this was Abram’s decision it was a bad one. In my opinion Abrams needed to earn our trust with this franchise before doing anything so grandiose. The death of Han Solo, though well played and built up to, feels like the work of a man overplaying his hand by robbing us of an old friend.


      Naturally, the effects are astounding and the action scenes intense. Light sabers look very cool in 3D. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher still have that onscreen chemistry that made the romance between Han and Leia so genuine three decades ago. Newcomer Daisy Ridley’s Rey is strong yet vulnerable, bright yet still full of wonder. The maelstrom of emotions Daisy conveys during her final discovery of Luke Skywalker was the work of true talent, even if her London accent was a little distracting on occasion. Will Daisy move on to other successes like Harrison Ford after “Star Wars”? I think so.

      The loss of Solo notwithstanding, “Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is the best thrill ride I’ve seen on the big screen in a long, long time. I actually found myself sitting there, smiling, really enjoying myself, and few films do that for me anymore. Yes, this is the best Star Wars film, perhaps since the original, certainly since “Return of the Jedi”. See it, or see it again, but don’t be the last kid on the block to do so!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Retro Thrills and Cold War Kicks In Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E”

I’ve been a Guy Ritchie fan since stumbling upon Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels years ago. The man’s wry wit and distinctive visual style made him, in this reviewer’s opinion, the UK’s own Quentin Tarantino. Ritchie has had great successes with films such a Snatch and of course, the Sherlock Holmes franchise. I’m happy to report that Ritchie is in fine form with his big screen adaptation of the cult 1960’s TV-series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
     Thankfully, Warner Brothers resisted all temptation to bring The Man From U.N.C.L.E into the 21st century w/iPads, Bugatti Veyrons and tattooed ladies. (Granted all of those certainly have their appeal.) With this property, though, they showed some integrity and the result is a Mad Men episode on steroids! Period costuming, sets, vehicles and even the photography are absolutely spot on in evoking the film’s era. This isn’t just a post card from the 1960’s, it’s a love letter back to that stylish if troubled decade.
     The plot is simple, though not the thin framework upon which to hang stunning production values it could have been. American art thief turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is teamed with KGB strong arm Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to escort lovely East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) to find her long lost father in Rome and stop him from completing a nuclear bomb for escaped South American Nazis. Along the way they encounter complications from all sides, including neo-fascist Italian industrialists, a power-mad wife (Elizabeth Debicki), even duplicity within the team itself.
     Henry Cavill’s cleft chin and Superman jaw-line lacked the aristocratic feel of Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo. However, Cavill did give this performance a James Garner air of all-American smart ass charm. Honestly, I’d rather see Cavill play Napoleon Solo again rather than Clark Kent any day of the week and in a double feature on Sunday.
     Armie Hammer turned in a strong performance as the two-dimensional Illya. Yes, the character was lacking in development but no biggie, Ritchie’s expertise behind the camera showcased Hammer perfectly.
     Elizabeth Debicki poured a disturbing composure into her femme fetale Victoria, the dominating wife of the Italian industrialist supplying the means to create the nuclear bomb. Not only does Debicki portray Victoria with cool slyness, she looks completely stunning. Debicki’s Victoria could easily be an early-super model were it not for her dark side, which itself is strangely alluring. Miss Debicki has apparently played Lady Macbeth in a recent film version of the Scottish play; believe me, THAT has gone on my must-watch list.
     This film’s only drawback would have to be the musical montages. Not that these are poorly done or that the musical choices do not work with the images, it just feels like there are too many. While entertaining, Ritchie’s style abuse here becomes almost tedious.
     The Man From U.N.C.L.E presents a Cold War era action-comedy with genuine stunts, decent writing and good performances all around. Guy Ritchie helmed a solid film; if not blockbuster material it is undeniably quality cinema. Every penny of the $75 million dollar budget is up on that screen to be enjoyed, and I recommend you do so! This is a bit of 1960’s retro, Bond-esque fun. It is possible that we have not seen the last of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, so jump on this budding franchise while it’s still fresh.

P.S. – U.N.C.L.E stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Regrets & Redemption of Old Mr. Holmes

I’ve anxiously awaited this film, not only as an Ian McKellen fan but as a devout Sherlockian since Jeremy Brett played the master detective in the 1980’s Granada series. Anticipation of McKellen’s take on the iconic Victorian sleuth ignited in me an enthusiasm I’ve not felt in years. Today, I’m genuinely happy to report that Sir Ian McKellen, and Mr. Holmes, did not disappoint.
      Mr. Holmes went well beyond my expectations of an aged Sherlock Holmes coming out of retirement for one more case. This film reveals the life of a man in decline, living a self-imposed exile as a hobbyist bee-keeper in the south of England. An old case, Holmes’ final, holds the key to this exile, however senility is quickly setting in and Holmes himself has forgotten what transpired decades earlier. The regret lingers, but the cause has been lost. Working with the aid of young Roger Munro (Milo Parker), his house-keeper’s son, Holmes slowly uncovers his own tracks through various mnemonic clues. A picture, a glove, a film version of Dr. Watson’s fictionalized (read: sanitized, yet sensationalized) account of this tragic case are all Holmes has to jog his failed memory. Fortunately, eventually, the clues bring recollection and the answer revealed as one that shocks Sherlock Holmes to the very core of his coolly methodical soul.
     There is much to be appreciated in this fine work from director Bill Condon, who also helmed Dreamgirls and Gods & Monsters – in which McKellen played an aging James Whale. Condon’s storytelling expertise is evident in every carefully composed frame. Attention to period detail is impeccable in both the 1940s where the film’s main action is set and post-WW I London, the setting of Holmes’ last case. The script is smart, well up to Conan-Doyle’s standards. Laura Linney’s performance as Holmes’ war widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, was superbly natural, adding always to the embittered widow just enough depth to garner our empathy without demanding it. Young Milo Parker showed great promise in his first serious role, the launching of a bright fledgling actor. Mr. Holmes is a serious film, though not without moments of whimsy: When Holmes views the cinema version of Watson’s telling of this ill-fated final case, he is played onscreen by non-other than Nicholas Rowe from 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes
     Of course, Ian McKellen as the great detective addled with a failing mind is truly this film’s highlight. The subtly nuanced performance presents us with Holmes both at the height of his analytical powers and as a feeble old man in his 90’s seeking reconciliation with the notably emotionally distanced person he was in the past. McKellen never begs us for our sympathy or understanding, he never has too. It is Holmes who elicits our admiration, our pity and our reproach; the mark of all consummate actors: McKellen’s illusion was complete.  
     Mr. Holmes will most likely not be out much longer, and may not be available at every multiplex; nevertheless this film is worth finding. Once again, in a summer dominated by $100M superhero tent-poles and monsters it is easy to miss the smaller gems.