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?

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

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

#OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

oscars-snafu

Steve Harvey reaching out to Warren Beatty after he was involved in what has got to be the most embarrassing SNAFU in Oscars history — and possibly of the actor’s career — strikes me as humorous for some reason. I know it isn’t funny, but what if there really is some support group for this sort of thing? Victims of Award Ceremony Gaffes Anonymous, does that exist?

Look, I’m not here to point fingers and perpetuate the blame game because, well, I feel as though a sufficient pall has been cast over Barry Jenkins’ legitimate victory and Jimmy Kimmel’s first Oscars hosting gig. Poor guy. It’s not like he was the greatest host ever — the highlight of his night is without a doubt his manipulating the pit orchestra in order to rush Matt Damon off stage as he was presenting, which was amusing but not good enough to make me stop missing Billy Crystal.

But Kimmel’s night was going really well and for it to end in such a bizarre and awkward way, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. Or just assume that M. Night Shyamalan had played a part. And we all know that while it was probably the decent thing to do to try and divert the awkwardness away from the presenters (does anyone know what country Faye Dunaway is now living in by the way?) and towards himself, we also know this was not his fault. A scheme like this would be too complex for Jimmy Kimmel to mastermind, anyway. Besides, I don’t feel bad for the talk show host in the way I feel bad for La La Land.

ryan-gosling-snubbedI suppose the good that came out of this “custody battle” — besides the fact that one of the most deserving films in recent memory actually took home top honors — was that we got to know a little bit more about La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. It’s almost unreasonable how composed he was. How gracious in defeat he was. How sincerely his congratulations were offered to his competitors. I think there’s something we can all learn from the way he (and others) handled their situation.

I rated the two films differently but truth be told, and given everything that happened on Sunday, I think I would have been alright if the honor were shared between both films. That’s where the Academy really screwed things up. (Okay, I guess I am going to have to do a little scapegoating here.) Sure, PwC has taken the heat and rightfully so, but even if there were not enough trophies to go around on stage, I don’t know how you can allow for something like this to happen.

And it’s not like ties haven’t happened before, because they have. Six times actually. Six times a producer or director or cast member was spared the humiliation of being cut-off mid-acceptance speech because they hadn’t, in fact, any right to be making it. Of course, the way the 89th Academy Awards ended feels like a first. This wasn’t an example of indecision or voter fraud. This was an unprecedented production fiasco that unfolded in real time. To further troll the Academy and PwC, I’m really not sure if there could have been any protocol for this. And I really doubt there will be a ‘next time,’ so there probably never will be.

With the elephant in the room having been addressed, allow me to breakdown the categories that I featured in my preview post:

Best Picture (Winner: Moonlight) 

What I predicted: La La Land

If I had it my way: Moonlight

Well, the cast and crew of La La Land certainly went skipping up on stage because for a fleeting moment, as I had predicted, life for them was but a dream. But oh man, how fleeting that feeling was . . .

On the bright side, Moonlight becomes just the second LGBTQ-related film ever, behind Midnight Cowboy in 1970, to win Best Picture. And it is the first time in Oscars history a film with an all-black cast has won the award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Directing (Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land)

What I predicted: Damien Chazelle

If I had it my way: Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special

No real surprise here. The art that lives within the 32-year-old director is undoubtedly unique and profound. For him to go from directing a film like Whiplash to La La Land in the span of three years is, well, the guys at Consequence of Sound said it best: it’s just baffling.

Actor in a Leading Role (Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea)

What I predicted: Casey Affleck

If I had it my way: Casey Affleck

Amazing. To go from being the architect of your own potential destruction to Oscar-winner in the span of a few months is about as crazy as #EnvelopeGate. When a sexual harassment scandal reared its ugly head once again in the lead-up the Oscars, it seemed Ben Affleck’s younger, smaller and generally awkward brother had the odds stacked against him. Not to trivialize the troubling story that has been following the actor for some time, but his work in Manchester By the Sea deserved the win. It is almost enough to make us forget that hey, Oscar winners ain’t saints. I said ‘almost.’

Actress in a Leading Role (Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land)

What I predicted: Emma Stone

If I had it my way: Amy Adams, Arrival

Emma Stone, you need not worry if I’m doubting the legitimacy of your win. Your work in the movie speaks for itself. Your ‘Audition’ scene took my breath away, and I never quite got it back. I’m so glad Leo didn’t have any trouble with his presentation, because the Oscar absolutely went to the right person this year. Emma Stone has further cemented herself as one of the most meteoric stars of her generation. Jennifer Lawrence, watch your back.

Actor in a Supporting Role (Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight)

What I predicted: Mahershala Ali

If I had it my way: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

I love that in an era where Muslims are feeling more and more persecuted and marginalized in this country, one has just taken home Oscar gold. It feels something close to poetic justice, even if other artists this year have indeed suffered the effects of an unprecedented travel ban. I was introduced to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Remy Danton in Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards. I was impressed right away. In Moonlight, his turn as an empathetic drug dealer who exerts major influence on the young Chiron early in the narrative, is enough to break your heart. But in ways you might not expect. It’s a stunning supporting turn, and a big part of the reason I thought Moonlight was able to reach some other psychic level that La La Land just couldn’t.

stinkeye

Actress in a Supporting Role (Winner: Viola Davis, Fences)

What I predicted: Viola Davis

If I had it my way: Viola Davis

Viola Davis was one of the only true locks for the evening, the other being the winner of Best Documentary Feature (congratulations to Ezra Edelman and O.J.: Made in America for a well-deserved but, yes, very inevitable win). So while I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Davis won, I was nonetheless psyched for the woman. The Oscar win identifies her as the first black actress to complete the Triple Crown of Acting. She has officially taken home an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award for her scintillating work as beleaguered housewife Rose Maxson.

Animated Feature (Winner: Zootopia

What I predicted: Zootopia

If I had it my way: Moana

Blah. Zootopia was good I guess, but this is becoming one of those movies where, the more I hear about it, the more I’m feeling disdain for it. Studio animations have this unprecedented burden of becoming message movies these days, so I guess that’s what the Academy was looking for this year. How many heavy, controversial issues can you jam into one colorful little narrative? That’s the competition. Me, personally? I would have taken anything over the contrived kumbaya of this Disney “classic.” Even The Red Turtle, whatever the hell that is.

Cinematography (Winner: Linus Sandgren, La La Land)

What I predicted: Linus Sandgren

If I had it my way: Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

So you could look at the Best Picture fiasco two different ways. You could feel terrible that La La Land lost in the manner that they did, or you could look at them as being a production that simply missed out on lucky #7. Yeah, they were involved in one of the most egregious mix-ups in an event of this magnitude but they also walked away with SIX OTHER TROPHIES. Inarguably one of the categories they absolutely had in the bag was this one. Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture Los Angeles in a classically romantic, old-fashioned way while reminding the viewer that they are experiencing events in the present tense is truly astonishing. La La Land is a technicolor dream sequence executed to perfection. The iconic Griffith Observatory has rarely looked so good before.

Costume Design (Winner: Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)

What I predicted: Colleen Atwood

If I had it my way: Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed

For a film that I actually never bothered to see I was really pleased with the final result. Though I really didn’t see any of the other nominees challenging the fantastic (sorry) and ornate wardrobe drummed up by the costume designer of such classics as The Silence of the Lambs and Edward Scissorhands.

Production Design (Winner: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land)

What I predicted: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

If I had it my way: Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte, Arrival

I conclude my wrap-up with another fairly predictable result and La La Land‘s first Oscar win of the night. I could make the case for Arrival‘s ability to craft iconic imagery out of simpler elements being more impressive than what the Wascos (a husband-and-wife duo who worked on such films as Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction) were able to achieve. After all, the latter were afforded the unique and historic architecture and landscape of metropolitan L.A., while Arrival‘s production design team were tasked with making the rural pastures of Montana seem eerie. But, call it what it is: La La Land is a gorgeously rendered production whose heart and soul is owed to more than just the infectious lead performances and a few jazz numbers.


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

Photo credits: http://www.abcnews.com; http://www.tmz.com; http://www.avclub.com

 

Fences

fences-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater] 

Written by: August Wilson

Directed by: Denzel Washington

In 1987 American playwright August Wilson won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 1950s Pittsburgh-set drama Fences. It employed James Earl Jones as a surly 53-year-old garbage man who led the audience down a dark path littered with heartbreaking revelations about the black experience in a racially divided America. In 2010 Denzel Washington helped to revive Wilson’s work, and after a 13-week engagement the effort proved worthwhile, picking up ten Tony nominations and winning three. Six years later the action superstar has decided to transfer the material to the silver screen.

Washington’s reverence for the original is so apparent if you are like me you can only assume the production does its source material justice. I mean, how does it not? If anything there’s an overcommitment to facsimile. Fences isn’t very cinematic, despite strong efforts from a promotional campaign to make it so. But static, relatively uninventive camerawork and minimalist settings are not enough to take Fences down. The film features one of the year’s most impressive tandems of performances, realized through a series of meaty monologues that pierce at the heart and soul of a thoroughly broken man and his family.

The story is about a garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington reprising the role he played in 2010) who struggles to reconcile his present with his past. Though he eventually becomes Pittsburgh’s first black garbage truck driver Troy is bitterly disappointed in the way his life has turned out — his failure to realize his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player lying at the heart of his existential crisis. Troy experienced some success as a prominent player in the Negro leagues, but with the passing of time and the social climate of the country being as it was, nothing came of it. World-weary and prideful to a fault, Troy refuses to watch his sons go down the same path he did. He attempts to instill in them not so much the fear of God but the fear of consequences of one’s own lack of personal responsibility.

In a period where opportunities for whites are in far greater abundance than those for blacks, Troy believes his sons need to support themselves with “real jobs,” rather than pursue what he views as pipe dreams. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his eldest son from a previous marriage, aspires to be a musician but he seems to rely more on his girlfriend’s income to get by. One day he believes he’ll make enough to support himself. But at the age of 34 Troy can’t stand seeing him show up at the house on his payday ‘begging for hand-outs.’ On principal, he refuses to lend his son $10. Boy does that get awkward.

Washington’s performance dominates the narrative and arguably to a fault. A fault that, I’m not sure if humorously but certainly oddly, mirrors Troy’s fundamentally domineering nature that renders him as a character with whom others in the story often clash. The Denzel-favoring dialogue can be an endurance test at first but it helps that the writing is so poignant and perpetually working to shed light on many aspects that made this period in American history so turbulent. It also helps that Denzel is a revelation, the cantankerous Troy Maxson perhaps the zenith of an impressive career featuring Frank Lucas, Detective Alonzo Harris and the estranged father of Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.

As icy as his relationship is with Lyons, the film chiefly preoccupies itself with the tension that exists between Troy and his younger and more physically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who claims he has college recruits interested in offering him a scholarship to play football. Troy won’t let Cory play out of a combination of jealousy and similar concerns over the legitimacy of such a career. Coaxed by a few too many sips from a cheap bottle of some godawfuliquor, fears of his son actually finding the success that eluded him chip away at a slowly crumbling man. But the more sobering reality of the racial prejudices of the day are what convince Troy his son will never play. Either way, he’s not signing any forms he is handed. Meanwhile his wife doesn’t understand why the kid can’t have some fun and try to lead a normal life.

Though she’s half the chatty Cathy her co-star is, Viola Davis is no less Denzel’s equal as she offers an understated but full-bodied interpretation of Rose Maxson, a woman similarly jaded by life having had to sacrifice personal goals so she could make life work with this man. She’s hardly bitter about it; she loves Troy deeply. In the wake of a heartbreaking revelation, Davis emotes with stunning sincerity as she reminds us of her humanity, what the difficult choices she had to make have meant to her. It’s a reaction made all the more powerful given her extraordinary composure as she witnesses the increasing hostility between her husband and their growing children. When she’s not being playing the part of peacemaker she’s providing them the love her husband refuses to.

It should be noted several of the performers beyond the two leads who took the stage in 2010 have reprised their roles here. They’re also extremely effective in more limited capacities. They include Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, a longtime friend and coworker of Troy’s who enjoys a good swig every now and then while listening to one of Troy’s many tall tales about wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission when he outlasted a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a youngster, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-scarred younger brother Gabriel.

Self-contained, talky sociopolitical drama is very much a play caught on camera with several theatrical accouterments on display. The stage manifests as the backyard of the Maxson family, a cramped space nestled deep within a financially struggling African-American community. It is here where we are dealt some of the film’s heaviest blows as wars of words erupt as the film’s “action scenes,” if you will. A baseball tied to a tree and a bat become props whose significance (and versatility) evolve and become more integral to the story. Music is almost entirely absent, save for a few melancholic interjections from composer Marcelo Zarvos. And like with plays, we come to see the people; intimate sets with a reserved production design allows the actors to take center stage.

Purists might argue it’s just not the same as watching thespians in the flesh. They might liken this experience to listening to old jazz records on an iPhone. Even if what I just watched was simply a play filmed on an expensive camera, if this is the only way I’ll ever be able to see August Wilson’s brutally honest work, I’m not sure how much I would feel like I had lost out. I was constantly engrossed.

ten-dolla

4-5Recommendation: Dramatic showcase for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — heck, for everyone involved honestly — proves a welcome new addition to the steadily growing oeuvre of some of Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. Fences rewards patient viewers with an intensely dialogue-driven journey into the heart and soul of an African-American father and family living during a shameful chapter in American history. Worth the two hours if you are a fan of talky pictures. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked that out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

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

Suicide Squad

'Suicide Squad' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

Sigh.

Suicide Squad is neither a disaster nor a revelation. It’s just really, really uneventful and in that way, crushingly disappointing.

Let me grab a calculator and get back to you, because the math really doesn’t add up. I don’t quite know how you commit the cardinal sin of moviemaking with this cast, these characters, and this competent a director. When considering the myriad ways in which this utterly routine action adventure manages to bore and underwhelm, the difference between what we might have imagined and what we ultimately get kind of becomes this scintillating mystery. What the hell happened here? What could this have actually been? (In fairness, it could have been worse.) Would Suicide Squad have been better off with a less restrictive MPAA rating?

It’s been some time since so much potential has been squandered this efficiently. This callously. Not since this 2013 debacle have I left a theater feeling so utterly deflated and unmotivated to stand in line for another event picture anytime soon. The main culprit is an exceptionally shoddy story, one seemingly cobbled together by crayon-wielding first graders. It’s shocking Ayer turns out to be that first grader. He kicks things off with brief introductions to the cadre of miscreants before randomly launching into a perfunctory doomsday plot involving Midway City and some bullshit concerning Cara Delevingne-shaped meta-humans drenched in bad CGI. From the word ‘go’ the production reeks of unpreparedness, disorganization, even chaos.

Hashtag awkward. Hashtag clumsy. Hashtag done-with-this-summer-of-movies.

In the beginning everyone’s hanging out at the famed Belle Reve Penitentiary, doing hard time for various crimes. The first two we immediately recognize to be our ringleaders: Will Smith‘s Floyd Lawton, a.k.a. Deadshot, is seen getting his punching bag on (in preparation for that big action scene later!) and Margot Robbie‘s gleefully unhinged Harley Quinn, formerly known as psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, inhabits her super-secure steel cage like a PG-13-friendly Hannibal Lecter. We meet the others as well but for insultingly brief periods, time enough I guess to prove the film’s disinterest in the ‘Squad’ part of its title. There’s the pyrokinetic ex-gangster Chato Santano, a.k.a. El Diablo  (Jay Hernandez); a boomerang-wielding guy named . . . Boomerang (Jai Courtney); a surly man with a scaly skin condition who dwells in city sewers, appropriately called Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They’re joined also by a mercenary named Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Japanese warrior Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Our little ruffians are kept under the thumb of intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), an antihero of a different breed with her considerable lack of compassion and morally-dubious methods of wielding governmental power. She’s a high-ranking official who will do whatever it takes to prevent World War Three from breaking out. Or something like that. Anyway, she’s a pretty bad egg whose motives become increasingly suspect, a trend that neatly paralleled my own suspicions. Waller enlists the help of Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to keep all her disposable, criminal pee-ons in line. When Flagg reads them the riot act that’s our cue to get ready for action. Hooray — it’s the Suicide Squad and now shit is going down!

Only, nothing does. With writing that lacks inspiration or a strong reference point — or any point, period — getting excited becomes an unreasonable challenge. The bleakness of the world in which this non-drama occurs bleeds over into the experience itself, but bleakness is less of an issue. I say let this thing be dour — this isn’t Marvel. But along with that bleakness comes the joylessness. With joylessness, a sense of aimlessness. Few of the members of Suicide Squad are stoked about undertaking a mission that will very likely get them killed, and if random gunfire doesn’t do it a frustrated Waller will if they so happen to fail or step out of line. That psychology may ring true to the comics but the cast wear their broken hearts on their sleeves a bit too much while, ironically, no one outside of Robbie’s freewheeling Harley and Jared Leto’s not-half-bad Joker seem to have that same muscle invested in any of this.

As the movie shuffles begrudgingly onward, alarming amounts of material fail to materialize, leaving Ayer’s efforts to introduce this infamously savage group to the world-at-large to disintegrate like used toilet paper. Unconvincing sob stories are stapled on to a few characters who lurk in the background behind Deadshot and Harley Quinn, but this isn’t enough to justify an excess of shots designed to show why this idea should work. (Here’s a radical 21st Century concept: show, don’t tell.) All those precious moments going to waste watching the film’s most interesting character (by far) out-act her colleagues might have been better spent doing something else. Something other than trying to convince us that the movie knows what it is doing with such damaged cargo.

With all of that in mind, damages really come down to a (granted, rather large) misjudgment of plot substance, and a lack of personality to give us a reason to get over that issue. The DCEU’s Guardians of the Galaxy this is not. Even still, there are some really great performances to take away, namely those of the volatile core of Robbie, Smith, Davis and Leto. The former seem to be heating up since their days working on Focus, while the latter have some fun tossing a shitload of ham around. Davis overshoots her goal of becoming the film’s Surprisingly Evil Element while Leto lets out his inner psycho in a turn that recalls vintage Jack Nicholson while wisely skimping on Heath Ledger inflections.

The Suicide Squad Joker is actually really good. He’s a nasty son of a bitch and his twisted romantic subplot with Harley Quinn is the most compelling. Too bad Leto’s commitment is virtually all for naught. As has been widely reported, many of his scenes were cut. Leto’s response to a question concerning his lack of screen time late in the film is especially damning. Even he wants to know what the Joker was doing for so long without visual confirmation of his scheming ways. His absence is microcosmic of a larger problem. I’m not sure anyone, not even the studio, rumored to have played a hand in production delays and re-shoots, knew what kind of gem they were holding in their hands.

Suicide Squad is not a bad film but it is frustratingly mediocre and that’s enough to drive me crazy.

Jared Leto as the new Joker in 'Suicide Squad'

Recommendation: Suicide Squad suffers from a lack of plot mechanization. What is the purpose? Why are we here? Why can’t the story be about something more interesting? For the longest time, the story never seems to be going anywhere. The pacing is choppier than damn it and not much of David Ayer’s directorial touch can be found here (ya know, other than the hordes of heavily armed, well-built people parading around a war-zone). I don’t really know what to say, other than this film basically sums up the year we have had so far when it comes to big event pictures. Mostly disappointment. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Love your perfume! What is that, Stench of Death?”

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

Ender’s Game

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Release: Friday, November 1, 2013

[Theater]

This reviewer deliberately avoided familiarizing himself with Orson Scott Card’s words before seeing the film adaptation, fearing that the movie would somehow disappoint — as these things often do. The result was a highly enjoyable experience from start to finish, one that remained free of any bias, complaint or comparison that would inevitably surface through different scenes, had I read the original material. Therefore, this is me putting a huge asterisk at the top of this review.

On its own, Ender’s Game, directed by Gavin Hood (TsotsiX-Men Origins: Wolverine), is a competent action/sci-fi adventure that captures the scope and beauty of the universe as well as the complex workings of the human mind. An especially gifted child, named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is taken suddenly out of his school on Earth and placed into an international fleet of kids of a similar age who are receiving specific military training to fight off humanity’s greatest threat — extraterrestrial beings known as the Formics.

Recognized as something of a prodigy, the Neo of ten-year-olds, Ender instantly earns the attention of the highly-respected Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), and for the same reason, finds himself the pariah of his class. Constantly picked on because he has a mind of his own, which is principally what attracts his higher-ups’ attention, Ender doesn’t have the luxury of friends. It seems like it’s going to be hell away from Earth in this orbiting space station.

But as Ender becomes more integrated into his training and the military life in space, his strongest assets — an ability to remain calm, think rationally and strategically, and perhaps most interestingly of all, his wanting to question authority (his clashes with the nasty Bonzo Madrid, played by The Kings of Summer‘s Moises Arias serve as some of the better moments) — begin to garner the respect of his peers. Graff is perpetually reminded of what a good choice he made with this kid.

Unbeknownst to Ender, though, Graff’s breeding him for something much larger than simply taking orders on a daily basis. His ultimate plan is to have Ender, as strong-minded as he is, lead an entire fleet of ships in a final confrontation with the Formics — an effort which hopefully would wipe out this race of invaders permanently, and ultimately bring peace to humanity. To get to this stage Graff has Major Anderson draft a series of simulations and ‘training’ programs to prepare the youngster for the real battle. Indeed, it’s not so much the end game that’s kept a secret from Ender; everyone tells him — not the least of which being Colonel Graff — how special he is, and his intelligence affords him the realization that he’s not there to be just another young military personnel. It’s how he is conned into being the greatest pawn that ultimately will bring Ender to his knees, making him doubt the validity of everything that has ever been taught to him. Will he be mentally tough enough to handle this day, when (not if) it comes?

There is a decidedly relaxed atmosphere to the proceedings that makes Ender’s Game a very fun watch, even if the film doesn’t quite blast off for thrilling territory. Gavin Hood’s adaptation is very much your standard exposition-heavy film until a gigantic CGI climax puts the finishing touches upon everything we’ve been shown. But even this event — the battle — is relatively low-key in its dramatic appeal.

When it comes to looking at the pacing of the film, this is where not having read the book really becomes an advantage. The film is enjoyable in its own right, though its far from being devoid of weaknesses.

There are many moments that linger simply far too long, the edits of which would help make the film flow more evenly and make particular scenes more meaningful. With all of this said, though, the rest of the film really is quite something. It’s visually dazzling and the performances brought on by Ford, Butterfield and Ben Kingsley (who plays Mazer Rackham, regarded as one of humanity’s best odds of having a savior given his heroic actions in the past) are all a great deal of fun to experience. The tattoos obscure Kingsley’s face enough to make you forget he was at one point the Mandarin, so that’s a success in itself.

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3-5Recommendation: Ender’s Game is more often than not compelling viewing, made more so if you go in without having preconceived notions of how the central characters are meant to act, feel or look like; of how the tone and atmosphere are established; of how we face down the enemy. All of these things could wind up being some level of inaccurate in the adaptation otherwise, and fortunately I was spared this extra complication by not even so much as knowing about the book until a few weeks before this release. I give the director at least this credit: if I wasn’t entirely interested in the book before this film, I most definitely am now. I will be picking up a copy in the very near future.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “I’ll do everything I can to win this war.”

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

Prisoners

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Release: Friday, September 20, 2013

[Theater]

Some will call it a movie. Others are going to call it psychological and emotional hell. It would be an insult to consider this merely the former, and one of the highest praises to call it the latter. Canadian director Denis Villenueve cranks up the tension like you’ve never seen before in a film that strikes extremely close to home for most of us.

When the children of Keller and Gracie Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, respectively) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) disappear at Thanksgiving in broad daylight, we are hereby thrust into a gauntlet of deeply personal fear, anxiety and despair as police and parents alike attempt to forge their own ways of getting to the bottom of one of the most baffling and chilling child abduction cases created in recent memory.

Not only is the fundamental concept disturbing — the very idea of young, innocent kids becoming victims a contributor to the dread and horror that this film so convincingly stirs up in us — but an incredibly well-directed story and first-rate acting are likely to leave considerable splashes in the pond of early Oscar contenders. While it may not win anything or even get nominated (it should), Prisoners for sure marks a change of seasons with regards to the kinds of releases we’re going to be accustomed to seeing in the upcoming months.

Breathe a sigh of relief. Fall is here.

Hugh Jackman puts on the performance of a lifetime as a blue-collar working, family man with perhaps one of the most macho names in recent movie history — Keller Dover, who’s likely to mess with a guy named that? His Keller is undoubtedly the devoted paternal figure, as well as he is a survivalist — “pray for the best but prepare for the worst;” and, it may also bear worth mentioning that he becomes central to the film’s complex morality play.

The reliably gritty role as a father on the verge of a complete mental breakdown plays to Jackman’s strengths as his character is forced to abduct the man he thinks is responsible for the disappearance of the girls, and to torture him accordingly. The entire ensemble is top-notch in Prisoners, but it is really Jackman who’s most haunting and takes us to some emotional lows we hadn’t quite experienced thus far in 2013. As time becomes more and more precious with every passing hour, Dover is forced to take actions that may taint his reputation as a decent man; is he just desperate or perhaps something more? At what point does a person sacrifice their dignity for the sake of finding out the truth?

The movie is able to handle such controversy and complexity as it features a range of reactions from each of its central characters who put on breathtaking performances. Terrence Howard is again excellent as a man who’s clearly devastated by the events but somehow cannot find it within himself to go to the lengths Dover does to try and find resolution. The wives — a distraught Maria Bello will break your heart, while Viola Davis shines in a couple of key scenes — are realistic, equally important to the story (though not as front-and-center as Keller and Franklin, clearly), and compelling to watch. No family member is unaccounted for and this is perhaps what makes Keller Dover’s cracking composure so interesting, and most of all, devastating to experience: he represents something of an extreme. (If Wolverine/Logan was a 9 out of 10, Keller is an 11 or 12.)

When we get saddled up with the oddball Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the situation jumps up a notch with the intrigue factor. The detective is a hard-working, thorough criminal investigator who stops at nothing to seek out justice — though his job may be viewed more-or-less as an impossibility. He doesn’t have enough information (supposedly the RV they detain and sweep over reveals no evidence of any kind that would be useful); he’s also slightly overwhelmed by the emotional outrages of Keller in particular (“I want you to look for my daughter!!!” — right, got it. He wasn’t doing this before you yelled this in his face), and his boss isn’t entirely convinced there is anything anyone can do in this case. Despite the bleak outlook, Loki is thoroughly committed to his duties; Gyllenhall committed to this commitment.

Undoubtedly, this review is all about some cast appraisal. There’s no way around it: each actor and actress herein sells the emotions — highlighted by Jackman’s rage and Bello’s descent into deep depression — as though these events were truly happening to them. To continue in this trend, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo (who plays Dano’s adoptive mother, Holly) cannot be overlooked either. Dano is back again in another shady role as a lead suspect in the abduction case, and as he falls victim to the emotional fury of one of the fathers, his Alex becomes quite the complex character in itself. In fact, he is proof that no character in Prisoners is free from the burden of doubt and disbelief.

Barring the third act which arguably overstays its welcome, this movie is a stroke of genius. It is unrelentingly emotional and in that regard, quite exhausting. Running at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Prisoners requires endurance. It also assumes the average moviegoer is able to keep up with a relatively involved crime investigation. There’s a lot going on here, and it will pay dividends if you’re meticulously paying attention to detail, perhaps as much as Detective Loki is.

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4-5Recommendation: Imagine your children are all of a sudden removed from your life. You’re not sure where they are or how they are doing; you don’t even know if they are alive after a week of being missing. What would you do to get them back, and to what lengths would you go to ensure that that happens? It’s not exactly an easy watch, no. . . but these dire circumstances make for extremely engrossing viewing. Even if you’re not the head of a household, you’re going to find this an involving and sprawling story that’s difficult to believe is not BOATS.

Rated: R

Running Time: 153 mins.  

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