Tuesday, December 20, 2016

“Assassin’s Creed” needs a mercy killing...

Oh, how video gamers (myself included) have long awaited this movie. THIS was the one that was going to break the “curse” of the video game-movie.  How could this possibly go wrong?  Take Two Oscar winners and an Oscar-worthy lead headlining the cast, and throw in $130 million and such a wildly popular game property, and surely you’ve got a slam-dunk, right?  I mean, there’s no way a capable filmmaker like Justin Kurzel could screw up this thing, right?  RIGHT???

Yup, you guessed it - they screwed it up.

The story of Assassin's Creed revolves around Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a convicted murderer who is saved from a death sentence by the mysterious Abstergo Indus-tries, who give him a second chance at life if he aids them in a scientific “endeavor” (why he was on Death Row is never adequately ex-plained to us, other than Callum’s mumbling about the person he supposedly murdered was “a pimp” - I guess that clears up all the moral ambiguity).  Lynch is made to enter a device called The Animus, which allows him to access genetic memories contained within his DNA of distant relative Aguilar de Nertha (also played by Fassbender), a mysterious member of a secret society in 15th-century Spain.  It seems Aguilar hid a relic of some sort that would enable the nefarious Templars to remove Free Will from mankind, allowing them to exert more control over human destiny (I’m not making this up, people…), and by having Lynch use the VR-like Animus to vicariously re-live Aguilar’s experiences, the Templars hope to learn this relic’s location.

If Assassin’s Creed had been made as a period piece, with Aguilar as the hero, it may well have worked as a kind of heightened period epic – something like 300 meets Kingdom of Heaven.  The movie’s best sequences are the Spanish Inquisition-set action scenes, inventively choreographed and beauti-fully executed.  The game-inspired brand of wushu-meets-parkour in these scenes delivers some genuinely awe-inducing feats - a mid-carriage-chase wall-flip and a dead-eye ricochet shot wowed me, and helped to partially compensate for the dramatic lulls.  The period production design and the thundering score by Kurzel’s brother Jed are better than the movie deserves, but even these sequences could have fared better, as Kurzel falls prey to the hyper-editing and spasmic-camera movements that so many action movies seem to suffer from anymore.

Sadly, we only spend three all-too-brief sequences in that period, with the rest of the film being stuck in this murky-blue antiseptic scien-tific facility where everyone has that slit-eyed counten-ance that ensures you know they’re up to no good. Fassbender is a dour, dull hero in both temporal spheres, and Cotillard and Irons both seem to just float through their roles, with an apparent lack of interest that I couldn’t tell was an acting choice or actual boredom on their part.  The cast aren’t aided by the humorlessness of the screenplay, which treats all this hooey with a degree of seriousness that makes it all the more ludicrous.  Even possibly interesting secondary characters get the short end of the screenplay - Charlotte Rampling, another distinguished actor, pops up briefly as the Templars’ head modern head honcho, but has a criminally minimal amount of screen time.

Throughout the movie, Kurzel treats the goofy material with a dogged earnestness he didn’t feel compelled to lavish on his Shakespeare (last year’s Macbeth), and whatever grandeur might have existed in Andy Nicholson’s production design or Sammy Sheldon Differ’s costumes is pretty much lost in the images, which are maddingly murky even in 2D format (one can only imagine they’ll be even darker and more impenetrable in 3D).

It’s so frustrating to get such a “blah” film as this, while seeing that there are good things about it.  I understand fifteen hours of playing a video game is not the same thing as making a 110-minute movie, but this movie has things in it that convince me it could’ve been done better than this.  Alas, we still await the “good” video game-movie, ‘cause this one ain’t it, folks. Assassin’s Creed gets the style of the video games so right, yet unlike those games, it fails so miserably in creating characters worth caring about, or telling us a story we could even halfway swallow.

Friday, December 16, 2016

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and Hallelujah, it’s 1977 all over again!

In the interest of Full Disclosure, I inform you, Dear Reader, that while I attempt to remain objective in all my reviews, I have acknowledged in the past, and do so again here now, that my objectivity may be called into question regarding some movies.  Of course, anything with “Star Wars” in the title fits that criteria, so with that in mind, here we go...

We’ve all seen the “crawl” that opens the original Star Wars a hundred times, telling us how, just before that massive Star Destroyer captures that poor little Rebel ship, there was a battle during which Rebel spies stole the schematics for the Death Star.  That one line of text, scrolling before our eyes forty years ago, is the seed from which Rogue One: A Star Wars Story sprouted.  This story revolves around Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a loner and thief who is recruited by Rebel Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to investigate a bit of intelligence provided by Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed).  Rook is a cargo pilot who claims to have been given information by a source from within the Empire’s newest weapons project, scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who happens to be Jyn’s father.  That’s merely where things kick off, and doesn’t even begin to describe the scope to which the story expands, not to mention the other characters who appear, such as a blind acolyte of the Force and his brutish but wily partner (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen), sardonic security droid K2-SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, and a chilling antagonist who, in Ben Mendelsohn’s peerless, humanizing performance, becomes more threatening as he becomes more pitiable.

Here’s where objectivity gets tossed out the window - I loved this film.  Sure, I was inclined to love it just because the phrase “Star Wars” is there, but my experience seeing it last night was all the more fantastic because it’s so rare that a movie turns out to be exactly as wonderful as I hoped it would be.  The decision to explore the space “between the lines” of the series and its story makes Rogue One such a novel idea, and a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon.  It explores and deconstructs the original mythology created by George Lucas while respecting it enough to honor the spirit and sentiment of it. Rogue One is what I have wanted in a Star Wars film for the last decade - something NEW, but in a familiar universe.  Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have given us something that actually feels like what Lucas put on celluloid forty years ago, without the stilted dialogue expounding on morality and politics he put on digital hard drives twenty years after that.  This is a crowd-pleasing film if ever there was one, with thrills, spectacle and a loveable cast of characters.  

Lucas’ original Star Wars took traditional genres, like samurai movies and Westerns, and riffed on them, layering in aliens, lasers and magic, and Rogue One harkens back to this alluring approach.  This time around, though, it’s World War II movies to which Edwards pays tribute, and with far more than lip service.  With their blatant anti-fascism and bad guys decked out in Nazi-inspired regalia, the Star Wars films have always borne reminders of the evils of the Third Reich.  Here, the galaxy across which the film takes place offer endless variants of terrain, so that Rogue One may find not just thematic, but visual backdrops akin to each of World War II’s main theaters of combat.  The desert hideout of hardline militant rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his crew could easily be the North Africa of The Desert Fox or Sahara (the one with Humphrey Bogart, not Matthew McConaughey), while a thrilling, close-quarters skirmish in a small trading outpost recalls the French village combat scenes of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.  Even the massive and masterfully staged climactic battle takes place on a planet of tropical jungles and beaches, and as men and machines and palm fronds all get churned up together, it’s hard to not recall the Guadalcanal of The Thin Red Line.

Some more cynical, jaded and, quite frankly, sad individuals may point to the first act not devoting enough time to developing the characters, or that with the Star Wars saga being so ingrained in our collective minds that the drama here is muted by our knowing how it will end, or that a few winks and nods to past/future moments in Star Wars lore may be excessive.  Those sad sacks might screech that using computer-aided imagery to help include some characters we never thought we’d see again could be seen going overboard.  To all of that, I say "Hogwash."

If Rogue One existed all on it’s own, they might would have a point, but it does NOT exist in a vacuum. Rogue One is not meant to stand on its own - it IS part of a narrative thread.  Our knowing how it will end is part of the film’s beauty - knowing the ends these characters must inevitably meet, yet caring enough about them to continue hoping against hope that the end will surprise us (come to think of it, I don’t remember getting much time to learn about all of The Dirty Dozen, either, but they all sure seemed like fun guys. But I digress…).  Combine these memorable characters with awesome visuals and thrilling action, and you’ve got a movie that is well at home within the “original” series and one that is definitely worth repeat viewings.

Sure, The Force Awakens was not a perfect film, but I love it because it was good enough, and it served it’s purpose: to bring the Episodes IV through VI cast and storyline back to life and rejuvenate the movie-portion of the Star Wars universe for mass audiences.  Rogue One also serves it’s purpose: to demonstrate that there are stories in this universe to tell that don’t depend on the same cast of characters movie audiences have been following these past forty years.  That it does so in such spectacular fashion makes it worthy of its place immediately before that moment in 1977, when that little Rebel ship was trying to make its escape...

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"The Edge of Seventeen" makes Teen Angst hip again

Movie “coming-of-age stories” are one of those tropes that many film fans just can’t seem to evolve beyond.  I admit I thought I had, but then I saw The Edge of Seventeen, and I have to admit that it seems the place in my heart John Hughes’ movies so effectively touched so many times is still there inside me.  The best of these flicks are capable of transporting we old farts back to a time of life that many of us now view through rose-colored glasses.  High school was never easy, with those four mid-teenage years representing a cauldron of raging hormones, exploding insecurity and academic pressure.  Not only has that not changed, I’m sure it’s even harder now than it was when I endured it.  It’s a wonder that anyone survives them.

With a smart, perceptive script from first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig and a wonderful lead perfor-mance by Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen re-minds us of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this life-phase through which we all must pass.  The movie gives Steinfeld a chance to equal her brilliant turn from 2010's True Grit, and she most certainly succeeds, portraying 17-year old Nadine, an 11th-grader who, in typical Molly Ringwald-fashion, can't seem to connect with people her own age.  To add insult to injury, she has only one best friend named Krista (played by Haley Lu Richardson), who through a late-teen version of a Series of Unfortunate Events, ends up falling for Nadine’s popular star-jock brother Darian (Blake Jenner).  Feeling a sense of betrayal only a teenaged girl could feel, and getting no sympathy from her seemingly bipolar mother (Kyra Sedgwick), she ends up going to one her teachers (Woody Harrelson), whose apparent lack of empathy is all the more hilarious because of its subtlety.

Oh, sure, there are other Sixteen Candles-ish tropes here, such as the borderline nerdy guy who in smitten by our heroine, but Nadine is so wrapped up in her own problems and superficial lust for another dreamboat that she can’t completely see it. Nadine’s actually kind of a brat (yep, that feels true to the age, too), but Steinfeld’s charisma and the script’s humor somehow make her misdirected rage and blundering attempts at independence endearing.  It reminds us of how the brave leaps and big stumbles every teen makes can sting, as she tries (we tried) to figure out how to be herself (ourselves).

The biggest key to the film’s success is that Fremon Craig’s script and direction don’t depend on slapstick to propel the story.  It also helps that the direction is conservative, not drowning the screenplay in references and teenage lingo (I’m looking at you, Juno).  Her script doesn’t adhere to the clichés, but softens them and makes them a bit more real and believable.  There’s a comfort in the familiarity on which a coming-of-age story such as this thrives, but that comfort is totally dependent on our being made to care for the characters, and I never got the impression that any of these kids were complete characitures, even when the story sort of demanded that they be one.

The ad campaign for the film touts it as the next The Breakfast Club or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and while those compari-sons certainly aren’t off base, I think any conver-sation about this movie should be more about Hailee Steinfeld and how marvelous she is in this role. Of course, the rest of the cast are also quite good (being the old fart I am, I had no clue Blake Jenner was anything other than a reality-show joke -- I was floored at how good he is in this film), but this film is fueled by the central performance.  As Nadine comes to grips with everyone else moving on, with the whole world not being about her, she moves on from being a little annoying to completely sympathetic. Steinfeld handles this transition wonderfully.

It’s a shame a film such as The Edge of Seventeen is slapped with an R-rating, the justification for this be-ing a few “F”-bombs and sexual innuendoes, most of which are seen in larger quantities in other far-less meaningful PG-13 teen comedies.  I would hope parents could (and would) see this film with their teenagers.  Maybe the old fogies could be re-minded how difficult this time in their children’s lives might be, and the teens might see that there is hope they’ll survive the Hell of Adolescence.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Arrival" Knows How to Make an Entrance

In the first season of HBO’s True Detective, Matthew McConaughey’s character groaned about how time was not a line we all travelled, but was a “flat circle,” without beginning or end.  In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Mr. Spock posited to Captain Kirk that, once we’re all through rowing the proverbial boat down the stream, life might actually be just a dream.  While I’m all but certain director Denis Villeneuve had neither of those instances in mind while making his latest film, Arrival, he presents us with something of a combination of those two concepts, asking his audience to wrap our heads around the almost-infinite meanings of the sentence, “there is no time."

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a professor who teaches the finer points of language.  When twelve alien spacecraft touch down at different points all over the world, it isn’t long before the U.S. military comes calling on her to help communicate with the visitors.  She insists on doing things on-site, but Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) isn’t going for it.  He eventually finds himself with no other option and brings Banks to the American site of the craft in Montana.  Joined by astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise jumps right in to meet with the creatures.  The process is slow, but increasingly effective, though the team find themselves up against a world-clock as other foreign leaders are growing more frustrated and impatient for results, leaning toward a much harsher course of action to learn the visitors’ purpose. 

Arrival is the most intimate of sci-fi films, with the emphasis on “sci-” rather than the “fi.”  While the semantics of the film aren’t completely original (there are pangs of Interstellar roaming around here), the execution is so sublime that you can’t help but fall into the intellectual puzzle the movie presents.  With Sicario, Villeneuve proved himself a master at building suspense and balancing audiences on a razor-thin edge, and those same sensibilities are applied to this quieter, more intimate story in a remarkably effective way.  Catching our first glimpse of the alien creatures or witnessing Louise and Ian's first successful attempt at communication are incredibly gripping moments, and we share every bit of their fear, anxiety, excitement and relief.

The film is strongest when offering parallel cutaways to Dr. Banks as a mother, which mixes nicely with ruminations of language, time and even déjà vu.  It may dwell too much on the drama of translation long after making its point, however, and is bound to test the patience of some. There’s even a needless subplot that detracts from Dr. Banks’ perspective, which Villeneuve makes great efforts to present, featuring a soldier watching too much crackpot propaganda on the internet.  If this dramatic device had not been an all-but exact copy of the plot twist used in Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, Arrival might would take its place alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the few “Perfect” science fiction films of all time. 

Those quibbles aside, Arrival continues to show us how far Amy Adams has grown from her teenage and princess roles.  As Banks, admittedly stuck in a man-driven operation, trying to urge the men to not nuke everything in sight, she is fiercely strong, and yet has sources of pain, solace and sadness.  Each component of her character is stirringly realised, and Adams is simply magnificent. Jeremy Renner as Donnelly gives an equally solid performance and matches her character with great chemistry, in a role that is so obviously a supporting one that I’m mildly surprised a star of his caliber would take it.  

Arrival is an extremely intelligent film, one that doesn’t feel the need to speak down to the audience about its subject, but engages you in such a way that you’re eager to join the conversation.  The great reveal at the end reflects back on all of what you have seen on a metaphysical level, transforming the personal misery of Dr. Banks into something beautifully hopeful.  Whether time is a flat circle, or if life is but a dream, a movie like this, one that offers us something hopeful, might be something we could all use these days. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Marvel's Mighty Magic continues with "Doctor Strange"

Fourteen films in, and nobody should get any notion that the Marvel Well of Source Material is in any danger of running dry. After all, they managed to turn the little-known Guardians of the Galaxy into a comic book classic and salvage Ant-Man after the abrupt departure of director Edgar Wright.  So if you think Doctor Strange might be one of the more obscure superheroes to get the feature film treatment, I tell you Past is Prelude, and based on this first feature film outing, this film won’t be the last we see of him.  

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumber-batch) is a wildly successful neurosurgeon — a handsome, arrogant, brilliant man whose skill in his profession is matched only by his seemingly-total disdain for others.  When his career seems to be brought to an end by an accident (brought about through his own folly, naturally) and traditional medicine fails him, he sets out in search of other ways of healing himself. Enter the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her band of sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong), all practitioners of mystic arts capable of healing the injured and keeping otherworldly evil at bay — and also currently occupied in a battle against a former acolyte (Mads Mikkelsen) who seems hell-bent on bringing about global destruction.

Okay, sure, it’s yet another origin story, and while many folk who imagine them-selves to be intellecutally superior nerds may gripe that the “origin story” has been done to death, I would tell them that it’s entirely appropriate here.  Some may complain of what they discern as a slow, method-ical build director Scott Derrickson implements in the first half of the film, but my answer to them would be that Christopher Nolan did very much the same thing in Batman Begins.  Doctor Strange doesn’t just rush through the hero-learning-how-to-fight-and-hone-his-skills cliche' before jumping into action sequences. No, with a character like this, a movie really needs that slow build to define how he takes on his ultimate persona.

I had my reservations about Cumberbatch’s casting when it was first announced, but I’m relieved to admit that Derrickson was on to something in choosing him. Cumber-batch is in almost every scene of the film, and he finds a nice balance playing Strange as a cocky surgeon who isn’t afraid to admit when he’s frustrated by the unknown.  He’s not necessarily a likable guy, but not so overconfident that we can’t relate to him (imagine a less-plucky Tony Stark).  The British actor also does a good job selling his American accent, never slipping up (that I could tell) and delivering an awkward sentence as many British performers sometimes do in movies like this.  

The supporting roles are filled out by a mixed bag of greatness. Chiwetel Ejiofor works well as Mordo, a character about whom we don't learn much until after the credits roll (DON'T EVER LEAVE A MARVEL MOVIE WHEN THE CREDITS ROLL!!!), but one that serves as a more grounded confidant for our Strange.  Despite ridiculous cries of “whitewashing,” Swinton is great as The Ancient One, showing a more bad-ass side to the respected actress, as well as an almost-otherworldly quality to her performance.  Benedict Wong is particularly fun as “Wong,” the guardian of The Ancient One’s spell books and library, and a man Strange wants so desperately to make laugh.  Mads Mikkelsen does a fine job as the menacing Kaecilius, a calmly evil nemesis that feels like a true threat, even if he’s working for a much bigger presence.
But hey, the biggest selling point for Doctor Strange has to be those magical action sequences, featuring build-ing-bending kaleidoscopic effects that must have resulted from consumption of massive quantities of mushrooms by somebody.  You may have instantly thought of Nolan's Inception when you saw the trailers for this movie, but Derrickson pulls this trick to levels of which Christopher Nolan probably never dreamed. Derrickson’s direction really, really impressed me with these sequences, as he provides a little ambiguity in them as to whether the normal folks in the scene are supposed to be seeing what we’re seeing. There’s more than a few moments that raise the computer-generated visual bar higher than ever, and with these superhero flicks being what they are these days, that’s an achievement.

Scott Derrickson has never really done anything besides horror (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), with the one exception being the God-awful remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. However, his passion for this project is evident through-out the movie. Given his track record, I expected this a tad darker than it turned out to be, but that might be a good thing.  I suppose those rewrites by TV's Community creator Dan Harmon explain the greater amounts of wisecracks than Derrickson’s original script probably contained. Yes, Marvel never truly manages to get a really dark bad guy, as the dark forces they always battle manage to have a slight comical element, and it does not differ here.  

Still, Doctor Strange is another Marvel success.  The House that Stan Lee Built has given us yet another pretty darn good (if not great) story, told in a visually fantastic manner, and there are many much worse ways to spend your hard-earned money and two hours of your time.

"Doctor Strange"

Directed By Scott Derrickson.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes

Distributed By: Walt Disney Pictures

Friday, October 28, 2016

"Jane Got A Gun"... Finally!

Sometimes movies are doomed from the start.  Sometimes movies end up better than they have any right to be.  Sometimes they fall somewhere in the middle.  As such, we have Jane Got A Gun.

Those who follow movie production news like lonely housewives follow soap operas may have heard how director Lynne Ramsay quit on Day One of principal photography back in 2013 and left the entire production in limbo.  The movie had already been in pre-production for a couple of years, simmering so long that Bradley Cooper and Jude Law had each left the cast, and Ewan McGregor had left and then come back, but to a different role.  Natalie Portman’s never-ending desire to work with a female director having been frustrated yet again, her unhappiness didn’t help matters much, either. Somehow, director Gavin O’Connor (before he even started developing The Accountant) was convinced to step in and try to save this mess.  The finished product finally saw the light of day this past summer, almost three years after photography wrapped, and while I sure don’t think the movie will be mentioned come Oscar night, it actually ain’t half-bad.

Jane Hammond (Portman) and her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) have scratched out a decent life in the middle of New Mexico territory, or as decent a life as can be had there in 1871.  Bill returns home one day severely wounded with several bullets in his back, after having had a run-in with an old family nemesis, the Bishop Boys, led by the notorious John Bishop (McGregor).  Bill claims that the gang is going to come, come fast, and come well-armed with the intent of destroying the family once and for all. Jane tends to her husband's wounds, but he's in no condition to mount a defense.  As a last-ditch resort for help, Jane approaches her ex-fiance' Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to come to her and Bill's aid.  He reluctantly agrees, finding himself in the middle of a deadly showdown, vowing to protect the woman who once left him for another man.

Like many of the great Westerns before it, story complexity isn't at the forefront of Jane Got a Gun.  The movie is built around a simple premise of "bad guys want good guys dead," and while it's hardly groundbreaking, the movie works well with that as a backdrop to a more intimate story of how lives become, and remain, entwined.  It moves along at a typical Western-like pace, allowing us to form our moral judgments on these characters, but then we’ll drift to flashbacks that show us we were wrong to presuppose. The moments are probably the best of the film.

What little marketing there was for the movie featured Portman with the titular Gun, striking tough-girl poses and casting her in the light of the modern feminist action hero, but this was all very deceiving.  The film finds its footing less in its action and cruder story details that see it evolve to the inevitable showdown, and more in how the characters come together and how they carry the baggage that their past and present relationships bring to the table.  Gavin O’Connor keeps the movie from becoming overly-melo-dramatic, however, finding enough narrative strength to carry the limited action as a compliment to the story, not the other way around.

It feels like Jane Got A Gun is trying to be a tragic love story wrapped inside a push-button Western. By “push-button,” I mean it hits all the standard notes in its fairly-predictable story-telling, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a poor film. Portman’s performance doesn’t help matters much (she can’t completely rid herself of that “I’m-better-than-you” Harvard accent, no matter how hard she tries), and I wonder if the movie would’ve been stronger if Ewan McGregor’s bad guy had been explored a little deeper. Perhaps if O'Connor had been given the luxury of scrapping all the preproduction work and starting this story all over from scratch, he may have worked the script over in such a way that it delved into the characters even more. The movie that resulted from the messy situation he was presented doesn’t attempt to reinvent the Western, but it tells a lightly engaging tale of loss and love that will appeal to fans comfortable with the genre’s conventions.  

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Stranger Things" is Winona Ryder and lots of other scary stuff!

Praise Netflix!  The streaming video giant has given those of us poor, middle-aged souls who never quite grew up enough to leave the movies (and games… and comics…) of our youth an incredible gift.  The eight-episode series Stranger Things is... well, it’s E.T.!  It’s The Goonies!  It’s Stephen King’s IT!  It’s Stand By Me!  It’s Big Trouble in Little China! You name “it” from geek/nerd culture from 1980 through about 1987, and it’s in here somewhere! Oh, and just so the ‘90s don’t feel left out, there’s that hint of X-Files vibe lurking off in the background to boot! Hell, even the poster released to some outlets as a promotional tool is a direct homage to all of those fantastic Drew Struzan one-sheets we all loved in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Okay, okay! What’s it about?  The story seems right out of the Steven Spielberg playbook, as 10- or 11-ish year-old Will Byers disappears one night from the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana, which sends his single mom Joyce (Winona Ryder, in the show's most obvious nod to the ‘80s), his brother, and his friends and their families into a tailspin as they try to find him.

Eventually they realize something paranormal is going on—especially when the lights in his house seem to start blinking and Mike's sister Nancy's best friend goes missing. There's also a strange girl with a shaved head named Eleven who turns up, for reasons nobody can understand, and Mike and his friends Dustin and Lucas (named, I think quite obviously, for George, the Creator himself) hide her in the basement while they try to figure out how to rescue their friend. There's also the local sheriff (David Harbour), who lives a hermit's life after the loss of his own daughter, and stumbles into the story and knows he has to get involved. 

One of the central tenets of Stranger Things is the existence of a plane of existence the boys call “The Upside Down,” a parallel dimension that exists alongside our own, but swaps out decay and death for every bit of life and flourishing on our own plane.  Those of us who lived pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons can quickly tell you (even if you didn’t ask) that this, along with one of the show's major monsters, is drawn directly from that game’s lore.  The show's children—its central characters (who, to the one, are fantastic)—are avid D&D players and, in fact, that's how we meet them: playing a many-hours-long campaign in the basement, and unable to defeat a menacing in-game monster with their powers and rolls of the die.  

Before the eight-hour narrative reaches a conclu-sion, we’ve had mystery, horror, John Hughes-type angst and government Men-in-Black types thrown at us (with Matthew Modine as the main Baddie! - how much more '80s can you get!?!?), and by Jove, it all works! Created by Matt and Russ Duffer, this series perfectly pulls all of its unique stories together into one show. Because this world is so well-constructed, none of these elements stand out as not belonging with the others. That’s a tremendous achievement when you think about how disparate these genres are.  The Duffers and their writing staff incredibly give us numerous moments where one spoken word, or one sound effect, or one reaction shot communicates volumes about a character’s motivation or backstory to us.

Along with the synth underscore composed by experimental band SURVIVE, the series is peppered with hits from the 1980s, making judicious, thematic use of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” which has never had a more chilling effect. You’ll also revel in the evocative use of music from the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Toto, The Bangles, Joy Division and Foreigner.

Stranger Things is probably the highest-profile role Ryder has managed to land in many years, and it calls back to a time when she was mainstream cinema’s “It-Girl.” She’s highly effective as Will’s working-class mom, with the script calling on her to play a woman whose world and grasp on conventional reality has broken down — fuelled by grief and a unshaken belief that her son remains alive.

Ryder’s not the only one bringing in a world-class performance on the show — David Harbour is excellent as the town cop trying to unravel the conspiracy.  Even the kids are quite good in a Goonies-esque way as they launch their own investigation, and I can’t begin to describe the beyond-her-years performance of young Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven.

As the series is only eight episodes, Stranger Things is the perfect binge over a weekend.  If you haven’t yet caught it, make it the primary project for your next I-Will-Stay-On-The-Couch-This-Entire-Weekend weekend. Don’t just watch it for the nostalgia or the genuine creeps, watch it because it’s compelling storytelling.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"The Accountant" sure adds up for me

While The Accountant may be a movie of the sort of formula we’ve seen done before (I first think of George Clooney’s The American or Clive Owen’s The International, but there are others), it’s sure nice when one of these “international web of intrigue” flicks that we think will be so predictable turns out to be so enjoyable.  Sure, The Accountant’s plot is all but paper-thin and the major points of the third act are visible coming down the road from a mile away, but darn it, it’s just done so well that I enjoyed the crap out of this one.

This time around, Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff (one of many aliases the character utilizes), a seemingly anti-social bean counter with a knack for bluntness.  In truth, he has a high-functioning form of autism with a “Beautiful-Mind”-like talent for numbers, apparently living a quiet life as an accountant, operating out of a non-descript strip mall office and helping struggling locals with their taxes.  On the side, however, he also investigates the money problems of dangerous clients and powerful corporations and “settling accounts” by any means necessary.  Having this sort of clientele is not without its risks, however, and thankfully Wolff was raised by his Army SpecOps father to hone and channel his disability, and is now an expert marksman and ass-kicker, should any such complications arise.  In an attempt to find some more legitimate business, his unseen secretary/handler/confidante (I know, it’s getting goofy-sounding, but just roll with it for now) steers him towards a freelance job investigating the books of a robotics company headed by Lamar Black (John Lithgow), where a low-level employee (Anna Kendrick) has discovered some accounting discrepancies.  

While there are three sets of characters to follow through the movie, and all of the supporting actors are terrific (maybe with the exception of Lithgow and Kendrick, but admittedly, neither had much screen time to work with), it’s obvious that this is Affleck’s movie, and he carried it with ease upon his now Rock-like shoulders.  Embracing the tics and maddening intensity of a true autistic, Affleck demonstrates once again how he has honed his acting skills into a much more restrained, nuanced performance than I believe he could have delivered a decade ago.  This is an actor who no longer accepts being a weak link in any of his films, and has worked his way to deserving leading-man status.

Director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Pride and Glory) brings to life a script that has been floating around Hollywood for several years (and even landed on the 2011 “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays), using flashbacks and changes in character perspective to deftly juggle the film’s numerous narrative threads. Admittedly, the movie occasionally drifts into territory that borders on farcical, but it always manages to rein itself in at just the right moment before straining the limits of credulity to the breaking point.  He succeeds at striking a balance between action and solemnity that will feel instantly familiar to fans of his well-received MMA drama Warrior.

The tone O’Connor sets is probably what I enjoyed about most about the movie.  With so many Bourne-esque thrillers of the last twenty years remaining so dour and serious throughout their runtime, The Accountant has just a handful of winks or dry-humor moments to break the tension for just a second without coming across as silly.  The result is a thriller that’s been tossed into a blender with a gleefully silly action flick and has come out far more compelling than either of those ideas would have been on their own, and also comes as a welcome reminder that even though the box office these days tends to be overrun with sequels, remakes, reboots and “re-imaginings,” it might be possible that Hollywood hasn’t quite run out of great ideas just yet.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"The Girl on the Train" derails shortly after departure...

The famed film critic Gene Siskel once said that “a good movie is never too long,” meaning if a film tells an enjoyable story, it will never FEEL long and will take as much time as is needed to tell that story in an entertaining manner.  I don’t recall ever hearing of him saying the opposite, that a bad movie can be too short, but if there was ever a case for a movie needing to be longer, The Girl on the Train is it.

At 112 minutes, The Girl on the Train could have easily stood to be stretched out for another fifteen minutes or so in order to give us some sense of perspective on these characters.  We’re presented a story of three women, all of whom must have reasons for the way they are and the things they do, and we’re given very capable and interesting actresses to inhabit those roles, yet an hour and fifty minutes later, I’m still wanting to know WHY these characters are the ways they are.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a woman whose husband Tom (Justin Theroux) has left her for placid, icy Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).  We quickly see that Rachel has a drinking problem, the reason for which is glossed over as being due to fertility problems, I guess.  Apparently unemployed, she drinks vodka out of a water bottle all day and rides the Metro-North train to New York City and back, past her old house, and spots Megan, the woman who lives next door (Haley Bennett), and becomes obsessed with her supposedly perfect life.  One night, Rachel drunkenly stumbles off the train and blacks out.  When she wakes up, she’s covered in blood, has no idea what happened, and finds out Megan has disappeared.  The rest of the movie is a piecing together of what happened that night.

As Rachel, Blunt is the one assigned the task of carrying the movie, and if she’s really too beautiful to ever be taken seriously as a hopeless drunk, she at least commits to portraying an ugly type of alcoholism, stumbling around with a flushed face, chapped lips and smudged makeup, and waking up at one point in a sticky, ambiguous mess of blood and embarrassment.  By contrast, Bennett’s Megan is a pitiful stereotype of a Femme-Fatale-With-Secret-Pain. “I tend to smile when I’m nervous… sometimes I laugh,” she tells her male therapist, who of course is captivated by all the lip-biting and skirt-hiking going on.  The third focal character is Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), after having “stolen” Tom from Rachel, is now fully invested in being a two-dimensional platitude of a stay-at-home mother, fatigued by hours of farmer’s market shopping and sweet potato pureeing for her oh-so-adorable baby.

The movie’s time-jumping structure is interesting, and gave me a sense that there could’ve been a way to reveal things about these people’s motivations to make us more invested in them, but director Tate Taylor (having previously made The Help and Get on Up) is too busy awkwardly lumbering from plot point to plot point to give them any time to breathe. The result is the worst of both worlds: characters kept at a distance, hurtling through a story we don’t buy, with an ending you can see coming by the end of the second act.  We never learn enough about any of them to understand why they are the way they are, and as such, we’re forced to accept them as almost-caricatures - the Misunderstood Drunk, the Lost Millennial, the Self-Absorbed First-Time Mother, etc., etc.

Without any deeper understanding of why these people are the ways they are, then exploring what they do comes across as just soap opera, or a made-for-Lifetime Thursday night movie.  That was disappointing, as the potential for a very absorbing look into the three central characters is apparent on screen.  Alas, all Tate Taylor gives us is something that may have aspired to be more like Gone Girl or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but ended up being something akin to a slightly-more serious episode of "Absolutely Fabulous."  

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Batman V Superman: Dawn (and morning, and midday, and afternoon) of Justice"

In my nearly half-century of life, I have spent more than my share of time and money on comic books.  There are Marvel Comics fanboys and there are DC Comics fanboys.  I have no loyalties - I am a comics slut and give my love freely to ‘em all, and then some!  This admission means, of course, that I am instantly and unashamedly incapable of giving an objective review of the first movie depiction of DC Comics’ “Holy Trinity” of superheroes, namely Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.  Like many geeks, I have been longing for such a movie the majority of my life, so it would take a pretty atrocious film of these characters meeting and doing battle to earn a horrible review from me.  Is this an atrocious film?  Absolutely, positively not.  So, is it a fantastic film?  Absolutely, positively not.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a mouthful of a title if ever there was one, is directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), who also directed this film’s predecessor, Man of Steel. The movie opens with that film’s climax, but showing us the mass carnage of Superman’s (Henry Cavill, back again) battle over Metropolis from ground level this time.  The seemingly World War III-ish destruction from that film is not glossed over, and serves as the impetus for this one.  Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) financial empire has holdings in Metropolis, and he is there that day, seeing his property and, more importantly, his employees, being crushed by the aliens engaged in a death-match all over the city.  Who’s to blame for all this?  Sure, Superman saved the world, but a world now with a few hundred thousand fewer people alive.  Congressional hearings are held, CNN spends large chunks of airtime debating the issue, and lots of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump voter-types go wacko in voicing and showing their opposing fervor on the subject of this “alien” who may be our salvation or our doom. That thought drives both Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to decide we’d be better off without him, and each begin making moves to act on that belief. Let the battle begin!

This movie is breakneck-paced from the opening titles to the closing credits. With a two-and-a-half hour running time, and so much material to cover, Snyder gives us a visual orgy of explosions and costumes and vehicles and heat-ray-emitting monsters that would make Michael Bay blush.  We bounce around disjointed events from around the globe, and the movie hopes we can keep up and string them all together in our minds to see the overall picture. We’re beaten over the head with Hans Zimmer’s score (credited along with something/someone called “Junkie XL,” whatever that is), and see enough CNN on-air personalities that we’re absolutely certain that Warner Bros. owns them, too.

On the other hand, the pace also prevented Snyder from wasting time retelling us things we of which probably didn’t need reminding. Wayne is driven to almost-psychosis over the mayhem and destruction he witnessed, and the movie conveys just enough to convince me of that and moves on.  As he did with Superman’s origin in Man of Steel, Snyder does not bog us down in the minutia of Batman’s beginnings, as he’s confident in our knowledge of the broader strokes of how Batman came to be.  Sure, he gives us two minutes of Bruce Wayne voicing over a dream/remembrance of his parents’ deaths early on, but that’s it, and it’s enough.

But is the movie good or bad? Well, The Good - the majority of the cast’s headliners do excellent work.  Henry Cavill has Superman down-pat now, and while his performance in Man of Steel was probably more personal and touching, that movie was meant to be more emotional than this one (an actor’s gotta do what he’s given to do, right?).  Affleck is fantastic as Bruce Wayne AND as Batman, instantly shaming all those haters who went wild upon his casting announcement two years ago.  Oh, he may get some ribbing for adopting the Christian Bale gravel-voice while wearing the cowl, but that’s actually explained as a plot point and shouldn’t be held against him.  As stated, Wonder Woman makes her debut, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, and if you don’t applaud when she appears in costume for the first time, then I don’t want to talk to you.  She doesn’t have much opportunity to take over any scenes, and given Godot’s previous work, that may be a good thing (I guess we’ll find out if she can REALLY act in next year’s Wonder Woman solo flick), but she sure as Hell LOOKS the part, and that’s enough for me so far.

Now The Bad - Chris Terrio and David Goyer’s screenplay doesn’t do Lois Lane (Amy Adams, also back for more) any favors, and Jesse Eisenberg was a horrible Lex Luthor.  Lois, while portrayed to be more independent and less bumbling that almost all previous incarnations of the character, is still basically a catalyst for rescue situations, and disappointing, given Adams’ talent.  The Luthor character is the movie’s biggest and most glaring disappointment, though, being played as something akin to Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but with Parkinson’s or something.  Every time he was on screen was like nails on a chalkboard to me, and while one is supposed to be somewhat turned off by a movie’s villain, Eisenberg’s performance turned me off in the wrong way.

The overabundance of characters and plot points, of course, serve as seeds that will someday bear fruit as spinoff films and a Justice League movie. Yes, the two minutes or so that teases the soon-to-be-members of the Justice League feels shoehorned into the narrative (and may literally have been, as rumors have it that the sequence was filmed many, many months after principal photography wrapped), but I understand the purpose the sequence serves, and it didn’t take me out of the movie.  A less geeky viewer may find his or her experience somewhat different.

The movie is far from perfect, but it’s far from a failure, too. I can understand how a more casual moviegoer would find the movie’s pace almost too frenetic to allow him to keep up with all these characters and their possible motives.  I can tell you with all-but-certainty that the half-hour of excised footage that Snyder and Warner Bros. have promised us for the three-hour R-rated Blu-ray release of the film is sorely missed.  Batman v Superman doesn’t make any pretense about being “Hamlet,” however - it’s a superhero movie.  It’s a flick about dudes (and dude-ettes) in brightly-colored spandex blowing stuff up and bashing the crap out of each other, and setting the table for more such movies to come. If that’s your cup of tea, as it is mine, then you may enjoy it as much as I did.