It Comes at Night

Release: Friday, June 9, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature It Comes at Night is a psychological horror film that traps the audience along with two families in an abandoned house in the woods that, over the course of a slow-burning 90 minutes, turns into a cauldron of fear, mistrust and paranoia as they try to survive an unnatural threat that is terrorizing the world.

In his 2014 debut, the critically-acclaimed comedy-drama Krisha, Shults kept things in the family by casting several of his own relatives, including his aunt in the lead. It was an inspired decision that rewarded Shults with both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival and plenty of post-festival buzz. His preoccupation with the family dynamic continues here, with the story centered firmly around a patriarch, Paul, played by Joel Edgerton, who must negotiate a tricky situation when he, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are discovered by another survivor.

In 2017, Shults is keeping things brutally real. It Comes at Night is a punishing, indie-esque horror/thriller hybrid that proves to err is indeed human, except during the apocalypse, where it becomes pretty much fatal. The story remains a simple and grim portrait of survivalism. Shults spares not one second in establishing a tone of solemnity as the movie opens with the euthanasia of an older family member who seems to be in the final stages of something awful. Gone are the days of hospice care; now when they get sick we simply dump our loved ones in a shallow grave and light them on fire. Forced to take part in these unpleasantries, Travis starts to have recurring nightmares.

Preexisting tensions get ratcheted up another notch when a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) stumbles upon their remote outpost. While being interrogated by Paul, having spent the night gagged and bound to a tree, he explains he has come looking for water, that he didn’t know the house was occupied, and that he’s legitimately desperate. After some thoughtful beard-stroking Paul decides that at the very least, the newcomer doesn’t seem sick. He will travel with Will to trade for supplies as Will claims to have an abundance of food. Sarah suggests they bring Will’s wife and child back with them so they can increase their security against any future break-ins. (Plus, you know, it’d be nice having company around other than the Grim Reaper.)

Details of what caused the catastrophe remain sparse throughout the film. We don’t even know much about what it is that ails us, other than it’s contracted through physical contact. And that it’s bad. Really bad. There’s something distressing about the unknown and Shults exploits that fear to extreme effect, accumulating all of the film’s miseries and supposed lesson-learning into one spectacularly devastating finale from which you will need days to recover. It’s an admonishment for our predictable behavior, for when we, even in the most desperate of situations, just can’t help but try to fuck each other over. The nihilism on display is both tragic and refreshingly honest.

Recommendation: To be perfectly blunt: if steamy sex scenes as rewards for characters who have endured the impossible are what you seek from your movies, you’re standing in the wrong line. But for those who appreciate horror that doesn’t condescend or stoop to the lowest common denominator, and that is harsh as all hell, they’ll find much to latch onto with this beast. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “If they’re sick, then I am too.” 

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

Loving

loving-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 4, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

One of the most common red marks on my college papers was the criticism ‘Show, don’t tell.’ These notations littered my 300-level Opinion Writing assignments. I recall one particular article in which we had to discuss how a recent environmental disaster in Kingston, Tennessee had been handled by the company and how the media covered it. I did nothing but go around in circles, relying far too heavily on abstraction and flowery language that ultimately offered nothing concrete.

Jeff Nichols doesn’t seem to have my problem. I left Loving with little doubt as to whether Richard and Mildred Loving could be anything other than together. He has made a series of conscious decisions to show rather than tell audiences what the love was like between an interracial couple living in 1950s Virginia. The portrait is so simplistic and earnest it becomes cathartic. Its quiet but undeniable power left me in awe. While the story of the Loving family is set against a backdrop of racial tension and bigotry, this isn’t a political film. It’s purely an ode to a married couple who deeply cared for one another and who would do anything to ensure they could pursue a life of happiness together.

Historical drama details the events that led up to the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia. The majority of the film centers squarely on the couple as they endure the harsh prejudices of society but the climax, subtle as it may be, shows how their trials — both literal and figurative — set a legal precedent in a nation on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The ruling struck down nationwide laws that prevented whites and people of color from being legally married. In Loving, the couple make the trek from their quiet country home in Caroline County, Virginia to Washington D.C. to get married.  They return with a marriage license which Richard promptly hangs on their bedroom wall.

One night they are rudely awakened by a pair of officers who have somehow received word about their nuptials. The couple are jailed, but because Richard is white he is bailed out first. Meanwhile his wife must stay the weekend in a holding cell. In court the couple plead guilty to breaking the state’s anti-miscgenation law and now face a one-year sentence. However, the judge offers to suspend the sentence under the condition that they do not return to Virginia for at least 25 years. The Lovings move in with a friend in D.C., but then later return to the countryside for the birthing of their first child. They are arrested again shortly thereafter but are spared further punishment as their lawyer successfully lobbies for leniency, claiming he had misled his clients.

As time passes and after the couple bear two more children, their circumstances begin weighing heavily on Mildred. She eventually seeks help from a Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a lawyer representing the American Civil Liberties Union. Bernie’s investment in the couple’s plight is not merely a mark of maturity in the actor; the performance confesses the sort of attitude and open-mindedness that restores hope for humanity. He seeks the advice of Constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) to help bring the case to the attention of the Supreme Court.

In Nichols’ latest, beauty runs deep. In Loving there is an element of physical attractiveness but that dynamic is subdued in favor of the way souls attract. In fact, skin color is only ever addressed by the outsider — those not directly involved in the affair. Throughout we see how Richard not only maintains a friendly rapport with his extended family, who happen to be black, but how he is truly accepted by them. But even the level-headed aren’t totally devoid of judgment. The couple’s actions have clearly made many of their neighbors uncomfortable and it is this reality that Richard often finds himself battling — not so much because he is white but because of his defiance. Mildred’s sister in particular becomes embittered by Richard’s decisions.

What’s most impressive is how Nichols’ screenplay never resorts to reductive or manipulative techniques. There are no great sacrifices — at least, no one freezes to death in the north Atlantic so their other half could survive the night on a floating door — nor are there any explosive arguments that threaten to rip apart the fabric of love itself. Instead Loving uses a pair of heartfelt performances to demonstrate what love actually is: trusting, patient, unflinching in the face of adversity. Love is an arm gently resting upon your partner’s shoulder or wrapped around their waist; it’s about sharing a moment of silence in the kitchen and being distracted from the discomfiting temporariness of such peace.

Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard in a potentially career-best performance, and the Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga, who is Mildred, are so good together it almost hurts the heart seeing the two in much more casual stances in photos for the accompanying press tour. The last time I had this much trouble reconciling reality with fantasy was when it was revealed that John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer were, in fact, not an item. Why, oh why, can’t these two people really be together? Such is the net effect of this profoundly moving film.

joel-edgerton-and-ruth-negga-in-loving

4-5Recommendation: Such a touching, precious film about real relationships has this reviewer raving! Performances are virtually the whole deal, and yet another strong directorial effort from one of my favorite up-and-coming directors (hell, he’s already here) in Jeff Nichols puts Loving in a position to make at least one of my end-of-year lists. The film paces itself leisurely and at times I found myself getting fidgety but other than that, this is a pretty close to perfect little film. Romantics at heart certainly need to buy a ticket, but Loving will also appeal to those seeking an uplifting, fact-based story that doesn’t resort to melodrama. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Tell the judge I love my wife.”

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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.”

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

Midnight Special

'Midnight Special' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Add Midnight Special to the short but increasingly compelling list of reasons to keep an eye on Jeff Nichols, the director of Mud, an understated drama set on the bayou and one of a select few credited with reinvigorating Matthew McConaughey’s career circa 2013.

Yeah, no big deal. Nichols only ignited a revolution. (Not that the actor hadn’t shown promise before; McConaughey’s dramatic chops in The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe are surely impressive but for the sake of argument let’s just ignore those right now.) It’s been three years since that much-talked about film and the spotlight moves away from the McConaissance and back towards the man in charge: what would he be bringing to the table this year?

Michael Shannon leads the charge in this brilliant genre-defying adventure involving a boy with a special gift that makes him the target of both a government manhunt and a religious cult convinced that the end of days is nigh. Shannon, in a comparably restrained capacity, plays a quietly conflicted man named Roy and is first seen held up in a motel room with his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). (I know, that pairing is almost too good to be true . . .)

They have a child with them, by all accounts a normal-looking pre-teen and apparent fan of comics we first meet wearing blue goggles and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. This is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher in an incredibly nuanced performance) and we’re not entirely sure whether he’s a victim of a kidnapping. We don’t even know what the men plan to do with him or where (or what) their final destination is.

What we do know is that the boy is precious cargo to both Roy and Lucas, evidenced in how they’re constantly shuffling in and out of the shadows between each location, and that his sudden disappearance from “the farm,” a closed community of religious zealots led by Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer and whose female population adheres to a strict dress code (braided hair, long dresses and muted colors), is significant enough to warrant the investigation of Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a brilliant young NSA investigator working alongside the FBI. In fact the government intervenes during what was presumably going to be another of Meyer’s fire-and-brimstone sermons and begins conducting interviews with many of the members, looking for any leads to the boy’s whereabouts.

Nichols controls the pace of his boldly original screenplay such that we spend much of the earlygoing not even sure where our sympathies ought to lie: the way the government agents threaten the cult with the repercussions of committing high-level treason makes it easier to believe there’s a serious situation unfolding here. (You see, Alton is thought to have prophesied a doomsday event based on a set of numbers, coordinates perhaps, that correspond to the dates and numbers of certain sermons delivered by Father Meyer — numbers he couldn’t possibly know.) On the other hand, Roy and Lucas fail to exhibit any signs of behavior that make us worry for Alton. But just what is their end game? And why can’t Alton be exposed to sunlight?

At its core Midnight Special is a chase movie that pits the trio — soon to be a foursome when Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah, exiled from the farm years ago, enters the picture as a pivotal rest stop for Roy and Lucas late in the story — against a series of strange occurrences that threaten to derail their plans with Alton. There’s more than a whiff of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his brand of romanticizing the unknown even as Nichols continues to ground the ongoing hostage situation in reality. But science fiction isn’t the only flavor you’ll find in this little cinematic confection.

As Nichols continues peeling back the layers, the thick veil of clandestinity falling aside to expose a vision that threatens to become unwieldy — but that which stays on just the right side of ridiculous — we’re treated to a moving family drama as well as a cliffhanger of a government conspiracy thriller, one that bravely explores the borders of where discovery and science mesh up against religion and faith. In fact Midnight Special has so much going on within its relatively efficient hour-and-fifty-minute runtime the temptation to reveal more nifty details poses a greater challenge than does the task of assigning this thing a genre. So many cool things happen that I want to spoil right now.

But I won’t. I’m not that guy. (Or am I?) No, I’m not. But I really, really, really, really want to. Suffice it to say that Nichols’ latest is just one of those rarities that get you excited to tell everyone, including the person you’re sitting next to at the dentist’s office about. It’s an experience I’ve been longing to have for some time. I love Midnight Special, for everything it is and everything it is not. For all of the success it finds in challenging the brain while appealing strongly to the heart. I cannot wait to see what the guy does next.

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Recommendation: Midnight Special marks the fourth film Jeff Nichols has directed (and written, to boot). He’s a promising young talent that likes dealing in real, flesh-and-blood characters and intriguing premises that keep viewers involved from start to finish. It’s also a movie that offers terrific performances, the most pleasantly surprising coming from the increasingly hard to find Kirsten Dunst. If any of that appeals, you need to check this one out. Pronto, Tonto. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I’m always going to worry about you Alton. That’s the deal.”

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

Jane Got a Gun

'Jane Got a Gun' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Brian Duffield; Anthony Tambakis; Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Call it a troubled production but don’t call it a complete misfire. Though it may be a few shoot-outs short of a memorable western, Jane Got a Gun still gots a job to do and it does it rather well all things considered.

It’s a film that has seen a revolving door of cast and crew come and go, with Warrior director Gavin O’Connor squeaking in at the last second after the original helmer dropped out on day one of shooting. Joel Edgerton was supposed to be playing a villainous role but Ewan McGregor got it instead, filling in for Brad Cooper who was filling in for Jude Law . . . who was filling in for Michael Fassbender. Cinematographers were also replaced.

Some part of my appreciation for this movie‘s inextricably linked to my sympathy toward Natalie Portman here. Playing a game of musical chairs with the actors you’re potentially going to share a screen with can’t be much fun. Indeed if you look close enough in a few scenes you can almost feel if not confusion, then the frustration that the actress is clearly experiencing out of character. And if it’s not Portman being underwhelming then surely it’s the script; its heart wasn’t really in this either.

At film’s open we’re staring down the barrel of a fairly standard revenge western. Jane is a strong and capable frontierswoman who finds herself nursing her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) back to health after he returns home one afternoon bloodied and riddled with bullets. Bill warns her that the notorious Bishop brothers are coming after them, prompting Jane to take their young daughter to a faraway homestead to which she promises to return once this situation has been ‘handled.’ (It’s not quite Clint Eastwood promising/threatening justice/revenge, but Portman’s confidence doesn’t go unnoticed.)

McGregor is almost unrecognizable as the bloodthirsty John Bishop. He too is a product of a watered-down script, a cartoonish villain as if by design. McGregor is smarmy and he has his moments but this is more Kenneth Branagh as Arliss Loveless  than a man we should really take seriously. Boyd Holbrook plays younger brother Vic. He’s kind of just there. With such a cultivated physical appearance, I was sort of surprised to see what a bunch of lame-o’s Bishop’s entourage really was.

Joel Edgerton digs his hands into the dirt sportingly as Jane’s ex-husband Dan Frost, a gunslinger who enlisted in the Civil War and left it only to find his wife had moved on. Now she seeks him out for extra protection from the incoming attack(s) and, although bitterness isn’t very becoming, it somehow suits Edgerton and he all but confirms the technique will never disappear. That’d be okay if it’s used more subtly than it is in this movie. Dan’s easier to pull for when he inevitably returns to the frame because . . . well, when Edgerton plays a good guy, how can you not root for him?

So Portman isn’t the only one fighting an uphill battle, saddled with an underdeveloped character as well as an unambitious screenplay. The trio of Portman, Edgerton and McGregor fair the best and each of them succeed in overcoming the dryness aridness of the writing. As Jane, Portman is one of the year’s first strong female leads and her intensity in the final scenes certainly sets an impressive benchmark.

It’s her persistent toughness and intermittent vulnerability that gets us through a deliberately (bordering on tediously) paced two acts before bullets truly start flying in the much-anticipated, chillingly shot climax. (Interestingly, the most consistent aspect of the production is undoubtedly Mandy Walker’s warm, vibrant photography.) By and large the film is beautiful to look at and on a visual level it succeeds in evoking the classics. Jane Got a Gun does show signs of a lot of wear and tear, the story isn’t as focused as it ought to be and many edits are questionable but even given all of its faults this one’s difficult not to like. Not pity, but actually like.

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton in 'Jane Got a Gun'

Recommendation: The film won’t really ‘wow’ anyone, yet there’s enough here to more than recommend a watching at home (it’s heading out of theaters so quickly the wait won’t be long) with popcorn and your caffeinated beverage of choice. Portman, Edgerton and McGregor are great reasons to see this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “My life’s worth isn’t your concern. Hasn’t been for years.”

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

Black Mass

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Mark Mallouk; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Scott Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

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

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

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

The Gift

Release: Friday, August 7, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Joel Edgerton

The Gift is a kind of addictive drug. The more of it you consume the more of it you want.

Considering this is the first time Australian actor Joel Edgerton has been in full control of a project, that may seem hyperbolic. However, the logic follows. Edgerton has proven over the course of a 17-year career on the big screen he’s able to do much with a bit of determination. And, well yeah, some pride and confidence. Edgerton’s not just talented but he’s principled. Criticism about projects he has chosen has rarely, if ever, questioned his faith in his own work. With resilience to spare, he continues to bear the marks of a reliable thespian. It would only make sense his efforts would translate to an altogether new aspect of filmmaking. This, the year 2015, would be the time to prove it.

The Gift, now almost three years in the making, is a gift to those who have kept the faith in him. As a mystery thriller it is incredibly tense, well-acted and the epitome of unpredictable. In it Edgerton co-stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who play a recently relocated married couple settling into the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles from their native Chicago. While shopping for home supplies, Simon (Bateman, in a compelling, atypically dramatic performance) bumps into someone who claims to recognize him from their high school days, a socially awkward but seemingly harmless Gordo (Edgerton). While the timing isn’t convenient to catch up in the store, Simon promises they will be in touch.

Simon is a partner in a billion-dollar company. His wife Robyn works from home as a designer. From what we gather initially the pair are but two seeds swept up in the current of modern day living, one that all but necessitates independent career earnings to support a family. Their beautiful home alone is but a part of a larger picture of success, and Simon and Robyn seem very happy together. One afternoon Gordo drops in unannounced; Robyn invites him in for a tour of their abode, not wanting to be rude to Simon’s ostensible old friend. This leads to a pleasant dinner later that evening, during which Simon and Gordo finally do some of that catching up. Most of it is casual chit-chat, but Edgerton being Edgerton, his character possesses a depth that jumpstarts his former classmate’s uptightness. An uptightness that gradually morphs into paranoia. Paranoia that evolves into legitimate suspicion.

The Gift is also written by the Aussie. On that front he proves himself a talent to keep watching, crafting a perpetual shape-shifter that creates at least as many questions as it does answers. That should be taken as a compliment of the highest order when it comes to the genre. Beyond an acting showcase — show me the role in which Jason Bateman has been better (or Rebecca Hall for that matter) — the film, particularly in its final moments, offers an adrenaline rush that manifests more as a high than anything else. Indeed if The Gift is a drug, it’s good for both the brain and body.

In an auspicious directing debut, Edgerton provides more than just sound narrative structure and an atmosphere in which his co-stars have clearly flourished — nevermind the fact that he shot his own role two weeks into production and in the span of a single week. He’s made his stance on childhood bullying abundantly clear. And of course he’s not content to stop there, evolving the conversation on the long-term effects of that infuriating reality into a discussion about how it takes a much darker and potentially more harmful turn when applied to adults engaging in such shameful behavior. If someone is looking for a fault in the film it’s that perhaps the issue is handled a little less than subtly in the pulse-pounding conclusion but that’s so incredibly secondary to the fact that he has taken this issue seriously, as it ought to be.

Recommendation: If you’re in the mood to be toyed with psychologically Joel Edgerton has the perfect film for you. Filled with deeply emotional performances and a wicked final (double) twist, his first shot at directing should earn him a score of new fans. This is pretty exciting stuff from a guy who’s always been reliable as an actor, and it’s safe to say this will go on to become a favorite for fans of the mystery thriller and intelligent, provocative filmmaking in general. The Gift is one of 2015’s greats. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Good people deserve good things.”

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

Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Release: Friday, December 12, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Adam Cooper; Bill Collage; Jeffrey Caine; Steven Zaillian 

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Often I feel that I am needlessly ambiguous with what I’m trying to say in past reviews, but here I have this concern I am going to be too overt. The great Ridley Scott — yes, the one of Gladiator fame — has clearly relied too much on star talent to help carry his Biblical ‘epic’ (and sorry to those who think the word is inextricably linked to prepubescent Bieber fandom) to the Promised Land. Top billed are terrible in their roles while a boring and unevenly paced script contributes to a disastrous outing for all involved.

GODS VS. KINGS 

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Somewhere in the dust and ruin of his attempt at resurrecting temples he once had so majestically created, there’s a lesson to be learned for Sir Ridley Scott. If there were one commandment I would issue immediately, as someone who has been eagerly anticipating this supposed return to form, it would be for him to refrain from treating his selected actors as gods and kings. Forget Christian Bale’s mixed South African and Welsch ancestry. Forget Joel Edgerton’s emo eye-liner — he at least looks better in it than Bale sounds like with whatever accent he’s trying to pull off here. And you can forget all about Cecil B. De Mille’s commitment to Charlton Heston (oh, swoon!) in the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments. Indeed, the only thing that shall be remembered over the course of a whopping two-and-a-half hours, is the pain of watching one of the premier filmmakers of our time climbing out of a dank, oppressive cave with a single message inscribed on a rock tablet:

“(I’ve) let my standards go!”

In the Gladiator director’s newest venture out into the sands of Egypt Bale takes on the role of Moses, a former Egyptian General banished by his legal, but not blood, brother Prince Ramses (Edgerton) into exile after it becomes evident what Moses’ true blood lineage is. Raised in a climate of political convenience rather than one of familial love, Moses conflicts with Ramses ideologically, emotionally and eventually physically. All signs point to Ramses’ deep-seated envy of his sort-of-brother. This is a relationship dynamic we’ve known for as long as we’ve been out of grade school as well as it being a classic example of the friend-turned-foe story. It’s also the strongest bargaining chip Mr. Scott has at keeping an audience on board here. And we agree; we are too curious as to how thing will play out between these versions.

While he appreciates the relationship between Moses and Ramses, he is much less appreciative of his peripheral vision. Rather than going the Jim Caviezel route by casting someone who at least looked the part, and through coating much of his cast in a thick smathering of tanning lotion (this is actually the story of how Moses goes to the beach and gets badly sunburned), Scott surprisingly approved of everything here without what one would naturally assume to be a pressing need to fire a casting director, or even someone in make-up and wardrobe. Not that these actors aren’t talented. And we can’t pretend that it’s an alien concept for a big studio and a big director to skirt past native actors in search of bigger box-office draws. But why does everyone have to look like the Beach Boys? The likes of Edgerton, Bale, Ben Mendelsohn (who plays the creepy Viceroy Hegep with gleeful abandon) and Sigourney Weaver are caked in comical cosmetics that distract more than they contribute, but this isn’t the major issue. Visually, at least these pretty peeps eventually blend in with the dulcet environs.

Frustratingly Exodus: Gods and Kings — I’ve never been one to read into film titles too deeply, but this particular subtitle does seem superfluous — is intent on featuring caricatures rather than characters. Bale is ridiculously over-the-top as he forces vigilante machismo into a character that has decidedly much less of that built into his DNA. Edgerton acts like the spoiled brat Pharaoh Ramses apparently was. After succeeding the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro, also ridiculous-looking when bald), Ramses becomes something of a harbinger of doom, driving the Hebrew slaves to the brink of collapse through extremely hard labor and miserable working conditions. As if life wasn’t tough enough before. During Moses’ exile, he learns of these changing conditions back home in Memphis and despite having formed a family with the beautiful Zipporah (María Valverde) he vows to return and free over 600,000 Hebrews from his brother’s oppressive, bloodthirsty rule.

WE ARE NOT ENTERTAINED!

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It’s not the big picture Mr. Scott misses. Though Exodus hardly inspires with its languid pacing — that’s actually a compliment, as it drags for a good 75 minutes out of a grand total of 150 — there is definitive movement in the saga and the enthusiasm for Moses’ finest hour begins to build in earnest when the plagues set in. But even then, it’s a dash of visual splendor that sits a little too long in waiting and appears somewhat randomly in gradually darkening skies. Rest assured, if those in attendance are awaiting spectacle, they will still get it. But it’s too little too late.

His placement of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea — each element elegant in their CGI rendering — ought to be considered the equivalent of audiences sitting in for Gladiator and having minimum expectations of seeing Russell Crowe in leather jockeys. Yes he dons such a garment, but this doesn’t exactly complete the character. And it says nothing about the way Mr. Scott’s masterpiece captures ancient history in all its grim and bloody frankness; says little about the defiance of a single gladiator who goes up against the Roman empire — except that maybe our fearless leader has an eye for men in skivvies.

But this sadly is no laughing matter. It’s difficult trying to rectify the substantial decrease in quality between the film that came out at the turn of the millennium and the one we’ve just been handed on a not-so-silver platter. If you factor in how much Exodus seems to mime the story arc of Gladiator the coalition for reason becomes even weaker. Formulaically speaking, this is no different from the adventures of Maximus Decimus Meridius. A man has his pride and political status stripped from him following a particularly bitter (and yes, unfair) betrayal, then must strike out on his own into the great unknown before deciding to return balance to the universe. Crowe had at it first, and Crowe comes out on top on almost all counts. But if we were judging this based on who rides a gigantic tidal wave of water better, then the odds are more in Moses’ favor.

As an undertaking, Exodus is a mightily ambitious undertaking. It’s easy to dismiss the film as a redundant journey back in time to a place where religious conflict brimmed more heatedly than any of those scenes between Bruce and Rachel. (Or Miranda Tate — that part was actually better.) Maybe we really didn’t need it. Maybe I was just foolish in expecting great things here. Though it’s hard to not get excited when the likes of Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton (and throw in Sigourney Weaver for the hell of it) are involved, when there’s a director of Mr. Scott’s stature leading the charge.

Casting controversy aside, Exodus is simply a film with few excuses for becoming as flaccid a drama as it truly becomes. It’s mired in surprisingly subpar performances, drifting narrative pacing and an unenthusiastic, although granted, educational, tone. No one on screen ever feels inspired. And to say that about this particular cast is a move that ought to make one feel the need to exile themselves to. . . . well, somewhere else. For right now anyway, it looks like the opposite case is going to hold true.

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2-0Recommendation: If you were holding out hope that Exodus could survive the plague of criticism that has washed over it in the past week, let me drown that hope right now. It’s not a good movie. If the odd casting decisions don’t strike you (the argument being staged for racist casting is just plain nonsense by the way; the move to hire Bale and Edgerton in particular was one of financial matters, and this is clear) then the slow, awkward pacing and the sloppy dialogue surely will. I’m done talking about this movie. Two thousand words later. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 150 mins.

Quoted: “You sleep well because you are loved. I’ve never slept that well.”

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 Great Gatsby

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Release: Friday, May 10, 2013

[Theater]

A colorful cast and crew give F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel its most contemporary treatment yet in 2013, with The Great Gatsby refocused through the lenses of Baz Luhrmann. With an alignment of stars that immediately gives its characters life, and a costume/make-up department that rivals (and could possibly be superior to) that of Les Miserables, the film is an unsatisfying mixture of style over substance. It looks terrific, but the pizzazz is clearly indicative of a film that, script-wise, is dangerously insecure — just like one of our lead characters here.

I suppose one of the more important things to note is that the acting is not to blame for a general lack of engagement in the storytelling; Leo first and foremost, fully embodies the essence of Jay Gatsby and is thankfully not a disappointment, so you can breathe a sigh of relief there. As well, Carey Mulligan (as Daisy Buchanan) and Joel Edgerton (as Daisy’s brute of a husband, Tom) are at their best and Tobey Maguire manages Nick Carraway fairly well.

It is unfortunately with Mr. Maguire that I found one of the film’s larger, and ultimately, more frustrating, structural flaws that prevented Gatsby from becoming the emotional spectacle it truly could have been. We are swept into the story with a narrative from Nick Carraway, who’s setting up time and place of the events that would ultimately fill the actual story. This was a completely unnecessary layer and if anything seemed to diminish the significance of the story of Jay Gatsby and his parties. Not only that, but the narrative — which is not limited to the opening five or ten minutes, either — keeps us at an arm’s length of the characters stuck inside Fitzgerald’s vision of the Roaring 20’s. Each time we hear the voiceovers from Maguire’s slow, labored delivery, we’re taken out of the moment a little. This happens more than a few times.

When the narrative isn’t there dictating the story to us, like getting rid of the subtitles, we get a story about the great and mysterious Jay Gatsby and of his travails finding his long lost love, Daisy, with innocent “ole sport” Nick Carraway merely getting caught in the crossfire. The heart of this passionate love affair — from what I recall of reading the book in high school — remains faithful to the sequence of events Fitzgerald penned in 1925, and thanks to a select few scenes, it succeeds at times to strike at the emotional core of what made the novel of so long ago, so mesmerizing and dramatic.

Alas, these moments were sporadically popping up throughout the film, whilst a camera guided us haphazardly throughout the land that constituted the narrative perimeters of the story  — the serene waters, the sweeping forested lands, the city skyline set against the filth and grime of city workers shoveling dirt and coal.

A variety of wide-angle shots, sudden deep and dramatic zooms, and wide scans and panoramas were utilized, which actually succeeded in trapping us inside this world and giving the impression that we were being physically moved from one distinct location (where something happens) to another (where something else happens).Going with the 3D glasses, however, might make you a little nauseous after awhile, since Luhrmann is intent on moving throughout this landscape as though he were on board a roller coaster.

So it is, again: the special effects get in the way.

Here’s the thing you ought to know about this recent adaptation: it’s not a ‘bad’ film in the general sense that it fails to entertain or engage on any level. I mean for crying out loud this is a Leonardo DiCaprio picture, after all.

But it did have a standard to reach, and unfortunately for me, this was not met.

Beginning with the aforementioned wild editing in places, there was far too much emphasis on explaining the development of the relationships among our main cast, when the film would have benefitted far more from simply doing the developing. In other words, they could have done without half of the narration and the meat of the story would have still made perfect sense. Beyond this issue, though, lay a host of others.

The costumes looked great — Carey Mulligan is simply dazzling as Daisy and is pretty much exactly how I imagined her to look; the partiers all spectacularly clad in exquisite Golden Twenties fashion. The look is so overwhelming that we forget we are here to watch a story being told. And the use of Jay-Z, Will-I-Am and Florence & The Machines (to name a few) in the soundtrack was seriously out of sync with the feel of this particular re-imagining.

As well, the big reveals are not all that revelatory since (well, I guess if you’ve read the book the entire film won’t be a surprise) we can see the event coming from miles away, and especially with the narration, any strong anticipation of what may be coming later is quickly squashed flat. It’s as though we are being told exactly how and what to think and feel in these moments.

There were realistically only two ways this 2013 version could have gone: truly spectacular or. . . well, truly unspectacular. I’d rather not write it off as a disaster, but I left with a rather hollow feeling in my gut when I was hoping to be elated by the charismatic power we always seem to get from DiCaprio, and Carey Mulligan is a reliably romantic dramatist as well. While the two did seem to have strong chemistry, the script did not allow us to ever really get close enough to these characters to truly care. So, I’m not going to write this off as a disaster, but I can’t say I was pleased. Maybe that is just the challenge of creating this kind of a movie, though. Based on a novel that was rather light on pages, it had to balance a good number of elements to please what has become obvious as a much wider, younger and more impatient audience.

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2-5Recommendation: I cannot say that this in any way lived up to my expectations in terms of the intensity and intrigue of the storyline, but from what we were seeing in the weeks and months leading up to this film, that is exactly what we get for a majority of the film: people looking spectacular. Wealthy. Carefree. Strangely immortalized in their reckless abandonment. For a while this all works well, but for substance we need a little bit more and it’s probably been done better in earlier adaptations. Still, more than worth it for fans of DiCaprio.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 143 mins.

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