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Black Mass (2015)
Depp finally playing a serious role without going over the top
"If nobody sees it, it didn't happen."
Black Mass is Scott Cooper's follow up to his dark thriller, Out of the Furnace. This gangster film centers on the true story of one of Boston's most wanted criminals, Whitey Bulger, an Irish mobster who served as an informant for the FBI against the Italian Mafia for many years, during which time he used the special treatment to get away with committing several gruesome crimes of his own and rise to the top. The film is extremely slow paced and it focuses on the small details of Whitey's crime life, but it is also a breath of fresh air for its realistic portrayal of the gritty criminal life without sensationalizing these gangsters. The violence is real and gruesome and not something worth celebrating here. It does however prove why audiences love the more fast paced fictitious portrayal of these criminal, because it can become a dull exercise at times to portray these characters as real people. The greatest strength of Black Mass is without a doubt Johnny Depp's portrayal of Whitey because it was exciting to finally see him play a straight role once again. He's menacing without going over the top. The prosthetics were a bit distracting, but it was worth it to get to see Depp playing this older man. Black Mass tries too hard to remain authentic to the real life events and by doing so it becomes a dull procedural at times, but Depp's performance makes it worth recommending.
The film centers on Whitey's relationship with a Boston FBI agent named John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who struck a deal with him during the course of several years. Whitey was asked to snitch on the Italian mafia which would lead to more arrests for Connolly while Whitey was allowed to get away with his criminal undertakings. It was a win-win situation for both of them. The story then closely follows how Whitey went about doing his business with his entrusted men, Kevin (Jesse Plemons) and Steve (Rory Cochrane), performing gruesome executions while the police looked the other way. Meanwhile, Whitey's brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) was rising to the top of the Massachusetts Senate, but he doesn't play a major role in the story. Other characters who are simply introduced but not given much to do are Whitey's partner: Lindsey (Dakota Johnson), Connolly's right hand man in the agency: John Morris (David Harbour), and Connolly's wife: Marianne (Julianne Nicholson). The film uses these characters to explore some of the family dynamics and when it does it works to its advantage, but the film feels like it is missing some cohesiveness between each separate individual. Take for instance a scene where Whitey is sharing a meal with Lindsey and their son while he is explaining to him how to get away with hitting a boy in school who is bullying him. The scene works perfectly to give us a sense of how Whitey thinks and acts, but it doesn't do anything for the film narratively and it feels like a separate scene all together. There are several moments like this that seem to be presented only as facts, but these facts don't add up to much and it drags out the premise making us lose interest in the story.
There are some great scenes where Depp is allowed to shine, but other than that the film does miss a lot of its targets. The talented cast is mostly wasted with Benedict Cumberbatch, Juno Temple, and Kevin Bacon given very little to do. Depp and Edgerton stand out since the primary focus of the film is on their relationship, but the side plots don't work. While the film tries to focus on other characters it never feels connected to the main relationship that is so central to the story. Johnny Depp might garner some attention for his performance, but the film will quickly be forgotten come award time.
Nice visuals, weak character arc
"Human beings simply aren't built to function at the cruising altitudes of a seven- forty-seven."
Based on the true events that took place in Mount Everest on May 1996 during a climbing expedition to reach the summit of the mountain, this disaster movie directed by Baltasar Kormakur stands out for its fantastic and impressive visuals. However what it has in its visual department, it lacks in character development. The only strong character here is Jason Clarke's Rob Hall who is the heart and soul of a story that is a bit overpopulated with characters who don't get enough screen time for us to really identify with them. The narrative could've worked better with fewer characters, but the magnificent mountain does end up taking center stage and the visual style makes up for all its flaws. Some patience is required as we are introduced to each character at the beginning of the film, but once the preparation for the climbing begins its hard not to fall in love with all the beauty surrounding them and the passion these climbers had for reaching the summit. Kormakur does manage to establish the harsh conditions these men would have to endure to reach the top while they acclimatize to the region, which makes the approaching menacing storm during the second half of the film even more dreadful. Including so many characters and trying to remain true as possible to the real life events may have hurt the narrative arc of the film, but the scenery more than makes up for it.
By 1996 the climbing expeditions to reach the peak of Mount Everest had become a sought out tourist attraction. The nearly impossible task wasn't only achieved by professional climbers, but now amateurs could achieve their dream by paying for the service of well trained expedition companies that facilitated the acclimatizing process. One company is being led by experienced climber, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) who is preparing his new crew for the upcoming adventure. He leaves his pregnant wife, Jan (Keira Knightley) at home and heads off to Nepal to meet the team. This year the clients are Doug (John Hawkes), a returning customer who hadn't been able to reach the summit the previous year, Yasuko (Naoko Mori) who has climbed 6 of the 7 highest peaks of the planet and is hoping to complete her adventure, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) who is so immersed in the experience that he's forgotten to call his wife, Peach (Robin Wright) for their anniversary, among many others. Rob is worried about the growing amount of expeditions that are heading to the summit around the same time so he asks other experienced leaders like Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) to team up with his people. Other employees working at the mountain include Helen (Emily Watson) who is in charge of communications from the base camp and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington) another experienced crew member who is a friend of Rob's. As hard as they were working to give their clients a memorable experience, there was nothing they could do to anticipate the storm that was heading their way.
Kormakur had previously directed two very different action flicks starring Mark Wahlberg (Contraband and 2 Guns), but this is more of an epic disaster film with some tense moments of human drama. The cast is brilliant, but as I mentioned before there isn't enough time to get to know them all. Jason Clarke is the actor who is given more depth and he is allowed to flesh his character, but the rest are simply there as recognizable names: Worthington, Gyllenhaal, Knightley, Hawkes, and Watson don't have much moments to shine which is a shame because they are talented actors. Perhaps the only other actor we truly get to know beside Clarke is Josh Brolin who gets some more screen time as well. But despite all the big names, the truly breathtaking character here is the Mountain which imposes an immense threat for everyone, even for the professionals who think they are part of it. I was a bit underwhelmed with the movie because I wanted to care more for these characters, but I did enjoy the breathtaking visuals and the marvelous landscape.
Best Laid Plans (1999)
Forgettable 90's thriller but decent performances from Nivola and Witherspoon
"Who's created this problem? Someone is gonna get hurt, Bryce. It's just a question of who."
There's nothing really special about Mike Barker's Best Laid Plans, but somehow it manages to remain slightly interesting during its short runtime. There's something about 90's neo-noir thrillers that manage to captivate me and although this film isn't up to par with some of the better movies in the genre (the best example that comes to mind is the Wachowski's Bound), I still appreciated it for its nostalgic value and some decent performances. Alessandro Nivola delivers a solid lead performance and I don't think he's ever been better than he was here. It's a shame he didn't get more opportunities to star in better films and has only gotten mostly supporting roles. Reese Witherspoon wasn't that big of a star as she is now, but you could tell by her work here that she would get places. It would be nice to see her in more roles for thrillers like this one. The greatest flaw of the film is that it relies on one too many twists and once you get the feel of what the screenwriter was trying to do you can basically guess what the next twist is going to be. Ted Griffin's script still managed to entertain although it's not a story that will stick with you after you watch the film. It keeps you engaged throughout most of the first half of the film, but then it begins to unravel up to the climactic scene, that's just way too silly even for the 90's.
The film opens with a diner scene between two old college friends that are getting together for the first time in years. Bryce (Josh Brolin) is in town for a few days house sitting for a wealthy family, and so he has decided to phone Nick (Alessandro Nivola) to meet up with him. While the two are having a couple of drinks together a beautiful girl named Kathy (Resse Witherspoon) walks in. Nick receives a call from his girlfriend and says he's got to go, but Bryce stays and ends up taking Kathy home with him. Later that night Nick receives a desperate call from Bryce asking him to come over to his house. He says Kathy has threatened to go to the police claiming he has raped her. He has absolutely no recollection of what happened, but after going through her purse he discovers she's only 16. Bryce didn't know what to do so he handcuffed Kathy in the basement and is hoping Nick can help him. He wants to talk to her alone so Bryce lets him and that is where we discover that everything was a setup and that Kathy's name is actually Lissa and she's Nick's girlfriend. The film then shifts four months into the past where we are introduced to how Nick and Lissa met and the predicament they get into after making a deal with some small time local criminals (played by Terrence Howard) which gets them in even more trouble as the twists begin to pile along the way.
For all the twists and turns that Barker takes his audience through, the film ends up disappointing by trying to wrap things up a bit too nicely at the end. You get so used to the dark atmosphere and the betrayals that it becomes pretty evident what direction the movie is going to take at the end. I still enjoyed the ride although I wasn't pleased with the destination, but the performances are engaging enough to still make the experience worth the while. There's just something about the 90's neo-thriller vibe that always seems to engage me. There's not much more to add about this film, give it a try if you're a fan of the cast or the genre, otherwise skip it because it's pretty forgettable.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Decades have gone by and new generations continue to relate to this comedy
"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
In only a span of six years, John Hughes managed to direct some of the best comedies from the 80's which surprisingly hold up very well to this day. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is still regarded as a classic in the genre and despite being a simple mainstream movie, Matthew Broderick delivers such an iconic performance that many teens continue to fall in love with his character as the decades pass. The gags are handled with perfect comedic timing and the soundtrack has become such a recognizable tune in pop culture. I don't know exactly what it is that has made this such a beloved film amongst American teenagers, but it seems to transcend generations over time because of its accessibility. It's a light comedy about being young and mischievous that simply seems to delight and captivate audiences who are looking for some form of escape. It's rare for a film with a simple premise like this to continue captivating audiences over time and even those teens who watched it in the 80's and are now mature decide to go back and revisit it for nostalgic purposes or to introduce it to their now teenage sons. This is just further proof that no one had the comedic touch that Hughes had in the 80's with his teenage comedies. I still prefer Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as his go to movie, but Ferris Bueller was a delightful experience. I look forward to catching up with some more of his classic films. I remember having seen classic scenes of this movie, but this was my first time watching it from beginning to end and I was delighted and surprised because I didn't think I would ever like Broderick as much as I did here. This is by far his best performance.
The film takes place in Chicago where we are introduced to Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), a senior in High School who has decided to take the day off from school by fooling his parents into thinking he's sick. Ferris constantly breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience letting them know what he's thinking. His plan is so well thought out that even his friends at school think he's developed a serious condition and are trying to raise money for his treatment. He's the sort of guy that everyone in school dreams of being and his life motto is simply to enjoy life to the fullest. He personifies the spirit of youth and that is what makes him such a likable guy despite acting irresponsable at times. The only people who don't believe him are his sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), who is angry everyone keeps on falling for his lame excuses, and the school principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) who is determined to discover his lie and make him lose the school year for it. Ferris has everything planned out very carefully and is convinced his plan will work. He calls his best friend, Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), who has also taken a sick leave, but in his case he's really feeling bad. Ferris convinces him to come pick him up and together they come up with a plan to help Ferris's girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), get out of classes. In a hilarious scene the duo call Principal Rooney impersonating Sloane's father and asking him to give his daughter permission to leave the school because her grandmother has passed away. Ferris then convinces Cameron to take his father's Ferrari and the adventure begins for the three friends through the streets of Chicago.
Hughes has always excelled as a screenwriter and he is responsible for some of the funniest comedies from the 80's and 90's. He didn't direct as many films, but he has been involved with many scripts. In Ferris Bueller he seems to have written a simple but perfectly executed script of a young teenager who is trying to live life to the fullest. He could've come out as cocky, but there is some heart to his character and it becomes incredibly hard not to root for him, especially when Hughes put so much emphasis during the opening scene portraying the dullness of High School life and then introducing Principal Rooney as such a douchebag. The scenes where he is desperately trying to uncover Ferris's plan are incredibly cartoonish and over the top, but it is funny nonetheless. There are also a few heart felt scenes between Ferris and Cameron which make his character even more likable despite his bad influence. Broderick delivers the performance of his career and there are very few actors who can break the fourth wall the way he did here without interrupting the flow of the story (the other who comes to mind is John Cusack). There is also a great scene in which Ferris covers one of The Beatle's song in a parade that simply adds to the already amazing soundtrack. Jones is hilarious as Rooney and it's not often that these over the top villains are portrayed well. He never comes off annoying, and that's something difficult to achieve. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a comedy that has transcended time and generations and it may come as a surprise to many considering it's such a light and simple premise, but Hughes manages to work his magic.
Touchy Feely (2013)
Lost is the authenticity of Lynn's previous films
"Due to some unforeseen circumstances I will not be seeing clients for the time being."
I was a huge admirer of Lynn Shelton's film, Your Sister's Sister, and I even included it on my list of the best movies of 2011 so I was eagerly anticipating what she would do next. I loved the way she captured those characters in such an authentic way and I was onboard for her mumblecore experimentation once again. Knowing that Rosemarie DeWitt was going to be back for the lead role was one of the main reasons I included Touchy Feely in my most anticipated movies of the year list. It didn't hurt either that Ellen Page was going to play a supporting role since I was a huge fan of her work in Hard Candy and Juno. Everything about Touchy Feely had my expectations high rocketed to the sky, but then 2012 came and poor word of mouth lowered my expectations to such a degree that I never ended up seeing it until now. It was a major letdown and it made Lynn's previous film, Laggies, seem like a masterpiece next to this. This is a dramedy that feels completely uneven and the plot doesn't seem to go anywhere. I didn't like any of the characters here and their motivations were hard to understand at times. The film was a mess and the pacing was so slow that this 90 minute film felt like it was three hours long. For a film trying to explore the interrelationships between these characters there was nothing to be said or discovered. Even the actors seemed to be lost and not fully understanding what their characters motivations really were.
Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), a successful message therapist, and her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy) are enjoying a lovely dinner at her brother Paul's (Josh Pais) home. Paul, emotionally distant and a bit depressed, lives with his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) who has sacrificed her personal dreams to assist her father at his dental practice, which isn't exactly flourishing. Abby on the other hand is sought after for her great hands and seems to be going through a good moment in her life. She recommends his brother visit her Reiki instructor, Bronwyn (Allison Janney), who has done amazing things for her. Things take an unexpected turn in the family dynamics however when Abby suddenly develops a strange aversion towards skin which affects her work life. After Paul helps one of his patients recover from a terrible tooth pain, his dental practice begins to flourish due to the positive word of mouth his "healing hands" are receiving. While his relationship with his daughter seems to be getting stronger, Abbie's new aversion to skin affects her relationship with Jesse.
Despite the pretty original premise the film fails to explore Abby's problem. It's just a technique used to shake the interpersonal relationship in the family, but there is nothing that Lynn is trying to explore with her new found aversion. I really didn't understand why her character didn't simply explain to Jesse what she was going through because I'm sure he would've understood. He seemed like a pretty comprehensive type of guy. The introduction of Ron Livingston's character only feels like a filler and doesn't do anything to build the story. Ellen Page delivers a solid performance once again, but her character is trapped inside her emotional wall which doesn't allow her to fully blossom. Pais and DeWitt are the true stars of the film and their performances are the highlight of this forgettable film. Pais especially captures the eccentricities of his character in a rather natural way. I found the New Age mysticism in the film a bit too preachy and the indie quirkiness a bit too familiar. The tone of the film just dragged it down for me and I had a hard time relating to the characters or caring for any of them.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
A lesser Woody Allen film
"Of all human weaknesses, obsession is the most dangerous, and the silliest!"
When you direct and write a film every year you can't expect to always deliver a masterpiece, and that is the case with Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. It's a delightful and enjoyable film, but it doesn't seem to add up to much. When you compare it to his extensive filmography it wouldn't even land in the top half of his best work because it's far from being memorable. He's directed so many movies that several of them feel incredibly familiar and for that reason they are easy to forget. He repeats several of the same themes throughout his movies and Mighty Aphrodite isn't the exception, especially putting a lot of emphasis on love and infidelity which are recurring themes in Allen's films. At times his films stand out for simply capturing these human emotions in a new way, and at others they do thanks to a particularly strong performance. In this case it was Mira Sorvino's supportive performance as Linda Ash that garnered all the attention playing a hooker who isn't all that right in the head. The way she delivered her lines with her high-pitched voice contributed to the overall comedy of her character. If there is one thing that I will remember from this forgettable Allen film it's her Oscar winning performance. Despite her solid performance this is still one of the weakest Woody Allen movies I've seen.
In Mighty Aphrodite Woody Allen plays Lenny, a sportswriter, who is married to Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter). In order to spark some life into their monotonous relationship they decide to adopt a son who they name Max. After several years Lenny is surprised to discover that Max is such a brilliant kid and so he decides to search for his biological parents convinced that they must have great genes. He visits the adoption agency and is denied the files, but his curiosity gets the best of him and he finds a way to steal them. He tracks down the biological mother only to discover that she is a prostitute who is now going by the name of Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino). Lenny sets up an appointment with her and is disappointed that she ended up being so dumb. Concerned with her lifestyle, Lenny tries to help Linda by reforming her and setting her up with some respectable man. Meanwhile, Lenny and Amanda are going through some marital problems of their own. The narrative is linked with a bizarre Greek chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham) that compares Lenny's story with the Greek tragedy Oedipus.
Allen always delivers some witty dialogues and funny situations in his films which make them such an entertaining ride. Mighty Aphrodite has a few moments like this that work well, but as a whole it is a very forgettable movie. Allen plays once again a sort of neurotic character who is fascinated with discovering who his adopted son's mother really is. Sorvino's performance is brilliant and elevates the material, but there isn't more to it. Neither Allen nor Bonham Carter seem to stand out and their relationship isn't central to the film. The Greek chorus was far from interesting and only took away from the story by trying to hard to compare the modern tale with the Greek one. It's a light and corny film that is saved by Sorvino's presence and Allen's distinctive style of humor.
Energetic and fun spoof of 50's jailbreak Elvis films
"No, she's a scrape - part square, part drape. I think she's pretty."
Johnny Depp was on his way to becoming typecast as a teen idol when in 1990 he was given the opportunity to play two odd roles. One was his first collaboration with Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands which remains one of his most iconic characters to date, and the other an often forgotten and overlooked musical comedy directed by the eccentric John Waters. This was my introduction to his particular brand of filmmaking and I had a fun time with it. Clocking in at under 75 minutes the film knows when the humor is running out of steam and manages to end before the novelty begins to wear down. The movie is a parody of 50's teen rebel films and it spoofs musicals like Grease. The only thing I knew about Waters before going into this film was the remake I had seen of his original musical, Hairspray. I now can see why he has a cult following since his style isn't conventional and the experience is a unique one. It's Johnny Depp who carries the film with his charm and good looks making fun of our conception of the cool rebel character, which in a way is the way audiences conceive the actor in real life. The characters in this film seem to be having so much fun that the ridiculous and over the top parody is simply contagious. It's so energetic and playful that it's hard not to watch it with a smile on your face.
Johnny Depp plays the titular character, Cry-Baby, who is called that because of his capability of shedding a single tear from his left eye that drives the girls crazy. He's a bad boy who loves fast paced cars and hangs around the cool group known as the Drapes. The sweet girl in his school who falls for him is Allison Vernon (Amy Locane). She's a square because she belongs to the traditional side of town who are very much against the drape lifestyle and culture. Allison is tired of being the good girl and she eventually wins Cry-Baby's heart who introduces her to his circle of friends: Wanda (Traci Lords), Pepper (Ricki Lake) who already has two children and is pregnant with the third, Hatchet-Face (Kim McGuire) and her boyfriend Milton (Darren E. Burrows). Even though Cry-Baby is part of the drape culture he is more polite than the rest of his gang and eventually they all accept Allison as one of their own. Her boyfriend, Baldwin (Stephen Mailer), however isn't too happy that Allison is hanging out with these bad boys and decides to give them a lesson. Meanwhile, one of Cry-Baby's many admirers is Lenora (Kim Webb), who isn't happy Allison is hanging around the man she loves, and she too will do what it takes to keep them apart even if it means making up a story that she's pregnant with his baby.
The musical is very energetic and a lot of fun. There are several memorable scenes including a jailbreak attempt that is hilarious. Locane and Depp have irresistible charm together and they seem to have had a fun time working together with this offbeat comedy written by Waters himself. There are also some catchy songs with decent choreography including Doin' Time For Bein' Young, Please, Mr. Jailer, and Teardrops Are Falling. The 50's soundtrack is just so much fun and enhances the musical's energy even more. John Waters also included a hilarious orphanage scene where the children were displayed like animals in a zoo. The character of Hatchet Face probably evoked the most laughs with her crazy look and there's a hilarious scene in which she pops out of a movie screen while the prisoners were watching a 3D horror movie and they all jumped out of their seats horrified by her look. There is also a cameo from Willem Dafoe as a prison guard that evoked some chuckles as well. The predictable premise of the film could've turned this into a familiar bore, but Waters knows how to come up with innovative and fresh ideas with his unique brand of humor.
A slight improvement over the first installment
"You think I have a bloody clue? Bunch of crazies want to eat us for breakfast, by the looks of it."
Director Wes Ball is back for this second installment of novelist James Dashner's The Maze Runner trilogy. This author's books have been a success with young adults, and the first adaptation by Ball was received well by most critics. I had a very different experience from them however since I found the first film a much weaker entry to the already overexposed genre of YA novel adaptations. From the moment we were introduced to Dylan O'Brien's Thomas I couldn't ignore the fact that he was simply a male version of Katniss from The Hunger Games or Tris from the Divergent series. An outsider who has trouble fitting in to an established group but eventually becomes a leader thanks to his unique personality traits. We get it, being different isn't necessarily a bad thing. We've all went through an identity crisis as teens and I guess that is why the premise is so appealing. The refreshing difference that this YA adaptation has with the others is that it avoids the romantic elements that seem to emerge from all these films. This is a more action packed film, but at the same time it suffers from a lack of character development.
The story has several flaws and it's hard to follow at times considering I honestly couldn't remember much of what had happened in the first film. All I could remember was that a group of kids managed to escape from the maze only to discover that the world around them had changed. And this second film picks up from there as we follow the young survivors through this dystopian world being chased by an organization who believes that they are the key to saving humanity. The kids themselves don't understand what is going on and they have to discover it along the way without knowing who they can trust. And that cluelessness is transferred to the audience while we get some answers along the way. The problem is I'm afraid that by the time the third film comes out we will have forgotten much of what was going on and enter the movie scratching our heads like I did this one. All we will remember are some of the action sequences that took place, but I still have no clue why these characters were even put in the maze in the first place (not sure if they already answered it in the first film or it remains an enigma to be solved in the third). It may be necessary to revisit the franchise by the time the final film is released because the plot was a bit convoluted and many questions remained unanswered.
I don't want to be too critical of this film because I did think it was an improvement over the first one. I found it a better sequel than Insurgent was despite sharing some of the same flaws. The film does seem to distance itself from what it did in the first film becoming more of an action adventure film than a YA adaptation (although one could argue that it seems to be heading towards a very similar direction as the latest Hunger Games sequel). The action scenes do feel very familiar to other films and there is especially one moment where Jurassic Park: The Lost World will come to everyone's mind. It also feels very much like an episode from The Walking Dead with the introduction of some zombie like beings known as cranks. There is a decent twist during the climactic scene, but by the time we get to it we've been overexposed to the convoluted action scenes (and not in a good Mad Max Fury Road kind of way). The pacing of this film is very much an issue and if they'd edited out at least some 20 minutes of the film it could've been much more engaging.
The cast is pretty solid and Dylan O'Brien turns in a charismatic lead performance, but the issue here is that these characters aren't developed at all and the action scenes seem to take center stage. There is no time to dwell on the characters because we are headed into new action sets every five minutes while new questions emerge. Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, and Alexander Flores are all back as the surviving members of the maze. Neither of them have much to do in this film, especially Scodelario who doesn't seem to have any personality whatsoever. There are several new characters as well. Jacob Lofland joins the runaway kids as Aris, another survivor from a different maze. The kids finds shelter for a short chunk of the film with a group of survivalists led by Jorge (Giancaro Esposito who you will easily recognize for his role as Gus in Breaking Bad) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). Patricia Clarkson is back once again as the leader of the WCKD organization that is after the kids, and in this sequel we are introduced to her right hand man, Janson (Aidan Gillen from Game of Thrones). The new additions elevated the film as I found these new characters much more appealing than the previous returnees. Esposito being my favorite addition, and he should be involved in more movies because he's such a talented actor. Despite the new additions I did find the action scenes a bit tiresome. There is one scene where Thomas states he's tired of running, and it perfectly summed up how I was feeling. The open endings are also a problem with this franchise as you don't get any closure and are forced to wait for the next film to find answers.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
A clichéd prison film that is saved by Eastwood's performance
"Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket, and I was specially chosen to make sure that the stink from the basket does not escape."
When it comes to prison films the first movie that comes to mind is Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption. It ranks on some popular online sites as one of the best films ever made, so when I finally got a chance to watch Don Siegel's 1979 prison movie I was underwhelmed. The greatest problem is that this film hasn't aged well and these characters are all playing familiar stereotypes. Modern prison films have captured the right atmosphere where you actually believe most prisoners are criminals and not just victims of a system. They're dark, gruesome films, and above all they feel genuine. Even popular TV shows have managed to give us a much more raw sense of prison life. But you don't get any of that from watching this film because almost every prisoner in this movie is presented as a victim. I had a hard time believing these characters were actual prisoners and the interactions among them were predictable and cheesy. Don Siegel had worked with Clint Eastwood since the late 60's, but it had been several years since they had last collaborated together. Escape from Alcatraz was their fifth film together and despite its success it was there last collaboration. Clint Eastwood had long solidified his career as a star and he basically comes into this film playing himself. He isn't given much of a personality other than being the quiet and reserved prisoner who you know is smarter than anyone around him simply because he's Eastwood. He is so slow at delivering every one-liner that you can predict everything he is going to answer back to whoever tries to intimidate him. I was surprised the screenplay was so predictable, but Eastwood has such strong charisma that you just enjoy the way he delivers the lines even though you know exactly what he's going to say.
Escape from Alcatraz, which was based on J. Campbell Bruce's book of the same name, was inspired on true events. Richard Tuggle, who would later go on to direct Eastwood in another film, adapted the screenplay and did some research of his own on the 1962 escape attempt of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers. The film begins very silently (there is hardly any dialogue during the first 10 minutes) as Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is being escorted by officers to the Alcatraz prison. The long ride to the prison cell and the extreme security measures give us a sense of how improbable it is for someone to escape the prison, but Frank is determined and seems to have the IQ for the task. In case he didn't receive the message, the warden (Patrick McGoohan) gives him a friendly reminder that he will never leave the island because no one has ever been able to escape. He is later introduced to some of the other prisoners: English (Paul Benjamin), who works at the library and exchanges a couple of friendly racial insults with him, Litmus (Frank Ronzio) the prisoner who enjoys the company of his mouse (such a cliché now for prison movies) and is always bargaining with Frank for his dessert, Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer) the bully in the prison who wants Frank to be his pet, and Butts (Larry Hankin) who is in the cell next to his. Frank realizes that the salt in the water has eroded some of the walls and he comes up with an escape plan that he shares with Butts. When two brothers, John (Fred Ward) and Clarence Anglin (Jack Thibeau), arrive at the prison Frank realizes he can use their help as well and the four come up with a plan. The suspense begins to grow as the film centers on their escape attempt.
The film works much better when it focuses on the escape plan because the characters aren't really developed too well and the interactions between them are painfully dull at times. None of the prisoners have a personality of their own and every subplot is simply used as a filler. Once the escape plan gets underway however the film works at a much better pace. Eastwood is a star and he can turn any one dimensional character into someone compelling, which he manages to do here. Any attempt to give the rest of the characters something compelling to do fails. You could care less about the threat that the Wolf or the warden present to Frank, and the bonds he makes in prison aren't very interesting either. The scenes he shares with English were pointless. Larry Hankin is probably the only other sympathetic character here. The lack of character development kind of lowers the stakes of the actual escape, but Eastwood manages to make it compelling nonetheless. The tension escalates in the second half of the film and makes the experience worthwhile, but overall I felt underwhelmed by this classic.
Williams and De Niro deliver moving and touching performances
"People have forgotten what life is all about. They've forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded."
Following the huge success of her 80's comedy, Big, director Penny Marshall decided to approach a much more sensitive and serious subject matter in her next film based on Oliver Sacks' semi-biographical book about his work in a ward with patients in catatonic state. Robin Williams was cast to play Dr. Sacks, although the character's name was changed to Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a shy doctor who prior to have been hired at the ward had very little experience working with patients. He was obsessed with researching and doing lab work, but those skills came in handy when he began treating the catatonic patients at the ward. He discovered that several of the patients that had been in the ward for decades had one thing in common: they had survived a rare form of encephalitis, but the disease left them in their current catatonic state. Most of the doctors believed there was no treatment for these patients, but he began to discover that some of them responded to certain stimuli. Not giving up on them, he decides to attend a lecture where he discovers a new drug that had been effective on patients suffering from Parkinson's, and he believes it might just help awake his patients as well.
Casting Robin Williams for the role and having released this only two years after the commercial success of Big, one could easily have expected this to be a comedy, but casting Robert De Niro as the other lead easily put to rest that assumption. De Niro had also worked on Goodfellas the same year as this and he continued to be at the prime of his career. In Awakenings he plays Leonard Lowe, one of the patients who has remained in the same state for nearly four decades and who is still being cared for by his mother, Mrs. Lowe (Ruth Nelson), at the clinic. With the approval of the other doctors at the ward and Leonard's mother, he is chosen for a trial run with the drug. It doesn't take too long for Dr. Sayer to see the results he was expecting as Leonard seems to wake up from his catatonic state. The two begin to form a special bond and the positive results induce Sayer to test the drug on the rest of the patients in the ward in a similar way. As we become witnesses of Leonard's awakening we also begin to see life through his eyes as someone who feels he has lost so many years and now wants to enjoy life to the fullest. His awakening serves the reclusive Doctor as a reminder to begin living life and enjoying human interaction. There is a sub plot revolving his relationship with a nurse from the ward played by Julie Kavner, but the main theme is Sayer's relationship with these patients.
Marshall's film was nominated for Best Picture, and just like her previous movie it also earned a nomination for the lead actor, De Niro. De Niro does a superb job playing this awakened catatonic patient, and it is evident that he did his homework and studied every single facial and body tic of the real patients. Sacks had filmed his patients in real life during their awakening periods and so there was a lot of material they had to work with. Robin Williams plays a much more restrained character than what we were used to seeing him do, so his performance might not seem as delightful as his other films but he delivers a solid dramatic turn. The third nomination that the film received was for Steven Zaillian's adapted screenplay which was powerful. He didn't win the Oscar for this film, but he went on to win it two years later for his work in Schindler's List. Spielberg said it was his adaptation in Awakenings that earned him the job for his film. This movie is emotional and touching without being manipulative because it sticks to the true story which was definitely one that had to be told in the big screen.