The Gentlemen

Release: Friday, January 24, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Ivan Atkinson; Marn Davies; Guy Ritchie

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

The Gentlemen appears as a sight for sore eyes for anyone hoping for Guy Ritchie to return to form. After a string of generic blockbusters that kicked off with Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and then lasted forever, it seemed pretty clear he was not returning to his old stomping grounds — the seedy, criminal underworld of London as depicted in indie hits Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1999) and Snatch (2000). And why would he? Franchise filmmaking has rewarded him. His “hot” Aladdin remake turned out to be really hot — grossing more than a billion dollars at the global box office last year.

Like a sequel, The Gentlemen is not as fresh as the early Cockney gangster films that put his name on the map but it is another example of the transformative effect of Ritchie’s style and process. His movies are litmus tests of his cast’s willingness to separate brand image from the bell-ends they’re compelled to become as well as their ability to adapt on the fly to his extemporaneous approach to shooting. His latest crime comedy features as many plot points, diversions and schemes as it does famous faces, and it does not disappoint when it comes to watching big-name actors trying to wrap their mouths around Ritchie’s barbwire dialogue. Some succeed more than others, but with the sheer size of The Gentlemen‘s roster, it’s a pretty high success rate.

Oscar-winner and proud Texan Matthew McConaughey passes muster as Mickey Pearson, an expat who left his poverty-stricken life in America thanks to a scholarship to Oxford. As many a McConaughey character is wont to do, he becomes a major cannabis advocate. What began as a small business venture selling to the stuffy students evolves into a massively profitable weed empire founded on (technically under) British soil and through violence and intimidation on the streets. When conspiring circumstances force the old man out of the game, he triggers an avalanche of plots and schemes as a long line of potentials vie to take his place upon the throne. But it will take more than pure business acumen to actually oust a king.

In the simplest terms, The Gentlemen boils down to a potential transaction between two savvy businessmen who both happen to be Yankees — Pearson and billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong, who seems least at home in this environment). In Ritchie’s world trust, like political correctness, is always in short supply. There’s borderline none of it here, with Strong’s annoyingly nebbish (but at least well-dressed) Berger possibly in cahoots with even worse people. Rogue agent Dry Eye (Henry Golding, doing good work to separate himself from a recent string of hunky eligible bachelor types) blows through the narrative, utterly unconcerned about the damage he’s doing and whose business he’s worse for. His arrogance makes him a true threat to Pearson’s power and legacy. Themes collide full-force in one of the movie’s signature scenes wherein a hopeful Dry Eye offers to buy Pearson out at an exorbitant price. And it is bad form to decline such an offer when it’s so clear his time is up as ruler of this urban jungle.

The characters are certainly worth remembering but the other big part of the equation is the deliberately convoluted storytelling. The Gentlemen is ambitious to a fault. It’s daunting enough to keep up with this labyrinth of relationships, clandestine partnerships and double-crosses unfolding. But, as it turns out, this whole farce is taking place in the not-so-distant past. The details are relayed to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), consigliere to the King of Kush, by a gloriously against-type Hugh Grant as Fletcher, a smarmy private investigator who is trying to blackmail those who have wronged Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), the editor of a British tabloid journal. The framing device — “let’s play a game, Raymond,” Fletcher pleads like a school boy with a dirty little secret — overcomplicates an already stuffed narrative.

It’s not as though nothing good has come of Ritchie’s rise to prominence in the mainstream. The Gentlemen is a crime comedy of noticeably increased scale. We’ve outgrown the neighborhood of card sharps, street brawlers and estate agents and moved to the international ring of truly bad blokes and drug lords. Here you’ll encounter everyone from low-ranking British Lords to sons of Russian oligarchs and at least two generations of Chinese gangsters. There’s also Colin Farrell running around trying to repay a debt after his ragtag group of MMA fighters ignorantly steals something they shouldn’t have. For what it cost to make The Gentlemen, Ritchie could have made Snatch and RocknRolla with money left over to blow on van loads of ganja. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, yet from a technical standpoint the movie justifies the price tag — the wardrobes snazzy and the production design a classy, sleek upgrade.

For all that is ridiculous and excessive about The Gentlemen, I can’t really complain. It’s just nice to have our Guy back.

Henry Golding taking the mickey out of Matthew McConaughey

Recommendation: SPOILERS LURK IN THIS SECTION. Come for the cast, stay for the schadenfreude (and the insults). There aren’t too many good people here to root for. In fact, that’s part of what makes The Gentlemen interesting. It’s refreshing to see the villain come out on top for a change. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “There’s only one rule in the jungle: When the lion’s hungry, he eats!” 

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Beach Bum

Release: Friday, March 29, 2019

→Hulu

Written by: Harmony Korine

Directed by: Harmony Korine

Spoiler alert for those who demand any lessons or morals be taught in a movie: The Beach Bum is not for you. It’s a hedonist adventure “from the mind of” Harmony Korine, a not-for-everyone kind of filmmaker notorious for creating dreamlike experiences that more or less forsake substantive story for hypnotic style.

His latest once again brings together a wild assortment of famous people: Isla Fisher, Jonah Hill, Zac Efron, Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence and Mr. Margaritaville himself, Jimmy Buffett. However The Beach Bum is more notable for being the first time the Gummo director has collaborated with Matthew McConaughey, who plays the titular tropical vagrant, a sun-bleached blondie who goes by the name Moondog. Once a lauded poet he has become human driftwood floating through life in the Florida Keys, getting tangled up in all sorts of situations that are perhaps best left for your own two eyes to try and process. He’s a character who is larger than life but smaller than legend, one who somehow makes James Franco’s gangster seem boring (though I raved about him in my review of Spring Breakers).

The Beach Bum is a bizarre trip full of lows but far more highs — the ones delivered by gas mask bongs, joints the size of a child’s arm and bud-producing trees kept in special rooms. With apologies to Fast Film Reviews’ Mark Hobin, I need to steal a line: The atmosphere is so drugged out you could almost get high by association. This is taken from a review of a certain Paul Thomas Anderson movie from 2014, but it is an apt description of this experience as well. Oh, and There Will Be Boobs. Like, an abundance of them. An anchor-less vessel who frequents the sun-kissed beaches and small tourist traps freckling the tropicana, Moondog just can’t help but be around and/or in between them.

If there is a story to be deciphered here it’s how Moondog draws upon his mangy, transient experiences for inspiration to return to his old writing form. I’m no judge of poetry but his seems the kind of shallow you don’t make deeper, even by getting more baked. Lingerie, played by Snoop Dogg (a real-world connoisseur of kush and good rhymes) digs it though so what the hell do I know. Accompanied by a stray kitten he finds in the opening scene, an almost endless supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon tall-boys and an actually endless supply of zest for living by his own code, the man and the narrative become one and the same, stuck in idle throughout. Zac Efron and Martin Lawrence get caught in his wake along the way, all while his daughter Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen) grows increasingly worried about his stability and his wife (Isla Fisher) pays a steep price for loving him.

The main issue with The Beach Bum is not its lack of “a point.” It’s that Korine insists this gadabout has virtuous traits. He’s not flagrantly abusive like the loser Efron portrays and even in thongs he’s not as cartoonish as the skuzzy douche of an agent Hill plays, so I suppose he’s a crop above but his Better Self is so well buried that his journey to self-actualization becomes contrived at best. This is not exactly harmful tokage but it becomes surprisingly challenging to separate in your mind the likable McConaughey from the frequently less-than-likable Moondog. Call that commitment to character. The Beach Bum isn’t a very good movie. It is, however, the epitome of a Harmony Korine experience. The cinematography is sexy and dripping with color, and that is at least enough to get a good buzz off of.

Recommendation: I’m a big fan of Matthew McConaughey, who winds the clock back to Dazed and Confused as Moondog, and his commitment to another memorable character here is not to be understated (it’s the reason this final rating is as high as it is) but I didn’t really find his character entirely redeemable. Anyone who saw Spring Breakers and didn’t get along with it probably should give The Beach Bum the old swerve. It’s available on Hulu though so really all it will cost you is a breezy 90 minutes . . . 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “I get all these things going, man, and they are all turning me on. And my wires are connecting upstairs and I start to hear music in my head. You know, and the world is reverberating back and forth and I hit the frequency and I start to dance to it. My fingers get moving, my head gets soupy, I’m spinning all over the f-ing place, and the f-ing words come out.” 

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 

Serenity

Release: Friday, January 25, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Steven Knight

This won’t be an exact science, but I don’t plan to see a movie worse than Serenity the rest of this year. Someone deliver me from the temptation to go on an excessive rant here.

From the writer/director of the brilliantly ergonomic thriller Locke (2014) comes Serenity, a vehicle built for the swaggering, whisky-drankin’ Matthew McConaughey but one that ends up taking almost all the wind out of his sails. This is a really bad movie, a tale of two disparate yet equally dissatisfying halves — the first lulling the audience into a false sense of SERENITY before the second damn well confounds with some seriously clumsy and surprisingly amateurish attempts at high concept fantasy (think The Truman Show relocated to a sun-kissed island). If you’ve never heard of this movie before, it isn’t your fault. Aviron, the film’s distributor, had such little faith in it they decided to go ahead and cancel pretty much all publicity for the picture, a move that angered stars McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, who felt they had been misled in the marketing tactics. Good for them for standing behind their work, but bad for them . . . because of the work they’re standing behind.

The movie takes place on a tropical isle called Plymouth, where Baker Dill (a haggard-looking McConaughey) ekes out an existence as a commercial tuna fisherman who takes his wealthy but obnoxious clientele out to sea for a little hookin’. Onshore he tends to his daily routine with all the enthusiasm of a dead fish, hitting the bars for whisky and the bed with Diane Lane for extra cash, because gas is expensive. And we need gas to take tourists out. (Oh, and she has a lost cat running around that she implores Baker to find — spot the icky symbolism boys and girls!) What keeps Baker goin’ — other than the sweaty sex — is his endless obsession with catching the massive tuna he’s been, I guess, haunted by for years. The crusade to catch has become so epic he’s branded the thing Justice. (And again with the symbolism!)

The first half is a character-building slog through Moby Dick-ian cliché, with Baker’s single-minded pursuit getting in the way of good customer relations — he threatens with a knife during a dispute over who gets to reel Justice in, only for it to escape again. Word gets out around Plymouth very easily and some of the other locals believe Baker’s lost his nerve, as well as his mind. There are threats of calling in a doctor to evaluate him. Baker just believes it is bad luck, which he attributes to his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), who has struggled to get over the death of his wife.

Things become a bit more lively when, out of the black of the night, comes Anne Hathaway’s sultry Karen. She’s Baker’s ex-wife, though she keeps referring to him as John. She has a proposal for “John” that will benefit both of them. Having remarried when he went off to war, she now wants desperately to be rid of the violently abusive jagoff Frank (a pretty cringe-y Jason Clarke) has turned out to be and tells Baker-John she will pay him $10 million in cash if he takes him out on his boat and throws him overboard for the sharks.

That sets up a fairly compelling moral dilemma in practice but one that seems dopey in writing — does he pursue the big fish or help his wife? The biggest impetus for choosing Option 2 is Baker’s obligation to save his child from enduring an embittered life, irrevocably altered by a broken home. It won’t be the multitude of scars Karen has endured through those years that compels him but rather an opportunity to do right by his son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). Through what appear to be flashbacks we see Patrick confined to his bedroom and locked into a video game that he recodes, trying to escape the misery of his home life. We come to appreciate how close the father and son bond once was, but it turns out they have an even deeper connection, more along the lines of telepathy.

Act Two. Oh goodness, here we go, into the Bermuda Triangle. I am all for ambitious, high-concept, twisty-turvy plots. When they convincingly pull the rug out from under us we get things like The Matrix and Shutter Island. But when the twist isn’t executed well or the entire concept is fundamentally screwy we wind up with the confusing mess that is Serenity, an increasingly heavy-handed allegory involving fate versus free will, decency versus immorality — elements that are initially introduced via obvious Biblical references (the Serenity Prayer is all but spelled out in dialogue) before a thoroughly strange meeting with a suited gentleman (Jeremy Strong) one evening further shakes things up. As it turns out Baker may not be as in control of his life — if it is even a life he leads — as it initially appears, and there are “rules” of a vaguely defined “game” he may have to break if he is to succeed in his endeavor.

I could go into further detail regarding what that game is but what is the point? Those details make even less sense in writing than they do in the film. Let’s leave it at this: the McConaissance is officially over. A few more movies like this and I feel like it’s back to square one again. Serenity is so undercooked and haphazardly constructed it is as if a child wrote it, maybe that kid from Florida is behind it all. Count your blessings if you do not understand that reference.

All aboard the S.S. WTF!

Recommendation: Serenity uses a sexy cast as bait to lure unsuspecting audiences into a plot that becomes infuriatingly nebulous to the point of being unintentionally funny. But this isn’t the kind of so-bad-it’s-good film that can be tossed back with some beers. This is the kind of nonsensical, pretentious claptrap that kills careers. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

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

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

White Boy Rick

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Andy Weiss; Noah and Logan Miller

Directed by: Yann Demange

In his piece for the New York Observer, the innately likable Rex Reed writes of the White Boy Rick experience: “I can think of no reason any bright, witty or halfway sophisticated movie lover — or otherwise normal person — would want to spend 10 minutes with any of the criminal degenerates in this worthless load of crap.”

Understand that when I say ‘innately likable’ I’m dialing up the sarcasm to 11. I’m not exactly the biggest Rex Reed fan out there; his writing is aggressively obnoxious and true to form here he wants you to know just HOW OFFENDED he is, dealing a number of below-the-belt hits — some aimed at star Matthew McConaughey’s unfortunate “microwaved” appearance, others reserved for the quantity of newcomer Richie Merritt’s acne pimples, and the majority of which seem irresponsibly misdirected. His review is nothing short of a beating that leaves little doubt as to what this critic believes is the worst film of all of 2018. He gave the film a big fat 0 out of 4 on his scale, for whatever that’s worth.

French director Yann Demange (whose 2014 war drama ’71 I left shaken but also moved by) shares the story of Richard Wershe Jr. (Merritt), who in the mid-’80s went from being the youngest drug kingpin-turned-FBI informant in American history to the longest-serving prisoner for a non-violent crime in Michigan state history. That story, such as it is, manifests as a perpetually downward spiral that ends at rock bottom. Its chapters constructed around the spectacularly poor choices he made in the interest of saving his family — father Richard Wershe Sr. (McConaughey), sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and neighboring grandparents (cameos by Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) — from being swallowed up by Detroit’s filth and squalor at the height of the 80s crack epidemic.

Richard Jr. earns the nickname when he falls in with a black gang headed by Johnny “Little Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors). Initially acting as an intermediary between his gun-hustling father and his seedy clientele, he’s soon persuaded by the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, both delivering convincingly cold performances) to start moving weight in an effort to capture the big, rotting fish at the center of the city’s narcotics woes — the coke-snorting mayor himself. For his cooperation, the feds promise to look the other way when it comes to bringing Richard Sr. in on hefty manufacturing/distribution of weapons charges.

White Boy Rick is a well-acted affair but the performances — namely from Team Merritt and McConaughey — aren’t quite enough to overpower the stench of misery that these characters bring to the screen. Richard Jr. is a selfish and reckless individual and as Richard Sr., McConaughey is no more sympathetic. In fact he’s arguably the least redeemable of them all as we see how his business is promoting chaos and violence throughout the city, how his lack of parenting has emboldened his son to crime — or his daughter to make the decision to walk out on the family.

I cringe to do this, but Rex Reed is actually . . . right. Maybe not 0/4 right — that’s pretty harsh, bro. He’s on to something though. White Boy Rick is a movie awkwardly lacking an empathetic hook, and more problematically, entertainment. There is a big difference between, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs — a classic case of schadenfreude — and White Boy Rick, a movie that spends two hours enumerating all the things the kid does wrong only to ask us in the end to take pity on him because he is merely a teenage victim of a broken system.

Because this family is no fun to be around, there really is no point to the exercise. White Boy Rick is based on a real life story but what exactly do we gain from all of these losses? Maybe being pointless is its raison d’être — criminal drug-dealing only leads to one place, and that place is directionless, bottomless despair (or a jail cell, take your pick). I suppose my biggest gripe with the movie is that it made me agree with Rex Reed on something for once. The movie brought us closer together and I will never forgive White Boy Rick for that.

Recommendation: White Boy Rick is a true story with little entertainment value. A cautionary tale steeped in cliché and grating characters. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “We’re goin’ for custard!”

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

Gold

gold-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 27, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Patrick Massett; John Zinman

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan

The prospect of finding cinematic gold in a true story directed by “the guy who wrote Traffic” and starring the winsome (and also Oscar-winning) Matthew McConaughey seems a sure thing. Unfortunately their first team-up proves how elusive success really can be.

Stephen Gaghan loosely bases his film on a 1993 gold mining scandal involving the Canadian Bre-X Minerals company who claimed to have discovered a massive gold deposit in the Indonesian rainforest, the liquidated value of which was thought to be nearly immeasurable. What was found was later proven to be false gold of course, and the company subsequently found guilty of defrauding investors out of billions.

Gold changes names and dates to avoid legal trouble but it also largely avoids excavating any entertainment value out of the situation. While its star fervently takes to the task of portraying another wily, good-natured yet deeply flawed opportunist, this meandering mess of a story doesn’t do nearly enough to match the conviction of its lead character and the spirited performance of the actor.

McConaughey, channeling some of his Wolf of Wall Street charisma, plays Kenny Wells, an earnest gold prospector who finds himself way out of his depth when he steps out of the Borneo jungle and onto Wall Street, where he takes his father (Craig T. Nelson)’s company public after allegedly tapping into “the largest gold mine of the decade.” All throughout a balding, comically uglified McConaughey insists it is not about money, but rather the joy of discovering that very thing his father and his father’s father dedicated their lives to, the very resource to which Kenny and his geologist buddy Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez) dedicated a fun/malaria-infested summer at the equator.

The film is divided into two major slogs. The first slog is spent in the jungle as Kenny and Michael battle bad weather, brutal labor conditions (which lead to labor strikes), and increasing pressure from the outside to deliver. The second follows in the aftermath of the discovery and half-heartedly addresses the various political, social and personal implications and complications of accumulating wealth and notoriety. It also introduces a thoroughly forgettable subplot reminding us for the umpteenth time of how brutal and cold Wall Street can be.

I can’t help but feel Gaghan is operating in the wrong capacity as a director. Though the man has several directing credits on his résumé, there’s a reason most people only ever associate his name with Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film about heroin distribution. Traffic‘s screenplay was nothing short of brilliant. And he’s probably been told that ad nauseam so I’m a little surprised he chose not to take a similar approach to a story dealing ostensibly with the way gold fever — and McConaughey gets it pretty badly — can evolve into an addiction. How it can change, corrupt, maybe even damn a person. Gold didn’t need to be so serious, but it desperately lacks weight and importance.

Gaghan’s fourth directorial outing isn’t a poorly made product, per se, but it’s painfully obvious and worse, uninvolving. The McConaughey faithful head into theaters hoping to find gold but end up leaving with nothing more than a lump of bauxite in their hands.

yayyyyyy

2-5Recommendation: Disappointing David O’Russell knock-off strands another great Matthew McConaughey performance in a sea of mediocre drama. Very little about this predictable, tired trajectory has the impact the writers and the director were no doubt looking for. For what it’s worth, McConaughey and Ramírez make for a fairly entertaining duo. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “We got a goldmine . . . ? We got a goldmine!!!” 

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 

Kubo and the Two Strings

'Kubo and the Two Strings' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Marc Haimes; Chris Butler; Shannon Tindle

Directed by: Travis Knight

Kudos to Kubo for being a wee bit different. I mean, generally speaking his story isn’t one you haven’t seen before — unless of course you’ve had since your diaper days an elaborate scheme for avoiding all things Disney for the rest of your life, which just seems . . . excessive. The latest from Laika Entertainment does, however, carry with it an air of sophistication and maturity absent in many of its competitors’ products.

Travis Knight, in his directorial debut, paints an emotionally resonant portrait of a family plagued by wickedness in ancient Japan, a family represented by the young Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) who we see at the beginning of the film barely escaping with their lives from an unseen confrontation with her evil Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who took one of Kubo’s eyes in an attempt to blind him to the world, a punishment that probably carries   with it some sort of metaphorical meaning that I just can’t be bothered to delve into here (either that, or it’s just . . . I guess, glaringly obvious).

Anyhoo, Kubo now lives in a cave atop a big mountain just outside a village, to which he travels daily to put on shows for the locals. He tells tales of a brave samurai who has to defend himself against monsters, stories based on what he has heard from his mother about his missing father Hanzo, a legendary warrior. Kubo attracts large crowds with his showmanship, his ability to manipulate colored pieces of paper into ornate origami figures with his shamisen (a three-string guitar) as impressive as it is perplexing. If only he could just come up with a conclusion to the tale. Each evening he returns to the cave where his mother, who has fallen into a trance-like state, awaits. Most of the time she remains frozen in place like a statue. When she does speak she reminds her son to never stay out after dark as that is when her wicked Sisters and other evil spirits cast by the Moon King prowl, awaiting the chance to take Kubo’s other eye.

One evening Kubo attends an Obon ceremony, a Buddhist ritual in which the living are able to communicate with and celebrate the spirits of their deceased loved ones. Observed for over 500 years, it has evolved into a kind of family reunion tradition. In a display of visual grandeur that rivals anything Pixar has created in its 17-film history, we watch the screen burst into plumes of orange, red and yellow, the spirits rising from glowing lanterns to greet a sky filled with stars. It’s got my vote as one of the most spectacular scenes in any movie this year. A moment of pure wonderment swiftly transitions into one of terror as day turns to night and, sure enough, Kubo is confronted by those vicious aunts of his, determined to permanently blind him. Again, both literally and metaphorically. Mother intervenes, imbuing her son with some of her own magical power before making the film’s obvious Big Sacrifice.

The narrative promptly shifts gears and finds us deep into a blizzard, waking up next to a living version of his monkey trinket, also voiced by Theron. The two form an awkward, tough-love kind of bond and soon they set out across the desolate landscape, Kubo in search of three pieces of armor that will protect him against the evil spirits. They’re led by “Little Hanzo,” an origami man modeled after his father. Little Hanzo leads them to Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior who was cursed into taking the form of an insect and who has no memory of his past. He learns quickly Kubo is actually the son of his master which obliges him to help Kubo in his quest to defeat evil.

Only after this shift does it become obvious how deliberately Knight has been setting up the story proper. We’re halfway into the movie before what we’ve actually come for gets underway. (The argument could be made the incredible blend of stop-motion animation with creative applications of magic, like Kubo’s origami ship and origami birds, justifies the price of admission.) At the heart of the film lies the familial conflict, a fairly standard clash of good and evil that forces a frightened but resourceful youngster into making big decisions and taking on forces much greater than himself. Guiding him along the way are his newfound friends, friends that ultimately prove they have much more to offer Kubo than moral support.

It takes time for all the pieces to fall into place. Significant world-building must happen before we get into the nitty gritty. It’s not just the elaborate staging of the saga that almost feels obsessive. If the thematic elements Kubo trades in are steeped in the beauty and mythology of Japanese tradition, artistic expression is driven by the pursuit of perfection. The level of detail in the visual aesthetic evokes the pride and passion of creators over at the prestigious Studio Ghibli. Such comparisons might seem extreme, but they’re not without caveats. Kubo is so intensely visual it’s as though nothing else matters.

Some things certainly do seem to matter more to the filmmakers than others as we work our way through this dark and dangerous journey. Not all aspects are created equal; the villains feel like a significant comedown from the stratospheric heights reached by Laika’s graphic artists. Reputable thespians like Mara and Fiennes don’t quite sell the evil convincingly. Even still, and despite a climactic showdown between Kubo and the Moon King ending the film on a whimper rather than a bang, this is still a story well worth investing time in, especially with your little ones. In the end though, you’ll probably leave the theater just like them: all googoo-gaga over some of the most sumptuous visuals you have ever seen.

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Recommendation: Fairly heavy for a children’s movie as death lurks around every corner and reincarnation manifests as a prominent theme, but undeniably a quality experience for the whole family to share in, Kubo and the Two Strings rises above a few notable flaws thanks to an incredible animated style that gives rich texture to its culturally significant roots. The story falters towards the end but apparently never enough to divert attention to the fact this movie really should have featured Japanese dialogue if it was going for the whole ‘authenticity’ thing. Names like McConaughey, Theron, Fiennes and Mara actually become both enticing and distracting. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I encourage you not to die.”

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

Free State of Jones

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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

Interstellar

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Release: Friday, November 7, 2014

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Nolan; Christopher Nolan 

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Interstellar is a fascinating adventure, even if its credibility is trumped by spectacle.

And somewhere throughout this epic excursion to the far reaches of our universe I half expected Matthew McConaughey to make the pithy observation that Dorothy is not in Kansas anymore. Alas, that moment never came.

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

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There has been a healthy dose of speculation about the latest Christopher Nolan spectacular, on both ends of the spectrum — hype surrounding the fact that Nolan’s grandiose vision would now sync up with quite literally the most grandiose thing ever, space exploration, and caution against the inevitable: against getting hopes up too high (you know, in case Mr. Nolan isn’t actually infallible), and that the science needed to truly pull a feat like this off would likely not gel with the blockbuster formula. At least, not without alienating the majority of theater attendees.

Turns out, and in the wake of the dizzying height of such hype this last week, the cautioners were more accurate than they were naysaying; the positivity has been running a little unchecked. Try as I might to remain level-headed, I got swept up in it too. I for several months felt like a child after chugging an entire box of Pixy Stix. There was no way Christopher Nolan was going to disappoint. Not with this material, not with this cast, and particularly, not when he’s this experienced.

To that end, Interstellar is poised to represent a new standard to which audiences are going to forever hold Nolan accountable. In the build-up to the release, it was all we had to just assume the best of an intergalactic voyage through a never-ending web of stardust and dark matter. I’ve always thought it’s easier (and less scary) to imagine the size of the universe rather than to sit there and calculate its dimensions. Similarly, being ignorant to what the movie actually presents seems to provide a sense of innocence. It’s only in this moment the conditions might seem perfect, that we might have a truly comprehensive look at our place in the universe.

Interstellar is a movie that works best when not questioning, at least too deeply, the very heady developments taking place in the clutches of deep space. Contrary to Nolan’s ambitious hiring of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as the film’s chief scientific consultant and executive producer, there isn’t a significant moment in the extraterrestrial portion of the narrative that passes without some level of suspension of disbelief. In fact, this happens more frequently than Thorne and any physicist are going to admit.

I don’t want to damn the science part of the fiction. I’d rather grin and go along with the logical gaps, because this film is a lot of fun for being about a very real end of a very real world. This is the most confidently something as technical as physics has been handled in a major motion picture event in some time. Possibly ever. The theory of relativity exists as a recurring theme and quantum physics crops up on more than a couple of occasions. Although reading textbooks isn’t required before sitting down to watch this, some scenes are sure to throw viewers for some exciting but head-scratching loops. Credit most assuredly needs to be given to Nolan for reaching out to field experts like Thorne who could give his film an immediate legitimacy a single filmmaker otherwise could not.

OLD AGE SHOULD BURN AND RAVE AT CLOSE OF DAY

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Nolan once again reaches out to his brother Jonathan for the tall task of penning the script. This was a smart move. Good thing in an industry like entertainment nepotism doesn’t really count for much. He isn’t playing favorites, he just knows what he likes and knows how to get it.

It’s been proven on multiple occasions that the dramatic overtones of Christopher’s directing fall into a blissful matrimony with Jonathan’s perception of human nature. His script suggests a viable endpoint for a species that has for far too long remained ignorant to their impacts on their global environment. Culturally, we no longer exist. We are just a physical collection of individuals still surviving on the surface of this tired planet. In whatever year this is we aren’t exactly in denial but we also have not changed a great deal between present-day (in reality) and the present-day in the film, some near-future where the only food source we have left is corn. Jonathan can see how much trouble we are in today and extrapolates that, say, fifty years into the future with Nostradamian confidence.

The space epic is seated deeply in reality, which is what is most remarkable about a film that also features black holes (a relatively recent scientific discovery), rips in the space-time continuum, and a grab-bag of other assorted mind-bending phenomena. So easily the intellectual reach of Nolan’s direction could tip the proceedings into the realm of the ridiculous — and once or twice it does — but the performances he extracts from the likes of McConaughey, Jessica Chastain (who plays a fully-grown version of Murph, the daughter McConaughey’s Cooper leaves behind on Earth), and Mackenzie Foy (the younger Murph) ensure that we are distracted enough from some of the more obvious offenses.

Getting away from some of the more practical considerations, the production on a creative level is a thing of beauty. I’ll touch back on the practical for just a second: once we get into space the first thing that should be taken notice of, just like in Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant Gravity of last year, is the deafening silence outside the space vessel. In a second we realize we are in a place we don’t naturally find ourselves. Unlike Gravity, the curvature of the Earth outside the Endurance’s windows is as close to familiar ground as we will be for the remainder of the film.

Hans Zimmer once again reminds the world of why he has a job scoring films. His work here is mesmeric, haunting, truly the stuff of science fiction and space exploration. Melancholic vibes are quickly supplanted by a racing pulse of optimism, determination. Where concerns grow about the convenience of certain plot developments, Zimmer steps in and whisks us to a galaxy far, far away. The musical composition of Interstellar is fantastical as much as it is fantastic.

I suppose in some ways Nolan’s latest was going to be a predictable affair. There was almost no way this concept could work perfectly. After all, what he is attempting is something no other filmmaker has really sought out, save for perhaps Stanley Kubrick. In Nolan’s vision we are shrunken to the size of worker ants. We have an enormous task ahead of us and it’s more weight upon our backs than we ought to be carrying, but we have no choice. A lot of things happen within this nearly three-hour runtime. But to credit the film editors, the running time almost seems insufficient. Arguably this is Christopher Nolan reaching for the stars while only managing to strike a new crater on the moon.

But even if it isn’t top-shelf Christopher Nolan, it still sits up higher than most films of its ilk in the last 30 years. Interstellar is a trip worth taking for the views and some reminders of how far scientific discovery actually has come if nothing else.

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4-0Recommendation: If it were any more serious, this film could be considered the most bombastic thing Nolan has ever undertaken. Fortunately he sprinkles in some much-needed humor to provide levity to this desperate search for another Earth-like planet. I highly doubt I need to recommend this film, but in case you are having any questions regarding the hype and whether it’s too much, it is a little overblown but certainly not enough to warrant skipping it at the theaters. This is a film, much like Cuarón’s Oscar-sweeper of yesteryear, that demands the big-screen treatment. It will lose so much if you wait for a rental. I also have to recommend seeing this on the largest screen possible, though you might save a few extra bucks by not going for the 3D. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 169 mins.

Quoted: “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

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

The 86th Academy Awards Afterparty: Will there be pizza?

Despite my fascination with film, I consistently have never really cared for the awards ceremonies as I’ve always seen them as rather trifling procedures. The night of Sunday, March 2 barely amounts to more than a shallow beauty pageant. The proceedings inside L.A.’s famed Dolby Theater are in effect an incredibly expensive circus in which wealthy people converge on a single venue to watch their extremely well-off colleagues accepting gold statues as a way of validating that their work was actually experienced by more than just the people in that stuffy little room.

And don’t even get me started on the actual reporting on the event beforehand. Christ, the quality of the news on the Red Carpet makes a mockery of journalism to the highest degree. There isn’t an apology to be found or heard. Ever. Cameras (and conversations) prefer to be aimed towards fashion trends, intentionally converting performers into walking billboards for the young and impressionable. People aren’t really people in these moments. But that’s okay. . . .I guess. After all, these centers of attention are the same folks who gave us those great moments in the films we liked over the past year. Now it’s fun seeing Jennifer Lawrence stumble all over her real-life awkwardness. Or how about seeing sworn on-screen enemies pal-ing around together over a drink? That’s the stuff that causes the warm, fuzzy feeling in your tummy to grow intensely, apparently.

In spite of my ranting, the end-of-the-film-year presentation is actually greatly entertaining to watch. Why is that, you ask, understandably now confused.

Perhaps its partly because of the phenomenon of the fourth wall still protecting these successful and talented individuals from the claws of the public. We have a right to see our favorite action hero star stripped of his/her dramatic veil so we can get a better look into that person’s mind and see how they do what they do so well. Harrison Ford struggling to look sober during this year’s Oscars is one such insight that might well cause an obsession-fueled Twitter thread. Then there was Ellen Degeneres doing something as mundane as delivering pizza to certain members in the first few rows of the audience while Brad Pitt humbled himself by serving plates and napkins that caused us to nearly soil our pants from laughter.

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They aren’t on the silver screen at the moment, yet the likes of Amy Adams, Chris Hemsworth, the aforementioned Lawrence who can’t seem to catch a break from intentional or unintentional public embarrassment as Degeneres appeared to roast her before kicking off the ceremony this year, or a legend like Robert DeNiro — they all still possess a mystique we can never hope to chip away completely because they are in some way, shape or form still performing for us, the humble viewers. They give possibly the most honest performances of their lives before these particular cameras, but we will never get to be at the Oscar afterparty with them when they all shed the burden of the pretense and of the pomp and circumstance. And, possibly their clothes, too.

As a person who loves film I have been notorious for either accidentally or purposefully avoiding these sorts of events because a great majority of the time I either vehemently disagree with the ultimate selections or I just have no comment on what is going on at the time. There’s also that little issue I have with the false emotion surrounding it all. But nevermind that for a bit. This year I watched the Oscars from start to finish, even tapping into the Red Carpet action (which I will probably never do again, based on the intro paragraphs above). But with a few staggeringly honest acceptance speeches delivered by gold statue recipients, my faith in what these people are doing with their lives has been reinvigorated.

There were obviously the requisite number of speeches that dragged on for far too long, some that became dangerously close to sounding arrogant, and some that were borderline unintelligible. But thanks to highlights in Jared Leto (who took the stage for his snagging of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Lupita Nyong’o (with her remarkable work in 12 Years a Slave garnering her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and the potentially crowd favorite Matthew McConaughey (the McConaissance can now be officially acknowledged following his Best Actor prize) this year’s Oscars offered up strong doses of humanity and humility, a display of appreciation that extends to those who have spent any amount of time paying attention to them — that includes us bloggers! There comes that warm, fuzzy feeling again. . .

Dedicating three hours to watching the awards ceremony proves that this movie-watching business is indeed an addiction. It is equal parts exciting and frustrating knowing that famous names are to receive even greater plaudits than they have already earned in being cast into money-making machines. Such is the nature of their jobs. Everyone should save themselves a pat on the back for me. Especially Mr. McConaughey. I say good for him.


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