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7 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Ah! January at the movies; when theaters exude the hangover of Christmas leftovers, Oscar hopefuls and a small number of vacuous lackadaisical new releases that weren't good enough to get a release in the other 11 months on the calendar. This has become the spawning ground for your average negligible PG-13 horror movie, the kind of lazy nonsense guaranteed to play an empty theater. The burnt offering for 2017: The Bye Bye Man, a movie so forgettable that large chunks of the film have already left my brain as I struggle to write this review.

The movie is too uninteresting to be terrible, yet so unoriginal as to be almost cute. It has a plot that feels like a patchwork quilt, sewn together from the pieces and parts of other horror movies and, worse, a PG-13 rating that is so in force here that when a person is shot with a shotgun, there is no blood. What blood exists in rest of the film is dyed black for no reason. Added to that, the movie's sole sex scene is edited so badly that we can only deduce that sexual congress is in session because we hear a second or two of moaning. Who was this movie made for? Throughout the movie I got the feeling that maybe I accidentally got a television edit. Surely not one would intentionally make a movie this choppy and nonsensical. I have too much faith in mankind.

Not that you give a rat's ass, but there's a plot in place here. It opens with a flashback scene to 1969 wherein a panicky man runs around his neighborhood asking neighbors if they've said a particular name out loud. When they confess that they have, he produces a shotgun and goes on a rampage.

Cut to the present day wherein in we meet three uninteresting college students, Elliot (Doug Smith), Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and John (Lucien Laviscount) who are moving off-campus to rent a house so spacious that their parents must be shelling out wads of cash to provide. The kids can barely get in the door when weird things begin to happen. Sasha develops an alarming cough; Elliot finds money that seems to disappear and reappear; and John finds a nightstand with the words "Don't Say It. Don't Think It" scribbled inside the drawer. The trio begins seeing things, such as a bizarre cloak in the corner of the bedroom that could easily have been shoved in the closet or thrown away but is, instead, left around because, hey, this movie has to have its fake-out. Right?

Standard to the formula Elliot does some research in the library, but he does it via the weakest search engine in the history of mankind. Seriously, when he types in "Bye Bye Man" he gets 0 results. How many times have you gotten 0 results for anything on search engine. Even more quizzical is that when he types "Don't Say It. Don't Think It" he gets 1 result. What search engine is this?

Anyway, he unearths the information that if you say the words "Bye Bye Man" it will summon a demon that will alter your perception of the world around you. It's one of those things where you're so scared by the illusion that you end up doing something tragic in real life. Yeah, it's that old dodge.

Late in the film The Bye Bye Man does show up. He's a tall, zombie-like being with bone white skin and long fingers. What he does when he corners his victims is a real head scratcher. Apparently, his MO is to walk up to this intended victim and . . . wiggle his finger in their face. Trust me, it makes even less sense when you're watching it. And of course, the major question mark about The Bye Bye Man is that he's played by Doug Jones of Pan Labyrinth and Hellboy and the mother ghost in Crimson Peak. What is he doing in this movie? Heck, what am I doing in this movie?

I never knew 98 minutes could feel like an eternity. The movie has a trajectory and it goes there via a lazy screenplay that is hammered together with the bare minimum of effort. But its harmless. PG-13 harmless. "Goosebump" harmless. I won't be able to bring myself to put it on the list of the worst films of the year next January. It would be like kicking a puppy.
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1941 (1979)
A more appropriate name would be "Steven's Folly."
6 June 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I suppose that every great director has to have at least one movie that tests the patience of the audience. For Spielberg, that was a comedy misfire known simply as 1941. Perched uncomfortably in his filmography between Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was a bizarre free-for-all that started at level 10 and never never dropped for a moment. This was a noisy, relentless, overbearing bit of comedy tripe so obnoxious that Spielberg would later claim that audience members at the first test screening were holding their hands over their ears.

Set amid the paranoia of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the focuses a group of misfits in Southern California, 1941 doesn't really have a plot structure so much as a gaggle of insane characters let loose on each other to do apparently whatever they like within the span of 90 minutes. The problem, I discovered, is that none of the comedy sticks. It's just a series of nutty people allowed to say and do whatever they please in a sort of war-time version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The comic invention is to gather together all sorts of wonderful actors, both serious and comic, and let them run around like idiots and make a lot of noise. This, a comedy does not make.

Comedy has to have rules, it has to have structure, it has to have set up and payoff. Even the Marx Brothers' brand on insanity was written and rewritten, rehearsed and re-rehearsed. It was perfected down to the last detail so it seemed to come from their guts. That's not the case here.

The movie has a cult status that I don't understand. I sat stone-faced through this whole production. Not just stone-faced, but also frustrated as I watch a bilious amounts of comic invention burn on the screen. It is one of those movies where you sense that it might have been funny in the moment, on the set, or in the screen writing sessions. But when you're sitting there watching joke after joke fall over and die, you are left with the inevitable question, "what's the point of all this?"
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In 300 years . . .
3 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
The best compliment ever bestowed upon Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I believe, came from its star Richard Dreyfuss. "This is the only film that I've ever done that I know will be studied in 300 years," he said. Standing back and looking at the full spectrum of Spielberg's work, I can only think of three films that will be that important: Jaws, for what it did for popular American culture, Schindler's List because of its great vision of human tragedy and triumph, and Close Encounters because of its overwhelmingly positive vision of inter-species communication across space and time.

Yet, of all of the films that Steven Spielberg has ever made, this is the one that is the most far-reaching. Others get mired in the moment but this one looks at the broader picture, not of an individual but of the entire universe. What would happen if an alien civilization wanted to communicate with the human race? How would they do it? What signals would they send us? How would we set up a meeting? Sadly, that's a radical idea. Every other movie about aliens from Alien to Predator to Independence Day to Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes the easy road of having brain-suckers who want to turn us into food or slaves. Even Spielberg fell into that trap three decades later with his wobbly remake of War of the Worlds. But why? Why imagine that aliens would fly trillions or centillions of miles across infinite space to our tiny blue marble just to turn us into a midnight snack? Based on the larger view of the universe, that seems painfully narrow-minded.

What is so admirable about Close Encounters is that it isn't in a mad rush to get to the big picture. It wants to wonder, to ponder, to build a mystery, to allow us to get excited by the notion that something is calling us out to a distant location because it simply wants to bridge the universal gap, and it does that by bridging the communication gap by talking to us telepathically. That's a big, bold idea if you think about it, it is one that hasn't really been explored since.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released just six months after George Lucas gave us Star Wars. The great achievement of both is that they, along with Kubrick's 2001, elevated the science fiction to an epic scale. The took sci-fi out of the doldrums of 50s $10 quickies and make it respectable. They made it fun, they made it work by taking it seriously.

Both Close Encounters and Star Wars present radical leaps in the genre, but Spielberg's film does it in a more elegant way. If Lucas' film was a great roller coaster, then Spielberg's film was more like a symphony. It's got light and color and music and magic. You can imagine the last half hour of this movie as a great symphonic experience. It's like nothing he, or anyone else, ever had the nerve or the vision to explore again. Luckily, it has lasted and will last, as Dreyfuss suggested, for another 300 years.
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Jaws (1975)
A very happy accident in the shape of a killer shark.
2 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Jaws is a happy accident. For what must have been a hellish production, Spielberg's first box office megahit came together in spite of itself. Here was a movie that by all accounts should have been a disaster. It was based on a clunky, overwritten pulp novel; the plot was thin; it was being directed by a young film director best known for a TV movie; It starred a broken mechanical shark that had so much downtime that it only appears on the screen for ten minutes.

Jaws did best by what it did least. Spielberg became a master in allowing our emotions and our imaginations to meet the movie halfway, and that inspiration was born out of the fact that for much of the movie we never see the shark. If we did, we'd grow tired of seeing it and the urgency of the story wouldn't be so strong. Much of what we see of the shark comes from other points of view. The opening scene, featuring a shark attack of a young woman, never shows the shark but it exists in our brains. And yet, we aren't on the shore, we're in the water with this girl as if we're swimming a few feet away. That's the power of this movie. Later, when Alex Kintner is killed, we see blood, we see the raft, and we see the attack out on the horizon behind the other swimmers. Was that a tail? Was that the shark? Was it the kid? What's happening? This movie works best on our expectations.

One of my favorite shots takes place in the middle of the film, during the fourth of July holiday when the local sheriff has tried to warn the county officials that opening the beaches for the holiday is likely to be a disaster. It is. A man in a boat is killed while the sheriff's son is injured. The boy is unconscious and is dragged ashore by some other swimmers. The way the moment is shot, the camera follows and for just a split second we aren't sure if the kid still has feet or if they've been bitten off.Those kinds of visual tricks create moments that intrigue us. If we saw the attacks, if we were present, the movie would lose us. Those are the tricks that kept the audience coming back over and over.

There is a lot of downtime in Jaws away from the shark. How many shark attacks can we handle in two hours? That time is filled with the human characters that fit the situation like a glove. We meet Brody (Roy Scheider) a city boy, a new sheriff in Martha's Vinyard whose come up from New York and hates the water. We meet an Ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a wealthy know-it-all who knows sharks inside and out both from his passion and from books. We meet the town's mayor whose understandable denial of the situation is born on the fact that the town needs revenue from the tourists. There's Brody's wife, every bit her husband's equal, a woman who cares about her husband and children but is more than just a token wife. I treasure the moment when they're alone and she casually flirts with her husband: "Wanna get drunk and fool around?" Even the smaller roles seem to have meat on them. This is one of those great movies, like The Godfather, in which the supporting players and the extras seem to have been cast because of their memorable faces. They don't seem like actors, they seem like real people who just wandered in front of the camera.

And then there's Quint, played in a magnificent performance by the late Robert Shaw as a latter-day Captain Ahab, whose beef with the shark is decades old and laid out in an intricate story so mesmerizing that we hang on his every word. He escaped a shark attack years ago, but many of his Navy buddies did not. Now, he wants a shark this shark and he's ready to wreck his own boat to get it. We see him with fire in his eyes, running his boat to the extreme and even smashing the radio to keep Brody from called in "a bigger boat." He's really what drives the movie's third act, running on a pulverizing blind obsession that eventually consumes him.

Without human interaction Jaws would fall on its face. This could have been just a monster movie whose only destination might have been late night television. Shark attack stories are hard to tell. How many shark movies have been a success before or after Jaws? Even the sequels decline sharply in quality after this (none involved Spielberg). Jaws 2 was entertaining but basically unnecessary. Jaws 3D was a silly excuse for 3D, and Jaws: The Revenge? . . . . ick! To experience the film now, four decades later, is to understand how movies have changed, and what changes Jaws created. Along with Star Wars two years later, it would forever turn the industry on its head. After the new breed of young directors took over Hollywood in the late 60s, the movies were a times of dark subject matter and filmmaking on a personal level. This was the era of personal filmmaking from which emerged talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and of course, Spielberg himself. Jaws and Star Wars put that era to bed.

Spielberg's filmography is a tapestry of some of the greatest works of popular American culture from the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. The enduring legacy of Jaws was created, as I said, as the result of a very happy accident that came in the shape of a killer shark.
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Never really grabs at the heartstrings it is reaching for.
1 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
n 1974, Spielberg finally stepped out of television work and into the major leagues. His first theatrical feature had a good deal in common with Duel in that it is another wall-to-wall car chase, only this time the results were far more human.

Based on a true story, The Sugarland Express follows Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Clovis (William Atherton), whom she convinces to walk away from the pre-release program after several years on a prison stretch from which he is about to be released. She's desperate because their two-year old son Langdon has been taken by The State of Texas and has been given over to a foster family.

What follows is one damned thing after another. Clovis and Lou Jean steal a car and, in a bizarre twist, end up kidnapping a good-hearted young patrolman named Slide (Michael Sacks). Meanwhile the police don't want to upset the couple since they have Slide at gunpoint. The two become national heroes to the public and prey for local gun-nuts.

It takes some time to sink in, but as your watch the film you get the feeling that the themes of The Sugarland Express are ahead of their time. The idea of two fugitives on the lam on a mission of mercy whose plight captivates the public is more current now then it was in 1974. Lou Jean and Clovis become darlings of the media even though what they're doing is wreckless and unlawful.

For me, while it has noble intentions, it is problematic at a very base level. Yes, it's based on a true story, but it asks us to accept fundamental flaws that keep us from really getting involved in the story. I suppose that when the movie was made, it was during a time when outlaws were seen by the public as heroes. The image of authority figures had been tainted by the police beatings of demonstrators in the 1960s and by a nationwide trucker strike in the early 70s. The Sugarland Express seems to be feeding that legacy, yet it fails to win us over because fundamentally we are not on the same page as the movie. Clovis and Lou Jean could easily have worked the system without going on the lam so their ill-advised decision keeps us at odds with their plight.

Plus, the chase goes on for days and days when in reality it might have gone on for maybe a day. By this point we've seen so many police dash-cam videos that let us know how the police work in this situation that it seems impossible that such a thing could drag on as long as it does. But, maybe that's not the point, maybe this is supposed to be seen as an outlaw fantasy. I could buy that if it weren't based on a true story. This is a technically good movie with an interesting premise that just never really grabs at the heartstrings it is reaching for.
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Duel (1971 TV Movie)
Duel announced an important new voice.
31 March 2016
Warning: Spoilers
If I say that I feel a deep connection to Spielberg's work, I'm not exaggerating. His first feature premiered on ABC television, on November 13, 1971, exactly one day before I was born. This means nothing beyond the fact that I feel lucky that I've been following his work all my life, and it is interesting that his films came to the public just at the moment that I came into the world.

After working in television for a number of years, directing episodes of "Night Gallery", "Marcus Welby", and the very first episode of "Columbo", Spielberg got the chance to direct his first feature, and it wasn't some snoozer drama, it was an action movie that was right up his alley.

Duel was a hard-nosed, unsympathetic chase picture, a road adventure centered on tired salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) who is driving across the California desert to an appointment when he has an unfortunate encounter with a mysterious truck driver who's annoying driving habits are at first irritating, but quickly turn dangerous.

Across the western plains, Mann tries and tries to out-drive, outmaneuver and outsmart the hulking Peterbilt truck, but at almost every turn he is outsmarted. Trying to turn into the mountains does nothing to deter his opponent. Neither does pulling into a restaurant to wait it out. All the while the truck waits around every turn.

How this simple story resolves itself is not surprising, but what is surprising is how well Spielberg ramps up the tension. By never showing the truck driver, we the viewer psychologically begin to feel that Mann isn't being menaced by the driver but by the truck itself. Like the shark in Jaws, there's a crafty quality about it. While it does nothing outside of the plain of reality, we feel its presence as it bears down on Mann's tiny Plymouth Valiant.

You can see Duel in a lot of Spielberg's later work. The truck is a reminder of the shark in Jaws. The chase itself is representative of the Indiana Jones pictures. The every-man quality of the Dennis Weaver character is evocative of the characters that were to come such as the three men in Jaws; Roy Neary in Close Encounters; Indiana Jones and just about every character that Tom Hanks has played. There's nothing superhuman about David Mann, he's just an ordinary guy that we can relate to.

Spielberg's best films always have two realities – one in the center and one on the outer edges. The story in the center is the chase between man and machine. The story at the outer edges is a commentary on the times. This was 1971, a moment in American history just off of a decade of protest, violence, assassinations and war. At this moment, in this particular year, The Vietnam War was still burning, The Manson Family went to prison and the American public had become jaded about the promise of their beloved country. Even television was upended that year with the cynicism of "All in the Family." What Duel represents is the jaded vision of another great institution: the American highway. Here were all the fear and paranoia of the times wrapped up in a 75 minute story of a failed salesman who couldn't get behind the wheel and drive across the country without being menaced by a psychopath. That's the bad news. The good news is that Duel announced an important new voice. At a time when the movies themselves were growing darker and more cynical, Duel was the alarm bell that a great director was on the horizon.
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Much too much heavy machinery . . .
21 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
There is a distinct dividing line between the Fun Spielberg and the Serious Spielberg. Ever since "Schindler's List" back in 1993, I feel that his fun pictures have suffered in the wake of his desire to be taken more seriously. The last time he achieved greatness with his fun pictures was "Jurassic Park." And the first of his lackluster "fun pictures" was "The Lost World." I remember seeing "The Lost World" on opening weekend back in 1997, and I remember that it left me cold. What I remember is that when I left the theater I didn't remember much about it at all, and I think I commented that this would not go down as one of Spielberg's more memorable pictures. I was right and in revisiting that movie I think I have a better idea of why it's more or less forgotten.

The dinosaurs in "The Lost World" are supporting players in their own movie. They seem to be more or less background filler in a movie where the foreground is filled with a lot of heavy machinery; cages, guns, gadgets, cars, trucks, boats. It's like a Hot Wheel movie. And the characters aren't that interesting either, there's a lot of machismo given to a mostly male cast that looks and sounds basically interchangeable. Jeff Goldblum, whom I consider a treasure, is relegated to the role of "I told you so," which is a note that he plays over and over.

The story could work. I like the idea of a Jurassic Park safari hunt. We get a little of that but most of the movie is shot at night in the dark with a lot of negligible characters running around in the woods and in the grass.

But the biggest problem is that there is the movie has no sense of wonder. There's no sense of loving these creatures. There's no scene here that matches or equals the majesty of the first time we saw the Brachiosaurus in "Jurassic Park." Everything here is cold and efficient and kind of mean-spirited. Not to mention forgettable. Seeing it again last night I realized that while the movie opens well, it quickly degenerates into a retread of the earlier movie. "The Lost World" feels like a movie that Spielberg was contracted to make. Like "Crystal Skull," it never feels like a movie that he wanted to make. It's like his mind was somewhere else.
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Have a hard time hating this one . . .
21 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
There was a moment when "The Phantom Menace" was the movie that burrowed under everyone's skins and made them cry out to the heavens. Yet, I noticed that as time went on, that mantel shifted to "Attack of the Clones." For whatever reason, this has now become the whipping post for all of George Lucas' perceived failures. To be honest, I can see where they're coming from, but based on what I saw back in 2002 when this movie came out, few back then seemed to hold that opinion. Nowadays they decry and claw at this movie as the low point in the Star Wars lore.

Are they right? Sort of. "Attack of the Clones" is certainly a deeply flawed film. It's too long. It has structure problems. It has pacing problems. It drags in many spots. It has far too many attempts at fan gratification. It's overloaded with too much CGI. And of course there's the dialogue. Written by Lucas and with no help from anyone else, the dialogue here is flat, dull, bland and colorless, and that sinks a lot of the drama. Yet, I wonder if the public reaction would have been so vitriolic if the dialogue had been better because underneath its problems, "Attack of the Clones" does tell a good story.

It is the story of an angry kid who sees that the entire universe is dead-set against him. He wants to go his own way, but can't have it. He wants Padme in his life, but can't have her. He wants to have a family but can't have it. Everything in Anakin's life seems to be slipping right through his fingers. The course of destiny always seems to work against him, and that makes a dangerous and already frustrated kid even more dangerous. Everyone can see it but him. It's a story we can all relate to. You had problems and frustrations as a kid and you were surrounded by adults who you felt were holding you back. That's a universal theme. The problem is that the dialogue wrings out a lot of the emotional weight.

My objections to "Attack of the Clones", however, take a backseat to sentimentality. This was the first movie that my wife and I saw together. So, flaws and all, I look at the movie with great memories of a time when I met the person that I would spend my life with. So, maybe I have rose-colored glasses about this movie but it means something more to me then to the average person. Do I hate the film? Certainly not. Much like "The Phantom Menace" I try and find the spaces in between, the areas of great achievement in the film (it's there, trust me) and those moments when Lucas got it absolutely right. It is flawed, it's imperfect, but there's a story here worth telling. You just have to get through George's dialogue to get there.
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8/10
The wages of sin is death . . .
5 January 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Picture in your mind the output of a Quentin Tarantino movie if it were written by Agatha Christie. Try and imagine "Ten Little Indians" wrapped in reams of Tarantino-style dialogue and splattered with buckets of blood and guts and there you have the idea of The Hateful Eight, a retro spaghetti western that's as brilliant as it is brutal. After 20 years, Tarantino is still the most creative filmmaker that we have, a director who mines cinema's past while making it all seem fresh and new. How well does it work? Let me put it this way, it was nice that when I finally tore myself away from Star Wars that Tarantino would be there waiting with one of the best films of the year.

The Hateful Eight is, essentially, a Bottle Movie. For three hours, it traps eight worthless human beings in a cabin in the midst of a blizzard of Biblical proportions and lets them do what despicable people do, especially when they all have guns. It opens staggeringly with the vision of a wooden stake carved into the image of Christ on the cross. If the Bible reminds us that the wages of sin is death, then the sinners at the center of this story should not be surprised by their fate.

The movie takes place somewhere in 19th century Wyoming at a time when the wounds of The Civil War are no longer bleeding, but the scars – emotionally and literally – still sting. In the midst of this blizzard we begin with a traveler and his companion riding a horse-drawn stagecoach to a place called Red Rock. The man is a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and the woman is his bounty, a beleaguered soul named Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ruth never stops reminding us, or her, that she has a date with the hangman's noose.

Along the way Ruth's stagecoach comes across a wayward traveler, a fellow tracker named Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth recognizes Warren who was a highly respected Major from the Union Army. Legends of his exploits are as famous as they are infamous, but the most persistent is the legend that he carries a personal letter that he received from The Great Emancipator himself in his coat pocket – everyone wants to see it.

Possible spoilers ahead What happens along the way is far too complicated to completely explain here. Tarantino's characters are never just one thing; they have dimensions, histories, side notes, personal tics, sins, successes, and legions of enemies far and wide. The destination for these travelers is a place that might have been a rest stop on the way to damnation itself, a far-flung haberdashery with more amenities then these people probably deserve. What's waiting there brings tension all around: A charming Englishman named Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet drunken gunslinger named Gage (Michael Madsen), a wet-behind-the-ears sheriff (Walter Goggins), a former Confederate General named Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a narrow-eyed Mexican stable man named Senor Bob (Damien Bicheir). All of these characters seem to know each other, if not personally then by reputation. One of the greatest achievements in this screenplay by Tarantino is that every character is given a full backstory, not quirks, not traits, a history. We learn not only their names, but their sins as well. Each has a story to tell, each has a mean-streak ten miles wide, and each will pay greatly for it.

Right away we sense that something is happening at this tiny haberdashery but we aren't exactly sure what. We can sense it the moment that the stagecoach arrives at the front door. There are clues and questions: Why is there are piece of candy on the floor? Why is one of the chairs covered in fur coats? Why does the Mexican stable man seem so distant? Why is the latch on the front door missing? It is Warren who pieces things together. He notices things that the others seem to overlook, and he who controls tries to control a situation that threatens to become a bloodbath. Little by little, piece by piece the mystery of this wayward store begins to reveals its mysteries. That leads to a great virtuoso scene with Sam Jackson at the center doing what he does best.

Much more of this story I cannot reveal. Much more of this story I could not reveal. It's so complex yet so approachable and so engaging. We're there every second even though 90% of the movie takes place in the same room. We're so interested in these people because Tarantino always makes them interesting. He creates a gaggle of horrible people who have done horrible things and watches them all get their comeuppance one by one. The story's sense of moral decay has put off many critics, but I won't go there. I feel that I'm looking at Tarantino's vision of Hell on Earth, a place so placid, forbidding and dark, and filled with nasty – yet, interesting characters – that deserve each other. This is one of the best films of the year.
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Yeah, it has problems, but the force is still with this series . . .
18 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
It is difficult to be blasé about Star Wars if you are one of the millions who live with George Lucas' seminal epic rattling around in your brain. Even if you aren't, even if you're only a casual bystander, you still cannot deny that Star Wars is an experience, something special, a mythology given to those of us who were lucky enough to have spent our formative years in the last third of the twentieth century. It is fashionable to make fun of it, but those who dismiss it overlook its impact. Look at the movies you've been attending for the last three decades; look at the video games; look at the storytelling. It owes something to Star Wars.

Alas, George Lucas. Once thought master of all he surveyed, the architect of an enterprise that worked because he was surrounded by talented people. With he prequels, he went alone and stumbled badly with a new series that did not meet factory standards and left the public reeling from the revelation that the emperor had no clothes.

When Lucas retired three years ago and handed the property off to Disney, it was the best thing that could have happened, especially since the man he handpicked to direct the next generation was a Star Wars fan himself. It is obvious that J.J. Abrams has a deep passion for Lucas' cinematic mythology.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a red-blooded adventure, teeming with heavy atmosphere; filled with dread and wonderment, action and suspense, wondrous and fearsome creatures, magic and mayhem, but most importantly the human element. Abrams opens up the world of Star Wars and digs into its buried myths, reminding us that – in this world – the legacies of good and evil are generational, and are based in very human qualities.

From this point on, Spoilers! Thirty-Two years after the Empire was toppled by teddy bears, the galaxy has been marinating in its own turmoil. The Jedi, the Sith, the Death Star (and probably the teddy bears) are now myth and legend. Luke is missing and remnants of the Empire are reorganizing into a new regime that makes the old one look like a kindergarten class – there's a moment when the leader of the new regime addresses his troops in a setting that is uncomfortably close to footage of the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, including their own brand of Seig Heil. The new Empire is looking for the pieces of a map that will aid them in destroying the one power in the universe that could overthrow them. The last piece of the map is housed inside the bulbous little droid named BB-8 whose head rolls around his round little body, giving expressions that R2-D2 never could.

A trio of new heroes become the last hope: a tough-as-nails scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a celebrated X-Wing pilot named Po (Oscar Isaacs), and a conscientious objector named Finn (John Boyega) who sheds his stormtrooper armor when he suddenly wakes up one morning to find that he's grown a conscience. The new characters don't feel that they've been grafted onto the story. They are part of it, even if they don't know or understand the entire set of circumstances in which they find themselves. Noteworthy too is their diversity. Women, blacks, aliens get a stake in a series that has traditionally been almost completely white.

The center of the evil plan is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) whose motivations could have come from Shakespeare. Soliloquizing over the melted mask of Darth Vader, he vows to bring back the glory days of the Sith. He's a force to be reckoned with, yet he's got a lot to learn. His youth, petulance and inexperience are present. He makes mistakes and when he does, he's prone to tearing a room apart with his lightsaber.

These new characters are interesting because they seem to be part of the world they inhabit. And their journey is helped along by the elders who have seen it all. Yes, Han and Chewie and Leia are here but they aren't just cameos. They are the human link to what has come before. What's so wonderful about The Force Awakens is that you feel that this isn't just a carbon copy of the original Star Wars, rather you feel that you're visiting other parts of this universe that you haven't seen before. For my money, there is no new character in the movie more interesting than a diminutive pirate Maz Kanata (played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o), an orange-skinned pirate whose eyes can apparently see into your soul. There is a lot of wonderment to this character and plenty of echoes of Yoda, though she still feels new.

One thing that Abrams and his writers improve upon is Han Solo. As fun as the character was in the original trilogy, he wasn't much of a character beyond his machismo. Here he has an arc; he's given a sense of purpose. He isn't just wise cracks. Mistakes have been made in the past and we see in his deeply-lined face that they have plagued him for years. The development of his character is at the deepest heart of this story.

Is it a perfect Star Wars movie? No. Is it a great Star Wars movie? You bet. One of the most tickling things about this movie is the simple fact that this is a movie that was never supposed to exist. Lucas maintained for years that there would be no Episode 7 but, of course, time makes fools of us all. Here it is. It's not a prequel, it's not a spin-off. It's the movie that we waited 32 years to see and it is probably as good as it ever could be. We've waited on pins and needles for this new installment, and here is an ending that leaves us thirsty for even more. It's gonna be great, I can feel it.
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Steve Jobs (2015)
A well-made three-act play . . .
15 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
There was a time when, upon leaving the house, I never walked out without my wallet and my keys. After the revolution of Steve Jobs, it grew to include my iPod which contains not only my music but also podcasts, lectures, documentaries and anything else that makes the drollery of my drive to work into an intellectual awakening. Yes, Jobs changed the world, and personally changed my world – and, admit it, he personally changed your world too. He wanted to free our computers from the confines of the wall socket, and make them smaller, faster and portable. Far from the paranoia of the HAL 9000, he wanted to make the future an inviting and warm place technologically, to push the future forward and make us see our portable devices as a friend. He understood what it took to make us happy. He was the master of supply and demand, supplying a demand for a product that we didn't even know that we wanted yet.

Ever since he passed away four years ago, biographers have been trying to pin down this man who bore the appearance of a wise, friendly showman on stage, a man whose innovations and beautiful mind put him in the same ranks as Edison, Tesla, Bell, Da Vinci, and The Wright Brothers. Yet, like Edison, he had a cold and bitter manner. It was said that he could be officious, dismissive and even cruel. That's the image that biographers are trying to wrap their heads around, the man who wanted the public to see their devices as a friend had few warm human interactions with those in his inner circle.

Danny Boyle's bio-pic Steve Jobs probably comes as close as anyone is likely to get with a storytelling narrative to who Jobs was personally. If you want a story closer to the bone, watch the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine from earlier this year. It intended to break apart Jobs' cult of personality and find out what made him tick. Steve Jobs does the same thing, and maybe has a much more cold-blooded vantage point. It was tempting to want to soften his image, to give Jobs a reverent quality of a genius who simply out-guessed and out-thought those around him. Yet, while Danny Boyle's biopic does what it can to celebrate his genius, it never shies away from making him look like a schmuck, which if you believe his underlings, it not that far from the truth (I can believe it since Wozniak was a consultant on the movie).

That's the key to the movie. It never backs away from the cold, bitterness of Steve Jobs. As played in a wonderful performance Michael Fassbender, we are introduced to a man who is driven beyond all reason to make a product that will change the world, but it is not without cost. He's cold and mean to those around him. He argues every minute detail – the movie opens as he is berating his chief architect Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to get Mac to say "Hello" five minutes before it is due to be unveiled. Meanwhile backstage he denies the parentage of his 8 year-old daughter Lisa whom he doesn't even acknowledge until he sees her working on Mac Paint. She's a prodigy, much like her old man. Lisa is played in three wonderful performances by three different actresses who imbue Lisa with a kind of wise-beyond-her-years intelligence. Who wouldn't want a daughter like this? Jobs' prickly relationship with Lisa extends to all around him. Aaron Sorkin's script is wall-to-wall with words as Jobs tries to push his vision forward at the expense of personal relationships. In board rooms, in hallways, in stairwells, he gets into it with colleagues, with is long-suffering marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels); and most importantly his best friend Steve Wozniak, played in a surprisingly touching performance by Seth Rogan.

The wordiness of the script is off-set by Danny Boyle's visual style. We find ourselves in a heated conversation between Jobs and his collaborators that take place in the present but the movie will suddenly cut back to an earlier conversation from a few years before so that what was said then builds the suspense and surprise of what is said now. It makes the wordy script more than just conversation; it turns it into an exciting narrative. Boyle also makes the effort to make the three different eras – 1984, 1988 and 1998 – all look different by shooting first in 16mm then in 35mm and then in digital so that we mentally know which time period we're in.

But all the filmmaking skill doesn't override the human element. Jobs is an extremely difficult man to warm up to. Watching his interactions with those around him we are challenged to wonder if he was a misunderstood genius or an egotistical narcissist who took more interest in computer chips than human relations. Michael Fassbender is really the reason to see this movie. He's wonderful actor who is best at playing complicated and often distant men – everyone from the slave owner in 12 Years a Slave to the sex addict in Shame, to the god-like Magneto in the X-Men prequels. We are challenged with how we feel about Steve Jobs, here. We can't possibly like how he treats his colleagues or his daughter, but we feel for him because he understands the he is a flawed man. He admits to Lisa that he is a damaged product, seeing himself as an operating system that he himself can't fix. The fact that he recognized that flaw may have been his best innovation.
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A badly structured series of unfunny episodic sketches
15 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
It occurs to me that the worst thing that can ever happen to a comedian is to reach a point at which the general audience moves from "What has happened to you?" to the lower depths of "How do you keep getting work?" Such is the commentary on Adam Sandler whose recent spate of disastrous press over his summer box office comedy Pixels have finally given his money men a wake up call that the theaters for his movies are basically empty. Why they didn't catch on to this – I don't know – 12 movies ago is beyond me.

Personally, I've never liked Sandler, even during his heyday on SNL. Yes, he sold albums and was a box office star, but he grated on my nerves. His persona reminds me of that irritating kid in English class who sat behind me and made duck noises with his arm pits while amusing himself with annoying voices. In his movies it's the same idea; the only difference is that on the screen he's getting paid $20 million for it.

Sandler is not without talent. Under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson he turned in a brilliant comic performance in Punch Drunk Love a decade ago, and more recently with Russian-born animator Genndy Tartakovsky they made Hotel Transylvania. Good pictures. Yet, he refuses to follow that same trail, and recently he has famously been using his company Happy Madison to fund movie projects so he and his friend can take trips to places he wants to go, like Africa (Blended), Las Vegas (Paul Blart 2) and Toronto (Pixels) and Hawaii (Just Go With It). Fine, but the result is that he stick his audience with movies that are destroying his already shaky reputation.

Now realizing that the movie theater is no longer a viable option to his laziness he has now taken his cinematic indifference to Netflix for a planned four-picture deal. The move does nothing to improve the quality. Entering into his first Netflix venture, a laughless chunk of indifference called The Ridiculous 6, did not fill me with confidence especially with reports that the movie was so offensive that a handful of the Native American actors simply walked off the set. I get that, but I don't find it offensive to the Native American culture so much as movies in general.

The plot is more or less superfluous. It's a parody, I guess, of every western movie from Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven all the way back to A Man Called Horse about a half-Indian man dealing his dual identity. Sandler plays White Knife, a saddle-sore who was raised by Apaches and learned superhuman fighting skills. His white father Frank Stockburn (Nick Nolte) goes missing and that puts him in contact with his five brothers: Chico (Terry Crews), Herm (Jorge Garcia), Lil' Pete (Taylor Lautner), Ramon (Rob Schneider), and Danny (Luke Wilson). That's a thin line on which to hang jokes that are either gross (one character is nicknamed "Beaver Breath") or just plain baffling – the opening credits called this The Ridiculous 6 – in 4K! What? I don't even get it.

If that didn't tickle your funny bone then the rest of the movie will leave you in stone faced indifference. We get a burro who projectile defecates. We get an extended gag in which a man scoops out his own eyeball. There's Vanilla Ice playing Mark Twain. There's one character so dumb that he thinks that babies are defecated out their mother's womb. Blake Shelton shows up as Wyatt Earp for no reason. There's baffling gag in which a man is stabbed in the leg with a carrot, which comes right after the appearance of a gang of thugs so tough that they have each removed their right eyeballs – that's funny, right? Meanwhile I sat through this movie with the strange urge to do the same thing (it has that effect on you).

And right in the middle of all this is Adam Sandler who manages to sleepwalk through this movie with a measure of indifference that made me depressed over the fact that he was getting paid. If I did that on my job, I'd be fired. His character isn't consistent – one minute he has an accent and the next minute he doesn't. Sandler's line-readings sound like he's reading from cue cards and then gives up halfway through. There's no joy of performance. He doesn't care. His scenes are lazy and unfunny and give you the basic urge to be anywhere else.

What he and his team have created here is not satire; it's a badly structured series of unfunny episodic sketches that feel like they were written by a 12 year-old with ADD. As the Native American stereotypes, I wouldn't worry so much about that because if you culled everyone who could find offense in this movie (whites, blacks, latinos, women) we'd be here all day – I guess you could call it an equal opportunity offender. I spent 119 minutes with this movie and another half hour writing this review. That's 149 minutes out of my life that I am never going to get back. You just spent 10 minutes out of your life reading this review. That's 10 minutes out of your life that you're not going to get back. Sorry about that.
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6/10
Well made, well acted. Little cold emotionally.
11 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The timing for a movie like The Danish Girl could not be more perfect. Here is the true story of Einar Wegener, the celebrated Danish artist who became the first recorded case of sex reassignment surgery in history coming out right as publicity about Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and the critically acclaimed show "Transparent" are pushing all those worn out water cooler jokes right into the trash cans of history. The movie is a loving tribute not only to Wegener's courage in trying to find his own sexual identity during a time when such a thing could easily lead to mental institution, but also to the love and devotion of his wife Gerta who stood by him during his journey of self discovery.

And yet . . . the movie left me cold.

For all its emotional outpouring, mainly from a wonderful performance by Eddie Remayne as Wegener, The Danish Girl never quite hits the high points that I was waiting for. There's an undercurrent of expression that seems buried and never hits its emotional peak. That doesn't mean that the movie isn't engaging. It is a very involving story, and very well acted, but something feels restrained.

We meet Wegener at the height of his fame in the 1920s, married to the fellow painter Gerta Gottlieb (Alicia Vikander) whose work was no less brilliant but far less successful. Einar and Gerta's marriage is loving and lovingly active. Yet, for Einar, there is some piece missing, something in his soul is stirring to get out and as the movie opens those feelings emerge one day when Gerta, short for a deadline, asks him to put on a dress to pose for her painting. That's when the dam breaks and all the things that Einar has been struggling with finally bubble to the surface.

It becomes clear that what Einar has been feeling is not so much passionate affection for his wife (which he has) but a need to be near her, and a need to be who she is. When he touches her underwear it isn't because it's sexy, but because he longs to be qualified to be in it. When he stares at women at a party, it isn't out of lust, but out of envy. Gerta is, much to our surprise, very open to this. She's willing to embrace her man's budding orientation even if it is likely to make them social outcasts. She starts painting portraits of "Lili" but doesn't tell anyone that it's her husband. They even take Lili (to which he eventually changes his name) out in public where no one ever suspects that it is really Einar.

This, naturally, does not bode well with society at large. Early in the film a doctor gets Einar to open up about his sexuality and almost immediately prescribes shock treatment, reminding us that this was a time when doctors could essentially play God, prescribing dangerous "corrective measures" or simply locking a person away with no trial, examination or good reason. Clinically, this was to be his fate until, later, he met an enterprising (and far more open minded) doctor who suggested that Einar be part of his experiments in sex reassignment. That comes at the very end of the movie and is difficult to watch when you know that it eventually claimed his life.

What works best are the performances by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander who lovingly recreate what must have been the most challenging relationship that any married couple might have had. She's accepting of her husband wearing lingerie under his suits and seems even a bit turned on. She sees it as kind of a kinky dress-up. The two start stepping out on the town together, not as husband and wife but as two girls on the town. For Gerta, this is a step that she finds that she must be forced to face, that Lili is becoming her husband's dominant personality. Naturally, she feels the weight of how odd this situation is.

The film allows us into the tight, closed-in spaces that Wegener seemed to occupy, symbolizing the confinement that he must have felt in real life. Redmayne, fresh off his Oscar win as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything gives us a performance that is achingly sad. He's a very expressive actor who always seems on the edge of bursting at the seams. And yet, like his performance as Hawking, he does wonderful work in a movie that I can't fall in love with. The film is too remote, too distance, too unwilling to engage us. The pieces are there, the story is well told but the emotional notes seem to be missing.

My other problem with the film is that while it celebrates Wegener's personal struggle it comes up very light on displaying his work. Wegener painted beautiful watercolors mostly of women and one suspects that they were all pried from personal expression. Yet, the work seems only fleeting in the movie, and I think that's a major misstep, if an artist's work in an expression of his soul then why don't we see him doing more of it? We see it, but we don't feel the passion that he poured into it. Gerta is actually the one who does more of the painting in the movie and it is never expressed why she wasn't more successful.

The Danish Girl is a movie that I struggled with. There are two beautiful performances here but I couldn't get to the emotions that I was supposed to feel. We never get to the middle of Wegener's true struggle with society at large. Yes, he's given shock treatments. Yes, he's beaten up by street thugs. But there's an element of danger missing from the film, something that I was supposed to feel but did not. This is a good and human film with greatness that is never allowed to come out.
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By the Sea (2015)
What did we do to deserve this?
11 December 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Half an hour into By the Sea, I began to get the sinking feeling the movie was actually slowing down – and that was after a slow start. I'm not being mean, I'm serious. The movie started slow, then slowed to such a crawl that I almost expected the movie to come to a dead stop. Truth be told, this movie is so dusty and dull that I was almost certain that's what was happening.

There's a sense of anticipation in every film, even the slowest of art films, in which I wait for the spark that will ignite the plot so we can get going. In the case of By the Sea, it took about an hour before I began the piece together the movie's actual purpose, and worse was the fact that it was going to be another hour before anything meaningful was going to happen.

This is an experience that I should have anticipated. By the Sea is already generating some infamy. It opened in mid-November to a weekend box office gross that didn't even top $100,000 and then took a beating from many of the critics that was equal to what Apollo Creed got from Ivan Drago. Is it worth that kind of negativity? Well . . . yes.

If By the Sea were just any other movie with a no-name cast, I probably could have dismissed it and moved on. But here are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, two beautiful people, a married couple in real life playing a married couple on screen. With that, we might expect a bit of autobiography especially since she wrote and directed the movie and they both had a hand in producing. Is it autobiographical? Lord, I hope not. I refuse to believe that these two engaging people are this dull and lifeless.

Let's start from the beginning. Somewhere in the mid-70s, Vanessa and Roland are an unhappy couple who have been enduring a loveless marriage that is now trudging into its 14th year. We can imagine that, long ago, there was a spark in their marriage that kept them together. What burned that spark out is something that we have to wait two hours to figure out.

Apparently thinking that a vacation will cure their ills they drive up to a remote French town for a stay at a hotel with a view of the Mediterranean that is breathtaking. The point, I think, is for Roland to get some writing done and for the couple to clear their heads about what is bothering them. In their room, he moves the table next to the window and sets up a typewriter then spends the rest of the movie either sleeping or chugging booze in the bar downstairs. Apparently Roland is one of those writers who spends more time telling people that he's a writer then actually writing.

Vanessa, on the other hand, does little to nothing. She sits, she broods, she walks around in big floppy hats, she looks longingly at the sea, and she's rude to other people. Something's going on her mind, something so severe that at one point she goes down to the sea and contemplates suicide. Back in the room, her only real point of interest – when she isn't fussing at Roland for drinking too much – is peeking through a hole in the wall and watching the newlyweds in the room next door.

Those are the points of interest. In between – padding a 122 minute running time – are scenes of Jolie staring at the walls or standing on the balcony staring at the Mediterranean with all the life and energy of a house cat settling in for a nap. Meanwhile he spends time talking to a friendly bartender about marriage and women – actually he has a better connection with this man then he does with his wife.

Occasionally, Vanessa and Roland spend time together but it's in an effort to avoid what ails them. Something troubling is brewing in their marriage that they won't talk about and it dawns on us that this particular problem is going to become the film's emotional climax. What is revealed is something that should have been dealt with at least a half an hour into the movie so that we didn't have to spend a long boring hour looking at people looking at things. These two beautiful nitwits spend empty hours hating each other. Doesn't that sound like fun? Recently, I revisited Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, another story of a couple dealing with disconnection. But that story hashed out their problems in the first half hour so we have time to deal with that is driving them apart. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman talked about their problem. This story uses the problem as a carrot on a stick that we wait two boring hours to get around to.

It becomes obvious early on that whatever prompted Pitt and Jolie to make this movie is probably more interesting to them then it is to us. The story is as dull as dishwater, and that's all the more frustrating because we know how spirited and engaging these two are. By the Sea is a struggle to sit through. It is less a story then a test of your patience. How long can you endure pretty pictures? How long can you endure two of the most likable actors being miserable? They're not engaging here. These two actors became movie stars because of their personalities. They've created Vanessa and Roland, two people who deserve each other, but what did we do to deserve them?
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Legend (I) (2015)
Won't exactly go down as a legendary film . . .
30 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
For a movie centering on the Kray brothers, Brian Helgeland's Legend is a menial and virtually bloodless snore. If the know that story of the brothers then you know that this is a colossal miscalculation. A story about The Kray brothers without excessive violence is like a Superman movie in which he doesn't fly. If you know something about the brothers then you'll come away merely disappointed; if you don't then you'll come away bored and indifference.

The Kray brothers, Ronald and Reginald were gangsters who ruled the London crime scene from the late 50s until their imprisonment in 1968. They were legends in their own time; brothers whose penchant for bloody violence was so much in the public consciousness that they would become a parody sketch on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" called The Piranha Brothers. Later they were the subject of a much better movie by director Peter Medak called The Krays which embraces the boy's ultra violence in a way that this movie never does.

Ronald and Reggie would change the face of gangland crime. Before the Krays, a gangster might shoot you dead or at the very least beat you up, but the Krays elevated gang violence to a level that could only be described as 'savage'. Yet, they didn't live the lives of thugs. They might destroy their rivals in a bar with swords and brass knuckles but later they would turn up at a posh nightclub looking immaculately dressed, like members of The Rat Pack. They became a problem for the police and an industry for the tabloids.

None of the exploits that made the boys famous are anywhere near the new movie Legend. The movie never really gives us a reason why the boys became so famous. Their world is said to have been plagued by violence and bloodshed but it's absent from the movie.

The story is told in narration, for no real reason, by Frances Shea (Emily Browning) who would become Reggie's wife. The twin brothers (both played by Tom Hardy) are interesting and couldn't be more different in terms of their personalities. Reggie is a cool-headed, dapper fellow who takes care of his business with words or, failing that, with a knife. Ronnie is the more Neanderthal of the two, slumped over and grumble voiced he lives in a filthy trailer in the middle of nowhere and is surprisingly open about his homosexuality.

The best part of the movie are the two performances by Tom Hardy. In any movie where an actor plays twins you always ask yourself if you believe that they are two separate individuals, and in this Hardy succeeds. The two performances are so different and blend so well that we forget we're watching the same actor. Yet, much like Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, we admire the twin performances despite the fact that we can't stand the movie.

The storytelling here is messy, to say the least. There are ideas started but never finished, plots that get going but then stop. A subplot involving the boy's offer to go into business with some American gangsters goes nowhere. We're told things about the boys that should play more interesting than they do, like the Kray's rivalry with The Robinson Brothers. That story exists around the edges of the movie but it never takes focus. Like a lot of this story it is brought up but then abandoned.

Even the violence seems muted. There is a moment when the boys enter a pub and find it populated by a group of rival gangsters. We see that Reggie is sporting brass knuckles and Ronnie is packing a pair of hammers. Yeah, there's violence, but the scene never builds to anything. There's a fight, but there's no real punch to the scene.

It is clear that Helgeland's intention was to build Legend with the kind of posh 60s energy of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, but that film was energetic and, despite the bloodshed, kind of fun. This movie never gets going and we feel that we're watching a lot of people sitting in chairs smoking and talking. When you know about how violent The Krays were, it makes you sad to watch a movie that never seems to understand why they became so infamous. Ultra violence was the Krays port of call, but this movie just seems to drift around.
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Creed (2015)
Coming Home
25 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
One of the greatest gifts that the movies can give back is the feeling of coming home. Few movies are worth the return trip, but when done right we get the joy of reuniting with old friends, catching up years later and seeing how their lives turned out. There are a few movies from my childhood that formed my passion for this crazy medium that are worth revisiting, and there are few characters that I enjoy revisiting quite like Rocky.

You'd think that by this sixth sequel the series would now be just a giant parody of itself, but Stallone reeled it back in 2006 with Rocky Balboa and he does it again here. You can feel the passion that he has for this character and his world. These movies are, if nothing else, proof that given the right material Stallone can really act.

Creed is one of the most beautiful sequels I've ever seen. It contains the dark corners that made the original special. It has an agenda that seems to be more than just to ride the coattails a famous series – and remember this is the seventh movie! We see real characters on the screen. We feel for their plight. We love these people. Director Ryan Coogler isn't satisfied to let the film lay on its side and just purr with nostalgia, he wants this story to breathe with a life and energy all its own.

Coogler, I am sure, knows that he can easily get by on nostalgia alone, but he'd be making a very bad movie. After the poetic beauty of Rocky Balboa nine years ago, which wrote the final chapter for Rocky, this chapter turns the story in a different direction. We meet a troubled kid, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) an orphan who has landed himself in a juvenile detention center. A woman comes to visit him, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the wife of the late Apollo Creed. Adonis learns that he is the product of an extra-marital one-night stand that Apollo had not long before his fatal bout with Ivan Drago. Yet, despite Apollo's transgression, Mary Ann pulls Adonis – nicknamed Donnie – out of the narrow destiny of guns, drugs, and swagger and gave him a chance at a productive life.

Years go and destiny calls Donnie's name. He begins making money by boxing secretly in Tijuana making his own name but never telling anyone about his famous lineage. He wants to be he his own man, and not be just a hitch upon a famous father that he never knew. Leaving home, Donnie finds himself – where else? – Philadelphia. Determined to make his way in the boxing world he looks up Rocky, now pushing 70, at his restaurant and asks him to train him.

What happens is not all that surprising if you're a veteran of this series. What is surprising is how human his story is. Rocky now deals with his own mortality – his extended family is gone and his world is basically empty, and he's dealing with issues of his own mortality – there's a development that I won't spoil.

Adonis' fire and determination are an eerie shadow of his old man. The flow of the film is that each character is given one dimension more than just their service to the story. For example, Adonis gets a girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) a musician who is building a music career before she succumbs to a progressive hearing loss. She stands by Donnie but she's more than just a fixture. There's a feeling that she's lived as hard a life as he. There's a grace to her character that makes us want to see her succeed.

The arc of the film is Donnie's troubling family name. He keeps the name Johnson, but never tells anyone about his famous father. Once he's outed offers pour in for major fights because everyone wants to cash in on the name. But Rocky doesn't want to see the kid get destroyed by bad decisions, and that becomes the crux of the relationship between the wise old man and the hot-headed young kid.

This is a beautifully made film. It has edges and corners that we don't expect. Even the familiar formulas of the other films feel fresh and new. The final bout between Donnie and a British bruiser named "Pretty Ricky" Conklin feels original. All boxing movies have a final fight, but the great directors know how to tell the story inside the ring. Here we understand what his happening and what is at stake at every single moment, making this one of the most exciting cinematic boxing matches since Raging Bull. I was so happy that the filmmakers had the intelligence not to put Rocky back in the ring – it's not his story. This is the story of the rise of a kid determined to climb out of the shadow of a father so lionized by history that it might be easy for him to simply skate by. Donnie has a lot of demons to battle and a lot of pressures to overcome.

Essays can be written about this movie. It steps right where other sequels step wrong. This far into a series we might expect that it had spun its wheels until they come off, but by twisting the focus the screenwriters have written a new chapter here. There are themes to be explored not just about determination but about battling this thing called life and making decisions that will chart the course of destiny. Plus it's also about coming home. The best movies do that, they allow us to come back around and see the great characters pressed by the adamant of time. He's home again, and so are we. This is one of the best films of the year.
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Spectre (I) (2015)
Good. A little long, but good.
16 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Even with its impressive longevity, the James Bond series has always seemed to be teetering just on the edge of becoming outdated, at least in the years since Sean Connery stepped aside. The culture, the world situation, the political climate, the technological advancements and, of course, the state of cinema itself are always threatening to push Bond out of the way. Yet, he keeps one step ahead, even as the movies continue to water down his formula elements. The most durable movie series in history has maintained its longevity by sticking pretty close to its most familiar elements but changing just enough to remain not only relevant but just ahead of its dozens of imitators.

The producers of this series are very well aware that Bond is in danger of becoming a relic, going back 20 years to GoldenEye when M coldly evaluated 007: "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War." That assessment was correct and over the past 10 years, with Daniel Craig in the lead, the series has done a good job of keeping Bond current. By winding the clock back to Bond's origins (though still keeping the timeline current) we've been introduced to a younger Bond who is less polished, and who hones his survival instincts by learning from his mistakes. The producers also did something unheard of and yet crucial – they gave Bond a tight story arc.

Spectre completes the four-movie arc begun nine years ago with the brilliant Casino Royale as Bond finds himself on the trail of a shadowy organization that seems to be quietly ruling the world. Where it leads is a place that – if you know this series' history – is not all that surprising. It requires a lot of emotional energy from Bond whose mission is a downward spiral of clues and dead ends, and dead bodies that make The Illuminati look as threatening as your local dime store. His infiltration into this organization reveals a ghost-like figure called Oberhauser (played by the invaluable Christophe Waltz) whose motivations have more to do with Bond than even he comes to expect. The less I say about him, the better.

The journey getting there requires a great deal of investigation from 007 who also knows he's racing against the clock. Back home his new boss M (Ralph Fiennes) informs him that his job may be on the line due to the merger of MI5 and MI6 to form a sort-of intelligence version of U.N., which will mean shutting down the '00 program. Following the clues against orders from above he finds himself trotting across the globe from Mexico to Austria to Morocco to uncover the secrets of an agency called Spectre. Along the way he picks up – what else? – a female companion, the lovely Madeline Swann, played by French actress Léa Seydoux, who is 30 but looks 19. Seydoux is a good actress but her role here seems oddly muted. That's especially disappointing after her brilliant performance as the blue-haired lesbian paramour in the French drama Blue is the Warmest Colour. Yeah, she looks great, but this performance doesn't do much to display the best parts of her infectious personality.

As for Bond himself, I'm sensing that Craig may be near the end of his tenure as questions about his future with the series abound – he's contracted for one more. In the previous three films I felt that Craig was embodying the character full-force. That's what the best actors in this series (Connery, Moore and Craig) have done. They transcend the formula and try to play Bond as a character rather than an icon. I think Craig is a valuable asset. Out of all of the actors who have played James Bond (he's the sixth), he is the first to give Bond what he sorely needs, an upfront vulnerability. Being that he's playing a younger Bond, we get to see that he's dealing with a dangerous learning curve. Craig has done a brilliant job redefining the character but here I sensed a weariness in his performance, as if he fears that he's beginning to go through the motions.

As far as the plot goes, there's not much more than I can reveal. Actually, I've only scratched the surface because Spectre has a LOT of plot to get through. That's kind of the movie's weak point. While I liked the movie a good deal, after a while I began to wish there was a little less of it to like. Director Sam Mendes does a good job of keeping things on track, but he also spends a lot of time with Bond just going places and looking at things which causes the mid-section of the movie to drag. At 148 minutes, it could easily have been half an hour shorter.

Spectre is a good Bond movie, but not a great one. It's chief problem may be timing. It resides in a very tricky place in that it follows Skyfall, which many (including yours truly) had deemed one of the best Bond films since Connery's tenure. That luster casts a damning shadow over this film probably for the wrong reasons. There was likely nothing that director Sam Mendes could have done to one-up that great film and I give him points for not trying to recapture it. He wants to move forward and get back to a more traditional Bond adventure. For that, I give him a lot of credit. Where Skyfall was meaty and fully-packed, Spectre is a very spare nuts-and-bolts kind of thriller. It's not great but in looking at the Bond series in comparison with it's many imitators, I'll take this film over any of those any day of the week.
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Crimson Peak (2015)
It's a ghost story, but the ghosts aren't the dead people . . .
16 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The man at the publishing house looks quite amused when he finishes reading Edith's manuscript. She's just written a most unromantic ghost story that she hopes to have published. "Ghosts are a metaphor for the past," she says, and to us this seems like a simple throwaway statement until we reach the finish line of Crimson Peak and come to the realization that this statement means more than she could ever know.

The ghosts Crimson Peak make their appearance as specters, mournful souls trapped by a sudden and frightful unfinished chapter to their lives that is preventing them from moving on. Yet, this is not their story. The manifestation of ghosts have more than one meaning, not just for the dead trapped between worlds, but for a few of the living whose soul and humanity have been drained by the unspeakable acts they've committed – acts that have an unfortunate habit of repeating themselves.

We're introduced to bookish Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) an unmarried woman in turn of the century New York whose focus in life is not on landing a rich husband but on following in the footsteps of the great Mary Shelley. She wants to be the author of a book that is just as polarizing as Frankenstein, and while the men suggest that she write something a bit more romantic while the women sneer "Jane Austin died a spinster." Edith retorts "I'd rather be Mary Shelley and die a widow." In spite of this, she has no real interest in a husband, and it is only then that she meets the courtly Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) whose smoldering eyes touch her reluctant heart.

Thomas declares his intentions, but of course there's a complication. Edith's father (Jim Beaver) disapproves of Thomas, and goes so far as to engineer a permanent separation. He sees something in Thomas and his spinster sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) that seems unsavory. We sense it too. There's something in these two that gives us a bad vibe. Edith doesn't see it and pursues the romance anyway.

From here I can reveal no more without digging into spoiler territory. Without giving too much away, it can be said that Thomas eventually takes Edith back to Allerdale Hall, his family's English estate, an ungodly looking manor that seems to have risen from the depths of Hell itself. Thomas is not shy about telling her that the place is falling apart. A gaping hole in the roof lets in the snow and the leaves, while moist red clay under the foundation bubbles up like blood. Allerdale (which is nicknamed Crimson Peak for that reason) is a festering manifestation of all the evil that has happened there. Like a den of the underworld, Allerdale's halls seem to have no floor plan. Worse, it's in the middle of nowhere – we're told with dread that the manor is a four-hour drive from the nearest town.

Something's afoot here that del Toro is slow to reveal, and that's the greatness of Crimson Peak. Guillermo del Toro is in no hurry to tell this story. He has the patience and the intelligence to tell this story as it is revealed (and there is a LOT to reveal), he doesn't give us a point to follow as a through-line, rather we follow Edith's adventure step-by-step. Del Toro has no interest in throwing ghosts at us, he's smarter than that. This is a ghost story that happens to have ghosts in it. He restrains his visual effects to a few key scenes so that we don't feel overloaded – he's more interested in the story than in the effect. His productions design is breathtaking, creating a domicile that is manifest to the cruelty of the human heart. We sense that Allderdale Hall was once a glorious place, but has weakened into a hulking shadow of its former self. The place is a spectral apparition all its own.

Del Toro's production crew have don't a brilliant job creating Allerdale as a living, breathing monstrosity, a house of creaking doors, banging pipes, and rotten wood, it becomes a character by itself. Its bubbling red clay is a symbol of the evil here, as if Satan were determined to pull the house back into the Earth. But what is best is that Del Toro doesn't lean on these visual treats. His story is front and center, and he suggests that the haunting is not separate from the evil deeds of the living.

Crimson Peak may not be for everyone. It is slow and deliberate on the delivery (the first half feels like a Merchant-Ivory confection) and often there is more effect than conclusion. It's the kind of movie that is difficult to describe without spoiling too much. You're reminded of the kinds of movies that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and Vincent Price use to make, and that's a good trek to follow. When most horror movies want to manufacture terror, here is the rare modern movie that wants to creep under your skin.
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Sicario (2015)
A compelling movie that loses focus
16 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
There's an effective, quiet pall that hangs over every scene of Sicario, an appropriately nervous sense that we have entered into an atmosphere of death. This is refreshingly new. Movies about federal agents at war with the Mexican drug cartels have a tendency to be very slick and unafraid to get into the messier bits of such an unsavory industry. Sicario doesn't do that. Here is a movie that isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. Pulled out of our comfortable American of commercialization, the film takes us into a world that might look right at home in a post-apocalyptic thriller. Yet, this is not about any grand catastrophe between nations; it's about the drug war that stretches from the southwestern United States all the way into the deepest heart of the Mexican desert.

The purpose of Sicario (which is the Spanish word for 'hitman') is to take us into this world and then ask us a question. Should our federal agents have free reign to move into Mexico and bend the rules in order to crack down on drug lords who are spilling poison into our country and theirs? The answer is not as simple as you might think. It is easy to think that procedures must be followed, that laws must be upheld. But what are our government agents to do when a community has become so overrun by drug cartels that naked, decapitated human bodies are displayed in public as a warning? It is a moral dilemma that lies at the door of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a relative greenhorn whose experiences are beginning to morph into PTSD. As the movie opens, we find Kate and her fellow agents busting into a house in Chandler, Arizona to find a kidnapping victim. They don't just kick down the door, they're tactics involve driving through the sidewall of the house. After a clumsy gun battle with armed criminals, something comes to light that is first spotted through a bullet hole in one of the walls – a gruesome tableau of death. Bodies wrapped in plastic turn up, rows and rows of them. Who are these men? Why are they here? And how did they meet such a gruesome fate? The search for those answers begins the next day when Kate is hired to join the intra-agency task force that will move into Mexico, and attempt to disrupt the drug business there. Her immediate superior is a smiling wise-guy black-ops cowboy named Matt (Josh Brolin) who isn't exactly loose with the details of their mission. She's none-too-trusting of Matt or his team, and is especially suspicious of a soft-spoken former prosecutor named Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), a hulking specter whose positioning in this mission has a lot more to do with breaking down the cartels then meets the eye.

Traveling into Mexico with Matt's squad, Kate is appalled by the lack of procedure at hand. What they do, and how they get information. What is most galling to her is that Matt and his team are not interested in arrests but in getting to the kingpin at the center. The method (as spelled out in the trailer) is to stir the pot, the create a war within the community that will smoke the head man out. What seems reasonable to everyone else, is appalling to Kate, who still believes that policy and procedure must be observed.

That, really, is the movie's weak point. Kate spends the entire movie in private protest over what is going on and how things are being handled. We, in the audience, applaud the men who are willing to bend the rules. We understand that they are operating in a den of vicious animals, and certain lines must be crossed, but Kate remains in protest long after it might have seemed that she would come around to their way of thinking. One might think that she would either be on board for this, or be sent home.

I was also put off by the movie's third act, where it might have been interesting to see where the infiltration effected the cartels themselves. Instead the movie turns inward and becomes a more personal drama leading to a showdown that has little if any real resolution.

Those objections aside, this still a very good movie. It was directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve who made the excellent kidnapping drama Prisoners two years ago. What he shows in both films is his ability to orchestrates scenes. The scenes involving the feds infiltrating the inner sanctum of the cartel are handled very well because we understand it as part of the story, not as a series of confused editing as a Michael Bay film might. Villeneuve has the patience to tell this story as it unfolds rather than make it all obvious in the first few minutes. He gives us that sense that we are wandering through the valley of death where bloody violence springs up out of nowhere and human life is meaningless. It's not a perfect movie, but it is a very well made movie, one that has you thinking about it afterwards.
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The Martian (2015)
A smart, exciting adventure
6 October 2015
Warning: Spoilers
There can't be any greater story device then that of basic survival. One character battles against the elements as their life hangs by the slender thread solely dependent on their own ingenuity and wit. That's the crux of Ridley Scott's adaptation of The Martian, a bold and exhilarating red-blooded adventure about a man, trapped on the Martian surface 143,000,000 miles from home who must use every resource he has to keep himself alive until somebody comes to pick him up. It's bold, it's fun, it's smart, it's ingenious, and it contains the only montage I've ever seen of a man scrapping a space capsule while ABBA's "Waterloo" plays on the soundtrack. The Martian tells a story that is simplistic but not simple-minded: Ares III, a manned mission to Mars finds themselves overwhelmed by a nasty rock storm that forces the crew to evacuate. In the chaos one crew member is lost and presumed dead. Of course, he hasn't. As the crew head for home, our hero Mark Whatley (Matt Damon) wakes up on the planet's surface with his oxygen depleted, and a piece of the antenna sticking out of his abdomen.

Shades of Cast Away, Mark discovers that he is the only man on Mars and not only must figure out a way to survive but must also figure out a rational reason to keep talking (Tom Hanks had a volleyball, Damon has easier device of talking to his video log). He moves into the crew's abandoned man-made habitat where he calculates how much food, water and air he will have to sustain himself for the next four years until Ares III, the next Mars mission, arrives on the planet's surface. Mark discovers that he has enough food and water for a few weeks, and ascertains that he must figure a way to grow more. But how is he going to plant a garden on a dry planet with no air. This solution is inspired. Plus – good news kids – He's a botanist!

Much of the movie is taken up with Mark's adventure in pure survival not only from the hostile environment, but also from the maddening fact that the only music left behind is Disco (That's why the ABBA song). Step by step, piece by piece we're with him as he carves out a tiny civilization for himself on a planet that is dead-set against it. The script by Drew Goddard keeps things movie and always ups that stakes. The irony, of course, is that while Mark is forced to close himself up inside the tiny habitat, outside are the wide open spaces of the Martian landscape. The cinematography here is breathtaking, showing us the vastness of the Martian landscapes which look so beautiful and yet so lonely at the same time.

Of course, that's not the whole story. There are two other parts to this movie. One takes place on the ground as the crew at NASA gets a cryptic message from Mark that he is alive and well. Then – shades of Apollo 13 – they must put their collective heads together to figure out how to retrieve their man from 140,000,000 miles away over the next four years. Again, none of this is ever dull or uninteresting. We get the pure joy of watching smart people coming up with smart solutions.

The other part takes place aboard the returning ship – the one that left Mark behind. We are privy to the crew – led by Jessica Chastain – as they must figure out how they are going to be able to turn the ship around and go back and get him. Of course, that means another four years onboard the ship, plus how are they going to retrieve him when they get there? Everything, in all three parts of this story is based on surgical timing. If one thing goes wrong, the crew could be lost, Mark could be dead and the whole thing could become an international fiasco back home.

All of this, of course, leads up to a third act that – while predictable – has you on the edge of your seat. It's rare in these days when most movies go on automatic pilot in the third act that we are just as exhilarated by the third act as we were by the first or the second.

What an exhilarating movie this is. What fun it is to watch smart people trying to figure out a nearly impossible task. It's rare that a movie of this size – and it is a big movie – can keep us so totally involved in what is going on at every single second. Like Gravity and Apollo 13, this is a movie about a dangerous situation that has us riveted at every single moment. We know the ending but we're not sure how the movie is going to get there. This is one of the best movies of the year.
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The Intern (I) (2015)
Pancakes . . .
29 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The Intern is like a stack of pancakes. It's warm, sweet and leaves you with a touch of a belly ache. You are, no doubt, drawn in by the casting and who could resist a movie that brings together Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway? They're the best actors of their respective generations, but – WOW! – you keep wishing that they could find each other in a better movie. The Intern isn't bad exactly; it's light, breezy but is of no real significance.

De Niro, who seems to have retired from the hard-boiled, challenging roles that made him famous, plays a good-hearted retired widower named Ben Whittaker. Retired from a now defunct company that made phone books, he now spends his days trying to figure out how to spend his days. His wife of 42 years is dead and he needs a challenge. So, he answers an ad for an outreach program for senior interns (senior as in age) to help out at 'About to Fit', a successful internet company that specializes in women's clothing.

Ben gets the unenviable task of being the intern to the company's CEO, a supposedly tough-as-nails career woman named Jules Ostin (Hathaway). She claims she doesn't need him, but Romantic Comedy Law demands that she discover how much she really does need him, not just in the office but in her personal life as well. He becomes her driver (Driving Miss Hathaway?) and eventually he becomes her confidant. The two build a nice friendship that, it's a relief to report, doesn't bloom into a May-December.

The problem is, that's about it. The movie is as bland and superfluous as it gets. Director Nancy Meyer sets up the inner-office environment with the reverie of shop-worn sitcom. It's pleasant and nice but it's only established so that Ben's old-school experience can teach the young a thing or two, but none of it has any significant payoff. The people around the office are young whipper-snappers whose function in the film is to be young whipper-snappers and they don't matter either. They aren't developed as characters, they're just onlookers to Ben's successes. Ben develops a half-written and pointless semi-sorta-romance with the company's on-site masseuse (Rene Russo) which goes nowhere and ALSO doesn't seem to matter.

The plot developments are pointless too. Are we surprised to find that Jules' home life is burdened by the fact that her husband Matt gave up his career plans to be a stay-at-home dad? Nearly all of Jules and Matt's scenes are dedicated to talking about the fact that they never see each other. Hmmm.

For about the first hour of The Intern I was fairly bored. I liked Jules and Ben but I wanted the movie to clear out the junky plot points and just let them talk, let them be human beings who connected with each other. To that point, the movie had no real dramatic tensions . . . then it happens. A dramatic situation develops that actually seems to give the movie some dramatic weight. Not to give anything away, but Ben discovers something about Matt that troubles him. When he brings it to Jules, the two have a heartfelt conversation that seems to be drawn from the characters, not from the screenplay. Unfortunately, the results of that dramatic event are crushed by a resolution that nobody – but nobody – is going be happy with.

The Intern was written and directed by Nancy Meyers who specializes in cupcake-sweet confections like It's Complicated and Something's Got to Give and the Father of the Bride movies. Her films seem to have a consistent pattern. They contain a germ of human interest wrapped up in a gimmicky script that is fit for a bad television sitcom. The exception is a great comedy she made 30 years ago called Irreconcilable Differences, about a kid who divorces her squabbling parents. That movie had truth and human interest. The Intern has only faint echos of humanity. It has moments here and there when it shows the promise of what it might have been. It's a nice, sweet, uncomplicated movie that will begin disappearing from your mind before you get out of the theater and will have left you completely by the time you get to the car.
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Black Mass (2015)
Depp is brilliant in a brutal epic.
23 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The most refreshing thing about Scott Cooper's Black Mass, the new biopic of the rise and fall of South Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger is that for once we get an unromantic view of a psychopath. As much as I love fine films like Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, I must admit that both films ask us to find some measure of admiration with their subjects. That's not the case here. In Bulger, we are in the presence of a human animal, an otherwise reasonable man who sends men and woman to their deaths almost as a part of his daily routine. The real mystery, of course, is how he was able to operate as gangster and terrorist for so long without, at the very least, being sent up the river.

And yet, that's not really the film's trajectory, merely the template. Scott Cooper's film is tricky in that when it's all over we aren't asked to sympathize or admire Bulger, we are given a portrait of the wrecked lives that he has left in his wake. It's about a psychopathic gangster, yes, but it's much more about how his friends, his employees, the FBI, and his immediate family fell under his spell and paid the price. We feel for these people even though we understand that, simply by associating with a cunning gangster, they are the authors of their own broken destiny.

Bulger ruled the underworld of South Boston with his Winter Hill Gang for several decades after a nine year stretch at Alcatraz. Played in a brilliant performance by Johnny Depp, the movie isn't about his rise to power, but about how he bent and manipulated the powers that be in order to stay in power. He became the most infamous criminal in Boston's history and ran his operation throughout the 70s and 80 using his talent for manipulation and his willingness to murder anyone for the smallest of reasons.

In 1981 Bulger struck a deal with the FBI to be an informant, but by being an informant he quietly turned the bureau into his own private army and took down the Italian mob on the north side. It didn't hurt that his FBI contact was a childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The thrill of the relationship between Bulger and Connolly is that Bulger is smarter and quicker, while Connolly is a weak-willed and loyal to a fault. He was an otherwise good man who becomes corrupted by his association with Whitey, in spite of warnings from his wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) and just about everyone else.

The general outlines of the film are painfully familiar. What makes it special is that director Scott Cooper refuses to glorify or glamorize this story or these people. He knows that Bulger is scum, and he never makes the mistake of romanticizing his acts of violence. Bulger responds to stupidity and acts of disloyalty with the barrel of a gun. A lot of people are shot dead in this movie. Bullets enter the body. There's blood. There's pain. There's death. There is nothing romantic here. The violence is sudden and frightening. Bulger is nothing short of a menace. In his track suits, his Foster Grey glasses (that make his face look like a skull) and his dead tooth that signals the rot from within, he comes off as a cold and vicious figure who buried so many bodies in one place that it became known as "Bulger Hill." He has a cold, dead stare and a way of turning and twisting words to turn innocent conversation into a threat. There are so many scenes in the movie when people are shot dead and the violence is sudden, bloody and shocking. Cooper doesn't use any camera tricks or slow-motion. We see the violence as it happens.

The movie's success rests on the shoulders of Johnny Depp. When it was announced that a major studio was making a bio-pic about "Whitey" Bulger with Depp in the lead I wasn't exactly jumping for joy. Depp has been at the helm of so many bad movies lately that I had forgotten what a talent he really is. Like Peter Sellers, Lon Chaney, Alec Guinness and Eddie Murphy, Depp joins the short list of actors who can disappear behind heavy make-up. With thinning white hair, a palled complexion, a dead stare and an accent as thick as Boston Clam Chowder, he portrays Bulger as a cold, heartless monster or the devil in disguise. Bulger can make anyone do anything. There's a scary scene late in the film when he questions an FBI man about his grilled stake. The man claims it is a family secret. Bulger insists. The man relents. Then Bulger questions why he would reveal a family secret so easily. The silence that follows is as thick as pea soup.

The film's only weak link is that it often seems too stuffed with characters. There are many players in this story and many of whom never seem to get more than one-dimension. That wouldn't be so unusual except that we get the feeling that their stories exist in some longer cut of the film. At 2 hours, the film does feel a little short, and the movie abruptly skips over what Bulger was doing during the 16 years that he was on the lam (he and his wife were raising pit bulls). But what you take away from this film is that great performance by Johnny Depp who disappears so fully into this character that I wouldn't be surprised if a second Oscar nomination didn't come his way next spring. Even when the movie isn't at its best, Depp is always at the top of his game. In a somewhat flawed but never-the-less entertaining gangster movie, he stands out and gives us a performance of pure evil that lingers in our minds.
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The Visit (I) (2015)
Gets you by the throat and by the funny bone.
20 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
It has been agonizing to watch M. Night Shyamalan over the past decade, a director who came bursting out the gate back in '99 with The Sixth Sense, a brilliant piece of cold terror that earned him two Oscar nominations and, for me, stayed the course with his next two pictures Signs and Unbreakable. But then . . . it all went belly up. Shyamalan became a punchline, a dead serious parody of himself who in film after film just couldn't get it right. Like George Lucas, he proved time and again that he's a great visionary, but as a writer he leaves a lot to be desired.

I'm not going to call The Visit a comeback – he'll need a few more good movies to earn that. This is a very good, highly entertaining and economical thriller that proves that he still has the knack to tell a good story. Whether it is a fluke or not remains to be seen, but all I can say is that this time he got it absolutely right.

The Visit is a creepy and often very funny movie that blends together every tired horror movie trope in the book (creepy basements, night sounds, the phone out of order, mental patients, creepy old people, ominous warnings, disappearing nosy neighbors) and whips them up into a stew that is fun and entertaining. He even takes the shopworn convention of the found footage movie and makes it palatable. Yes, the whole movie is being filmed by a hand-held camera but there's a reason for it.

We're introduced to Becca (Olivia DeJonge), aged 16, and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), aged 13, who come from a troubled home. Their dad walked out on a whim and their mother is suffering a form of emotional PTSD. Due to some family trauma early in life, the mother hasn't seen or talked to her aging parents in years and the kids have never even met them. So, figuring that she needs a vacation, she takes a cruise with her boyfriend and sends the kids away for a week to get acquainted with the grandparents. Tyler's passion is freestyle rap, while Becca has designs on being a documentary filmmaker – she films he entire trip.

From the moment the kids arrive at the train station, something seems a little off. They meet their grandparents Doris and John, referred to as Nana and Pop Pop. They're unusual, but since they're elderly we kind of give them a pass. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) looks like something out of a fairy tale with her long grey hair, her aprons, her baking, and her strange dementia-like symptoms. Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) looks like he might be at home in a pancake commercial. He is a kindly old farmer who asks the kids to obey two rules: 1.) Don't go in the basement and 2.) Don't leave your bedroom after 9:30.

Things are bizarre from the start as the kids wonder what Pop Pop is doing out in the barn and what those strange sounds are in the middle of the night? Why does Pop Pop attack a man across the street and why is Nana sitting in rocking chair laughing at nothing in particular? Skype conversations with their mother assure the kids that, well, they're old folks and they have their ailments and their peculiarities.

Determined to understand what's going on, Becca and Tyler do some investigating by leaving the camera in the living room at night to capture Nana and Pop Pop's activities. What they uncover tells them next to nothing but what they see will no-doubt leave them scarred for life.

The dread intensifies. The grandparents show up out of nowhere and do things that can't be explained. It gets worse and worse from there and Shyamalan is smart to ramp up the tension by breaking up the days with big blood red letters that announce "THURSDAY MORNING." Every time we see that it's a new day, we know that the story is about to go to another level. He shows his best gifts here at being able to establish tone and mood and the creepy feeling that something is happening. He spends long chunks of the movie just letting the film's tone hang in the air, and never seems in a hurry to spring the trap.

If the film has a weakness, it comes in the emotional scenes. Becca and Tyler have a tragic backstory and it is dealt with efficiently, but those scene don't seem to fit organically to the horror. The mixture of horror and pathos worked in The Sixth Sense where we felt the tragedy of Cole's mother. Here it feels like an intrusive add-on. I appreciate immensely that the two kids are allowed to have a loving bond and typical sibling rivalry that makes them more than just pawns in a horror story – they really feel like living breathing human beings. They're the all-too-human link to very inhuman circumstances.

It is so easy to see where this movie might have gone wrong. It's a batty, overwrought story that seems to borrow from every horror classic from Halloween to Paranormal Activity to Psycho – there's a scene where Becca approaches Nana from behind while she is seated in a rocking chair that had me averting my eyes. It's a high-wire act. Either you'll get on board with this insanity or you won't. But you can't deny Shyamalan's desire to entertain. He's in command of his material here, it may be ridiculous but he's got you by the throat and by the funny bone.
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A nice love story spoiled by a bloated Hollywood spy thriller.
28 August 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Buried somewhere deep within the mangled mess of the spy thriller American Ultra is a compelling love story struggling to get out. Unfortunately, the main story, about a sleeper agent with a target on his head, is unfocused and half-written and just gets in the way. That's too bad because when the movie just observes its two leads, it's quite a lovely story. We'll get to the spy stuff in just a minute.

For a while, I kind of got caught up in the love story. We meet Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a perpetual loser whose life is a long, slow ride going nowhere. The only light in his life is his long-time girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) who seems to have no real reason to be with this stoner, but she sticks by his side with a stubborn devotion that is either admirable or foolhardy depending on your point of view.

Mike is broken, not a bad person, just a little broken. He is prone to panic attacks that have ruined more than one attempt to take Phoebe on a vacation to Hawaii. They spend their nights talking and getting high and there is a light in her eyes when she looks at him. He knows he's a mess. He knows he's a burden to her and is always apologizing when his panic attacks ruin their plans. Outside of his dysfunctions, Mike spends his nights working at a grubby convenience store that looks as if it is clinging to the edge of the world. Inside it is dim and quiet with an atmosphere fit for a Stephen King novel. It seems a perfect symbolic match to his circumstances.

What I have described, unfortunately, is the first 15 minutes of the movie. After that, the spy plot comes barreling in the door and what has been gained character-wise goes right out the window. The main plot has been spoiled in the trailer, but if you're intending to see this movie cold, stop reading now.

One night at work, a woman (Connie Britton from "American Horror Story") walks into the store and starts speaking gibberish to Mike. He says he doesn't understand and she turns and leaves. Later, in the parking lot, two men advance on him and he dispatches them with a spoon and cup of hot soup. It turns out that Mike is a sleeper agent from a defunct government program run by the CIA and the project leader (Topher Grace) wants him dead. The woman speaking gibberish is a CIA agent who is trying to save his skin.

What follows is a spy movie in the vein of Jason Bourne, but this movie is a lot less polished. The ads make this look like fun, slacker version of the TV show "Chuck" but it's actually a dead serious action thriller with buckets of blood and a higher body count then most horror movies (seriously, a guy gets an axe to the head). I could call it by-the-numbers, but there seem to be numbers missing. This is a very badly written movie. There are characters and motivations and plot threads that are brought up but then never referred to again.

Some plot developments are left hanging. There is a character played by Bill Pullman whose function in the movie, I guess, is to be a superior at the CIA. He drops in at the beginning of the movie and then comes back at the end, but darned if I could explain his role or why he's even here. There's also seems to be some connection between Topher Grace and the Kristen Stewart character that seems to hint at a personal or perhaps romantic history but it is never explained and goes nowhere. They talk as if they've been close in the past but the movie never tells us what their connection is. It's frustrating.

American Ultra is a maddening experience. There seem to be scenes and explanations that are left out, almost as if we're seeing a clumsily edited version of the finished product. At a brisk 95 minutes, I wouldn't doubt if there's a longer cut somewhere. Not that I need any more of the spy stuff, but a little more of that wonderful love story might be nice.

Truthfully, the worst part of American Ultra is that as soon as I finish writing this review the movie will slip quickly from my mind. By the end of the week, I won't remember half of it. A month from now I won't remember the title. Other than the nice chemistry between the two leads, there's nothing really here to stick in your memory. It's a good looking but badly written piece of business that bludgeons a sweet indie romance with a blowhard Hollywood plot. If you have to see a movie this weekend, go and see Straight Outta of Compton and save this one for DVD. Maybe then you'll get a longer cut and maybe it'll make more sense.
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Clobbered
9 August 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Fantastic Four is a very dark movie. I mean, really dark. I mean dark, as in, somebody please flip on some lights. That's not a joke; every indoor scene in this movie is so under-lit that you feel like your wearing sunglasses indoors. Every outdoor scene feel you're attending a vampire funeral. It is a funerary tone is unfortunately appropriate because this is a joyless, dead serious movie that rings all of the energy out of something that should be bouncy and fun.

This is the fourth failed movie rendition of this property and the fourth time that Hollywood has shown that it doesn't have a clue how to do it right. Roger Corman's legendary 1994 action-comedy was so infamous that it never got released. The 2005 Fantastic Four movie and its sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer, were colorful but featherbrained and forgettable. Yet, they were modern masterpieces compared to Mark Trank's current modernization, a movie so joyless that makes the last hour of Revenge of the Sith feel like Christmas morning.

At the beginning of the new Fantastic Four – or as the poster calls it, 'Fant-4-stic' – we meet 10 year-old Reed Richards (Owen Judge) who is working on a matter transfer machine. He becomes friends with young Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) whose family owns a junkyard and has the parts that Reed needs. They become friends and grow up working together on the project, but years later at their high school science fair, their teacher (Dan Castelanetta) dismisses their amazing discovery as "a magic show." The government is more interested in their discovery and gives them access to work on it – along with Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), and a broody drop-out named Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) who is said to be from Latvaria, but has an accent that is true-blue America. The team is given access to The Least Secure Government Research Facility on the Face of the Earth. Seriously, they can go anywhere, do anything, and send out photos of themselves to their buddies without any restrictions what-so-ever.

The first test of the matter-transfer machine with a chimp is successful, but Reed (played as an adult by Miles Teller) thinks that he and his team would be perfect for the first human test. The project overseer (Tim Blake Nelson) wants to bring in astronauts, but Reed is undaunted and wants to try it out himself. After hours, he gathers the team for an unauthorized test, but things go wrong and they, of course, find themselves with magical powers. Reed can stretch. Johnny becomes a human torch. Ben turns into a walking, talking chunk of rocks. And, for no reason at all, Sue gets the power to turn invisible, which is a head-scratcher because she didn't go on the mission at all – she was at the lab computer, so okay.

The introduction of these elements make up the movie's first hour. We are laboriously introduced to every single character. Then after the accident, we are laboriously introduced to all of their superpowers. By the time the introductions are over, we have time for a ten minute action scene before the movie abruptly ends. The worse section of the movie are the discovery of the powers. What should be a moment of joy and discovery is a long, sad series of 'what-have-you-done-to-me' scenes that have the same tone as if someone's dog just died.

The idea here should yield a movie that is as joyful and fun as last year's Guardians of the Galaxy. Quite the opposite. This is a grim, mean-spirited and broody movie. Instead of a fantasy, we get the approximation of how these events might play out in real life. That's exactly the wrong approach. The characters spend much of the time getting to know each other that you feel like you're watching the pilot to a TV series.

The comic books, as I remember them, were colorful and fun. The team felt like a cohesive family unit whose chief quirk is that their differing personalities meant that they were always playfully squabbling with one another – like a family. Here they seem to have been pulled together from central casting. The actors do what they can, but never at any time are they required to give us any sense of joy or wonderment. What was the thinking here? Why make a summer action movie this gloomy and oppressive? Why spend 90% of the movie on introductions? Why set the entire movie in a lab? Why give it such a mean-spirited tone? Fans of the movie won't recognize the characters. Non-fans will be repelled by the movie's repellant atmosphere. Who was this movie made for? NOTE: There are no credit cookies, midway or at the end. Which is okay, because the less time spent with this mess, the better.
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