October 30, 2015

Steve Jobs

Danny Boyle, 2015
Not many people in our modern age will likely see such legendary status so shortly after their death as Steve Jobs, who passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer. After his passing we were treated to stories of what kind of person he was, good and bad. Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Jobs was a warts and all guide to the complicated person.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is built upon the material contained in Isaacson’s book. It’s really a bold approach in terms of it’s cinematic treatment, because it doesn’t pull a lot of punches in showcasing some of Job’s faults. It largely focuses on Jobs negative traits. His obsession with control. His bitterness towards those who wronged him. And quite possibly his biggest flaw as a person, his denial of his biological daughter Lisa. The biopic itself was involved in a long game of hot potato in Hollywood. A lot of names were thrown around to play Steve: George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Dicaprio, Christian Bale. All of the big names that seem to come up with any high profile film these days. The choice of Michael Fassbender was an intriguing one. How could a German-Irish who doesn’t possess any of the physical qualities of Steve Jobs actually play him on screen?

Fassbender handles the role quite well. He seemed to have studied Jobs mannerisms through the seemingly endless sources of media available. There are moments where he was able to capture a few sentences where he sounded almost exactly like the real Steve. But Fassbender isn’t really doing a dead-on impersonation of Jobs, it is more of a reinterpretation or a channeling of a person through a series of fictional scenes based on accounts of others.

There is certainly a lack of Danny Boyle’s stylistic personality to the film. The superimposition of the rocket take off on the hallway wall may be one of the only visual elements that feels like Boyle. Because of this, it feels like a film belonging more to Sorkin. Especially with it being so dialogue heavy. Almost as if the script itself was blowing through the alleyways in Hollywood and finally Boyle stepped on it with one foot and decided to pick it up. Sorkin’s script isn’t just normal people talking. It’s people talking to each other in that very intense, very important manner. Everything that comes out of everyone’s mouth is quotable. But with all of that dialogue comes fatigue. By the third Apple event depicted, you are bound to feel winded.

Frankenstein's Army

Richard Raaphorst, 2013
On paper, it’s a film that probably won’t pull a lot of people in. A group of Russian soldiers push into German territory during World War II, only to stumble upon a building filled with undead monsters. It feels like a tired premise, and Nazi zombies have certainly been touched on before with Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 indie-horror Dead Snow. Some of the early moments of the film feel blaringly under-funded, fighting sequences that are lacking in numbers. You need to move past that. You need to move past the idea of Russian and German troops speaking to each other in English. You need to get past the ridiculousness of a World War II-era found footage film. Because if you can past all of this, the building awaits. This building, is filled with some of the most horrifying, provocative creations ever built in the horror genre. Oh you know, things like reanimated soldiers with sawblades for arms. Army certainly has some hints of fellow brutal indie-horror The Human Centipede. Dr. Frankenstein’s creations that he unleashed upon the outsiders are a showcase of great makeup work and artistic ability. A small treasure of a film that’s just begging to be put on during the Halloween season, it’s a movie that knows what it is and is certainly comfortable enough attaining cult status rather than classic status. If you’re a fan of the genre it’s possible to buy into spending a bit of time in an undead carnage-factory led by an insane genius with a magic switch.

October 20, 2015


Ron Scalpello, 2015
Scalpello's deep sea survival piece feels very much like a blend of All is Lost and Gravity in terms of concept. Basically the entire film is set in the tight pod that houses a crew of men who were sent 700 ft below the surface to repair a pipeline. After rough seas force them to abandon their duties and return to their ship, they learn that their base ship has perished in a storm above them. The limited oxygen in the ship creates a figurative life-clock that they constantly monitor. Their distress beacon can be dispatched but may not have a wide enough range to help them. Even the pressure levels at their depth can create big problems for them. The deep ocean elements basically create a situation that very much feels like being lost in space. They can't exit their vessel without enduring the harsh exterior elements. They have little to no connection with the outside world. Perhaps it's a bit more daunting than being stuck in space, because there are literally just a few hundred feet below the surface of the water right here on Earth.

To the film's credit, the struggle between the men is moderately compelling. The look of worry on their faces, and the challenges that are in front of them are enough to draw some sympathy. But there's something lacking in the film that pushes it lower in the ranks of the really good survival pictures. It's because of lack of story. You are forced to spend 90 minutes in panic with the group that you really don't know much about. You don't know anything about their lives above the surface. We aren't ever really given much backstory, other than in the form of abstract flashbacks that are more confusing than revealing. It's certainly a nice looking deep sea movie with impressive set design. But it just scratches the surface of a really good ocean movie, making it feel more Open Water than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon, 2015
The Avengers sequel aims to fulfill the obligation or hope of every sequel: to build upon the first film and to raise the stakes. The early moments of the film find The Avengers in a more vulnerable state. Questioning their value as the saviors and guardians of Earth's inhabitants. They are aware of some of the collateral damage sustained. They are aware of the fact that maybe their high profile is drawing more attention than they would like. And when Tony Stark inadvertently gives birth to a highly functioning AI form named Ultron, they realize that they have another opposing force that seems to make Loki look like an amateur even with his army of flying worms.

Whedon has proven at this point that he is capable of managing a big budget superhero film and he delivers a satisfying sequel to the rather good first Avengers film. If anything, the film is probably a half hour too long, perhaps some of the fat could have been trimmed. With it's 141 minute running time, there is a such an overstimulation of computer generated action that it becomes almost numbing. It seems as though you can only watch the CGI Hulk destroy a handful of buildings before it becomes a bit redundant.

One other blemish with Ultron is consistent with the Superhero / Marvel movies as a whole; the obvious franchise building that goes on. Marvel is now owned by the Disney Empire. With that comes substantial financing for geeky content but they also have board-members they need to please every quarter when they report earnings. That whole element feels calculating, and it takes some of the romance away from the movies knowing that the studios intention is to hook you in so they can count on your next $9. The Superhero bubble will burst at some point down the road. Until then, there are films like The Avengers films that can appeal to a broad audience and entertain the masses, even if it is just a showcase of special effects.

October 19, 2015

Me Earl and the Dying Girl

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015
With a title like "Me Earl and the Dying Girl", you probably immediately anticipate something snappy, and the title itself almost sounds like a bad television sitcom starring Jason Lee. While the title may get you excited for a potential zombie rom-com like My Boyfriend's Back (deep pull alert), alas, it's a film about a girl with cancer. But hold up. It's more of the anti-film to last year's I dare you not to cry tearjerker A Fault in Our Stars. Fault puts the weight of the world on a relationship of two young kids stricken with cancer. Me Earl is more realistic in terms of showing a relationship between two people without being manipulative with oxygen tubes and Vance Joy songs. It even has hints of Jason Reitman's beloved snappy hipster-film Juno.

The movie focuses largely on high-schooler Greg (Thomas Mann). Greg is admittedly a neutral force in the world. He passes swiftly through the halls of the high school. He feels it's unnecessary to get involved with one particular clique of people, which may upset his balancing act that he has carefully orchestrated over his time there. A side effect of this is he never has to fully engage with another human on a deeply emotional level. So when his parents inform him of classmate Rachel's illness (Rachel being played by the delightful Olivia Cooke), he is concerned, but not DEEPLY concerned. He is pressured to hang out with Rachel, and humorously, they both acknowledge the obligation.

Greg's narration early in the film gives you the heads up that it's not going to be a cheesy love story. Instead the film for the most part runs on a different kind of energy. An energy that tends to be more upbeat, more quirky, more engaging. It ends up being a rather moving small film that has a lot to say about a particular period in life. That really selfish high school phase. That phase where all you can really think about is yourself and your future. And there's nothing wrong with admitting to living with that particular mindset. It's a period of pressure for most people. But this story shows us that while some people are focused on moving on to college, there's an unfortunate percentage of people that may be moving on to the next stage of chemotherapy. And that's just part of life.

October 11, 2015

The Conjuring

James Wan, 2013
Sometimes with horror films, scary movies in general, it's not about the monsters and the creatures jumping out at you from the screen. Sometimes the real consistency of the scares is in the subtle notes. The build-up, the tension, the things you don't see. Sometimes it's something ambiguous, a shadow in the corner of the frame. A resonant sound. Or maybe it's something from your own life experience that you are bringing to the film. Maybe the house looks like yours. Maybe the layout of your bedroom is the same as the one in the scene. The Conjuring plays with a bunch of these concepts. Effective pacing, visual elements, creepy scenery, shadows, sounds. Splat-packer Wan has gotten a lot of movie-blood on his hands in the past, working on films like the original Saw and the first two Insidious films. Both of those films in their early incarnations were original and creative. Saw was certainly a more innovative horror film, Insidious played on a similar theme as the Conjuring with demonic forces at work in a home.

The Conjuring is a period piece set in the 1970's. When you enter the Rhode Island historical home in the early moments of the film, you realize right away that the house itself, even in the absence of anything floating through the hallways, is a damn creepy place to be. The walls are cracking, there are exposed lathe boards in some of the rooms. Aged kitchen, a certain layer of grime to most of the surfaces. Everything creaks and squeaks. But this is because it's an old house bought at an auction on the cheap by their truck-driving father Roger (Ron Livingston). He admits to having spread himself really thin financially, and purchasing the home with an effort to please wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) who wants her children to grow up in the ambiance of the rural country. Dogs can see ghosts, as anyone who saw the original Poltergeist knows, and when their family pet refuses to enter the house we know right away why. The film is actually not really that ground-breaking or revolutionary in terms of story. It's a blend of a haunted house-possession sub-genres (with nods to the found-footage sub-genre as well), which doesn't feel all that fresh. But it's the execution of it all that works. And in this age of torture films and cheap slashers and CGI-monsters, it's refreshing to watch something that has lingering qualities.

Films like the Conjuring prove that a horror movie doesn't have to be revolutionary to still be effective. If you are a fan of the genre, sometimes you just a want a scare, and you get that here. And as far as memorable elements, whenever someone claps twice you are sure to think of this film.

October 1, 2015

The Guest

Adam Wingard, 2014
Grieving the loss of their soldier son who died in combat, the Peterson family is surprised to find a mysterious visitor at their door named David, a fellow soldier who says he served with their son overseas.

There is a lot to like about The Guest. Gorgeous cinematography (done by Robby Baumgartner), a sometimes menacing sometimes dreamy synth-wave soundtrack, fresh story, and impressive direction by Adam Wingard. When David (Dan Stevens) knocks on the door of the Peterson home, it sets forth a chain of events that is rather engaging. Who is this guy? Is he a robot? Is he under some kind of mind control like in The Manchurian Candidate? Part of it has to do with the fact that David himself is at first glance a rather unassuming person. Charming even. He manages to quickly extract the problems plague each individual Peterson family member. This is because they establish trust in the guy pretty quickly. As the whole peeling of the onion process unfolds with David’s character, the pacing is laid out well. 

The Guest has a good cast, particularly with Maika Monroe as daughter Anna and Leland Orser who plays father Spencer Peterson. Orser seems to be a really good character actor, he displays a layered character within the first few minutes we see him on screen. Dan Stevens is definitely a good fit for the David role. His empty smiles and monotone demeanor creates a level of discomfort that you really need in the story. Often the best performances are the ones that are restrained. 

There is a lot of human elements to the Peterson family. Grief, heartbreak, work stress, high school bullying. All very real problems that the average American family endures on a regular basis. When David knocks on the door he is immediately preying on the weak. The tears are still wet on mother Laura’s face, and she would probably let anyone into their home who had any kind of connection to their deceased son. The stylistic elements of the film are certainly the most memorable. But if Hanna or Drive taught us anything, sometimes that’s all you need.