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Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)
The addition of pseudo-love-interest Mei Mei (Kate Hudson) and comedy relief background pandas generate a hint of fresh humor.
When master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces his retirement from teaching kung fu, no one is more shocked than portly "Dragon Warrior" panda Po (Jack Black) – who also discovers that the responsibility of the instructor will be passed on to him. And after a disastrous first day at the dojo, Po realizes he must search within himself to find the courage to lead. When ferocious soldier General Kai (J.K. Simmons) returns from banishment in the spirit world to take revenge on Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and the guardians of the Jade Palace, it's up to Po, the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, and David Cross), and a long lost member of Po's family to band together to thwart this grave new threat.
The breakneck pacing is back - the screen is ablaze with flurries of neon colors and bursts of kung-fu action jumbled together in brilliant special effects extravagance. But the creativity has waned considerably, as if the filmmakers have run out of ideas for Po and crew. It's already the third outing, so it's understandable that many of the basic themes have been exhausted, particularly when it comes to courage, sacrifice, honor, and being comfortable with (or understanding) oneself. But much of the heart, and certainly the amusement of the unlikely warrior engaging in underdog battles, has nearly disappeared, content instead with onslaughts of verbal jokes and visual gags to gloss over the thinness in plot. Plus, magic is used more often than not to provide solutions for unsolvable (or deadly) predicaments.
There's very little time allotted for catching up with the characters; "Kung Fu Panda 3" definitely assumes that audiences are familiar with the former chapters. Beginning immediately with the spirit realm, a chi-collecting maniac, and the soul of dead master Oogway, it's evident that origins are of nominal use – and that gravity-defying wireworks choreography appears better suited to animation, even when the technique is intended to mimic live-action pictures. New roles are added every few minutes, stuffing the production with so many parts that supporting players like Liu's Viper and Chan's Monkey receive approximately 2-3 lines in the entire film. Fortunately, the addition of pseudo-love-interest Mei Mei (Kate Hudson) and comedy relief background pandas generate a hint of fresh humor.
Visually, everything continues to advance in sharpness and movement and flashiness. Props, environments, and costumes look more realistic than ever. And augmenting this are momentary shifts in animation style, which are quickly becoming the norm in animated features. Subplots or backstories take on a two-dimensional look or colors morph into flat silhouettes to break up the supposed monotony of cartoony characters inhabiting stunningly realistic settings. But it's just another unnecessary device used to mask the lack of newness in Po's latest adventure. Rather than learning profound lessons in inner peace or balancing the forces of chi, Po seems to do a lot of frolicking in his Chinese village - before engaging in merriment in the panda retreat and lightheartedly cavorting with unexplained magic to thwart the advances of the deathly serious Kai.
- The Massie Twins
The Finest Hours (2016)
"The Finest Hours" just might be the worst two hours ever committed to celluloid.
"The Finest Hours" is based on the true story of the miraculous Pendleton rescue of 1952 – an event still considered the greatest small boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard. Though bravery undoubtedly surfaced throughout the real experience, here, sheer luck appears to outweigh intrepidity, ignoring all opportunities to display undaunted heroism in its place. This is a major mistake for any picture, but especially so in a disaster movie.
Every character thrust into the middle of insurmountable danger radiates overwhelming timidity, uncertainty, and even, on occasion, idiocy. "They'll listen to you!" Graham McTavish's Frank Fauteux blazons to Casey Affleck's soft-spoken Ray Sybert. But why would they? Confidence and conviction never emerge from any of the seagoing protagonists, causing frustration and annoyance for the viewer. No matter how spectacular the setting of Mother Nature's wrath upon the miniscule entities invading her waters, no entertainment can be derived from witnessing jellyfish tossed about in a sea of skepticism.
In the winter of 1951, shy Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) meets Miriam (Holliday Grainger) on a blind date - and the two quickly fall in love. The following year, the assertive young girl asks Bernie to marry her, but his shaken courage from an earlier rescue mission that resulted in tragedy affords him marked hesitancy. When a violent storm splits two massive oil tankers in half, Webber is given a chance to regain his resolve. Intent on saving the survivors of the SS Pendleton, the determined coxswain and his crew of three sailors, Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and seamen Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), must conquer monumental obstacles to reach the imperiled vessel.
"The Finest Hours" starts right in with the character development, forgetting almost immediately that it's supposed to be a disaster movie. And a January disaster movie at that. Too much attention is given to Webber's personal life and in all the wrong areas; instead of focusing on the tragic events that lead to his shattered confidence asea, a formulaic romance is initiated, where a cherub-faced redhead exhibits enough control and pluck to make Pine's lead just that much more inadequate.
This might not have been an unwanted contrast were it not for the addition of several other fainthearted, shy, ineffectual players. Affleck's Sybert and even Eric Bana's officer-in-charge Daniel Cluff are mousy, incompetent, and permanently unsure, incapable of producing a hint of leadership or purposefulness. There's not a respectable character in the entire picture, nor is there a genuinely salty tar (save for Graham McTavish) among them. The various roles exhibit stupidity more routinely than bravery, which is problematic for a film that should, at the very least, disguise stupidity as bravery. "The Finest Hours" is entirely devoid of heroism; luck, insubordination, and cinematic segues prove to be solutions to predicaments rather than the typical common sense or grit.
"The Finest Hours" wants to be more than just a disaster film, but it doesn't know how to achieve that. In fact, it doesn't really know how to pose as a disaster film, either. Every time a suspenseful scenario is orchestrated, the editing and dialogue and actions manage to stymie the anticipation. There's no tension or fearfulness or believable peril. Perhaps this is because it's a Disney production, in which blood and death must be at an absolute minimum. But likely it's because director Craig Gillespie just doesn't know what to do with the screenplay, which is crafted so generically and so ploddingly that the special effects of crashing waves and suffocating waters are unable to cope with the slow pacing and pitiful personas. Some of it is so bad it's almost hilarious – but unfortunately, it never goes far enough to be truly funny in its artistic dreadfulness. Instead, it's mostly just unwatchable.
- The Massie Twins
The 5th Wave (2016)
"The 5th Wave" saunters dangerously close to the silliness of the "Twilight" franchise.
Zombies are invading modern cinema and television to extremes of late ("Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" arrives just two weeks from this film's release), so it's no surprise that "The 5th Wave" mirrors that horror subgenre's key elements. Despite its adaptation from Rick Yancey's young adult, science-fiction novel, many of the designs and inclusions, particularly when it comes to environments and motivations, are unmistakably derivative of "The Walking Dead" and other popular zombie properties. A few moments, including the opening scene, adhere so strictly to the zeitgeist's infatuation with common perceptions of the zombie apocalypse that "The 5th Wave" becomes nearly indistinguishable. That is, until some of the teen romance kicks in.
Although the film employs the tired device of starting straight into a tense sequence before circling back to a proper introduction, there is, thankfully, a decently detailed genesis for the end of the world. In Ohio, Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) is just an average teen, playing soccer, attending parties, and trying not to embarrass herself in front of the boy she likes - Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). Like everyone around her, she has no idea that one random, conventional day in high school will suddenly become the last glimmer of normalcy.
A massive alien spaceship appears over the city, exactly like something out of "Independence Day." The "galactic party crashers" soon make their intentions clear: humankind is in their way. The initial attack, dubbed the "1st wave," is an electromagnetic pulse that stops all electrical items and, by extension, even utilities like running water. The 2nd wave comes in the form of geological disturbances, including skyscraper-high tsunamis that decimate islands and coastal towns. The 3rd wave is a modified avian flu that wipes out most of the remaining survivors (thanks to the statistic of approximately 75 birds for every one person on earth). The 4th wave is quickly revealed to be an actual invasion, where disguised alien soldiers attempt to pick off the holed-up human resistance. Before the 5th wave can be hypothesized, Cassie becomes separated from her little brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur), prompting her to undergo a hazardous, 80-mile trek to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where children have been corralled for safekeeping.
Presented from the point of view of a teen girl isn't original, but it allows for a strong female role in the hands of the charismatic Moretz. And fortunately, she isn't toting around her toddler sibling during traumatizing run-ins with paranoid humans and alien "others" alike, which could have become quite annoying. Most of the other players also approach their personas with seriousness, which is a rare and valuable quality in young adult pictures.
But, in the film's efforts to include the obligatory teen romance (or love triangle), "The 5th Wave" saunters dangerously close to the silliness of the "Twilight" franchise. When the characters spy on each other bathing, it's enough to inspire belly laughs. The child-soldier-training routine also grows tiresome, especially as the maturer subject matter clashes with the ridiculously young age of the absurdly named Teacup (a timid girl of about 7), forced to tote a machinegun and engage in physically demanding, strategic combat against adults. At least the secret of the 5th wave is moderately clever, though subsequent twists reveal exponential simplemindedness in scripting. Plus, it's enough to drive one mad when the movie ends with absolutely no resolution – due to the basis on a planned trilogy, though most audiences are likely to be aware of this going in.
- The Massie Twins
The Revenant (2015)
It's too bad that artistry and mindboggling techniques are the only things Inarritu cared about.
When a group of trappers is attacked by Ree Indians, in search of their kidnapped daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o), the fleeing frontiersmen rush onto a boat to drift down the river. Losing most of the valuable pelts and nearly all of his men (33 are killed while 10 make it to the raft), Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) decides to follow the advice of his chief explorer, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), in abandoning the vessel to find a new trail across the mountains on foot. As the disheveled gang makes their way through the harsh terrain, Glass wanders out to hunt alone in the forest, only to be viciously mauled by a protective mother bear.
"He'll be dead inside an hour." Though he sustains severe injuries beyond anything one might assume are survivable, Glass is stitched back together and hoisted along for a period of time – until rebellious soldier John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) determines that looking after the wounded man is detrimental to his own survival. Through deception and murder, Fitzgerald manages to abandon Glass – alone and in a shallow grave – to succumb to his wounds and the bitter cold. But Glass is no stranger to extreme perseverance, using staggering determination and a bit of luck to embark on a daring odyssey of unrelenting revenge.
The vivid wilderness setting is a character of its own; nearly every shot is a carefully staged, expertly choreographed, beautifully picturesque piece of scenery. And then there's a bit of drama in between. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is so exceedingly proud of every individual environmental image that he has painstakingly captured on film, but his efforts are to such a point of artistic distraction that he's forgotten to tell a story. As an overabundance of running time is spent gorging on the stunning elements of dense forests and icy plains and sparkling rivers all basking in natural light, there's no room left in the immense 156-minute production for any semblance of originality.
In favor of nonstop, mesmerizing technical achievements, "The Revenant" fails to be anything more than a series of striking images. There's no substance to hold it all together; the character development is generic or nonexistent, while the revenge plot is simple and uninvolving. Even side stories (such as Glass' half-Pawnee son, or barbarous French fur traders, or the Ree searchers themselves) have no impact on Glass' epic venture to merely track down his betrayer – one whose dependence on the invaluable guide is briefly spoken of but never shown to the audience. It's just a lot of surviving and trekking, surviving and trekking, in the most prolonged manner possible. The film is ultimately just a long, slow, bloody escalation to a long, slow, bloody climax.
With its intense focus on aesthetic camera-work (such as ceaseless circling around every character in a given scene), natural-lighting location shooting, and gruesome violence (in many ways, the film is trying to present the 1800s as a grotesque era full of lawless butchers), a painfully straightforward revenge yarn is bloated beyond reason. The story itself could be told in 30 minutes. But to its credit, "The Revenant" is a most unusual Western, mixing hints of Spaghetti styling and Sam Peckinpah's flair for bloodthirstiness (like "Dances with Wolves" adapted by David Cronenberg) with the chaos of "Apocalypse Now" or "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" to create a feast of visual wonderment. It's too bad that artistry and mindboggling techniques were the only things Inarritu cared about.
- The Massie Twins
Hiccups in style and pacing can't bring down Jennifer Lawrence's strong performance.
As told by her grandmother (Diane Ladd), young Joy's story begins at Rudy's Bus and Truck metal shop, where the naturally creative girl entertains herself through paper models of forests and castles. She envisions a world of wonderment and special powers that transcend the mundanity of life in a small town, further helped by her grandmother's regular words of encouragement. But as she grows up, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) realizes that she's fallen into maddening routines and hopeless mediocrity amidst a complicated circus of familial failures. Not only has she not achieved greatness, but she's also stuck in a dead end job in a dead end life.
Joy's mother (Virginia Madsen) acts like an invalid, spending all of her time in bed watching soap operas; her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) holds her in generally low regards, often making condescending remarks; and Joy's ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) lives in the basement - an uncomfortable arrangement, but one that allows him to help with their two children. And then her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) is dropped off by his current fling, to be similarly relegated to the basement as yet another overcrowding addition to Joy's chaotic household. At times, Joy's exasperation causes her outlook on real life to merge with the outrageous scenarios of the soap operas continuously playing on her mother's television set. But when Rudy's new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) provides the funds for Joy to manufacture and sell an invention – a self-wringing mop – Joy is enlivened once again with the hope of breaking free from the monotony and becoming the powerful matriarch her grandmother always knew she could be.
In this initially light, quirkily frantic, peppy, fast-paced comedy, it would seem that a little adversity can't stop Joy from realizing fame and fortune. But this slice-of-life picture soon becomes a whirlwind of uphill battles and stupefying skullduggery, where businessmen are inherently evil and family members are hopelessly incompetent allies. In its scrutiny of manufacturing and marketing and commerce among cutthroat professionals, "Joy" takes its fragile, human characters and shakes them to their cores. But it knows how to manifest feel-good, inspirational moments too, imparting a zing and a sleekness to the overbearing nature of Joy's discouraging collaborators (who should be part of her support system) and humiliating confrontations with lawyer-encircled fraudsters.
Joy's true-to-life story (based on the real Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop) is given director David O. Russell's trademark eccentricities, full of editing gimmicks (like messing with the timeline); speedy conversations full of naturalistic hysteria; and relatable melodrama in ordinary settings, surrounded by opinionated family members who exhibit plenty of aggravating personality flaws. And yet, with all the editing techniques that Russell surely feels will elevate "Joy" to be something more artistic than a mere heartening tale of unlikely success, it's those very additives that nearly detrimentally becloud the brilliance of the hugely likable protagonist. But hiccups in style and pacing can't bring down this strong female lead, brought to stimulating life by Lawrence's easygoing, levelheaded acting and joyous embodiment of unwavering determination in the face of crippling economic – and psychological – hardships.
- The Massie Twins
The Hateful Eight (2015)
The cast of Tarantino regulars all seem terribly out of place – especially for a Western
After losing his horse, former cavalryman-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) petitions a ride in a passing stagecoach that happens to be carrying infamous mercenary John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his latest quarry, accused murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two gunmen form a partnership to protect their respective investments after another stranger, supposed Red Rock replacement sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), also requests passage aboard the transport. When the weather worsens and a blizzard forces the group to take refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery, Warren, Ruth, and Mannix are forced to intermingle with a host of unsavory characters similarly stranded at the five-and-dime – any of which could be in league with Domergue, just waiting for a chance to slay her captors to set her free.
With the three-hour roadshow presentation, complete with overture and intermission, Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" tries desperately to recapture the feel of a Western epic, like one of Sergio Leone's iconic entries, or Mark Rydell's "The Cowboys." He even steals Ennio Morricone for the score. But the result couldn't be further from a standard Western (or even a Spaghetti Western or Neo-Western); instead, Tarantino's efforts reveal that he's stuck on the idea of a group of killers having intricate, intimate conversations about all sorts of things – whether or not it's hit men or samurai or bounty hunters. If it weren't for the hats and the horses, "The Hateful Eight" wouldn't resemble a Western even in a visual sense.
And that's another problem: this cast of Tarantino regulars all seem terribly out of place – especially for a Western. Madsen, Bell, Roth, Bichir, Goggins, Jackson, and Tatum look like modern people stuffed into costumes; never once do they appear (or act) authentic to the post-Civil War time period. And with the wordy discourse, the character development paints personas of contemporary gangsters, speaking of current activities – most notably in the crude sexual details of Warren's torture tactics. The director isn't really trying to emulate a Western; rather, he's inserting his standard, long-winded, crime-laden motifs into a negligibly Western environment.
Other Tarantino routines are also just as unforgivable and incongruous. He has clearly run out of ideas when he once again plays events out of order, or adds in narration and chapter stops that interfere with the flow of scenes, or when he includes outrageously gratuitous violence. But the worst offense is the running time; believing that everything he writes is faultless, he refuses to cut anything out. This means that credits, scenery, dialogue, camera movements, and even the action sequences are sluggish. It's a long, slow build to a long, slow build, made painfully evident by the halfway mark, which makes one wonder if things will pick up in the second 90-minute piece. "Let's slow it down. Let's slow it way down," insists one character, before another comments, "The name of the game here is patience."
At the end of it all, the story is little more than "Ten Little Indians" or "The Thing," where paranoia causes acquaintances to doubt everything to the point of hysteria and ruin. But this mystery has few surprises, particularly as the tension is mitigated by prolonged conversations in a stagecoach, a stable, a way station, and around a dinner table. It's as if all the character development is accrued by trading stories around a campfire. Although some action does erupt toward the climax, Tarantino isn't interested in imitating the cathartic rampages of "The Wild Bunch" or "The Magnificent Seven," or "Unforgiven," opting instead to settle again on lines from his script - hoping for some great poeticism in the repetition but revealing only tedium.
- The Massie Twins
Mostly experimentation with little amusement.
Though devoid of any real people, "Anomalisa" challenges the audience with a conspicuous, powerful humanity echoing in every scene and lingering on each line of dialogue. Conversations flow naturally. Perceptions reflect reality. And the interactions between characters are distinctly human, provoking unease, sympathy, and humor – sometimes all at once. Whether it's the laboriousness of crafting uncomfortable exchanges with strangers, the precarious dance of courtship, or the struggle with self worth, everyone can relate to an emotion experienced or witnessed by "Anomalisa's" protagonists. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's film will undoubtedly make its viewers think, though the highly existential vagaries, surreal uncertainties, and graphic sexual nature may cloud its more fascinating insights into human behavior.
Caught in a seemingly inescapable cycle of monotony and perpetual flight from meaningful relationships, author and orator Michael Stone (David Thewlis) heads to Cincinnati to speak at a customer service conference. Desperate for companionship, he calls up Bella, an old girlfriend he hasn't seen in eleven years. After the expectedly awkward and dispiriting encounter, Michael happens upon Emily and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), two young women who are staying at the same hotel and plan to attend his speech. Inviting them out for drinks, Michael becomes attracted to shy, timid Lisa, and attempts to cultivate their connection.
"Anomalisa" doesn't give away its imagery right away; instead, through the sounds of conversations and small talk, audiences are gently let into the world of its unsettling animation. There's a certain level of realism to the eyes and props and environments of these Gerry Anderson-like creations, but it's the voices that truly bring these marionettes to life – particularly with the outrageous gimmick of having Tom Noonan voice every character other than Michael and Lisa. With this concept, the film's meditative insight into mundanity allows little observations on humdrum routines to reveal the components of Michael's escalating dissatisfactions. From a taxi ride to checking in at a hotel to ordering room service, Michael is clearly caught in a series of excruciatingly ordinary events – ones that heavily weigh on his psyche.
It isn't until the explicit, real-time foreplay, cunnilingus, and intercourse sequences that "Anomalisa" unveils the failures of its ultimate experiment. Specifically human activities possess an eeriness that is difficult to shake, even though the voicework by Thewlis and Leigh is utterly mesmerizing. Such authentic notes of tenderness and sexuality permeate their discourse, even though it's filtered through the restricted movements of plastic puppet faces. It's also quite odd that "Anomalisa" is animated in the first place; it lacks all of the signature elements inherent to the art form, including out-of-this-world happenings and pure fantasy. As an artistic analysis of midlife crises or a delirious descent into unbearable mental discontent, the mix of peculiar character designs and utter ordinariness is completely effective. Plus, the humor is sensational. But as a slice-of-life drama (and just the tiniest sliver at that), the film is mostly experimentation with little amusement, interested not in conveying a story so much as commenting on a psychogenic affliction.
- The Massie Twins
The Big Short (2015)
It's a stylish, sarcastic affirmation that the bad guys always win.
Several years before the 2008 housing market crash, Scion Capital founder Michael Burry (Christian Bale) notices the subprime mortgage vulnerabilities and seizes the opportunity to invest. Purchasing large quantities of credit default swaps from numerous major banks, his unorthodox activities attract the attention of trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who in turn convinces FrontPoint Partners hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to buy into the scheme. Despite extreme criticism from colleagues and severe skepticism from clients, the obstinate few that forged ahead and bet against the economy wound up making billions while the rest of the world lost trillions.
Taking a cue from "The Wolf of Wall Street," in which reprehensible swindlers profit at the expense of clueless clients in a markedly flamboyant style, "The Big Short" hopes to lure audiences with its own brand of high spirits. But all of the editing gimmicks grow tiresome quickly, revealing the flimsiness of the story and the disagreeableness of the characters. Breaking the fourth wall, varyingly paced montages, slow-motion, on-screen graphics, unusual narration, and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath are but a few of the jazzy distractions aimed at spicing up an inherently boring subject: the 2008 U.S. financial crisis. If the facts of the situation weren't so fascinating (and there are several details presented here as facts that are actually complete lies), the theatrics would be almost entirely wasted.
Fortunately, the informative, infuriating elements that contributed to that significant economical collapse are captivating enough that most of the visual devices can be ignored. "The Big Short" opts to pander to unknowledgeable or uncaring audiences, intent on winning them over with hip modes of education (though the purpose isn't to teach as much as to merely entertain). Even the casting choices seem to suggest that Paramount Pictures and writer/director Adam McKay aren't confident in their storytelling techniques. Ironically enough, most viewers will still be generally confused by the abundance of Wall Street jargon – and may even lose interest in the actors, who don wigs and everyday garb to portray unexceptional businessmen.
By the end of it all, the lead characters don't appear heroic or revolutionary, or even particularly wise. Their successes in going against the grain have the aura of luck or gambling instead of intellectual brilliance. Even when they face corruption so widespread that it's become synonymous with normal commerce, there isn't a sense of winning or losing – merely weathering the periods of time when the villainy of banks and the government are at their most extreme. To its credit, "The Big Short" is able to use humor to bring levity to the horrors of financial ruin. But even the exposed truths of bureaucratic inefficiencies and unbelievable ignorance in oversight positions are largely diminished through quirky, mid-movie disclaimers about the poetic licenses taken to embellish a tale of staggering woe. It's a stylish, sarcastic affirmation that the bad guys always win in real life and that the common man is utterly helpless to bring about change.
- The Massie Twins
Cìkè Niè Yinniáng (2015)
Everything about "The Assassin" is approached with great caution, as if it's unable to commit to any particular course of action.
During 8th century China, the Tang Dynasty loses its power. Over the following 100 years, the Weibo province manages to overtake the influence of the Emperor and his Imperial Court to become the strongest in the land – a land plagued by political corruption and turmoil. From this unrest rises an assassin, Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), who blindly obeys the orders of her master, a nun-princess – until Nie's sentimental thoughts about China and its leaders get in the way. When Nie fails to execute the governor, who has a young son in his arms at the time of the kill, she's instead assigned to dispatch her own cousin, Lord Tian Ji'an (Chen Chang).
As the various lords and provosts and commanders of Weibo reiterate, Yinniang is back. And she'll stop at nothing to fulfill her obligation. Or will she? Being independent and increasingly more conservative with her unmatched skills, she investigates Ji'an's activities and toys with him to ensure that he knows who has come for him. Along the way, subplots involving a secret pregnancy, ploys to disrupt faction dominance, and a black magic practitioner stretch out the running time but do little for the complexity (though it does effect the lucidity) of the premise. It frequently feels as if nothing much is happening.
Black and white photography at the start seems to denote an ancient time period, but the cinematography and style are generally too crisp and modern to feel authentic. Fortunately, the picture quickly turns to color, where majestic sets and vivid costumes can more adequately invigorate the setting and characters. The scenery is certainly at the forefront of the film's artistry, as if each shot is a painstakingly planned painting brought to life. But even the visuals can't enliven the blandness of the plot, which features such agonizing dormancy that viewers might as well be gazing upon still photography.
Everything about "The Assassin" is approached with great caution, as if it's unable to commit to any particular course of action. It doesn't appear concerned with getting to the point or even telling a story. After every exchange of dialogue or philosophical comment to no one in particular, a lengthy moment of silence occurs, allowing the camera to linger on faces, expressions, backgrounds, or general inactivity. And this is usually preceded by chirping birds or crickets and followed by a slow fade.
There are eventually a few scenes of combat (employing the conventional wirework and swordplay), but they're brief and unfocused; clearly, "The Assassin" is not intent on filling the shoes of a typical kung fu/wuxia movie. The music also regularly anticipates some great ambush or flicker of bloodshed, but surprises are nonexistent. The camera guarantees that attacks are heralded by what feels like minutes of characters idling in a dark corner, waiting patiently to pounce – and then typically retreating without a fight. Just when a few sequences hint at something engaging, the scene cuts away, as if director Hsiao-Hsien Hou is intentionally keeping awe-inspiring imagery concealed from audiences. Crawling along at a snail's pace, it doesn't even matter that the ending is unnaturally cryptic and inexplicably comforting; "The Assassin" will have lost most of its viewers somewhere in the first act.
- The Massie Twins
Like "Spotlight" earlier this year, "Carol" possesses a striking sense of reserve, of understatement.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a young clerk at the doll counter in the toy section of the Frankenberg's department store in New York. During Christmastime, she spies a refined, older woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), shopping for a gift for her daughter. When Carol leaves her gloves behind, it creates the perfect opportunity for Therese to start up an interaction; but before the shy shopgirl can make a significant first move, Carol invites her to lunch, ostensibly to thank her for recommending a train set purchase.
When the two meet, it's revealed that Carol is divorced from Harge (Kyle Chandler), while Therese deals with the routines of an amorous suitor named Richard (Jake Lacy). But neither one has much interest in their male companions – or the customary social situations they find themselves mired in. Instead, as they continue to arrange daytime rendezvouses to dine or drive or chat, they must thwart the interferences and advances of the men in their lives to focus on bolstering a romantic relationship – the kind that won't be readily accepted in mid-century America, and the kind that can be used against Carol in a custody battle for her daughter.
Like "Spotlight" earlier this year, "Carol" possesses a striking sense of reserve, of understatement. It's not immediately apparent what the story will hold for the various characters that are introduced, but their subtle actions betray a concealment of motives, intentions, and realizations. The film goes first for the establishment of a realistic environment (1950s New York) before building characters through observation over dialogue, imagery over spoken confirmations. This is also aided by Carter Burwell's gentle piano melodies and violin motifs.
Analyzing the struggle between love for a child and love for a partner – in a not-so-distant past when the morality of lesbianism was also an issue of legality – makes for a dramatic experience when the choice isn't an issue of right or wrong. While other mainstream films have examined same-sex relationships during equally unaccommodating time periods, "Carol" is careful to paint a portrait of love in general, without highlighting specific differences in sexuality (though it does indulge in a sex scene for those audiences who can't imagine a romance without accompanying visuals). There also exists a certain irony in the prejudices the duo encounter just for being two women in the close proximities of dinner tables and hotel check-in desks, despite their refusal to display obvious affection in public settings.
In the end, with a touch of clever editing (the typical gimmick of showing scenes out-of-order, but here repeated with new information for an unusually powerful effect), smart storytelling, and strict adherence to an artistic restraint, "Carol" becomes both an entertaining endeavor and a poignant message about love's ability to overcome adversity. And, in its build to an in-the-moment climax that resolves only immediate happiness to remain ambiguous about the future (really, the entirety of their slice-of-life experiences inhabit only the length of their love affair – there is no concern with the before or after), it's highly satisfying. Undoubtedly, Blanchett, Mara, and director Todd Haynes ("Poison," "Safe," and "Far from Heaven"), working from Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Price of Salt" (possessing an oft-debated title far more complex than "Carol"), will receive plenty of attention during awards season.
- The Massie Twins
"It's painful playing football, obviously."
"It's painful playing football, obviously," states Mike Webster (David Morse). It's a somber remark made by a retired football star who would soon abandon his family, become homeless, and eventually kill himself at the age of 50. As Webster's mental stability rapidly deteriorates, a former Steelers team doctor and good friend Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) is baffled by brain scans that show complete normalcy. His despair over the situation worsens as additional ex-NFL players meet similar, untimely demises brought about by suicidal tendencies and fits of rage.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2002, neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is tasked with performing the autopsy on Mike Webster. The doctor is a bit peculiar, regularly talking to the cadavers in the Allegheny County Coroner's lab as he prepares to cut them up in the cleanest, most respectful manner possible, hoping that their spirits will somehow assist him in discovering the hidden reasons behind their deaths. To some degree it must work, because Omalu is able to formulate that Webster has torn out all of his teeth and glued them back in – before ever touching the body. After paying for special tests on Webster's brain tissue, beyond what his duties entail, Bennet discovers that a specific, recurring disease may link the cases of hysterical, Alzheimer-like, aging football players – and that the culprit is the game itself.
Since the film is essentially just a message piece to inform viewers (especially those lacking in common sense) that billion-dollar-businesses are corrupt and that excessive concussions can cause serious damage, it runs out of steam about halfway through its hefty two-hour runtime. To pad the picture and to incorporate expected elements of familial drama and character development, Omalu gains a houseguest – almost immediately after boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) suggests that he interact with living human women for a change. Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a conveniently attractive, single, seemingly age-appropriate, romantic interest takes up residence at Omalu's home, setting the state for an obligatory love story (with an obligatory nightclub flirtation scene), which rears its head every time the analyzation of scientific findings grows too tiresome.
Through pounding music, montage sequences, and quick edits, "Concussion" occasionally conducts itself like a psychological thriller - but there are no thrills to be found here. The research and studies are also presented like a great mystery, but there's really no mystery at hand either. The fact that certain brain damage can only be proved through an autopsy is curious, but hardly cause for theatrical endeavors.
And what is less amusing is the manner in which the film hopes to make the NFL – and, by extension, every fan of the game – a villain for perpetuating the deadly act of contact sports; surely no one forced professional football players into participating in such a barbaric ritual, with little more than fame and adoration and millions of dollars in compensation. It's not like football is equivalent to gladiatorial fights to the death between slaves. Finding sympathy for any side of this entertainment entity (is it any different than boxing or rugby or hockey when it comes to its level of violence?) is a major struggle, chiefly when the only effective resolution is to cease the sport of football altogether - or to pay ungodly sums of money to players who feign shock at the potential for repetitive blows to the head to have negative long-term consequences. After all, does anyone stop mountain climbing or skydiving or base jumping (or any extreme or even non-extreme sport) after they've been warned of the dangers? Isn't the brutality part of the fun?
- The Massie Twins
"Music is all I understand."
In Switzerland, a Buckingham Palace events organizer approaches former Venice Orchestra maestro Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) to petition that he conduct a concert for Prince Philip, by request of the queen herself. But Ballinger is retired and doesn't wish to perform his "simple" music (actually an operatic piece entitled "Simple Songs") – for personal reasons. Rather than working, he apathetically vacations at a lavish hotel and spa, receiving massages, dining, strolling through parks, and dealing with prostate problems and intestinal cleansing.
Meanwhile, Fred's longtime friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is directing a new movie, collaborating with youthful actors and writers, who struggle with crafting the right ending. At the same time, renowned actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is honing a new character for a film he'll be starring in shortly, commencing in Germany. And Fred's daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), serving as an assistant to her father, must contend with her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard) walking out on her for beddable pop star Paloma Faith (played by Faith herself).
Amid this rather ordinary familial drama (though it possesses some genuinely heartfelt revelations) are regular, hallucinatory images of reclining bodies and relaxed figures, most of which are in some state of undress (including Madalina Ghenea as Miss Universe). It's a mixture of artistry and weirdness, but with enough unhurried contemplation that many moments lose their power and significance. To match the preoccupation with Fellini-esque pondering is constant music, either in the form of bands performing in the scenes with the actors, or an aria voice singing over montages, or classical music floating atop shots of paradisiacal landscapes, or contemporary songs unfolding as characters do mundane routines - or even daydreams in which Fred conducts woodland animals into a cacophonous medley. This use of music is equally inexplicable in the context of the plot, but pleasingly harmonious to the ears (especially the actual performance of "Simple Songs").
"Music is all I understand." The film also serves as an exploration and meditation on aging and accomplishments – as well as a bit of commentary on the meaning of life. And as such, a good portion of it is utterly enigmatic. But there are also some interesting notes on love and freedom and closure - though appreciating the project as a whole will be entirely dependent on viewers' admiration of abstract ideas over standard storytelling. At least Weisz is superb as a grieving wife and the cinematography is fittingly vivid.
- The Massie Twins
A modestly educational comedic drama.
During the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, thousands of Americans joined the Communist Party of the United States. One notable member was accomplished novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who joined the group in 1943. But as the Cold War started up, new suspicions were cast on American communists, escalating into a witch-hunt that famously and publicly plagued Hollywood.
In 1947 in Los Angeles, Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) deals with the paranoid hatred of pro-democratic movie makers and even regular moviegoers as they criticize his participation with film crews picketing for higher wages. One of the major enemies of communism becomes the Motion Picture Alliance, with spokespeople like John Wayne (David James Elliott, looking nothing like the Duke) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who put pressure on studio heads to fire communist employees. And Congress' House Un-American Activities Committee, with their seemingly unconstitutional policies, causes further problems when Trumbo is subpoenaed to appear in Washington (along with nine other screenwriters) to testify about his involvement with the Communist Party.
According to HUAC's leaders, dangerous connections to Moscow could bring about the overthrow of the nation through the most powerful form of influence ever created – the motion picture. Soon, the "Hollywood Ten" are blacklisted from employment with any of the major studios, even though Trumbo was recently signed to a three-year contract with MGM, which made him the highest-paid writer in Hollywood. By 1949, the "Ten" are held in contempt of Congress, and by 1950, Trumbo is imprisoned in Ashland, Kentucky (to serve just under a year). But that wouldn't stop him from pursuing his writing career and fighting to undermine and eventually quash the blacklist.
Though the film moves through history swiftly, with plenty of amusing roles played by recognizable character actors (despite none of them looking or sounding entirely accurate), it doesn't do a particularly convincing job of making the communists the heroes or the McCarthy backers the villains (save for Hopper). It also doesn't detail the specific crimes, prison terms, and relationships between the numerous characters involved. But it does maintain a fast pace while exposing the ironies of the unemployable writers taking over all the writing jobs under pseudonyms and non-blacklisted screenwriter credits. The historical elements of prejudices and antagonism (mirroring the civil rights movement during the same time period) are infuriating and eye-opening. And, in the end, the successes are triumphant.
But familial drama, the sting of betrayal, and some of the humor that is supposed to impart levity to the situations fail to inspire much emotion. Cranston's persona, however, is highly watchable, creating a fictionally cinematic character that can hold the weight of a full feature. None of the other roles can match or even stand out when compared to Cranston, which is not surprising considering that not a single part truly captures their real-life counterparts (something films like "My Week with Marilyn" and "Hitchcock" managed with greater precision). But as a biographical bit of entertainment, "Trumbo" is more than agreeable, serving as a modestly educational comedic drama.
- The Massie Twins
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is ultimately a collection of counterparts and equivalents.
Thirty years after the defeat of Emperor Palpatine and the Galactic Empire, a new threat has arisen to once again bring terror and destruction to the galaxy. The self-proclaimed "First Order" military force, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), strategically conspires to attack the Republic to regain their former glory. But when conflicted stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) disobeys his murderous orders to instead aid in the escape of Resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), he sets in motion a cataclysmic battle between good and evil that will bring him face to face with a pretty scavenger (Daisy Ridley), a vicious Dark Jedi, and a legendary duo from the past.
It's just not quite the same without the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare prior to the now unmistakable line, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away " Nevertheless, John Williams' thunderous theme music and the yellow scrolling text instantly put the viewer back into that nostalgic territory of what George Lucas started back in 1977. This new chapter is, in large part, an attempt to undo what Lucas then did to the franchise with his staggeringly mediocre prequel trilogy, which itself felt like an opportunistic endeavor rather than a passionate work of art.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is ultimately a collection of counterparts and equivalents. The more the filmmakers attempt to recreate the substance of the original three pictures, the more it negates its own reason for existence. To its credit, most of the imagery and sound effects and character designs do possess an aura of authenticity when compared directly to the former vision (almost as if this project commenced around 1986, keeping up with the three-year gaps). But in sticking to so many familiar elements, the project forgot to craft its own identity; it's unmistakably reminiscent of a remake.
From the blaster fire, to the massive Star Destroyers crossing star-speckled skies, to the rubbery alien faces populating desert communities, to the black-cloaked villain stepping from his transport, to the droids rolling and chirping about, so much of this undertaking is recycled. Director J.J. Abrams would insist that all of the similarities are nods or homage, but by the time the heavily-secreted plot is revealed, it's entirely obvious that no new story is awaiting to unfold. Damsels in distress, familial betrayals, roguish pilots engaging in daredevil maneuvers, planet-destroying weapons, good versus evil, and vastly outnumbered rebels proposing speculative plans to blow things up, all return in spades, but without the inspiration needed to demonstrate something novel or impactful. However, a dash of blood here and there appears generally unconventional.
"I've got a bad feeling about this." The dialogue also conforms to the mood and tone of the '77 classic, plucking snippets from the prior six episodes to such a great degree that it's possible the whole screenplay does not contain a single line of fresh material. And the storyline once again starts in the middle of a middle (not unlike "The Empire Strikes Back"), recognizing that, certainly not serving as a standalone entry, this enterprise will be best appreciated by longtime fans. It's also under the impression that audiences require constant action, as it creates a static level of nonstop tumult in which no single sequence has the chance to stand out. But in the end, though it may have lost a good portion of the magic, every so often, when an iconic component or character makes a grandiose appearance (and there are plenty of notable arrivals), it's difficult not to revel in the experience of witnessing a familiar cast wield the Force and do battle against the Dark Side - the right way and for the first time in over 30 years.
- The Massie Twins
It might as well have been one long montage of scenes pulled from the previous six pictures.
In Los Angeles in 1998, young Adonis Creed just can't stop getting into fights. Whether it's in the group homes, foster families, or detention facilities he's continually rotated between, the urge to defend himself with his fists is in his nature and in his blood. Salvation comes in the form of Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo Creed's wife, who decides to raise little Adonis, even though he was born from an affair that Apollo had with another woman.
Seventeen years later, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is working at the Smith Boardley Financial Group and facing a handsome promotion. But instead of taking the extra money and responsibilities, he abruptly abandons his honest future for the riskier venture of training at the Delphi Boxing Academy, where he hopes to go pro. When no one in L.A. will mentor the light heavyweight, Adonis journeys to Philadelphia to track down the legendary Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who just might have a soft spot when it comes to coaching the son of his greatest opponent (and a dear friend).
There are only so many training montages a person can withstand. But this seventh entry into the "Rocky" franchise doesn't let up with its seemingly endless supply of hand-thrusting, muscle-flexing, fist-pumping workout routines set to motivational music. In fact, boxing movies in general are being released so regularly that writer/director Ryan Coogler should have strayed away from such formulaic, unoriginal material. But, handed one of the most inexplicably enduring series in cinema, he clearly couldn't bring himself to refuse.
In an attempt to bring one new element into the fold, the editing style has changed. But not always for the better. Sharper images and more complex choreography can't save "Creed" from the video game-like statistics that pop on screen in a completely terrible idea that drives the production further away from the realism it hoped to attain. It's as if the movie doesn't want to be taken seriously – which is basically what happens as soon as Stallone makes an appearance as the famed Rocky, putting this piece of dramatic fiction squarely into the realm of fantasy.
It's not all bad, however, as the first real fight (taking place somewhere in the middle) is shot in a continuous manner, never cutting away while hovering over the shoulder of each pugilist in turn as they exchange blows. It's only two rounds long, but the technique is mesmerizing, placing the viewer directly into the ring as if in place of the referee, scrutinizing each punch and remaining in the moment, even when the bell beckons the fighters into their corners. Unfortunately, a classic mistake is made when this lone, fascinating sequence can't be outdone by the climax (a traditional championship bout with an interchangeable, essentially random, undefeated opponent), causing the second half of the feature to meander with downhill momentum.
With all of the redundancies in plot and imagery, "Creed" might as well have been one long montage of scenes pulled from the previous six pictures. Even when moments of humor highlight the motif of young versus old, or when father/son bonding edges in, or when the obligatory romance sparks between Adonis and his noisy neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), or when the inescapable, inspirational sports drama theme of never giving up rears its ugly head, bits of genuine poignancy are lost on the stretched out running time and the clichéd interactions. The instances of heart are buried so deep that audiences are left with nothing but the excruciating pattern of training and fighting, training and fighting. At least Jordan looks very much like Carl Weathers.
- The Massie Twins
Sanjay's Super Team (2015)
The characters sport football-size noses that practically prevent their faces from containing other features.
Starting off with a most tired gimmick, "Sanjay's Super Team" claims that it's based on a true story
mostly. But this isn't one of those stories that is too wild to believe; it's merely a children's comedy about daydreaming. It barely qualifies as humor to use that increasingly intolerable statement, especially when no one would question the realism of such fantasy asides.
The plot follows little Sanjay as he watches his favorite television show "Super Team," which is interrupted by his father's prayer time. After a brief battle of raising and lowering the volume, the father wins out and forces Sanjay to join him as he worships three statues of Hindu gods by candlelight. Not to be outdone by the uninteresting tradition, Sanjay retrieves his action figure and imagines the two of them transported into a foreboding temple, where a six-armed, four-headed, sword-wielding golem wages war against three spell-casting, fireball-hurling, magical warriors.
The use of specific Buddhist items and Hinduism beliefs are somewhat unfriendly to anyone unfamiliar with the religions; it's not the most universal or understandable ethos. But more controversial than the un-politically-correct integration of religion into a Disney production is the enormously stereotypical designs of the two main characters, sporting football-sized noses that nearly prevent their faces from containing other features. At least the core message of father/son bonding is a family-friendly theme, highlighting a potential for compromise in education and entertainment.
- The Massie Twins
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
There simply aren't enough fresh ideas to warrant a feature-length production.
65 million years ago an enormous asteroid headed toward Earth, readying to end the Cretaceous period
but it missed. Millions of years later, a family of Apatosauruses harvest crops from their cornfield in preparation for the coming winter. Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) teach their children Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla), and Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) how to run the farm, but timid, panicky Arlo never quite manages to muster the courage necessary to finish his chores. When tragedy strikes the dinosaur clan, and Arlo is stranded in a perilous and faraway land, he must befriend an unlikely ally (a feral human child called Spot) to brave unimaginable dangers in his quest to return home.
It's immediately evident that the computer-animated environments (with water, rain, clouds, etc.) and backgrounds are stunningly authentic. The photorealism is essentially indistinguishable from actual outdoor locations, which begs the question as to why these components were animated at all. But in the middle of this visual splendor are incredibly cartoonish dinosaur designs – even though they possess completely convincing textures and skin/muscle movement. It's a strange contrast to put bouncy, goofy, big-eyed creatures into this backdrop of total reality (especially since this version of Earth doesn't betray its 65 million year-old time period), but it arguably matches the second tremendous contrast: human dinosaurs.
One of the most inventive aspects of "The Good Dinosaur" is the role reversal – a key piece to prior pictures like "Ratatouille," "Toy Story," and "WALL-E." Here, the dinosaurs are the humans and the humans are animals (or pets, as Spot's behavior mimics a domesticated dog to a tee). Taking this bizarre twist on anthropomorphization to whole new levels, the dinosaurs don't just exhibit facial expressions and speech, but they also engage in the activities that people would have accomplished (if evolution had proceeded unchanged by an unexpectedly veering asteroid), such as building a house, plowing land, and erecting a corn silo for storage. Curiously, farm animals constitute the lower life forms, along with various insects and pests.
Despite a brilliant setup populated with extraordinary inhabitants (many of which probably shouldn't belong in a Pixar film), "The Good Dinosaur" struggles to focus on an original story, falling back on individual, creative elements to distract viewers from its strict adherence to familiar territory. It can't just be a slight twist on "The Incredible Journey" (or "Homeward Bound" or "101 Dalmatians") with the routine themes of earning stripes, conquering fears, and coping with premature loss. In failing to transcend such basic motifs (many borrowed liberally from other Disney projects like "Bambi," "Pinocchio," and "The Lion King"), this coming-of-age yarn feels uninspired and flat. Even a few emotional moments are unable to evoke the standard Pixar tear-shedding.
Though the dinosaurs are essentially interacting in a Western setting (a T-Rex family herds longhorns and treat their own bodies as if they were astride a horse, perhaps like a centaur, while they defend against velociraptor rustlers), the comic misadventures are rarely unpredictable. There simply aren't enough fresh ideas to warrant a feature-length production. It's doubly disappointing that Arlo is the least amusing of the various dino personalities, regularly appearing as downright pathetic; when he's eventually redeemed, it's wholly implausible. It's also a bad sign that select bit parts (like fed-up gophers, a styracosaurus meditator, and fanatical pterodactyls) are more memorable than the lead character.
- The Massie Twins
Basically, Katniss gave up two movies ago.
As the districts of Panem unite to battle the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) at the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) prepares for her toughest mission yet. Heading to District 2 as a propagandistic member of commander Boggs' (Mahershala Ali) Squad 451, Katniss joins forces with old and new allies, including Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Cressida (Natalie Dormer), Castor (Wes Chatham), and Pollux (Elden Henson). Following behind the rebel front lines, the group must evade scattered Peacekeeper soldiers, mine fields, and cunning Gamemakers' pods – booby traps outfitted with all manner of deviously destructive capabilities. When Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is thrust into her care once again, and an unexpected tragedy forces Katniss to take command, she must make a decision that will impact not only the lives of her friends but also the very fate of Panem.
The film start mid-scene, which is fitting since the previous installment ended in about the same fashion. It makes no attempt to mask the fact that it's half a movie, half a story, and ultimately just a further adventure for a band of characters that shouldn't have progressed past the first theatrical episode. The shame with this franchise is that even though it kicked off the craze for teen dramas set in dystopian futures, its insistence on stretching out the plot over several pictures means that it has now become just as generic and derivative as the plethora of copycats it inspired.
The only realism to the rebellion is its longevity – and its slowness. It makes sense that it takes a considerable amount of time to overthrow a corrupt regime, itself a system that has become dictatorial and oppressive over the course of decades. What doesn't make sense is the speed in which the history of "The Hunger Games" tends to repeat itself – and the actions of its inhabitants as they switch allegiances or change behaviors to match a contrived plot twist. Peeta's brainwashing in the previous film spills over onto other characters as if they were also influenced by insect toxin torture.
Meanwhile, as the storyline alternates between rousing speeches, insubordinate maneuvers, and surprise attacks, Katniss retains her infuriatingly reckless routines. She's lost all of the momentum of her survivalist toughness from the actual kill-or-be-killed, gladiatorial competitions; now she only exhibits a carelessness and an unintelligence that proves she doesn't understand the importance of her role as a symbol, the severity of warfare, or the benefits of hatching a plan. Nearly every one of her endeavors begins with impulsiveness or arrogance and ends with blind luck. She never once demonstrates acumen as she treks across 75 blocks of booby-trapped metropolitan ruins; rather, she proceeds with a repetitious circle of foolhardy instincts and last-minute escapes fueled by well-timed rescuers. It also doesn't help that Katniss' attitude stays in a constant funk, as if she's a whining, remorseful, intimidated, hollow shell of a person, devoid of the will to carry on fighting. For the most part, she gave up two movies ago.
Even when the set designs show potential as battlegrounds of claustrophobic, mazy terrors, they're spoiled by traditional zombie hordes or video game-like deathtraps. The postapocalyptic terrain and its strange denizens can't muster the inventiveness necessary to put this project above the countless other features that borrowed from the success of the original. It seems that the writers ran out of steam after "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." It also doesn't help that the long-awaited wrapping up of loose ends, the serving up of retribution to the evil culprits of a four-part series, and the witnessing of outcomes of so many characters provide little real satisfaction, continually hiding behind the idea that war is hell. A "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" styled finale (which is essentially coda after coda after coda) and the most unconvincing of love triangles further cement "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2" as something much less than a complete movie and far more disappointing than a muddled bit of juvenile science-fiction outgrowth.
- The Massie Twins
By most standards, this would all be unbearably dull.
In 2001, the Boston Globe's four-member "Spotlight Team" of investigative journalists is tasked with the comprehensive coverage of criminal prosecutions involving Roman Catholic Church priests and the sexual abuse of minors. Led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), writers Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Bryan d'Arcy James) begin extensive research into the perpetrators, the victims, and the lawyers assigned to the cases. As they dig deeper, the dedicated group steadily uncovers a web of deception and cover-ups that will expose a wide-reaching conspiracy and shock a nation.
"Spotlight" isn't just "based on actual events" like the title card suggests. It's practically a documentary in the way that it depicts the reporting that led to the unearthing of 2001's shattering Catholic Archdiocese scandal. Even though it begins with a brief going-away party, the main characters quickly shuffle back to their seemingly underground lair, full of notepads and desks and computers, where they yell down the phone and arrange their hectic schedules. Thanks to a loss of readership, monetary cutbacks, and the imposition of the internet, times are tough at the Boston Globe – and thanks to Tom McCarthy's direction (with cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi), the frantic flurrying is very much a workaday ordeal, devoid of flair or fancy editing.
Unfriendly, unsentimental, bureaucratic businesspeople engage in a step-by-step investigative journalism procedural. Despite sounding mundane, it's engaging to witness the breaking down or exhaustive examination of the actions taken to bring a major news story to print, including the dealings with lawyers on both sides, the negotiations with corrupt or paranoid executives, and power struggles among all the various players (politics, police, and morals all clash when it comes to combating the church). Interviews and interrogations replace casual conversations and the gathering of facts (from clippings and records offices alike) replaces the collecting of clues. It's approached like a mystery, in which the viewer is privy only to what the characters see, but the intrigue revolves around the maddening subject matter far more than the artistry.
There are almost no traditional storytelling techniques at work in "Spotlight." Adventure, romance, comedy, thrills, suspense, and even drama are generally absent, substituted by montages of door-knocking and phone-calling and book-reading. By most standards, this would all be unbearably dull. But the unveiling of systemic corruption and cover-ups, particularly when the church exercises such influence over the legal system, is so shocking and infuriating that the lack of theatrical interactions or cinematic conventions is largely ignorable. Even when the pacing stumbles over the historical intervening of 9/11 or the numerous delays in courtroom proceedings, a certain pulse-pounding anticipation crops up. It's riveting without much more than a raised voice or two. For many, this won't constitute movie material, but the understating of sensationalism and the authenticity of the ensemble performers makes for a powerful bit of entertainment.
- The Massie Twins
Sadly, it never gets better than the absolutely stunning opening sequence.
Following clues from his former superior's cryptic final communiqué, British Secret Service agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) heads to Mexico City to search for a member of a clandestine criminal organization. From there, he uncovers "The Pale Man" - a rogue agent on the run from the shadowy syndicate - and strikes a bargain with the defector to protect his daughter Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) in exchange for the location of the conglomerate's sinister leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). But as Bond inches closer to his target, a lethal assassin (Dave Bautista) zeroes in on the cunning operative, while powerful forces begin work in London to destroy the 007 program from within.
There are certain essential elements that compose and ultimately define a James Bond movie – the pre-credits sequence, the title song, the villains, the girls, the locations, the cars, and the stunts are but a few (somewhere in the mix, a drink must be ordered and James' name must be revealed in his signature way). With "Spectre," the opening scene is an immediate indicator of a good start – a Mexico City celebration of the Day of the Dead boasts dually ominous and colorful costumes; plenty of crowded arenas for explosions and gunfire and chases; and a camera that seems to perfectly follow the superspy's movements across hazardous, crumbling, bullet-riddled terrain. And the music is sensational (here by Thomas Newman but sounding reminiscent of Junkie XL), thundering with bass and percussion as authentic festival notes saunter in and out of the tense beats. The entire setup is one of Bond's very best.
Unfortunately, the title tune is another matter. Despite garnering plenty of attention and praise, Sam Smith's "Writing's on the Wall" just doesn't sound like a Bond song, nor is it upbeat enough for musical motifs to reappear throughout later action scenes. This is compensated by the introduction of Monica Bellucci, who is one of the most appropriate Bond girls to have never before been cast in a 007 adventure. Sadly, her role is minimal and seems included merely to either increase the number of female characters (and boost Bond's sleeping companions) or to console the actress for having tragically neglected to cast her decades ago.
The greatest problem for "Spectre" is not its little failures in obligatory incorporations, such as the oversized henchman expectedly showing off his lethalness or engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the secret agent, but rather the overall pacing. In its longwinded attempts to reinvent and reintroduce classic Bond characters and scenarios, the script allows for numerous lulls and enough subplots for more than one movie. SPECTRE's originations and development in theatrical adaptations throughout the '60s took several pictures to fully establish; in this latest film, the evil organization's purpose and history is exhaustively revealed, even without understanding all of the continual references to minor points from the last three episodes. Director Sam Mendes and his enormous conglomerate of writers (including John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth) are convinced that audiences will soak up every minute of this crowded project, regardless of the many minutes of uneventful exposition (particularly with bureaucratic and political entanglements) or romance or drama.
"He'll find a way. He always does." No matter the odds or the seemingly inescapable predicaments, Bond manages to come out unscathed. Perhaps that's why, despite so many moments of dire seriousness, an early stunt featuring a lighthearted, last-minute rescue by a well-placed sofa is one of the most memorable and enjoyable shots in the film. As for the rest of the action, great attention is given to making the CG disappear in favor of practical effects and authentic destruction, bringing back the amusement of older 007 adventures, during which computer animation was basically unavailable. It's difficult not to be impressed with the sharpness and quality of "Spectre's" technical efforts, even if it never gets better than that absolutely stunning cold open.
- The Massie Twins
It could have been the most harrowing 90-minute movie ever...
On his fifth birthday, optimistic little Jack (Jacob Tremblay) goes through the routines of eating breakfast, brushing his teeth, and exercising. And as a special treat, his mother, whom he calls simply Ma (Brie Larson), helps him bake a birthday cake – though there are no candles available. These seemingly normal activities all take place in the confines of a small room, filled with little more than a bed, a sink, a tub, a wardrobe, a toilet, and a stove.
Most nights, a man called "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers) visits the room to have sex with Ma. But Jack doesn't understand this custom, instead letting his imagination dream up a world of wonderment, all existing neatly in the boundaries of the room – where a mouse joyfully nibbles on some scraps and where his imaginary dog Lucky can frolic. In Jack's mind, the only reality is inside the room, and everything on the other side of the wall is most certainly outer space. After one particularly traumatizing night, when Jack wanders out of his hiding spot to observe the sleeping adults and is frightened by both Nick and an instance of physical violence against Ma, the fatigued woman realizes that she must coach the young boy into aiding with an escape plan to finally rid them of the restrictive imprisonment of the room.
At first, "Room" is something of a mystery, harboring dark revelations that might not be entirely evident from the basic setup. To protect her son, Ma creates a series of lies about the outside world – but in a moment of desperation and the realization of future obstacles, she begins to reveal some staggering truths. Though details are steadily disclosed, a good portion of the film is shown through the perspective of the child, who imparts an obvious innocence and an ignorance that complicate the strangeness of their durance. While soundproofing foam, the existence of a single window (a skylight), and a keypad on the door are telltale signs of chilling immurement, there's a certain sad unawareness from the youth's viewpoint that makes the situation both scarier and ambiguous.
Like "Life is Beautiful," "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Pan's Labyrinth," or "Tideland," which all use adolescent imagination to counter the effects of an unthinkably repugnant reality, "Room" sets about attempting to lessen the horrors through diverting make-believe asides. But it never gets far enough, instead switching over to an incredibly suspenseful escape (involving a plan that the boy is ultimately just too young to competently assist with) and an equally harrowing rescue. Anxiety builds quite cinematically as so many things could go wrong – or worse, result in further elements of permanent unknowing. But rather than embracing this nerve-wracking segment of their lives, "Room" takes a stab at more encompassing closure, resulting in a slightly slowed pace and a few notes at a message film (which threatens to negate much of the impact, as if this were merely an elongated "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" episode).
What could have been an utterly thrilling 90-minute exercise in purposeful introductions and terrifying solutions soon morphs into a more bloated story of rehabilitation, reintegration, and coping with blame and guilt. The focus on the aftermath starts to dilute the potency of the initial premise and its hair-raising unraveling. Fortunately, "Room" utilizes two exceptional actors who, practically by themselves, build a two-hour character study that tackles the full spectrum of tormenting captivity and agonizing recovery in a highly emotional, thought-provoking drama.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Like a less comedic version of "Birdman."
It's 1984 and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) prepares for the launch of the Macintosh computer. With the aid of his trusted marketing chief, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), the assertive idea-man prepares for the presentation while demanding perfection from his development team, which includes programmer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and electronics engineer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). When Macintosh sales fail to meet the expectations of both Apple's board and CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Jobs is let go from the company. Undeterred, he begins planning his next creation in an elaborate strategy to vanquish his rivals, retake his place at the head of Apple, and perhaps even repair the strained relationships with those closest to him.
Initiating with the suspense and tension of a potentially faulty product launch, or a presentation that might not live up to expectations, "Steve Jobs" paints an amusing portrait of a technology magus with no real invention skills and an abundance of family and professional drama. His success is wrought from egotism, determination, and cutthroat business tactics – or a distinct ruthlessness presumably inherent in billionaire industrialists. Here, however, the titular character is given a shot at dramatic revelations and redemptions that make for an outstanding piece of cinema.
But one of the major problems also resides in that exact mode of dramatization. Since this story is based on a real person, many of the emotional and poignant interactions contain more than a touch of disbelief. Surely the actual people portrayed didn't lead such perfectly cinematic lives and relationships. It's a shame "Steve Jobs" wasn't pure fiction; there's a certain negative baggage dragged around by the likelihood of factual details becoming exaggerated or manipulated for the sake of aesthetic and thematic conflict.
Fortunately, whether spurious or precise, the players are all at the top of their games. Winslet disappears into her role at the start (taking on a quaint Polish accent), while Fassbender is sensational in commanding the role of a generally disagreeable (yet nonetheless human) antihero, full of unwavering resolve in spite of constant ups and downs in personal matters and business interactions alike. Supporting cast members are also entirely convincing, though none can overtake Fassbender's momentum.
Envisioning himself in a Julius Caesar position surrounded by betrayers, Jobs has his disposition and sanity scrutinized in this biting character study of disillusionment, domination, and self-destructive megalomania – though the outcome is fortune and reverence rather than ruin and contempt. "Don't play stupid," insists Sculley. "You can't pull it off." Like a less comedic version of "Birdman," the camera and supporting cast clamor around the central character, advising, admonishing, and criticizing Jobs' maneuvers, all while reveling in the chaos of backstage, behind-the-scenes, last-minute stresses and follies.
Thanks to writer Aaron Sorkin, the script is full of comedic exchanges (like a severer "Silicon Valley"), interspersed with rapid-fire, carefully spoken, intensely structured conversations (like in Sorkin's own television series "The Newsroom") that poetically return to previous references and provide opportunities for rise-and-fall dynamism. Also comparable to the writer's previous work "The Social Network," "Steve Jobs" manages to take a controversial, debated man and turn him into an unusual protagonist, full of distrust and malice that never completely intervenes with chances at capitalization and prosperity. The character development and sharp dialogue are creatively edited around three specific events in Jobs' career, further allowing for a narrow account of transformation and progress that are too artistically potent to believably represent a true persona. But as long as audiences are able to overlook the nagging question of authenticity, the entertainment value is remarkably high.
- The Massie Twins
Crimson Peak (2015)
A Daphne du Maurier novel set in Pan's labyrinth.
"Ghosts are real. This much I know." After her mother dies tragically from a disfiguring disease, ten-year-old Edith Cushing is visited one night by the matriarch's ghastly black specter, which informs the little girl to beware of Crimson Peak (in one of the most frightening scenes and one that would seem far too traumatic for a child to ever recover from). Fourteen years later, at the end of the 19th century, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) now resides in Buffalo, New York, where she attempts to have one of her stories published. Although it's not a ghost story specifically, it does include such spirits, intermixed with a romantic yarn. She's snidely compared to Jane Austen, though she prefers to be thought of as a Mary Shelley.
When the stately baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in town to ask Mia's father (Jim Beaver) for the capital necessary to manufacture a clay-harvesting drill, Mia is immediately infatuated with the handsome entrepreneur. But his abnormally solemn sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) isn't so welcoming. And friendly ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who clearly has feelings for Edith, isn't so easy to ignore. Nevertheless, after another tragedy in the Cushing family, the young woman is whisked away to Sharpe's magnificent yet crumbling estate, Allerdale Hall, in Cumberland, England.
The set designs are simply phenomenal. If director Guillermo del Toro does anything with unquestionable expertise, it's orchestrating and defining a foreboding atmosphere in majestic, eerie, mazy locations. The spooky, towering English castle is a stunning haunted house. Unfortunately, del Toro stuffs his picture with standard scares - including rapid, otherworldly movements in the background and across the edges of the screen; creaking doors and screechy wails; and sudden, loud noises or grisly visages popping into frame. If the environment wasn't so amusing, the creepy segments would be terribly ordinary.
The rest of the story is also entirely expected. As if del Toro felt an obligation to include his trademark motifs, there are brief shots of graphic violence, twitching creatures that are more monstrous than ghostly, and even a fleeting sex scene (this one is more of a Hollywood requirement). Numerous other occasions are devised just for a jump-scare; when the visual symbolism, or poetic banter (nodding to Edith's own fondness for metaphors in her writing), or pauses for gossiping ladies and jovial waltzing spread the terrors too thin, some randomly off-putting sequence is haphazardly tossed in. Alan reveals an unexpected interest in photographic latent images (or apparitions caught on camera), the mother-phantasm returns for a quick reiteration of her warning, and Lucille behaves as sinisterly and coldly as Mrs. Danvers.
Perhaps the biggest fault of "Crimson Peak" is the unintegrated feel of the supernatural haunting, the classical romance, the familial mysteries, and the slasher elements. These uneven contributors aren't blended together with the right balance or precision, resulting in something of a Daphne du Maurier novel set in Pan's labyrinth. The strong female lead is at once easily won over by a hurried love affair and seduced by Sharpe's puzzling lack of explanations, but boldly unafraid of the mutilated ghosts that routinely pursue her or the knife-wielding assailants that attempt to silence her. At least all of these conflicting components take place in a wondrously nightmarish castle, full of falling leaves and snow, shadowy corridors, bleeding floors, and groaning walls.
- The Massie Twins
Bridge of Spies (2015)
A Cold War "To Kill a Mockingbird"
At the height of the Cold War, suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI in New York. Wanting merely the appearance of a fair trial for the supposed saboteur, the Brooklyn Bar Association pressures distinguished lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) into accepting the case. Despite losing the proceedings, Donovan manages to convince the judge to spare Abel's life in anticipation of the inevitable capture of an American spy by the opposition – for which Abel could serve as a trading tool. Sure enough, when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia and American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is detained by the German Democratic Republic, Donovan heads to East Berlin to aid the CIA in orchestrating a complex prisoner exchange - where lies, deceit, and danger are the only guarantees.
A lengthy running time isn't specifically a headache for a movie's entertainment value. But for many directors (particularly those who produce their own pictures and therefore answer to no one when it comes to editing), an overstuffed runtime merely demonstrates the artist's inability to cut out extraneous material. In their own eyes, everything they do is significant. "Bridge of Spies" is just such an example; it contains some truly mesmerizing moments, but it also incorporates plenty of lulls and unnecessary subplots and details. Its failure at pacing only serves to dilute the absolute greatness of key sequences, which are few and far between.
At its best, "Bridge of Spies" is something of a Cold War "To Kill a Mockingbird," as it focuses on the American justice system, the prejudices of human peers, and the politics of judiciary constituents. It also possesses an amusing contrast between both sides of a tense conflict, each determining whether or not spies should be treated as criminals or enemies or worse. Are spies merely governmental employees? Should any sovereign body judge the use of espionage when they also utilize an identical tactic? In this way, the film also resembles the thought-provoking back-and-forth of "The Departed" or "Frost/Nixon" or even "The Ides of March." But at its worst, it's slower than "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (an anti-James Bond type of political thriller involving incomplex characters doing complex things), attempting to tell multiple stories with just enough attention to appear as if additional, integral scenes were left out. It's nearly two movies, with neither one told fully.
Fortunately, Tom Hanks is pleasant and convincing as a war hero of the non-combatant kind, humanized through plenty of humor - and an undeniable levity that prevents any of the dramatic components from feeling severe. There's a playfulness continually aimed at the latent hostility (perhaps a signature tone for director Spielberg). What is most resonant, however, is the chemistry between Hanks and Abel, who participate in a few stellar moments and one grand scene of reflection – an un-manipulative, simple, heartfelt contemplation of meaningful remembrances and their consequence for a different time and place. Sadly, because the film also packs on so many extra characters and subplots, the weightiness of that poignant scene is stretched out and weakened - to the point that the project as a whole cannot be redeemed by two phenomenal portrayals.
- The Massie Twins
99 Homes (2014)
Like "The Wolf of Wall Street" but without all the drugs and girls and fun.
Patrick Cadwell, at the end of his rope with mortgage problems, takes his own life. At the scene of the tragedy, despite blood splattered on the walls of the bathroom, real estate mogul Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) can only think about other contracts to be negotiated and houses to flip. Remorseless and unfeeling, he certainly can't be bothered with guilt or compassion or the aftermath of a frustrated tenant. In fact, his only concern is the cost of cleaning up the premises.
Meanwhile, single father and unemployed construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is about to face his own eviction. Having received conflicting, bad advice from lenders and dry spells in his profession, he's served papers to vacate the home he's lived in all his life. And with him are his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax). After appearing before a judge to explain his situation, and desperately searching for competent legal representation (willing to work pro bono), the foreclosure is still unavoidable. On the day of his eviction, supervised in person by Carver and a duo of coarse sheriff's officers, Nash is given approximately two minutes to pack up his most important items and leave.
In the most contrived of scenarios, Dennis winds up accepting a job from Carver himself when the brisk businessman requires an expeditious clean up at a home whose former owners purposely backed up the sewage system before hitting the road. The $200 offer to shovel human waste off the flooring can't be ignored, especially as Dennis wishes to hasten the process of moving out of the shabby hotel room his mother and son now occupy. Soon, however, the naïve handyman finds his position reversed, as he's instructed to serve the same hardhearted evictions upon others as was done to his own family.
While the introductory eviction is shocking, hectic, and emotional, the audience wasn't privy to the paperwork, the notifications, or prior court proceedings – specifically to boost the sense of immediacy – which prevents Dennis from being entirely sympathetic. It's very much a one-sided presentation. Plus, the addition of an ignorant mother and an uninformed child isn't given screen time to be appropriately affective. Through plenty of reiteration (including montages of fellow homeowners forcibly losing their properties), the film sensationalizes and exaggerates the circumstances and interactions to portray the greatest amount of drama. Nevertheless, the subject matter's resonance will depend largely on individual viewers' closeness to comparable situations.
The setup is hugely implausible, not because of the specific actions but because of the character development. As a millionaire capitalist, Carver would certainly never employ a man with such a high level of contempt and untrustworthiness. And Nash would definitely never accept a job from Carver for any price (let alone the $50 he quickly takes) - out of spite, out of basic pride, and especially after Carver insists that his employees must serve him like slaves. At least, Shannon is superb at being contemptible and intense, tossing about vein-popping speeches that attempt to justify his ferocious, immoral, and regularly illegal approach to making money.
The standard concept of contrasts starts out with purpose (though the editing occasionally bespeaks of amateurishness) before giving way to repetition and manipulation. It's admirable to cinematically depict the rich vs. the poor, the high class and its moral corruptions vs. the low class and its embroilment in impulsive violence, and white-collar moneymakers vs. blue-collar laborers – but the permeating adherence to fraudulence rapidly degrades the prominent statements about these notions. Protagonist and antagonist become indistinguishable when both sides are motivated solely by money. "How do you live with yourself?" cries a woman thrown off her property by Nash, despite his relatively soft approach. In the end, "99 Homes" is reminiscent of "The Wolf of Wall Street," but without all the drugs and girls and fun.
- The Massie Twins