The Marvelous Brie Larson — #6

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

For the penultimate installment in my Brie Larson spotlight I’m focusing on a black comedy from British director Ben Wheatley. Considering I have seen only two of his seven films — High Rise and Free Fire — I am not what you would call a Ben Wheatley expert. But what I’ve seen of his work so far has been enough for me to consider him a pretty unique director. Again, it’s a small sample size but I’ve really enjoyed how distinctly different these two movies are. Pure, unbridled chaos and pitch-black comedy seem to be the only things these movies from the mid-twenty-teens have in common. Well, that and if getting a lot of high-profile actors to be in your movie is a talent, Wheatley is most definitely talented.

Free Fire is his first movie “set” in America, though the old print factory in Brighton, England makes for a perfect stand-in for a Boston warehouse. It’s an action-driven movie that plays out as if Guy Ritchie directed Reservoir Dogs, where the schadenfreude is in greater abundance than the bullets and the blood. Best of all, in a movie that features a ton of recognizable names, Brie Larson gets to play a significant role in it and she kills it — quite literally.

If you haven’t caught up with the dark pleasures of Free Fire, it’s streaming on Netflix right now.

Brie Larson as Justine in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/comedy/crime

Premise: Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shoot-out and a game of survival.

Character Background: Justine, a kind of peacekeeper and one-woman coalition for reason and logic, was originally meant to be played by Olivia Wilde, but she ended up dropping out. I think Wilde is a really strong actor but I can’t see anyone else in this role. Larson’s eye-rolls and natural ability to deliver sarcastic quips are real treasures of this movie. Alongside her American, side-burned colleague Ord (Armie Hammer), she’s here to broker a black market arms deal between the IRA (represented primarily by Cillian Murphy) and a South African gun runner (played deliciously over-the-top by Sharlto Copley), one that goes hopelessly and hilariously awry thanks to an unforeseen event.

The screenplay (by Wheatley’s wife Amy Jump) provides her a really interesting arc. Justine is the lone woman amidst a pack of egotistical, volatile and fairly unsympathetic men. Early on she’s predictably dismissed as just a bit of scenery. When she’s not being referred to as “doll,” she’s being asked out to dinner in what has to be one of the least appropriate ask-someone-out-for-dinner situations ever. While her costars are by and large quick to demonstrate their instability and their sexism, Larson is keeping tallies, and her character’s own ulterior motives under wraps, waiting for the right moment to demonstrate her own penchant for opportunistic scheming.

Free Fire is a very simple movie, and that’s one of its great strengths. Larson describes it as “an action movie making fun of action movies.” The plot is easy to follow and while all the gunfire eventually becomes kind of white noise it’s the characters that make it worth sticking around for. They may be here for different reasons but the thing they will all have in common, sooner or later, are bullet wounds and injuries.

Marvel at this Scene: 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Stan & Ollie

Release: Friday, December 28, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Written by: Jeff Pope

Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Unlike the lengthy run the real-life subjects enjoyed in their careers, director Jon S. Baird’s passion project Stan & Ollie seems over before it has even begun. This isn’t me knocking the film for being slight, but because I enjoyed each precious minute like they were little fudge truffles maybe I just wish there were more of them, especially when Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are involved, and when they are this good together. They truly make this movie worth savoring.

Stan & Ollie is a lovingly crafted tribute to one of the most famous and beloved comedy acts of all time. It provides insight into both the creative genius behind the comedy and the friendship that endured behind the curtains. Coogan and Reilly play Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively and I really don’t know who is better. Both. They’re both better. As history shows, the inimitable double act kept some pretty amazing company, yet even amidst their contemporaries — Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to name two — they became slapstick icons unto themselves, appearing in over 100 silent and sound productions and with starring roles in more than 20 full-length features from the 1920s into the mid-40s.

They incidentally met as cast members on the set of The Lucky Dog (1921)though they wouldn’t officially be recognized as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ until years later, when they signed separate contracts with producer Hal Roach and shared the screen in the silent short Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Laurel, whose average build looked childlike standing next to the 6-foot, 300-plus-pound Hardy, more often than not played the hapless friend to Hardy’s pompous buffoon and a common theme of their act revolved around simple misunderstandings, demonstrated most often in the visual but occasionally expressed in cleverly conceived dialogue — their “Tell me that again” routine being a classic example.

Rather than turning his tribute into a filmic tick list of everything notable that happened, Baird concentrates on a period much later in their careers, focusing on their urgency to stay in business well after the height of their fame. The essence of their camaraderie — by extension their career — is distilled into a familiar road trip comedy. After getting down to literal business in a key opening scene, one that depicts an unhappy Stan Laurel refusing to renew his contract with Roach (Danny Huston), the story leaps forward sixteen years and follows the aging pair as they attempt to mount a big-screen comeback, a potential spoof of Robin Hood. To that end they embark on an exhausting tour of the United Kingdom in 1953, playing to diminishing crowds in obscure and forgotten music halls*, their close relationship and even their own health becoming strained in the process.

The effectiveness of Stan & Ollie very much mirrors that of the iconic two-man show. It just wouldn’t work without the right personnel, and with the Mancunian Coogan portraying the English Laurel, and Chicago-born Reilly pulling his pants up well past the point of where a traditional waistline goes to become the American Oliver “Babe” Hardy, Baird’s film is in some very capable hands — arguably the ideal hands. Reilly, perhaps more so than his co-star, has staked much of his reputation on playing the lovable oaf his character in this movie became typecast as. Look no further than the projects he teams with Will Ferrell on. Coogan, on the other hand, is a drier wit but no less entertaining. I’m thinking immediately of Hamlet 2.

As an homage to comedy, Stan & Ollie plays out more as a Greatest Hits performance rather than offering a deep dive into the treasure trove. That level of discrepancy allows for a more streamlined narrative, and will undoubtedly disappoint some viewers who might be expecting revisits to certain famous gags. However, we do get treated to some of the classics, like the bedside manners bit from County Hospital (1932), where Laurel, in paying a visit to his bedridden friend, creates quite the ruckus, eventually stringing the large man up over his own cot by his comically oversized leg cast. Baird uses this specific gag (admittedly only the first few minutes of it) to exemplify the depth of their creative and personal bond. When we see Laurel later attempt to rehearse the same sketch with a different actor — this is at a point where the guys are taking some time away from each other —  it just doesn’t feel the same. Laurel’s unease in fact leads to the cancelling of that night’s performance — much to the chagrin of their inept tour manager, Bernard Delfont (a perfectly smarmy Rufus Jones).

Jeff Pope, on balance a formula-friendly screenwriter, also gets inventive with the way he repurposes other bits — a highlight being an inversion of their famous piano-up-the-stairs scene, wherein the duo, having grown quite tired of lugging around their massive shipping container that is their traveling wardrobe, let go of it on a public stairwell and watch it slide down two flights. Yet the writing is rarely more moving than when things start to get a little tense between them. At a party thrown in their honor in London, attended by a number of Important People as well as their respective wives — the uppity but ultimately loving Ida (Nina Arianda) and the kindhearted but helium-voiced Lucille (Shirley Henderson) — past troubles resurface and it all leads to some gentle pushing and shoving, a dynamic misinterpreted by the public as a comedic act playing out in real life. It’s certainly a low point for them, yet the moment isn’t played so seriously it fails to inspire some laughs for us.

The tone of that scene is really Stan & Ollie in a nutshell. The water is never scalding hot nor freezing cold. This isn’t a movie of extremes. Instead it’s one made with reverence, arguably to a fault. It is deathly afraid of coughing in a quiet room. All warts have been removed with an airbrush. Still, I find it hard to resist the simplicity of the tale. Their comedy is brilliantly reimagined by two skilled, modern funny men. The characters are lovable and Coogan and Reilly are relishing the opportunity to pay homage. Even if the story never strays from formula and there is never a shred of doubt over where things are going, I couldn’t help but get lost in the moment.

* this is apparently more for the purposes of demonstration in the film, as in reality the pair even during this time were selling out big venues in major cities

Recommendation: Sweet, charming and very much to the point, Stan & Ollie is a must-see for longtime fans of one of the world’s most famous comedy double-acts, as well as a “You Really Should See” for anyone bemoaning the state of the modern comedy and searching for a re-set button. Also, the film is directed by the same guy who made Filth — if you haven’t seen that one, it’s a decidedly different kind of comedy starring James McAvoy as a brute of a police officer. The difference between the two films is night-and-day. Not sure if that is so much a recommendation as it is a bit of funny trivia. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: [Hardy] “I’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

[Laurel] “So will you.”

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.thewrap.com

Month in Review: November ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

the cast of Thanksgiving Day 2018

With Thanksgiving behind us, let us also hope the cinematic turkeys are too. As we head down the final stretch of 2018, I plan to resume a steadier pace — no promises, but that is the goal. That shouldn’t be too much to ask given the slate of films that sprawls out in front of us. Here’s a brief rundown of what I am most feverishly anticipating, loosely organized based upon what it is that draws me to them.

Director(s)

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster); If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, Moonlight); Climax (shield your eyes, kiddies — it’s the new film from the polarizing Argentine Gaspar Noé)

Cast(s)/Character(s)

The Beach Bum (Matthew McConaughey as “Moondog” — watch out 2019, ‘Moondog McConaughey’ is totally gonna be a thing); Vice (Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as Dubya, and Steve Carell as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — that is just ridiculous casting, all of it!); Serenity (Matthew McConaugh — hey, I see a pattern emerging, plus Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou and Diane Lane)

Story

Welcome to Marwen (from the director of Forrest Gump, starring Steve Carell) — Mark Hogancamp, a victim of an attack so brutal he loses most of his memories of his life before, constructs a miniature World War II village, called Marwen, in his yard to help in his recovery; Vox Lux (read Cinema Axis’ early review here) — An unusual set of circumstances brings unexpected success to a pop star; Mary Queen of Scots — pits the mighty Saoirse Ronan against the equally powerful Margot Robbie, as Mary Stuart (Ronan)’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I (Robbie), Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

That’s 10 titles, a list to which I could add twice as many but I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, I think the next coming weeks are going to be very exciting. With that established, here is what has been going on on Thomas J this past month.


New Posts

New Releases: Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Widows; The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Other: Avery


Around the Blogosphere 

Maybe old news now, but whatever happened to the remade Suspiria? There was serious buzz about it in the months leading up to it, and then that just . . . fizzled out. The film never entered my area. The few reviews I did read were rather negative. Here’s CC Pop Culture’s take on this (apparently unwanted) retread.

Jordan of the one and only Epileptic Moondancer has an interesting review of a new Robert Redford flick that I truly wanted to see, but missed out on. Check out this hot take on The Old Man and the Gun. Shots fired! 😉

In my lamenting-of-bad-weather post (Avery), I said I was going to throw up a review of Nic Cage in the insane revenge thriller Mandy. Well, that hasn’t happened yet. To tide you over, here’s what The Ghost of 82 had to say about it. (This is a thoughtful review that only makes me more annoyed I haven’t gotten around to it yet.)


What films are you most looking forward to in the coming weeks/months?

Denial

denial-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: David Hare

Directed by: Mick Jackson

There’s no denying the spectrum of emotions Deborah E. Lipstadt experienced during her days in the Royal Court of Justice, recounted in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (upon which this film is based), deserves the silver screen treatment. Hers is a story that’s at once infuriating and inspiring, one that addresses the unfathomable but of course very real possibility of people denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Or, at the very least, that the aftermath was ever as devastating as it has been reported.

Denial represents director Mick Jackson (Volcano; L.A. Story)’s first theatrical release in almost 15 years. He has returned to craft a dignified if at times clunky dramatization that takes audiences through the harrowing Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. court case, a trial that lasted for over a month as it painstakingly poured over details like the existence of Zyklon-B insertion points and the significance of Prussian blue — all things that confirm gas chambers were used to kill. You know, the sort of stuff that can’t possibly be denied but is anyway because it is a fundamental human liberty to express opinions in a free society.

Rachel Weisz digs deep and creates a brash but deeply sympathetic character as the embattled Deborah Lipstadt. The plaintiff in this case is notable historian David Irving (bravely portrayed by Timothy Spall). An English author who had written extensively on the military and political history of World War II with a particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, Irving began marginalizing himself in 1988 with his perpetuation of the notion that the Holocaust was a propagandistic tool designed and used by the Jews to gain financial benefits and public notoriety. In 1996 he sued Lipstadt for remarks she made in her recent publication Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory — remarks he believed to be damaging to both his personal and professional reputation.

As a defendant in the English legal system, where it’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Lipstadt carries the burden of proof; that is to say, yes, her legal team (chiefly comprised of litigator Anthony Julius and libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC, here portrayed by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson respectively) has to prove that Irving’s rhetoric is reliant upon omission of facts and details, and that such omission of facts and details was deliberate. One cannot hope for victory over their opponent simply because he or she happens to be a Nazi sympathizer. Adding to her difficulties, Lipstadt is expressly told not to speak during court, that she cannot appear on the witness stand. Nor can any London-dwelling survivor of those camps. Including their testimonies would only aid the enemy. It would invite the possibility of public humiliation and unwanted complications.

Naturally, cameras linger close to Weisz as her composure informs the tone and attitude of the film. Her face becomes tight and twisted in disgust and frustration as the implications of her challenging Irving rather than choosing to settle out of court begin to overwhelm. Evidence of an emotionally hefty if not ultimately rewarding shoot is written all over the actor’s face especially as she goes out on her nightly runs — Weisz of course being born of Jewish immigrants. Denial is riddled with tension and fraught with emotional crevasses down which we journey. The film is at its most sobering when we visit Auschwitz. Her attorneys must gather evidence that gas chambers were used for mass murder rather than protection from incoming bombs. For some time her character isn’t even trusting of her own defense, who must frequently remind their client that becoming emotional in court will not help anything.

Despite some hiccups the case itself is intelligently and thoughtfully presented, and though a lot of legalese is included even in the few scenes that do not take place in court it’s not alienating. Rather than condescend, the meticulous attention to detail creates the cold and clinical air of detachment lawyers are meant to exude, no matter what cause they are rallying behind. Though in this case, a quiet righteous anger in Scott and Wilkinson simmers just below the surface.

It’s a competently shot and well-acted courtroom procedural even if the story that develops outside the walls of this hallowed institution stumbles over itself, a little too excited to arrive at its logical conclusion; to rightfully bathe in the glory of a just resolution to an ugly legal battle. Ultimately Denial is a straightforward presentation of a complex and seminal case in English law, one that is supposed to have revolved around libel and libel alone but which ends up delving into matters of historical accuracy, a directorial decision that will no doubt become a major point of contention for historians and viewers who fancy themselves history buffs. In a sense we should be thankful these creative liberties ultimately pave the way to predictability. To think that this saga would end any other way would be, in a word, unbearable.

timothy-spall-in-denial

Recommendation: Performances allow the film to rise above its narrative flaws. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to Rachel Weisz these days. She is an intense performer and her Deborah Lipstadt is a great example of her skill set. What a resilient individual this person was (and is). This is a film to watch for great contributions from the supporting cast as well, namely Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott. A heavy film, but surprisingly not as confronting as you might expect.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.”

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 

London Has Fallen

london-has-fallen-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016

[Netflix]

Written by: Creighton Rothenberger; Katrin Benedikt; Christian Gudegast; Chad St. John

Directed by: Babak Najafi

London Has Fallen was a theatrical release I happened to miss out on and I am glad for having saved that money. Buying a bag of crack cocaine (which is what I did) would have been a better use of that money (and it was).

Gerard Butler reprises his role as Mike Banning, and he’s still President Asher (Aaron Eckhart)’s body guard. The two have now become homies, and you know this because you see Banning jogging backwards alongside the Prez on one of their many morning runs in DC. That’s a skill that’ll come in handy! (Actually that’s not even really sarcasm; the two dudes end up running a LOT in this movie, although you’d have to believe they don’t engage in too much running in reverse — that wouldn’t be practical, unlike driving in reverse.) For director Babak Najafi, apparently this is character development.

Despite the privilege of sharing dude-bro-isms with his Commander-in-Chief, Banning is considering resigning so he can spend time with his wife, with whom he is expecting his first child. But the nursery will have to wait because the British Prime Minister has passed and President Asher and his security detail must attend the funeral in London. Many world leaders show up to pay their respects, but before they can many of them are riddled with bullets when Najafi decides to dispense with the bullshit.

Then the rest of the movie happens, which is, ironically, even more bullshit than the bullshit that came before. Need I address it? Are you really curious for more? Sigh. Alright, well here’s this:

Just when it looks like the good guys are about to get away from what appears to be a developing war zone in the heart of London — ground zero being Westminster Abbey — their chopper is shot down by some assholes on some rooftops because hey, they shouldn’t be able to get away THAT easily. And so ensues 90 minutes of Call of Duty, the map manifesting as a smoldering metropolis castrated of its most famous landmarks. Brainless action sequences follow as do some of the worst lines of dialogue exchanged between actors playing supposedly important characters, men and women of prestige. But that doesn’t stop members in the Situation Room chatting about being partial to the Kardashians (I’m not kidding) as they prepare for what they think is going to be another normal day.

The main objective of the terrorists is to get revenge on the guy who wiped out some notorious Middle Eastern crime lord’s family and they plan to record the assassination live so it can be on YouTube. (I’m also not kidding.) The main objective of the Americans is to kill every last man with dark hair, dark skin and thick beards. The script, penned by four different idiots, is so xenophobic it makes my skin crawl. Unlike in the previous outing, there is zero tension between Banning and the President so ultimately there is no reward in seeing Butler macho his way through another terrible movie. All we really get that’s new is watching Eckhart sling a gun around awkwardly for 30 minutes as circumstances become increasingly dire and as the baddies make communication with friends across the globe extremely difficult.

The story is atrocious but the film’s attitude is so much more cavalier. London Has Fallen doesn’t give a shit about England. It’s more about the greatness that is America than it is about the character and prestige of one of her longest standing allies. What’s more embarrassing is that the basic premise doesn’t even hold up logically: the terrorists claim they are retaliating after Asher ordered a drone strike on a Pakistani fortress two years prior, and yet they make an attempt to eliminate every single leader who happens to be present in London. I guess just for shits and giggles? Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman gets paid to breathe.

This is quite simply one of the most pathetic action movies I have ever seen and if you are looking for logic in a movie like London Has Fallen, I’m afraid you may have made some deeper errors. Indeed, standards have fallen and they have fallen pretty far mate.

fuck-this-shit-man-what-a-stupid-movie

Recommendation: Terrible. And pointless. What’s next, Sydney Has Fallen?* Aside from a few fleeting moments of mindless, distracting action, and plus the fact I do like Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart (they’re easily the best part of this movie even though they both look like they were struggling to take this seriously), there’s absolutely nothing to recommend about London Has Fallen, a most unnecessary sequel made by a very xenophobic director that I’m not sure too many people asked for.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “I was wondering when you were gonna come out of the closet.” 

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 

High-Rise

high-rise-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

tom-hiddleston-with-a-load-on-his-face

Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

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 BFG

'The BFG' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Great Gallywampers and fiddly tweezlesticks, I is very pleased indeed that Steven Spielberg has delivered the goodles in his very first venture into Roald Dahl‘s brilliant imagurnation. The BFG is breathtaker beautiful, and not just thanks to its scrumptioutious imagery, neither. It recalls the warminess and serenity of Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated adventure and ‘n fact it mighty jus’ be more endearin’ because of the live-action interplayery.

No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna speak in Dahlian tongues for the entire review. That’s just my overly dramatic way of expressing relief that The BFG turns out to be the real deal, rather than a pale imitator. The story is clumsier than you might expect with a Spielbergian production — we find as many lulls in the story as we do frobscottle-induced farts (excuse me, whizzpoppers) — but that’s merely the product of a director’s faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg otherwise hits every major note with an assured and playful touch, his knack for conjuring powerful feelings of wonder and awe giving this sweet summer diversion a personality all its own.

Indeed, The BFG is mostly a success in that it doesn’t create any new problems. It merely inherits those of its ancestor — namely, the aforementioned inconsistent and at-times sluggish pace and a few leaps of faith in logic in service of a narrative that just may well be Dahl’s strangest and most fanciful. Story concerns a young girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away one night from Mrs. Clonkers’ Orphanage by a huge, hooded creature and to Giant Country, a wondrous place filled with beauty. Do I smell a Best Visual Effects nomination? I do, as a matter of fact: that sequence in Dream Country by the dream tree is simply mesmeric.

But Giant Country isn’t total paradise, it’s fraught with danger as well. The other giants among whom the BFG ekes out a quiet existence as a Dream Blower are much larger, meaner and they eat human beings (or, beans, rather). After learning she’s not leaving Giant Country anytime soon, Sophie encourages her big friendly giant to stand up for himself and to rid the land of these brutes, led by Jemaine Clement‘s Fleshlumpeater, once and for all. The pair seek the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her Royal Army back in the real world to do just that.

As is the case with a great many Dahl adaptations, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite and that ability serves viewers well here, especially as the fearless Sophie encourages the two worlds to collide. The performances anchoring the film are so good they allow us to overlook many a flawed concept. And there are more than a few. Spielberg’s potential new muse in Mark Rylance loses himself in the role as the titular giant and very well might have upstaged David Jason’s original voice performance that made the larger-than-life being an unforgettable creation. His spoonerisms and awkward turns of phrase were a highlight of that original as they are here as well, and once again it’s a joy watching ten-year-old Sophie trying to update and expand his childlike vocabulary.

Rylance doesn’t do it alone, though. He gets tremendous support from the young Barnhill who embraces Sophie’s wide-eyed curiosity about the strange world surrounding her with real gusto. She’s also brilliant at balancing the heartbreak of growing up without parents with a sense of maturity that makes her as well-rounded a character as you’re likely going to find with a child actor. All those years ago Sophie had already been made a strong character thanks to Amanda Root’s precociousness and intellectual curiosity, and those qualities are only bolstered by Barnhill’s live-action incarnation. Most importantly, the quasi-parental bond between the two isn’t lost in translation. The problem of loneliness is resolved with respect for Dahl’s affinity for the weird very much intact come the tear-jerking conclusion.

One of the challenges Spielberg is up against with his take on a Dahlian classic is finding an audience outside of those loyal readers and those who keep the 1989 made-for-British-television special close to their heart. The BFG is certifiably obscure material but perhaps with names attached like Spielberg and Rylance it can reach for broader audiences. This uplifting, sweet tale of bravery and dream-making certainly deserves them.

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Recommendation: The BFG, as I have suspected since the announcement was first made, represents an ideal union of director and material. The world created by Roald Dahl is practically tailor-made for one of the world’s best when it comes to imaginative, inspiring filmmaking and the end product, while not perfect, is about as good as could be expected. The performances are wonderful and if you’re tired of the summer blockbuster trend, I have to recommend The BFG. Like, immediatarily. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Why did you take me?” / “Because I hears your lonely heart, ‘n all the secret whisperings of the world.” 

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The Conjuring 2

'The Conjuring 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James Wan; Carey Hayes; Chad Hayes; David Leslie Johnson

Directed by: James Wan

The horror event of the year has arrived and no one is safe. Not the Warrens from nightmarish visions; not the British family whose home turns into a petri dish for malevolent spirits; not James Wan from criticism. I don’t want to spoil anything and say it’s all going to be okay for everyone, but at least for Wan it will be. He’s back with a fresh set of haunting images in The Conjuring 2, a literal spiritual sequel to the 2013 smash hit that found real-life paranormal activity investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) coming to the rescue of an innocent Rhode Island family.

The Conjuring established itself as elite horror in terms both commercial and critical, raking in roughly seven times its production budget ($20 million) in American box office receipts alone. Though Wan relied heavily on the jump scare tactic to rattle audiences, he compensated for familiarity by developing characters that were, for once, well worth embracing, particularly in the Warrens. The net effect? These people have become endeared to us, and now in their second outing, we dread what lies ahead because now we too are experienced.

It is true: The Conjuring 2 is really just more of the same stuff. Instead of the Perrons we are introduced to the (very British) Hodgsons. We watch as another family is torn apart without mercy. But isn’t that what we wanted anyway? Back then it became apparent, and fairly quickly, that audiences were willing to pay to become highly strung-out. And while we’re on the subject, let’s dispel a myth: the mark of a good horror film is measured by the stress it induces rather than how many times it physically startles you; if you want something scary, watch a war film or this year’s American presidential elections.

Did we not want a supernatural tale that feels undeniably human and that satiates, via convincing special effects and odd camera placements, our morbid curiosity for what on the surface appears to be demons rising from the underworld? How would it not be fair for us to anticipate another signature exorcism (with apologies to William Friedkin, of course) to wrap things up? The fairly familiar beats The Conjuring 2 delivers are everything we asked for. And then some.

This is less of a retread than you might think, and its foundation isn’t built upon dollars and cents. There’s a legitimate reason we’re going through this again. The haunting in Enfield represents another terrifying case file in the Warrens’ infamous career. There’s a sophistication about proceedings absent in lesser, cheaper offerings, the sort of B-flicks that would be more fun if they weren’t so painfully obviously rushed off the assembly line. Wan, a director who lives, eats and breathes horror, seizes the opportunity to delve further into the lives of the paranormal investigators and to provide a cinematic experience that could go on to be as difficult to forget as its predecessor.

Once again he uses love, not hate, as a driving force. We already know how capable the Warrens are — their many decorated shelves back home are testament to years of dangerous, grueling work — but this time they’re genuinely vulnerable, with Lorraine having a difficult time ridding herself of visions she’s been having since their Amityville days. Her husband’s concerned though he remains keenly aware of the hippocratic oath that binds them to their duties. That’s not the only moral conundrum addressed. The Warrens’ public image comes under fire when skeptics start coming out of the woodwork, including a live television debate that incenses the Warrens and, later, Franka Potente’s Anita Gregory, who challenges the pair directly over the validity of any of their claims, past and present. Media also play a role in creating, even influencing, perception.

The Enfield poltergeist (incidentally the project’s working and far superior title) is a being of exceptional power and takes as much pleasure in tormenting the Warrens as it does single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor). O’Connor, saddled with the unenviable task of mimicking Ellen Burstyn as she bears witness to severe behavioral changes in younger daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), commits to the single-mom archetype with ferocity. Fortunately for her, her story takes a backseat to how the Warrens respond to the latest call. This particular phantom takes on many forms, both clichéd (an old bitter man named Bill Wilkins) and more novel (green-eyed nuns and crooked men who move like the Babadook). While the evil is diluted somewhat by flimsy justification — Bill just wants the family to stop squatting in his house — its physical appearance is more than enough to disturb.

As was the case in The Conjuring, where we got to know the Perron family to the point where fate and consequence actually meant something to us, this is so much more than a ghost story. The spotlight falls more intensely on the Warrens this time around. Now it’s less about their expertise as it is about unwavering faith, about the deep love and trust these people have in one another. The Enfield case has haunted England ever since 1977, and manifested as one of the Warrens’ most notable challenges, if for no other reason than how personal everything became. Lorraine is convinced taking this job could spell disaster, and she pleads with her husband that, if they are to visit, they’ll operate in a more observational capacity rather than going fully hands-on. Of course, none of that matters when push really comes to shove.

I’m with Lorraine here. I’m not sure who else is, but I can’t be alone. I’m perfectly okay with playing the part of observer. I’d rather not get my hands dirty. Sitting back and watching lives fall apart amidst typically dull England weather is emotionally taxing enough for me. Touché, James Wan. You’ve made me believe sequels to horror films actually can be good.

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Recommendation: Highly anticipated horror sequel manifests as a potent elixir featuring dramatic, thriller and even romance elements that help steer it away from films cut from the same cloth. As someone who has yet to experience the Insidious franchise, I can’t say whether these are Wan’s best efforts, but there’s little use in denying he has officially established himself as the go-to director when it comes to big-budget horror. This was so good I personally see no reason why a third and fourth couldn’t be produced. Like, I am actually asking for more for once. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “It’s so small and light!”

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

The Brothers Grimsby

'The Brothers Grimsby' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen; Phil Johnston; Peter Baynham

Directed by: Louis Leterrier

There’s something about Sacha Baron Cohen that really makes you feel like a complete idiot. He’s become really good at that because here I went, blinded by my own boredom, to a screening where I was the only viewer and thinking, ‘Okay, this might be fun. At least I can laugh obnoxiously loud and not think twice when something actually funny happens.’ The joke was on me, an idiot.

The Brothers Grimsby is, to put it nicely, Cohen’s own Mortdecai; it’s the stinkiest, lamest, dumbest release so far this year and like Johnny Depp’s misguided attempt at mocking the English, it marks another point of no return. While it was naïve to think that Brüno would be the nadir of the career of one of England’s great embarrassments, that movie was pretty terrible — Brüno not Mortdecai, although yes, very much Mortdecai as well — and it set quite a low bar regarding the efforts a movie should make in entertaining or offering escapement.

But what Louis Leterrier et al don’t seem to understand is that that’s not the kind of bar you play limbo with; the goal is not to see how low you can go. Lo and behold, they deliver a revolting mess of a comedy that uses bodily fluids as both literal and figurative lubricant to make up for the script’s refusal to do any of the work. There’s one scene in particular that’s offensive and sums up almost everything that is wrong with not only this film but the entire subculture of sadistically gross-out comedy. Those poor fucking elephants (and that’s the verb, not the adjective). This exercise in visual torture is what would happen if you gave Mel Gibson free reign over the fake rhino birthing scene from Ace Ventura. The excessiveness will test the sensitivity of your gag reflex, and that’s an issue that runs all throughout.

So who are ‘the brothers Grimsby?’ And why is the American release so awkwardly titled? Well, who gives a shit about the why; let’s talk about the what. The brothers are a pair of mismatched boys who were born and raised in the poor fishing town of Grimsby, which resembles the bottom of a dumpster or a very large ash tray. Cohen plays Nobby Butcher, the yoonga bruvva of Sebastian “superspy” Butcher (Mark Strong, painfully out of place). The pair have been separated since they were six years old and Nobby longs for the day they meet again.

Similar to previous outings Cohen opts for caricature over character, hoping to inflict the maximum amount of damage upon the culture that supposedly spawned his creation. Once a Middle Eastern pervert, then a one-time gay Austrian fashion journalist, he now finds himself donning the mutton chops and packing on the beer gut as a soccer hooligan with a proclivity for thick women and thick-battered fish-and-chips. He’s like a pig writhing around in the grease and sweat of intoxicated Man United fans all crammed into the pub watching The Big Match.

The world we visit in The Brothers Grimsby isn’t a pretty one, it’s populated by the so-called ‘scum’ of English society — the derelicts and the blue collar chumps, the illiterate and the really ugly and sweaty. Fans who may have been delusional enough in the past to liken the Cohen moviegoing experience to crude culture shock can’t really say the same thing now; the only thing shocking about this film is how uncultured it truly is. Nobby has far more screen time than his older bro, and that’s disappointing because ultimately Sebastian provides our only respite from the cartoonish extremism Leterrier has fashioned here. But the real question there has to be, how clear is Strong’s calendar right now? He had time for this?

Scenes featuring the MI6 agent in action — think of James Bond only with more baggage and less hair — feel like they are ripped straight from the upcoming Hardcore Henry, what with the liberal usage of point-of-view shots designed to raise both our heart rates and awareness of Go Pro cameras. While the action sequences are a welcomed distraction, they’re still not an excuse for the sheer pointlessness of everything else. A subplot involving Sebastian’s line of work is as generic as you can get: he must stop a shady organization from releasing a virus into the atmosphere at a high-profile soccer match. They’re doing this because of the global population crisis.

This paragraph that you’re reading now is definitely an edited version of what lay before, but in consideration of my readers I’ll just say that the film’s attempt to balance action and heartfelt drama with Cohen’s insufferable presence is funnier than any of the comedic elements presented here. The Brothers Grimsby ultimately fails when it tries to convince us of their shared history. I saw the look on Strong’s face during the “suck my balls” scene. He didn’t want anything to do with this. What, was Rob Schneider busy?

Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong in 'The Brothers Grimsby'

Recommendation: Sacha Baron Cohen may still have appeal for some but after The Brothers Grimsby, a film that fails to mine comedy out of what little interesting material it presents while continuing to mistake causing its audience to actually gag for comedic gags, this reviewer has officially stepped off the bandwagon. A film that caters to the lowest common denominator and looking  really bored with itself in the process, this is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 83 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, these heated seats make you feel like you’ve pissed yourself!”

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

Man Up

'Man Up' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 13, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Tess Morris

Directed by: Ben Palmer

Man Up plays out like the self-help book on dating that you never knew you needed. Or wanted. It’s a romantic comedy where the romance is neither obnoxious nor saccharine and where not everyone is all LOL-ing up in your face because they’re having a jolly good time in a movie regardless of whether or not you the viewer are.

No, Man Up is actually pretty good fun and while the fates of our two star-crossed lovers aren’t anything surprising at least they make sense and can be believed. It doesn’t deal with perfect people with perfect smiles, even though stars Lake Bell and Simon Pegg are far from unattractive, and the story doesn’t aim to aggrandize anything. (Sure, be negative and call it an unambitious movie but I won’t say that, even though I technically did just say that.)

Ben Palmer directs a story written by Tess Morris about a woman in her mid-thirties, Nancy (Bell), who hasn’t had much luck in love lately and is utterly fed up with the awkward blind dates her family keeps setting her up on. When she finds herself at the right place at the right time, standing underneath the clock at the bustling Waterloo train station where Pegg’s Jack is supposed to be meeting a blind date, Nancy can’t quite bring herself to say who she really is and instead plays along as his ‘date.’

The eminently likable actors make it easy to buy in to the awkwardness of the situation. With a little bit of serendipity thrown in for good measure — Nancy is mistaken for Jessica (the would-be date) in part because she happens to be holding the same book Jack has been reading — our adventure plods onward through the streets of downtown London and into pubs. Meanwhile, it’s the night of Nancy’s parents’ 40th anniversary and she is expected to be giving a toast at the party.

The movie is titled Man Up but the farce ultimately revolves around Nancy and her inability to make decisions, good or bad. Well, she’s more naturally drawn to the bad ones, hence the irony of the title (I guess it’s ironic?). What makes it fun playing along as third wheel here is watching the actors adapt to the shift in dynamic when Nancy finally does own up to her actions. The nervousness of the initial meet-cute stage quickly gives way to bitterness, jealousy, even open hostility. Pegg nearly dissolves in the acidity of his own sarcasm as he begins to rue the moment while Bell adopts a more serious tone, simultaneously feeling bad for Jack while pitying her own hopelessness. Why can’t she just be “normal?”

After a slow start Man Up finds renewed energy following a heated exchange (not the kind you’re thinking you perv) in the men’s room at a smoky London dive. The film relies perhaps a little too much on the spontaneity of its performances as the stakes aren’t exactly high and you’d have to be blind drunk not to see how this night ends. Fortunately the characters have our sympathy as these are good-hearted people who have clearly paid the price for the mistakes they’ve made in the past, though Nancy is the more interesting character as all we get for a backstory concerning Jack is an all-too-brief cameo by Olivia Williams as his bitter ex-wife.

Man Up is lightweight fluff but it’s not forgettable fluff. Few and far between are the romantic comedies that play out quite so naturally, the ones that don’t suffer because of the strict parameters that make up the rom-com blueprint — we’re of course reminded of those limitations within the final scene, that grand gesture that just has to happen in front of as large a crowd as possible. The tears of joy. The awkward first-time introductions for maximum dramatic effect. But Man Up gets away with it, the cheeky little bugger.

Lake Bell and Simon Pegg in 'Man Up'

Recommendation: Fun, energetic and well-acted, Man Up is a modest romantic gesture that earns its laughs and even its more sappy moments. Not without its flaws, this is certainly one to watch if you’re a fan of either Bell or Pegg. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “I met a man today. For the first time in ages, I put myself out there. And I took a chance. Blah, blah, blah, the end.”

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