30-for-30: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks

'Winning Time - Reggie Miller vs the New York Knicks' movie poster

Release: Sunday, March 14, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Dan Klores

When people talk about Reggie Miller, arguably the greatest to ever put on a Pacers uniform, they only seem to focus on two things: the New York Knicks and Knicks superfan Spike Lee. It’s never about Indiana, the very state and legacy Miller’s cold-blooded three-point shooting was designed to protect; nor is it ever about the controversial decision to draft him over local favorite Steve Alford in 1987. No, it’s always about how much fun it is watching Reggie struggle, and fail, to win games set in Madison Square Garden.

Acclaimed documentarian Dan Klores (Crazy Love) attempts to catch Reggie in a bottle in this highly amusing, high-drama profile of one of the most bitter and intense rivalries in league history: that which pitted the humble rural fans of Indiana basketball against the polished, urbanized Knick faithful in the quaintly nicknamed series “The Hicks Vs. The Knicks.” Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks may be a title that leaves precious little to the imagination, but there’s still a lot to discover here for fans who have let this chapter in NBA history get away from them.

How many remember the shadow Reggie had to crawl out from under, his immensely talented older sister Cheryl, who happened to drop 100 points in a single high school game? How many recall the Forrest Gump-like beginnings he had to overcome, relying heavily upon leg braces for much of his childhood? I mean it’s just too easy to forget after a sensational career like his that he wasn’t even supposed to be able to play. What of the charitable bets Spike and Reggie exchanged before one of the games: if the Knicks won, Reggie would have to visit Mike Tyson in prison (incidentally located just outside of Indianapolis); if the Pacers won, Spike would give Reggie’s then-wife a role in his next film. Ah, such beautiful symmetry.

Winning Time wastes precious little in constructing the stage. Reggie, the notorious trash-talker that he was, is first seen locking horns with would-be alpha male John Starks, by all accounts one of the Knicks’ great shooters, but one who made himself easier to distinguish because of his head-butting Miller in the middle of a packed Fieldhouse (a move, by the way, that did nothing to quell the ravenous Indiana fanbase). Then, a montage of other players with whom Reggie’s had run-ins — watch Michael Jordan being restrained from killing him.

Then the narrative turns the spotlight on the Knicks and their tough, physical style of play under head coach Pat Riley, infamous for refusing to allow his players to fraternize with the other team at any point during the season. The Knicks’ penchant for physically abusing opponents necessarily meant any playoff series featuring them and the Pacers (who combined for a 104 – 60 record over the ’94 and ’95 seasons) was bound to get nasty. Throw in Reggie’s ongoing feud with Spike on the sidelines and you officially have a party. His relationship with the filmmaker came to define not only that playoff run but the Pacers-Knicks rivalry of the ’90s, and it’s a narrative that nests itself cozily amongst all the other drama.

You’d think with a title like Winning Time there’s something to be said for the Pacers’ failure to make the NBA Championship series the year they triumphed over the Knicks, but apparently there such things as moral victories. It’s made abundantly clear Reggie doesn’t measure success based on championship series drama, the number of titles won or how many rings he has. To the uninitiated, this might come across a strangely vindictive process, but all that really mattered is what mattered to Reggie and that was putting a city that never sleeps to bed.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Reggie Miller choke on it

Recommendation: One of the better offerings in 30-for-30‘s first volume of titles, Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks is, in the broadest sense, a psychological evaluation of an intensely competitive mind. It’s also quite adept at analyzing fan psychology, using the high-profile Spike Lee as a lightning rod. A highly entertaining package.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 78 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.pacersgear.com; http://www.sneakerhistory.com

Just a Quick Thought

'Joy of Man's Desiring' movie posterIt’s time for another Quick Thought, because I don’t know how else to make this announcement. I just want to make all of my readers aware that my contributions to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings indeed continue, although it has been a while since my last piece. I thought I would direct your attention over to that site, where you will find my latest contribution, a review of Canadian documentarian Denis Côté’s most recent offering The Joy of Man’s Desiring, best summarized by IMDb’s quasi-plot ‘summary:’

An open-ended exploration of the energies and rituals of various workplaces. From one worker to another and one machine to the next; hands, faces, breaks, toil: what kind of absurdist, abstract dialogue can be started between human beings and their need to work? What is the value of the time we spend multiplying and repeating the same motions that ultimately lead to a rest — a state of repose whose quality defies definition.

While I personally did not get a lot out of the watch, I can certainly vouch for the “absurdism” and the “abstraction,” as Joy uniquely bridges the gap between drama and documentary. But does an overload of static shots and half-mumbled dialogue make for a compelling watch though?

Find out here. 


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere with the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.allocine.fr 

Decades Blogathon Update: We have our line-up!

Decades Blogathon banner 2016

Hey there one and all! Well it pleases me greatly to announce the official line-up of the 2016 Decades Blogathon, and so quickly. Thank you for responding so quickly and Mark and I both look forward to jumping in here and reading what you all have to say about your chosen movies. Once again this year we have an impressively eclectic selection of titles, and that’s just the way we like it.

So here’s how things are going to play out. Once again, there will be one review posted each day either on this site or on Three Rows Back, and whichever site it doesn’t go up on first, it will be re-blogged there on that day.

Posts are ordered on a first-come, first-serve basis. Which means our esteemed blogging machine Rob from Movie Rob kicks things off in style with his review of Top Gun (1986) — (way to pick a classic, Rob! 🙂 ) — and Mark, the brains behind this whole operation, will conclude things with his thoughts on Taxi Driver, which came out the decade prior.

I guess I could also mention when you can expect to see these posts start going up. We have decided that Monday, May 16 will be the first day of posting. Please have entries in latest by Friday the 13th, that way sloths like me will have time to sort through the reviews and get them formatted and set-up for presentation.

Because the spots filled so quickly this year, we’re anticipating a few late requests. Though we won’t be able to expand the pool to more than 20, last year we had one or two people duck out of the race at the last second, so if you find yourself on the outside looking in, you might just have a chance to get in if you let us know soon. If someone does drop out, those spots will be yours (again, on a first-come, first-serve basis). Thanks for your interest everyone and we look forward to getting this thing rolling on the 16th.


  1. Movie Rob — Top Gun (1986)
  2. Keith & the Movies — Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
  3. It Rains, You Get Wet — The Outlaw Josey Whales (1976)
  4. Cindy Bruchman — Notorious (1946)
  5. Ramblings of a Cinephile — The Battle of Algiers (1966)
  6. The Last Picture Blog — Andrei Rublev (1966)
  7. Fast Film Reviews — The Ten Commandments (1956)
  8. Flick Chicks — The Fountain (2006)
  9. Drew’s Movie Reviews — Grandma’s Boy (2006)
  10. Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger — Scream (1996)
  11. Defiant Success — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
  12. The Cinematic Frontier — Labyrinth (1976)
  13. Movie Man Jackson — She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
  14. Nola Film Vibes  — Stand By Me (1986)
  15. Flixchatter — Casino Royale (2006)
  16. Carly Hearts Movies — Trainspotting (1996)
  17. Epileptic Moondancer — The Tenant (1976)
  18. Marked Movies — A Scanner Darkly (2006)
  19. Digital Shortbread — Inside Man (2006)
  20. Three Rows Back — Taxi Driver (1976)

Hardcore Henry

'Hardcore Henry' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ilya Naishuller

Directed by: Ilya Naishuller

Hardcore Henry isn’t a film for the thinking man. That might even be obvious from the title, one that hints at a crude breed of action-thriller where people excessively swear, have lots of tattoos and women — and innocent bystanders — are as disposable as a Kodak camera. But if you’re low on adrenaline and need a quick, main-line shot of it, Hardcore Henry‘s got you covered.

It’s no secret that the film has been subjected to all sorts of scrutiny based on its gimmicky first-person point of view, the use of Go Pro cameras designed to truly integrate audiences into the story, giving the impression that we’re the ones performing all the ass-kickery. “We” wake up in a strange room with only a female doctor circling around us, inspecting the work that has been done to our body after a devastating encounter has literally cost us an arm and a leg.

Before too long a hostile group of rebels . . . or something . . . appears and kidnaps our doctor, who apparently is also our wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett). (Needless to say, it’ll be less of an uphill battle for the male percentage of the audience to feel as if they really are Henry.) Leading this group of assholes is Akan (played by Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky, who in a few fleeting moments bears a passing resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch when he played WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange), a warlord with telekinetic powers and a serious vendetta against us.

The film unfolds episodically, with some scenes in serious need of another edit or two. But there’s an abundance of energy as we lurch from one grimy set piece to another, stumbling across a map ripped straight out of Call of Duty. It’s also a little 007 meets Halo, the latter especially given all that the opening escape sequence reveals about our location. That, and the sophisticated technology that has provided enemies with untold amounts of firepower and has given Henry/us a new lease on life. The gore owes much to infamous PC releases like Soldier of Fortune and Half Life, the likes of which incentivized players to become creative with their kills.

‘Videogame-esque’ is a particularly apt description given the way information is drip-fed to us at various checkpoints, while perpetual gunfire and flamethrower . . . um, fire . . . all but confirms that it’s pretty much us against the world. We start the film as a slab of meat, unable to speak, having to learn how to use newly acquired prosthetic limbs, and our memory’s been wiped clean. Sharlto Copley‘s Jimmy, a crippled soldier who has managed to find a way to transplant his conscience into other people, is there to guide us from point A to B. He’s our shield for half the film, able to escape close calls by re-spawning as a different person.

Copley’s chameleonic role is one of those things that will either make you scoff at all the ridiculousness ongoing or it will make you scoff at all the ridiculousness ongoing. There’s no way around it — Jimmy is an absurd loophole for director Ilya Naishuller to justify how Henry/we can make it all the way through this film without being vocal about things. Or, alternatively, without being killed prematurely and having a movie that lasts all of 20 minutes. On the positive side, Copley gives us someone with whom we can interact, and his spirited performance serves the film well.

There aren’t many other performances to speak of, but Kozlovsky stands out as a psychopath bent on the resurrection of a bioengineered army of soldiers whose emotional and psychological components have been stripped away. Call Akan the Final Boss. We realize it’s he with whom we’re going to have to do battle, but on several occasions Naishuller and some brilliant camerawork make a compelling argument as to why that won’t be easy.

Hardcore Henry has a habit of raising questions it has no intention of answering. It brutalizes you with an onslaught of fighting sequences that also beg the question as to how many Go Pros were used in the making of, and the acting isn’t stellar. The story’s nothing any experienced gamer hasn’t immersed themselves in already, nor something any ’80s action flick geek hasn’t seen before. But it is far more than a gimmick; this is a unique, absurd and chaotic world that makes suspension of disbelief easy and that’s a big plus in my book.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 8.16.05 PM

Recommendation: The fast-and-frenetic action thrills of Hardcore Henry aren’t going to please all who flock to this unique cinematic presentation, but I’m happy to report that the camera set-up/POV filming isn’t the only selling point. The mystery we unfold as we go on is pretty compelling and the stunts occasionally give Mad Max‘s bloody confrontations a run for their money. I personally felt rewarded for the risk I took by seeing it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

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

Elvis & Nixon

'Elvis & Nixon' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joey Sagal; Hanala Sagal; Cary Elwes

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Maybe it would’ve been too cheesy to use, but I was totally surprised when I never heard the line “Elvis has left the building.” But let’s get one thing straight: Elvis & Nixon is plenty cheesy, so it might have actually fit. I guess I have to move on now.

With two figures as iconic as The King and Tricky Dick filling the frame, Liza Johnson‘s decision to fashion a breezy, lightweight dramedy around them is, in hindsight, a sensible one. After all, she knows we’ve all come to listen in on a singular conversation, one behind closed doors. And since this isn’t Frost-Nixon she has no compunction to prop everything up on stilts for the stakes just aren’t as high here. There are barely any stakes at all, as a matter of fact. Despite that, Johnson’s aware of the remarkable position she’s in, able to use creative license as a way to get a foot inside the Oval Office on that day, December 21, 1970.

This infamous meeting took place prior to Nixon taping all of his conversations. No one knows what really happened. What was spoken about? What was Elvis trying to gain by meeting with the leader of the free world? How did he act? How awkward was Nixon? Most importantly, did Elvis thank him very much on the way out the door?

As the story goes, Elvis, disturbed by the deteriorating fabric of American society as drug abuse and stinging Vietnam protests swept across the nation, felt a responsibility to help in the fight against the counterculture. Call it counter-counterculture. He was into collecting police badges and was proud of the concealed firearms they enabled him to carry. All that Elvis lacked was a federal badge and the authority to actually go undercover as a “federal agent at large.” He felt his appearances in movies afforded him the art of disguise and he would be able to infiltrate schools without being recognized. So he sought approval first from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and when that didn’t pan out he requested a meeting with the President.

Elvis & Nixon is a film that lives and dies on its casting, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Michael Shannon certainly looks the part, donning the mutton chops (I don’t care if they’re not real, they look pretty good on him), the gold-plated necklace and rings. He’s got his collar riding high around his neck, and the ladies come swooning, flocking into whatever room he’s in just for a visual confirmation that “it’s him.” As to the Prez — fans of House of Cards are going to have to dial back their expectations of Kevin Spacey’s cinematic politician. Even while embracing Nixon’s relatively off-putting demeanor, Spacey is so stiff in the role you’d think he’s never played a man in such power before.

Those two are such consummate professionals the fact I could never see past the actors wasn’t an issue. If anything, it’s a treat being aware of performers working with material with this many implications, just to see what two of the greatest working actors today are able to do. That hand-slapping reflex test was improvised by Shannon, apparently. Of the two, Spacey is generally better because you could argue his awkwardness blends magnificently with Nixon’s persona. Shannon neither looks nor sounds like Elvis, though his soft charm and towering presence positively oozes The King of Rock’n Roll.

Supporting them is an impressive albeit random mix of recognizable names. Some, like Colin Hanks’ Egil “Bud” Krogh, fare better than others. Krogh is significant as he’d go on to be convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal, so it’s difficult to believe someone as innately likable as the son of Tom Hanks would have this potential to be so corrupt. Evan Peters plays another faceless White House employe — Dwight Chapin — and he barely registers. Worst of them all is Alex Pettyfer, Elvis’ close friend and confidante Jerry Schilling. Pettyfer prefers to sleepwalk rather than use charisma to get through. In a surprising twist, though, Johnny Knoxville seems to be taking acting a bit more seriously these days. He’s quite watchable as another member of the ‘Memphis mafia,’ Sonny West.

The film moves quickly, working from the outside in, providing glimpses of the powers that be, comfortable and in control in their respective spaces before the weight of inevitability obliges the editors to get to the good stuff, a dynamite, if not bizarre, twenty-minute scene in which Spacey and Shannon are allowed to unbutton and let loose. Weak supporting parts notwithstanding, Elvis & Nixon is a graceland for larger-than-life characters. It’s a movie where every actor has to fight in some scenes to be taken seriously, but hey, this isn’t heavy drama, so what does it really matter in the end as long as we have some fun with it?

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 9.47.59 PM

Recommendation: Elvis & Nixon turns out to be a very fleeting event. It essentially improvises one of the stranger moments in the Nixon presidency by giving us a visual of what happened behind closed doors. It’s a film for those looking for less intense Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon-lite. That doesn’t mean that this is an altogether forgettable film, though. The fact that this very bizarre afternoon really happened is likely to stay with you for some time.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

Quoted: “Who the f**k set this up?”

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

Demolition

'Demolition' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Sipe

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Jake Gyllenhaal has played a variety of oddballs in his time. He’s navigated his way carefully through a maze of mental illness — including, but certainly not limited to, sociopathy, obsession and depression — and often bravely inhabited characters who we’re almost dared to embrace at the expense of our own conscience. But even when he’s playing characters who are either lowlives or who find themselves at low points in their lives, rarely do we regret spending time watching him.

Alas, that is the case in Demolition, the new film from Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée. I suppose the good news is that I can’t remember the last time I was able to say Gyllenhaal failed to captivate me, wasted my time or anything similarly negative. I’m not talking about a movie in which he starred or had a juicy supporting part, but something he appeared in. That’s quite a streak this utterly directionless and ultimately pointless black comedy has just broken. If I were the movie, I’d feel pretty bad about that, because while Gyllenhaal has certainly been better, the fact the film passes without significance isn’t entirely his fault.

Demolition is the story of a successful investment banker who seems to mentally check out of reality following a traumatic event in which he and his wife are involved in a bad car accident. Rather than breaking down into tears or exhibiting any of the symptoms someone in his position would typically exhibit, particularly in the immediate aftermath, his Davis Mitchell feels nothing. He seemingly moves on with his life as if nothing happened. We, the appalled, are challenged to interpret whether his behavior is something indicative of some kind of mental deficiency, or if he’s just a coldhearted bastard. (Either way, there’s something wrong with him.)

Bryan Sipe’s talky, introspective but ultimately forgettable script pivots around a rather crass catalytic event in which Davis — and this is just hours after his beloved Julia (Heather Lind) has succumbed to injuries sustained in the accident — begins writing a series of letters to the company that owns the vending machine that just screwed him out of a pack of peanut M&M’s. I know. Life is unfair. For awhile we’re lead to believe that these letters are just a way for him to vent, that perhaps he’s just this bad at expressing anguish. After all, grief is grief and there aren’t really any rules for dealing with this shit.

But then we learn that Davis’ letters are being received by a customer service rep named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts, less annoying than usual) — a customer service rep in desperate need of a raise because she’s seemingly the only one who ever pays attention to such outmoded forms of communication. Complaint letters being read. Pah! What a quaint idea. The set-up is so serendipitous it’s ridiculous. Maybe if Davis were a character we could actually get behind, the fact Karen’s entirely too trusting of a strange man might not be something we’d notice. After all, Karen’s essentially a polar opposite to Davis, a kind-hearted soul who’s struggling financially as a single mother raising a bratty kid who can’t stay unsuspended from school.

Davis finds comfort in divulging intensely personal tidbits about his marriage and his childhood through letters to someone he’s never met. He’s also further alienating himself from the brutal truth of being made a widower at the ripe age of 30-something. What begins as a pen-pal relationship soon turns into clandestine phone calls whose tones range from stalker-ish to flirtatious; meanwhile Julia’s parents are still trying to get over their loss. Those phone calls that then turn into face-to-face meet-ups aren’t the extent of Davis’ ‘descent.’ (I put that word in quotes because Davis himself admits he didn’t even know Julia that well, other than that marrying her was an easy thing to do. So, good chance this guy was insufferable even when she was alive.)

Promotional material for Demolition seems fixated on the character physically destroying things. There’s the clip of him taking a bulldozer to his posh, angular, suburban abode and a bathroom stall at his office lying in pieces on the floor. By the time we actually get around to these moments we’re so numb to what we’re seeing they don’t really register. There’s a faint whiff of tragedy underlining Davis’ increasingly absurd behavior but it’s all for naught because the story and the character haven’t given us any reason to feel empathy; this is quite literally 100 minutes of watching Gyllenhaal getting free license to go willy-nilly with a sledgehammer and other construction materials.

In fact it becomes so difficult to identify with Davis we end up feeling terrible for his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) as Phil continues to give Davis entirely too much leeway around the office. (Does he have much choice? Um, how about firing him?) Perhaps the only behavior Davis displays that we can understand is his lack of ability to stay invested in work-related projects. In an early scene, Davis is recounting what it was like getting to know Phil in the early stages of his relationship. Not one to mince words, Phil shouts down from the top of a flight of stairs, “I don’t like you Davis.” Yeah, no kidding. We’re with you on that one, Phil. Fortunately for us, we figured that out within about an hour. You had to endure this man’s sociopathic behavior for years.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.23.09 PM

Recommendation: Demolition revolves around a through-and-through unlikable protagonist, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But the story also asks us to start taking sides (with him) as Davis begins a new relationship — to the film’s credit, one that’s only ever platonic — with a customer service rep who decides she likes the way he writes. Everything just feels so false. Jean-Marc Vallée has dealt with the selfish, brooding, sociopathic and self-destructive type before but this one really pushes limits. One for actor/director completionists only.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “There was love between me and Julia. I just didn’t take care of it.”

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

Casting Call: Bloggers wanted for ‘The Decades Blogathon’ (2016)

Decades Blogathon banner 2016

Greetings everyone! Guess what time of year it is? That’s right! Christmas 2.0! Or, better known as the time of year where me and Mark start inviting our esteemed bloggers from around the world to participate once again in the Decades Blogathon, a 10(ish) day event in which we take a look at films from different decades.

Last year was the inaugural event and it went off without a hitch and was a lot of fun. So much so, we just had to do it again. For those who sent their wonderful entries last year, you already know the drill. But to get newcomers on board, it’s going to go a little something like this:

  1. Pick a film from any decade with the year ending in ‘6’ (given that it’s now 2016), and there’s no restrictions here. We’re not snobs . . . not really, anyway; we’ll gladly accept anything from 1906 all the way up to releases that have come out so far this year). Just remember the year must end in a ‘6.’
  2. The postings will go up on a first-come, first-serve basis. We’ll put up the entries that come in first and there will be one posted every day on this site and Three Rows Back, with each entry having a corresponding re-blog on the other site.
  3. The Decades Blogathon will be capped this year at 20 posts. As much as we would love to take 50 or 100 entries, that’d be a daunting task to take on so we are going to limit the entries to 20. We kindly ask participants to only send one piece in so we can maximize the number of contributors (Mark and I will also be included in that count. Our reviews will come at the end.)
  4. If you want to become involved, send an email to either myself (tomlittle2011@gmail.com) or Mark (threerowsback@gmail.com) with your suggestion. If no one else has already claimed that movie we’ll give you the green light and you can fire those entries right back to those same email addresses (or you can send them normally, that’d be preferable).
  5. Like last year, we’re aiming for mid-May to start posting entries. Please have your reviews/posts in by Thursday the 12th and no later than Friday the 13th. That gives us time to go over the posts and construct the posting schedule. If you need any extra time to enter, just send either Mark or myself an email and we’ll get you in any way we can!

ONE LAST THING: As to the availability of the titles, I will be putting up my thoughts on Spike Lee’s 2006 hostage thriller Inside Man, and Mark has gone full-DeNiro with his selection of the 1976 Scorsese classic Taxi Driver. Those are the only titles that are already claimed. Be sure to let us know if you’d like to talk about something and we’ll get this thing rolling! Thanks everyone!

The Jungle Book

'The Jungle Book' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Justin Marks

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Forgetting about your worries and your strife is pretty easy to do when Jon Favreau’s bold decision to remake the Disney animated classic all but steals you away to a wonderful world filled with adventure, danger and English-speaking animals.

It’s actually quite amazing how talented a director Favreau (yes, as in Tony Stark’s favorite body guard, Happy) is as his latest passion project showcases a knack for both interpretation and reinvention, borrowing that which made the 1967 animation a timeless adventure while modifying certain elements with an even more intimate examination of life in this complex jungle, first envisioned by 19th Century poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling. Though it’s not the first time the actor/director has offered up a heaping helping of popcorn-munching entertainment, The Jungle Book could well be his most complete and emotionally satisfying piece. And it has just one human actor in it.

The Jungle Book, first and foremost, is the epitome of a Disney production. It’s wholesome, family friendly and heartwarming. Our capacity for empathy is a testament to the effectiveness of the digitally-rendered characters; by all accounts this is the film we remember, only it’s not animated. Bathed in the same effervescence of innocence and self-discovery that defines Disney’s animated offerings, Favreau’s interpretation gains strength as playfulness and good spirits eventually give way to danger and darkness as the story we fell in love with so long ago is played out once more but on a much more visceral level.

That the film actually benefits from treading familiar ground is also a testament to the strength of Favreau’s convictions that this is a story worthy of the live-action treatment. More importantly, The Jungle Book hits all the beats we expect it to, even finding time to add new dimensions to the many character interactions we’ve held so dear for nearly half a century. A fixation on the harsh realities of surviving in this tropical environment also helps steer the production away from utter predictability, even though the showdowns that threaten the very fiber of the MPAA’s standards for what makes a PG-rated film are expected from the very beginning.

Favreau (yes, as in the guy whom Paul Rudd puked all over in I Love You, Man)’s wisest decision was to place emphasis on characters, letting the nature-versus-nurture debate at the heart of this tale of survival manifest naturally. As Mowgli learns the kinds of things he’s capable of — he’s quite handy when it comes to building things — is he doomed to repeat the actions of his elders? Can he be taught to be different, to not abuse the power of fire?

Mowgli (introducing Neel Sethi) first comes flying into the frame with wolves in hot pursuit, an apparent training exercise designed by his panther protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to help the man-cub outlast predators. We get a deeper sense of his adoptive family unit as we’re introduced to the wolf pack clan gathering at the edge of a rocky precipice, preparing for the rains that are soon to come, soon to summon animals of all kinds to a nearby watering hole. Life seems pretty swell as a member of the pack, especially if you call the honorable Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) dad and the warm, fiercely protective Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) mom.

But then there are threats to such peace, like the prowling beast Shere Khan, a villain made viable on the virtue of Idris Elba’s deep, booming voice alone — a monster of a tiger whose facial scars are inextricably linked to Mowgli’s past. This isn’t, however, a villain introduced for the sake of it. Khan’s concern is actually one shared by all sorts of animals, including the wolf pack: that the man-cub will one day be a grown man and, based on experiences, fully grown men bring nothing but death and destruction to the jungle. Animals greatly fear their “red flower;” fire, the ultimate villain, plays just as dramatic a role here as it did in the 1967 version.

Mowgli’s fate, with one or two wrinkles thrown in, is the same as before: his future is largely unknown. Bagheera and Akela agree that he’d be safer with his own kind, and Bagheera sets off on a journey with the boy that will expose the pair to intermittent treachery and silliness, including, but not limited to, seductive snakes (Scarlett Johansson as Kaa is genius casting, even if she’s underused), oafish bears desperate for honey (Bill Murray is, and probably to no one’s surprise, the pinnacle of excellence here, making for an arguably better Baloo than Phil Harris) and one gigantic ape with delusions of grandeur. (On that note, Christopher Walken unfortunately shares Johansson’s plight of being stuck with an underserved subplot; it’s basically a cameo.)

You can’t really overstate the impact an A-list cast has on a movie like this; personalities fit the wild animals to a T and all signs point to everyone involved taking this project extremely seriously . . . even Emjay Anthony, who Favreau liked enough in the making of Chef to give him a small part as one of the wolf cubs. And the knock-on effect: we, the paying customers, get to kick back and enjoy the simple bare necessities of escaping from reality and into the visual wonderland and heightened sense of humanity only anthropomorphic animals who have a tendency to break out into song and dance can provide.

The Jungle Book is many things: it’s one of the year’s biggest surprises, an achievement in CGI rendering, and a new standard to which all upcoming family outings must rise this year. Above all, it’s an immensely enjoyable blockbuster-type release. It is that way from beginning to end. Even though a few scenes expose the more obligatory side of Favreau’s directorial style — King Louie really needed a longer introduction and a less rushed exit, as did Kaa — there’s more than enough here to proclaim 2016 as the year in which Kipling’s visionary tale about man and animal coexisting became immortalized.

Recommendation: The Jungle Book is proof that sometimes, just sometimes, with great risk comes even greater reward. Jon Favreau rewards audiences with a remake that stays true to not only the characters, but the emotional challenges and even a few of the songs that popularized the original animated version. Fans of the original, it’s time to let out that sigh of relief. Favreau and his excellent cast have truly outdone themselves. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “No matter where you go or what they may call you, you will always be my son.”

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

Paul G — #3

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was being a real bastard to the beloved, but troubled Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson in the wonderful music biopic Love & Mercy. The character was another great demonstration of how unlikable the actor can become on screen, putting such distance (hopefully) between his on and off-screen persona with a suitably slimy and obsessive round-the-clock psychotherapist whose smothering practices eventually become the crux of the entire picture. Today we explore a character that might be even less likable and less redeemable, a nasty slave trader who plays a huge role in the fate of the film’s protagonist.

Paul Giamatti as Freeman

Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Plot Synopsis: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Character Profile: Despite the character’s name being a bit overkill (do we really need the irony of a slave trader being named ‘Freeman?’) he nonetheless plays a crucial role both in shaping the very uncertain future of free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup and his cold, businessman-like personality in trafficking people around epitomizes the very institutionalization of prejudiced thinking. A blue collar worker likely perceived by his peers as a decent, upstanding man, Freeman’s job is to determine where the slaves are to be sent when they arrive at Port New Orleans. Despite Solomon’s protests of being a free man who’s been abducted, Freeman slaps an entirely new identity on him, that of Platt, a Georgia runaway. It is Freeman’s gruff hand that steers Solomon/Platt in the direction of slave owner William Ford, by comparison a saint of a plantation owner compared to the one he is sent away to later, the vile Edwin Epps. 12 Years a Slave demonstrates a number of terrible wrongdoings but it is Freeman’s intervention in New Orleans that has one of the biggest impacts on his harrowing journey.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti shoulders the weight of playing a despicable racist, a character who is by definition of their job a terrible person, with aplomb. I doubt any of the roles in 12 Years a Slave were easy to play but Giamatti’s slave trader is so vile he comes only second or third fiddle to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. That’s company you don’t really want to keep, but if you’re a solid character actor who thrives on the challenge of embracing difficult-if-not-impossible-to-like individuals, you do accept the challenge and become one of the most memorable notes in a symphony of powerhouse performances.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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

Hellions

 

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Pascal Trottier

Directed by: Bruce McDonald

So if your ‘Netflix-and-chill’ night ever came down to a choice between sitting in total awkward silence and putting on a movie called Hellions, you’d be better off trying your luck with complete silence. Go ahead, make it as uncomfortable as possible by broaching the subject of how awkward it is to sit in silence like this. Your date may think you’re weird but, hey, you’ve just saved the evening from total ruination.

You do this because you appreciate them enough to not make them suffer through Hellions, a massively overproduced home invasion thriller that boils down to a teen defending herself against some psychotic trick-or-treaters who come a-knockin,’ but not for candy. Dora (Chloe Rose) is your typically moody 17-year-old stuck at home alone Halloween night. She has plans to have a quiet night at home with her boyfriend but her mom isn’t so cool with that, man.

Mom’s going to be taking Dora’s younger brother out trick-or-treating so she won’t be able to keep an eye on her. That doesn’t stop her from contradictorily encouraging her daughter to go out and “have fun tonight.” (Oh, she will! But she ain’t going out.) Within a few minutes of being by herself Dora’s already texting her boy-toy, wondering whether they’re still going to that party or not. Then, a knock at the door. Rather than the handsome mug of the teen we’re expecting it to be, we’re greeted by a pretty evil-looking little tyke who seems to forget it’s customary to say “trick-or-treat” at the door on All Hallow’s Eve. After some substantial tension Dora sends the kid away, a little taken aback by both the mask and his odd behavior.

A couple more near-wordless scenes succeed in further quickening your pulse as Dora starts noticing kids standing in groups on all sides of the house, as if in preparation for an organized attack. Still no word from her boyfriend and it’s getting dark outside. Oh, how ignorance is bliss, for what ensues in the next half of the film (all of maybe 40 minutes) is nothing short of bizarre — not the kind of bizarre that gives horror a good name but the kind that becomes really difficult to watch, physically difficult.

What begins as a relatively compelling assault on the house by a group of kids with mischief in mind devolves into a patently absurd mix of poorly-conceived supernatural and demonic elements that makes Hellions next to impossible to categorize as either. Is this some kind of supernatural event this Blood Moon, or are the kids a bunch of evil E.T.’s? Then the mind starts to really wander: ‘What is a ‘hellion?’ Is that like a balloon? No, now I’m thinking about helium.’ Turns out, it’s a term of endearment for a misbehaving child. Or in this case, child actors instructed to wear a variety of freaky masks and superimposed (badly) against a pixelated, apocalyptic background.

I guess this is the part where I probably should say Dora has recently discovered she’s four weeks pregnant (gasp, she’s only seventeen!). Why’s this important? As it so happens, this is what the children have come for. They’re looking for a blood sacrifice, as they presumably do every year, and Dora’s the lucky victim. I can hear you saying now: ‘but the baby’s only four weeks old!’ Yes, that’s true. But this is pregnancy on steroids, you see, as the child fully develops within the span of the movie, subjecting the mother (or is it more politically correct to call her the host?) to all kinds of misery while her house is under siege. And the evil that’s outside will not go away until they get what they’ve come for.

On the surface, it’s not a bad premise. I can think of few things more unsettling than complicated pregnancy, and when you start talking about the potential of it being inhuman, well that’s just. . . . Also noted: the involvement of mostly child actors as the collective evil force is an inspired twist. Their speaking parts aren’t demanding, all they really do is repeat her name in a collective eerie chant that vaguely recalls Rosemary’s Baby, but their presence is certainly felt and one of the strengths of the film. But as time winds on, even they become lost in another CGI mess that’s as ugly as it is uninteresting.

You know how some movies become great fun when the poor quality and execution eventually give way to unintentional comedy, the kind of B-movie that you play drinking games during? Yeah, well this isn’t one of those. This is just horror botched. The problem is more fundamental than that even: it’s botched storytelling. It’s botched filmmaking.

Though not for a lack of creativity. If there’s anything Hellions proves it’s that the filmmakers — or I should say, whoever oversaw the final cut — were pretty creative in trying to cover up the glaring fact that the story is rather anorexic. All kinds of visual wizardry is put to ‘good’ use, not least of which being some seriously ill-advised music video-esque CGI that turns the picture shades of red and blue; several sequences are sliced, diced and recycled in a concerted effort to confuse and confound; a cacophony of loud noises and the aforementioned chants lay the psychological fuckery on thick, in case everything else hasn’t.

'Hellions'

Recommendation: Hellions is the epitome of style over substance and a great example of how badly that flaw can detract from a director’s vision. It’s okay if you rely on some style to complement a certain mood or atmosphere that can’t be achieved any other way, but when the style becomes the only thing viewers notice, you’ve gone a bit too far. Hellions goes several feet too far. Unfortunately there’s really not much here to recommend to genre fans or those looking for something random on Netflix. I’d go with something else. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 80 mins.

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; http://www.horrordrome.com