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Entertainment, Provocation, or Both?
Nothing you've read or heard about Todd Phillips' Joker can really prepare you for just how disturbing it really is. It's not that it's the darkest film ever made. It's the genre that it attaches itself to. "Comic book" movies, even the darkest or most violent (think Logan or Blade) are still designed to entertain rather than disturb. True, they deliver emotional moments such as certain character deaths in Logan or Avengers: Endgame that leave an impact; but few, possibly none, have been designed to truly disturb the viewer and creep under the skin - until now.
Is Joker a good film or just a disturbing one? You would have to be both to be effective. Just watching a deranged person senselessly murder people on screen wouldn't keep an audience, or at least a sane audience, engaged. Joker benefits from a slow burn that never feels slow; a deliberate pace that feels just that - deliberate. Phillips wants his audience to spend adequate time with this character; not so we can sympathize with his him, but so we can understand him. In doing so, the filmmakers have made us unwitting accessories to Arthur's (Joker) hideous actions. This combination of incendiary writing (Phillips and Scott Silver) and patient editing (Jeff Groth) makes the build up to the unpredictable final act much more rewarding than it would have been in a more frenetically-paced film.
The film also looks amazing. Lawrence Sher's cinematography often takes unique and interesting angles without feeling awkward of overly-artsy. The production team has done an amazing job of making this film feel like its been un-vaulted straight from the 1970s. Many period films look like their respective eras, but it takes a considerable amount of talent and craft to make them feel like the era. As a result, 1970s Gotham feels authentic and like a character in its own right. There's also an intense score here by Hildur Guðnadóttir. Sometimes it feels intrusive - and this may bug some viewers. I believe this is completely intentional; intending to unnerve us even further.
Joker boasts a talented cast including Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen and Brian Tyree Henry. Everyone is good in their roles, but this is really Joaquin Phoenix's show - and the rest of the cast is mostly there to propel his character forward. I believe many will consider this Phoenix's best best performance to date. I certainly found it to be one of his best (I still have a soft spot for his performance in Her). This is an interesting take on the Joker character in that they've nearly stripped him of any likability. Not that Joker is meant to be likable - but there is a certain amount of entertainment value in previous interpretations of the character - certainly in Nicholson's and Romero's, and even in Ledger's darker version. But this Joker is not at that point yet. This is an origin story. Arthur is a disturbed individual with serious mental illnesses. What we see is the result of taking such a man and ripping away his treatment, medications and any sort of sympathy from those surrounding him. Add to that downright mistreatment from others, and it's what takes a troubled man with a reasonable sense of right and wrong and turns him into a diabolical killer incapable of such moral distinctions. It's how Athur becomes Joker. Watching Phoenix unfold all this is mesmerizing. He shows us a man on the brink of implosion, who turns his frustration into violent explosion in the final acts. All the talk of awards consideration around Phoenix's performance here is definitely deserved.
About three quarters into Joker, I considered to myself whether American mainstream audiences were ready for a film like this. We've seen such characters before in movies like Taxi Driver, Silence of the Lambs, or even less violently in There Will Be Blood. But I think moviegoers as a whole have certain expectations from movies that exist with the genre of popular comic book adaptations - especially when they feature characters as well-known and even liked as the Joker. Can audiences enter a comic book movie with an open mind, ready not to be entertained, but provoked? Can we allow a comic book movie to lead us to important conversations about societal treatment of mental illness and violence in media? Can we say this is a new type of comic book movie? Or do we have to say this isn't really a comic book movie at all - it's a dark, dramatic thriller that happens to be connected to a comic book universe? Can we accept that Joker is just a darn well-made film without cramming it into genre constructs? One thing to consider is that even the darkest or most violent comic book movies are fantastical. Logan and Deadpool are about mutants with super-powers, Blade is about vampires. But Joker is very realistic. This is a story of a man who could exist and a series of events that could definitely happen. This realism makes the film just that much more unnerving. Over-analyzing any movie can definitely hurt one's perception of it and even distract from its qualities. This is one case however where I believe the more one thinks about it the more you'll want to analyze and deconstruct it - in a good way - not to find it's flaws, but rather it's overall meaning.
I'm docking a point for an unnecessary epilogue that distracts from a perfect ending point one scene earlier. There's also a frustrating ambiguity regarding the fate of a pair of characters that I wish the film would have been more transparent about. But these are minor complaints for a movie that will stand out as one of the most interesting and uneasy times I've had at the cinema this year. (9/10) (A-)
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
A Perfect Conclusion
No matter how it turned out, I would have nothing but respect for what the filmmakers behind the MCU managed to pull off in just over a decade. A slate of 21 movies sharing characters, themes and story-lines - connected by a joint goal to get the audience and the characters to one harmonious conclusion. After 2018, in which we got one of the MCU's finest films in Black Panther, and surely their most ambitious (at that time) in Avengers: Infinity War, the pressure for Avengers: Endgame to deliver on a decade of build-up and potential seemed like an impossible task.
I can't help but think of what happened with Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. We started with a terrific punch of fresh air in Batman Begins. Then Nolan made what is considered by many to be the best superhero film ever made in The Dark Knight (it's not my personal favorite, but I do love it). TDK became one the most successful and highly-praised films of all time. Then the pressure - how could the third film in that trilogy possibly live up? The answer: it didn't. The Dark Knight Rises was a thoroughly entertaining, well-acted movie. But it was riddled with plot-holes and conveniences that contributed to a film that simply could not help but feel disappointing compared to what came before it.
I say all that to say this: Avengers: Endgame lives up not only to its terrific predecessors from last year, but also the entire 21-film run that came before it. It serves as both a conclusion to and celebration of all the films that led up to it. It delivers on every single expectation (at least from this fan) and then exceeds them. It is as epic a film as the industry makes in this time, and there isn't a minute of the three hour run time I would shave. So many of the little easter eggs and sly moments from the past decade of these movies are called back in brilliant and inventive ways, while at the same time delivering something completely new.
While I liked Infinity War, my biggest complaint was that the film's editing felt jarring. It had the task of juggling many story-lines (and I respect the monumental effort), but it seemed like it just shuffled between them too quickly - rarely giving us time to mourn for lost characters or fully soak in important events. Endgame completely fixes this issue. This is a master class in film editing and if the Oscars ignore it in that category come awards season, it will truly be a blemish on their continually tarnishing record. It does take its time, but in the best way possible. When characters face dark or emotional circumstances, we truly feel them. These are characters we, the audience, have bonded with for over a decade. And all of that emotional connection pays off perfectly.
Another great highlight is that many characters who fans feel have been kinda left out the last few films get big and important story-lines in this film, finally moving from supporting players to huge plot-shifters. It's great to see so many great characters finally living up to their full potential.
Everything else works. There's a reasonable amount of humor to balance out the heavy drama. Every actor delivers some of their finest (if not their best) work in this series. The special effects are phenomenal. Character design, production design, and cinematography continue to hold up the high standards set by other great films in this franchise.
I really don't know how Kevin Feige, the Russo brothers, and their talented team of filmmakers and actors pulled this thing off. It's quite a feat. I go see a lot of movies in the theater as its my preferred viewing venue, and this is easily one of the most enjoyable movie-going experiences I've ever had. Avengers: Endgame begs to be seen in the theater. This is the masterpiece we were all hoping for. Kudos to everyone involved. 10/10.
Guava Island (2019)
Guava Island could have been a lavish vanity project. Instead it's a little movie with a big heart. Full of musicality, beautiful locations, cinematography and people. Charming performances and a message to boot. It's also old school in the best possible way. Don't miss it! 8/10
Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Sometimes it's better not knowing how the sausage is made...
Sometimes it's better not knowing how the sausage is made. The first Happy Death Day was a fun little slasher flick that never took itself too seriously and was thoroughly entertaining for what it was. The sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, tried to provide explanation to the phenomenon that befell Tree in the first film. It all involves a science project gone wrong and a bunch of time-looping sci-fi mumbo jumbo that isn't nearly as smart as the movie thinks it is. This should be a franchise where you can just turn your brain off and have a good time. Instead, 2U wants the audience to think. That's the big mistake. Most of the "science" stuff makes little to no sense, and making us think about it only makes us realize how convoluted a mess this story is. I won't even get into the eye-roll worthy plot conveniences that have to exist for the film to even move forward in some spots.
Another issue is this isn't a horror movie. There may be a couple short scenes that lend themselves to horror, but this is much more so a sci-fi story, a far cry from what we started with in the first movie. Also, the movie reaches a satisfying ending place, but then decides to not end there and throws in a ridiculous "heist" movie at the end. Why not? We're already watching a horror-comedy-scifi-romcom?
Now, it's not all bad. The movie does keep moving at a steady pace and most of the characters are entertaining (even if they aren't particularly engaging). The sub-plot about Tree's mom feels genuinely heart-felt and gives the movie a little emotional weight. There's plenty of decent laughs throughout. And, as in the first film, Jessica Rothe seems to be having a ball in the lead role. There's also a mid-credits scene to suggest we're gonna expand this universe even more. And while I'll welcome a third movie in this fun franchise, I wish the writers would understand that more isn't necessarily better. Sometimes keeping it simple is best. 6/10
Ready Player One (2018)
Escape to the Oasis
Ready Player One is a tough movie to critique. For one thing, it is far from perfect and if one really wanted to I could sit here and just tear the narrative apart. But when a movie is based on a book, especially one as popular as Ernest Cline's novel, you have to wonder how much of the story's flaws rest with the filmmakers and how much rest with the source material.
RP1 takes place in the near future where social media and online interactive gaming have taken the next leap. Most people spend massive chunks of their time plugged into a virtual reality world where they can be and do whatever they want; real human interaction quickly becoming a thing of the past. The good thing about this concept is that it is relatable. Cline's future doesn't seem that far off given where we are currently. This virtual world known as the "Oasis" is jam-packed with pop-culture references from the last thirty years, thanks to its creator's obsession with popular movies and videogames. When the creator, Halliday, dies, he leaves a treasure hunt of sorts in his virtual world with instructions that whomever can solve the puzzles and clues and find his hidden "easter egg" will inherit his massive fortune and control of the Oasis (think Willy Wonka but more complicated). Our protagonist, a young man from "the stacks" (think futuristic trailer park) is close to finding it with the help of his friends, but a greedy and ruthless business man will stop at nothing to find it first, hoping to use control of the Oasis to force more advertising on its users and bleed them dry, be it financially or with information.
That is all I will spoil about the film's plot. Just know that you will be faced with an onslaught of pop culture references and figures that for the most part are an absolute joy. The main issue with RP1 is that while what takes place in the Oasis is a a blast to watch, the scenes that take place in the real world are a bit of a bore. Now you would expect the virtual reality to be more exciting than reality, it's supposed to be. But the events that occur in reality involve actual life and death situations and I just never felt really invested in them. The peril that was there was rushed and the characters weren't really developed enough to feel emotionally connected to them. There is also a flawed villain on display here. Ben Mendelsohn can be so good at vile and menace. But here his character is so uneven. One minute he's determined and diobolical and the next he's a bumbling idiot. There is also a scene where TJ Miller's avatar, I-R0k, sits down next to some young women in a club and makes them uncomfortable and frightened. The scene isn't really necessary to the movie and given the recent accusations against Miller in real life, it makes you wonder why it wasn't cut. Anyway, not a big deal, I just thought it was odd and I'll be surprised if no one else notices it.
Now the good stuff. This movie is a visual and audio feast. The race scene near the beginning is so fun and intense and loud (in a good way). The majority of the movie is packed with color and style; it manages to be fun and trippy at the same time. (I don't get high, but I would wager the people that do will have a blast watching this in such a state; not that I'm condoning such an activity.) And there's so many references flying at you the whole movie. Batman, Willy Wonka, Halo, Terminator 2, King Kong, Chucky, Iron Giant, Back to the Future, Ninja Turtles, and that's just some that I thought were neat; not even scratching the surface of what fanboys will be obsessing over when talking about this movie. There is an entire sequence devoted to one of Stanley Kubrick's classic films here (I won't spoil it), and it is genius. However, I will warn parents that I felt this scene was a bit scary for younger viewers, particulary since most of them won't understand what is being referenced.
And therein exists a problem with RP1's appeal. It didn't really occur to me until I was having a conversation about the movie with the son of a friend of mine. He's usually super-excited about all the big superhero and sci-fi movies. I asked him a couple weeks ago if he was looking forward to RP1, and his response was "Neh, not really. Maybe I'll watch it when it comes out at home." And thinking about his response, and now that I've seen the movie, it really does have a narrow demographic. The movie's narrative isn't always strong enough to appeal to moviegoers just looking for a good adventure film. The real appeal of the movie is seeing all these great references to past entertainment. The references are too old or obscure for young audiences. And the movie is too frantic and uneven for senior audiences. The real demographic for this film are nerds between 25 and 55. It's a big movie-going demographic, so it should do well financially. But it does speak to limitiation inherent in the film, that due to its source materal, really couldn't be avoided. On the other side of that coin, it could be seen as a good opportunity for parents to introduce their kids to the entertainment icons they grew up with. Then they could say, "Remember that cool car he was driving? How about we watch Back to the Future at home so you can see where that came from?"
Technically everything looks sounds good from top to bottom. I could pick on a couple of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's odd choices, but shooting a movie of this scale isn't easy and it can't all look perfect. Another thing I didn't care for is it seemed that every time another pop culture icon appeared, one of our "original" characters had to point it out. "There's Kong", "Ahh its Chucky", "Hey look, Batman", that type of thing. Part of the enjoyment of a pop culture reference in a movie is knowing that you "got it" and perhaps not everyone else in the audience did. It just feels a little insulting that the filmmakers felt we needed so many of the references pointed out to us.
I know a lot of this review sounds negative. But that's only because it is easy to describe the things I didn't care for without spoiling important plot points or fun scenes. If I were to dive deeply into the things that had me grinning from ear to ear throughout much of the film, I'd have to get into major spoiler territory, which I refuse to do. Just know that Spielberg's latest is a wildly entertaining movie that is meant to be seen on the largest screen possible, and in 3D! I know there is a lot of debate about 3D in cinemas today, but believe me when I say that RP1 was designed to be seen in 3D. In said format, on a proper screen, it is a truly immersive experience.
Some movies are just meant to be entertaining. They're not meant to be picked apart and over-analyzed. Just go to the movies and have a good time. I can't imagine anyone, particularly in the age demographic I described earlier, not at least enjoying themselves at this movie. 8/10.
The Effects of Death Exlpored
Opening your film with what will be the most intense or disturbing scene in the movie is risky. It can affect the intensity of your climax later and it puts the audience at unrest right from the get go. But that is exactly writer/director Scott Cooper's intention. Hostiles opens with one of the most violent scenes I can recall outside of the war and horror genres. It will make you uneasy and have you wondering, "what exactly have I signed up for?" This story takes place in a violent world; a world where even the best of men are dangerous men with blood on their hands. Cooper wants you to understand that, and to feel that from the start. And he accomplishes this with great precision.
Hostiles follows renowned Army Captain Joseph Baker (Christian Bale) who is assigned the task of transporting a dying Native American Chief (Yellow Hawk played by Wes Studi) to his homeland in Montana where he can die in peace. This detail also includes transporting the Chief's family which includes his son (Adam Beach), daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson. Baker does not want this assignment. Yellow Hawk has been a war prisoner for some time, captured no doubt by Baker himself. The two men have seen each other commit violent acts against each other's soldiers and friends. There is understandable animosity between them and despite Baker's insistence that he does not want this mission, he has little choice in the matter if he wants to retire from the Army with his record unscathed and his pension intact. As his commanding officer, Colonel Briggs (Stephen Lang) tells him, "This will be done. And it will be done by you."
Not long after the Captain, his small team of soldiers and Yellow Hawk's family start their journey, they find Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a woman in dire straits after just witnessing the murder of her entire family and the burning of her home at the hands of another Native American tribe. Baker and his men know they must take this woman with them, not just to protect her from further attack and the elements, but to protect her from herself. All of this takes place in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The rest I will leave you to discover on your own.
For a movie that runs nearly a quarter past two hours, it is a wonder how it never drags. Had the film been released more in line with the awards season time frame, editor Tom Cross may well have seen his way to a few ceremonies. As would cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who has made a film so gorgeous that even the close-up shots look amazing. When it comes to the beautiful landscape, this is probably the best-looking Western since Open Range. The score by Max Richter is very subtle, it fits the tone of the film perfectly, never feeling intrusive, but not unnoticed.
Every actor in this film is giving one of their finest performances. I'd go as far as to say this is Christian Bale's best performance since The Machinist, which is saying a lot since he's given so many great performances in between. Rosamund Pike's portrayal of a tortured soul feels authentic and heartbreaking. Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons and Ben Foster all have opportunities to shine in smaller roles. Cochrane in particular shines as a soldier whose life of killing has finally taken its toll mentally and physically.
Hostiles may just come across as depressing to some viewers. It is dark and violent and there is little levity to speak of. There is so much death on screen that at times the movie seems like it is a story about death. And in a way it is. The acts of violence in the film happen quickly, but the repercussions of those acts are dwelt upon. We bear witness to the effects of death in its various forms. As such the film becomes more than just a story about death, but one about our reconciliation with mortality; our understanding of an outcome that is inevitable for us all one way or another.
Scott Cooper has created one of the best films of 2017. A haunting, emotional Western that you will not soon forget. A film that looks this good and that is this emotionally engrossing deserves to be seen on the big screen. And a film this well-made deserves an audience. So get to it. 9/10
The Disaster Artist (2017)
A Good Film About Making A Bad Film
The Disaster Artist tells the true story of eccentric, wannabe filmmaker Tommy Wiseau's (James Franco) attempt to make his own professional movie, and of his relationship with young, wannabe actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). It's not at all a spoiler to say Wiseau was successful in that he did get his film, The Room, made and that it did experience a theatrical release (in one theater). The Room, (released in 2003), has achieved cult status since its release; now considered by many to be "the best worst movie ever made".
The first question that should arise is, "Can you really enjoy The Disaster Artist without first seeing The Room?" The short answer is "No". The Room is a bad movie for sure. I personally didn't enjoy it as much as its many fans do because it's not quite bad enough to be hilarious, at least not for me. For me, it's just bad. (Though I did chuckle at it at some points throughout.) However, seeing it before watching TDA will help you appreciate a lot of what's going on behind the scenes in this film. That being said, if you absolutely can't suffer through The Room, then you can still find enjoyment in TDA, because, unlike the film it's based on, it is very good.
TDA is the best film James Franco has been attached to in recent memory. He transforms himself into Tommy Wiseau. It's an excellent performance and one that deserves the praise it's getting because he disappears into it so well. Also, Wiseau is so odd that any imitation of him may have easily come across as parody. That seems to be the last thing on Franco's mind. Wiseau's lack of tact and inability to empathize with others could easily make him seem like an arrogant jerk. But he's portrayed here more as someone who's odd behavior is simply misunderstood; his abrasiveness stemming more from passion than from ego. It's a bit of a tight-rope walk for Franco. While we shouldn't necessarily like Wiseau, we at least need to be able to appreciate his motivations, and connect with a man pursuing his dreams-Franco does this very well.
He does not do it alone though. In order to avoid just scoffing at Wiseau, we need a more grounded character to bridge a connection. James' brother, Dave Franco, plays Greg, an aspiring actor who is at first intrigued and fascinated by Wiseau, even accepting an invitation to move to LA with him so they can both pursue their dreams of becoming famous Hollywood stars. After last year's underrated Nerve, and this year's turn in TDA, Dave Franco is showing some solid potential beyond the immature young guy roles we're used to seeing him in. His performance obviously isn't as showy as his brother's, but that's exactly why it works. Someone needs to offset the wackiness and bring a balance to the film. While James is getting a lot of awards attention for his performance, I feel Dave should be in the best supporting actor conversations. It may be that he's simply in the film too much to be considered a "supporting" role. Either way, if he keeps digging into more roles like this, he could easily make a real impression on audiences beyond being "James Franco's brother".
The rest of the cast is a real who's who of cameos and supporting turns. The film opens with several real-life actors and filmmakers sharing their opinions on The Room. Then as the film goes on, every time you turn around a popular actor shows up in just about every role. It's like everyone wanted to be a part of this film. Just to name a few: Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas, Lauren Ash, Charlyne Yi. Even Melanie Griffith and Sharon Stone show up for small but effective parts.
As for the film itself, if you're a fan of movies about making movies, like I am, you'll love TDA. Pulling double duty as both the star and director (it only makes sense considering who and what the film is about), James Franco creates a wide canvas for his characters to play on, beyond just watching a bunch of people making a movie. I'd argue that the first act could have been a little bit tighter, but the film never gets to where it's dragging or stalling. All the actors are given a chance to shine. The script is solid. On the technical side, from cinematography to music, nothing will over-impress, but its all serviceable and suits the material well. There is some appreciation for the technical crafts after the film ends when side-by-side footage is shown of The Room and precisely re-created scenes for TDA.
The Disaster Artist probably won't crack my top ten list for this year, but I certainly enjoyed it and intend to see it again at some point, perhaps as a double feature with The Room. Other than being fully prepped for awards season, I can't say its a film that must be seen in theaters. It's small scale seems well-suited for home viewing. If you're a fan of The Room, or just want a glimpse into the world of making indie movies, or even if you're just a fan of the actors involved, The Disaster Artist should earn a spot on your watchlist. 7.5/10
An Old Recipe Prepared Well
I got to attend an early screening of Marshall tonight. I'm interested to see how critics react. I have a feeling many of them will object to the "paint-by-numbers" approach to the film. While we have not seen Thurgood Marshall represented much in film, it does feel like we've seen this movie more than once before. But that isn't really the point. I've eaten spaghetti and meatballs hundreds of times before. I still enjoy it each time, the same dish, so long as it is made well. And Marshall, while not reinventing any wheels, is made well. Chadwick Boseman leads a terrific cast that includes Josh Gad, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, Kate Hudson and Sterling K. Brown. Everyone is there to give this very important true story some depth and weight. At the same time, the screenplay never gets too caught up in its own self-importance. While some very dark themes and tragic events are present, there is a sense of humor pervading much of the film. This makes the people and events portrayed in Marshall relatable, instead of feeling like we're watching a group of untouchable, stoic historical figures. Marshall isn't designed to inspire anger or guilt, instead it encourages us to examine examples of unity that have been used to overcome struggle. It has more in common with films like The Help or Hidden Figures, than more aggressive films like Detroit (though that film is very intense and impressive). I would say Marshall will play out just as well at home as it does in a theater, but there is something about seeing it with a crowd that in this case adds to the experience. The gasps of the audience when an atrocity is displayed, the clapping when a bigot loses his/her battle-it is a good film to enjoy with an audience. From a technical standpoint, the film does not go out of its way to impress. The cinematography, costume and production design, music, editing-all seems serviceable if not particularly memorable. In this case its the story and the figures it portrays that you'll remember. 7/10.
If Nothing Else, It's Entertaining!
I've long criticized the Transformers films. And I still hold that they could be so much better than they are. But what I can't deny is that they do hold a certain spectacle to them. There's still something amazing about seeing these gigantic robots come to life, a testament to the visual effects wizardry of modern movie-making.
This new film actually does attempt to fix a few of of the bigger complaints from the previous entries. For one, our female leads are competent, capable, empowered women who hold their own, a far cry from what we've previously seen in this franchise. Also the "racially- insensitive" robots are scaled way back, thankfully. For the most part the voice-castings seem authentic to the character portrayed without entering the territory of offensive stereotypes. And the Michael Bay camera angles, the nauseating slanted from the ground up shots that just take me out of a lot of his work because it seems like the cameraman is drunk, those are also scaled back. In fact, there's actually some gorgeous shots throughout this film, and I can confidently say this is the best-looking film in the franchise.
Unfortunately, a lot of the same problems from previous films are still present. For starters, it's just too darn long. Even movies about epic historical events don't need to be this long; so at 2.5 hours, a movie about fighting robots is bound to out-stay it's welcome, and it does. There's a lot of the middle hour of this film that can just be cut. And as likable as Isabela Moner's spunky orphan is, her character just does nothing for the overall story the movie is following. She could have been left out altogether and it would have cut out a good twenty minutes of film and the story would have still arrived at the same ending. Other issues include the horrid dialogue, a meandering story (which I'll give credit for at least trying to establish some kind of connected Transformers history), John Turturro making an a*s of himself, and a cast struggling to perform what they know is trash.
That being said, Transformers is enjoyable trash, like junk food. You know it's not good for you, and you may even feel guilty eating it, but enjoying it once in a while won't kill you. Similarly, I could sit here and berate T:TLK to no end, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't entertained. The last half-hour or so of battle is quite a ride, and there's some solid editing afoot at least during that section of film as it jumbles several characters' perspectives at once.
It should come as no surprise that the recommended viewing format in this case is the biggest screen you can find with solid speakers, and yes-cough up the extra cash for the 3D. This is probably the best use of 3D so far this year. The scenes with the fighter jets are particularly good, making you feel like you're flying right there with them.
If you're a fan of these films already, you'll be delighted. If you think they're horrible, this one won't change your mind. If you're like me and you see them as a reasonable excuse to watch giant robots blow stuff up, you should leave the theater satisfied. 6.5/10.
"The Price For Your Glory Is Their Suffering"
Martin Scorsese's new drama was not designed to be easy on its audience. Silence is a dark tale of violence and persecution that raises many questions about faith and martyrdom, but doesn't pretend to have the answers to those questions. This is what makes the film so profound. Those that consider themselves very religious will find sympathy and outrage at the circumstances displayed. Those that are not religiously- minded, or that consider themselves atheist or agnostic, will find it unfathomable that people can treat each other in such ways over religion- or that people would be willing to die for their god. The question at the core of Silence is "While you may be willing to die for your faith, are you willing to allow others to die for it?" Silence does not pretend that there is a right or wrong answer to this question, instead it gives you the results of the decisions made by these specific characters-and allows you to ponder and decide for yourself what right and wrong is, or you may decide there isn't a right or wrong. Either way, I don't believe anyone can leave a viewing of Silence unaffected.
As a movie, I went in a little worried. I had read that it was long and deliberately slow. But I didn't find this to be the case. While it is long, at 2 hours and 41 minutes, I did not feel that the film dragged, nor did it feel like it was too long. In fact, I was so enthralled by the characters on screen, I didn't really want it to end. At the same time, as much hardship is displayed on screen, the film needed to end-before it induced some semi-permanent depression on its audience. I guess what I'm saying is, if you're a fan of mature, thought-provoking movie-making, don't let the lengthy run-time scare you. Long-time Scorsese-collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker proves once again why she is one of the best film editors in the business. She's been doing this for fifty years now (according to IMDb), and Silence is one of her finest works yet. Not a single scene feels unnecessary or tacked on. Even though she already has three wins (The Departed, The Aviator, Raging Bull), I hope the Oscars don't leave her out this year.
As for the cast, there's several award-worthy performances on display. Andrew Garfield is having quite the year. He's already been Golden Globe- nominated for his excellent turn in Hacksaw Ridge. But I believe his work in Silence is even better. His character has to deal with an intense crisis of faith, and it has to feel real or the film simply wouldn't work. Garfield makes this look effortless. The supporting actors, including Adam Driver, Liam Neeson and Ciarán Hinds all bring their A- game. The Japanese cast is also top-notch. Yoshi Oida, Shin'ya Tsukamoto, Yôsuke Kubozuka and Tadanobu Asano are all memorable. It's Issei Ogata as Inoue the Inquisitor who I really wish was in the awards conversation this year. His performance is humorous at times, bordering on just a bit hammy, but his character is so evil that these things only make him more despicable.
The film is also a gorgeous production. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is stunning. The costume and set designs give you a real sense of time and place, transporting you to world few films have gone and even fewer have made look this authentic.
As for the star behind the camera, Martin Scorsese is one of those directors we've come to hold to a higher standard. Like Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola, when their films aren't great it is more noticeable-simply because these filmmakers have given us so many classics we hold in high esteem. Thankfully, Scorsese does not disappoint. At 74, he's delivered one of his most technically ambitious features. While Silence may not be as entertaining or re-watchable as some of his past efforts, it is certainly one his most thought-provoking and important films. Movie-goers also shouldn't let the "Scorsese-brand" worry them as far as the film's content. The film does feature some very intense scenes of torture and violence. But there is nothing in the way of profanity nor sex/nudity.
Those going to Silence looking to be entertained may be disappointed. Not all films are designed to entertain. Some are made to promote thoughts and conversations about important subjects like religion, war and prejudice. Films like Schindler's List and Apocalypse Now come to mind; movies that you may not see over and over again-but that everyone should watch at least once. Silence may be difficult to watch at times. It can be faith-assuring or faith-shaking depending on what you take away from it. But like those other films I mentioned, it is a film everyone should see at least once.
Fences Is 2016's Most Well-Acted Film
"Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in."
The first thing movie-goers should understand about Fences is that it is very much a filmed play. An adaption of August Wilson's Tony- winning play, director Denzel Washington has kept the project as minimalist as possible. There's good reason for this. Wilson's words are exciting enough that there is just no need for big action, large sets nor grandiose cinematography. Fences is a small, intimate story about Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) and his close-knit circle of family and friends. This small cast of characters is used to speak volumes about how far the Black community had come in overcoming prejudices by the 50s-era the story takes place in, but how far they still had to go. It talks about the roles of husbands, wives and children; the sacrifices we all make to support each other, often giving up our own dreams but never losing sight of them.
Much has been said of the performances here, and with good reason. They're terrific. Viola Davis will get her Oscar this year, there's little doubt in my mind. Her Rose Maxson is so reserved and subtle for much of the film, allowing Troy's continual imperfections and abuses to store inside her and chip away at her emotionally until the final straw causes her to erupt near the final act of the movie. It's an emotional and painful performance to observe, and one many, particularly long-time wives and mothers, will find easy to relate to but at times difficult to watch.
As for Washington, I find it difficult to understand why he isn't the front-runner for Best Actor this year. I've seen front-runner Casey Affleck's performance in Manchester By The Sea and it is excellent and look forward to Ryan Gosling's turn in La La Land; but what Washington does in Fences is special. Simpy put, it's one of the best performances I've ever seen an actor give. Troy is a very imperfect man to say the least. He's not necessarily a "bad guy", in fact most men will be able to see a little of themselves in Troy. He's a likable personality who does some despicable things. HIs tough love approach to raising his son seems more out of spite than love. And while there can be no doubt that he loves Rose, his behavior proves that love and respect are not the same thing. Washington crawls into this raw and complex character, becoming Troy to the extent that no matter how big a star Washington is, you forget you're watching an actor.
The supporting cast fairs well, particularly Stephen Henderson as Troy's friend and work-mate Bono, Jovan Adepo as his son Cory and Mykelti Williamson as his mentally-challenged brother Gabriel. Everyone seems to be working their hardest to do Wilson's words justice, and their efforts result it what may be the most overall well-acted film of the year.
Fences won't appeal to everyone. Those looking for action and extravaganza, this is not your movie. But if you're like me and enjoy watching good actors perform a well-written script, then you'll be enthralled by every minute of Fences.
Disney Animation's Best In A Long Time
There's no denying that Disney Animation Studios' output in current years has been hit or miss, with Disney's best animated features being those helmed by Pixar. I am happy to report that Zootopia can stand toe-to-toe with most of Pixar's films. It starts with a great script. This script is funny, very funny. But it is also relatable, heartfelt and timely. There has been much discussion and praise of the films messages of embracing diversity and not giving up on one's dreams. While that latter message is a common theme in most family fare, the points the film makes about diversity couldn't be coming along at a better time. Many of us watch the news and see the stories of unarmed minorities being harmed or killed by police officers, or protests over the Oscars' lack of nominee diversity, and we realize there is truth and relevance to many of these issues. But how often do we stop to think about how our kids are responding to these things? They often watch, read and hear the same news we do. The main theme of Zootopia is not judging others based on their "species" and avoiding common misconceptions and stereotypes about anyone who may not come from the same origins you do. Admittedly, the movie beats this point more than a dirty rug (a skunk-butt-rug perhaps? You'll see.). But it doesn't interfere at all with the movie's enjoyment factor. Aside from an extremely witty script, we have a well-cast group of actors bringing life to a plethora of unique new characters. In the lead is Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy Hopps, Zootopia's first bunny cop. One thing that set Disney's classics apart was their creation of unique and memorable characters. Think Genie from Aladdin, Dopey from Snow White, the White Rabbit from Alice In Wonderland or Timon & Pumba from The Lion King-characters that have thrived in the pop culture ether long after their movies' releases. Judy Hopps is one of Disney's best new characters in years and she deserves to be every bit as memorable as those others I mentioned. She could have thrived on the cute factor alone, but she is much more three-dimensional than that. She has experienced real bullying and prejudice in her life but insists on enduring through whatever others throw at her so she can become a cop and "make the world a better place". She's clever, funny and even a little flawed, making her easy to connect with and root for. Jason Bateman costars as the sly fox Nick Wilde, who must learn throughout the film to look past his cynical view of the world and his own selfish attitude. As a Jason Bateman fan, I was glad to see him lending his famously sarcastic tone to this project. In his character's first few scenes I wasn't sure he was the right fit, but once Wilde and Hopps partner up, his range kicks in as his character faces a new emotional journey. The supporting cast includes Idris Elba, Bonnie Hunt, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Maurice Lamarche, Jenny Slate and Shakira as a pop star named Gazelle who treats us to a fun concert during the end credits. Nate Terrance gets one of the film's best supporting roles as Clawhauser, the police department's front desk officer-a fat, goofy, over-the-top, donut-loving cheetah. He and Judy get one of the best scenes in the movie when he uses a certain word to describe her and she responds with a friendly "only bunnies can use that word" attitude. It is obvious what real world scenario this scene is mirroring, and it is a very clever part of the movie's diversity message. All these characters are part of the movie's great mystery-why has there been a disappearance of multiple mammals, and why, in an evolved society where all animals live in supposed harmony, are some animals turning "savage" and attacking others? I certainly won't spoil it here; and while the big reveal may be a tad predictable, it fits the film well. The pacing is near perfect, never does the movie feel like it's dragging or rushed. The sloths at the DMV scene featured in the film's second trailer is probably the funniest scene in the movie. However, there is a little more to it and even though I had already seen it multiple times, it still brought me to tears laughing in the theater. Thankfully, there's plenty more great lines and gags throughout to keep the laughs coming. Obviously, with any animated feature, the quality of the animation is an important factor. Zootopia looks great. It may not be jaw-dropping like The Good Dinosaur, but all the images are well drawn and crisply rendered. There is also nice attention to detail throughout-little things like the carrots on Bonnie Hopps' skirt, Judy's activity tracker watch, and Mrs. Otterton's thread-pilling sweater. Characters' fur looks to stand out and flow naturally. It is clear directors Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush and their animation team set out to make a visually satisfying movie experience that doesn't skimp on animation quality. Disney should be proud of their latest effort. Zootopia works well not just as a animated movie or family film-but just as a good movie period. I certainly wouldn't oppose going to see it again. It works on multiple levels and should be appealing to the whole family. 9/10
No Escape (2015)
A Very Intense Ride (7/10)
I certainly didn't have high hopes for this one going in. The trailers certainly didn't give us much and the cast wasn't too exciting either. I mean Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan aren't exactly box-office draws anymore. And I've never really been a fan of Lake Bell-no fault of her own, just certain things about her annoy me. Anyway, the whole theater audience, myself included, was pleasantly surprised by what we experienced. Director John Erick Dowdle's filmography is primarily made up of tight-budgeted but mildly successful horror films (Quarantine, Devil, As Above So Below), which certainly isn't my cup of tea. But it was interesting to see him apply some of the horror film techniques to a real situation film. "Real" in the sense that it could happen. In the film, The Dwyer family made up of father Jack (Wilson), mother Annie(Bell) and two little girls Lucy and Beeze (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) move to a third world country where Jack's company has sent him to help with a project involving the country's water supply. When local radicals feel this foreign company is intending to take control of their water supply, they successfully execute a coup-overtaking the local police and military, and make it their mission to kill any foreigners involved. At first this means rampaging the hotel most of these people are staying in, but when Jack and his family escape the hotel, the hunt is on. Along the way the family gets help from a mysterious Brit named Hammond (played by Pierce Brosnan) and his local sidekick. So first off-the performances. They're good, really good. Owen Wilson delivers a solid performance in his first dramatic role since 2001's Behind Enemy Lines (forgot about that one didn't you?). He really takes charge when necessary to save his family, but he never comes across as some invincible action hero. Both Wilson and Bell portray these characters realistically, reacting to situations the way many real people would. And the young actresses playing the girls are excellent as well-which is very important because we have root for this family and believe in their struggle-which we do. Surprisingly, Brosnan is actually the comic relief to a certain degree. This is basically a rehash of his Matador character, but it works and he's brilliant in the role (fans of The Matador will love him in this film). This is a well put together cast and everyone gives it their all to make us feel just as tense and scared as the characters on screen. As for the film itself-this is one of the most intense films I've ever sat through in a theater. If you have heart problems-you might want to wait for the DVD as the movie just never breaks, it never lets up the suspense for more than a moment. I thought the most intense movie I was gonna see this year was San Andreas, but amazingly the events in this film make that adventure look like a cake walk. The violence is brutal and real-looking, without being overly gory or disgusting-which means you don't look away, you don't close your eyes. And that's the scariest part of the film-these aren't people being hunted by a scary creature or trying to escape some natural disaster. They are being hunted by fellow human beings- who in their own minds are just trying to protect their own families and interests (though attacking and killing is not the right way to accomplish that goal). I don't want to give too much away as to what happens specifically as you should go in knowing as little as possible. Apparently whoever cut the trailer understood this as we only see events that take place at the hotel in the trailer, and that's just a fraction of the movie. The Dowdle brothers and their team can be proud of what they've made here. This is a thrilling, emotional ride that deserves to be seen. Unfortunately, do to a lack of marketing and overall interest from audiences, I feel it will end up finding most of its success on DVD and Digital. If you like being thrilled, scared, or like films about families struggling through peril and danger (if you liked The Impossible, you're going to love this), then this is the film for you and it is indeed worth the price of admission.
2 Guns (2013)
Went For Denzel, Stayed For Wahlberg
I know a lot of people love him, but Mark Wahlberg is hit or miss for me. However, when he hits, he hits well and he is the standout here. I really didn't think he could go toe-to-toe with a pro like Denzel Washington. But Wahlberg brings a comical levity to Denzel's drama chops that makes the whole film a blast to watch. There are flaws, don't go in expecting a clever plot or an award-worthy script; this is just a formulaic buddy "cop" actioner, but it's a fun one. And aside from our protagonists we get two fun villains in Bill Paxton and Edward James Almos, one miscast one in James Marsden, and the gorgeous Paula Patton as a love interest for Denzel. Films like this- Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Rush Hour-only work if the chemistry between the two leads feels real, and I gotta tell ya Washington and Wahlberg play off of each other perfectly. I really hope this isn't the last time these two actors work together. 2 Guns probably isn't going to surprise anyone in any way, but it does exactly what a film of this type should do-provide the viewer with a fun experience at the movies. Go in looking for a good time and you'll have one.