Month in Review: July ’19

Well unfortunately I never did manage to come up with some kind of “celebration” post for my blog’s eighth birthday — that opportunity came and went without so much as a kazoo being tooted. Actually — that can still happen. In fact, here’s literally an entire kazoo band to make up for that:

Now, without further kazoodling, here’s what went down on Thomas J during the month of July.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Streaming: Point Blank; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Alternative Content: The Marvelous Brie Larson #4


Good Movie, Bad Movie

Apollo 11 · March 1, 2019 · Directed by Todd Douglas Miller · A truly mesmerizing experience that’s more visual poetry than pure documentary, Apollo 11‘s “direct cinema” approach gives viewers a unique behind-the-scenes look at how the Americans successfully put men on the Moon half a century ago. Relying entirely on its breathtaking, digitally restored archived footage — some of which has never been released to the public until now — and audio recordings to deliver both information and emotion, Apollo 11 isn’t just a celebration of one of man’s greatest achievements, it’s an unbelievably effective time capsule that rockets us back to the 60s as much as it propels us into the star-strewn night sky. This is hands down one of the most insightful, hair-raising looks at any Apollo mission that I have come across. And it only goes to reaffirm Damien Chazelle’s First Man as perhaps one of the most accurate renderings we will ever get in a dramatization. (5/5) 

The Red Sea Diving Resort · July 31, 2019 · Gideon Raff · Inspired by the real-life rescue mission, code-name Operation Brothers, in which a group of Mossad agents helped smuggle tens of thousands of Ethiopian-Jewish refugees out of Sudan and back to Israel in the 1980s, using a dilapidated tourist outpost as a cover. The story it tells is absolutely inspiring, but unfortunately the execution and the performances make it all seem like a vacation. A game cast turns up but is monumentally wasted, none more than Michael Kenneth Williams who disappears for nearly half the movie. Gideon Raff plays it fast and loose with the tone, creating a Baywatch-meets-Blood Diamond-meets-Ocean’s Eleven that makes for an oft unseemly watch. Even worse, it’s pretty boring. (1.5/5)


Beer of the Month

A dangerously drinkable, unfiltered IPA from Stone. Their Fourth of July release is, I think, only the second time I’ve managed to secure one of their limited-release ‘Enjoy By’ drinks. Better late than never, because this one, at 9.4% ABV, is a Stone cold classic!


If you could only see one, which would it be — The Irishman or Ad Astra

Operation Finale

Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Matthew Orton

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

In 1960 the whereabouts of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, the man responsible for deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to ghettos and extermination camps 15 years earlier, had finally been confirmed. Having bounced around the region in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany, Eichmann eventually obtained the necessary emigration documents and under his new identity “Ricardo Klement” he eked out a quiet existence in South America from 1950 until his arrest a decade later.

This is where we pick up on the trail. We follow closely behind members of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as well as those from Shin Bet, the internal security service, as they decide to finally pursue a lead that surfaces in Buenos Aires, fearing a public outcry if they don’t. They are tipped off to a young Jewish refugee named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) who has become intimately involved with a Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn). Her father becomes suspicious of Klaus’ background and bravely alerts the proper authorities. Shin Bet’s chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) soon confirms the identity of Klaus and his father.

Complications arise in part due to environmental factors, with a rising Nazi sentiment gripping post-war Argentina (represented by Pêpê Rapazote’s intimidating Carlos Fuldner) leaving the team with little support from local government. In fact the film draws most of its tension from the air of secrecy in which business is conducted. There’s also a lot of emotional baggage to check at the door. Even though the war ended more than a decade ago, the knowledge of what Eichmann did is a constant burden, one that threatens to undermine the team’s professional objectivity.

The respectfully told story is bolstered by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Sir Ben Kingsley and a refreshingly solemn Nick Kroll. The international cast also includes Lior Raz, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Torben Liebrecht. While each is given a juicy supporting role, replete with moments of earnest introspection, the bulk of the film’s psychological and emotional weight accrue to two thespians who are in seriously high performance mode here.

Matthew Orton’s very first screenplay takes a humanistic approach to creating characters on both sides of the equation. On the side of the good guys you have Isaac‘s highly-qualified but just as vulnerable Peter Malkin, whose mind keeps taking him back to what he lost in the Rumbula Forest, where Eichmann personally oversaw the mass shootings that took place there in November and December of 1941. Opposite him sits (often literally) a disturbingly convincing Kingsley as the notorious war criminal. Sure, he physically looks the part, especially in make-up-heavy flashbacks, but it’s when he speaks lucidly on matters related to his past that confesses to the depths of his depravity — his “aw, shucks” reaction to labels like ‘architect of the Final Solution’ being particularly difficult to process.

As we progress through this deliberately paced timeline, one thing becomes increasingly clear about Operation Finale. This isn’t a flashy production, though it certainly looks good from a costuming and, occasionally, cinematographic perspective. While its lack of action punch may be a sticking point for viewers seeking a more immediately gratifying thriller, and the climactic chase sequence at the end threatens Hollywood cliché — that which the film thus far has done an impressive job of avoiding — there’s no denying the film carries the weight of history responsibly and gracefully.

Recommendation: A product of emotive power, Operation Finale adds further proof of the talents of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, this is historical drama done right. It feels organic, earnest. Quietly profound. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “My job was simple: Save the country I loved from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

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

Life (2015)

life-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Luke Davies

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

The spotlight shines once more upon Hollywood icon and heartthrob James Dean in the creatively titled 2015 biopic Life. Okay, so there actually is some nuance to the label. You can take it at face value but the film is more concerned with the relationship the actor had with a photographer working to produce a photo essay for Life Magazine.

It isn’t hard to see how this picture has fallen into obscurity. This is far from a flashy biopic. It’s not even purely about James Dean. Life enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical run concurrently with a straight-to-VOD release last December. Now it sits in the recesses of Netflix’s ever-deepening Lost-and-Found bin, gathering cyber dust. My finding was quite arbitrary and perhaps that is why I still feel a little underwhelmed by what it was that I had found. It almost makes me feel like I have a duty to caution those who are willfully seeking it out. Good chance this isn’t the movie you’re thinking, perhaps hoping, it’s going to be.

Anton Corbijn (The American; A Most Wanted Man) has crafted a deliberately understated account of how a genuine bond was formed between two very different individuals — one a farm boy from Indiana and the other a city slicker. Dane DeHaan, a young actor on the rise, portrays the icon while Robert Pattinson becomes Dennis Stock, a photographer for the New York-based Magnum agency who would go on to provide Life Magazine with some of the publication’s most iconic images. The year is 1955. Dean has just portrayed Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and is set to take on arguably his most noteworthy role as the rebel himself, Jim Stark, later that year. The events of the film are slotted in between these two seminal productions, following the two as they travel together from Los Angeles to New York and finally to Dean’s sleepy hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.

Corbijn’s treatment manifests as a moody, introspective examination of careers in transition, and appropriately it features a pair of performances that are more charmingly awkward than awards-baiting. DeHaan in particular enjoys mumbling his lines, an approach that won’t sit well with those who viewed Dean as a more assertive Bad Boy. Nonetheless, he is good at drawing out the pain that lived inside the young star as he grappled with the irrevocable nature of fame. DeHaan treads a fine line between being someone with an ego perhaps too inflated, suggested by his stand-offish relationship with studio execs like Jack Warner (a gleefully nasty Ben Kingsley), and someone suffering a crisis of conscience. (Interestingly, Corbijn opts not to make any sort of comment on Dean’s supposed “sexual experimentation,” likely in an effort to avoid politicizing his film.)

For much of the film Dean doesn’t come across as a rebel so much as he does a diva, but there’s a brilliant scene set at the Fairmount High School prom where we realize Dean’s discomfort in the spotlight is genuine; even in this unthreatening environment he seems totally different than his on-screen persona. Perhaps because he is directly confronted with that which he misses most: a life of simplicity and innocence. In the good old days he had no Jack Warners to worry about breathing down his neck, watching his every move. He had nothing to really worry about other than tending to the cattle, banging his bongos in solitude and absorbing the work of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. Now he must contend with shutterbugs like Stock who can never put down the camera (and thank goodness he didn’t), Red Carpet obligations and gossip columns debating which celebrity he’s bedding on which night.

Life may not dig as deep as it could have and I can almost — almost — empathize with purists who are put off by the casting but there’s no denying that the film’s heart is in the right place. This is a tribute to a Hollywood enigma who died far too young (24 at the time of the car accident). Corbijn’s exploration of an unlikely friendship is both earnest and respectful. Intimate. An air of melancholy pervades without Corbijn ever having to resort to an E! True Hollywood Story kind of ending.

dane-dehaan-and-robert-pattinson-in-life

Recommendation: Meditative film captures the iconic James Dean in his off-screen state. Life can feel a bit underwhelming in spots and there are some moments where the acting doesn’t fully convince but the film is very watchable. Another good one to turn to if you are a fan of either actor. Perhaps if you are a James Dean fan you might look elsewhere for a more definitive account. (What’s really interesting to me is how DeHaan turned the role down five times, feeling intimidated by the prospect. His wife eventually convinced him to take the part.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You think you’re giving me something that’s not already comin’ my way? I lose myself in my roles! I don’t wanna lose myself in all this other stuff. And you are this other stuff.”

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.robertpattinsonau.com 

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

The Walk

Release: Friday, October 9, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Zemeckis; Christopher Browne

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

In this episode of Remarkable Feats of Human Spectacle and/or Idiocy, Joseph Gordon Levitt balances on a one-inch thick steel cable rigged between the newly-constructed towers of the World Trade Center, looming steel giants that would go on to cast infinite shadows across Lower Manhattan in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Levitt portrays a man with an insatiable death wish, French high wire artist Philippe Petit, who, after coming across a magazine article in a dentist’s office about the towers, becomes obsessed with the idea of creating the “artistic crime of the century.”

If you like going to the circus, Robert Zemeckis’ sensationally goofy ode to stunt/suicidal men should sit right with you. The Walk tiptoes precariously between harmless popcorn entertainment and shameless exploitation, using Petit’s brazen decision to defy death in the most ridiculous way possible to remind the world once again of how terrible a day Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was. In fact, Zemeckis is so obsessed with recapturing what our world looked like physically prior to that day of darkness that I lost track of the number of vertical-panning shots of these most uninspired-looking structures.

If you’re not a fan of the circus, you may find The Walk to be, in the words of my generation, a shit show. Not in the traditional sense of the phrase, in that Petit or his many accomplices that he guilt-tripped into assisting him were perpetually drunk throughout the picture. Rather, this show is just shitty. It’s not particularly well acted (save for Levitt who, as per usual, is clearly dedicated to his craft), it drags for at least half the runtime and it tries to compensate for the recklessness by striking a fanciful tone. The whole thing comes dangerously close to being pointless as tension fails to be generated given we know the outcome before the opening scene spirits us away to Paris and before we’re inundated with a lot of exposition covering the man’s personal and early professional background.

During one of my many periods of zoning out I recalled when American daredevil Nik Wallenda deemed it a good idea to fix a line between a narrow section of the Grand Canyon and walk it without the aid of safety nets or harnesses. (These people view that kind of silly stuff as some form of emasculation.) If we’re talking entertainment value, there’s no comparison between waiting for this fairytale’s happy ending and realizing Wallenda’s walk carried with it the very real potential of having an actual death broadcast on television. Macabre? Maybe, but at least the threat was right there, making viewers the world over extremely uncomfortable for the better part of an hour. Some families reportedly didn’t allow their children to watch it. They’d be fine watching this, though. It’s completely kid-friendly, one of a small handful of aspects you can stick in the Positives column.

As The Walk progresses, something strange happens. As we draw ever closer to the red letter day (August 6, 1974) — that is to say, as Petit’s dream becomes more real — the less authentic this true story feels. Maybe it’s because the actor’s safety never being in question is too thinly veiled. Maybe it’s just because Levitt is such a nice guy he fails to convey the level of arrogance necessary to fully transform. (His accent doesn’t help, either.) Despite Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking cinematography culminating in several vertigo-inducing shots as we dare look past Petit’s feet and into the abyss, more often than not the film is unable to escape its Hallmark movie channel sheen.

The Walk relies on the power of illusion. This is Barnum & Bailey on the big screen. If I had known that that was what I was paying to see I would have stayed home and forced myself to rewatch Man on Wire; of course that would mean having to endure the actual high wire artist’s grating cocksureness. In the end, I’m really not sure why I put myself through this. Maybe it’s me and not Petit that needs the psych evaluation.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but I will say it again: if your circus experiences have served you well in the past, here’s another you can attend but this time from the confines of a theater chair. I suppose in some way The Walk is more than just the single act; it is a respectful tribute to the twin towers as well as reminder that it’s pretty impressive what people can do when they put their minds to it. But my recommendation comes down to something simple: whether or not you can stand listening to people say things like, “You gave that building a soul,” or “It’s amazing how you never gave up on your dreams.” If you cringe at stuff like that, then I think for you the carrots are cooked, as they say.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The carrots are cooked.”

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 

Self/less

Release: Friday, July 10, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Àlex and David Pastor

Directed by: Tarsem Singh

A talented cast can’t save Self/less from selfishly wasting its potential on a narrative utterly disinterested in entertaining.

Ben Kingsley is Damian Hale, a billionaire with an atrocious accent slowly succumbing to cancer. He knows of a super-duper top-secret experiment where people (presumably only those within his tax bracket) can transfer their consciousnesses into a younger body, a body that’s been harvested in a lab controlled by an organization so damn secretive we never get to know its name. What we do know is it’s headed by Mr. Albright (Matthew Goode), a businessman whose stylish facade can’t quite conceal his dubious intentions. The reincarnation-like process is called ‘shedding,’ and for some reason Kingsley sheds into Ryan Reynolds.

You read me right.

Kingsley says to hell with wrinkles, then takes over Reynolds’ body! Armed with youthful looks, a more muscular physique and the alias Edward, “younger Damian” can now do what his previous career-oriented self never allowed him to, which at first amounts to little more than having sex with a different woman every night. Good call. Nothing screams you’re making up for lost time more than having a string of one-night stands with drunk strangers.

He eventually moves past this phase when his consciousness realizes the body he’s now occupying may be something more than the ‘vessel’ it has been marketed to him as. Even though it has “that new body smell,” Edward/younger Damian has been instructed to take one red pill every day to prevent nasty hallucinations from taking over — visions of a life perhaps experienced by the last person trapped in this skin. He’s warned the visions will only increase in severity the longer he abstains from the pills.

Self/less, if it’s not clear already, is one bizarre trip into the psyche. This is Jekyll and Hyde Meet Dubious Medical Ethics, the science behind which we’re clearly not meant to understand. Reynolds is handed the unenviable task of affecting two different personalities sharing the same physical frame. He is more convincing eliciting Kingsley’s guilt of having undergone the procedure than he is selling us on the fact his other consciousness, someone named Mark, is starting to intrude as a result of Edward/younger Damian not taking his pills.

Still with me? Fantastic. If not join the club; there’s plenty of room for new members. (If we’re being totally honest here, I’m barely making sense to myself in an effort to avoid going into spoilers.)

Any ambition the filmmakers had of giving us something worth debating after the fact is stifled by a navel-gazing narrative, one that doesn’t do itself any favors by focusing upon a character that creates far more questions than it answers. Is all of this aimless wandering supposed to be character building? Why the obvious middle finger to Ben Kingsley? Big picture: does Self/less have something to say about medical experimentation — stem cell research, perhaps? Is this about cherishing one’s youth, the sanctity of human life, or simply how good it must feel waking up and knowing you are Ryan Reynolds?

Nothing is ever made clear, except maybe the fact that nothing is going to be made clear. Screenwriting brothers David and Àlex Pastor become obsessed with overcomplicating this Edward/young Damian/Mark dude than giving him a truly compelling direction to head in. A direction other than going back to cap the guy responsible for all of this mess. (But wait, wasn’t Edamianmark the one who wanted this done so he could . . . oh, whatever. I give up.) And it’s quite frustrating, given yet another good turn from Reynolds. As much as he tries to convey two different people he’s no match for a boring screenplay and convoluted storytelling.

The further I drifted from Self/less‘s pivotal scene a few minutes in, the less its rumination on mortality seemed to matter and the more the film’s tagline instead became relevant. Man may have created immortality, but Singh created a pretty bad movie.

Recommendation: A science fiction film where logic and entertainment disappear and are replaced by silly science and endlessly confusing exposition. In a genre where logic is typically given a pretty long leash, Self/less stretches it pretty far. If you enjoy being left out of the loop fairly early in a movie, and then struggling for the rest of the time to find a way back in, then I have the perfect movie for you.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I’m the only one standing between you and oblivion.”

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