Monday, November 16, 2015


*** out of ****

James Bond has returned with Spectre and all the financial support it could ask for after 2012’s Skyfall took the Daniel Craig run of the franchise to new box office heights. Through the continuing efforts of director Sam Mendes, this film is just as gorgeous looking as the last. The action is fun, Thomas Newman’s score is dramatic, the locations are breathtakingly captured -thanks to Swiss cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and once again everything onscreen - no matter how effects-heavy - looks real.

However, I am compelled to agree with Bond fans critical of the misguided efforts to make new 007 films more interesting for a modern audience. So far, Quantum of Solace was the most off-point by trying to make the world around Bond more real. Now the series has found another wrong direction: trying to make Bond more real.

As a moderate fan of this series, I believe that each entry is, at best, a superficial guilty-pleasure that attempts to capture the collective heterosexual male fantasy world of the year in which it was made. Making it too real is a confusing buzzkill. Making it too outlandish destroys our suspension of disbelief. I could recount the story of Spectre to explain how it walks this tightrope until it stumbles embarrassingly, but I’d be telling yet another story about MI6 getting horribly compromised by another world domination scheme leading up to a couple of majorly dumb spoiler-filled plot twists.

All I know, is that something about this movie felt off despite how pleasant it was to watch. Actors like Dave BautistaLéa Seydoux, and Christoph Waltz in key supporting roles feel like such uninventive cases of typecasting, that this project seems like a step backwards for them. Bond movies tend to be great at introducing relatively new talent for their beauty, physical intimidation, sinister personas or other superficial qualities so they can develop a profession with "007" on their resumes. Some valuable jobs were stolen here by two people who already have it made and one who is definitely on his way to bigger things than mute heavies after proving to be funny with dialogue in Guardians of the Galaxy

I mentioned that the only spoilers I could cover are dumb. Trust me, they are -even for this franchise. Spectre is beautiful yet ridiculous -and it would be better if the movie itself could own up to this fact. This is Bond. He has a license to be ridiculous. 

The Peanuts Movie

**1/2 out of ****

It has been a very long time since any incarnation of Charlie Brown and his friends have been seen doing anything.

I was naturally drawn to see The Peanuts Movie because its computer animation technique achieves something unique in the way that The Lego Movie did. It takes on the challenge to incorporate characteristics only inherent in pre-digital animation processes. Just as The Lego Movie borrowed from the stop-motion choppiness seen in homemade internet Lego movies, this film sets strong limitations to its well-rendered 3D models to only stand and move in formations reminiscent of their classic two-dimensional incarnations.

I’m sure that no small child is thinking about this, but it was a relief to me, that someone at Blue Sky Studios saw beauty in the simplicity of Charles Schulz’s drawings and found a clever way of maintaining their essence. Now, did they get everything else right?

Classic Peanuts plot elements are rehashed and stuffed into this episodic story about Charlie Brown trying to make a new impression and gain self-esteem. Sadly, the movie has a slightly obnoxious tone, lacking Schulz’s patient ability to build toward jokes and composer Christophe Beck’s epic movie score feels like the antithesis of Vince Guaraldi’s pathos-filled piano jazz music from those good ol’ Charlie Brown movies and specials (though it’s used occasionally for fan service).

I suppose that it’s enough that this movie features abstract looking kids doing things that no one in the 21st century does anymore. Imagine if parents had to explain to young audience members what jazz is too. At least Linus doesn’t quote any biblical scripture this time.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bone Tomahawk

*** out of ****

Quite often, interesting movies fall by the wayside when distributors are unsure of what to do with them. The new film, Bone Tomahawk falls into this camp, as it is tough to categorize when standing between the extremes of two genres: The traditional American western and cannibal horror. It is currently playing on a limited theatrical release and available for digital download on providers like iTunes and Amazon.

Set in the late 1800s, it opens with a shot of a grotesque murder as if to prepare viewers for what’s coming later (though it hardly compares) and then moves to the slow introduction of the simple people in a small Western town. The establishment of the film’s characters has the steady patience and tranquil dialogue one might expect from a John Ford or Howard Hawks film from the fifties. The cast is excellent with Kurt Russell in the lead as the wise town Sherif and Richard Jenkins unrecognizably portrays his dim yet humbly loyal elderly deputy. Patrick Wilson plays a cowboy recovering from a leg injury, while aided by his medically experienced wife, played by Lili Simmons. Matthew Fox works against type as a dandy bachelor with a cold demeanor frequenting the town saloon filled with a few character actor cameos.

Following a disturbing murder at a horse stable, the cowboy’s wife is abducted and the townsfolk congregate determining that she was taken by an unknown tribe of natives. The four described men form a rescue party, with a destination informed by the town’s only Native American member who gravely warns that the arrowhead left behind belongs to a hidden cave dwelling tribe who commit unspeakable acts of savagery.

As the men travel into unfamiliar territory, their determination and morality are often tested. The real trouble begins when the cowboy struggles with a leg that is not getting the rest it needs in order to heal. Despite the movie’s slow paced character building, it takes a sharp traumatizing turn. When the horror hits, it hits relentlessly hard with the reminiscence of horror films I was sorry to have watched. It also borders on a concept as absurd as John Wayne encountering the nightmarish creatures from The Descent.

It’s hard to know what to make of a film that brings back the classic western genre’s demonization of hostile Indians for a contemporary form of filmmaking. It’s also difficult to find an audience for a movie that is too gory for western fans and too meditative for horror fans. This flick is an odd experience, but it feels like a nightmare about unmitigated savagery preying on the hidden savagery of westward expansionists. Through his first film, writer/director S. Craig Zahler has left an impression with something difficult to process but very unforgettable.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Steve Jobs

*** out of ****

Steve Jobs is a biopic that makes the tasteful decision to be honest about the fact that it is a dramatization. It revolves entirely around conversations we know could have taken place, but didn’t. The conversations are artfully utilized to illustrate history, as opposed to reenactments of that history.

Aaron Sorkin’s (The Social Network) screenplay is crafted as a three-act film that feels completely compatible with theater. It is only appropriate that each act takes place in the literal backstage area of a major product release that will steer Jobs’ legacy in a new direction. Like last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, the high-pressure setting of a large show venue with backrooms and corridors is a great cinematic setting for heated discussions and symbolic of a showman preparing to meet his audience.

The setting gives the dialogue free-reign to show Jobs at his most controlling, lacking emotional consideration for the people who surround him. These people challenge him with advice, which he brushes off as though they all represent doubts working against his ego.

Jobs is played by the great Michael Fassbender, who bears no resemblance to the man, but, like all talented actors, finds the character written on the page and works with it.

There are many archetypical players on this stage, but some get more of Steve’s ear than others. Seth Rogen plays Steve Wosniak (Co-Founder), the alienated friend; Kate Winslet plays Joanna Hoffman (Marketing Director), the influential servant; Jeff Daniels is John Sculley (CEO), the father figure; while Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine take turns playing Lisa Brennan (Daughter), the child in need of a parent.

Sorkin’s dialogue, which takes the highlights of Jobs’ life and career from Walter Isaacson’s book, is inventive and informative. The actors all do wonders with the material too. His collaboration with director Danny Boyle, however, is interesting but problematic. Boyle, a kinetic visionary whom I often admire, has a tendency to impose emotion over scenes that don’t require such heavy-handed manipulations. I imagine Sorkin would have preferred the dialogue to speak for itself. Though he’s written a ludicrous sentimental exchange near the end, which attempts to merge Jobs’ strive for innovation with his repressed fatherly love. It’s a sappy construct that I find hard to believe and, in the scheme of things, feels irrelevant.

I do like Boyle’s continuing fondness for changing mediums within a film and he does it here with the first part being shot on 16mm film, the second on 35mm film and the third with current digital cinematography. In between each act is a montage of TV clips that provide exposition for what will come next.

The movie wisely ends in 1998 with the launch of the iMac, dodging many more obvious products Jobs would unveil before his untimely death. The iMac was a new beginning for Jobs, Apple, and represented a massive shift in the world of personal computing toward Apple’s brilliantly designed, yet proprietary packaging.

Somehow, I still feel as though it’s too soon to make a film about such a big figure. Regardless, Steve Jobs does a good job.

Bridge of Spies

***1/2 out of ****

With Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg is back from the brief hiatus, which followed 2012’s Lincoln, to give us another drama based on a story from the sidelines of history. The famous incident of Gary Powers, a U.S. spy pilot who was shot down over Soviet territory and captured during the cold war, is the mere background for the film’s hero, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan was a lawyer, who after risking his reputation in the defense of a convicted Russian spy’s (Mark Rylance) life, was pulled into the tricky world of international negotiation after the C.I.A. recruited him to propose a swap for the safe return of both captured men to their respective countries.

Other than one needless phony special effects action sequence, this movie is the solid rich filmmaking you can expect from Spielberg’s more serious fare. The guy knows how to frame a scene and conduct patient pacing.

As usual, he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski will continue to shoot on celluloid as long as it is still an option. John Williams, now in his early eighties, probably felt daunted by the task of doing his regular contribution for a Spielberg film (while already busy on a certain space adventure movie) and opted out leaving the excellent Thomas Newman to compose in his stead.

However, I was pleasantly surprised how little of this film uses music, which is rare for Spielberg. The opening sequence is particularly more mysterious and suspenseful for it. 

The screenplay, which had a contribution from the Coen Brothers, cleverly plays with irony and ambiguity as the certainty of the movie’s world becomes increasingly grey. Without any surprise, Spielberg delivers again and I’m glad he’s still going strong.

Watch Paul Thomas Anderson interview Spielberg here!

Crimson Peak

** out of ****

Crimson Peak was on my radar after the first glance of its beautiful poster. The trailer that followed assured me that Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) had a Halloween treat filled with Hammer-horror inspired sweetness for moviegoers this October. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I feel like I trick-or-treated at a house with great decorations but no candy. Trick’s on me, I guess.

The movie is, as promised, gorgeous looking. The great cast, which includes Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, is fully invested. However, the story to this gothic horror is so unexpectedly weak. The film seems to be establishing a mystery, but by the end the only twist that’s taken place, is that the undertones have become overtones. This movie is quite a disappointing experience - and after Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Chan-wook Park’s Stoker, this is the third time I’ve noticed Wasikowska starring for a celebrated director of dark cinema making one of his worst films. Poor girl.