Everest

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: William Nicholson; Simon Beaufoy

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur

There are a great many A-list names attached to this cinematic treatment of a particularly dark chapter in the history of Mt. Everest, yet the only one that really matters is the one given to the mountain. As a climber forebodingly notes in the earlygoing, “Everest will always have the last word.” She certainly did on May 10, 1996 when eight climbers lost their lives on her unforgiving slopes, but even after that debacle the restless have remained steadfast in their beliefs that their time would soon be coming.

Ah, the hubris of the human race. We have to conquer every summit. Mine every depth, or die trying. And if not that, we find ourselves stringing wire between the world’s tallest buildings and walking across it as an act of rebellion in the face of monotonous existence. Nineteenth century environmental activist and outdoor enthusiast John Muir is famously quoted saying that “when mountains call, wise men listen.” I find it an incomplete thought, for the wisest of men also listen when mountains warn them not to do something. But in the case of the world’s tallest, most notorious peak, the allure has proven time and again to be too great. When out of oxygen just below a summit that is finally in sight, all one has left to burn is ego. Very rarely is that sufficient fuel. Everest, the concept, seems reckless and irresponsible, but then again it’s all part of a world I probably will never understand.

My perspective is irrelevant though, and so too are those of pretty much all climbers involved in Baltasar Kormákur’s new movie. Everest is an inevitability, the culmination of years’ worth of obscure documentary footage about the numerous (occasionally groundbreaking) ascents that have simultaneously claimed and inspired lives within the climbing community and even outside of it (after all, Mt. Everest tends to attract anyone with deep enough pockets and the determination to put their bodies through hell for a few months out of the year). This film is, more specifically, the product of a few written accounts from the 1996 expedition, including that of Jon Krakaeur, whose take (Into Thin Air) I still can’t help but feel ought to have been the point of view supplied.

Unfortunately I can’t review a movie that doesn’t exist so here goes this. Kormákur inexplicably attracts one of the most impressive casts of the year — actually, it does make sense: he needed a talented group to elevate a dire script, people who could lend gravitas to dialogue kindergarten kids might have written — to flesh out this bird’s eye view on a disastrous weekend on the mountain. Everest is a story about many individual stories and experiences, of loss and failure resulting from decisions that were made in the name of achieving once-in-a-lifetime success. It plays out like a ‘Best of’ Everest, but really it’s a ‘worst of’ because what happened to the expeditions led by the Kiwi Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, standing out from the pack) and American go-getter Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) was nothing short of tragic.

If the movie focuses on anyone or anything in particular it’s Clarke’s indomitable spirit, and I suppose in some morbid way that’s the most effective use of our time when witnessing a disaster that claimed multiple lives. Hall’s the most developed character, he was an expedition leader, he’s portrayed by the incredibly affable Clarke and his fate marks Everest‘s gut-wrenching emotional crux. Everyone remembers that heartbreaking radio call he made to his wife Jan Arnold (an emotional Keira Knightley) after being left alone high up on the mountain in the wake of the storm that turned the expedition’s descent into an all-out dog fight against the extreme elements. Quite likely it’s the bit that will end up defining Kormákur’s otherwise bland adventure epic. It’s what I’m remembering the most now a couple days after the fact and it’s a painful memory to say the least.

Everest may not work particularly well as a human drama — there are simply too many individuals, prominent ones, for the story to devote equal time to — but as a visual spectacle and a testament to the power of nature, crown the film a victor. The mountain has never looked better, and of course by ‘better’ I mean terrifying, menacing, a specter of suffering and voluntary torture. The Lhotse Face, the Khumbu icefall, the Hilary Step — all of the infamous challenges are present and accounted for. Memories of Krakaeur’s personal and physical struggle as he slowly ticked off these landmarks on his way to the top come flooding back. Along with them, the more nagging thoughts: why is a great actor like Michael Kelly sidelined with such a peripheral role here? Why is his role ever-so-subtly antagonistic? But then Salvatore Torino’s sweeping camerawork distracts once again, lifting us high into the Himalayas in a way only the literal interpretation of the visual medium can.

With the exception of a few obvious props and set pieces, Everest succeeds in putting us there on the mountain with these groups. While it’s not difficult to empathize with these climbers — Josh Brolin’s Beck Weathers being the most challenging initially — the hodgepodge of sources create a film that’s unfocused and underdeveloped. It all becomes a bit numbing, and unfortunately not the kind brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and hurricane-force winds.

Recommendation: Unfocused and too broad in scope, Everest means well in its attempts to bring one of the most notorious days on the mountain to the big screen but it unfortunately doesn’t gain much elevation beyond summarizing all of the accounts we’ve either read about or heard about on Discovery Channel and History Channel specials. The visuals are a real treat, though I have no idea why this whole 3D thing is being so forcefully recommended as of late. I watched it in regular format and had no issues of feeling immersed in the physical experience. I just wish I could have gotten more out of it psychologically.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: The Birth of Big Air


Release: Thursday, July 29, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jeff Tremaine

In my high school days I picked up an unreasonably heavy, gold-framed Mongoose flatland bike, thinking that I was going to get into this whole BMX thing, unaware that it was going to be just a phase. Unaware that the kind of bike I had wasn’t really meant for going down ramps and off of jumps. Unaware that within a few months’ time I would switch over to rollerblades. And ultimately unaware of who Mat ‘The Condor’ Hoffman was.

I guess you could call me a poser. I don’t know if people still do that, since I haven’t stepped foot inside a skate park for years now and it seems like such a ’90s term, but I pretty much have no problem being called that. I couldn’t do anything on a bike, except balance it long enough not to crash, and I was extremely skilled in not going over the handlebars (which basically means I never tried anything crazy enough to put me in that situation). When it came right down to it, I simply wasn’t prepared to put myself through the gnar that other people who were far more dedicated to riding seemingly were; I was the kind who got phased whenever his foot slipped the pedal and had it swing back around and smack him right in the shin. Forget about trying to throw down a 720 on a jump box or going inverted on a 10-foot tall vert ramp.

The Birth of Big Air, directed by Jackass‘ very own Jeff Tremaine and produced by several familiar names — Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze and Mat Hoffman himself — represents somewhat of a surface-level examination of Hoffman’s journey from teenage prodigy to becoming a staple of the industry. Tremaine packs a lot of information into his hour-long feature, though if you’ve been a follower of the sport for a couple of years you’re not likely to find too many revelations here. For anyone else however, The Birth of Big Air should prove insightful in its characterizing of one of the most radical personalities in the game, one that’s been around since the late ’80s.

Documentary tracks his development as a world-renowned athlete, beginning just before his turning pro in 1991. Archived footage shows a young Mat with an affinity for blasting big airs out of tall ramps, going higher above the deck of the ramp than anyone else was willing to go, or maybe even able to. Things don’t become really interesting — and forgive me for sounding a little more enthusiastic than I should, this film reminded me of how fascinating BMX really is — until his obsession with building larger vert ramps to obtain greater heights, an obsession that would result in him and his friends constructing a 24-foot-tall ramp just outside of his Oklahoma City home.

The ambition was less about getting into the record books as it was about embracing the spirit of his idol, legendary stuntman Evel Knievel. The repeated defiance of death necessarily made the pair synonymous. While some find enjoyment in riding bikes down quiet country lanes or around public parks or competing in races, Hoffman felt most comfortable being towed behind a motorcycle in order to rip off a 25-foot air above his home-made mega ramp. But it was less the motorcycle’s speed that got him there as it was his attitude — an intriguing mix of nonchalance and imperturbable confidence. Of course, the debate will never end over whether obstination is to be the undoing of any action sports competitor, and it’s completely understandable why some would (and have) shamed this guy for putting his family through such stress time and again. (His wife Jaci is as solid as a rock when she interviews, especially considering the sorts of things she openly talks about).

Hoffman’s comparable to an NFL player in terms of injuries sustained: he’s reportedly suffered over 100 concussions and has had 23 major surgeries. Some of the head injuries, apparently a weekly occurrence for him — well, in his prime . . . he has had the foresight to put his serious biking days behind him now — are not so concerning, but others, like the time he crashed and spent the better part of a year with amnesia or another incident where he was rendered unable to taste food for about seven years are enough to make any person shake their head in bewilderment. How and why would a person put themselves through anything like that?

That question is all too easy to ask if you’re not involved in the sport . . . and if you’re not ‘The Condor.’ Thankfully, The Birth of Big Air refuses to climb onto a soap box and start spouting out the pro’s and con’s of becoming a professional BMX rider. Instead Tremaine allows the disturbing facts (and the Hoffmans) speak for themselves. There’s little judgment, and crucially, little flinching away from some of the uglier realities of Hoffman’s ambition.

The physical sacrifices may factor in prominently, but they aren’t the sum total of the story Tremaine is telling. One of the most impressive highlights of a career filled with them is Hoffman’s ability to continue a career in a sport that hasn’t always been financially rewarding. When money and sponsorships dried up without warning in the early ’90s many professional riders were prompted to quit and find more reliable jobs. Hoffman, of course, wasn’t one of those riders. When BMX hit its recession, Hoffman started up his own biking company, which eventually led to free, public competitions in which he finally debuted his massive vert ramp. These events gradually reestablished how bikes would and could be ridden, and Hoffman’s company was largely to thank for the sport’s resuscitation, coupled with the advent of the X-Games (the Olympics of the action sports community) in 1995.

The story of Mat Hoffman is essentially the story of how BMX has become the industry it is today, and The Birth of Big Air can confirm. I don’t know when it was when I became aware of his name but it was sometime after I had transitioned from the bike and onto rollerblades, where I actually managed to avoid breaking too many bones. It was ironic that I had left one sport and started identifying with the culture and lifestyle of another (for reasons now unknown to me, as rollerblading has long been a dying industry), only to start finding myself obsessed with the picture of Mat far above the coping of that behemoth of a vert ramp. Mat lost in the sky and suspended in real time. Inspiring an entire generation of riders to dare to do the impossible.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: The Birth of Big Air plays to a fairly small audience but for anyone who has heard the name Mat Hoffman and is curious to learn a bit more about him, Jeff Tremaine’s documentary is a pretty great place to start. It might have gone into some more detail about the particularly stressful and turbulent period of the early ’90s as the sport died out, but then a much longer final cut would have been necessary. I personally wouldn’t have complained, but as it stands, there’s plenty to marvel at.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

Quoted: “I’m thinking . . . I don’t know, what the hell am I thinking? Oh my god . . . is that really possible? Or am I just completely an idiot?”

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Photo credits: http://www.qubicle.id; http://www.xgames.espn.com

Genre Grandeur – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) – Digital Shortbread

 

Hey everyone, I’m featured once again over on MovieRob for September’s Genre Grandeur (favorite ’70s movies). Come check out my thoughts on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!

MovieRob

1970gg For this month’s first review for Genre Grandeur – Movies of the 70’s, here’s a review of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) by Tom of Digital Shortbread.

Thanks again to Sherise of The Girl That Loved to Review. for choosing this month’s genre.

Next month’s Genre has been chosen by me.

In honor of the month when Marty McFly came to visit us here in 2015, I have decided that we will be reviewing our favorite movies featuring time travel.

Please get me your submissions by the 25th of October by sending them to timetravel@movierob.net  Try to think out of the box! Let’s see what Tom thought of this movie:

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Number of times seen: dozens, though the most recent watch was probably about 10 years ago now

 

Brief Synopsis: A poor boy wins the opportunity to tour the most eccentric and wonderful candy factory…

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Sicario

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

In Sicario we get to take a tour south of the U.S.-Mexico border, heading to Ciudad Juárez to infiltrate the infamously violent and complex system of drug cartels that has consumed Juárez so completely it has become responsible for the random abductions of tourists and citizens alike from the streets of El Paso (an American city about 10-20 minutes from the official border), some of which occur in broad daylight. Villeneuve’s seventh feature film takes us into the lion’s den and forces us to wait around for the lion. It’s the kind of spine-tingling fear horror films wish they could inspire.

What’s most horrific is there’s nothing about Sicario that feels removed from our present-day reality. If you live in the United States you have almost no escape from news stories about escalating tensions along the Mexican border. The term ‘war on drugs’ has been ingrained into our vocabulary and on occasion we might find ourselves even using the term, almost unwittingly, in conversation. History books need to update what they consider to be the murder capital of the world, because for now it is Juárez. While the film’s events are fictionalized, they often carry the weight of the surreal headlines we’ve been appalled by. Bodies hanging from bridges with parts lopped off, as one example.

Unlike with a great many films you pay to watch in a comfy theater, you don’t simultaneously leave this movie and the problem it introduces behind. Although you’re not likely to lose sleep over the matter — especially a film that technically is dramatizing reality — Sicario is a different kind of film, one that doesn’t really feel cinematic. On that ground alone Villeneuve has accomplished something remarkable here. His latest effort is more journalistic than a fictional account, taking us deep into a dark and dangerous world that is often bypassed during our daily channel surfing from the couch because, well, the whole situation is sort of depressing.

Emily Blunt, playing idealistic (maybe naïve is the better word) FBI agent Kate Macer, serves as our access into the action. She is asked if she would like to join an elite task force that will be going after an anonymous drug kingpin, a group whose methods are going to differ from her own by-the-books modus operandi. She’s quickly persuaded by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a man whose laid-back attitude is at once comforting and unnerving, to volunteer because he makes a good point: the work she’s doing in Arizona is trivial in comparison. Thus Sicario is viewed from her perspective; our discomfort owed to escalating violence and unspecific mission objectives that constantly put Kate at odds with her colleagues.

Blunt is once again a revelation in an increasingly familiar role (I mean this in the best way possible) as a no-nonsense woman who finds herself out of her depth. She’s soft-spoken but her actions demonstrate the confidence we’ve been getting used to seeing from her as of late. Adding another strong female lead character to 2015’s all-too-elite list of names, Blunt effects a stoicism that may not be quite as strong as her bulletproof jackets, as she does occasionally come undone at the seams as the pressure of her duties mounts. But because she breaks — has anyone counted how many cigarettes she goes through? — she exposes the humanity buried underneath protective gear and a lot of ammo.

As good as she is though, she can’t deliver all the drama, much less react to it, alone. Taylor Sheridan is responsible for writing one of Benecio Del Toro’s career best roles as mysterious operative Alejandro Gillick, whose past experiences make the unit’s new mission extremely personal. His is not a talkative character, but when the stakes are this high what he doesn’t say is often as important as the things he does. Along with Brolin’s loose cannon Matt Graves, the trio assembled on screen is going to end up being one of the most impressive all year.

The casting certainly goes a long way in establishing Sicario as Villeneuve’s most solemn film yet (although I guess the jury’s still out on that as I have yet to see his Incendies and Polytechnique). Once again, though, it must be Villeneuve who deserves slightly more credit. As was the case in his unbearably tense Prisoners and to a lesser degree his mind-bending Enemy of last year, his directorial touch is driven by a need to take his characters to their breaking point and far beyond it. Think Alice in Wonderland, where Alice spends virtually the entire film tumbling down a rabbit hole to hell. Only . . . there is no Wonderland, and instead of magical talking cats and some semblance of whimsy (I realize I’m making a comparison to an already fairly dark tale) we get bullet-riddled bodies and no Mad Hatter tea party to look forward to.

Whereas Alice stepping into a world entirely not her own felt dreamlike and fantastical, this situation is a nightmarish hell on earth; the fact that Kate’s moral compass does her no good only exacerbates the collective stress in the room. Alejandro and Matt ensure us that their operation is legitimate despite their methods. I guess in this world you fight fire with firepower. Borders don’t exist; even the physical one doesn’t mean much. Like Prisoners, Sicario blurs the line between sound and corrupt morality and judgment, creating one of the most captivating cinematic events of 2015. Villeneuve drops his latest film like a bomber plane drops its primary weapon: confident it will hit its target with brutal force and that the effects will be both far-reaching and devastating. His confidence isn’t misplaced.

Recommendation: Sicario is heart-pounding, fist-clenchingly tense stuff, elevated to ridiculous levels by a game cast who might never have been better. In a business where movies often struggle to overcome the need to simply entertain, it’s nice to come across another one that has a bigger agenda than that. This crime drama is a real eye-opener, a stunningly well-crafted film that has a great chance of landing high on my list of the year’s best. A must-see.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “You’re asking how the watch is made. Keep your eye on the time.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002)

Panic time is now over as I have finally found something to talk about this Thursday. (Why don’t I have a DVD plan with Netflix yet? That would surely eliminate some of this stress of finding movies I want to see only to be denied by a limited viewing availability. Oh, wait. That’s right. It costs more money. Yes, I’m poor — I can’t afford that kind of an upgrade, and yes, I will allow you to snicker at me. That’s totally fine.) But once again my DVD library saves me and I don’t have to skip out on

Today’s food for thought: Van Wilder.

National Lampoon's Van Wilder

Refusing to graduate since: April 5, 2002

[DVD]

It might be surprising to some that a film like Van Wilder, a male college freshman’s wet dream, shares the umbrella title ‘National Lampoon’ with the likes of comedy classics such as the Vacation films and Animal House. How could the company have allowed such a degradation of their comedic appeal to happen? Of course, I hold my judgment for what came after the Ryan Reynolds vehicle. There’s a movie floating out there called National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj which extends Kal Penn’s redemptive story arc from this film into a full-length feature in which he grows into his own at a fictional England-set university. The less said about that one though, the better.

No, the National Lampoon name wasn’t properly sullied until that film debuted (to an audience of silent crickets) in 2006. Truthfully its reputation may have been done in even before this, as the early 2000s gave birth to a litany of unrelated, increasingly juvenile concepts such as Barely Legal and of course, who can forget N.L. Presents: Cattle CallVan Wilder isn’t particularly revolutionary comedy, demonstrating a keen interest in sexual conquest à la the American Pie franchise while consciously veering away from the more creative situational comedy that produced the Griswold family. Still, with Reynolds starring as the big man at Coolidge College and an emphasis on raucous party-hosting, at least the atmosphere vaguely recalls the scent of John Belushi’s frat house.

Walt Becker’s Van Wilder represented a bright spot in a dark decade when J2 Communications bought the license to the Lampoon name. Even the Chevy Chase-led Vegas Vacation couldn’t bring about the kind of success the original family outings had. The story concerns a young man who, afraid of life after college, perpetually puts off graduating despite a seven-year undergraduate career. He frequently refers to his stay at Coolidge as a “dare to be great” situation, implying that his undecided status is not only intentional but beneficial. How else do you sample all that a major university has to offer?

Of course, his attitude doesn’t sit right with everyone, most notably his father, Van Wilder Sr. (Tim Matheson) who promptly puts a stop on tuition checks when he discovers his son has spent the better part of a decade at Coolidge without earning a degree. Forced to take action to ensure his continued flourishing, Wilder enlists the help of his foreign exchange student/horny assistant Taj Mahal Badalandabad and longtime friend Hutch (Teck Holmes) to plan a semester filled with fundraisers disguised as extravagant bacchanalias. (I still feel like I missed out on the ‘Sue Me, Screw Me Soiree.’)

In full control of his own destiny, Van Wilder is a thoroughly likable young man and that’s wholly due to Reynolds’ comfort in the role. He oozes charisma, optimism and yes, okay, sex appeal but he’s also generous and surprisingly altruistic for a supposed party boy. His knowing winks at the camera — ‘Oh wow, you guys didn’t think that I could pull that off? Me neither!’ — lend the film most of its appeal. Daniel Cosgrove’s Richard Bagg makes up for what Reynolds cannot provide: the film’s obligatory antagonism. Someone has to try to knock the King of Coolidge down a notch or two, right?

As president of Delta Iota Kappa (that’s DIK for short, get it?), Bagg sees Wilder as a threat to his future of attending the prestigious Northwestern University to become a doctor having learned his girlfriend Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid) has been associating with a different social circle when she’s assigned to cover Van Wilder for a story for the campus paper. Cosgrove goes all in, expending a good deal of energy playing this pig of a frat president who winds up on the receiving end of two of the film’s most notorious pranks — one, a scene involving Twinkies and dog sperm (yummy!) disguised as goodies in a false waving of the white flag; the other a highly amusing use of laxatives. The rivalry between Wilder and Bagg is gross and juvenile and ultimately pointless, but damn it if it’s not entertaining stuff.

The most thoroughly unbelievable aspect of Van Wilder is Reid’s journalist Gwen. Not that her stories are outlandish, or that pretty women can’t be journalists. Reid simply doesn’t convince. I buy her story of her movie brother playing hockey for the New York Rangers more than I buy her as a member of the press. But what does any of this really matter anyway? Are we really supposed to believe Wilder’s refusal to graduate is the x-factor in how Coolidge comes together as a community? Would this many people bother to rally around a single student’s cause? A cause that’s in no way health-related nor beneficial to the greater social good. We need look no further than how Van Wilder ends to understand what this particular movie is lampooning.

Becker clearly enjoys mocking the bureaucracy behind higher education. A raucous Hawaiian-themed blow-out brings closure to Wilder’s daddy issues, unites Taj with the girl of his dreams, and finally throws Gwen right into Van’s lap, even if this was a foregone conclusion the moment we first saw the two interact. That the film ends in spectacular party fashion says much about what is expected of the average college student.

Recommendation: It may not rank amongst National Lampoon’s best but Van Wilder is a solid enough addition to the film franchise that expanded the reputation of the humor-based magazine of the same name. From the opening scene this film launches an all-out campaign to offend and disgust in the name of poor taste. If you’re not a fan of that kind of stuff you may as well ignore this. If that stuff sits right with you, this might have been a film you watched over and again before you left for college. Or maybe that’s just me.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

TBTrivia: Ryan Reynolds only saw a rough cut of the film before it came out. He hasn’t seen the film since.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.alchetron.com; http://www.veehd.com 

Black Mass

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Mark Mallouk; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Scott Cooper

In Scott Cooper’s third film, Johnny Depp is one bad man. How bad? Bad enough to make the stench of his Charlie Mortdecai finally drift away, sure. But now another question is bugging me: what does he do after this? How long does Irish-American thug James “Whitey” Bulger define Depp?

I suppose only until the next ill-advised project comes along, but I shouldn’t get ahead of myself too quickly. We ought to bask at least a little longer in this moment. His recent disasters notwithstanding, one thing hasn’t really changed about the actor: he is talented. The problem has been one of motivation; a preference for taking easy money instead of actually working for it. As much as that annoys me, I’d rather it be that than the man simply getting a case of the yips. (Do performance artists get the yips?) The talent didn’t disappear, it just went into hibernation . . . for several years. Now it re-emerges, volatile, unpredictable and explosive as he assumes the profile of one of the most notorious crime lords in American history.

Over the course of a short two hours — particularly short given the film’s slow-burn approach — Black Mass builds a damning case against not only Bulger and his reputation amongst both friends and enemies, but against the FBI. For obvious reasons the criminal activity is alarming, but there’s something just as unnerving about the ineptitude of the prominent law officials who fail for so long to gain the upper hand. In explaining just why that was the case, Black Mass becomes as seedy as the city it skulks around in, feeding bleak and ominous cinematography to viewers who, in all likelihood, are more curious as to how Depp fares than how his character does.

The film ratchets up the tension tracking the rise and fall of a tenuous relationship, rarely offering respite. Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up together on the streets, with Connolly being something of an admirer of the notoriously ruthless criminal. That’s sort of how he’s talked into becoming an informant as a way to eliminate the Italian contingent of the Winter Hill Gang, who have been encroaching on Bulger’s South Boston territory. Conducting ‘business’ with Bulger is the kind of stunt that proves to be a hard sell for Connolly to make to his peers and especially his boss, Special Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon). Bulger has, of course, a few protective barriers that make his arrest nigh on impossible. His brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the mayor of Boston while Whitey’s reputation around town provides the movie its quota of visceral, sudden deaths that are brutally staged and extremely well-timed.

Despite the few who are stupid enough to doubt or defy Whitey, Black Mass isn’t quite as physical as you might expect; it works best as a psychological drama involving a slew of characters that are as difficult to trust as their own unrepentantly hateful attitudes are to justify. Reminiscent of Cooper’s previous effort, Out of the Furnace, is a brilliant, character-driven screenplay that paints a portrait of organized crime and corruption that has infiltrated all levels of society. David Harbour is in as Connolly’s partner-in-crime(solving) John Morris, while Bacon handles Special Agent McGuire with aplomb . . . and a semi-ridiculous Boston accent. Notable criminal personalities are brought to life by the likes of Jesse Plemons (as Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, W. Earl Brown, and Bill Camp, all of which add tremendous depth to this portrait of a Boston all but overrun by violent criminal activity.

Indeed, Depp is not on his own here, even if his is the worst in a bunch of very bad seeds, and even if his presence will be the only one we’ll feel for a long time after leaving the theater. Cooper’s ensemble cast — including a reprieve for Dakota Johnson in the form of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay and a random appearance from Adam Scott as a peripheral FBI agent — are largely to thank for the film’s inglorious depiction of corrupt and criminal ways of thinking. That Black Mass has such a stacked cast — another similarity to his 2013 blue-collar drama — means the admittedly pedestrian narrative has more room to breathe. These characters are intimidating in their own ways, distinguishing a story that we’ve seen redressed over and again by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma, even Michael Mann’s Public Enemies in which Depp portrayed another infamous gangster.

This film doesn’t quite glorify the lifestyle of Scorsese’s mean streets but if I’m even suggesting that kind of comparison (without feeling overly dramatic doing so), Cooper is clearly doing something right. Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth’s screenplay paints broad strokes, and there are several plot strands that disappear at a moment’s notice as we cover the roughly 10-year period in which Whitey rose to prominence. Even if it does leave a few questions unanswered, Black Mass remains unencumbered by a lack of meticulousness because it ultimately succeeds in provoking dread and fear. An evil empire was allowed to flourish under the FBI, and that part is more fucked up than anything.

In fewer words, Black Mass tries to stand out, whereas Johnny Depp actually does.

Recommendation: In a welcomed return to form for Captain Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, Black Mass offers an acting showcase for everyone involved. Fact-based story takes us on a harrowing journey through the rough streets of south Boston of the ’70s and ’80s and while some parts could have benefitted from expansion, on the whole this is a story well worth paying to see on the big screen. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You were just saying? ‘Just saying’ gets people sent away. ‘Just saying’ got me a nine-year stretch in Alcatraz, you understand? So, ‘just saying’ can get you buried real quick.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Superbad (2007)

Time to break out your favorite JanSport backpack, No.2 pencils and loose leaf notebook paper boys and girls, because it’s once again time to go back to hell school in this second edition of Throwback to School September. (Catchy phrase, right?) Fortunately in this world, all you’ll really need is a backpack to throw in some illegally purchased bottles of liquor as you seek high school celebrity status in 

Today’s food for thought: Superbad.

Becoming McLovin’ since: August 17, 2007

[DVD]

Instead of offering my thoughts on this raucous comedy from the dirty minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, I figured I’d once again do something a little different with this TBT and list the ten things I was reminded of about high school having watched this movie. I will just say that one thing that works in this film’s favor, aside from the ideal casting of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse — all three physically embodying high school seniors while simultaneously fully embracing their juvenile mentality — is a script that tells it like it is. After all, Superbad was never a film you wanted to watch with the parents, it’s too awkward. Just like high school.

TEN THINGS ABOUT HIGH SCHOOL SUPERBAD REMINDED ME OF

#1) Hormones dictate every decision (and purchase) you make.

#2) We gave teachers way too much shit. They’re too underpaid to be this under-appreciated, even if half of what they taught us we never ended up using.

#3) Some cliché about how generally useless P.E. classes were. Why couldn’t high school have recess, like the good old elementary school days? And why did we have to wear those tatty shirts that were cribbed from a Wal-Mart dumpster?

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#4) Of all the rites of passages, getting your driver’s license was one of the greatest because it meant you could go and hang out with your friends whenever you wanted. Only drawback? Being 16 and having a curfew.

#5) Going to a party where you didn’t really know anyone and where everyone was older than you was the most uncomfortable thing ever. Especially when you found out that some of them were coked out of their minds.

#6) Teenage crushes. Awwwwwwww

#7) Every year there seemed to be at least one major fight. We’d always gather in the parking lot of The Fresh Market to see who would win. Most of the time all they amounted to was a bunch of shouting and insults regarding a certain female parental unit. But every once in awhile we were treated to a spectacular showdown.

#8) Peer pressure could be a bitch.

#9) Adults seemed lame at the time. (Spoiler alert: they still are.)

#10) Senior year is a bittersweet time. Friendships are fleeting, and who knows where everyone ends up in college. The trick is to make the most of what time you have left together.


Recommendation: One of the definitive movies about the high school experience, Superbad is a must-watch, especially if you’re facing your ten year high school reunion. Endowed with an incredible script that’s essentially a pervert’s stream of consciousness, and armed with superb performances from its entire cast Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg struck comedic gold with their story that’s loosely based on their own experiences. Pretty much a modern classic. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

TBTrivia: When this was being filmed, Christopher Mintz-Plasse was 17 years old and so his mother had to be present on set during his sex scene. I guess for some, the awkwardness from high school never goes away.

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Photo credits: http://www.imgkid.com; http://www.mr-movie.com; http://www.imgur.com; http://www.imgarcade.com; http://www.youtube.com; http://www.ifc.com; http://www.rottentomatoes.com; http://www.fanpop.com; http://www.imdb.com

Stretch

Release: Friday, March 21, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Where this guy’s going, he’s definitely going to need roads . . . and a lot of luck.

Joe Carnahan’s Stretch is best enjoyed when your guard is down, when you’re in the mood for watching something that, taken scene by scene, makes little to no sense but is a perfectly harmless distraction when looked at as a whole. It’s messy and clunky and clichéd and occasionally poorly acted but the whole point of Stretch is embracing the ridiculous. If having fun in a movie is all that you require, jump in the backseat and buckle in for a wild ride.

Patrick Wilson and Chris Pine make the most out of a rather bizarre script that has the former playing a down-on-his-luck L.A. limo driver and the latter a bearded whack job with more secrets than the American government. The driver (a.k.a. ‘Stretch’) has recently been dumped by his gorgeous girl Candace (Brooklyn Decker, ouch) and, reeling in the aftermath, has allowed himself to spiral out of control again, though careful not to reignite his cocaine and gambling addictions from years past.

One afternoon Stretch is pulled aside by his boss who tells him that their main competitor is putting them quickly out of business by stealing their clients. Making matters worse is a $6,000 gambling debt he owes to a thug who promises some very bad things if he doesn’t pay up by midnight that night. Desperate, Stretch begs an employee named Charlie (Jessica Alba) to help steal clients from the competition — a mysterious entity known only as The Jovi — to help him keep his job and to raise the money needed to . . . um, keep his life.

Over the course of the evening Stretch contends with a litany of oddballs and lunatics, starting with a very unhappy David Hasselhoff who, lo and behold, is swept off his feet by The Jovi at the last second. In retaliation, Charlie directs him to a client The Jovi usually picks up, the one and only Ray Liotta. Neither of these dramatized cameos compare to the eccentric billionaire playboy/lunatic that is Chris Pine’s Roger Karos, whose outrageous physical appearance conceals the Hollywood hunk inside (save for the piercing blue eyes). Karos promises he will make Stretch’s efforts worthwhile if he commits to not only being his chauffeur, but to retrieving a briefcase from a certain someone.

Stretch is packed to the brim with absurdities, but they mostly exist in the visual presentation and a few chance encounters. Narratively — as a story of redemption — the film couldn’t be more pedestrian. Wilson clearly relishes the opportunity to cut loose, to become the “fire starter” Karos believes he can be. Wilson brings the fire in his performance, becoming the glue that holds together a lot of delicate pieces and thankfully he is quite the amiable fellow despite his history. As he journeys through the night, an eye on the clock as his midnight deadline rapidly approaches, Stretch receives a crash course in confidence-boosting. He transforms from a drunken pushover (or a fatalist, as Charlie describes him) to a man pushing over a lot of drunks to get to what matters most to him: delivering on his promises.

Carnahan certainly makes some trade-offs in his enthusiastic, over-the-top approach. There are a few moments where the goofiness is overbearing — do we really need the foreign subtitles placed beside a villain as he shouts his threats in perfectly understandable English? — and where the acting isn’t really acting, it’s shouting lines excitedly. It’s nonchalance. A good time to be a paid actor or actress. It may stretch credulity to the breaking point but ultimately the film manages to get to the end with minimal bumps and bruises.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a quick Friday night jolt of entertainment, I suggest firing up Netflix and taking in all that Stretch has to offer: pure, unadulterated ridiculousness with fun cameos and an absolutely zany supporting role from Chris Pine. Fans of him and Patrick Wilson are sure to find them highly enjoyable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “If you like stories about chance and coincidence and fate, then here’s one you’d never heard. Boy meets girl. Girl almost kills boy by running a red light at rush hour. Boy is T-boned at over 60 miles an hour.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com  

IMDb Top 250: The Elephant Man (1980)

imdb top 250 logo

I would like to thank Table9Mutant (a.k.a. Mutant, a.k.a. Mutey) of Cinema Parrot Disco for the opportunity to review a film that is, in my estimation, a downright classic. If you have yet to check out her site yet, please drop what you’re doing now and head over there (or after you’ve read this, that works too. 😉 )

So there was this movie I needed to watch for this IMDb Top 250 movie challenge thing I was participating in. I’m using the past tense because this was something I had committed to about . . . a year and a half ago at this point. (Is that about right Mutey? Year and a half? or has it been longer?) The movie was David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and I finally managed to calm my ADHD down enough to where I could actually watch it. However, as I was cueing it up to watch my mind started being a bit of an ass, provoking me and stuff, telling me to flip to a different On-Demand channel, something that was playing a more recent movie.

“No!” I yelled back at it, out loud. Seated on a couch in the middle of a very quiet living room. All I had done over the last several months was learn to procrastinate better. Err, sorry, excuse me — blog about other movies that to me at the time seemed more urgent. Finally I realized I could always procrastinate — yes, that ‘extremely-nonsensical-combination-of-letters-that-if-repeated-enough-over-a-short-span-of-time-makes-even-less-sense-but-somehow-if-you-only-say-it-once-you-know-exactly-what-it’s-referring-to’ word — later on anyway. I had to hit the play button now.

I was transported back to the late 1800s, and Victorian England, where traveling circuses were still all the rage and attracted (semi-) massive crowds. I think it’s only fair to assume those who did not turn out for these shows had some kind of moral compass that wasn’t shattered into shitty little useless bits. After a brief but trippy dream-like sequence, Lynch pans in on a striking man (Anthony Hopkins) moving through the crowds, trying to access a particular exhibit known only as ‘The Elephant Man.’ However a shift in the public perception of what these most bizarre and unholy of events actually represented — not curiosity, but cruelness — led to more than a few of the more obscure and unattractive exhibits being closed down by authorities. ‘The Elephant Man’ was one such exhibit.

Cut to a dank and depressingly dark alleyway somewhere in the London area, where once again Hopkins’ Dr. Frederick Treves is trying to get a glimpse of this elephant-like man. To do so, he must uncomfortably agree to some terms (mostly monetary . . . natch) set by the manager, a horrible man named Bytes (Freddie Jones). When he’s finally granted access Treves is so moved by what he sees that he asks if he may ‘study him’ back at the London Hospital, where Treves is a renowned practitioner of medicine. Or whatever fancy way 19th Century English people referred to medical-y people.

As Lynch’s often powerfully emotive work seeks to explore the relationship Dr. Treves formed with his patient, Joseph Merrick (a breathtakingly good John Hurt), during the time he stayed in this hospital, the narrative gets cozy in this facility, spending much of the remaining time concerned with the passage of time and how it can quite literally heal wounds. Unfortunately, the London Hospital had been deemed a facility fit only for those who could be cured of their ailment(s). Go figure, Victorian England. As if Joseph needed the added pressure of becoming an inconvenience to the bureaucracy. (Random bit of trivia: Joseph’s so commonly mistakenly referred to as John that he is actually ‘John’ in the movie as well, so for the purposes of this review I’ll stick with his movie name from here on out.)

The fabric of this narrative is weaved from a tough, humanistic cloth. The Elephant Man is an absorbing study of one of the most fundamental aspects of existence, the need and desire to fit in and belong to something. For the heavily disfigured John, it’s heartbreakingly sufficient for him to have his presence actually acknowledged by at least one person. Perhaps this explains why he opens up at all to the doctor who found him in the streets and why he said precious little to his circus manager/owner. John sees Dr. Treves as a paternal figure of sorts. At the very least, a reincarnation of his mother, of whom he carries around a picture in his pocket. Since early childhood, around the age of 10 when she passed away, John was always curious to know if she, too, would have rejected him like his father and his new wife had . . . or would she have accepted him for what and who he was?

The Elephant Man is powered by two tremendous performances from Hurt and Hopkins, the former being one of the strongest in all of cinematic history. (Certainly in my history of watching movies, which is like, so totally not a history at all . . . . . ) I feel pretty comfortable making that claim even when factoring in make-up effects that were ahead of their time, effects so convincing they inspired the Academy to introduce an award category the following year specifically for Make-Up Artistry.* Hurt, behind a mask that graphically depicts the brutality of random chance (a.k.a. the nature of genetics), is mesmerick (see what I did there? I spelled that word as if it were his last name as part of the . . . okay, yeah this is pointless information). But for cereals, you cannot turn away from this performance, not for a second. The man is utterly transfixing throughout, in ways that ingeniously distract from the grotesque physical appearance. Physically embodying the character was one step, but giving the man personality . . . that’s another challenge entirely. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for Hurt. He’s stoic yet nevertheless heartbroken by his past; grateful for Treves’ kindness yet still aware that not everyone can be like him. There’s an aura surrounding John that is wholly indebted to Hurt’s interpretation.

Obviously Hopkins is no slouch either. A complicated individual, Treves is first at odds with the hospital and its ‘curable patients’ policy. Over the months and years of John remaining under his care Treves makes more enemies than just Bytes, who reemerges infrequently throughout, eager to reclaim his prized possession any day. John’s life in the London Hospital begins in isolation, but as the doc makes leaps and bounds in progress with the patient, and the tenuous bond of trust they establish eventuates in John’s transfer to a more social area of the hospital, Treves must face up to the ethical consequences of using John as a pseudo-medical experiment. Hopkins is immensely likable as Dr. Treves, yet he’s perfectly imperfect. He doesn’t immediately question his approach with John, like how one of the first things he did with him was show him off to an auditorium packed with, yes, other medical-y people and laying claim to how this would be his most interesting patient yet. Instead, that question comes much later, after circumstances have changed dramatically. Yet, if we’re meant to feel ambivalent towards Treves, Hopkins does a damn fine job of convincing us of his better qualities.

This is of course not easy material to get through. If you have the patience to sit through some many trying scenes (I’m talking the kind that make you angry), then the upshot will be powerful, a potent reminder that people have an immense capacity for kindness in spite of all that has been shown here. Yet the treacherous scenes that come before are often punishment on the conscience; their bluntness at times visceral and greatly upsetting. Some parts are sickening, while others can be downright unwatchable. How can ignorance beget such monstrous behavior? The kind of freakishness that occurs naturally only in tents that capitalize on monsters. Lynch crafts a beautiful symmetry between John’s unfortunate looks and society’s collective hideousness.

The Elephant Man has been described as one of Lynch’s most accessible films. Structurally speaking it’s as straightforward as a . . . I don’t know, something that’s straightforward — a ruler, perhaps? No, a documentary. As straightforward as a documentary. I hesitate to make that comparison because it makes the film sound uninspired and possibly even lazy. Given the way The Elephant Man flows from one stage of life to the next, ducking and diving in and out of the various rooms that constituted John’s life the film does take on some of the evaluative properties of an in-depth documentary. Lynch didn’t have to concoct a timeline-distorting, reality-bending head trip to leave an impression here. He just needed to let the subject matter speak for itself.

slight correction: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the new category for the following year’s ceremony, but only after they were pressured publicly to do so. When The Elephant Man failed to garner attention for its make-up effects, it was petitioned to have an honorary award bestowed upon it, even though the AMPAS refused. An American Werewolf in London was the first film that won the prize in the following year

Recommendation: Emotionally devastating and difficult to watch on more than one occasion, The Elephant Man is an essential experience for fans of deeply human stories. In this case I think the subject matter far outweighs the talents involved in creating it (with perhaps the exception of John Hurt who makes the product worth the while on his own). This may be a David Lynch film but I will probably remember it more as just a generally classic film with astounding performances. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I . . . am . .  . a man!”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Grandma

Release: Friday, August 21, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Paul Weitz

Directed by: Paul Weitz

Grandma is a misleading title for a film dealing with taboos such as teen pregnancy and abortion. Presenting a thoroughly convincing conundrum in which a young girl turns to her unstable grandmother following a one-night stand that causes her to become pregnant, Paul Weitz’s latest deflects accusations of being just another political soap box movie with wonderful performances and a nonjudgmental tone.

I know what you’re thinking (other than the fact you can’t believe the guy who made American Pie came up with this one): this is one of those guilt-trip flicks, and it would be a good idea to have a position on the issue before watching. You wouldn’t be completely off-base by assuming this is a film with an agenda. After all, Weitz doesn’t really hide his feelings by using a teen as his subject. But Grandma is far less manipulative than you might (fairly) assume, maturing over the course of 80 short minutes into a heartfelt tale about motherly responsibility and the galvanizing power of familial love.

Lily Tomlin stars as the titular grandma, Elle Reid, a cantankerous sort who’s currently in a bit of a spat with her ex-girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) and having a difficult time financially. Clad in denim and dark clothes, her hair a perpetual mess, Elle is a somewhat obstinate older woman who can’t seem to get along with others. She’s not even particularly liked by other members of her family, though her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) is more level-headed and understanding than Elle’s own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Sage approaches Elle because she believes she will be more willing (not necessarily more able, as the film will prove) to assist her. The pair set off on a quasi-adventure, scouting the area for people who’d be able to help them raise the $600 needed for the procedure. In the process the two become closer to one another.

Their mission is sort of time sensitive, as Sage makes an appointment the same day she asks Grandma for help. Nat Wolff plays the (not good) guy in question. He’s the first of many whom Elle and Sage seek out and, predictably, he refuses to chip in. So Elle righteously smacks him in the crotch with the handle of a hockey stick. (I don’t know if she was attempting to prevent him from making babies in the future, but it sure looked that way.) We move on down the road, coming across many of Elle’s old acquaintances and friends — a tattoo parlor owner named Deathy (nice, that’ll keep customers coming back); an employee working in a small restaurant where Elle’s ex used to work . . . although it turns out Elle was wrong about her employment status; and an old flame in the form of Sam Elliot’s Karl who sniffs out Elle’s ulterior motives quickly.

Grandma isn’t ambitious. Neither is its leading pair — whose age gap actually makes for an unusual and compelling dynamic. Merely seeking a way to solve Sage’s current crisis, they are people we can really get behind and root for, despite our feelings on the subject. With a story involving abortion, there’s no chance of it escaping the label of ‘controversial,’ ‘bold,’ or other similar, neutral descriptions. Tomlin’s highly entertaining performance makes for a well-rounded and fleshed-out Elle; young Garner impresses as the troubled teen, and though innocence radiates from her in contradictory fashion, that’s sort of the point. The situation having befallen her is more shocking than the decision she makes on her own.

At the same time, Weitz is really putting himself out there, tackling such hot button topics as abortion, sexuality and parenthood, the latter obviously being the least hot button of them all. The way he blends his themes together is ambitious. That he can infuse the drama with a decidedly heavier comedic touch is a plus. Grandma‘s breezy narrative traces the long-term effects that parenting can have, while offering incisive commentary on the different values each generation seems to adopt and discard accordingly. You may not agree with the characters’ decisions but it might be easier to agree that Sage’s grandma is pretty awesome.

Recommendation: A slight production, Grandma could have been a prickly little pear but thanks to heartwarming performances and a genuine understanding of the importance of family it is hardly confrontational. I actually find it to be one of the better non-family-oriented family films of recent times (if that makes any sense at all — basically, don’t take the kids to this one). I’m a newcomer when it comes to Lily Tomlin but I have found one of the year’s greatest performances. Tomlin really makes this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.sonyclassics.com